Sleight of Hand - By Phillip Margolin

Part I

The Ottoman Scepter

Chapter One

The American Bar Association decided to hold its annual convention at the Theodore Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. On Wednesday evening, a who’s who of the most powerful men and women in the country circulated at a cocktail party hosted by Rankin, Lusk, Carstairs and White. Charles Benedict was a minor leaguer in the power and influence department but even in this elite company he stood out because he was strikingly handsome and charismatic, the person toward whom the eyes of not only women but men were drawn when he entered a room.

Benedict was six feet two inches tall, with a cultivated tan. His salt-and-pepper hair was cut short and his trim, athletic build, ramrod posture, and chiseled features brought to mind the Special Forces heroes in action movies. When Benedict moved, it was easy to imagine a field of force emanating from him, and there was no question that his physical presence contributed to his success as a trial attorney, although more sinister factors sometimes came into play.

Benedict was charming a partner from a Chicago firm when he was distracted by Carrie and Horace Blair, who were carrying on a whispered argument in a corner of the ballroom. It was rare to see the Blairs together, but Rankin, Lusk handled Horace’s legal work, and that was an obvious explanation for the presence of the businessman, who was not a member of the bar.

Carrie Blair was wearing a charcoal-black Gucci suit, and her natural honey-blond hair flowed over its shoulders. She had translucent gray-green eyes that could paralyze the most misogynist male, her nose was the type all the dissatisfied society women begged their plastic surgeons to copy, and her skin was tan and smooth. If someone were to ask what Carrie Blair did for a living, many people would guess that she was a television news anchor and none would peg her as the prosecutor in charge of the Narcotics Unit in one of Virginia’s most populous counties.

Carrie’s millionaire husband looked every bit the southern gentleman, but he was many years older than his wife, and a stranger would not be faulted for assuming that he was Carrie’s father. Horace was gripping Carrie’s arm. His face, red from anger, contrasted sharply with his snowy white hair. Carrie wrenched her arm from her husband’s grasp and walked out of the ballroom just as Charles Benedict’s cell phone vibrated.

“I’ve got to take this,” Benedict said, abruptly ending the conversation with the Chicago attorney. Her expectant smile changed to a frown. She was attractive, rich, and powerful, and was not used to being dismissed like some hired hand. Had she known more about Benedict, she would have understood why he’d ditched her without so much as an apology. The woman was just another potential notch on Benedict’s gun, whereas the caller was going to pay an excessive fee for a highly specialized service that Benedict provided.

“Yes,” Benedict said when he was alone in a side hall.

“He’s at the tavern,” the caller said.

Benedict left the hotel and jogged to a parking garage a few blocks away. He’d boosted a dull-green Chevrolet earlier in the evening. After switching the plates, Benedict had stashed the car on the third floor of the garage. The attorney got into the backseat and took off his yellow-and-blue-striped Hermès tie, his gray Armani suit, and his silk shirt. Then he pulled sneakers, a hooded sweatshirt, and a pair of faded jeans out of a duffel bag. As soon as he’d changed clothes, Benedict drove out of the lot toward Virginia.

Norman Krueger’s life, which had been on a downward spiral since birth, had recently gotten worse, something that hardly seemed possible. Norman had been born to a drug-addicted prostitute who had no clue as to the identity of Norman’s father. His childhood had ricocheted between physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. The lessons in school, when he attended, were incomprehensible to someone with Norman’s limited IQ and attention span. Gangs were not the answer, because he was too puny and frightened to be of use where violence was involved, and too stupid to be trusted with any task that might require guile.

Norman got by on a combination of public assistance and low-paying jobs, from which he was frequently fired for incompetence or absenteeism. Recently, much of his pay had gone toward supporting a drug habit. The origins of his addiction were confusing to Norman. They had sneaked up on him like some sort of controlled-substance ninja,