The Shop – 2 (Excerpt)
Panama City, Florida
They were just beyond the channel markers when Ted Bremmer said, “Let’s try the grouper.”
Frank said, “The grouper?”
“I’ve never fished for grouper. It’ll be a challenge.”
“You wouldn’t rather troll for kings? We could put a line in the water right now.”
“No. I’d like to go for grouper if it’s all the same to you.” That blinding smile again.
“But it’s going to take longer to get out there. We’d have to use the downriggers…” Frank paused. How much detail did he want to get into? Usually he trolled for grouper—a big challenge and an even bigger reward—but getting a novice up to speed would take some coaching, and that would burn daylight. He supposed they could go to the nearest artificial reef, drop anchor, and hope for the best. Maybe the man would get tired of waiting, or maybe he’d get lucky. Still, Frank had to try one more time. “King mackerel’s running right now. If it was me…”
Bremmer shrugged. “It’s your boat.”
A muscle in Frank’s jaw flinched. There was, implicit in Bremmer’s reply, the notion that Franklin Hubbard, former Attorney General of the United States, was an imperfect host.
“Grouper it is, then.”
Frank heard the strain in his own voice, the false cheeriness. He knew he’d been pushed into a corner. In a lifetime of politics, Frank had run into plenty of Alpha dogs—especially in the White House—and he knew when someone was trying to crowd him. It felt like Bremmer had Frank’s neck between his jaws and was pressing ever so slightly to make his point.
Frank had a lot of practice backing down and saving face. He thought it was wise not to fight every battle. He may have lost a few skirmishes, but he’d managed to push the President’s agenda through with virtually no compromise. Frank Hubbard had met plenty of Bremmers, and in the end, he’d always managed to beat them.
Frank knew this guy would zero in on any weakness and use it for his own ends, and he wouldn’t give him any ammunition. “Well, it’s a nice day for it,” he said.
Striking just the right note. He sounded like a host who was fine with anything as long as his guest was happy.
They headed into the Gulf, both of them on the flying bridge. Frank kept an eagle eye on the LORAN, watching for Cap Martin’s Reef, a cluster of reef balls off Meridian Beach, but also keeping his eye on Bremmer. The man scanned the Gulf. He looked like he lived on a boat. This was not the impression Frank had gotten from his book, although to be fair, there had been no mention of fishing or boats.
Bremmer had something in his giant paw and was studying it intently.
“Cell phones don’t work out here,” Frank said.
Bremmer held the object up for Frank’s inspection. “Handheld GPS. We just passed the three-mile mark.”
Bremmer smiled. “We’re three miles out. International waters.”
Maybe the GPS was a new toy. Just then he glanced at the LORAN; they’d hit the coordinates for the artificial reef. If he was lucky, they’d get their catch quickly and be back at the dock by three. “We’re over the reef,” he announced. “Let me get you rigged up.”
Too cheerful. He’d have to watch that.
* * *
An hour later, and not a bite. Bremmer didn’t seem concerned. Frank tried small talk, but the guy wasn’t very forthcoming. Frank thought about his manuscript down below. He’d already decided not to mention it. He just wanted to take the man back to the dock and get away from him.
Being around Ted Bremmer was unsettling. It got worse as the day went on. Frank felt absolutely nothing coming from him, like he was a hole in the air, a dead zone. Guy was a cypher, with his baseball cap pulled low, the sunglasses, the Croakie. The sun became increasingly oppressive, nailing them under its glare. Too bright, the light bouncing off the dark blue water, hurting Frank’s eyes. The uneasiness in his gut settled in. Whenever his mind wandered, it went to disturbing images, like the report of a grisly homicide he’d seen on Fox News last night, or Somalian pirates seizing a cruise ship.
It was lonely out here today. He saw only one other boat, at least a mile away. This shouldn’t bother him, but it did. It added to the bad feeling in his gut.
Frank didn’t dare look at the guy head-on. He had no doubt Bremmer could read his mind. So he busied himself with lures, drink and snack offerings, frequently checking his own lines, all the while tracking Bremmer from the corner of his eye.
Then it came to him that the guy didn’t just seem different. He looked different. Different from the man he’d expected.
He had Bremmer’s book, Hype, down below. Planned to ask Ted to sign it, but that wasn’t an option now. He wanted to divest himself of the book as quickly as he divested himself of its author.
“Can I get you something stronger?” he asked. Cheerful—too cheerful.
“I think I’ll get something for myself, then.”
He ducked into the cabin, went to the cupboard above the galley, and pulled out the book. Closed his eyes for a moment, his heart thumping hard.
Opened the book to the photo on the back flap.
He wasn’t surprised.
Could have been him—there was a passing resemblance—but Frank knew the Ted Bremmer he was hosting right now was not the Ted Bremmer on the book cover. The jawline in the photo was too soft. The shape of the face too wide. The eyes…well, he hadn’t seen the man’s eyes since they’d met, but he doubted the man fishing from his boat had ever looked anxious.
Even in a head shot, the author didn’t look like a big man.
And the way the author was dressed—as if he’d pulled his clothes out of a trash bag.
Okay, if the guy up on deck wasn’t Ted Bremmer, who was he?
A thrill of fear went through him—it was the feeling he’d always imagined people in a jetliner felt when the plane went down fast. Pure terror.
The man out there fishing from his boat was the reason he’d hired a new security detail. The reason he had three bodyguards, none of whom was on this boat right now—
There was buzzing in his ears. He couldn’t feel his hands. The screaming jetliner was gaining speed, the fear stark and real, adrenaline hurtling through him.
The man was here to kill him.
He needed a plan. A plan, a plan. Concentrate!
Here he was in the cabin of his beautiful boat, and he could barely register what he was looking at. The air seethed with visible molecules—the cabin seemed to swim before his eyes.
A shadow filled the narrow doorway, blocking the sun. He started to turn in Bremmer’s direction, but didn’t make it all the way.