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The temperature was 86 degrees in the shade when I finished my run along the edge of the Pacific. The season was early June, time for schools to be letting out in California, and the beaches were already clotted with eager sun-people. My place overlooks a slice of beach near the Newport Pier, an area known locally as Punker's Strip.
Punker's Strip includes the pier, the quad, the parking triangle, the dory fishermen, a row of dark bars for tourists masquerading as locals, three snappy restaurants, an upscale bed and breakfast place, lots of sand and seagull crap, a public toilet, and a population of skinheads and bikers and cops and assorted teenage punkers. It's an interesting area, sort of a symbol for California. Everyone can drive. Everyone has a tan. No one can read. Most summers, I call the tow truck at least once on weekdays and five times on the weekend.
Sweating from my run, I climbed the stairs to my deck to find a guy in a business suit waiting. Behind the expensive tinted glasses he looked like any corporate suit. When he moved, he seemed familiar, a shadow against the jungle, a shape from the past. He had sandy hair and a neat mustache. When he grinned and held out his hand, I knew him. It was Bruce Halliburton, Harvard, Annapolis, Langley, Saigon. A snappy attachÃ© case with gold initials rested on the boards of my deck.
"Captain Murdock, I presume? The man behind the gray-streaked facial hair?"
"Goddamn," I said. "If it isn't Superagent Halliburton."
He took off the dark glasses, and we shook. The eyes still had their shrewd scholarly look, as if he peered into the test tube of life like a scientist, knowing before he looked what would be there, writhing inside the glass, waiting to be measured, weighed, scoped, analyzed.
"Want a beer?"
"Is there gin?"
"Yeah." I remembered Bruce was a martini drinker. "We got ice, vermouth, bitters."
"I am impressed."
He picked up the attachÃ© case, and I unlocked my door. Once inside, I walked across the room to turn off the alarm. It has push buttons like a telephone. The code word is UNICORN, a suggestion from Wally St. Moritz, who runs the Saintly Silver Surfer, down below. Unicorn, in numbers, is 8642676. You have forty-five seconds to code in the word before the alarm goes bananas. I punched in the cutoff code, but nothing happened. My alarm is Econo-Alert, the economy model, made by Aries Security. Sometimes you have to recode. And recode. And recode.
Today, the third time was a charm. Gotcha. The red light stopped blinking. I hauled out gin and ice and vermouth. While Bruce mixed his martini, I popped open a Bud. The first sip is always the best.
My place on the Newport Pier was built back in the forties by Uncle Walt Wieland, my mother's oldest brother. He taught me about woodworking and carpentry. When he died, Uncle Walt left me the place in his will. It's a super pad. A cooking island separates the kitchen from the living room. I've got built-ins and gadgets from Sears to make life easy. The fridge is old but roomy. The place has a homey feel.
With the shades up, you can stand in the living room and see 180 degrees, from the end of the pier out along the beach to Palos Verdes and then across the quad to Balboa Boulevard. Last year I built an entertainment center out of smooth white pine. My ancient stereo is there, and my old RCA video player, and my second-hand TV. As a kid my dream was to play pro baseball. Now, after a stint in the Army and some cop-time and a try at the construction game, I record the baseball games and watch them into the night.
My old man's club was the Dodgers. Mine is the Braves.
To the left of the entertainment center I left a narrow strip of wall for photographs of my parents, a couple of Army buddies, and a few ladies worth remembering. From time to time the photos of the ladies get replaced, usually by a lady who comes on the scene with a fresh sense of design and appropriateness. I don't mind. I care about people, not photos.
The bedroom is roomy. The bathroom is huge. There's a shower and a large tub and a commode imported from Sweden. I installed twin lavatories and a wall-length mirror along the pathway leading to the bathroom. Sometimes guests stay over. There's space in the bathroom for a Jacuzzi, but I'm waiting until I get ahead on money.
My workroom is on the other side of the bathroom. At least half a dozen women wanted that space turned into a bedroom, or a sitting room, or a family room. Use that space, they say. Make it pretty. Dress it up. Jacqueline Dumont, an architect from Grosse Point, actually drew up plans, blueprints for Murdock, that included a cute guest bedroom and a private bath. Jacqueline married a city planner, and they produced two kids.
Bruce looked around at my house and nodded in appreciation as he held out his martini glass in a toast. "To la Bohème."
"That's an opera. Don't tell me. That German guy. Wagner."
Bruce laughed, the Harvard lad smirking gleefully at the high school dropout. "Puccini, Captain. The bohemian life." He indicated the scene down below. "This feels like an opera. All this scenery, all this gritty atmosphere. How do you stand it?"
"I'm eking by, Bruce. Summers are better than winters." Eking was about right. My bank balance at Wells Fargo was $84.57. While the money dwindled, I was waiting for a check to clear on a bank in the Bay Area. The check was for $5,000, payment for helping a Cadillac dealer from San Jose find his estranged wife. I found her in Vegas, playing blackjack with a cowboy from Muskogee and two Iranians. I brought her home to San Jose. Rumors around the Silicon Valley said her husband was about to declare bankruptcy. If that happened, I would become a creditor in a long line of creditors. I had two grand tucked away in my secret cache behind the fridge. Mad money, not to be touched. The sacred hidey-hole. Bruce Halliburton looked corporate prosperous. I hoped he needed some work done.
We sat on the deck, reminiscing about the old days, the girls, the battles, the guys. Sergeant Dave Kellogg was dead, a heart attack in Dallas. Lieutenant Wilbur Aiken was a police captain in Milwaukee. No one knew the whereabouts of Captain Doug Blaisdell, a southern boy who'd gone over from Special Forces to the Company.
"Didn't Blaisdell work with you on that college thing for the Company?" Bruce asked.
"No. That was Jack Tully."
"They're about the same size and build. And they were both at Harvard, before my time. I always mix them up." I finished the beer. It was time to find out why he was here. "You in town on business, Bruce?"
He produced a shining white business card that identified him as a vice president at Heartland Mutual Life, headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. The California office was in Century City, a snazzy corporate stronghold in Los Angeles. There were two phone numbers, both with the 213 area code. I'd seen the Heartland ads on television, a suburban scene with Mom and Dad and two tow-headed kids biking along, and a red, white, and blue farmhouse rising like the American flag in the background. The business card was embossed in black letters.
"What do you do at Heartland?"
"I'm in charge of investigating claims. Clearing them."
"No. Just the ones with a significant odor."
"Not in Orange County. No bad smells here."
Bruce grinned at me and stood up. "Mind if I have another?"
"Hey. It's Wednesday. Go for it. Another Bud for me."
He walked into the house and came back in a minute with fresh drinks. "What was your per diem back in the seventies? When you went undercover for us?" He removed his gray suit coat and draped it carefully the back of a deck chair.
"Thirty a day, and you guys paid for room, board, and schoolbooks."
"Sixty an hour. If the work gets into days, three hundred a day."
"Who covers expenses?"
Bruce smiled at my numbers. "You're certainly keeping pace with inflation."
"Yeah. Me and the Department of Defense. Do I smell a job here?"
He nodded and shifted in his chair so he could pick up the attachÃ© case. He opened it and took out a manila file folder and handed it over. The name on the tab was Belker, Claude A. Before he closed the case, I caught sight of a second folder. It had a Spanish name, hyphenated. Mendez-Madrid. Very fancy. Tucked away beside the stack of folders was a small pistol. It looked like a five shot .32. What they call an Airweight.
I opened the Belker file and flipped through the pages. There were three photographs of a heavyset man in his early fifties. Two of the photos were posed for the CEO look, shrewd entrepreneurial eyes, the power suit, the world-beater smile. The third photo showed the same man in a family shot, with a blond woman and two teenage kids. The woman had frizzy hair and dark circles under both eyes.
There were newspaper clippings, with little yellow stick-ons attached to form a chronology. On April 13 of this year Claude Belker's car had crashed into a truck on Pacific Coast Highway. The truck had been carrying half a load of something flammable and Claude Belker had burned to death.
A single, handwritten, yellow, legal size sheet contained information about Belker's insurance. There were four companies involved. Heartland was in for the most coverage at $5.1 million. Dates told the story. On December 1 of last year Claude Belker had beefed up his Heartland insurance — he'd been covered for $1 million — with a second policy for $2.2 million. In January he'd taken out a third Heartland policy for $1.9 million. From January through March 30 he added six policies with three other companies to bring his total insurance coverage up to $14.5 million. In April Belker had died when his car had smacked the gas truck.
A bad way to go, burning.
The death certificate was signed with a scrawled signature with the letters "M.D." after the scrawl. The script was slanted and gothic. It looked like James. Or perhaps Raines. I could not make it out.
Before his death, Claude Belker had been president of Golden Bear Savings and Loan, a California thrift institution. Golden Bear had seventeen branches in Orange County, twelve more in Riverside County, and ten others dotting the landscape from San Bernardino up to Lake Tahoe and Sacramento. The headquarters were in Newport Beach.
There was a single computer sheet giving a few facts about Claude Belker. Age: fifty-two. Birthplace: Omaha, Nebraska. Married to Wanda Kilgallen. Two kids: Randy, fourteen; Belinda, sixteen. His house in China Gate was worth $3.5 million. His cars — a Lincoln town car, a Mercedes wagon, and a Porsche — were leased by the corporation. The Porsche had burnt up with Belker. At the time of his death Belker's debt-load had totaled $17.1 million.
"Tidy little sum," I said. "Fourteen mil point five hundred thousand."
"There were four companies involved. Heartland was in for five point one million."
"The lion's share."
"In reverse," Bruce said.
"Who gets the money?"
Bruce leaned toward me, his face CIA intense. "We've found some irregularities in Belker's aps, the ones he filled out in December, January. Our attorneys are stalling on payment — the bulk of the money is slated for a trust, to retire the debt — but if we had more to go into court with, more hard evidence, we could refuse payment altogether."
"What about the poor widow, the starving kids?"
Bruce shrugged. "Personally, they have my sympathy. Professionally, it's not my problem. As a matter of fact, she does have equity in the home in China Gate. Hand me that jacket, will you?"
I handed him the file, and he riffled through the papers with practiced skill, a man totally at home with reports, numbers, spread sheets, actuarial tables, and the patterns of demography. He pulled out a single sheet and showed it to me.
"Four months before he died Claude Belker tripled his insurance. He was carrying just under four million. When he finished, he had over fourteen. Our agent was remiss. Heartland standard procedure clearly states that you list the other policies held, along with the issuing firms and the policy amounts. But our form has only four slots for other insurance, so the standard practice in the industry is to list a couple, three at the most, and let it go at that. Belker had a million with us and had never missed a payment. The three items listed on the Heartland ap brought our man Belker up to one million six with three other companies. Our agent wrote up the two-point-two. In February Belker ran up more debt and took out that second policy. We had no idea what the total was until he died and the claims rolled in."
"Who was the agent?"
"A local man. Bob Robertson."
"What's his story?"
"Bob knew Belker. He saw the debt load and cash flow statement from Golden Bear. Belker passed his physical. He kept in shape, running, racquetball, hiking."
"What am I looking for, Bruce?"
"As I said, irregularities."
"The paper trail?"
"You're the detective. This is your territory." He leaned closer. "It's my opinion that Belker's out there, walking around."
Bruce nodded. "Very much."
"Who burnt up in the Porsche?"
"What about the autopsy? The teeth? All that fancy forensic matching?"
"The teeth exploded. A forensic team studied what was left, and determined it was Belker." Bruce drained the last of his martini. "May I?"
We walked inside. Bruce freshened his martini. I still had half a beer. I'd heard about guys faking their deaths, to get the insurance. But nothing this big or this elaborate. Belker must have wanted out bad. And I had the feeling Bruce wasn't briefing me on the whole picture. He had gone through a door and closed it behind him, leaving Murdock outside, in the dark.
"So I'm looking for Belker?"
"How much time have I got?"
Bruce waited before answering. He loosened his tie, a shade of gray that matched the summer-weight suit. The white shirt looked fresh as a Hathaway ad. The shoes had a high gleaming polish.
"We go to court on Monday."
"Terrific." I saluted him with the beer. "Tell me about the autopsy."
"The forensics people didn't have much to work with. The body had been badly burned. All but two of the teeth exploded. Those matched with Belker's dental records. The bones that did remain belonged to the same body-type as Belker. There was a class ring from his college in the Midwest, along with other jewelry. The gold melted, but the stones were identified by the wife. There's something else that goes on in these cases. If a person is seen entering a car at point A, and then if the car has an accident at point B, the person who entered at point A is presumed to be in the car at point B."
"Who saw him at point A?"
"Employees at Golden Bear."
"Two of the teeth matched?"
"But your theory is they switched bodies?"
"That's the only way."
"They didn't have much time."
"That makes it professional."
"So I start today?"
He reached into his jacket pocket and came out with a handsome eelskin wallet. "How about a thousand for a retainer. Three hundred a day comes to nine hundred. An extra hundred for unforeseen expenses. We'll pay twenty cents a mile for the vehicle. If you have to fly someplace, keep the paper work clean so you can be reimbursed. Keep receipts for meals on the job, long distance calls, any entertainment. On the expense scale Heartland is about a six."
"The Company was about a two."
"Well, insurance companies do have those corporate tax breaks."
He counted out ten one-hundred-dollar bills. They were crisp and new. As each one dropped into my palm, I felt better. Monday was four days away, which didn't give me much time. Life was short, and Murdock was getting older. I wondered if Heartland had other work, something steady for my declining years. Maybe I could have some cards printed up, Matt Murdock, Vice President. With two phones.
"What are you working on, Bruce?"
"I'm not sure."
Bruce handed me the manila folder. "This jacket is yours. We have duplicates of everything, but it would be nice if you could return this material intact. You've got both my numbers there, on the card. My secretary is Jennifer Bailey. She'll know where I can be reached. My Number One is Ken Trager. He's a trifle over-eager, but he can be forgiven because he used to play varsity baseball at Michigan."
"You've got to be over-eager on the mound."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dial "M" for Murdock"
Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Ray.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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