Private Investigator Roland Ford has taken a job for a fellow Marine and a rising politician, Dalton Strait. Strait is contending with unexplained bombings of government buildings in his district...but that is not why he hired Ford. Strait's wife, Natalie, has gone missing, leaving behind a cryptic plea for help. Strait has made many enemies during his time in politicsincluding some of his own family membersall of whom could be looking for revenge. But as Ford digs into the details of a troubled marriage, Natalie's disappearance becomes more and more complicated.
Meanwhile, the bombings in the city intensify, with a mysterious group known only as the Chaos Committee claiming responsibility. Ford soon learns that the seemingly random attacks may be connected to the case he's onand suddenly, his hunt for a missing woman might decide the fate of an entire city.
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About the Author
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
Lately I've been turning over some advice my mother gave me when I was eleven. Roland, she said, you need three things to be happy: something to do, something to look forward to, and someone to love. My mother isn't a sentimental person and I believed her. Still do. Once, I had all three of those things going in my life. Then, my someone to love was swallowed by the dark Pacific, taking with her my something to look forward to, and most of my something to do. This was some years ago. We don't heal stronger in the broken places, but we do heal. I'm a private investigator. You need certain qualities for my kind of work, such as being mostly sober, alert, and mission driven. Durability helps, too: I was once a marine and once a deputy and am forever a Ford. I can take care of myself and I am not above revenge.
Most private investigators you've heard of were born of simpler times, when the world was noir and the streets were mean. But as you know, more than the streets are mean. Schools and churches, synagogues and mosques, casinos and nightclubs. Our republic of violence. A gun in every hand and a million camps of grievance. Fresh menace in the air. We PIs have changed with the times. We're a tougher crew these days because we have to be.
Even without our afternoon appointment, I would have recognized Dalton Strait when he came through the door of my office.
We had both fought in the First Battle of Fallujah, Iraq. April 2004. Some of the darkest days of that long and wasteful war. But we never met over there. Different battalions. I knew of his decoration for valor in combat, and later learned that he'd lost half his leg to an IED, but that also wasn't why I knew his face.
Now Dalton Strait (R), 82nd California State Assembly District, limped across the wooden floor with his wry, TV-tested smile, his wing-tipped prosthetic foot clomping heavily on the worn hardwood floor. A wrinkled navy suit and a worn brown briefcase in one hand. He looked like a salesman on his last call of the day.
We shook hands and he sat across the desk from me, setting the briefcase on the floor. Full face, blue eyes, thick brown hair. The suit looked expensive and fit well. White shirt, a red-striped tie.
"Nice office," he said.
"No. But we have a lot in common."
I told him I'd followed his political career.
"I should have hit you up for campaign money. November's just six months away."
"I hear it's going to be a close election," I said.
Strait shrugged, gave me a blue-eyed inspection. "Then I'll put you down for a grand. That'll get out three thousand more mailers. They're nice, three-color and glossy. You're right, the election is going to be close. My opponent is cuter than I am, and she's outspending me four to one. I love representing the North San Diego County. I love this little Fallbrook."
He nodded at the window toward Fallbrook's Main Avenue, a quaint street in a small town in the most populous state in the union. Part of his 82nd district. Fallbrook is old-fashioned, but evolving with the times. Norman Rockwell with occasional shadows. Rich and poor live together here. We try to be race tolerant. Conservative territory sprinkled with liberal outposts. And plenty of characters. Originally founded dry, there are still many more churches than bars. Classic cars sail the winding roads, grand as yachts. We grow the best avocados on earth, and bill Fallbrook as the avocado capital of the world. Don't you forget it.
In fact I'd known of the Strait family since the year I moved here after Fallujah and became a deputy. The Straits were long and well-known to the sheriffs-a plainly visible line of scofflaws and small-bore criminals fired into California by the Depression and the Dust Bowl. They'd settled in an East County of few people, sparse law enforcement, rugged mountains, rock-heaped hills, and low desert. Pulled themselves up from poverty, made their runs at the American Dream. Their present-day patriarch was Dalton's grandfather Virgil, a retired personal injury lawyer turned judge who'd been convicted decades ago for taking bribes. Dalton's father, who'd founded the local Better Burger fast-food chain, had been wounded during an armed robbery of his flagship store in El Centro twenty-one years ago, and remained bedridden ever since. Last I'd heard, Dalton's younger sister, Tola, was running a string of almost legal marijuana dispensaries in and around San Diego, while his older brother, Kirby, had just finished prison time on fraud and tax evasion charges.
Dalton turned from the window to me, used his hands to lift and cross his plastic leg over the flesh-and-bone one. A silent flinch.
"I was brought up to believe that a good PI always has a bottle in his office somewhere," he said.
"You were brought up well."
Bottle in the drawer, old-fashioned glasses by the coffeemaker. "RF" etched into them, set of four, a birthday gift to a happy husband from a happy wife. Once upon a time. Bourbon neat with a small splash of water. We tapped glasses and I sat back down.
We talked about the Padres, the drought, the fires, and-briefly-the battle we'd shared. U.S. forces in Fallujah numbered just over two thousand but we managed to come up with a few names in common. Dalton had seen the burned Blackwater employees hanging from the bridge over the Euphrates and the anger was still in his voice. I had arrived a week later, and done a lot of door-to-door clearing of homes, looking for insurgents hiding among the friendlies. A buddy had bled out on me in a Fallujah doorway. His name was Ernie Avalos. Dalton had spent his tour on Humvee patrols, which, I remembered, was how he'd earned his Silver Star. And later the Purple Heart, when the IED took his leg.
Then came the long moment of silence between combat vets, as our memories tailed back into their holes.
"The reason I'm here," he said, "is that Natalie is missing. My wife. As of Tuesday, two days ago. The only things I know for sure are gone are her and her car. Maybe some clothes and personal things. She has lots of stuff so it's hard to tell. She hasn't come home or returned my calls. No action on her credit cards. No one I've contacted has seen or heard from her."
The last time Dalton had talked to Natalie was Monday night, in bed. He had flown to Sacramento early Tuesday morning; Natalie was due at work at eleven a.m. but didn't show and didn't call in. She sold BMWs at the Escondido dealership.
Dalton had already talked to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, whose jurisdiction covered the Straits' semi-rural residence southeast of here. Due to his status, Dalton had been immediately introduced to the Special Enforcement Detail. He had not filed a report yet because he didn't want negative publicity and didn't believe that the sheriffs would aggressively investigate so soon after her disappearance. The Special Enforcement Detail said that if Natalie had not been heard from in the next forty-eight hours, she would become a high-profile priority. They gave Dalton the usual assurances that missing spouses almost always return within a week. This had pissed Dalton off but he'd held his temper.
"So I came to you," he said. "I want you to find her and bring her home. Now. Not two days from now. Not a week from now. She could be in danger. Abducted. Her car could be in a ditch. I know you're good at this. You've been mixed up in some heavy stuff lately and you always come out on top."
I'd come out of some heavy stuff but I wasn't sure about on top. My ribs and legs still hurt, though less.
"Has she done anything like this before?"
Dalton sipped the bourbon and looked away from me, out toward Main Avenue again.
"Fourteen months ago she took off in her car and went incommunicado for three days," he said. "Called me from Las Vegas, disoriented and afraid and something north of forty thousand dollars down. She'd been gambling and shopping. I hired a Vegas PI to keep her safe until I could get there. A well-known and very expensive La Jolla shrink examined her. Said she'd suffered a psychotic break. After tests and some long interviews with each of us, he pronounced Natalie bipolar. Something had likely triggered the manic phase flameout in Vegas. Family helped us out with the money, but that diagnosis changed our lives. Nothing has been the same. Her condition hovers over everything we do. Hovers over the reelection campaign. We've kept it quiet. Natalie is great about taking her meds. Flattens her out a little, but no dramatic relapses, until now. If, in fact, this is another break."
Dalton tilted his empty glass and set it on the desk. I poured us each another drink. Liquid gold, settling in the late-afternoon sunlight through the blinds.
"Did you see something like that coming?" I asked.
"Nats has always been a real up-and-down person. She'd get down, spend money on things we didn't really need. On the up weeks, pure positive energy and no stopping her. Gradually more intense, over the years. That Las Vegas episode was like an explosion, though."
He looked down at his prosthetic with dislike, then hiked the cuff, unwound a couple of feet of medical tape, popped two latches simultaneously and wrenched off his calf.
Tossed it to me, shoe and all, high, like a free throw. I caught it, held it in both hands, arched it back to him. Dalton caught it with one hand. Slammed it down on the desk, raised his glass. We toasted silently. Then he reached into his pant leg and kneaded the stump hidden by his trousers.
"Has she talked of suicide?" I asked.
Dalton pursed his lips and shook his head. "Never."
"Does she believe someone is out to get her?"
"Yeah, me. Very critical of me. She also claims there's a stalker she almost sold a car to. There's no evidence that he's actually stalked her. Possibly, he drove by the house once. And she talked about a volunteer on my campaign committee who looks at her the wrong way. Somebody Weld, I think."
"Do you put any credence in them? As threats?"
Dalton rolled the empty cuff, guided the prosthetic calf in and latched it back into place. I felt some admiration for him. And a sliver of gratitude that it hadn't happened to me. And of course the weighty guilt over having such a thought.
I had seen Natalie Strait on local TV news, and featured in BMW of Escondido ads. A head-turning woman, bright personality, and something of the diva about her. Abundant black hair led by a widow's peak. Dimples. If I remembered right, she and Dalton had been together since high school. They married young, had children. Then military service for Dalton, right after 9/11. Followed by college, family life. And a hero's election to the state assembly in his hometown district, the 82nd, in spite of an extended family well-known to law enforcement in rural San Diego County.
"I'm not after the marine-brothers military discount," said Dalton. "I expect to pay you full retail, although it won't be until late next week. An assemblyman's hundred grand and change, and a part-time car salesperson come up a little short sometimes here in California. We've got two boys in college. And I'll tell you, this is a bitch of a campaign. I've spent more of my own money this time around than any time before. This is my fourth run. The Dems are funding my opponent with a vengeance. She's Muslim and has terrorist links in her family past, and I intend to go public with that very soon. The Dems are trying to run the last Republicans out of the state assembly, me being one of them." He took a breath. "More to the point, I miss Natalie and I'm worried. Very worried."
I considered Dalton Strait's open, almost boyish face, his wintry eyes, his heft and implied strength. I considered my current active caseload: a young wife had hired me to determine whether her husband was having an affair, and I already had the unhappy news ready to give her. That, and a grouchy old local had hired me to talk to one of his neighbors about her barking dog. He didn't want to call the police because he hated the police. Didn't want to talk to the woman because he hated confrontation. So, a slow week in May. The hillsides in bloom and the birds at play and Roland Ford waiting for something more meaningful to do than sadden a young woman and fight a curmudgeon's battles.
"What do you know about the bomb at city hall?" asked Dalton.
"Only what I've read," I lied.
The pipe bomb had arrived Monday, via United States mail in a flat-rate box, addressed to San Diego's mayor. It had exploded in the mail room, injuring a young city hall intern, not seriously. There was swift reporting that the bomb had been more sophisticated than the crude pipe bombs sent to notable Democrats a couple of years back. And that our mayor had been targeted for different reasons. He is a Republican.
Yesterday, Wednesday, a letter signed "The Chaos Committee" had been published online and by The San Diego Union-Tribune, claiming responsibility for the bomb, and promising more bombs for "government thugs and conspirators throughout our once great state."
An FBI friend of mine had told me just a few hours ago that the city hall bomb was well made but not intended to be deadly. A warning, maybe. He-Special Agent Mike Lark of San Diego FBI-had also told me that the flat-rate package had been mailed at the Fallbrook post office and he would have some post office security video of the mailer for me to look at. Lark's theory was that Fallbrook is a small town and I've lived here several years and must know a good many of the people in it. Our population is roughly 37,000. So my theory was that the FBI was desperate for a lead.
"Do your old sheriff friends have anything noteworthy?" asked Dalton. "About the bomb?"
"Not that I know."
"You probably don't have any sheriff friends."
"No," I said. Not after I officially questioned my partner in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man who shouldn't have been shot. I betrayed the blue religion. I will be forgiven gradually if at all, but more likely never. I understood this when it was happening and would do nothing different if that shooting happened tomorrow.