"Evanger had guests?" Kincaid's voice was as close to sharp as it ever got. "That is, indeed, significant.

The original background report I commissioned from that agency mentioned the fact that she seldom, if ever, entertained. It confirmed she was very reclusive. She's never even granted an interview."

"I remember." Hatch glanced at his notes. "Her guests were two people she met while she was at the health spa, a Jocal restaurant owner named Verity Ames and her employee, Jonas Quarrel. The report speculates that Quarrel and Ames may be sleeping together. That part is unconfirmed. It sounds fairly unimportant, Mr. Kincaid. Ames is just barely making a living and Quarrel is nothing more than a dishwasher/waiter. Not the sort of people who would be investing in expensive art. I don't think you have to worry about them."

"You never know, Hatch. Artists are, by nature, unpredictable and eccentric. Given the little information the agency could dig up on Evanger, we have to assume she's more unpredictable and eccentric than most artists. Evanger might have taken it into her head to let these two see the painting. It's not inconceivable that they are interested in Bloodlust. Maybe one of them has a rich daddy who could loan the money to buy it."

Hatch decided it was time to pull his small rabbit out of the hat. "The report goes on to say that Evanger placed a phone call to her agent this morning to announce just how she will go about selling Bloodlust. "

Kincaid didn't move but there was no doubt that Hatch had his full attention. "At an auction?"

"A private auction, according to the agency. She's going to conduct the bidding herself in her own home."

"When? Who's invited?" The questions were rapped out like gunshots.

"That part was a little unclear." Hatch frowned over the report. "Apparently she's going to have a party.

A send-off for herself as she prepares to leave her career behind, I suppose. A number of people involved in the art world will be there, but only a handful of people will be asked to return after the party to bid on Bloodlust."

"I must be on that guest list, Hatch. More important, I must be on that list of bidders. See to it. I want that painting."

Hatch nodded, foreseeing no difficulty. Any artist, regardless of how eccentric, would be delighted to know that Damon Marcus Kincaid was interested in bidding on a painting. If Kincaid was interested, the price was practically guaranteed to go very high. When Kincaid wanted something, he got it, regardless of what he had to pay for it. If this Evanger woman had any brains she would jump at the chance of having Kincaid among the bidders. After that, her only problem would be to make sure there were enough other wealthy, determined would-be buyers present to ensure a lively auction.

"I'll contact Evanger's San Francisco gallery immediately," Hatch told his employer.

"You do that. Now."

Hatch's mouth tightened, although he was used to the tone of absolute command. "I'll get back to you soon, Mr. Kincaid." He let himself out of the office with his usual sense of relief. So far Hatch had stayed afloat in the dangerous waters that surrounded the shark, but a man had to keep an eye on the beast at all times. It was too easy to start looking like shark food.

Kincaid turned back to the window as the door closed behind his assistant.

That damned ugly monstrosity of a house seemed fated to reappear time and again in his life. It was almost uncanny. Coincidences, he was forced to acknowledge, apparently did happen now and then but he instinctively found them disturbing.

He let his mind drift back to the first time he had seen the place. That had been back when he was much younger and a little drunk with the power he was starting to accumulate. The house had belonged to Sandquist, who had been as close a friend as Kincaid had ever had. After Sandquist's demise, Kincaid had been careful not to cultivate any more close friends. They were too dangerous.

But in those days, Kincaid had been excited to learn that Sandquist shared a taste for the exotic when it came to sex. Neither man was cursed with any strong inhibitions or moral limits and the two of them had gone out of their way to construct a very interesting retreat at the house on the cliffs. It had proven easy enough to lure carefully chosen women to the house for the extravagant, thrilling orgies Sandquist had a talent for organizing. Drugs and money and the threat of violence had generally ensured silence from the victims, most of whom came from the streets.

There had been only one exception, a woman who might have gone to the police if she had been allowed to do so. It had been a mistake to take Susan Connelly to the house. But Kincaid had been unable to resist. She had been perfect: beautiful, naive, innocent, and wildly in love with him. Kincaid still got an erection whenever he thought about the methodical way in which he had stripped sweet Susan of her beauty, her naivete, her innocence, and her passion. It had been a glorious night but a potentially dangerous one.

Kincaid had come to his senses later and realized he had to get rid of this particular victim. A car accident on a lonely stretch of coastal highway had taken care of the problem. The woman had died in the accident. Always a thorough man, Kincaid had checked the obituaries to be certain she had not survived.

That experience had brought home to him that it was probably time to put a halt to the exotic weekends.

He was moving up in the business world, busy with a balancing act that required creating a respectable facade while he cemented underground connections enabling him to operate in the shadows of legitimate business. Kincaid told Sandquist there could be no more weekends.

Sandquist had accepted his friend's decision, saying he understood. The two had gone their own ways until three years ago. Kincaid still remembered the gut-wrenching shock he had experienced when he received the blackmail message from Sandquist. Now, looking back on it, Kincaid could only pity the naivete of his younger self. He had never guessed that Sandquist had filmed some of the violent orgies.

There had been carefully hidden cameras in every bedroom.

There had been only one solution, of course. Kincaid had once again entered the house on the cliffs.

Sandquist had stupidly failed to install new security systems. The ones in place were the same ones that had protected the house earlier during the days of the weekend orgies. Kincaid remembered the systems well and bypassed them easily.

He found Sandquist in the big corner room on the third floor. Sandquist, sunk in a foggy world induced by pills and booze, was so far lost in his dreamland that he didn't even recognize his intended blackmail victim. Kincaid had simply led him downstairs and pushed him over the cliffs.

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