I’d known Brett Ellison for almost thirty-three minutes when we reached the service elevator. I’d already seen anger flash across his face. And surprise. And suspicion. But it wasn’t until we stepped out onto the roof—which was more like stepping out onto the surface of a tiny moon—that I saw the first trace of fear.
The curved concrete shell was rough underfoot. It had been scoured and bleached by the wind and the sun until it was the texture and color of desiccated ivory, though the weather was playing nice that afternoon. The sky was calm and cloudless. There was no breeze. No birds were in sight. The streets below us were deserted, with the politicians being out of town until the next legislative session began, and the place was silent save for Ellison’s ragged breathing. The sun was low in the sky over my left shoulder, staining the pointed prows of the four neighboring government towers a soft pink, and ahead the Hudson cut a dark diagonal swath through Albany’s eerily empty downtown.
“I don’t get it.” Ellison edged closer to me and grabbed my sleeve. “Why here? What am I supposed to see?”
Ellison had been at his desk when I opened the door to his office, deep in the basement of the adjacent building. He was doing some- thing with his cellphone. He had it at arm’s length, squinting at it like his reading glasses weren’t quite up to their job, and jabbing repeatedly at the screen with a rigid forefinger.
“What the actual . . . ?” His finger froze in midair and he glared up at me over his circular lenses. “Who the hell are you?”
“My name’s Paul.” I walked in, pulled one of his chrome- framed visitor’s chairs back a couple of feet, and sat down. “I’d say it was a pleasure to be here, but it’s too soon to be sure.”
“Hey!” Ellison jumped up and snatched off his glasses. “I didn’t say you could sit. What the hell do you want? Tell me, or haul your ass out of here, right now.”
“Tell you, or haul my ass out?” I frowned. “I’m curious. Do you get many people showing up unannounced and not telling you what they want? Just hanging around, not saying a word?”
“Did you come here just to annoy me?” Ellison placed his phone facedown on one pile of papers on his desk and threw his glasses onto another. “Or do you have any other purpose in life?” “OK, I’m sorry.” I held my hands up. “Let’s start over. The fact
is, I came to see you. In person. I made a special trip, all the way from New York City.”
“To see me?” Ellison ran his fingers through his thin sandy hair, then reversed the motion to tug his fringe farther down over his forehead. “Why? Do I know you?”
“Not yet.” I conjured up a smile. “But we’re going to change that. Starting now. Because I’m your new partner.”
“Have you been smoking crack?” Ellison gestured toward the portrait of the governor, which was hanging at a slightly crooked angle on the wall behind his desk. “I’m a government official, dumb-ass. I don’t have any partners. New, or otherwise. I don’t know what kind of wild-goose chase you’ve been sent on, but—” “I’m not talking about your day job, Brett.” His phone started
to vibrate, causing it to slide off the stack of papers and spin around on the chipped veneer surface of the desk like a stranded bug. “I’m talking about your other line of work. Your more lucrative one. The one you’ve been running with Marcus the last couple years.”
“You’ve got some wires seriously crossed here, buddy.” Ellison drew himself up a little taller and folded his arms over his chest, wrinkling the fabric of his pin-striped navy suit coat. “I don’t have another line of work. And I don’t know any Marcus.”
“Sure you do.”
“How many times?” Ellison planted his hands on his desk and leaned forward, revealing a slight gut and bringing it into conflict with the buttons of his neatly pressed white shirt. “I don’t have a partner. I’m not in any business.”
Ellison didn’t respond, so I took a wallet-sized photograph from my jacket pocket and placed it on a creased manila folder, more or less directly under his nose. I made sure it was face-down. He pretended not to notice. He straightened up. Glared at me. Looked at the wall behind me. Stared at the framed emergency evacuation instructions mounted on the inside of the door. Glanced at the heavy wool overcoat hanging on a bentwood stand in the corner, next to the trash can. Gazed at the coarse brown carpet. Straightened a stack of documents. Hesitated, with his right hand poised in midair. Wrestled with his curiosity for a beat or two longer. And evidently lost, because after another couple of seconds he slowly slid the picture across to his side of the desk. Picked it up. Flipped it over. Studied it for a few seconds. Shrugged. Then let it slip through his fingers and watched as it fluttered down to land on the same pile of papers as his glasses
“I don’t know her.” Ellison’s voice barely reached me through the stale basement air.
“No.” I retrieved the picture. It was of a woman. A Latina. She was in her mid-thirties. Smiling. Beautiful. “But you will soon, right? You’re planning to get to know her very well.” I checked my watch. “In less than two hours. At the Renaissance. Room 2440.”
Ellison didn’t respond.
“In return for not reporting her husband to the INS. I believe that was the deal?”
Ellison closed his eyes and rocked back on his heels for a moment. “So. I get it now. You want to be my partner. By which you mean, what? You want to help yourself to heaps of my money? Well, we can talk about that. But let me tell you, before we go any further, there has to be paperwork. NDAs. Watertight ones. With shitloads of penalties for breaching them. Because I’m not admit- ting to anything. And if I do, when I pay for something to go away, it stays gone away. We’re clear on that?”
I sighed, got up, and started toward the door.
“Wait!” Ellison’s eyes stretched wide. “Where are you going? You haven’t told me how much you want. Give me a chance to negotiate!”
I paused. “First, I don’t negotiate. That just leads to both sides being dissatisfied. Better for one side to be happy. My side, obviously. And second, you don’t get it at all. I’m wasting my time here. I had no idea you were such a wuss. You’re not cut out to be my partner. I expected a man with vision. With ambition. Who was ready to grab a golden opportunity with both hands, not run and hide from shadows. But don’t worry. You’re not the only game in town. I’ll find someone else. Someone with a backbone.”
“I have plenty of backbone!” Ellison was suddenly all puffed up. “And vision. This whole business model was my creation, re- member, so don’t—”
“Business model?” I shook my head. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You skim undocumented workers’ wages and take sexual advantage of their wives. We’re not talking Shark Tank mate- rial here, Brett. Which is why I was planning to—how do you MBA guys put it?—shift your paradigm. But now I’m not so sure. I’m not convinced you can handle it.”
Ellison snorted. “I saw an opportunity. I took it. That’s who I am. An innovator. An entrepreneur. This operation? It’s just a small part of what I do. And for the record, I can handle anything.” He stuck out his jaw. “Tell me what you have in mind. I’ll evaluate it, and if I think it’ll fly I’ll consider letting you get on board.”
“I don’t think so.” I took another step toward the door. “I don’t like your attitude. Here’s what you should do. Find a re- placement for Marcus. Carry on the way you were. Forget about all the extra money we could have made together. And all the extra women I could have sent your way.”
“I can’t just forget about . . . wait.” Ellison’s eyes narrowed. “A replacement for Marcus? You didn’t . . . is he . . . ?”
“Marcus retired.” I kept my expression neutral. “On account of the accident he was about to have. Don’t worry. Call him if you want. He’s fine. And he’ll stay that way, as long as he stays re- tired.”
“OK.” Ellison nodded. “Marcus is out of the picture. He stays out. I get it. See? I can be flexible. I can adapt. I can be a team player. But the question is, can you? Because you know what? There’s something you’re forgetting.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“You want to work in this town, there are wheels that need to be greased. I have the connections. You don’t.”
I didn’t reply.
“You don’t.” Ellison sounded confident. “I’d know. So if you want to succeed here, you need me.”
I let a few seconds tick by. “Or someone like you.”
“There’s no one like me.” Ellison switched to his warm, friendly politician’s voice. “Trust me on that. So, like you said before, let’s start over. Tell me your plan. The extra money. The women. How will it work?”
“OK.” I paused as if I was giving his words some serious thought. “Here’s what you have to understand. My proposal—the impact could be huge. Like nothing you’ve experienced before. It depends on a significant adjustment to your thought process, though. So realistically, for you to appreciate the full vision, you need to see a demonstration.”
“Really?” Ellison put his hands on his hips. “Of what? The concept’s pretty simple. It’s worked great up to now.”
“Maybe it has. From your point of view. But to get the ultimate result, the enterprise needs to change. There are some new concepts you need to grasp.”
“What concepts?” Ellison crossed his arms. “I don’t want to overcomplicate things. Or waste time. How long would a demonstration take, anyway?”
“Not long at all. Just a few minutes. It’ll be the best investment of time you ever make. And you know what would be a waste of time? Looking for a replacement for Marcus. Settling for what you had before.”
“Fine.” Ellison held up his hands. “Then set up a demonstration. Let me know the time and place, and I’ll be there.”
“How about right now?”
Ellison blinked, then checked his watch.
“Don’t worry. There’s plenty of time before your appointment at the Renaissance.”
“That’s still on?”
“Of course. I drove the woman to town myself. I wasn’t happy about it, but I had no choice. Not now that Marcus is a man of leisure.”
Ellison opened his mouth, then closed it again without saying anything.
“It’s up to you.” I crossed my arms. “If you don’t have the balls for this, just say so. I’ll go back to the city right now, and you’ll never see me again. Of course, I’ll have to take the woman with me. I’m not hanging around while you get . . . acquainted, if there’s nothing in it for me.”
Ellison still didn’t reply.
“Which would be a shame.” I took the picture back out of my pocket. “She is mighty pretty . . .”
“Where?” Ellison blinked twice. “Where would the demonstration be?”
“Next door. At the Center for the Performing Arts. Nice and convenient.”
“At the Egg?” Ellison frowned. “The place is huge. Who else will be there?”
“No one.” I gestured to the door. “Come on. I have an area set aside. It’s private. It’ll be just you and me.”
“Well, OK.” Ellison opened a drawer in his desk. “But wait a moment. I have one more question. And don’t lie to me, because I’ll know. Are you a cop? Here to entrap me?”
“A cop’s the last thing I am.” I paused. “I was in the army, but that was a whole different lifetime.”
“Then who sent you to find me?”
“That’s a second question.” I looked him in the eye. “But I’ll answer. No one sent me. No one even knows I’m here.”
“Let’s make three questions a charm.” Ellison’s face hardened. “Are you armed? Are you carrying a gun?”
I opened my jacket. “No gun. Don’t need one. Just my phone.
Pat me down, if you want.”
“No need.” Ellison took a revolver from his drawer—a Ruger Security-Six, judging by its skinny wooden grip—and held it up at eye level. “But for full disclosure, and in case you have any stupid ideas, you should know—I’ll be carrying this.”
Ellison edged closer to me and grabbed my sleeve. “Why here? What am I supposed to see?”
I freed my arm and passed him a sheet of paper from my jacket pocket.
“A list?” Ellison’s breath was warm on my neck. “Why couldn’t you have shown me this inside? In my office? Why come all the way to the roof?”
“Just read it.” I moved around behind him, blocking his way to the hatch that covered the steps leading back to the elevator lobby. “Then everything will fall into place.”
Ellison paused, then scanned the page. “Are you crazy?” “Maybe.” I shrugged. “If thinking it’s wrong to exploit guys
who are just trying to put food on their families’ tables—not to mention what you’re doing to their wives—then yes, you can call me crazy. But what you call me isn’t important right now. What matters is that you agree to the points on that list. Then we can both go home. Because in case you hadn’t guessed, there isn’t actually anyone waiting for you at the Renaissance hotel. The woman— whose name is Rita, by the way—is at her apartment with her husband. When you held her picture in your hand? That was the closest you’re ever going to get to touching her.”
“Screw you.” Ellison’s free hand balled itself into a fist. “Move.
“I’ll be happy to move. As soon as you agree to the items on the list. Unless you’d rather I take another route? Like maybe sharing what I know with the NYPD?”
Ellison didn’t respond.
“Or maybe sharing certain details with the husbands of the women you’ve abused? Details like your home address? The car you drive?”
“Look. All right.” Ellison relaxed his hand and massaged his temple with his fingertips. “I’ll give up my cut of the laborers’ wages. I’ll stay away from their wives. But paying for immigration lawyers? Subsidizing their housing while they go to community college? No way.”
“What did I tell you about negotiating, Brett?” I shook my head. “The whole package. I’ll accept nothing less. And if you need an extra incentive, you might want to think a little harder about why we’re having this conversation on a roof.”
Ellison took an instinctive step away. “You think you can bluff me?” He lowered his hand until it was hovering a couple of inches from his pocket. “You are crazy. And you’ve picked the wrong guy. I know an empty threat when I hear one. You need to let me leave. Now.”
“Let’s not back each other into any corners, Brett.” I kept my voice quiet and calm. “Especially as there aren’t any corners up here. Only long, deadly drops on every side. So let’s just take a moment. Breathe. Enjoy the location. It truly is a magnificent building, don’t you think? I’ve wanted to see it for a long time. My only issue with it is the name. Why did they call it the Egg? It looks more like a clam, wouldn’t you say? Or a mushroom.”
Ellison didn’t respond.
“Maybe the marketing guys felt that bottom-feeders and fungi were too hard a sell.”
Ellison’s eyes were dancing between my face and the hatch, behind me.
“Don’t push your luck, Brett. Stay calm. Look around. Observe the curve of the roof. See how it falls gracefully away to the point where it intersects with the walls, sweeping up dramatically from below? That’s the point you should focus on. Very carefully. Be- cause there’s absolutely nothing for a person to grab on to. Imagine rolling toward that edge. There’d be nothing to stop you. Then picture the plaza, all those hundreds of feet below. And ask yourself: Isn’t providing a little legal aid and enabling some modest educational opportunities a small price to pay to ride down in the elevator, instead?”
Ellison didn’t reply.
“Have you ever seen someone fall from this height, Brett? Onto a hard surface? It’s not pretty. Not the way you want to go. And it’s like catnip for reporters. You’d be all over the newspapers. And the TV. And the Internet, of course. That’s not how you want your family to remember you. Or your friends. If you’ve got any. And don’t forget, once a person’s guts get spilled, their secrets soon fol- low.”
“I can picture that scene, actually.” Ellison flinched as if he was coming out of a trance, then he casually slipped his hand into his pocket. “A body rolling. Falling. Getting smashed to a pulp on the sidewalk. That’s exactly what I was thinking about. Only the guy? It’s not me. It’s you.” His hand reemerged, holding his gun, which he leveled at my chest. “And you’ll be dead long before you hit the ground.”
“I was wondering when you’d pull that bad boy out.” “You threatened my life. It’ll be self-defense.”
“Trying to talk yourself into something, Brett? Because there’s a big difference between thinking and doing.”
“I fire hundreds of rounds a week.” Ellison glanced down at his gun. “Don’t think I won’t pull the trigger.”
“Where do you fire them, Brett? At a range? At paper targets?”
“What difference does it make where I shoot? Or what at? I shoot a lot is the point. And I maintain my weapon, too.”
“I know you do. I can smell the oil from here. You use a little too much, if anything. But that’s not your main problem.”
“I don’t have a problem.”
“Correct.” I paused. “Technically, you have two.” Ellison again glanced at his gun, but he didn’t respond.
“First problem . . .” I held up my right thumb as if checking points off a list, and as his eyes tracked the movement I shot out my left hand. I grabbed his gun by its barrel and wrenched it around a hundred and eighty degrees, away from his body—and mine—so that the trigger guard broke his finger and his wrist was forced right back on itself. He screamed, and half a second later the gun was in my pocket and he was on his knees, cradling his injured hand.
“Sorry.” I waited for his whimpering to subside. “I miscounted.
Only one problem.”
“Why did you do that?” Ellison’s teeth were clenched, obscuring his words. “I wasn’t really going to shoot you. I just wanted to back you off. Make you let me go.”
“Then that’s another way we’re different.” I shrugged. “When I say I’m going to do something, I do it.”
“No you don’t.” Ellison laughed nervously. “Surely? Like, you wouldn’t really throw me off the roof.”
“Wouldn’t I?” I looked him in the eye. “Do you really believe that, Brett? Think carefully, because your life depends on it.”
Ellison looked away.
“You abuse your office, and you prey on the less fortunate in cruel and malicious ways. The only reason to keep you alive is for you to put right some of the harm you’ve done. If you won’t agree to do that, I’ll toss you off this roof the same way I’d throw a sack of garbage in a dumpster.”
“Bullshit.” Ellison struggled to his feet. “You don’t go to jail for the rest of your life for throwing out garbage, for one thing.”
“I won’t go to jail for flinging you, either. Not even for a day. Let me show you something.” I took out my phone, called up a video feed, and passed it to Ellison. “What do you see?”
He studied the screen for a second. “It’s the plaza. The base of the Egg. There’s a fenced-off area. That’s new. How come?”
“So that if you do choose the quick way down, you won’t land on any pedestrians. I don’t want you hurting any more innocent people.”
“You arranged for the fence?”
“Of course. I’m not a savage.” I took the phone and selected another source. “Now. What do you see in this one?”
Ellison stared for a moment. “Nothing’s there. It’s blank.” “Correct.” I put the phone back in my pocket. “That’s from the
security camera covering the entrance I used to the building. It’s out of action. All the others I passed are the same. No one saw me. There’s not a shred of evidence I was ever here.”
“There has to be.” Ellison’s eyes were flickering urgently from side to side, like he was scanning the shelves at a store on Black Friday. “Wait. Yes. The fence. People don’t just carry fences around. You must have gotten it from somewhere. Or someone must have helped you. Or done it for you. There’s a connection. A body gets found, the police—”
“You’re right.” I smiled. “Someone did take care of the fence for me. An old army buddy. From Military Intelligence. An expert in not getting found. And even if the police did somehow get their hands on him, guess what? He wouldn’t say a word. So you may as well accept it. There’s nothing and no one to connect me to this place.”
“Why are you doing this?” Ellison sank back down on his haunches. “I don’t get it. What’s in it for you? Did those assholes somehow scrape up some cash? Are they paying you? Because I can—”
“No one’s paying me.” I scooped up the list from where it had fallen during the scuffle. “And if you have to ask, you won’t under- stand the answer.”
“That makes no sense.” Ellison pressed the palm of his good hand against his forehead. “And who even are you? Paul, you said, when you first showed up? Is that your first name? Or last?”
“My name’s not important.” I handed the list back to him. “I’m just a janitor. Here to clean up the mess you made. One way. Or another.”
From the book TOO CLOSE TO HOME by Andrew Grant. Copyright © 2020 by Andrew Grant. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.