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Chapter One

ONE day, Linc Marani voiced to himself, he would drive a car like Kyle's and wear five-hundred-dollar suits. He moved out from the shadow beneath the trees where he had been waiting and stood under one of the lamps along the lakeside drive as headlights appeared on the ramp leading down from the bridge. It was after nine. The park's daytime population of joggers, strollers, ballplayers, and duck feeders had retreated to their homes and the safer nightspots, leaving the territory to the alkies, junkies, and other nocturnal urban, life forms. Linc would have gotten a kick out of meeting Kyle openly on the street, where everyone would see he had connections and was heading for the better life. But it wouldn't be that way, of course. Something you just didn't advertise to the world. The first lesson was to be professional. Always professional.

Eighty thousand dollars' worth of Cadillac eased to a halt in front of him, showing white panels and side stripe on pale yellow in the glow from the lamp above. City lights from the far shore reflected in the shine. Kyle Nass lowered the window and rested his elbow on the door, and Linc stooped to bring their faces level. The girl in the passenger seat sent him a cool look that didn't quite mask her curiosity. Linc had a quick impression of a heavily made-up mouth and eyes, hair streaked with blond flashes against hues impossible to distinguish in the shadow.

"So, how ya been?" Kyle opened.

"Oh . . . getting by," Linc answered.

"I got a job that needs doing," Kyle said. "You want some work? We wouldn't want to think of you starting to get hungry out here."

"I do okay. Hey, if it's something that needs doing . . . " Linc turned a palm. "That's good enough."

Kyle looked away to talk to the girl. "See what I mean? Dedicated. This is Linc. He's gonna be a great soldier one day. Linc, say hello to Mitzi. She's the new light of my life. Ain't she really something, though, huh?"

Linc peered past him to take in the red leather coat thrown open, revealing a low-cut white top, barely clinging to the ends of ample, outthrust breasts. He nodded expressionlessly, complying with Kyle's request but offering nothing anyone could take exception to. "Hi."

"So, we have business? Okay, let's talk." Kyle climbed out from the car, letting Linc close the door for him, and crossed the riverside walk to the water's edge. Linc followed. The yellow waves of Kyle's hair bowed as he paused to light a cigarette, his features illuminated briefly. He blew a stream of smoke into the night and resumed in a lowered voice.

"We've got an overdue collection for two grand. The mark is a spick who goes as Gabriel Colomada. Fleshy, with a beard, some kind of accountant with habits that eat money, rents in a greaseball apartment house called Amigo's on Twenty-third off Canal, number C-8. Most Friday and Saturday nights he puts in an appearance at that Irish bar that those two brothers run—a couple of blocks away, on Griffin."

"Cleary's?"

"That's the one. The message needs to be delivered this week."

Linc nodded. "Sure. Nice and clear." He knew the routine.

Kyle reached inside his coat. Gold rings flashed in the lamplight as he produced an envelope. "The Man likes the way you've been operating, Linc. There's a hundred here over the last figure. Same terms. You cover your own expenses."

Linc took the envelope and pocketed it. "The same bonus?" he said, checking.

"Ten percent extra if you collect before Sunday," Kyle confirmed.

"Fine."

"Any other questions?"

Linc shook his head.

"Well, that's just great, kid. You're gonna go far." They walked back to the car.

Mitzi looked across again as Linc held the door open for Kyle to get in, perhaps trying to reconcile the image of a fifteen-year-old, which she had been expecting, with the person she glimpsed outside in the night: muscular frame touching six feet inside a black suede jacket and gray turtleneck; hair cropped short and glistening; not bad looks, but with features hard and unyielding, darkened at the chin and upper lip by stubble already proclaiming the man.

Linc caught her eye as he closed the door. There was an interest there, yet restrained—not quite hidden by the aloofness she was trying to project. Maybe one day, the look seemed to say. Try me again when you've made the grade, kid.

Damn right, Linc told himself as he watched the Cadillac reverse, turn, and drive away back up the ramp. One day he'd have a chick like that in his car too.

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Framed