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A Rick Cahill Novel
By Matt Coyle
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2017 Matt Coyle
All rights reserved.
I hadn't been to the house since my father's funeral. Eighteen years. I had to go back ten years before that to find a good memory. At least, one that involved my father. I was nine and Little League baseball tryouts were a few days away. Dad was throwing me ground balls in the backyard. I'd just mowed the lawn down to the nub and it was playing fast. We had to do twenty-five in a row without an error, including the throw back to him, before we ended practice. Sometimes it took fifteen minutes, sometimes an hour. Sometimes we had to clip a portable spotlight with a long extension cord to the eaves of the garage to hold back the night.
That day, we were on a roll. Ten in a row. Clean. Fifteen. Clean. After twenty, my dad grabbed a handful of gravel from the walkway between the garage and the concrete slab on the side of the house where we kept the trashcans. He sprinkled the gravel three feet in front of me. He told me bad hops were a part of baseball.
A part of life.
Number twenty-one caught a pebble, took a bad hop and the ball ricocheted off my chest. I snatched the ball off the ground and fired a strike to my dad's first basemen's glove to beat the clock ticking in his head. Twenty-two missed the pebbles. Clean. Twenty-three hit a pebble and stayed low, but I gloved it and whipped the ball to my dad. Clean. Twenty-four shot dead right, but I backhanded it and made the throw. Clean.
Twenty-five clipped a pebble and shot straight up into my mouth. I fell to the ground on my back and grabbed my mouth with my right hand. Blood. Tears. Error. Dad hustled over, knelt down over me, and wiped my lip with his handkerchief. It stung and kept bleeding. He helped me up and started to walk me to the house.
I let go of his hand and wiped tears from my eyes and blood from my lip. "We didn't make twenty-five in a row."
"I think we can skip that today." He smiled, towering over me.
"No. We can't quit just because things get hard." I parroted the saying he'd told me since I could first understand words. I believed the words. They were engrained in my psyche, my DNA. But my mouth hurt and the blood scared me and I wanted to quit. More than anything, though, I wanted my dad to be proud of me.
"Okay, but just one more. That one took a bad hop and wouldn't have been ruled an error."
"Twenty-five in a row."
We finished an hour later under the spotlight hanging from the eaves.
* * *
My mother sold the house three months after the funeral. Dad had died years before the bottle finally killed him. After he "retired" without a pension from the La Jolla Police Department. My mother moved to Arizona with the man she began seeing while she and Dad were separated. I'd been to Arizona twice in eighteen years.
The neighborhood had changed a lot since I'd last been there.
Every house but one in the cul-de-sac had either been remodeled or torn down and rebuilt. The lone holdout was the house I'd grown up in. But, even that was about to change.
The house was laid bare, stripped down to the studs and concrete slab. New owners had bought it from the family my mother sold it to. Looked like they wanted to make the most of the La Jolla zip code and take the tract out of the tract home I'd grown up in. Bigger. Better. Modern. They'd framed up to two stories so they'd get a glimpse of the bay down the hill three miles away. What was a house in La Jolla without a view?
Just a childhood with some good memories buried beneath the bad.
I got out of my car and walked through the open gate of the temporary chain link fence that encircled the house. The late afternoon sun cast a shadowed grid onto the ground. A couple construction workers were putting up drywall in the family room. Or where the family room used to be. I walked over to the porch and the front door opening. I knocked on the side of the frame. One of the drywallers stepped back and looked at me. Blond, buff. Probably surfed the daylight hours he didn't work.
"This is a construction site. You can't be in here." No anger, just stating the facts.
"I've got an appointment with the new owner, Bob Martin." I had my own facts.
"Mr. Cahill." A voice came from behind the tarpapered framing of the garage. A tall man appeared. Mid-forties, short curly brown hair. Wire rim glasses. Looked like an architect, which he probably was. Tear down, build up, and flip. We shook hands.
"The item I called you about is out in the back."
I followed him through the garage into the backyard. A worker cut wood on a table saw. Another measured marble tile sitting on the lawn where I used to play catch with my dad. There were no eaves to clamp a spotlight. There would be soon. Different eaves.
Bob lead me over to a makeshift table of composite wood laid over two sawhorses. Blueprints were spread out next to a wall safe without a wall connected to it.
"Here it is." He pointed at the safe. "Found it in the closet of what was probably the den when you and your family lived here."
My father's den. No one had been allowed in there. Not even my mother. When I was about ten, I found my dad's extra set of keys in his bedroom dresser while he was at work. I snuck into the den and found a ledger with dates and dollar amounts written down in the closet. Nothing else interesting. I didn't remember a wall safe. It wasn't until years later that I figured out that the ledger contained payoff amounts from the mob. Probably for my dad. I'd always held out hope they'd been for someone else, but hope is often just a lie you tell yourself.
"Thanks." I walked over to the makeshift table.
The safe was about eighteen by fifteen inches and three or four inches deep.
"It was hidden inside a false wall behind a shelving unit." He smiled like he'd just opened King Tut's tomb. I doubted I'd find any treasure inside. "The last owners didn't even know it was there. My realtor found your mother and late father's names as the original owners. Your mother told me to call you."
He did. She didn't. Fine by me. My mother did tell me that whatever was in the safe was mine and she didn't need to know its contents. Through an email. The intimacy of modern technology.
The safe was beige and had a round dial combination lock in the middle of the door. I'd been paid cash out of wall safes a few times for my job as a private investigator. They all had digital keypad locks. This safe was probably at least twenty-five years old which would fit into my father's timeframe.
"Can I pay you for your trouble?" I asked Bob Martin.
"Oh, no." He smiled. "It wasn't any trouble at all. I just hope there's either something valuable in there or a keepsake that will bring back some good memories."
I wasn't sure the safe was old enough to contain any good memories. I thanked Martin and picked up the safe. Heavy. Weighed about twenty-five pounds.
The past weighed a lot more.CHAPTER 2
My black Lab, Midnight, met me at the front door of Cahill Investigations' home office. Also known as my home. I was the agency's owner, investigator, and sole employee. Kept complaints about the boss down to a minimum. Business had been good for a while. I'd been the news media hero of the week about a year back and it had been a marketing bonanza. If the media had dug deeper, I could have been the villain of the week. That might have been even better marketing.
I was between jobs right now, but not worried about making my monthly nut like I would have been a year ago. I had savings. I had options. I had a twenty-five-year-old safe without its combination from my late father's den.
The safe. I knew how to pick a lock on a door, but not a safe. The pick set I kept in the trunk of my car would be of no use. I lugged the safe upstairs to my office. Midnight followed me and found his spot under my desk. My cell phone rang while I'd checked my mental rolodex for former clients who could crack a safe. None.
I looked at the incoming call.
My ex-girlfriend whom I hadn't talked to in almost two years. Since she'd gotten married.
"Rick?" She used to call me Ricky. The only person who'd ever tried. Her voice had a slight nervous waver. My stomach, the same.
"Kim. How's married life?" My voice, cooler than I'd intended, covered up my stomach's nerves. And the pang in my chest.
"Fine." Flat. "I'm hoping you can help me."
"Of, course. What do you need?"
"I mean I want to hire you."
"Oh." I had a rule to never fall for a client. I wondered if that included taking on a client who'd I'd already fallen for earlier in life.
My life, my rules. "Well, I'm a little, kinda, ah, I could give you contact info for someone who's really good."
"This probably wasn't a good idea. I'll find someone on my own. I hope you're well."
"No, wait." I didn't have a rule that said I couldn't help a friend.
"Whatever you need."
"Okay." An inhale. "Could we talk about it in person?"
"Sure." I wanted to see her. But I didn't want to see her. I didn't want to be reminded of the life I let slip away. "I meet with clients at Muldoon's. Turk lets me use a booth if the restaurant's not too busy. Can you meet me there at six tonight?"
"Yes." It sounded like a question. She may have been trying to figure out what she'd tell her husband to get away.
Her husband. Not my problem.
* * *
Muldoon's Steak House sat on Prospect Street, La Jolla's restaurant row. It hadn't changed much in the forty-plus years it held up the north end of the row. Square concrete building in a sea of modern remodels. It withstood the waves of trends that restaurants in the area had tried and discarded. Muldoon's was an old-school steak house, family owned. Run by Turk Muldoon.
My one-time partner. And one-time best friend.
I walked inside the dimly lit entry at 5:55 p.m. Turk manned the hostess station. Still a massive man who was an all-conference linebacker at UCLA twenty years ago. But he looked thinner than the last time I'd seen him. And older. Gray pinched in on his curly red hair around the temples. His once cherubic face now drawn back to finally show his age. Years spent leaning against a walking cane can do that.
The fact that he could stand upright at all was a near-miracle. The doctors thought Turk would live the rest of his life in a sitting position when they extracted the bullet wedged against his spine four years ago.
The night he saved my life.
"Rick." He forced a smile. "You here to meet with a client or have dinner?"
"Client." I forced a smile of my own.
"Booth four is available." He pointed his cane toward the dining room. "You know the way."
"Thanks." I started for the dining room, relieved our conversation was over.
"How will I know your client?" His voice over my shoulder stopped me. "Will he ask for you?"
"She." I turned back toward him. "It's Kim. You can just send her back. Thanks."
"Connelly?" Turk's eyebrows rose. He always liked Kim. He never understood why I broke up with her. With each passing year, neither did I.
"That's right. I remember hearing she got married." No mirth in his eyes. Maybe a hint of sadness. He knew better than most how life can change for the worse in an instant.
"Yeah. She got married."
I went into the dining room I used to run four years ago and hid in booth four.
Kim appeared a few minutes later. She wore a green silk blouse that made her emerald eyes pop. Her blond hair, swept off her face, she looked every bit the successful realtor she was. But tired. And worried. And still beautiful.
My breath tightened. I pushed down feelings that didn't belong to me anymore. Feelings I didn't know I still had. Feelings I missed.
I slid out the booth and stood up. I didn't know whether to put out my hand for a shake or close in for a hug. Kim didn't either. Finally, we stepped into an embrace.
Awkward at first. Then close, warm, and long. And filled with memories.
"You look good, Rick. How have you been?" The smile that caught my eye eight years ago and, through everything since, had never let go. Wide, bright, light sparkling in her green eyes. I realized right then how much I'd missed it.
"Fine. Congratulations on your marriage." Her husband was the biggest realtor in La Jolla. His smiling mug was on every bus bench in town.
Kim looked down at the table. "I didn't know if I should send you an invite."
"It's okay. I'm happy for you." I was. Even as I kicked myself, I was happy for Kim. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I wasn't.
"I saw you on the news last year." She looked up from the table. "I almost called. I didn't know what to say. I'm glad you're okay."
"Thanks." I remembered hoping at the time she would call. And feeling stupid about it. "Why do you need a private investigator?" "I hope I don't, really." Her eyes grabbed the table again. "I want you to follow Jeffrey."
"Your husband?" This could turn ugly.
"Why do you think?" She looked up, face tight.
I knew why, but she had to tell me. Not to make her feel bad, but because that's how I ran my business. Everything had to be spelled out. No surprises. When the truth came out hard and raw, I didn't want the client to try and turn the ugliness back onto me. Even if I was just doing a favor for a friend.
"It has to come from you."
"I think he's having an affair." Her lips pinched together and her nose twitched. "Did you have to make me say it out loud?"
"Yes, I did. I'm sorry." My cheeks blossomed heat. "Why do you think he's having an affair?"
"Things could have been different, Rick." Liquid collected in the bottom of her eyes. "You pushed me away. You never let me in."
Kim was right. She never understood that I wasn't good enough for her, and I never saw her as an equal to the idolized memory I had of my late wife Colleen. No one ever could be. Not even Colleen. But none of that mattered now.
"I'm asking these questions because it's my job. It's how I get to the truth. Sometimes people think their spouses are having affairs when there's an innocent explanation." Not often and sometimes it's because of some other deceit.
"I found a second cell phone."
"Some people have one phone for personal use and one for work."
"Not realtors. We're on call twenty-four-seven. And I found a text message to someone named Sophia."
"What did the text say?" Kim's answer could make this an open and shut case.
"He asked this Sophia if everything was on schedule. She didn't reply."
"That could be about anything." Maybe not so open and shut after all. "Did you ask him about it?"
"No. I can't." She shook her head. "I've already caught him in a lie once. I couldn't stand to see him lie to my face again."
"What was the lie?"
"We were supposed to have lunch together at George's By The Cove a couple weeks ago, but Jeffrey cancelled at the last second because he had to show a property in Del Mar to one of our top clients." The unspent tears had dried up, but the angry flush came back into her cheeks. "I kept the reservation and went to lunch by myself. As soon as I sat down, I noticed the client Jeffrey was supposedly meeting sitting at a table twenty feet from me. I went over and asked him if he was meeting Jeffrey later. He said no. When I asked Jeff how the meeting went later that night he said it went okay."
"You're sure it was the same client?"
"But you didn't confront Jeffrey about it?"
"No. I stood there and let him lie to me. I've never felt so small."
"So, you'd rather I get you proof before you confront him? Wouldn't it be easier to tell him about the phone and the lunch and hash things out? It will hurt, but trust me, it hurts less than getting a third party involved taking pictures in the dark."
"I can't. But I need to know right now."
"Okay. I'll look into it. Why the rush?" "I'm pregnant."CHAPTER 3
I'd been following Jeffrey Parker in his white Lexus LS for three days. I hadn't caught him in the arms of another woman, but I had seen some of the grandest real estate in La Jolla. Made me wish I had an extra five or six mil laying around. None of the properties Parker showed had For Sale signs out front. He had a wealth of pocket listings. Luxurious homes where he got first dibs.
Parker and a client emerged from a house above the beach on Sea Lane. Not quite Malibu a hundred-fifty miles up the coast, but you still had the ocean for a backyard and even got a front yard as a bonus. I sat in my car and watched Parker from up the block. Gray slacks, white shirt, no tie, navy blazer. Tall, three or four inches over me. Fit. Square jaw. I understood why Kim chose him instead of waiting for me to figure things out. I just didn't understand why she took so long to make the choice.
The client, a thirtyish playboy, drove off in a Maserati. Parker locked up, then got into his car. He headed toward La Jolla Boulevard.
I grabbed my cell phone off the car's console and tapped a number.
"He's coming your way."
"Roger. I'll duck and cover and follow after you."
Excerpted from Blood Truth by Matt Coyle. Copyright © 2017 Matt Coyle. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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