Chapter 37

It's almost eleven, Sunday morning, July 24, a hot clear day with little traffic around Radford. Vanessa wants to avoid another encounter with anyone who might see Nathan's pickup truck and get suspicious. She heads north on the interstate, past Roanoke, into the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, driving as cautiously as humanly possible with the needle stuck on seventy miles per hour and every lane change properly telegraphed with a turn signal. She watches the rearview mirror because it's now such a habit, and she watches every other vehicle to avoid any chance of a collision. On the passenger's floorboard, and on the seat next to her, there is literally a fortune in gold, a fortune in unmarked and untraceable ingots freshly stolen from a thief who stole them from a crook who took them from a gang of thugs. How could she explain such a collection of precious metal to a nosy state trooper? She could not, so she drives as perfectly as possible as the 18-wheelers roar by in the left lane.

She exits at a small town and drifts until she finds a cheap dollar store. The banner across the front windows advertises pre-back-to-school specials. She parks near the entrance and spreads a soiled blanket, taken from Nathan's, over the cigar boxes. She puts the Glock under a corner of the blanket, next to her, and analyzes the parking lot. It's virtually empty on a Sunday morning. Finally, she takes a deep breath, gets out, locks the truck, and hurries inside. In less than ten minutes, Vanessa buys ten kids' backpacks, all with a Desert Storm camouflage motif. She pays in cash and does not respond when the cashier quips, "Must have a lot of kids heading back to school."

She shoves her purchases into the cab of the truck and heads back to the interstate. An hour later, she finds a truck stop near Staunton, Virginia, and parks next to the rigs. When she's certain that no one is watching, she begins to quickly stuff the cigar boxes into the backpacks, two of which are not used.

She fills up the tank, eats lunch from a fast-food drive-through, and kills time roaming up and down Interstate 81, as far north as Maryland and as far south as Roanoke. The hours drag by. She cannot park and leave the jackpot. It has to be guarded at all times, so she flows with the traffic while she waits on darkness.

I'm pacing in a crowded and humid wing of the San Juan airport, waiting on a Delta flight to Atlanta. My ticket was purchased in the name of Malcolm Bannister, and his old passport worked just fine. It will expire in four months. The last time it was used, Dionne and I escaped on a cheap cruise to the Bahamas. Another lifetime.

I call Vanessa twice and we speak in code. Got the goods. Packages are fine. She's moving around, following the plan. If a spook somewhere is listening, then he's scratching his head.

At 3:30 we finally board, and then sit for an hour in the sweltering cabin as a howling storm pounds the airport and the pilots go mute. At least two babies are squalling behind me. As tempers rise, I close my eyes and try to nap, but I have deprived myself of sleep for so long I have forgotten how to doze off. Instead, I think of Nathan Cooley and his hopeless situation, though I have little sympathy. I think of Vanessa and smile at her toughness under pressure. We are so close to the finish line, but there are still so many ways to fail. We have the gold, but can we keep it?

I wake up as we lurch forward and begin rumbling down the runway. Two hours later we land in Atlanta. At Passport Control, I manage to avoid the counters manned by black Customs agents and instead pick a beefy young white boy who seems to be bored and indifferent. He takes my passport, glances at a nine-year-old photo of Malcolm Bannister, quickly compares it to the revised face of Max Reed Baldwin, and sees nothing unusual. We all look the same.

I am assuming Customs has by now notified the FBI that I left the country two days earlier, on a private jet bound for Jamaica. What I don't know is whether the FBI is still monitoring any possible movements by Malcolm Bannister. I'm betting they are not, and I want the FBI to think I'm still somewhere in the islands having a grand time. At any rate, I'm moving quickly. Since Malcolm no longer has a valid driver's license, Max rents a car at the Avis desk, and forty-five minutes after landing in Atlanta, I'm leaving the city in a hurry. Near Roswell, Georgia, I stop at a Walmart and pay cash for two more prepaid cell phones. As I leave the store, I drop two old ones into a trash can.

After dark, Vanessa parks the truck for good. She's been driving it for almost twelve hours and can't wait to get rid of it. For a moment she sits behind the wheel, in a space next to her Honda Accord, and watches a commuter airliner taxi to the Roanoke terminal. It's a little after 9:00 on a Sunday night, and there appears to be no traffic. The parking lot is almost empty. She takes another deep breath and gets out. Working quickly while watching everything around her, she transfers the backpacks from Nathan's front seat into the trunk of her car. Eight backpacks, each seemingly heavier than the one before it, but she does not mind at all.

She locks the truck, keeps the keys, and leaves the parking lot. If things go as planned, Nathan's truck will not be noticed for several days. When his friends realize he's missing, they will eventually notify the police, who will find the truck and start piecing together a story. There's no doubt Nathan boasted to someone that he was headed to Miami on a private jet, and this will cause the cops to chase their tails for a while.

I have no way of knowing if the authorities can link their missing man to Nathaniel Coley, the clown who recently left town with a fake passport, four kilos of coke, and a pistol, but I doubt it. He might not be located until someone down in Jamaica finally allows him to make a phone call. Whom he calls and what he tells that person is anyone's guess. He is more likely to count the hours and days until I return with a sackful of cash and start bribing people. After weeks, maybe a month, he'll realize his old pal Reed stiffed him, took the money and ran.

I almost feel sorry for him.

At 1:00 a.m., I approach Asheville, North Carolina, and see a sign for the motel at a busy interchange. Parked behind it, and out of view, is a little blue Honda Accord with my dear Vanessa sitting behind the wheel, the Glock at her side. I park next to her and we step inside our first-floor room. We kiss and embrace, but we are much too tense to get amorous. We quietly unload her trunk and toss the backpacks on one of the beds. I lock the door, chain it, and stick a chair under the doorknob. I pull the curtains tight, then hang towels from the rods to cover the slits and cracks and make certain no one can see inside our little vault. While I do this, Vanessa takes a shower, and when she emerges from the bathroom, she is wearing nothing but a short terry-cloth bathrobe that reveals miles and miles of the prettiest legs I've ever seen. Don't even think about it, she says. She's exhausted. Maybe tomorrow.

We empty the backpacks, put on disposable latex gloves, and make a neat arrangement of eighteen cigar boxes, each secured with two precise bands of silver duct tape. We notice two have apparently been opened, with the tape cut along the top, and we set them aside. Using a small penknife, I cut the tape on the first canister and open the box. We remove the mini-bars, count them - thirty - then put them back inside and re-tape the lid. Vanessa scribbles down the quantity and we open the second one. It has thirty-two mini-bars, all shiny, perfectly sized, and seemingly untouched by human hands.

"Beautiful, just beautiful," she says over and over. "It will last for centuries."

"Forever," I say, rubbing a mini-bar. "Wouldn't you love to know what part of the world it came from?"

She laughs because we'll never know.

We open all sixteen of the sealed boxes, then inventory the mini-bars from the two that had previously been opened. They held about half the number as the others. Our total is 570. With gold fluctuating around $1,500 an ounce, our jackpot is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $8.5 million.

We lie on the bed with the gold stacked between us, and it's impossible not to smile. We need a bottle of champagne, but at 2:00 on a Monday morning in a cheap motel in North Carolina, champagne does not exist. There is so much to take in here, at this moment, but one of the more glorious aspects of our project is that no one is looking for this treasure. Other than Nathan Cooley, no one knows it exists. We took it from a thief, one who left no trail.

Seeing, touching, and counting our fortune has energized us. I yank off her bathrobe and we crawl under the covers of the other bed. Try as we may, it's difficult to make love without keeping one eye on the gold. When we finish, we collapse with exhaustion and sleep like the dead.

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