“It’s too bad, because I really like you, Chandler. You’re like a pit-bull when you get hold of something and pit-bulls and I have a certain kinship with one another,” Briggs lowered the forty-five caliber Colt between my eyes, cocked the hammer back with his left thumb.
“You could always let me walk outta’ here,” I offered.
Briggs laughed. “I do that, they’ll come after me. I got a wife and two little girls in San Diego. You know what they’d do to my lovely wife and precious little girls? There wouldn’t be enough of them left to put into a cardboard box for burial.”
“I can get you protection. Your family too.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. I just do what they tell me to do. Nothing personal about it.”
“You’ll forgive me if I do take it personally. I’ve never particularly cared for someone holding a gun to my head,” I said.
“That’s fine,” his finger tightened on the trigger and I could almost see the bullet at the other end of the cold steel barrel. “You rationalize it however you want.”
“We can’t talk it over?”
“Talking’s done, and there’s really no use in stalling. The cavalry doesn’t come over the hill anymore, like it used to in those old twentieth century pics.”
“There’s always hope.”
“Not this time.”
I sat there and waited. As much as I wanted to believe my own clever little asides, I realized he was probably right; I was done for. Round ball ammunition leaves the barrel of a Colt Combat .45 at about eleven hundred feet per second; in an eye blink two hundred and thirty grains of lead will travel through the front of my skull, traverse the soft tissue of my brain and exit out the back of my head.
There’s a saying I have for times like these, something attributed to a comedian from the early days of talking motion pictures. W. C. Fields, when quizzed by a reporter about what he’d like to see as an epitaph on his grave stone replied, ‘All things being equal, I’d rather be in Philadelphia’. I don’t know if he actually said those words, but sitting in that construction shack in the middle of nowhere with death staring me in the face, Philadelphia was suddenly looking awfully damned good.
The case had started serenely enough. I’d been in my office on the fourth floor of the old Bradbury Building in downtown New Los Angeles for about an hour when Velma rang the office and said there was ‘a Miss Denniston to see me.’
“Give me about five minutes, then send her in.”
Five minutes. My old LAPD .40 caliber sidearm lay in pieces on my desk and it would take me at least that long to put all the components back into some kind of recognizable shape, after cleaning and oiling everything. I’d always thought of the care and feeding of my weapon as a pseudo-Zen experience. My instructor at the academy had instilled to all us recruits the mantra of ‘a clean weapon will never let you down’. So far, after ten years with the force and five years as a private investigator, the Smith-Wesson had never failed to work. It had saved my ass more than once in tight situations when the ‘bad guy’s’ gun had jammed and mine would still fire.
While I’m telling you about all this, I guess I should take a few minutes to properly introduce myself. My name is Chandler Harrison. You already know I was once with the LAPD and that I have an office in the Bradbury Building, that I’m a private investigator and that my secretary’s name is Velma.
What you don’t know is how or why I got here. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all had long and distinguished careers with the Los Angeles Police Department, so I grew up with a sense of service to the city and it’s people. At age twenty-one I’d taken all the necessary tests and hired on. At that particular time the city was going through another one of it’s frequent crime waves, so the city was looking for real go-getters for the department. My first year on, I had the highest felony arrest record of any officer, in over thirty years.
New Los Angeles these days resembles, in a lot of ways, a bustling boom town of the old American west. When the state of California declared itself an open, autonomous entity, Los Angeles City did likewise. Smugglers, thieves, runners; all pass through the city and bring with them, the crime, poverty, and despair so prevalent in this late part of the twenty-first century.
Why did I quit a job I so obviously loved? It’s not so difficult a question to answer. Five years into the department for me, things began to change. The LAPD had become, over the years, an extension of the city governor. In essence, we were his private police force, used to do his bidding, both inside and outside the city proper. When the Southeast Food Riots happened, Governor Taylor sent us in to quash them. For weeks there was open warfare throughout the city. Whole sections burned, thousands died, and parts of the city that’d just been rebuilt after the earthquake of 2037, perished again in a melee of death and destruction not seen in a hundred and fifty years.
The Southeast Food Riots were just the beginning of a long downward slide for the City of Angels, a slide it still hasn’t fully recovered from. Seven months after the riots, a group of malcontents drove two fully loaded trucks of stolen ammonium nitrate and aviation gas through the front doors of the Criminal Courts Building and Parker Center in a suicide attack. It was early on a Monday morning, when most people were already at work. Both buildings were packed with civilian and police personnel, going about their daily routine.
The attacks were staggered ten minutes apart, with Parker Center being first. Eight thousand pounds of home-made high explosives took out the first floor, collapsing the building in upon itself. Four hundred eighty-seven men and women died, crushed to death or blown to pieces. Ten minutes later, with hundreds of people in the streets trying to help, the second driver burst through the concrete barricades on 1st Street and drove down the steps to the main entrance. Five hundred forty-five more died.
Governor Taylor declared martial law, and gave the police department sweeping new powers to round up and hold anyone we wanted. Some of us went a little crazy after seeing what had happened to our friends and colleagues. We became little more than storm-troopers, dressed in black gear and riding our tanks and armored personnel carriers through the palm lined streets of Exhibition Place and MacArthur Park.
When you see that much death, that much sheer hopelessness, you become numb to the suffering around you. I saw officers I’d gone through training with throw down their weapons and withdraw into themselves, after some of the things they’d seen. Many would later eat their guns, rather that than face the fact that we’d become the jack-booted thugs we were so often accused of being. After the riots, death and destruction, I’d had enough. I’d joined the department to help the weak, not to stomp them down.
Which is how I ended up here. I wanted to give something back, wanted to maybe make that difference cops used to talk about so much. Finding lost people, solving a murder the department couldn’t be bothered to take a look at, that’s why I got into this line of work. To me there is no greater feeling in the world than that of telling a parent you’ve found their daughter alive and safe and she’s been rescued from a white-slaver ring in Moscow. It’s sometimes difficult working under the restrictions of martial law and I’ve never made much money in this line of work. The way I look at it, as long as I can make enough to pay Velma and put a little food on my own table, I’m happy.
The intercom buzzed again.
“One more minute, Velma,” I said. I finished the Smith-Wesson, slipped the magazine into and decocked it. I thumbed the intercom button. “Send Miss Denniston in, please.”
The door to my office opened and I slid the .40 into it’s holster under my jacket. I rose from my chair.
“Chandler, this is Miss Sabina Denniston.”
“Miss Denniston,” I took her offered hand and shook it. “Would you like anything to drink? We have coffee and soda.”
“I’m fine thank you,” the young woman said.
Sabina Denniston was in her late twenties, with long blonde hair and keen, intelligent blue eyes. Those blue eyes were blood shot and her nose was raw from a lot of recent tears.
“Are you certain?” I continued. “I have real Coca-Cola in the ‘fridge.”
“Coke? I thought the stuff was banned in the city when they refused to pay the import tariffs on it,” Sabina said.
“So it is.”
“I’ll have a Coke then.”
“Velma, make that two,” I said.
“Right away, Chandler.”
I turned back to face Sabina Denniston. “Would you like to have a seat?”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
Velma was back in less than a minute with two sixteen ounce bottles of Coke and two glasses. As soon as she was gone and Sabina had poured herself a drink, I took a seat behind my desk.
“What can I do for you, Miss Denniston?”
She took a sip of the cola, nodded. “I haven’t had one of these in years.”
I smiled. “A friend of mine smuggles them in from Reno for me. So far he hasn’t gotten caught!”
“It’s very good, thank you.”
I sat back and watched her for a moment. Sabina Denniston’s hands shook as she took a second drink. After a moment she met my eyes, tried to smile. “I need your help.”
I nodded. “Tell me.”
“It’s my sister,” she said. “She’s disappeared.”
“Have you gone to the local police?”
“They couldn’t do anything for me. A Lieutenant Pressler told me to come here.”
“Thom and I go way back,” I smiled. “What’s your sisters name?”
“When did you last see or hear from Alicia?” I asked.
“The last time I saw her was Christmas, last year. The two of us have never been all that close, but we do love each other.”
Sabina stared at the floor for a moment. “I hadn’t heard from her in quite awhile when she called four nights ago and said she needed my help.”
“What kind of help?”
“She needed to get out of the city.”
“Did she say why?” I asked the obvious question.
“No,” she shook her head. “It must’ve been something serious though because she was scared to death. She even called me from a phone booth at Union Station because she was afraid the phone at her place was being monitored.”
“Interesting. Do you know what she’s been doing while out here?”
“She works for a news magazine back east, so I assumed she was on some kind of assignment for it,” Sabina answered.
“‘Back east’? You aren’t from California?” I asked, trying to allay her fears.
“We were both born in The Cherokee Enclave of Oklahoma. Alicia studied journalism at OSU, then took a job as a beat reporter for ‘Day Magazine’. As far as I know she still works for them.”
“That should be easy enough to find out,” I made a note on the PDA on my desk to contact ‘Day Magazine’, took a drink of my own Coke. “Does she have an apartment here in the city?”
“I think she said it was off of Wilshire Boulevard. The Olympic Hotel, Room 616.”
“I know where it is,” I said. The Olympic Hotel was hardly a place of first class accommodations, getting most of it’s business from transients, people on the run, and the odd, local street prostitute. The ancient brownstone building was long past it’s prime, but sallied on year after year.
“I’ll be needing a photo or vid image,” I continued.
She produced a tri-d photo from her purse and handed it to me. The young woman in the photo was brunette, brown eyed, and much darker in skin tone than the woman sitting in front of me.
“Thanks. So, do you think you can help?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“I don’t have much money, but it’s all yours if you can find her,” Sabina offered.
“Let me poke around a little bit first and see what I can find. Then we can talk about money.”
She nodded. “Lieutenant Pressler said you’re very good at what you do.”
“I am.” I didn’t want to sound arrogant about it, but this is my city. If Alicia Denniston is alive and well here, I will find her.
“I really appreciate this.”
“Sometimes people get caught up in things out here. They can be dangerous, but very seldom are they deadly.”
In time, those word would come to haunt me.
I left Velma at the office to run down whatever she could find out about Alicia Denniston from ‘Day’ Magazine, then dropped Sabina Denniston off at her hotel on 5th and Broadway. The drive to The Olympic Hotel took less than ten minutes through the check-points, made easier by the fact that I’d once been in uniform.
I parked my ancient Chevy Caprice out front and placed an LAPD placard on the inside left corner of the front windshield, then pulled the fuse for the fuel injection system and stuck it in my pocket. Inside, The Olympic Hotel was every bit as bad as I remembered it being, smelling of urine, mildew, and one or two other things I didn’t want to think about. I made my way up the staircase to the sixth floor, stepping over passed out bodies and broken glass the entire way.
Room 616 was at the end of the corridor, next to the exterior fire-escape exit. I took a quick glance down the corridor, reached for and found my lock pick set inside the front pocket of my jacket. I bent to insert the pick into the lock, froze; the old Schlage lock had been pried with a jimmie bar and was just hanging in bare wood.
I put my back to the wall, drew the Smith-Wesson. Using the ball of my foot, I pushed the door open, counted to three and ducked in. I carefully checked the closet and bathroom, then made sure the door was closed again before taking a look around.
“Whew! What a mess!”
Room 616 had been tossed by a professional. Alicia Denniston’s clothes were torn and thrown all over the room. Two suitcases lay on the bed, their linings ripped out. Even her cosmetics had been dumped on the floor and gone through.
I frowned. Somebody had certainly gone to a lot of trouble. From the amount of damage to Alicia’s personal effects and the thoroughness of the job, I’d have to guess they hadn’t found what they’d been looking for.
‘What though? What were they searching for?’
I chewed my bottom lip for a moment.
‘Money maybe? No, that doesn’t make any sense. A burglar’s gonna’ go for the quick buck. The person who did this was here for quite awhile, which means he must’ve known Alicia was going to be gone for awhile. Or not coming back at all.’
The thought startled me. I moved to the doorway as though I were entering the apartment for the first time, turned and carefully studied the room.
‘Something’s odd. What’s missing?’
Then it came to me: ‘Alicia is a journalist. There’s no old-fashioned typewriter here. No lap-top. No PDA. Not even a pen and paper.’
After ten minutes of searching, I couldn’t even turn up a scrap of old newsprint.
‘What was it Sabina said Alicia told her? She was calling her from a phone booth at Union Station because she was afraid the phone in her room was wired.’
I unhooked the phone sitting on the night stand beside the bed, used my Swiss Army Knife to remove the screws holding the rear cover on. I traced each of the wires to their places on the miniature circuit board, smiled to myself.
‘Gotcha’!’ There was one extra wire, tapping power from the main power trunk. I pulled the guts out of the phone, found the small transmitter with it’s stubby antenna buried behind the circuit board.
‘Very nice work!’
I dropped the phone on the bed, left the room. There was a pay phone at the opposite end of the corridor, but I ignored it and took the stairs down to the fourth floor. The phone there still worked and I used it to make a call.
“Kenny, Chandler Harrison here. I need your expertise for a few minutes. Yeah, that’s right, the Olympic Hotel, Room 616. As soon as possible. See you there.”
I next called Sabina Denniston.
“Hello Sabina, Chandler Harrison here. Do you know whether your sister owned any type of lap-top or PDA?”
“She owned both,” Sabina answered. “Why, what have you found out?”
“Let’s just say that it’s enough to make me want to take your case,” I said.
“Oh, thank you!” the young woman said. “Is there any sign of her at the room?”
“No, it looks like she’s been gone from here for at least a week,“ I lied. “When you last spoke with Alicia, are you certain she was at Union Station?”
“She said she was. In fact, I could hear the public address system announcing the next train in the background while she was talking,” Sabina said.
“You don’t happen to remember which one it was, do you?”
“No. Why, is it important?”
“Not at all. I’ll call you again in three hours.”
I love watching genius at work and Kenny Baltimore is pure poetry. He’d been carefully making his way through the room, his scanning equipment tracing and retracing each listening device circuit, when he stopped and smiled. The smile said it all; the people who’d put this package together were very, very good at their jobs. Kenny had always been a stickler for good workmanship and the series of traps, taps, and data downloads he’d found in Room 616 were simply a masterpiece.
They’re good, but I’m better, he mouthed silently.
He spent another ten minutes or so with ‘his babies’ then took out a small black box about the size of PDA. He punched in a series of numbers on the virtual keyboard, finally let out a long breath.
“You can talk freely now,” he grinned.
“You sure. There must be twenty bugs in here,” I said.
“You trying to tell me how to do my job now?”
“Man, I don’t know who this chick is you’re working for, but she’s got some heavy weight dudes after her,” Kenny shook his head. “I ain’t seen work this good since--well, it’s been awhile. A long while!”
I’d given him the quick version of Sabina Denniston’s missing sister story. “Good equipment?”
“The best,” he nodded. “I’d a been shit outta’ luck too if I hadn’t brought my new ‘baby’ with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, this stuff is so state-of-the-fucking-art, it ain’t even on the market yet, man. The dude who put it in here is an ace too, one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
“Who’d have the capability here in town, the LAPD?”
Kenny laughed heartily. “The LAPD wishes they had stuff like this!!”
“If not them, then who?”
“Pre ‘56 I’d say the old CIA, even the NSA. Now, it’d have to be some independent with a lot of bread. None of this stuff is cheap and I’ll guaran-damn-tee you his fee was more than Governor Taylor made in all his shady business dealings last year,” Kenny dead-panned.
“How many people do you know could do a job like this?”
“Not many. Me, Eastman over in Covina, Winslett down in Orange. There was this dude I met one time, name of Tracker; he could do it but the man wouldn’t be willing to sell his soul for the almighty buck. Tracker’s a straight-up, righteous hombre.”
“Anybody you do know who’d be willing to part with his soul for a fat bank account?” I asked.
“Man, I don’t hang out with them kind of people. It’s bad for my karma!”
“I didn’t ask you if you hung out with them. Just kind of point me in the right direction.”
“Awright. Only person I can think of with the right amount of talent and the wrong amount of scruples to do this job, is this fish-faced fuck outta’ El Paso named Danny Raines. He’s the kind of dickhead you wouldn’t want hanging around your sister for too long, know what I’m talking about?” Kenny said.
“He in town?”
“You can bet your butt he is. Right now New LA is the place to go if you want to earn any bread in the surveillance field. The big companies are always looking for talent to use against their competition. You know, the old ‘we better get them before they get us’ mentality that almost sunk us last century during The Cold War.”
“We won that, remember?”
“And look where the hell it got us!! Fucking fascism in California, man; I hate fascists!!”
“You hate government of any kind,” I smiled. Above all else, Kenny Baltimore is an anarchist. A multi-talented, both sides against the middle, anarchist. “So how does the person on the other end of all these fancy gadgets get their information?”
“This is the really neat part. It’s all downloaded to a central data relay, located in the bottom of that old refrigerator over there. All he has to do is punch in a code and it’s all bit-streamed to him from there. I’d be willing to bet even money too that if you go up on the roof of this place you’ll find a microwave relay hidden amongst all the television antennae. Put a repeater on another building a few blocks from here and you could send the download damn near anywhere.”
“So finding him’s gonna’ be a bitch.”
“It ain’t gonna’ be easy, that’s for sure!” he nodded. “The great thing about a system like this it’s almost one hundred percent automated. You can sit back, have a cold one and just let the computer do all the hard work.”
“You mean he doesn’t have to sit and listen to everything, ‘real-time’?”
“Nope. It’s all sent to a computer nexus with instructions to watch for certain‘key’ catch words or phrases. The rest of the stuff is wiped, leaving only what you’re looking for, behind. It’s so sweet I wish I’d thought of it!”
“Oh, it’s more than that! With stuff like this in the wrong hands, it’s deadly!”
“Your white-noise generator works against all these super-sophisticated bugs?”
“I had to tweak it up a little bit, but all they’re hearing at the moment is the sound of that Kenmore,” Kenny smiled, gestured toward the old refrigerator. “I love fucking with people!!”
“So what do we do with all this stuff?”
He grinned. “Let me take care of that.”
“Ken-ny!” I warned.
“You go find this dude, Chandler. I got something for his people!!”
“You be careful, Kenny. If you’re able to figure out who installed it, they’ll probably be able to figure out who removed it.”
“They might be able to do that. Then of course they’d have to find me and that’s gonna’ be harder than a honeymoon--”
“I get the picture. You gonna’ be all right here by yourself?”
“I got enough for anybody who wants to mess with me!”
That much I didn’t doubt.
My next stop was a little harder to get to. With the advent of martial law, travel from one section of the city to another is controlled with tight-fisted authority. Nine times out of ten I can usually make the trip. This particular time was not one of them. I found myself up against a stone faced Hollywood Security Force officer who wanted all the necessary point-to-point travel paper work, the permit for my weapon, and the smog exemption certificate for the Chevy. When I failed to produce the latter, he demanded five hundred bucks for what he called ‘an air hazard license’. I took all of this with a straight face as I nearly strangled from the sooty black exhaust issuing from his Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
To make a long story short, Stone Face’s commanding officer turned out to be an old friend from my department days, an old friend who dressed Stone Face up one side and down the other in front of all his compatriots. I waved as I drove through the check-point, smiled to myself. Sometimes life is good.
The Sunset Strip is still one of the few sections of Hollywood that glitters. Day or night, the rows of shops, adult book stores, and strip clubs, reminds everyone of how things used to be. Bright, gaudy, and totally hedonistic, you can buy just about anything you want in this ‘free trade zone’. What I was after was information and the master of information in this section of town is a gentleman named Alf Lockman.
Alf runs a ‘gentlemen’s club’ on Hollywood Boulevard called, of all things, ‘Alf’s’. I’ve known him for most of my adult life and have found, once you get through his tough, outer facade, that he’s a pretty decent guy as pornographers go.
I left the Chevy on the street and went inside. Dim lights, loud music, and beautiful women have always been a hallmark of Alf’s and I was glad to see that some things never change. I took a seat at the bar, smiled as the bartender, a stunning Mexican woman named Maria walked over.
“Chandler! Long time no see!” she seemed genuinely happy to see me.
“How you doing, Maria?”
“I can’t complain.”
“Wouldn’t make a difference anyway with Alf!” I quipped.
She laughed pleasantly. Along with being the bartender for Alf’s, Maria is also Mrs. Lockman. “True!”
“Your old man around?”
“He’s supposedly looking at some costumes for the girls backstage. You need him?”
“At some point. Don’t take him away from his work unnecessarily.”
“Tell me something, Chandler: are all men such pigs when it comes to beautiful women?”
“Probably,” I nodded.
She smiled again. “Get anything for you?”
“An ice cold beer would be great.”
“Coming right up.” She was back almost immediately with the beer, then left briefly to find Alf.
I swivelled the bar stool around as I took a sip of the beer, glanced at the young woman ‘dancing’ on the stage. Tall, blonde, with violet colored eyes, she had the undivided attention of every man in the place on her. I took a moment to study her. Her long blonde hair fell almost to the backs of her knees and-- well, the only thing I can say about the rest of her is that she was one of the most exquisite women I’ve ever seen.
“Chandler, you old sonofabitch!”
I shook hands with him. “How you doing there, old man?”
“I’m doing as often and as hard as I can!”
“And I’m sure Maria appreciates it too!” I laughed. “You got a few minutes?”
“Certainly. Let’s find ourselves a table.”
I followed him deeper into the club. As we walked, the blonde woman on stage fixed her gaze on me. I felt a jittery kind of excitement from the look and had to pull my eyes away.
“This do?” Alf asked.
I took a seat across the table from him, glanced at the stage once more. The dancer still watched me and it was very difficult for me to not meet her gaze.
“You like her?”
“She’s an elf, isn’t she?”
“Yep. First one I ever had work for me,” Alf said proudly.
“I didn’t think they did this type of work?”
“I guess things are hard all over!”
“I hope she has all of her papers and everything. Bureau of Standards makes a raid on this place, they could close you down and lock your silly ass up for ten years,” I said.
“I made sure all of her ducks are in a row. Man to man, I wish I could get dozen more like her. She never bitches about her pay, the hours she works, or having to do parties, like all her human counterparts do. Plus, since she started dancing here my business has shot up four hundred percent!”
“You sure she’s taking her psi drugs?”
Alf glanced at me, a surprised look on his face. “How did you know she’s telepathic?”
“The violet eyes. The department used to get bulletins on elves all the time. Last I heard almost eighty percent of the ones with violet eyes have some telepathic ability.”
“I make sure she takes them, before she goes on stage. I don’t need my customers tearing the place apart to get at her.”
I nodded again. “Good man.”
“You didn’t come here to talk to me about my business. What do you need?”
“I’m trying to track down someone. Two someone’s actually.”
“Fire away,” Alf said.
“First one’s a woman, a reporter by the name of Alicia Denniston. She disappeared a couple of nights ago.”
“And the second?”
“I’m also looking for a professional wire man. Danny Raines, out of El Paso.”
Alf raised his eyebrows at that one. “The two related?”
“Could be,” I said.
“The woman I’ve never heard of. Danny Raines though,” he smiled wolfishly, “him I know!”
“Came in here two, three nights in a row and dropped a bundle on some of my girls. We’re talking major money.”
“How much ‘major’?”
“Almost sixty large!”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.
“I know, that was my reaction too. You look at the little creep, you’d think there was no way he’d ever make that kind of jack. He was handing the stuff out like he was printing it at home or something.”
I took a sip of my beer. “Describe him to me.”
“About five foot four, maybe a hundred and thirty pounds, with a squeaky, high voice . All three nights he was in here he wore the same old filthy clothes: black jeans and a brown Carhart cowboy shirt. The last night though he had on a pair of custom made, very expensive, alligator boots,” Alf continued. “He was bragging about them all night long.”
“Any idea where I might find him?”
“I have every idea. He tried to hire some of my girls for a ‘party’ at his motel room. When I told him my girls don’t go that route, he kept throwing money at me. I lost count after two hundred thou.”
I whistled. “What’s the name of the motel?”
“The Excelsior Motor Inn, just off the Hollywood Freeway. Room 55.”
“Thanks Alf, I owe you.”
“What’s he in to?”
“I’m not exactly sure yet,” I shrugged.
I left Alf at the table and made my way through the club. Almost to the door, I felt someone touch my arm. I turned and she was there, the dancer with the violet eyes.
“Hello,” I said, trying to belay my startled expression.
“Those who appear to be one thing, are not,” her voice was lyrical, soft.
“What do you mean?”
“You will not find the answers you seek this day, but you will discover the proper question.” With that she left me. I stared after her for a long moment, puzzled.
‘What the hell was that all about?’
Still shaking my head, I left the cool darkness of the club for the hot Hollywood day, wondering what the ‘proper question’ was.
The Excelsior Motor Inn was better than the Olympic Hotel, but not by much. I passed the day man on the front desk a twenty to get a pass key, then drove around back. Room 55 was on the second floor of the long two story concrete block building, about two thirds of the way down from the stairs.
I made my way as inconspicuously as possible to the door.
I knocked. “Room service!”
There was no answer.
I knocked a little louder. “Room service!!”
I waited for thirty seconds, removed the key from my pocket and stuck it in the lock. The door opened with a squeal of rusty hinges.
“Hello? Anyone here?”
I took a quick look around, went in.
“What the--” I started. In front of me, Danny Raines’ room had been gone through as thoroughly as Alicia Denniston’s. I frowned.
‘This doesn’t make any sense. You hire someone to do a job, pay him for it, then come and ransack his place?’
I went through the room myself. There was no sign of blood and no sign of the hand-made, very expensive alligator boots. The filthy black jeans and brown shirt were also not there.
The phone rang. I hesitated for a moment. When it rang again I picked it up.
“Hello?” I asked, doing my best, squeaky-Texas drawl.
“Raines? Raines, is that you?”
“Who the hell else would it be?!” I asked, crossly.
“You sound different,” the voice on the other end offered.
“Too much wine, women, and song.”
“She-it brother, there ain’t no such thing!”
“Did you get what I needed?” I pressed after a moment.
“Straight to the chase, like always,” the voice said. “Yeah, I got it for you.”
“We been friends for ten years and you ask me ‘how much’?! Man you musta’ been on a bender last night!”
“They still here; wanna’ talk to one of ‘em?”
The voice laughed. “I’ve never understood how a shrimpy little runt like you could always be such a chick magnet.”
“A big dick and a bigger bank account!”
He laughed uproariously about that one. “So you tell me!”
“So, where can I pick it up at?”
“Union Station, locker number 380. The key’s taped to the underside of the second to last bathroom sink, just off the main entrance.”
“Everything there?” I knew I was pressing my luck but I wanted to draw him out a little.
Shit. “How hot am I?”
There was silence for a long moment and I thought I’d lost him. “Words out; they want to talk to you. Real bad.”
“So I noticed. My room’s been fucked with.”
“They find it?”
“Listen brother, I gotta’ drift. You be safe, huh?”
“Yep. Next time I’m in town we’ll do something.”
“You bet bro--” The phone went dead.
On the line I heard a loud double click before it went back to a dial tone. The line had been monitored so someone now knew Danny Raines was back in his room. I wiped my fingerprints from the phone as I peeked out from behind the curtained front window.
‘No one there. Yet.’
I slid out the front door, turned for the stairs. As I did so I heard the roar of engines. A moment later two black sedans with three men in each one screeched around the corner and slammed to stop at the bottom of the stairs.
Seeing this I turned left and nonchalantly made my way to the stairs on the other end of the long building. Back in my Chevy I drove past the two black cars. One man remained with the vehicles and from the expression on his face I could tell he was all business.
He saw me. “Keep moving!” he growled.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing you need be concerned with.”
I nodded and did exactly as he said.
I left the pass key with the man at the front desk along with an additional fifty to forget he ever saw me. He nodded absently, went back to reading the old magazine in front of him. If he remembered me at all, it would be as a thousand different faces on a thousand different days.
I drove out to Western Avenue and headed south. When I was a mile from the Excelsior and my rearview mirrors were free of any trailing black sedans, I finally allowed myself to breathe easily again. That was too damn close for me and I never like putting myself into dangerous situations unless and until I know what is going on.
At the next cross street I stopped and found a phone. I dialed the number for the Daryl F. Gates Municipal Police Headquarters Building. After going through the switchboard Lieutenant Thom Pressler answered.
“Pressler here.” His voice was gruff and sounded as though he hadn’t slept in days.
“Having a bad morning?” I asked.
“Just the same old shit. How you doing Chandler?”
“Not bad. Can you talk?”
I heard the sound of a door being closed and the squeak of his old leather chair as he took a seat. “I can now. What do you need?”
“I need you to run a make for me.”
“This about the girls case?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
He chuckled. “All right. You ought to start kicking a few bucks my way though as much work as I’m sending you.”
“I did that, Talia would skin both of us alive,” I said.
“True! What’s the name?”
“A surveillance man, name of Danny or Daniel Raines. I think he’s based out of El Paso, Texas.”
“What do you want on him?”
“The whole package. I want to know him better than his mommy.”
“It’ll take me about three hours to get it together.”
“I’ll meet you in three at our old lunch spot.”
“Sounds good. Anything else?”
“Just for grins and giggles, run the two Denniston girls through the system and see what you come up with.”
“What’s bothering you?” Thom asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“When you say ‘I’m not sure’ that usually means something ain’t right with your clients story.”
“Oh I believe her and everything, but she’s holding something back.”
“I’m not certain. It’s just a funny feeling I get.”
“I’ll get right on that for you.”
I hung up and called the office. Velma answered on the second ring.
“Chandler, are you planning on coming back to the office anytime soon?” she asked after we’d exchanged pleasantries.
I raised an eyebrow. Velma and I have worked together since day one of my business; when she asks me if I’m coming back to the office it’s her shorthand for ‘there’s someone here and they’re creeping me out. Get back here now!’
“I can be there in forty minutes. What’s going on?”
“There are two ‘agents’ from the Bureau of State Security here. They won’t leave until they speak to you.”
“What the hell are the bully-boys doing there?”
“They won’t say. They’re just sitting in the outer office staring at me,” she answered. “Like I was lunch or something.”
“You in my office?”
“Stay there and lock the door. Then I want you to call Thom and have him send an Adam unit to the office. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I promised.
I hung the phone up, hurried to my Chevy. Two agents from the Bureau of State Security waiting for me. I didn’t have any idea what I’d just stepped in but when the BSS get’s involved, it ain’t because I haven’t paid my parking tickets!
My small outer office was rather crowded with the two burly, blue uniformed LAPD men and the gray suited BSS agents.
“Hey fellas’,” I greeted the two uniforms.
The taller of the two shook hands with me and took me aside. “Anytime. You want us to hang around for awhile?”
“Nah. Thom probably needs you back on the street.”
He smiled, nodded toward the two seated individuals. “They’ been very well behaved since we got here.”
“She’s a little shook up. They started asking her for her naturalization papers.”
I narrowed my gaze at the two in the gray suits. “She was born and raised in Santa Monica for Christ’s sake!”
“I know. They said it didn’t sound like a California name, so they were questioning her right to be here.”
“I hate these BSS pricks!” he said softly, so only I could hear his words. “I swear, I was hoping they’d start something with us so we could send ‘em back to their little Fuhrer in the back of a meat wagon!”
I grinned. “Me too! Thanks again.”
He glanced at the two gray suited men. “My pleasure.”
He and his partner left. I turned to the seated ‘gentlemen’. “I understand you want to see me?”
Both stood as one. The one closest to me pulled out a tri-d photo of me, glanced at the image. “Chandler Harrison?”
“We would like to speak with you about most urgent matter.”
“I sure hope it doesn’t concern someone I’m working for! As you gentlemen both know I only have to discuss my clients in the most general way. The California Constitution allows me that right.”
“Only insofar as it doesn’t effect state security,” the second one said.
“I must’ve missed that particular clause in the all the clauses and sub-clauses. Perhaps you would care to show it to me, on my copy?”
“You are required under statute 590.1(a) of the California Law Enforcement Code to cooperate fully with us during any investigation related to state security matters.”
“Hmm, I must’ve missed that one too.”
The second one started to say something further, but his colleague held up his hand. “Perhaps we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here.”
“Threats to my secretary usually do that to me.”
“There was no threat intended.”
“When a BSS man asks to see your naturalization papers, that’s a threat,” I offered.
“Not if you don’t have anything to hide.”
I smiled. “We all have something to hide fellas’. Like those non-reg sidearms you’re carrying under your arms, the ones with the explosive shells. My friends from the LAPD could lock you up for fifteen years for having those things, BSS or not. And love every minute of it.”
The first agent smiled. “I’d heard you were good at your job.”
“I am good.”
“Can we ask you a few questions? Generally?”
“My office be good enough?”
Both nodded and I almost wanted to say ‘nice doggy’ as I followed them in. Velma passed me with a worried ‘thank you’ look and I offered her a wink and smile.
“Can I get you gentlemen anything?”
“We’re on duty,” the second one shook his head.
“Of course; how foolish of me!”
I took a seat behind my desk. I opened my top desk drawer, fished around in it for a moment until I found my mini-disc recorder.
“Testing, 1-2-3. Testing.”
“What are you doing?”
“So that there will be no future misunderstandings between myself and the BSS, I will be recording our little talk. I hope you don’t mind,” I smiled pleasantly.
Both men looked uncomfortably at one another. “We’re not normally--”
“I record or you leave. Your choice.”
“Thank you, gentlemen.” I set the mini recorder on the desk and made a big show of pushing it toward them. Both men stared at the small machine with trepidation and I had to stifle a smile on my part. “This is Chandler Harrison. The date is the 17th of September and this interview is taking place at my office in Room 406 of the Bradbury Building, located at 304 South Broadway. Present is myself and two agents from the Bureau of State Security. Gentlemen, your names please?”
The first stopped his partner with a wave. “Agents Thaddeus and Henry.”
“Very well; what can I do for you ‘Agents Thaddeus and Henry’?”
Thaddeus removed a second tri-d photo from his jacket, handed it to me. “Do you know this woman?”
The woman in the photograph was Alicia Denniston. I shook my head after staring at the three dimensional image for a moment. “Pretty girl. What’s she done?” I asked innocently.
“That’s none of your--”
Thaddeus silenced his partner with a daggered look. “She’s wanted for questioning in the firebombing of a Cal-Ag control station north of Fresno.”
“They’re making terrorists a lot prettier these days,” I offered.
He actually smiled. “Don’t let the pretty face fool you. She’s mixed up with some very bad people.”
I’d heard of the Peoples Liberation Front. They were mostly a band of young men and women who wanted the freedoms and rights old America had once enjoyed. I’d never known any of them to be violent, since they held strictly to the tenets of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohhatmah Gandhi. No one could fault them for wanting to live peacefully in a society that allowed it’s people the right to travel freely from point to point or the right to associate with whomever one wanted. No one, that is, but these two gray-suited bureaucrats from an agency that seemed to thrive in a society hell-bent on taking away what few freedoms we have left.
I met his eyes. “The PLF?! In the old twentieth century they would’ve been called hippies! As far as I know, none of them have ever been involved in anything more violent than throwing red paint on one of your armored vehicles!”
“If you’re a student of history Mr. Harrison, you will also recall the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army from that same time period. Both groups started off peacefully enough but soon moved to armed conflict to get what they wanted.”
“And both failed.”
“We intend to see the PLF meets that same fate,” Henry added.
I nodded. “Why come to see me?” I asked after a long moment.
Thaddeus smiled again. “You have a certain--reputation?--shall we say, when it comes to people like this.”
I offered him a honey sweet smile of my own. “Everything I do, I do within the guidelines of the law.”
“We did not mean to imply otherwise. It’s just that you have been known to stretch those guidelines on occasion to help your clients and if someone’s on the run, you would be a logical choice for that someone to come to.”
“I’d never risk my life, or my license to help someone wanted by the BSS.”
“That’s great news!” Thaddeus said. He leaned forward in his seat. “So, we can count on your help?”
“I was a cop once myself fellas’,” I grinned good-naturedly. “I know how difficult the job can be!”
“We are sorry we got off on the wrong foot with your secretary. If you could extend our apologies to her, we would be most grateful.”
“Of course,” I answered. “Do you have a list of aliases she’s traveling under?”
“On the back of the tri-d.”
I turned it over. “Alicia Denniston, Alice Dennis, Alyce Alicia. No one’s ever accused these people of being smart, have they?”
Thaddeus chuckled. “That’s why they’re so easy to catch!”
I laughed with him. “True. How can I reach you if she contacts me?”
“We have an office at the old federal building on Wilshire.”
“Great!” I stood and extended my hand to each man. Both shook. “If she contacts me, you’ll be the first people I call!”
“Thanks for all your help, Mr. Harrison. We wish everyone had your sense of civic responsibility!”
“Hey, this is the only government we have. It ain’t perfect but it’s a helluva lot better than the last one!”
“Very true!” Thaddeus agreed.
I led them to the door, made sure they were on the elevator and in the lobby before I reentered my office. Velma was standing in front of her small desk, arms folded across her chest. The look on her face said it all; I had one helluva lot of explaining to do.
“Chandler, how could you--”
“I don’t want to hear it!” I retorted. I held a finger up to my lips. “Were there any calls for me?”
Velma studied me for a moment. “No calls.”
“Good. I’ll be in my office if you need me.” I pointed to the inner office, motioned for her to join me there. She followed, closed the door behind her.
“God, what a day!” I made a yawning sound, went to my desk.
On the top of the filing cabinet nearest my desk is a rather large plastic box that looks very much like a table top de-humidifier. It’s not; in fact it’s one of Kenny Baltimore’s anti-eavesdropping devices. If you turn the rotary dial on the front after hitting the power switch, the box produces a wave of static that washes out the conversations in a room and prevents it from being picked up by whatever wireless transmitter might be in the area.
I turned to Velma and smiled. “You were about to say something?”
“I was about to say how could you help these Nazi bastards, but I guess we’re not. Are we?”
“Do you actually think I could help the BSS? I’m hurt!”
“Well, you did sound awfully convincing!”
“I had to make it sound convincing or I’d a never gotten them outta’ here,” I explained. “The last thing we need is the BSS looking at our lives through a microscope! It’s bad for business!”
“You think they bought it?”
“For now. Hopefully by the time they figure out what we’re up to, we’ll have found Alicia Denniston and gotten to the bottom of this little mess she’s found herself in,” I explained.
“Kenny called and told me what happened at her room.”
I nodded. “He gave me a line on the wire-man and Alf told me where to find him.”
“He was gone when I got there. While I was there a man called for him, said something was waiting for him in a locker at Union Station. Then the phone clicked off; not three minutes later these two cars come speeding around the corner and all these guys jump out. I barely got out of there.”
“Any idea who they were?”
“Black sedans, black suits, no plates on the cars.”
I shrugged. “They were sure in a hurry to get their hands on Danny Raines, I can tell you that.”
“What are you gonna’ do next?”
“I’d sure love to see what’s in that locker.”
Velma shook her head. “The whole thing has trap written all over it.”
“There’s got to be a--” I met her eyes for a moment. Then I smiled. “You still have that friend in the security office over there?”
“She’s in charge of the night shift now.”
“Outstanding! Can you get her on the phone for me?”
“What are you up to?”
“You told me yourself once that she owes you a favor.”
“She does, but I don’t want the favor she owes me to cost her, her job,” Velma answered.
“It won’t. As a matter of fact she’ll be doing her job.”
She frowned. “I’ll call her. While we’re at it, do you want the information I have on Alicia Denniston?”
“Alicia Denniston, age thirty. Born in what was formerly Oklahoma City. Graduated cum laude from journalism school, took a job with Day Magazine five years ago. She started out as a beat reporter, like Sabina said. Two years ago she was reassigned to the investigative arm of the magazine. Her managing editor wasn’t very forthcoming with details about her assignments but he did say something very interesting, in light of the little visit we just had: Alicia was in Fresno three weeks ago following up on a lead when she disappeared.”
That made me sit up. “What kind of story was she working on?”
“I got the impression from her editor that he didn’t have the slightest idea what she was doing in Fresno.”
I nodded. “That it?”
“Nothing of a more personal nature?”
“The Cherokee Enclave guards the background information of their citizens with a zealousness that would’ve made the old CIA envious.”
I sighed. “Do you think she could be this revolutionary the BSS is talking about?”
“Of course not!”
“According to her editor, she’s one of the best investigative reporters he’s ever had. She was starting to make a name for herself. I can’t imagine that anyone would work so hard and so long for something and then just walk away from it,” Velma said.
“People used to do it all the time.”
“Not people like her! I don’t buy it, Chandler!”
“Hmm. Neither do I,” I said after a long moment. I glanced up at her, gave her a teasing smile. “You’re not still sore about them asking for your naturalization papers are you?”
“Hell yes I’m sore!” she answered. “How dare those pricks come in here and think that just because my last name is Martinez, I’m here illegally! My family and thousands like ‘em made California for you Anglos and we should’ve taken some of it back when the old government fell.”
“Hey, I agree with you!” I chuckled.
Velma at last smiled. “You can be such a gringo sometimes!”
I laughed. “It’s an old Anglo habit I’m trying to break!”
She smiled. “Should I get Kenny to come over and remove all the little ‘critters’ our BSS friends left behind?”
“That would be a great idea. Of course, if I keep this up I’m gonna’ have to put him on retainer!”
“Where are you headed to next?”
“A late lunch-early dinner with Thom in MacArthur Park. I had him run Raines and both the Denniston girls through the computers at police headquarters.”
“‘Both Denniston girls’?”
“Something’s puzzling me about this whole thing and now that the BSS is involved I’m really wondering.”
“You think Sabina lied to you?”
“Not lied; didn’t tell me the whole truth.”
“She appeared to be very worried about her sister. Maybe she didn’t think it was important.”
“I hope that’s all it is,” I said. “Call your friend Denise and tell her I’ll be by to see her in three hours.”
“You be careful, Chandler. With the BSS and those unknown baddies in black poking around in this thing, you could end up in real trouble, the kind Thom and your buddies with the department can’t get you out of,” Velma said, with a meaningful look.
“You know me.”
She made a sour expression. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
“Can you wake me in about an hour?”
“You got it.”
She started for the door.
Velma Martinez smiled and left. I tilted my chair back and five minutes later I was sound asleep.
MacArthur Park is once more a jeweled oasis, separated by stately Wilshire Boulevard. The park had been in decline for years as vandals, drug addicts, and the homeless took advantage of the warm weather and liberal attitudes of the city fathers and used the old girl as their private dumping ground. The lake, used as a recreation source for years by the people of the Westlake Community of Los Angeles, had become so polluted, it’s waters had once been listed as a toxic waste site by the then-State of California.
Twenty years ago, the new regime in the mayors office had decided that it was time for the tax-paying people of the city to take back their parks. All those who’d been living off the city for years in it’s parks and on it’s streets were told to find new homes; those refusing to leave the area were forcibly removed, put on a bus and shown the city limits. Any returning were arrested and promptly given a one way ticket upstate.
After the detritus of several hundred strong had been carted away, the real work then began. New landscaping replaced the old, the lake was drained and the bottom dredged; one hundred and fifty million gallons of fresh water then refilled the lake. Ducks, geese, and coi were released into the lake and the Westlake Civic Association reclaimed their new, shining, emerald.
It’d been an expensive, time consuming operation, but you could once again stroll the palm shaded walkways without fear. Children played on the merry-go-round in the center of the park and a calliope filled the air with it’s hollow, joyous sound, on the Alvarado Street side.
I dodged a spinning sprinkler as I entered the park and made my way down to the lake. Thom Pressler was seated on a bench beside the lake, upwind of Eric Orr’s Water Spout, feeding a dozen or so fussy ducks.
“Hey sailor; come here often?”
Thom glanced at me. “You’re late.”
“I had to stop and get you these.” I handed him the white paper bag I carried in my left hand.
Thom quickly opened the bag, went wide-eyed. “Are these--”
I nodded. “One hundred percent genuine, chemical-free-beef, fajitas.”
“Where the hell did you get real beef in this town?”
“You don’t ask and I won’t have to tell.”
Thom took a quick look around, pulled one of the wax-paper wrapped fajitas from the bag. He hurriedly took a bite. “Oh, man! I’d almost forgotten how good grilled beef tastes.”
I grinned. “I figured you’d like them. May I?” I indicated the bench beside him.
I let him finish the first of the fajitas while I took over his duck feeding duties. “How’s everything?” I asked.
“Not bad. The department’s way undermanned, like always. I’m on my third shift and starting to get worried that Talia won’t be there when I finally do make it home.”
“It’s hard for the LAPD to compete with the signing bonuses being offered by Hollywood, San Fernando, and Watts.”
“Tell me something I don’t know! Watts offered me a small fortune to come work for them.”
“So why don’t you? That much money could make life very good for the two of you. You could even start that family you’re always talking about,” I said.
“Maybe I will,” he said. “The city turned down our requests for raises, yet again. That’s five years in a row now!”
“You’d think Governor Taylor could come up off some of his money and give you guys what you need to survive. A few more years, L.A. City’s gonna’ be nothing more than a speck on the map.”
“I think that’s what he wants. Why pay us, when he can contract out our police services to some big conglomerate who’d be more than willing to pad his pockets in the process? The whole damned situation makes me sick!”
I nodded. “You get what I asked for?”
“You want the long or short form?” he asked, after a bite of the second fajita.
“The short. Tell me about Danny Raines first.”
Thom spent the next five minutes going through the highlights of Danny Raines’ illustrious life.
“--Raines entered California on a visitors visa three weeks ago--”
“Three weeks ago? You sure about the date?” I asked, suddenly interested.
“Yep. I had a friend with the Border Patrol send me his entry papers.” Thom fished in his jacket pocket, then handed me a hard-copy of Raines’ identification card, entry visa, and something very, very interesting.
I glanced at Thom. “How the hell does a little piss-ant like Danny Raines get a Cross-Zonal Pass?”
“I thought you’d notice that.”
I frowned. A Cross Zonal Pass is basically a license to commit mayhem, a sort of ‘get out of jail for free’ card. The bearer can carry weapons, explosives and just about any ‘black tech’ gear across borders and local authorities are powerless to do anything about it. Most police agencies hate the damned things and with good reason; it’s still thought, to this day, that the plastique and detonators used to set off the ANFO bombs that destroyed Parker Center and the Criminal Courts Building, were smuggled into New Los Angeles by way of a Cross Zonal Pass.
“I gather he used it when he crossed into California?”
“My friend said the first thing out of his pocket was the CZP.”
“Damn! I don’t suppose there’s any way to find out who gave the thing to him.”
“Not really. You could try, but you’d probably be on the matrix for a week dodging trojan horses and still not get any closer. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the beast.”
I sighed. “Where did Raines start his little journey?”
“New York, New York!”
“Alicia Denniston is from New York.”
“I know. Take a look at the second sheet.”
“Very interesting, isn’t it?” Thom asked.
“I’ll say. Alicia Denniston and Raines took the same train out here.”
“Yeah. As a matter of fact, he was in the sleeper right next to the Denniston woman’s the whole way.”
I flipped back to the first sheet. “I don’t see anything here about what he was doing in New York.”
“I’ve got some feelers out, but don’t hold your breath.”
“What do you mean?”
“It looks like he was covering his tracks fairly well while in New York, because I sure couldn’t find out anything about what he was doing there. I had one of our best computer guys try and he couldn’t get shit!”
“Can I keep these?”
“Go right ahead,” Thom nodded. He glanced at me. “So, you want to tell me how a ‘black bag’ man like Raines fits into the Denniston woman’s disappearance?”
I thought it over for a moment, then told him what had happened up to now.
Thom faced me. “Something’s not right here, Chandler. You’ve got Danny Raines running what looks to be a long term surveillance on Alicia Denniston, the BSS trying to find Alicia Denniston, and some unknown guys in black trying to find Danny Raines.”
“Yeah and the next logical question is: who is Raines working for and why are they so interested in Alicia Denniston?”
“That’s two questions. Are you sure there were no markings on any of the cars at that motel?”
“Not so much as a parking sticker,” I shook my head. “They were pros, that much I can tell you. Five men, moving in a tactical sweep formation with one man covering their six from the cars. All were heavily armed and seemed to be very focused on getting their hands around Danny Raines’ scrawny little neck.”
“Could be somebody he pissed off.”
“Could be any number of things at this point. I really need to find the little shit!”
“What about the voice on the other end of the phone?”
I chewed thoughtfully on my bottom lip, then smiled. “You’re right! The phone call wasn’t scrambled, so--”
“--your old buddy Fez ought to be able to back-trace the call for you.”
“Exactly! Thanks Thom!”
“Nothing to it.”
“That takes care of Raines and Alicia Denniston; what did you find out about Sabina Denniston?”
“I’m still working on her. Give me a call in a couple of hours and I should have a package on her by then.”
“Geez, you’re slipping Thomas!”
“If Commander Smith catches me using company computer time for you, my ass will be walking a tunnel beat down by the river! Have you seen some of the characters who hang out down there?!”
“I appreciate everything you do for me, you know that!”
“You’d damn sight better!”
I smiled. “Pass along my love to Talia.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Where are you headed to next?” Thom asked.
“I think it’s time to go see a woman about a train. More precisely, a locker at the train station.”
“Just watch your ass, Chandler. It sounds to me like these guys are playing for keeps.”
“I’ll call you in two hours. Hopefully you’ll have a rundown on Sabina by then and I can figure out what the hell’s bothering me about her.”
Built by the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe railroads in 1939, Union Station is one of the last remaining examples of Spanish Mission architecture in the city. Combining elements of Moorish and Moderne detailing on a huge scale, I feel like I’m time-tripping back to 1939 when I enter it’s vast waiting room. You can almost feel the romance of the place, the passion it evoked when first opened. There’s a timelessness about traveling by train, an adventurousness of spirit not found on an airline and I sometimes find myself getting caught up in it.
After letting Velma’s friend, Denise DeLonghi know most of what I was up to, I ‘borrowed’ a transit police officer uniform and changed. Nearby, a locker was open so I removed the Sam Browne belt hanging there and slipped my own Smith-Wesson .40 pistol into the holster. Passing by a mirror near the locker room door, I stopped.
‘My own mother wouldn’t recognize me.’
I’d grayed my hair and stuck on a false mustache that looked real enough to fool practically anyone and heavy, black framed glasses. Slouching a little as I walked, I felt comfortable that I’d blend in as I made my first circuit through the building. Most of the people I saw, were far more worried about getting to their destinations than taking in their surroundings, a fact I was counting on should the little plan I’d formulated blow up in my face and lead me to make a fast getaway.
I took my time, noting where each observation post was. I recognized several of the dark suited men from the Excelsior Motor Inn, all of whom were trying to blend in with the passengers just coming off of or trying to make the next train.
I meandered from one end of the building to the other, then made my way outside.
‘Six inside, with--’ I did a quick count, ‘--four more near the exits. I’ve gotta’ be nuts to try this!’
Doing a sweep through the parking lot, I finally saw the vehicle I was looking for. I walked slowly to it, smiled. The old Dodge panel truck was painted at least five different colors and appeared to be held together by clothes hangers and metal pipe strapping. I paused, for a moment, then reached out and rapped loudly on the rear doors.
“Transit Police! Open up!”
“Fuck!!” I heard Kenny Baltimore swear and I had to stifle a laugh.
“Open the door!!”
One side did open and Kenny Baltimore stared out at me with saucer wide eyes. His expression eased after a moment. “Chandler?”
I grinned. “Scare you?”
I chuckled. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”
“Well try harder next time! You damn near gave me heart failure!!”
I climbed in, glanced around me. The old Dodge van may well have looked like a rolling wreck with it’s multi-hued paint and bent sheet metal; inside, it was a sight to behold. Kenny had rows of neatly stacked and mounted equipment in the back of that van, stuff even I didn’t recognize in the faint red light issuing from a half dozen wall-mounted sconces.
“What is all this?” I asked.
It was his turn to grin. “I call it my edge.”
“Is that--” I reached out to touch the device in question, only to have him slap my hand away.
“It is, and leave it alone!” he said with finality.
“Boy, you’re a touchy individual about--”
“Most of my life’s work is in the back of this van. You messing with it is like me coming into your office and going through your files. Or asking Velma out for coffee.”
“She turn you down again?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. He brightened almost immediately. “But not so fast this time. I think I’m beginning to wear her down!”
“What did you find at the office?”
“Just one little bugger, stuck to the bottom drawer of her desk. I didn’t even have to get my equipment out to find it.”
“So I take it we can strike the BSS from the list of people with the know-how and the equipment to wire Alicia Denniston’s room.”
“Yeah. The one I pulled from your office wasn’t even in the same ballpark,” he nodded. “I’ve seen better ones built from a toy-store electronics kit.”
“Thanks for taking care of it for me.”
“No problem. You want to hear what I have in store for tonight?”
“Fill me in.”
“As we speak there are a half dozen low-heat smoke grenades inside the main air duct. They have a timer on them set to go off in--” he took a quick look at a glowing display above his head “--ten minutes. The secondary ducting system will carry the smoke throughout the building and give you all the time you need.”
“Enough to fill the old girl three times over.”
“I promised Denise I’d do as little damage as possible. What about the fire suppression system?”
“All taken care of, my brother. I tapped into their fi-op network and shut the whole thing down, security cameras and all. There will be lot’s of smoke and panic which will be good for general sneaking around. You want to hear what the truly inspired part of this whole thing is?”
“Shoot,” I nodded.
“Eight minutes after the smoke canisters go off, filling the building with smoke, the ventilation system reverses itself and sucks the whole mess right out! A half hour from now, all that’ll remain is a slightly singed smell to the air inside the station.”
“Ingenious! What about the empty smoke grenade canisters themselves?”
“Burned to a fine, white ash. The second the air conditioning kicks on, those ashes will be scattered hither-and-yon!!”
“You’re liking this way too much, Kenny.”
“Any chance I get to stick it to ‘the man’ I’m loving it!” he chuckled.
“In case you hadn’t noticed I am ‘the man’.”
“You have your faults, but you hate all this governmental bullshit too. The Free Republic of California should be just that! One of these days, all those guys in their gray and black uniforms with their marching and their orders is gonna’ fall and if I can do the slightest little thing to help ‘em along, so be it. Maybe somebody can reinvent the guillotine, like they had in the French Revolution; I’d love to pull the lever on Herr Taylor!!”
“The bike parked on Macy?”
“Yep. I’ll meet you on North Broadway and we’ll see what Raines was supposed to pick up.”
I studied him for a moment. “You said something about black uniforms?”
“Yeah. They’re called the ISP.”
“I don’t think I’ve--”
Kenny shook his head. “Most people haven’t. The ISP are the Internal Security Police, kinda’ like internal affairs inside a police department.”
“The men at Danny Raines’ room today drove black cars and their clothes could almost be described as ‘uniforms’.”
“Aw fuck, Chandler!! Why the hell didn’t you tell me this in the first goddamn place!”
“The worst!!” he said. “Oh man, we’re really screwed!!”
“What are you talking about?”
“If they’re investigating this, the last thing we want to do is get in their way! These people don’t bother going around you, Chandler; they fucking go through you, man! We’ll be lucky if we don’t end up face down in a ditch somewhere, if this thing goes sideways tonight!”
“Calm down and tell me why they’re so much worse than the BSS boys.”
“Because they’re the police, police! You can bet your sweet ass that if the ISP is involved your friends Thaddeus and--and--”
“Henry,” I furnished.
“--Henry are into some pretty serious shit! We’re talking standing-before-a-firing- squad-without-a-blindfold kind of shit!!”
I raised my eyebrows. “That would explain a few things. Like where Danny Raines got all his fancy equipment--”
“You damn right it would!” Kenny was practically sweating. “They’d definitely have the technology and the know-how! All my sources tell me their R&D budget is at least twice that of any other governmental agency!”
“You think that’s where Raines got his CZP?”
“A CZP too?! Man, we are so doomed!!”
“No, we’re not. Getting what’s in that locker is even more imperative now!”
Kenny made a strangling sound. “You can’t be fucking serious!”
“Deadly!” I nodded.
“Are you insane?!”
“No, just curious.”
“You know what they say about curiosity?”
“Yeah,” I grinned.
“Listen, if you want to back out I’ll understand. If everything’s set to go off automatically it should be no sweat. Right?”
“Man, I can’t leave you hanging like this,” he said, after a deep breath.
“It’s all right. I’ve been in tough scrapes before,” I played it up.
“God-dammit!! I know I’m gonna’ regret this but go ahead and count me in!!”
“You sure? I don’t want you to do anything--”
“Shut up before I change my mind!!”
I smiled. “Velma doesn’t know what she’s missing!”
“We get outta’ this with our carcasses intact, you’ve gotta’ talk to her for me.”
“Done. How long before the smoke charges go off?”
“I better get going then.”
“Before you do,” Kenny removed a small earpiece from the drawer in front of him and handed it to me. “I’ll be tapped into the video feed from the security cameras, so I’ll be your eye in the sky.”
“I thought you said you killed those,” I said, putting the earpiece into my right ear.
“You trying to tell me how to do my job again?”
“Good. How many storm-troopers we got inside?”
“Six, with four more covering the main exits.”
“Got it. You think they’ll leave when the fire alarm goes off?”
“With a little help from Officer Friendly!”
Kenny smiled. “What if there’s one hiding someplace inside the station?”
“I’m counting on you to find him for me!”
“Oh, no pressure there!”
“You watch my back and I’ll make sure to get us out of this. Deal?”
“Sounds good to me!”
“See you in twenty.”
“I hope you mean minutes,” he moaned.
I left the van and made my way back towards Union Station.
“You hear me okay, lift your right hand and flex your fingers,” Kenny said through the earpiece.
“Thank you. We now have T-minus-two minutes, before lift-off.”
I increased my pace.
I pushed through the double doors.
“Got you coming in. Doing a count of your baddies now and--”
I was nearing the restrooms by the front entrance.
“You missed one, Chandler. Your nine o’clock, the man selling roses.”
I peeked at him as I walked by.
“That’s the one. I don’t know too many flower merchants who can’t make change.”
I continued walking.
“Twenty seconds. Oh, you sneaky assholes!”
I waited to hear what he was talking about.
“They’re piggy-backing the vid-signal and streaming it to a transmitter--there! I got him! Video’s going down in ten.”
I could smell smoke.
“Cue fire alarms!”
They went off, blasting their shrill klaxons throughout the building.
“Cue emergency lights!”
The bright overheads went off, replaced by lower powered halogen area lamps.
“Video belongs to me now. You get those people outta’ there.”
Being the good transit cop, I directed everyone to the nearest exit. When I turned from the door, I could see the ‘rose seller’ doing his best to keep from being seen.
“Sir, I need you to come out of there.”
“I can’t leave my merchandise.”
“Your choice: you can either leave on your own or I’ll get a couple of my colleagues down here and we’ll take you out.”
He decided not to fight this battle and made his way to the door.
“There’s a nice little Nazi,” Kenny said into my ear. “T-plus-four minutes, Chandler. Main hall is clear and I’ll do a once over just to make sure all your buddies are gone.”
The smoke was really starting to get thick.
“All clear. Go for it.”
I ducked into the restroom and after checking the stalls, went to the second to last sink. I pulled my gloves on, reached under the front and found the key taped to the back of the P-trap.
“T-plus-five minutes. Step it up, hombre.”
I pulled the tape and key off, left the restroom.
“Got it?” Kenny asked.
I held up the piece of tape so he could see it.
“Turn right from the door. Locker 380 is twenty feet from the little girls room.”
I found the locker. The smoke was so thick I could hardly see ten feet in front of me.
I stuck the key in the lock, hesitated. ‘What if it’s alarmed?’ I wondered.
“Turn the key, Chandler.”
I did. No alarm bells sounded and no one came running.
“Tell me about it!” I said under my breath.
I coughed, then opened the locker. Inside was a large yellow envelope.
“T-plus-seven. Three minutes before everything reactivates!”
I pulled the envelope from the locker and quickly stuffed it under my shirt.
“Come on! Hurry it up!”
“Gotcha’!” I faced the nearest camera, gave a thumbs up.
“All right!! We got what we came here for; get the hell out of there!”
I put up one finger.
“Shit! Don’t worry about the goddamned key!!”
I went back to the restroom, tried to picture which way the key was facing when I removed it.
“T-plus-eight. This is the two minute warning!”
I put it back, made sure it was stuck securely to the pipe.
I left the restroom.
“The locker!! You left it open!!”Kenny suddenly barked into my ear.
“Shit!” I swore.
I hurried to it, pushed it closed.
“You? What are you doing in here?!”
The voice calling to me from the swirling smoke made me jump.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
A large man dressed in a transit officer uniform joined me. “What are you doing?”he demanded a second time.
“I was just checking the restrooms to make sure everybody’s out. That’s procedure, isn’t it?”
The man visibly relaxed. “Didn’t you get the order for us to clear out?”
“My radio’s been in and out all night,” I said. “All I’m getting is static.”
“Damn Korean junk!” he smiled. “Everybody out?”
“I checked everything on this end. The flower guy over there got a little belligerent when I told him he needed to leave, but he came around.”
“You get a load of that guy?! Big ass brute like him selling roses!”
I chuckled. “Must be a real momma’s boy!”
He laughed. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Day shift. You know how short-handed we are.”
“Ix-nay on the conversation, Chandler! Get the fuck outta’ there while the getting’s good!!” Kenny called to me.
“I do indeed,” the guard replied.
I coughed loudly. “We should probably book before we both end up with smoke inhalation. I’d hate to end up in the hospital my first night on. My old lady would kill me!”
“Yeah, me too. This whole thing is strange. In all my years I’ve seen a lot of different fires. Every one of them has their own smell, their own feel; I’ve never seen or smelled smoke like this.”
“Smoke I don’t mind; it’s the thought of burning to death that scares the living shit out of me!”
The guard laughed. “If you’re sure everybody’s out, I’m ready to beat feet.”
“T-plus-nine, Chandler! Hurry the fuck up!!” Kenny ordered.
We went through the doors and I was glad to be breathing fresh air once more. I waited until the fire department arrived, then faded into the crowd.
“It’s about time!” Kenny said. “I’m shutting my shit down! See you on Broadway!”
“See you there,” I said aloud.
The BMW motorcycle was hidden in some bushes near Vignes Street, along with a change of clothes and the shoulder rig for my Smith-Wesson. I stripped out of the uniform, balled it up and dropped it down the nearest storm drain. I quickly slipped the old jeans and work shirt on and climbed aboard the bike. I glanced at the yellow envelope stuck in the fairing covering the speedometer and tach.
‘I wonder--’ I stopped my hand. Kenny had risked his hide with me tonight, so waiting until I met up with him to open the envelope seemed the only fair thing to do.
I left the envelope where it was, took a moment to familiarize myself with the BMW. Black and silver with less than five hundred miles on it, I was hesitant to ask Kenny where he’d ‘acquired’ it. I shifted the bike from hand to hand, smiled.
“Nice,” I said aloud.
I turned the key, hit the starter. The six cylinder engine roared to life and I winced at the sudden cacophony of noise breaking the night-time silence. I toed the gear selector into first, eased out the clutch. The bike stalled.
It’s been a long while since I’ve last ridden a bike, so all I have to do is--
I started the engine and stalled it a second time.
‘Maybe a touch more throttle will help.’
I gave it a little more gas, finally began to move. On East Macy, I went through the gears as I got a feel for the heavy, but well-balanced machine. Crossing North Alameda where it becomes West Sunset Boulevard, I decided ‘what the hell’ and kicked it. My heart shot directly to my throat as the front wheel arced skyward and very nearly dumped my ass unceremoniously onto the battered black-top.
To make a long story short, I kept the bike under two thousand rpm the rest of the way to North Broadway. Kenny’s battered van was parked in an alley off Ord Street in old Chinatown, a thick power cable leading from it and up a nearby pole. I cut the engine, coasted to a stop behind the Dodge.
Kenny opened the rear doors. “I was starting to get worried.”
“I almost didn’t make it here. I wish you’d a said something about this things power band. I cracked the throttle a little and damn near lost it!”
“You said you wanted something fast. About the only thing around here that’ll catch that little road rocket is one of those new A-Stars.”
“I know, but really!”
Kenny smiled. “You got Mr. Raines package?”
I handed the envelope to Kenny, climbed in the van after him and closed the doors.
“Let’s see what we have.” Kenny opened the envelope, frowned.
“What is it?”I asked.
“It’s another key,” he shook his head. “Another goddamned key!!”
“Let me see it.”
He poured the key out of the envelope, handed it to me.
“There’s something written on it. Can I get some light?”
“All the shit we went through tonight and all we have to show for it is another stupid key!”
“Could I get some light? Please?”
Kenny flipped on a small overhead. I rubbed the writing with my thumb, tried to make it out. “You don’t happen to have a magnifying glass in all this stuff do you?”
It took him a moment to find one. “Here.”
I looked at the key under the glass.
“What do you see?”
“Six numbers: 555 with a blank space, then 320.”
“Another locker? A safety deposit box? A mail drop? Those six numbers could be any damn thing!”
“555? There’s something about those three numbers--”
“Yeah, they used to use them as phone exchange numbers on television programs,” Kenny offered. “Back in the old days the 555 prefix code was used as an information number, area code by area code. It sorta’ became a moot point when--”
“That’s it!” I said, very suddenly.
“I need a city map for downtown.”
“The wall directly behind you,” Kenny said. “See the string--yeah, that’s the one!”
I pulled the map down, began to trace with my right index finger. “Yeah!”
“555 Ramirez Street, space 320.”
Kenny leaned forward. “L.A. has an archives?”
“Since 1827,” I nodded. “My dad took me there once when I was a kid.”
“Sounds exciting. What do they have there?”
“Maps, photos, papers, even the minutes of all the old city council meetings.”
“Like I said: sounds exciting.”
“Believe me, they have stuff archived in that old building that’s never been on any computer network!”
“Yeah, well I can see why! It sounds boring as hell!!”
“Apparently not as boring as you like to think. Raines was sure interested enough in the place for somebody to have gotten him a key to it.”
“But for what? If this place has all this stuff you’re talking about in it, it could take you thirty years to find what he’s looking for.”
“There is that.”
Kenny glanced at me. “I can’t believe the two of us risked our lives for a key to a stupid assed archive that nobody ever goes to.”
“What were you expecting?” I quizzed.
“I don’t know. Money. Diamonds. Good quality porno’s.”
I smiled. “What time do you have?”
“It’s nine o’clock; do you know where your children are?” he intoned.
“Too late to go there now.”
“Why? You’ve got a key.”
“But no idea what I’m looking for. I sure would like to know who called Raines at his room this afternoon.”
“I wish I could help, but those phone company ‘frames are a major bitch to crack. Plus, those security people they have working for them are even more humorless than your old LAPD colleagues.”
“It’s all right, Kenny. I’ve got just the man for the job.”
“Fez?! The dudes like a major, balls-to-the-wall militant!”
“Yeah. He’s also the best information broker in the business.”
Kenny looked unsure. “You aren’t seriously contemplating driving down to Watts tonight, are you?”
“Want to come with me?”
“I swear man, you must have like a major fucking death-wish or something.”
“Got a phone?”
He handed me an old push button from the late 90's, then plugged it into a nearby jack. “The lines not gonna be the greatest in the world, but it’ll work. Just don’t stay on too long.”
I nodded, dialed a long sequence of numbers.
Someone picked up. “Speak.”
“Chandler Harrison for Fez; I need to see him.”
“As soon as possible.”
“Very well. He will see you at ten-thirty. Do not be late.”
I looked at my watch. “I won’t.”
I hung up, turned to find Kenny shaking his head. “What?”
“Man, I really don’t--”
“You and Fez ought to be kindred spirits, Kenny. You both want to bring the government crashing down around our ears!”
“I don’t want a government at all; Fez wants his people in charge!”
“They’d probably do a better job than the present band of crooks!”
“Why trade one tyranny for another?”
“I ask you something?”
“If you feel this way, why do you keep helping me? You’ve long since repaid the debt you owed me.”
Kenny shrugged. “I like the way you do things. Any other private eye would throw in with the big boys and not worry about the ‘just plain folks’ out here. You help the little guy and I guess I can dig that in a person.”
“An anarchist with a heart of gold!”
“I am and don’t you ever tell anyone!”
“Velma loves that kinda’ stuff.”
“Well, you can tell her!”
I chuckled. “I use your phone again?”
“Who you calling?”
I dialed Sabina Denniston’s room.
“Hello?” Sabina sounded very tired.
“Oh, I’m sorry Sabina.”
“Yeah. I forgot to call you earlier.”
“Is everything okay? Have you found out anything about Alicia?”
“Not yet. I’ve got a real good lead I’m working on, though.”
“Okay,” she sounded far away. “We should get together and talk about how I’m going to pay you.”
“Breakfast in the morning?”
“Sounds good. How about eight?”
“Get some sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night.” I hung up.
“Yeah. Just real tired.”
“Losing somebody you love can take a lot out of you,” Kenny offered.
I nodded. “I need to make one more call.”
“Who to this time?”
“You’re gonna’ call a cop on my illegal phone?!”
I grinned. “I promise I won’t stay on too long.”
“Man, why did you have to be the one cop in the whole goddamned city who busted me?!”
I smiled and punched in Thom’s office number.
He picked up on the fourth ring. “Pressler.”
“Don’t you ever go home?” I asked.
“I was all set to do so, then the shit started hitting the fan. Somebody set off what looks to be a bunch of smoke bombs at Union Station, then phreaked the surveillance cameras and fire suppression system computers. The train schedules shot to hell and I’ve got the transit cops pissing about someone impersonating one of their own.”
“Sounds like a normal night to me.”
He made a disparaging remark about my Irish ancestry.
I laughed. “Before we go too far afield here, did the information about Sabina Denniston come through?”
“A little while ago.”
“Well, what did you find out?” I prompted.
“It took me awhile to go through the proper back-channels, but according to The United Cherokee Enclave, they’ve never heard of her.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “Never heard of her?”
“It gets even more interesting. They sent me copies of Alicia Denniston’s birth registration records. On the way home from the hospital there was a tragic automobile crash. Alicia Denniston was raised an only child by her grandmother, after her parent’s death.”
Copyright 1999 - M.S. Costello