In this electrifying new thriller from three-time Edgar Award winner and New York Times bestseller T. Jefferson Parker, Private Investigator Roland Ford hunts for a missing teenager and uncovers a dark conspiracy in his most personal case yet.
When hired by a beautiful and enigmatic woman to find her missing younger sister, private investigator Roland Ford immediately senses that the case is not what it seems. He is soon swept up in a web of lies and secrets as he searches for the teenager, and even his new client cannot be trusted. His investigation leads him to a secretive charter school, skinhead thugs, a cadre of American Nazis hidden in a desert compound, an arch-conservative celebrity evangelistand, finally, to the girl herself. The Last Good Guy is Ford's most challenging case to date, one that will leave him questioning everything he thought he knew about decency, honesty, and the battle between good and evil...if it doesn't kill him first.
About the Author
T. Jefferson Parker is the author of numerous novels and short stories, the winner of three Edgar Awards, and the recipient of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery. Before becoming a full-time novelist, he was an award-winning reporter. He lives in Fallbrook, California, and can be found at tjeffersonparker.com.
Date of Birth:December 26, 1953
Place of Birth:Los Angeles, California
Education:B.A. in English, University of California-Irvine, 1976
Read an Excerpt
There's this scene in the old detective movies where the investigator sits in his office, waiting for someone to come in and hire him. He's a capable-looking man. His face has character. His office is functionally furnished and poorly lit. Light and shadow. The top half of the office door is smoked glass and you can read his name in reverse.
The door is ajar and you know a woman is about to come through it, and she will be pretty, interesting, and mysterious. She will tell the investigator a story and offer him money to find the truth in it, and when he does, nothing will be the same for either of them, ever again. Somehow, you are pulling for both of them, but you get the feeling there will be a winner and a loser.
She offered her hand and I took it.
Open face, assessing blue eyes, and curly light brown hair. Shapely, not tall. Fair-skinned. A red summer dress with white polka dots on it, red espadrilles, and a shiny red belt.
She removed a small white purse from over one shoulder, smoothed her dress, and sat. Her scent was light.
Her name was Penelope Rideout and her younger sister, Daley, had run away from home. Penelope had already filed a missing-persons report, but the police wouldn't act this quickly without evidence of foul play. Of which there was none. Penelope was sure that her sister had run away, because Daley had a "wild streak" and was mixed up with a "guaranteed loser" named Nick Moreno. Daley's favorite clothes, personal items, and toiletries were missing from home. She had not responded to calls and texts, and neither had the boyfriend. Penelope had sat in her car outside Nick's dark condo last evening and most of the night, hoping they would show. She'd then driven to Oceanside PD headquarters and filed the report. Nick was twenty years old. Daley fourteen.
"I'm very worried about her, Mr. Ford. She's precocious, and Daley doesn't always make good choices. The age difference alone is just wrong. I do what I can to guide her."
"How come her parents aren't here doing this?" I asked, resting my pen.
"Mom and Dad died ten years ago," said Penelope, eyes moistening. "In a car accident outside of Eugene, Oregon. A storm. I was eighteen and became Daley's legal guardian. The judge was skeptical, but my lawyer was good. Daley was four."
She took a tissue from the purse and touched it under each eye, though I could see no tears. Neat nails, clear finish. Pushed the tissue back into her bag. She wore a slim wedding band and a sensible diamond. I did the math and came up with twenty-eight-year-old Penelope Rideout. Or twenty-nine, depending on her birthday. Twelve years younger than me, plus or minus.
"Has this happened before?" I asked.
"When did you see her last?"
"Yesterday morning I dropped her off at school. When I got home from work around four, I saw she'd been there. This was not unusual. I waited until evening. I've always tried to give her an appropriate amount of freedom. When she didn't come home for dinner and homework, as is our agreement, I called. Texted. Her, and Nick. As I told you."
"What school?" I asked.
"Monarch Academy, Carlsbad. She's in the eighth grade. I held her back a year because I thought it was the right thing to do."
"Are you employed, Mrs. Rideout?"
"I'm a freelance technical editor. Aerospace and defense. Job shops, mostly. I make good money and take time off when I need to."
I asked her husband's name, and what he did for a living.
"Colonel Richard Hauser," she said. "He's a Marine pilot."
"You kept your maiden name."
"I wanted continuity for Daley. Because of Mom and Dad. It was all very hard at first. I'm also proud to be an Alabama Rideout and I don't want us lost to history. Daley and I are the last of our line who are young enough to continue it. Can you find her?"
Careful here. In my seven years as a PI I've never failed to find the person I was hired to find. Not that it's easy locating someone who doesn't want to be found. But it's my specialty. I have enthusiasm for such work because I lost someone close to me, who I know cannot be found.
"I'm good at what I do."
Those wide blue eyes again, waiting. "I certainly hope so. Daley means the world to me. To us."
I handed her the standard contract for an individual: eight hundred dollars for my first eight hours, partially refundable if I get results in less. If not, the go-forward fees are set out, though I'll lower them sometimes. I've recently raised, steeply, my rates for most corporations and religious groups, and of course for political organizations of any kind.
Penelope Rideout squared the contract on the desk. Then brought a white phone from her purse and set it beside the papers. Next, a red checkbook. She looked up at me, then back to the paper, and began reading. The standard contract is three pages, single-spaced. I tried to keep it brief and unambiguous, but it's still a lot of words. She read every one. I watched her curls bob as she nodded and ran her finger along the sentences with a technical editor's concentration.
Through my office window I took in my view of Fallbrook's Main Street-a yogurt shop, an art gallery, a store specializing in vacuum cleaners and bicycles. A bank, a Mexican restaurant, a karate dojo, a women's boutique. It was September and hot. Jacarandas and orchid trees still in bloom. Fallbrook is a small, fragrant, old-fashioned town, a mom-and-pop place. We have characters. We have a peaceful side and a rough side. We are awash in classic cars, gleaming old vehicles sailing yachtlike down our country roads. We bill our town as the avocado capital of the world.
Finally finished with the contract, Penelope Rideout tapped the signature lines with her reading finger. "I don't have eight hundred dollars in cash."
"A check is fine."
"Do you deal with many dishonest people?"
"Not if I can avoid it. The cash policy helps."
"I've been cheated before. It makes you feel angry and at fault at the same time. Here are pictures of her."
She handed me the white phone. I scrolled across. Daley Rideout was pretty, like her sister. Same alert blue eyes, same curly light brown hair. Her face had an openness like her sister's, frame after frame.
I thought of my own siblings-a sister and two brothers-and how different we had been. We strove to be. Turf. Outta my face. But we always stuck together when things got serious. We're still very different individuals, the Ford gang. We still come together if we need to.
"That's Nick beside her, with the beard and the man bun," said Penelope. "He walks dogs for a living."
Nick was tall and handsome and looked proud of himself.
We traded phone and check. Her handwriting was loopy and childlike. I gave her a business card and asked her to send the pictures of Daley and one of Nick to my cell number in text and email.
"Did any neighbors see Daley come home from school?" I asked.
"No. Most of them work." Penelope sent me the pictures, and a moment later I heard them arrive on my phone. She bit her bottom lip, shaking her head as if in doubt or disbelief.
"You were recommended by someone I used to work with," she said. "I called him last night from my stakeout. Marcus Proetto. You located his daughter when she ran away. I did a brief Internet search of you after talking to him."
A year ago, Marcus had employed me to find his young daughter, who had given him and his wife quite a scare by heading to Lake Tahoe with a girlfriend. They were all of fifteen years old but had finagled Greyhound tickets from an adult friend of a friend. I corralled them in the Harrah's steakhouse and told their escort-a sleek, fast-eyed young man who had offered to buy them dinner-to get lost. He was unhappy about that. I boxed heavyweight in the Marines and am still happy to hit people who need it, and most men want no part of me.
"I've been told that the first twenty-four hours are crucial," Penelope said. "It's now been twenty-four hours, almost exactly, since I dropped her off at school."
I handed her a fresh legal pad and a pen and asked her to write down Daley's and Richard Hauser's contact numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers if she knew them, and the names and numbers of friends, relatives, and employers. Nick's contact info and condo address, very important. And anything else she could give me.
She wrote carefully and slowly, in silence. Curls bobbing again. When she was done, she pushed the note pad toward me.
"I have more of her friends' names and numbers at home on my computer," she said.
"Those might be helpful. What was Daley wearing when you dropped her off at school yesterday?"
"Monarch Academy has a code," said Penelope. "So a gray skirt just above the knee, and a white short-sleeved blouse. White athletic shoes. It was all in her hamper, though, when I came home from work. I don't know what she might have worn to leave home. She likes skinny jeans and tees with bangles and pop-star graphics on them-Pink and Taylor Swift and Alicia Keys. I noticed that she'd taken those three particular shirts. And a black tee with an image of Beethoven. You know, with all the hair. She took her retro canvas sneakers, too-pink and black. Her travel guitar and rolling carry-on were gone."
"What's Nick drive?"
"A white van with a papillon face painted on the doors. Larger than life, of course. For his business. Does this mean you'll find Daley?"
"It means I'll try."
I set my pen on the yellow legal pad. Penelope scanned my face with her blue eyes, waiting. In the good morning light now coming through the blinds I saw that her eyeliner was smeared and one side of her hair was a little flat and the chipper red polka-dot dress was finely wrinkled and darker under her arms. The long September night waiting in her car, I assumed.
"You've had quite a night, Mrs. Rideout. But you need to fill out missing-persons reports. There are four federal, three state, two local, and three private sites I recommend. Those pictures you have of Daley will be helpful, if you're willing to post them."
"Of course I am."
"I can have some coffee or tea sent up, if you'd like."
"Coffee with lots of cream. Thank you."
The Dublin Pub downstairs opens early for breakfast and I'm on good terms with the help. I tip heavily.
One and a half hours and a pot of coffee later we had filed the twelve missing-persons reports and made six digital pictures of Daley Rideout available for distribution.
We stood and I walked her to the door. "If I haven't located Daley by late afternoon, I'll want to see her room, and I'd like that longer list of friends and their numbers from you."
"Try not to worry, Mrs. Rideout. Most of these cases resolve quickly and happily."
"When I get an Amber Alert on my phone, it makes my scalp crawl," she said. "I memorize the child's description. I write down the car and license plate to look for. Now maybe I'll get one for my own sister."
"Amber Alerts are only for child abductions." These comforting words from Roland Ford, friend of the afflicted. I still catch myself talking like a cop sometimes.
"Do you have a little sister?" she asked.
"Imagine her gone, Mr. Ford."
"Call me Roland."
"Roland, she's the most important thing in my life. Get it?"
Through the window I watched her walk up Main Street, stop beside a yellow VW Beetle with its black ragtop up, then aim a key fob at the car. Noted the plates, because that's what I do. Saw the lights blip and her pale shoulder turn in the sunlight and the yellow door swing open.
I knocked on Nick Moreno's condo door and waited. This was an Encinitas complex named Las Brisas, the breezes, which at nine o'clock this morning were onshore, damp, and cool. From the ground-floor porch I could see the street where Penelope Rideout had parked for her night-long vigil. I pictured her half dozing, head against the rest and turned to the driver's-side window. Moreno's place had that nobody-home feel. I tried the doorbell again, heard the faint chime inside. The door was locked.
I followed a walkway around to the back gate. It opened to a concrete patio and a slope of ivy topped by a white vinyl privacy fence. Potted plants, a wound green garden hose, and a garage door, closed but not locked. I hit the lights, heard the fluorescent tubes buzz, saw the white van and the enlarged papillon regarding me pertly. Stepped up close and saw the van was empty. Stood there for a moment, looking at the tools of Nick Moreno's trade neatly stacked on a shelf: boxes of dog treats and plastic poop bags and paper towels.
One of the adjacent neighbors, Lydia, hadn't seen Nick in weeks. The other wasn't home.
The upstairs tenant was an affable young man named Scott Chan. When I told him my name and business, he said he hadn't seen Nick lately. When I asked about suspicious activity downstairs, Chan said not really, but the day before, he'd seen a silver Expedition SUV pull into the driveway. A round blue emblem on the driver's door, but he couldn't read it-bad angle. Two men got out and went into Nick's. This was around noon. Just a few minutes later, he heard them come back out. Saw them through his upstairs office window.
Then Chan looked at me, waiting, pursing his lips against something he didn't want to say.
"Was a girl with them?"
"When they came out of the condo, yes," he said. "She worked with him sometimes. With Nick. I don't know her name."
His description fit Daley Rideout's, down to her bouncy hair and bright blue eyes. He said she seemed to know the two SUV men. They were all talking. They seemed purposeful. She had rolling luggage and a guitar.
The men were in their late twenties or early thirties. One wore tan pants and a black golf shirt. He was big, looked strong, and had blond hair cut short on the sides and back but longer on top. The other wore the same clothes and a black windbreaker. Neat, clean-cut guys, Chan said. Could have been cops. Or Mormons. Ha.