Read an Excerpt
Private: #1 Suspect
By Patterson, James
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2012 Patterson, James
All right reserved.
Shots in the Dark
A dark sedan turned off Pacific Coast Highway and slipped into the driveway of a gated Malibu beach house worth, had to be, seven or eight million.
The driver buzzed down his window and passed an electronic entry key over the reader.
The pair of high wrought-iron gates rolled open, and the sedan pulled up to the garage doors, the gates closing smoothly behind it. The driver got out of his car and looked around.
He was a medium-height white guy in his thirties, short brown hair, wearing a denim jacket, khaki pants, rubber-soled shoes, latex gloves. He saw that the cool modern house was screened entirely by shrubbery and protective fencing, hiding it from the road and neighboring homes.
He approached the alcove that framed the front door, noted the security camera focused on him and the biometric keypad.
Returning to the car, the driver opened a back door and said, “Last stop, young lady.”
He leaned into the backseat and pulled out a slightly built female with long black hair. She was out of it, completely unconscious. Smelled like roses and soap. With a grunt, the man maneuvered the limp body, slung her over his shoulder.
When he got back to the door, he pressed the female’s finger to the pad, and the door lock thwacked open.
They were in.
The man in the denim jacket didn’t turn on the lights. Sun came through the extensively glassed walls, bounced off the floor tiles, and made everything plenty bright enough to see.
The foyer led to a large skylighted living area with rounded walls and curved windows facing the ocean. To the left was a hallway to the master bedroom and bath. The man opened the bedroom door with his foot, and when he reached the bed, he eased the woman off his shoulder and arranged her on the blue-and-white pinstriped bedding.
He fixed a pillow under her head, then went to the window seat. Under the hinged lid was a metal box, and inside that, a custom Kimber .45 handgun. The guy in the denim jacket popped out the magazine, checked it, slammed it back in with his gloved hand. The gun was loaded.
He returned to the side of the bed and, aiming carefully, shot the woman in the chest at close range. Her body bucked, but when he pumped in the second and third shots, she didn’t stir. He picked up the three spent shell casings and pocketed them.
The shooter took the receiver from the phone beside the bed. He dialed while looking out the windows to the beach.
The killer hung up the phone without speaking. Then he left the bedroom and found the media center in the living room. He opened all of the cabinet doors, rifled through the compartments, and located the security system hard drive at the back.
He unplugged the drive and tucked it under his arm, then he exited the house through the front door. Once outside, he scraped away some mulch at the foot of a bougainvillea vine that scrambled thickly over the fence. He buried the gun in the shallow trench and covered it up with chipped bark.
He got back into his vehicle, started it up, and passed the electronic key across the reader on the opposite post. Once the gates had opened, he backed his car slowly into the emergency lane. Then he edged out onto the highway and headed north.
He was already thinking about this seafood restaurant in Santa Barbara called Brophy Bros. He loved that place. The clam bar had steamers, a Dungeness crab platter, and oysters on the half shell. He’d get a bottle of something worthy of his first-class day’s work.
The shooter popped a Van Halen CD into the player and smiled as the dark sedan blended into the stream of traffic.
A. J. Romano was driving the white transport van west on I-15, a hundred fifty miles east of Vegas. The van was a late-model Ford. On both sides and across its rear cargo doors were decals saying “Produce Direct” over a basket of red, green, and yellow vegetables.
Benny “Banger” Falacci was slumped in the passenger seat, his new eel-skin cowboy boots up on the dash. Rudy Gee was in the back, taking his shift in the air-conditioned cargo section, his sleeping bag wedged between the cartons.
A. J. liked night driving anyway, but especially on those crystal clear nights you got at high altitudes out west. Bright stars. No traffic. A strip of road cutting through miles and miles of grazing land and desert terrain with a dusky backdrop of foothills like crumpled packing paper rising high and wide in the distance.
He was saying to Banger, “I made this stew, you know, me cooking for her for a change.”
Banger broke the filter off a Marlboro, lit up with his lucky silver butane, opened the window.
“Jeez,” Romano said, opening his window too. “Ever heard of secondary smoke? You’re smoking for two here.”
“It’s been three hundred sixteen miles,” said Banger. “That was the deal. One smoke every three hundred miles.”
“Awright.” A. J. went on, speaking louder now over the rush of air past the window, “so I make some noodles and a little chocolate cake. It’s nice.”
“Fascinating, A. J. You got the major food groups covered.”
“So I’m full but not stuffed. We go to bed and at about two-thirty I wake up. I’m literally freezing.”
Banger plucked a shred of tobacco off his tongue. There was no CD player in the van, no radio signal this far from any fucking thing. In a few hours he was going to be sitting at a blackjack table. He’d be sleeping in a triple-wide bed tonight. He could call Suzette at the last minute. He was thinking about that and how much talking she’d do before he could get her panties off. Or he could go to the Sands and find someone new. He was feeling lucky.
“I dial up the electric blanket. Still my nips are hard as diamonds.”
“Christ,” Banger said. “Change the subject, do you mind?”
“I notch the heat up to nine. That’s weld,” said A. J. “I’m still freezing my ass off. When I wake up again, I’m sweating like I ran a couple of miles—”
“What’s happening there?” Banger asked.
“I don’t know. That’s what I’m asking. Is my heart acting up on me?”
“What’s happening there,” Banger said, pointing through the windshield at the red lights up ahead.
“That car, you mean?”
“It’s slowing down.”
“Asshole should have filled up in Kanarraville.”
“Pull around him,” Banger said.
But A. J. was decelerating, saying, “Guy runs out of gas on this road, he could get eaten by a bear.”
But the car in front of them wasn’t running out of gas. It was crawling, giving a Chevy in the left lane, headlights off, a chance to catch up and pull alongside the van.
“What the fuck is this now?” A. J. said, staring at the Chevy six inches from his door. “What’s this asshole doing?”
“Brake. Brake!” Banger yelled. “Pull around him.”
A. J. Romano leaned on the horn, but it had no effect. Their van was hemmed in, being shunted toward the Pintura exit, and he had to either slam into the car beside him or barrel down the ramp.
A. J. jerked the wheel to the right, sending the van down the exit ramp, while Banger was digging under his seat for his piece. Next thing, metal was grinding against his door and the van was off the exit, forced onto some kind of spur road.
Banger was yelling, “You mother,” as A. J. stood on the brakes. The van skidded in dirt and plowed through a wire fence into the middle of fucking nowhere, dust shutting out the view and filling the cab.
Car doors banged shut in front and behind. Banger gripped his piece with one hand and undid his seat belt with the other, ready to bolt out the door, but a man’s face was in the window, a punk he’d never seen before, yelling, “Grab the ceiling.”
A. J. had his hands up. “Banger,” he yelled, “do what they say.”
Banger pulled up his gun from below the window opening. There was a bright flash and a loud report. Banger slumped, exhaled, and didn’t move again.
Inside his head, A. J. screamed, Oh, my God. They killed Banger. A .45 was pointed at his left ear.
“Listen to me,” A. J. said. “I don’t know you. I didn’t see nothing. Take what you want. I got six hundred bucks—”
A. J. didn’t even hear the gun go off. He twitched, but that was all.
The van’s rear cargo door blew open, and Rudy Giordino jumped down from the back. His right leg buckled, but he had played ball in high school and had good balance. He came out of the stumble into a dead run.
His head was clanging from the tossing he’d taken in the back, but his instincts were intact. He ran under a black sky, across the flats and parallel to the road.
His blood whooshed across his eardrums and he still felt the aftershocks of gunfire.
Christ. Guns had gone off in the cab.
They’d been jacked.
Rudy Gee ran, flashing on his gun, lost under the cascade of boxes in the back of the truck. He thought about Marisa and Sparky and how he wasn’t supposed to die yet, not gunned down out fucking here. He had so many plans. He was still a kid.
It felt good to run. He was making distance, could almost hear the cheering in the stands.
Behind him, a guy name of Victor Spano took careful aim with his .45, bracing against the side of the van. The dude was making it too easy, running in a straight line.
Victor squeezed the trigger, felt the kickback as the round found its mark. The guy making a break for it stopped running like someone had called his name. Then he dropped to his knees and did a face-plant in the dirt.
Victor walked up to the dead guy and put a shot into the back of his head just to be safe. If you fired a gun and no one heard it, had you still fired the gun?
“Is he dead?” Mark called.
“He says he wants to go have pizza with us,” Victor yelled.
“Get back here, okay? We need help with these two.”
Victor helped stash the first two dead guys in the Chevy. Mark backed up the car, and Victor and Sammy stuffed the third stiff in with the other two.
Then, as planned, Victor got behind the wheel of the transport van, and all three vehicles motored off the dirt road and back out to the highway.
Ahead of him, the Chevy peeled out, taking off toward Highway 56 and Panaca, Nevada. Victor Spano, a guy with a future, headed for LA, and Mark, in the Acura, for Cedar City. From there, Mark would be doubling back to Chicago.
It had been a good night. The jacking had taken a total of nine minutes including the cleanup.
He’d kept his mind on the business until this minute. Now, as the van made good time toward LA, Victor Spano started to think about his paycheck.
He was a millionaire and a made man.
This had been the most incredible day of his life.
I Didn’t Do It
The car was waiting for me at LAX. Aldo was out at the curb, holding a sign reading, “Welcome Home Mr. Morgan.”
I shook Aldo’s hand, threw my bags into the trunk, and slid onto the cushy leather seat in the back. I’d done six cities in three days, the return leg from Stockholm turning into a twenty-five-hour journey through airline hell to home.
I was wiped out. And that was an understatement.
“Your packet, Jack,” Aldo said, handing a folder over the divider. The cover was marked “Private,” the name of my private investigation firm. Our main office was in LA, and we had branches in six countries with clients all over the map who demanded and paid well for services not available through public means.
I had worried lately that we were growing too big too fast, that if big was the enemy of good, great didn’t stand a chance. And most of all, I wanted Private to be great.
I tucked the folder from Accounting into my briefcase and as the car surfed into the fast lane, I took out my BlackBerry. Unread messages ran into triple digits, so I chose selectively as I thumbed through the list.
The first e-mail was from Viviana, the stunner who’d sat next to me from London to New York. She sold 3-D teleconferencing equipment, not exactly must-have technology, but it was definitely interesting.
There was a text from Paolo, my security chief in Rome, saying, “Our deadbeat client is now just dead. Details to follow.” I mentally kissed a two-hundred-thousand-euro fee good-bye and moved to texts from the home team.
Justine Smith, my confidante and number two at Private, wrote, “We’ve got some catching up to do, bud. I’ve left the porch light on.” I smiled, thinking that as much as I wanted to see her, I wanted to shower and hit the rack even more.
I sent Justine a reply, then opened a text from Rick Del Rio. “Noccia wants to see you pronto, that prick.”
The text was like a gut punch.
Carmine Noccia was the scion of the major Mob family by that name, capo of the Las Vegas branch, and my accidental buddy because of a deal I’d had to make with him six months before. If I never saw Carmine Noccia again, it would be way too soon.
I typed a four-letter reply, sent it to Del Rio, and put my phone back into my pocket as the car turned into my driveway. I collected my bags and watched Aldo back out, making sure he didn’t get T-boned on Pacific Coast Highway.
I swiped my electronic key fob across the reader and went through the gate, pressed my finger to the biometric pad, and entered my home sweet home.
For a half second, I thought I smelled roses, but I chalked it up to the delight of standing again in my own house.
I started stripping in the living room and by the time I’d reached the bathroom, I was down to my boxers, which I kicked off outside the shower stall.
I stood under water as hot as I could stand it, then went into my bedroom and hit the wall switch that turned on the lights on either side of the bed.
For a long moment, I stood frozen in the doorway. I couldn’t understand what I saw—because it made no sense. How could Colleen be in my bed? Her sweater was soaked with blood.
What the hell was this?
A tasteless prank?
I shouted her name, and then I was on my knees beside the bed, my hand pressing the side of her neck. Her skin was as warm as life—but she had no pulse.
Colleen was wearing a knee-length skirt and a blue cardigan, clothes I’d seen her wear before. Her rose-scented hair was fanned out around her shoulders and her violet-blue eyes were closed. I gripped her shoulders and gently shook her, but her head just lolled.
Oh, Jesus. No.
Colleen was dead.
How in God’s name had this happened?
I’d seen countless dead while serving in Afghanistan. I’ve worked murders as part of my job for years, and I’ve even witnessed the deaths of friends.
None of that protected me from the horror of seeing Colleen’s bloody and lifeless form. Her blood spattered the bedspread, soaking through. Her sweater was so bloody I couldn’t see her wounds. Had she been stabbed? Shot? I couldn’t tell.
The covers were pulled tight and I saw no sign of a struggle. Everything in the room was exactly as I had left it four days ago—everything but Colleen’s dead body, right here.
I thought about Colleen’s attempted suicide after we’d broken up six months ago—the scars were visible: silver lines on her wrists. But this was no suicide.
There was no weapon on or near the bed.
It looked as if Colleen had come into my bedroom, put her head on the pillow, and then been killed while she slept.
And that made no sense.
Just then, my lagging survival instinct kicked in. Whoever had killed Colleen could still be in the house. I went for the window seat where I kept my gun.
My hands shook as I lifted the hinged top of the window seat and grabbed the metal gun box. It was light. Empty.
I opened the closet doors, looked under the bed, saw no one, no shells, no nothing. I stepped into jeans, pulled on a T-shirt, then walked from window to window to door, checking locks, staring up at skylights looking for broken panes.
And I backtracked through my mind.
I was certain the front door had been locked when I came home. And now I was sure that every other entry point was secure.
That could only mean that someone had entered my house with an electronic gate key and biometric access—someone who knew me. Colleen had been my assistant and my lover for a year before we’d broken up. I hadn’t deleted her codes.
Colleen wasn’t the only one with access to my house, but maybe I wouldn’t have to guess who had killed her.
My house was watched by the best surveillance system ever made. There were cameras posted on all sides, over the doorways, sweeping the highway, and taking in 180 degrees of beachfront beyond my deck.
I opened the cabinet doors on the entertainment unit in the living room and flipped the switch turning on the six video monitors stacked in two columns of three. All six screens lit up—and all six screens were blank. I stabbed the buttons on the remote control again and again before I realized the hard drive was gone. Only a detached cord remained.
I grabbed the phone by the sofa and called Justine’s direct line at the office. It was almost seven. Would she still be there?
She answered on the first ring.
“Jack, you hungry after all?”
“Justine. Something bad has happened.”
My voice cracked as I forced myself to say it.
“It’s Colleen. She’s dead. Some bastard killed her.”
I opened the front door and Justine swept in like a soft breeze. She was a first-class psychologist, a profiler, smart—hell, brilliant. Thank God she was here.
She put her hand on my cheek, searched my eyes, said, “Jack. Where is she?”
I pointed to the bedroom. Justine went in and I followed her, standing numb in the doorway as she walked to the bed. She moaned, “Oh, no,” and clasped her hands under her chin.
Even as I stood witness to this heartbreaking tableau, Colleen was still alive in my mind.
I pictured her in the little house she had rented in Los Feliz, a love nest you could almost hold in cupped hands. I thought about her twitching her hips in skimpy lingerie, big fuzzy slippers on her feet, sprinkling her thick brogue with her granny’s auld Irish sayings: “There’ll be caps on the green and no one to fetch ’em.”
“What does that mean, Molloy?” I’d asked her.
And now here she was on my bed. Well beyond trouble.
Justine was pale when she came back to me. She put her arms around me and held me. “I’m so sorry, Jack. So very sorry.”
I held her tight—and then, abruptly, Justine jerked away. She pinned me with her dark eyes and said, “Why is your hair wet?”
“Did you take a shower?”
“Yes, I did. When I came home, I went straight to the bathroom. I was trying to wake myself up.”
“Well, this is no dream, Jack. This is as real as real can be. When you showered, had you seen Colleen?”
“I had no idea she was here.”
“You hadn’t told her to come over?”
“No, Justine, I didn’t. No.”
The doorbell rang again.
The arrival of Dr. Sci and Mo-bot improved the odds of figuring out what had happened in my house by 200 percent.
Dr. Sci, real name Seymour Kloppenberg, was Private’s chief forensic scientist. He had a long string of degrees behind his name, starting with a PhD in physics from MIT when he was nineteen—and that was only ten years ago.
Mo-bot was Maureen Roth, a fifty-something computer geek and jack-of-all-tech. She specialized in computer crime and was also Private’s resident mom.
Mo had brought her camera and her wisdom. Sci had his scene kit packed with evidence-collection equipment of the cutting-edge kind.
We went to my room and the four of us stood around Colleen’s dead body as night turned the windows black.
We had all loved Colleen. Every one of us.
“We don’t have much time,” Justine said, breaking the silence, at work now as an investigator on a homicide. “Jack, I have to ask you, did you have anything to do with this? Because if you did, we can make it all disappear.”
“I found Colleen like this when I got home,” I said.
“Okay. Just the same,” said Justine, “every passing minute makes you more and more the guy who did it. You’ve got to call it in, Jack. So let’s go over everything, fast and carefully. Start from the beginning and don’t leave anything out.”
As Mo and Sci snapped on latex gloves, Justine turned on a digital recorder and motioned to me to start talking. I told her that after I got off the plane, Aldo had met me at British Airways arrivals, 5:30 sharp.
I told her about showering, then finding Colleen’s body. I said that my gun was missing as well as the hard drive from my security system.
I said again that I had no idea why Colleen was here or why she’d been killed. “I didn’t do it, Justine.”
“I know that, Jack.”
We both knew that when the cops got here, I would be suspect number one, and although I had cop friends, I couldn’t rely on any of them to find Colleen’s killer when I was so darned handy.
I had been intimately involved with the deceased.
There was no forced entry into my house.
The victim was on my bed.
It was what law enforcement liked to call an open-and-shut case. Open and shut on me.
If you’re not the cops on official business, processing an active crime scene is a felony. It’s not just contaminating evidence and destroying the prosecution’s ability to bring the accused to trial, it’s accessory to the crime.
If we were caught working the scene, I would lose my license, and all four of us could go to jail.
That said, if there was ever a time to break the law, this was it.
Mo said, “Jack, please get out of the frame.”
I stepped into the hallway and Mo’s Nikon flashed.
She took shots from every angle, wide, close-up, extreme close-ups of the wounds in Colleen’s chest.
Sci took Colleen’s and my fingerprints with an electronic reader while Mo-bot ran a latent-print reader over hard surfaces in the room. No fingerprint powder required.
Justine asked, “When did you last see Colleen alive?”
I told her that I’d had lunch with her last Wednesday, before I left for the airport.
“Yes. We just had lunch.”
A shadow crossed Justine’s eyes, like clouds rolling in before a thunderstorm. She didn’t believe me. And I didn’t have the energy to persuade her. I was overtired, scared, heartsick, and nauseated. I wanted to wake up. Find myself still on the plane.
Sci was talking to Mo. He took scrapings from under Colleen’s nails, and Mo sealed the bags. When Sci lifted Colleen’s skirt, swab in hand, I turned away.
I talked to Justine, told her where Colleen and I had eaten lunch on Wednesday, that Colleen had been in good spirits.
“She said she had a boyfriend in Dublin. She said she was falling in love.”
I had a new thought. I spun around and shouted, “Anyone see her purse?”
“No purse, Jack.”
“She was brought here,” I said to Justine. “Someone had her gate key.”
Justine said, “Good thought. Any reason or anyone you can think of who could have done this?”
“Someone hated her. Or hated me. Or hated us both.”
Justine nodded. “Sci? Mo? We have to get out of here. Will you be all right, Jack?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“You’re in shock. We all are. Just tell the cops what you know,” she said as Sci and Mo packed up their kits.
“Say you took a very long shower,” Sci said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Make that a long bath and then a shower. That should soak up some of the timeline.”
“The only prints I found were yours,” said Mo-bot.
“It’s my house.”
“I know that, Jack. There were no prints other than yours. Check the entry card reader,” she said. “I would do it, but we should leave.”
“Okay. Thanks, Mo.”
Justine squeezed my hand, said she’d call me later, and then, as if I had dreamed them up, they were gone and I was alone with Colleen.
The Beverly Hills Sun was one of three exclusive hotels in the chain of Poole Hotels. Located on South Santa Monica Boulevard, a mile from Rodeo Drive, the Sun was five stories of glamour, each room with a name and an individual look.
The Olympic-sized eternity pool on the rooftop was flanked with white canvas cabanas, upholstered seating, and ergonomic lounge chairs—and then there was the open-air bar.
Hot and cool young people in the entertainment business were drawn like gazelles to this oasis, one of the best settings under and above the Sun.
At nine that evening, Jared Knowles, the Sun’s night manager, was standing in front of the Bergman Suite on the fifth floor with one of the housekeepers.
He said to her, “I’ve got it, Maria. Thank you.”
When Maria had rounded the corner with the bedding in her arms, Knowles knocked loudly on the door, calling the guest’s name—but there was no answer. He put his ear to the door, hoping that he would hear the shower or the TV turned on high—but he heard nothing.
The guest, Maurice Bingham, an executive from New York, had stayed three times before at the Sun and never caused any trouble.
Knowles used his mobile phone to call Bingham’s room. He let it ring five times, hearing the ringing phone echo through the door and in his ear at the same time. He knocked again, louder this time, and still there was no answer.
The young manager prepared himself for best- and worst-case scenarios, then slipped his master key card into the slot and removed it. The light on the door turned green, and Knowles pushed down the handle and stepped into the suite.
It smelled like shit.
Knowles’s heart rate sped up, and he had to force himself to go through the foyer and into the sitting room.
Lying on the floor by the desk was Mr. Bingham, his fingers frozen in claws at his throat.
A wire was embedded in his neck.
Knowles put his hands to the sides of his face and screamed.
The horror was in the present and in the past. He had seen a dead body almost identical to this one when he had worked at the San Francisco Constellation. He had transferred here because he couldn’t stand thinking about it.
That night, five months ago, the police had grilled him and criticized him for touching the body before they let him go. He’d heard that there had been other killings, strangulations with a wire garrote; in fact, there had been several of them.
That meant a serial killer had been in this hotel, standing right where he was standing now.
So Jared Knowles didn’t touch the body. He used his cell phone to call the hotel’s owner, Amelia Poole. Let her fucking tell him what he should do.
Amelia Poole was just getting home when she got the phone call from Jared Knowles, her night manager at the Sun. She asked him to hang on until she got out of the garage, closed the door, and stood in her yard overlooking Laurel Canyon.
“It happened again,” Jared said. He was speaking in a hoarse whisper, and she could hardly make out what he was saying.
“What are you talking about?”
“It happened again. A guest in the Bergman Suite. His name is Maurice Bingham. He’s dead. He’s been killed. Just like—I can’t remember his name, but you know who I mean. At the Constellation. I’m scared because I’m a link, Ms. Poole. The police are going to think I could have done it.”
“Hell, no, Ms. Poole. Believe me. I would never.”
“How do you know Mr. Bingham is dead?”
“His face is blue. His tongue is out. There’s still a wire around his neck. He’s not breathing. Anything I’ve forgotten? Because I didn’t learn anything in hotel management school that covered things like this.”
He was screeching now.
And Amelia Poole was suitably frightened.
This killing made five—and it was the third in one of her hotels. The cops had come up with nothing. She hadn’t heard from them in weeks. And this murder struck her as personal. Maybe some kind of warning. Any of her guests could be killed. It was too sick.
“Jared. Listen to me,” she said. “I’ll try to keep you out of it. Flip on the ‘Do Not Disturb’ light. Can you do that? Use your elbow, not your fingers.”
“Housekeeping called me to say that Mr. Bingham had ordered an extra blanket and pillows. That he didn’t open the door.”
“Did you bring bedding into the room?”
“Did you touch anything?”
“No.” Jared was crying now. This was too much.
“Jared. Flip on the light and go back down to the desk.”
“Isn’t that breaking the law?”
“I’ll take responsibility, Jared. Just go down to the desk. Do not call the cops. Okay?”
“If you can’t do your job, say you’re getting sick and take the night off. Ask Waleed to take over.”
“Okay, Ms. Poole.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Amelia Poole disconnected the line and thought again about a private investigation agency she’d heard about. The head guy was Jack Morgan, former CIA and US Marines. His agency promised “maximum force and maximum discretion.” It was called Private.
It was late, but she’d call Private anyway. Leave a message for Jack Morgan to call her as soon as possible.
I called my friend chief of police Mickey Fescoe at home. He got on the line, said, “My dinner is on the table. Make this good, Jack.”
“I can’t make it good, Mick. Colleen Molloy, my ex-girlfriend—she was killed in my house. I didn’t do it.”
I was looking at Colleen’s body as I answered Mickey’s questions in monosyllables. He said he would send someone over, and after hanging up I sat down in a chair at an angle to the bed, keeping Colleen company as I waited for the cops to arrive.
I thought about how close Colleen and I had been, that I had loved her but not enough.
With a jolt, I remembered what Mo-bot had told me to do before she left the house. I went to the living room, booted up my computer, and drummed my fingers as the key entry program loaded.
A long list of times, dates, and names appeared on the screen, and I scrolled to the last entries. Colleen’s key had been used thirty minutes before I had walked in the front door.
I was starting to get a piece of the picture. That this whole ugly deal had gone down as I was on my way home from the airport meant that someone was keeping tabs on me, knew my schedule to the minute. But dozens of people knew my movements—coworkers, clients, friends. Anyone with a computer would have known when my plane was landing.
I got to my feet as a siren screamed up the highway. I hit the button that opened the gates, stood in the doorway, and shielded my eyes against the headlights pulling into my drive.
Two cops got out of a squad car. I focused on the closest one: Lieutenant Mitchell Tandy.
Mickey Fescoe hadn’t done me any favors. Tandy was a smart-enough cop, but he had a crappy take-no-prisoners attitude.
Tandy had arrested my father, who had owned Private before me. Dad was tried and convicted of extortion and murder. He had been doing his lifetime stretch at Corcoran when he was shanked in the showers five years ago.
Tandy didn’t like me because I was Tom Morgan’s son. Guilt by association. He didn’t like me because Private closed a higher percentage of cases than the LAPD. It wasn’t even close.
And then there was the most obvious irritant of all. I made a lot of money.
I watched and waited as the two cops came up the walk.
Tandy was forty, tanned, a gym rat. His shoulder holster bulged under the tight fit of his shiny blue jacket.
Tandy said, “You know Detective Ziegler.”
“We’ve met,” I said.
Ziegler had a swimmer’s build: broad shoulders, a long torso. He wore a copper bracelet on his right wrist. Gun on his hip. I remembered him now. We’d mixed it up once when he was harassing one of my clients. I’d won. His hair had gone gray since I’d seen him last.
Tandy said, “Where’s the victim?”
I told him and he told me to stay where I was.
Ziegler smiled, said, “Sit tight, Jack.”
I stared out the windows toward the beach. All I could see was foam on the dark waves. My head pounded and I wanted to be sick, but I held everything down as Tandy and Ziegler went to my bedroom.
I heard Tandy’s voice on the phone but not what he said. And then he and Ziegler were back.
Tandy said, “I called the ME and the lab. Why don’t you tell us what happened while we wait for them to come?”
We all sat down, and I told Tandy that I didn’t know who could have killed Colleen or why.
“I haven’t slept in more than twenty-four hours,” I said. “I was a zombie. I started taking off my clothes the minute I walked in. I used the hallway entrance to the bathroom.”
I told him about walking into my bedroom after my shower, expecting to fall into bed. Finding Colleen.
“Very convenient, you taking a shower,” Tandy said. “I suppose you did a load of wash too.”
“My jacket is on that chair. My shirt is on the hallway floor. I threw my pants over the door. My shorts are outside the stall.”
I gave Ziegler the names of Colleen’s next of kin in Dublin and told the cops that the entry log showed that Colleen’s code had been used a half hour before I came home.
“Colleen had the access key to the gate. But it’s not here,” I said. “Someone had to have coerced her, used her key, pressed her finger to the pad at the front door.”
Ziegler said, “Uh-huh,” then asked me to talk about my relationship with Colleen.
“We used to go out,” I said. “And Colleen worked for me. I was very fond of her. After we broke up, she went home to Ireland. She came back a couple of weeks ago to visit friends in LA. I don’t know who. I had lunch with her last Wednesday.”
Tandy didn’t read me my rights and I didn’t ask for a lawyer. I hoped he would have a breakthrough, find something I had missed, but when he asked me to tell him if Colleen and I had had a fight, I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and threw up.
I washed my face and returned to my interrogation.
Tandy asked again, “You have a fight with the girl, Jack?”
“You shouldn’t have taken a goddamn shower. That was either insulting or a mistake. We will take your clothes and we will take your drains apart. We’ll check the airport surveillance tapes and dump your phones. That’s just tonight. Tomorrow we’ll do background on the victim. I’m thinking her body will tell us something interesting.”
“Do your best, Tandy. But even you and Ziegler have to know that I wouldn’t kill my ex-girlfriend in my house and then call the cops. It’s a setup.”
“I only want one thing. To find that girl’s killer.”
“I want the same thing.”
I gave Tandy my boarding pass and Aldo’s contact information. I said I wouldn’t leave town. I said I wouldn’t take a piss without asking him first.
The ME came and the CSIs arrived after that. I gave the lab techs my prints, some fresh cheek cells, and my dirty clothes.
“Am I under arrest?” I asked Tandy.
“Not yet,” he said. “You have a friend in high places, Jack. But you can’t stay here.”
I called Rick Del Rio.
Twenty minutes later, I got into his car.
“What the hell happened?” he asked me.
I told the story again.
Rick Del Rio lived in a one-bedroom house on the Sherman Canal, one of four parallel canals bounded by two others at the ends, a whimsical interpretation of Venice, Italy.
The houses were small but expensive, built close together, fronting the canal, backed by little alleys. Rick drove down one of those alleys, lined with garbage cans, telephone poles, garage doors, and the occasional row of shrubs along a back fence.
Del Rio’s garage door was painted green. He pointed the remote, the door opened, and he drove in.
“I don’t have much in the fridge,” he said.
“Half a chicken. Some beer.”
We went up a few steps, through the door in the garage that led to the kitchen.
Del Rio said, “No one knows you’re here. Go into the living room. Try to relax.”
I’d been here before. The three-room, cabin-style house was pristine inside. White walls, dark beams, every chair and sofa down filled. Centered amid the furnishings was a coffee table made from a wooden boat hatch, polyurethane-protected against beer and scuff marks.
I collapsed into a chair wide enough for two, put my feet up on the table, and hoped to hell the world would stop spinning.
I heard Del Rio puttering in the kitchen and just closed my eyes. But I didn’t sleep.
I thought about a night seven years before. I’d been flying a CH-46 transport helicopter to Kandahar, fourteen marines in the cargo bay, Rick Del Rio in the seat beside me, my copilot.
It had been a bad night.
A rocket-propelled grenade fired from the back of a 4x4 hit our aircraft, taking out the tail rotor section, dropping the Phrog into a downward spiral through hell. I landed the craft upright, but the bomb had done its work.
Men died horribly. A lot of them. I knew them all.
I was carrying one of the barely living out of the cargo bay when a chunk of flying metal hit me in the back.
It stopped my heart—and I died.
Del Rio found me not far from the burning wreck and beat on my chest, brought me back to life.
I was out of the war after that, worked for a small PI firm out in Century City. Then my crooked, manipulative bastard of a father sent for me.
He grinned at me through a Plexiglas wall at Corcoran, still giving me the business, but this time literally. He handed me the keys to Private and told me that fifteen million dollars was waiting for me in an offshore account.
“Make Private better than it was when it was mine,” he said.
A week later, having been shanked in the shower, he died.
Rick didn’t have a rich father. He was fearless and knew how to use a gun. After his tour, he came back to LA. He did an armed robbery, got arrested, convicted, thrown into jail. When he was released early for good behavior, he came to work at Private and I bought him this house.
I knew everything about Rick. I owed my life to him, and he said he owed his to me.
My friend came into the room, saying my name. I looked up, saw the face only a bulldog’s mother could love. He’s five foot eight inches in his bare feet, an ex-con and a highly trained former US Marine. He was carrying a tray—a tray. Like he was a nurse, or maybe a waiter.
He kicked my feet off the table and put the tray down. He’d made sandwiches out of that leftover half chicken, spread some tapenade and honey mustard between the long slices of a baguette, thrown in a few leaves of romaine. And he’d brought two bottles of beer and a church key.
“Eat, Jack,” my wingman said. “You take the room upstairs. Don’t fight me on this. It’s dark up there, and if you try, you can sleep for nine hours.”
“I can’t take your room.”
“Look,” he said. He opened the lid of an ottoman. It folded out into a bed. “Take the bedroom. You’ve got a full day tomorrow.”
“Colleen for sure. And you got my text? You’ve got an appointment first thing. Carmine Noccia is coming to see you.”
My assistant, Cody Dawes, stopped me at his desk, said, “Morning, Jack. We need to go over some things—”
“Just the red flags, Cody. I’m still dragging my tailpipe.”
“Sure, okay, uh. I’m giving you my notice.”
“What? What’s the problem? I thought you were happy here.”
“I got a speaking part in a Ridley Scott film. I’ve got lines.”
He grinned broadly, clasped his hands together, and maybe jumped off the ground. I stuck out my hand, shook his, and said, “Good for you, Cody. Congratulations.”
“I’m not leaving you in the lurch. I’ve lined up people for you to see. I screened them all myself.”
Excerpted from Private: #1 Suspect by Patterson, James Copyright © 2012 by Patterson, James. Excerpted by permission.
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