The trip back to my office in downtown was probably one of the longest I'd ever had to make. After burying Danny Raines out in the desert, I'd sat for almost an hour by his grave-site. The growing anger I felt inside about my failure to get Raines out of El Toro alive, gnawed at me like a man hungering for food. Raines had held many of the answers I'd needed and I'd promised to keep him safe. One bullet had found a weak spot in the layers of kevlar in the roof of the car and cut through it like a hot knife through butter. It had hit Danny Raines in the upper back part of his head, killing him instantly.
Darkness was just starting to deepen the sky when I headed back across the desert for the road. In town, I scrubbed on the Interceptor for an hour to get what remained of Danny Raines off of the seat and dashboard. It was almost ten when I arrived back at the office.
I took the stairs for once, found the office locked and empty. Once inside, I flopped onto the sofa in the outer office and stretched out. My body ached and I was covered in dirt and landing gear grease from the 747. I needed a shower, but all I could think about was the desert.
"'It was a research station all right, but they wasn't growing corn.'"
Danny Raines' words stuck in my craw as I rubbed my face with both hands and stared at the ceiling.
"'It was a research station all right, but they wasn't growing corn.'"
Raines had held many of the answers I'd needed and all I was left with were still more questions. I held myself responsible for his death because I'd decided to stop the car and face down my attackers, in typical hero style. The only thing is, you're not a hero when the person you're rescuing dies because of you.
"I need a drink," I said aloud.
I pushed my tired body from the sofa and went to my office. Two thirds of the bottle of scotch in the top drawer of my filing cabinet was gone and I was going to do my best to polish off the remaining one third. I flipped on the green shaded lamp on the front of my desk and found my glass. I poured a double.
I looked up. Velma Martinez was standing in the doorway, a look of concern on her beautiful face.
"Want one?" I indicated the glass.
I found another glass and poured her a shot.
"Here you go."
I drank. She didn't.
"You okay?" she asked after a moment.
"Just peachy," I answered.
Velma picked up the chair from in front of my desk and carried it around to where I sat. I downed the rest of my scotch, then poured another. Velma took everything in, her dark eyes moving from the bottle of scotch to me.
"You're not drinking," I said, glancing at her glass.
"I'm not really a scotch person." Her eyes fixed on me and I didn't want to meet them. "If that was tequila though--"
"What are you doing here this late?" I asked.
"Kenny called me a little while ago and told me about what happened out at El Toro. He said something about several explosions and a helicopter crash in the desert."
I smiled tightly, shook my head. "I should've known. If anything happens from 'Frisco to the Orange County line, he knows about it!"
"He didn't give me a lot of details. What happened?"
"Oh, the usual," I finished the shot, poured another. "I played the invincible hero again and got somebody killed!"
She blinked at the anger in my voice, but didn't back away. "Raines?"
I nodded. "That's what Alf's call was about. Raines was hiding out in one of those old jet-planes. I went out there to find him and Thaddeus and Henry showed up with a bunch of hired muscle. They also brought an attack helicopter with them. We were on the highway, the chopper made a run on us and I got Raines killed."
"How did you get Raines killed?"
"Is there something wrong with me, Velma?" I asked.
"Wrong with you?" She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I've always got to be this fucking hero, riding in to save the day for everybody! I couldn't out run the chopper so I stopped and took the battle to them! The whole time it was going on, it was like it was some kind of a game to me! People were getting hurt and killed and all I could think about was the rush it was giving me! That's pretty sick, you have to admit!!"
"They were trying to kill you," Velma offered.
"I keep telling myself that, to justify what I did out there this afternoon," I said. "It doesn't help!"
"And that does?" she gestured towards the rapidly emptying bottle of scotch.
"No, but maybe it'll make me able to sleep with myself tonight."
"Chandler, look at me."
It wasn't that difficult. I did.
"All this blame, all these recriminations aren't like you," she said. "You make Raines sound like some kind of saint or something. He wasn't. He was one little man, caught up in a very dangerous line of work. People like him know the dangers when they sign on. That's why they're paid so well."
"But does that make it any more right?" I wanted to know.
Velma smiled. "You're asking the wrong person, Chandler. Remember, I'm the one who shot and killed her husband after years of getting the shit beat out of me. When I pulled that trigger, I felt good about it. I still do."
I studied her for a long moment. "That doesn't say much for the rehabilitation part of prison!"
"No it doesn't, but I can live with the decision I made. And the action I took."
"So, you want to go to Antigua with me?"
"Are you really asking?"
"It'd be fun to just go somewhere and get lost for a month. Or a year. No problems. No cases. No one asking for my help. Just sand, surf, and tall, cold, margarita's."
"You'd be bored silly within a week!"
"Not with the proper distractions I wouldn't," I winked.
Velma chuckled. "I can't say the thought hasn't crossed my mind a time or two. Everybody thinks we've got this torrid affair going on anyway! Running off to Antigua together would certainly get a few tongues wagging!"
"You've really thought about you and I and-well, you know."
"Look in the mirror sometime and tell me why I wouldn't," Velma confessed. "It'd be foolish for me to deny the fact that I do find you attractive. In a heroic kind of way of course!"
I smiled. "So, do we go?"
She shook her head. "Sorry. You still have someone here who needs your help."
"I'm at a loss as to what I should do next," I said.
"You still have that key to the archives, don't you?" Velma asked.
"Yeah. I've got the key, but absolutely no idea what I'm looking for. I was hoping Raines would be able to tell me why Joe Don Roberts went to all the trouble to get him that key. I kinda' loused that up too, I guess!"
"Stop it, Chandler! If you want to have a pity party for yourself, do it on your own time! Sabina's not paying you to sit around here and whine about the mistakes you've made! She needs your help and all you can do is sit here in your office and drink lousy scotch and feel sorry for yourself!"
"I just feel so beat down, Velma."
She took my hands in hers, softened her voice. "I know. I've been there myself a time or two. I ever tell you about how things were for me when I went to prison?"
"Not really," I shook my head.
"I was twenty four years old when I went in. I can still remember sitting in that court room and hearing the verdict being read. Fifteen years?!! I thought I was gonna' walk outta' there a free woman and all of a sudden I was looking at seven and a half years, mandatory time. You want to talk about being beat down?! Try being strip searched after every visit by your family! Try walking around with eyes in the back of your head because you're a pretty girl and some of the gangs in there really want to get their hands on you so they can turn you out for drugs or money! Try being held down in the shower and having turns taken with you! That happened to me, three separate times! All I wanted to do was serve out my sentence and get out, so I didn't fight any of them! You don't fight them, you become a victim, an easy mark. I was."
"Velma, you don't have to tell me all this," I said.
"I've never said anything about any of this stuff before, Chandler," she answered. There was a haunted look in her eyes as she continued. "I put up with all that stuff in prison so I could one day walk out of that place with my head held up high. Prison was bad, but life outside prison was far worse. I couldn't get a job. I'd go in for an interview, they'd take one look at where I'd been for the past seven years and it'd be 'sorry, we can't use you'. That must've happened to me thirty times! It was almost to the point of my turning my own self out to make a living when I came to your office that day. I was certain you were gonna' say 'no' to me too! I got home after our meeting and I couldn't believe you'd called and said be in bright and early the next morning! I'd given up hope for the darkness of despair and all of a sudden there was a little, tiny glimmer of hope again."
I smiled. "You know me. I've always believed in second chances. Besides, having someone so gorgeous at the front desk certainly couldn't hurt!"
Velma chuckled. "Now the truth comes out. You only want me for my body!"
I laughed. "Look in the mirror sometime!"
Velma leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
I raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh yeah?"
"My house is closer," she said by way of explanation. "You need a shower and something to eat. While you're in the shower I'll run over to your place and pick you up some clean clothes. Then we'll see about waking somebody up at the city archives and go do some digging."
I nodded. "Thanks, Velma."
It was her turn to smile. "I can't believe I turned down Antigua."
"Maybe one day."
"I'm gonna' hold you to that," she answered.
The Los Angeles City Archives is an ugly, squat, two-story-yellow-brick building located less than a block from the old abandoned central jail complex. After trying for over an hour, Velma had reached the caretaker of the facility and he'd told us he'd meet us at the front door.
We knocked and heard keys being rattled on the other side of the door. The door opened.
"Chandler Harrison?" The gray haired gentleman studied me for a moment with azure blue eyes, eyes that were constantly taking in his surroundings.
I nodded, shook hands with him. "Yes. This is my assistant, Velma Martinez."
"Miss Martinez," he shook hands with her. "I'm the one you spoke with earlier this evening. My name is Sol Levine."
"Mr. Levine. I'm glad you could see us so late," Velma said.
"Come in, so I can close the door. It's a chilly night out and the city doesn't pay to heat the place anymore."
We entered and heard him lock the door behind us.
"It's a lot smaller than I imagined it would be," Velma offered.
"Oh, this is just the above ground part of it," I said. "There are five more floors below us. After the last earthquake the city installed most of their old paperwork in quake proof vaults below this main complex."
"Quite correct," Sol said, re-joining us. "You've been here before Mr. Harrison?"
"Yes. My father used to bring me here when I was a child."
"Harrison? Your father wouldn't be Everett Harrison, would he?"
"Yes he would. Did you know him?"
"For many years. He would come here often, just to talk. He was a wonderful man. It's too bad they never caught the punks who killed him."
I nodded. "Unfortunately, homicides where the victim doesn't know his assailant are the most difficult to solve. Even with all the new technology we have today."
"I think the police rely too much on that 'new technology' and not enough on plain old deductive reasoning. Technology can point you in the right direction, but it can't see fear or a lie in someone's eyes. That's how you make a case, being there face to face with the evidence and the people accused of the crime. That's how we used to do it," Sol said.
"You were a cop?" Velma asked.
"For forty one years," he smiled. "I started out as a beat cop over in the West Valley Division at the turn of the century. My last fifteen years I worked homicide in what was then known as Robbery/Homicide."
"But that would make you--" Velma started.
"I will be ninety-eight next month."
"You don't look a day over sixty," Velma said.
Sol beamed. "Young lady, are you married? If not, would you like to be?"
"Levine? Levine! You're Stan Levine's father?"
"My father's last partner was Sol's son," I explained to Velma. "Sol, before we get started I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"By all means. Would either one of you like a cup of coffee first? I have a little stove in back, even though they said I couldn't. Too much old paper work; they were afraid I'd upset a pot or something and burn the place down. "
"We'd love a cup of coffee," Velma answered.
We followed Sol through a maze of file cabinets and stacks of old books to a tiny room. Inside, the small stove was against one wall. The office was as neat as a pin, without a speck of dust to be seen.
"Have a seat," he indicated two folding chairs in front of a rickety looking desk. "The coffee will take a few minutes."
Velma and I sat.
"Do you get very many visitors here?" Velma asked.
"Not many," Sol shook his head. "A few older folks now and then. They come here to see how things used to be. I think they leave more saddened than how they arrived, which is unfortunate. This city has always been a place of youth and vigor; it's even more difficult for those of us who are getting up there in years, to make a go of it here, now."
"So why don't you leave?" Velma asked.
The smile on his face was serene. "This is my home. If I weren't here to take care of all this--" he gestured, "--a part of our history would just dry up and blow away. If you really want to see and hear and feel what this city was once like, this is how you do it. Computers and all that electronic stuff is fine, but there is no way for you to feel the passion of the people who poured their life's blood into their work. That passion exists now, only in these documents. These books, these papers: for one timeless moment the people who sweated and toiled over them, have become immortal and I'm the keeper of that eternal flame!"
"That's beautiful," Velma said.
"You said you don't get many visitors here. Have there been any recently?"I asked.
Sol thought for a moment, then nodded. "The first visitors were three weeks ago, a young woman and an older, unkempt man."
I found the tri-d's in my jacket pocket and handed them to Sol. "These the people?"
He nodded. "Yes. She said she was a reporter of some kind, working on a story."
"Did she say what kind of story?"
"No, she didn't. The situation seemed a little strange to me. And strained."
"How so?" Velma asked.
"She said the man was her researcher, but he could barely sign his name on the form when they checked out a box of files to look at," Sol answered.
"You also said strained," I prompted.
He nodded. "I got the distinct impression the young woman would have found it more preferable to take a walk in a cage full of serpents than to have been in the same room with him!"
"How many times did they come here?" Velma asked.
"Four-no, five days running. They went through every file box in that particular section of the archives. There were times they were here for ten, twelve hours at a time. A couple of times I had to ask them to leave so I could close everything down for the evening."
"Please tell me you have a list on file of what they were looking at," I said, hoping.
"Of course I do," Sol nodded again. "I've always been a model of efficiency!"
I smiled. "Do you remember the last time they were here?"
"Six days ago."
Velma and I exchanged looks. Alicia Denniston had called Sabina Griffith exactly six nights previous, scared to death and looking for a way out of town.
"You said they looked through every file box in one section of the archives. What is in that section?" Velma asked.
"That's what I found so strange," Sol frowned. "They were old land-use records, transferred over here from the planning commission office when Governor Taylor shut it down, thirteen years ago. The two of them must've found what they were looking for, because I've never seen two more excited people in my life. The man left a hundred dollars for me in one of the books. That's the first time anybody's ever tipped me."
"Anyone else besides these two, been here?" I asked, indicating the two tri-d's.
"As a matter of fact, yes. Three nights ago, another young woman came in. She asked a lot of the same questions you've asked me tonight. She went through a number of the same files the previous two did and appeared to be quite shaken by them."
"Is this her?" I found a tri-d of Sabina Griffith and showed it to him.
Sol shook his head. "The one in this photo is pretty, but the one who came in here was absolutely the most stunning woman I've ever seen. She had very long blonde hair and these most incredible eyes."
"'Incredible eyes'?" Velma asked.
"The two of you have probably never heard of her, but back when I was a young man there was a motion picture actress named Liz Taylor. She was one of the few women born with violet colored eyes, back then. The young woman who was in here three nights ago would've given Liz a run for her money in the eye department."
"Sounds like your 'friend' Gail," Velma said.
I nodded. "Would you mind taking a look at something else for me?" I asked Sol.
"Not at all."
I dug the key out of my pocket and handed it to him.
"Well I'll be," he said after examining the key for a long moment.
"What is it?" Velma asked.
"I've been getting a little forgetful lately with my keys. One of the things the reporter and her 'researcher' looked at was a series of aerial photographs. Unless I'm mistaken, this key unlocks that particular vault," he said. "Where did you find it?"
"Taped to the bottom of a sink at Union Station."
Sol raised an eyebrow at that. "One of them took the key?"
"Looks like," I nodded. "The 'researcher's' name was Joe Don Roberts, a hired gun from west Texas. He and the woman were blackmailing someone I know," I said.
"The man's dead and the woman's missing."
"Do you know someone named 'Sabina Griffith'?" Sol asked.
It was my turn to be surprised. "Yes, I do."
"I was putting away one of the file boxes after the two of them had gone one evening and found this, hidden in one of the file folders." Sol went to the little desk, opened one of the drawers and handed a single, large envelope to me. "It's addressed to this 'Sabina Griffith'."
I studied the envelope for a moment. It appeared to be a handwritten note on expensive stationery.
"Why would she leave Sabina a letter?" Velma asked.
"Perhaps you should find out by opening it," Sol suggested.
I hesitated. After hearing Sabina's broken hearted story, I was reticent to open the envelope. I glanced up. Both Sol and Velma were watching me.
"Sol, about the last day Alicia Denniston and Joe Don Roberts were here: you said they must have found what they were looking for, because they were both very excited."
"Bouncing off the walls is more like it," he nodded.
"Did the woman appear to be frightened at all?" I asked.
Sol shook his head. "Frightened?! It was like they'd just hit it big at one of the casino's down in Industry!"
I rubbed my jaw. "Perhaps we should get started on those files."
"Perhaps we should," Sol Levine nodded. "I'll show you where to go and bring the coffee down to you when it's ready."
Two hours into it, my eyes were tired and we had little to show for our effort. I sat back in my chair and rubbed my overburdened eyes, then let out a long yawn.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"A little past three," Velma answered.
"You want to call it a night?" Velma asked.
"I think so," I nodded. "The way I'm going right now, if I came across something important, I'd probably miss it."
Velma sat back in her chair and did a languorous stretch. "Why do you think Alicia left a letter for Sabina, here in this place?"
I shrugged. "Guilty conscience maybe?"
"What do you mean?"
"Alicia seduced Sabina into a sexual relationship, then black mailed her into stealing some files for her from the ISP. Maybe Alicia felt something for her after all and left this here for her as some kind of explanation or apology for what she did."
"Maybe. The thing I'm wondering though, is how did Alicia know Sabina would trace her to here?"
"You read Sabina's personnel file from the ISP. 'This agent has a dogged determination while investigating any case assigned to her and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the situation resolved.' It's not that much of a stretch to think Sabina would be able to trace Alicia's footsteps here in the city and find that message. Especially if Alicia wanted to be found," I said.
"You think Alicia was using Joe Don Roberts?"
I shrugged. "Maybe they were using each other in a kind of love/hate relationship. Sol told us she could barely stand being in the same room with the man. When I talked to Fez, he told me the two of them appeared to be the best of friends!" I shook my head.
Velma nodded. "Do you think Alicia's still alive?"
I thought about the question for a moment. "If she really cared for Sabina as much as Sabina told me she once did, I think Alicia would've gotten in contact with her by now."
"So what do we do now?"
"I don't know about you, but if Alicia Denniston is dead, I want to find out who killed her."
"I hope she isn't," Velma said. "The two of them deserve a second chance. Maybe things won't conspire against them so much this time around."
I smiled. "You're such a hopeless romantic!"
"Hopeful romantic," she said with a shake of her head.
"You still have that list of file boxes Roberts and Denniston checked out?"
Velma flipped through the stack of file folders in front of her until she found a handwritten sheet of yellow paper. "Got it!"
"Read me the last two."
"68-128 and 68-129."
"Be right back," I said.
I followed a dimly lit corridor back for almost fifty feet and located the two boxes on a top shelf. I pulled both boxes down and set them aside, then stretched again. When we'd first started Sol had explained to us how to decode the labels on the boxes. The first two numbers '68' meant the year the files were first archived. The three digit number following them stood for the month (in this case January) and the dates (the 28th and 29th). I frowned. There was something about January 28th and 29th that rang a bell with me, but try as might, I couldn't remember what.
I picked up the two file boxes and started back to the small table.
"-a needle in a haystack," Velma was saying.
"But he won't stop trying," Sol answered. "He's very much like his father in that regard."
"You knew his father well?"
"Very. My son and he were partnered together, my son's first year and only year in homicide."
"I imagine that must've been an interesting time, what with all the changes and everything going on."
"It was. Interesting and terrifying."
"You said Chandler's father was killed and that the killers were never found," Velma said. "What happened?"
"Yes I did. Everett and Joanne Harrison were driving home one evening when their car was ambushed on a street not too far from here. Both were pulled from the car and executed, but not before Everett managed to shoot and kill three of them. The LAPD worked hard on the case but the leads just dried up and it got put aside for more pressing cases. After awhile everyone forgot about it, even though two of the city's best homicide detectives died that night," Sol answered.
"Yes. My son was on call that night and was ordered to the scene. On his way there he stopped at a traffic signal. Witnesses say a man on a motorcycle pulled up beside him and shot him with a sub-machine gun. Twenty times."
Sol waved it away. "The thing with age is that you don't forget. You don't forget, but the details aren't so fresh anymore. Thankfully."
"How old was Chandler at the time?"
"I think he was thirteen," Sol said.
I carried the boxes to the table. "I'd just turned fourteen."
"Chandler, I'm--" Velma started.
"It's okay," I smiled. "We should've checked the last two boxes they looked at, first!"
"I brought you each another cup of coffee," Sol offered.
"Thanks Sol," I said. "You've been around here for awhile and remember a great deal about this city. There's something familiar about the dates of January 28th and 29th, but I just can't put my finger on what it is. What happened on those two dates?"
"You honestly don't remember?"
I shook my head.
"Ten years earlier, on January 25th 2058, Los Angeles seceded from California. The governor sent troops south to quash the rebellion and General John Taylor led a group of volunteer soldiers against them."
"Of course!" I nodded. "The Battle of the North Hills."
Velma frowned. "I'm not so sure I remember that."
"You would've been a baby at the time," I answered. "General John Taylor led less than a thousand men with little air support and only a few pieces of artillery against two divisions of government troops. Taylor was a brilliant strategist, a-first-in-his-class graduate of The Military College of West Point. His one thousand troops managed to surround the federal army in one of those narrow passes north of Agoura Hills. The battle began on the 28th of January and was over by the 29th. Two thirds of the federal troops were either killed or taken prisoner. A few years later General John Taylor became Governor John Taylor."
"So what does that have to do with these two file boxes?" Velma asked, indicating the two I'd just put on the table.
"Not much," I offered. "The date was just gnawing at me."
Velma smiled and shook her head. "And they call women illogical!"
"Sol, I think we're gonna' call it--" I stopped. Sol Levine was lost in thought. "Sol? Is everything okay?"
He glanced at me. "There is something else about the 28th and 29th of January I remember. Two things actually."
"What are they?" I asked.
"The city government started it's clean-up program on January 28th 2068."
Sol was right. Ten years to the day of his greatest victory, Governor John Taylor had embarked on a second war. He'd wanted to make the streets safe and give them back to the people of the city. Those policies of restraint and rationing had led to open warfare during the Southeast Food Riots, years later.
"Are you sure of the date?" Velma asked.
Sol nodded. "I remember it like it was yesterday. There had been tenth anniversary celebrations going on all week long and Taylor went on the holo that night to tell everyone what he was going to do. He declared martial law the next morning and put the army and police department under his command. They've been under his command ever since."
"I remember seeing the broadcast," I confirmed. "My parents were supporters of his and made me stay up to see what he had to say, because they knew it was going to be important to everyone who lived here."
"How old were you then?" Sol asked.
He suddenly looked weak and quickly sat down.
Velma knelt beside him. "Sol? What is it?"
"The second thing I was telling you about," Sol met my eyes as he spoke. "Taylor fired the police chief because he'd gone to the press about what the city governor wanted his department to do. Two days later the former chief was killed in a fire bomb attack at his home."
"Chandler, is he correct?" Velma asked.
I nodded. "They never solved that one either, did they?"
Sol shook his head. "I talked to the lead investigator. He told me he was getting pressure from very high up to let the case drop."
"So you're saying what, that the old chief of police was killed because he'd made a stink about the governor's policies?" Velma asked.
"Bruce Carrington, the man Taylor installed as his new chief, had been one of his commanders during the North Hills campaign," I said. "He would've been the ideal 'yes man' for his old commanding officer."
"Oh, Carrington was much more than a 'yes man' for John Taylor," Sol met my eyes. "He'd led a Ranger company that had been involved in one of the more bloody skirmishes of that short war, a group later called the 'Blood Brigade'. Word out of Sacramento had it that Carrington's men had executed fifty prisoner's of war. Lined them up against an old stone fence and machine-gunned them to death."
"You both know how rumor becomes fact in that kind of situation," Velma shook her head. "Look, I know Carrington isn't the best police chief this city has ever had and Lord knows Taylor ain't the most honest politician, but do either of you actually think they'd kill the former police chief because of a few words in the newspaper?"
"If you'd been on the streets during the Southeast Food Riots and saw some of the things I'd seen, nothing would surprise you," I answered.
"It gets better still," Sol said. "When your parents and my son were killed, Chief Carrington personally over saw the case. Carrington's a military man, not a homicide investigator. At least two detectives assigned to the case quit, because they said he was throwing up road blocks, every step of the way."
I rubbed my tired eyes. "Sol, do you think he killed them?"
"Not personally, but if Taylor or Carrington wanted them dead, it wouldn't have been all that difficult for them to have found someone to do the job."
"Now hold on a minute! This could all be some kind of coincidence! You guys are accusing the governor and the chief of police of having three people murdered! The same police chief who decorated you for bravery Chandler, the same police chief who offered you the world to stay on with the department!" Velma met my eyes.
"I don't believe in coincidences and you heard what Sol said. Carrington was blocking the investigation!"
"So, he's inept! That doesn't make him a murderer!"
After a moment I nodded. "True. I just keep thinking back to something Fez told me yesterday. He said Alicia Denniston and Joe Don Roberts were interested in the Angeles Crest Reservoir Project. Why?"
"The ACRP?" Sol asked.
"Yeah. Fez said Alicia Denniston was pumping him pretty good for information relating to the ACRP and Governor Taylor's ties to it."
"That's interesting," Sol said. "One of the last times I saw Stan and your father together they were talking about the ACRP. Stan even had a file on the project in his desk drawer at home. After he was killed I went to look for that file, but it was gone."
"Somebody broke into his house?" I asked.
"If they did, they were very good at it. When I couldn't find that file he kept, I went over the house from attic to basement and didn't find a thing out of place," Sol answered.
"Chandler?" Velma asked a second time.
I glanced at Velma. She was studying a sheet of paper in front of her.
"Do you have something?" I asked.
"I don't know quite know," she said. "Do you have a hard copy of that file Kenny made for you?"
"Yeah. You want it?"
I dug the five sheets of paper out of my jacket pocket and passed it to her.
"Sol, where are the land use maps kept?"Velma asked.
"They're on the shelves directly behind you," Sol answered.
Velma went to the book shelves and traced her finger along the bindings of the large, leather bound volumes. After what seemed an eternity, she found the book she was looking for, pulled it and carried it back to the table. She lay the book on the table and opened it.
"What do you have?" I asked.
She handed me the five sheets of paper. "When I tell you to, read me the digits from the first column."
I frowned. "Okay."
She quickly flipped through fifty or sixty pages. "This looks like it. Read me the digits from the first column, line one."
"'This looks like what'?"
Velma glanced at me. "Column one. Read."
I sighed. "A-6, +1000."
Velma used the index fingers from both hands and drew them to a point. "Next."
She repeated the process. "Next."
"D-8, +875." I watched her repeat her actions a third time and smiled. "They're construction elevations?"
Velma nodded. "I've been wracking my brain all evening trying to figure out where I've seen these kind of numbers before. When you said something about the ACRP being built, I remembered. My father was a builder and he used to bring home all these topographical elevation blueprints. The first digit, a letter, followed by a number or numbers, is a grid reference. The series of numbers with a plus or minus symbol in front of it tells you the elevation in feet from a fixed point."
"Velma, you just earned your pay for the week!" I enthused. I peered past her at the topographic map lying on the table. "The ACRP?"
"It was worth a shot," Velma smiled. "I'd be willing to bet that if we go through every book on those shelves back there, this is the only one where we'll get a match!"
"Before you get too excited Chandler, we still don't know what all these numbers after the elevation figures mean."
"Maybe they're some kind of coordinates," I offered.
"Huh unh. Those are usually written in latitude and longitude. These appear to be (as Kenny said) 'random numbers, strung together'," Velma said.
"Could I see those?" Sol asked.
I moved out of the way.
Sol leaned in close to the papers and the book. He studied them for a long moment, then shook his head. "I don't know what this series of numbers means after the grid numbers and elevations, but I'd be willing to bet the column on the far right side of the page refers to a photographic study."
"A photographic study?"
"Yes. KH is the photographer, the three numbers after that is the date of photography and the last four digits is the series number."
"And you told us the key I found at the train station fits the photo vault. Great! We open the vault, find the pictures that correspond to these numbers and we're set!" I said.
Sol shook his head. "It's not that simple."
"'Not that simple'? The photographer is identified as 'KH'. We look through all those photographs in there until we find the ones taken by someone with the initials 'KH'," Velma added.
"We won't find them here. The photographer isn't a he. The photographer is an it," Sol said.
The old man nodded. "I'm not a hundred percent certain, but I believe the KH prefix refers to 'Key Hole'. Key Hole is a surveillance satellite, located several hundred miles above the Earth."
"Don't you ever sleep?" I asked.
"And give 'em a chance to catch up with me?" Kenny Baltimore asked. "Not in this life time, bruddah."
Typical Kenny. I smiled. "I need to pick your brain for a few minutes."
"What do you know about something called 'Key Hole'?"
"Where are you?"
"Velma and I are at the city archives. Why?"
"Hang on, just a moment." I heard him busily type something into a computer keyboard and there was a sudden, loud, wash of static over the phone line. "There. Now you can talk."
"What did you just do?"
"Just making sure nobody's listening in," Kenny said. "I localized your number and ran an umbrella encryption program over that particular circuit."
"Is it safe?"
"Yeah. It's also highly illegal."
"Why does that not surprise me?" I sighed. "I've never heard of an 'umbrella encryption program.'"
"Few people have," Kenny advised. "The NSA perfected it for their field agents way back when. All it does is take one phone or data line that isn't encrypted and covers it by one that is."
"Okay, I get it. A field agent can call in on any un-secure line and the people on the receiving end can digitally encode and decode his traffic."
"Exactly. It cut down on the amount of equipment an undercover operative had to carry with him."
"But if you had the code key, wouldn't you be able to decrypt everything we're saying?"
"If you had enough computer power. As we're talking, every word we say is being converted from pitch and timbre to digital 1's and 0's. That digital conversion is then fed through one of my wee bairns at a site known only to me and scrambled two hundred and twenty nine million times a second. If anybody is listening in, all they get is static. If they intercept and try to decrypt it, my program tells me and I send them a nice little electronic 'fuck off'!" Kenny laughed. "We're totally safe."
"You're a wonder to behold sometimes," I smiled and shook my head.
"I try. Now, what was this about 'Key Hole'?"
I gave him the short story version. There was a long silence afterwards.
"Sol's correct. You won't find the photographs in question in those archives," he said, breaking the waxing silence.
"Where would I be able to find them?"
"I love these innocent questions of yours," Kenny said. "You ask me something like this, knowing full well that I won't be able to say no to you when you ask me to dig them up for you. Anybody ever tell you you're a manipulative bastard?"
I grinned. "I guess I'll just have to find myself someone else this time. I don't want it to seem like I only come to you when I need this kind of help. You're my friend and I don't want to get you in any trouble."
"Oh please!!" Kenny laughed. "I really don't need you to get myself into trouble!!"
"All right. So tell me about this 'Key Hole'. Sol said it's some kind of satellite?"
"Late last century and early this century, the KH series of satellites were used by the United States government to watch troop movements around the world and to make sure the Soviet Union was abiding by the nuclear disarmament treaty."
"They were spy satellites?" I asked.
"You got it," Kenny said. "There were a whole series of them. The last-the KH 32- was launched in 2049."
"How effective were they?"
"Very. From hundreds of miles up, the optics on these things were so good you could read the mint-date on a dime, lying on a crowded sidewalk, downtown."
"That's pretty good," I agreed. "Why were they called 'Key Hole'?"
"Hell, I guess because it sounded better than the 'Kilo Hotel-32' tag the military jug-heads gave it!" Kenny chuckled. "It all goes back to the optics. These things were so good, it was said they could peer through the key hole in a door. They weren't very far from the mark either."
"What do you mean?"
"These things could photograph areas a hundred miles or more wide, at their worst resolution and still be able to tell you whether a car on a road was a Buick or a Ford. Not only that, but they had the ability to shoot over the horizon. The later series of Key Hole satellites could be thousands of miles from their target and still give you very good intelligence about it. That's a great thing to have, especially if something's going on a continent away and you need information about it before the 10:00 a.m. presidential briefing!" he explained.
"These things could see in the dark too?"
"Good enough to tell you that the color of that Ford I was telling you about is sapphire mist and not aqua. At midnight. With no moon."
"That's scary," I said.
"You damn right it's scary. Back in the early teens, there was a big flap about the government using them to gather intelligence on some of the anti-government militia groups in the mid-west," Kenny said.
"I think I read something about that once. The United States had just signed and verified the UN Treaty for Human Rights and instituted the small arms confiscation tenet of the treaty."
"Precisely. Using information obtained from those satellites and the registration records for all privately owned fire-arms in the country, troops were sent into Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska under the auspices of the UN Secretary General. Pitched battles ensued with the ultimate outcome being the complete confiscation and destruction of every rifle, pistol and shotgun in those four states. A lot of people say (and I tend to agree with them) that the murder of American citizens by foreign troops with the direct help of their own government, and the confiscation of weapons used to fight those troops, led to the downfall of the American government and the later secession of a number of states from the union. The ones that didn't secede, fell under the thumb of a UN dictatorship where any slight, where the smallest infraction, met with swift and severe punishment. The United States everyone had once known was dead and buried long before the whole mutant-human hybrid thing got started," Kenny finished.
"I didn't know you were such a student of history."
"Somebody once said that those who don't know their own history are doomed to repeat it. As much trouble as I have with government in general, at least there was a modicum of freedom in the old United States. You didn't have to show a pass to travel anywhere and people could pretty much do what they wanted. I would've loved to have lived back then."
I nodded. "If the pictures aren't here, where can I find them?"
"Probably in some old, triple secure government database. And it ain't gonna' be easy to get to 'em, either," Kenny let me know.
"Can you do it?"
"I'm good at what I do Chandler, but I don't have the equipment to go traipsing around those kind of data repositories."
"You don't, but Fez does," I prompted.
Kenny was silent for a long moment. "I told you, I don't want anything to do with him!"
"This is important, Kenny."
"They're a bunch of old spy photos of-of-hell--I don't even know what they're pictures of!!"
"Everything I've-everything we've done so far keeps leading back to the same goddamn place," I said. "Alicia Denniston and Joe Don Roberts went to see Fez about Governor Taylor's involvement with the Angeles Crest Reservoir Project, after blackmailing Sabina to steal files from the ISP about an investigation they'd been running. The investigation was looking into high government officials with ties to a white supremacist group called 'The Invisible Brotherhood'. Guess what-the file Sabina gave us matches up exactly with land use records relating to the ACRP. If you need more there's that key we found in Union Station: it goes to a photo vault full of photographs of the area where the ACRP's being built. Now this! Why in the hell is everybody so interested in a twenty-five year old project the city doesn't need anymore?! It must be something pretty damned important if someone's willing to kill for it!!"
"Kill for it?" Kenny gulped.
"Joe Don Roberts didn't shoot himself in the head, from a mile away," I answered.
Kenny was silent for a long moment again. "Shit, shit, shit!!!"
"I'll call Fez and let him know you're coming."
"Man, I really don't like this!"
"I'm not fucking asking you to!!" I snapped. I immediately took a deep breath and calmed myself. "Listen Kenny: do this for me and you and I are even."
"Yep. You get this stuff for me and that's it. I won't ever ask you for anything else."
"I should be so lucky," Kenny said, half-aloud.
"That's my word."
"Shit, Chandler!" Kenny swore. "I know I'm gonna' regret this but, all right, call him!!"
"You-you're serious about this, aren't you?"
"That's a poor choice of words, Chandler!"
I chuckled. "Maybe, but I meant what I said."
I could almost hear Kenny nod on the other end of the phone. "What if-what if I want to help you from time to time?"
"I'd love any insight you might offer, but it'd be your choice."
"Okay. Life would be pretty damned boring without you and Velma around. Tell Fez I'll be down before sunrise."
"Got it," I nodded. "Thanks Kenny. You'll find the photo list index in the last column on the right hand side of the page."
"Got it. I'll get down there and see what I can do," Kenny said. "I just hope this all doesn't come back to bite us in the ass later."
"Neither do I, Kenny," I agreed. "Neither do I!"
The eastern horizon was beginning to brighten with a new day as Velma and I left the city archives. Outside, the temperature was below freezing and frost covered everything in a bright white and frigid blanket. I opened the car door for her and went around to the drivers side.
While the car was warming up enough to melt the frost from the windshield I sat back in the seat. Sol had told Velma and I that Joe Don Roberts and Alicia Denniston had been excited ('bouncing off the walls' he'd said) about what they'd found at the archives. Velma, Sol and I had gone through those same boxes of files for hours and all I'd gotten was a severe case of eyestrain and a headache that wouldn't quit. Everything led back to the ACRP, but why? The ACRP was a big hole in the ground (albeit an expensive one!) but why had the federal government spent so much time, effort, and money investigating it? Governor Taylor and New Los Angeles were separate entities from California and the federal government had no jurisdiction to investigate anything, south of Oxnard! The whole damn thing didn't make any sense!
I rubbed my eyes and yawned.
"Did any of what we saw in there tonight, make any sense to you?"
"Not much," Velma shrugged. "Governor Taylor is up to his eyeballs in something, but that's not unusual. I sure wish we knew what those other numbers meant. If we could figure out what they are, we might be able to put the rest of this thing together!"
"Maybe Sol's friend can come up with something for us," I suggested. We'd made a copy of the file Sabina had given us for Sol to take to a mathematician friend.
"Yeah, maybe we are overlooking something obvious," Velma agreed. She moved around in her seat and turned to look at me, a frown darkening her pretty features. "Tell Mike the next time he gives you something to drive, give you something with a more comfortable seat in it! This thing here, I can't pull forward or push back and the cushion is hard as a rock!"
I smiled. I didn't dare tell her where Danny Raines had been sitting when he'd gotten killed. "Let me see what I can do."
I leaned across the center console and found the release lever for the seat. I pulled it. "Push!"
The seat slid back and pinched my right hand between the track and lever. I swore hotly as I jerked my hand away.
"You okay?" Velma asked.
I shook my hand and nodded. "Yeah. I'm just tired and accident prone."
She smiled and sat forward in the seat for a moment. "That's much-who's bag is this?"
I looked. A dark colored, nylon-over-night-bag had twisted it's way out from under the seat as Velma pushed it back. I thought for a moment. When Raines and I had left the 747, he'd taken a similar bag with him.
"I think Danny Raines might have left it here," I said.
"Let's see what's in it." Velma unzipped the bag before I could tell her to be careful. "Holy crap!!"
"What is it?"
Velma lifted the bag from the floor and put it on the center console, between us. "Take a look!"
I did. The nylon bag was two thirds full of neatly stacked, newly minted currency. We exchanged looks.
"There must be thousands in here," I offered.
"I'll say!! I've never seen this much money in my life!!" Velma shook her head as she spoke.
"You see anything else in there?"
She rummaged around inside the bag for a moment, then handed me a new looking Sig-Sauer forty five caliber, semi-automatic pistol. "Hello! What's this?"
I moved closer. 'This' was an imitation leather, bi-fold identification card holder. Velma opened it and I immediately recognized the ivory colored card with the bright orange border as Danny Raines' Cross Zonal Pass.
"So that's what one of these looks like," Velma said. "The way you and Thom were talking about these things, I expected something a whole lot more dangerous looking."
I took the offered card. "Sometimes and idea or a printed word can be more dangerous than a truck load of explosives. Every one of these has the blood of thousands of men, women, and children on it."
She nodded. "So what do we do with all this?"
I chewed my bottom lip. "The money would be nice."
"And Raines certainly doesn't have any use for it. Not now."
Velma met my eyes. "You aren't seriously considering keeping it are you?"
"Why not?" I said. "I'm barely making enough to pay you. This much money I could afford to give you what I think you're worth and still have enough left over to get all the new technological equipment we need for the office! That way I wouldn't have to keep bothering everyone else when I need information on a case! It'd make the job a whole helluva lot easier!"
"How many people do you think died because of this money?"
I shrugged, looked away.
Velma picked up a stack of bills and idly flipped through them. "I don't really need a lot of things, Chandler. I get along fine on what you pay me and I don't know how I'd react if I suddenly started getting paid what you think I should!" She smiled and met my eyes again. "By the way: how much would that be?"
"At least twice what you're getting now!"
I laughed. "With incentive bonuses of course!"
"I'll think about it," Velma grinned. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving. Let's stop by Feingold's on the way back and get some breakfast."
"Sounds like a plan to me."
Velma put the stack of bills back in the bag and zipped it up. She put it on the floor behind her seat. "Can you turn the heat up a little? I'm free--"
The phone in the center console rang. I hesitated for a couple more rings, before picking it up. "Hello?"
"Chandler?" It was 'Motorhead' Mike Lindstrom's voice.
"Mike. What are you doing up so early?"
"I've been trying to reach you all night, man."
"You've got me now. What's up?"
"I had one of my tech's go over your car after you dropped it off yesterday afternoon. When he put it up on a lift he found a tracking device tapped into the main battery lead to the cars starter. It's not a very sophisticated one, but it's good enough to trace every movement you make. "
"Sonofabitch!" I felt my stomach tighten. "Mike, I'll have to get back to you."
"Later," he said.
I put the car into gear and quickly backed it out of it's parking space.
"What is it?" Velma asked.
"There was a tracker on my car," I said. "The same car I drove to Karyn White's house yesterday when I went to see Sabina!"
I agreed completely.
Velma and I could see the flash of red and blue lights at the end of Karyn White's street as we turned the corner. Pulling to the curb I saw Thom Pressler in the middle of a clutch of uniformed officers. Nearby, one officer sat by himself on the front bumper of his car, his head buried in both hands. I knew the look because I'd been there a few times myself; he'd had to use his weapon and someone was now dead.
"Stay here, Velma. I'll be right back."
Before she could reply I opened the car door and got out. Thom saw me as I approached the crime scene area and waved me through. I walked up to him.
He disengaged himself from the group of uniforms and steered me towards the house.
"What happened?" I asked as soon as we were far enough away to be out of earshot of the officers he'd just been talking to.
"One of our Adam cars received a hot prowl call from this location. Taggert and O'Herlihy roll up and find two perps around back trying to break in. Taggert orders them to halt and both pull out guns and open up on Taggert and his partner. Both perps are dead. So is Taggert's partner."
I closed my eyes. "Damn!"
Thom studied me for a moment. "How'd you hear about this?"
"Karyn White is an old friend," I answered. "She and the kids all right?"
"A little shook up, but they're fine," Thom nodded.
"Any ID on the dead crooks?"
"Yeah. Both are small time hoods. Intelligence files say they're tied to Gino the Giants mob."
"'Gino the Giant'?" I frowned. Karyn White's ex-husband had stolen money from Gino's outfit. That's how I'd met Karyn.
"Why would a mob guy like Gino be interested in a woman and her two little girls?" Thom wanted to know.
"I'm not sure I know. But I'm damn sure gonna' find out!"
Thom nodded. "Where have you been? I tried to reach you all night."
"I had to see a man about a plane."
Thom studied me for a long moment. "A plane huh? You wouldn't know anything about a couple of blown up jets and a helicopter crash out in the desert, would you?"
I shook my head. "Velma and I were out on a picnic all day. In the mountains. With friends."
"Why were you trying to get hold of me last night?"
"You asked me to check on who would be licensed to use Xentex here in the city. I did some poking around and found there's only one company locally that uses the stuff."
"Let me guess," I said. "They're working on the ACRP?"
Thom nodded. "That's pretty good. If you know the answer before-hand, why get me to do all the leg-work for you?"
I smiled. "Because you love it so much!"
"Where can I find Gino the Giant?"
"You aren't seriously gonna' go see him, are you?"
"Karyn White and her two little girls mean an awful lot to me," I said. "I'm just gonna' go have a little chat with Gino and let him know that if anything ever happens to Karyn or her two daughters, there won't be a place in this world large enough for him to hide his scrawny little ass in!"
"One of these days Chandler, you're going to get yourself into a mess you won't be able to get out of," Thom said.
"In which case I'll be counting on you, to save my ass!"
Thom scribbled something on a sheet of memo book paper, tore it out and handed it to me. "That's his address. Good luck getting in. From what I understand he has guards on top of guards at that fortress of his. San Fernando tried to raid it a couple of weeks back and couldn't get through the front gates."
"Sometimes, one man can do what an army of ten thousand can't."
"I'll take your word for it. Go see Karyn. She could probably use the company."
"Thanks Thom. I owe you one."
Karyn White was still trembling as I sat with her at her kitchen table. Behind her, Sabina Griffith leaned against a kitchen counter, watching us.
I reached across the kitchen table and took Karyn's hands in mine. "You and the kids okay?"
She fixed her eyes on me and nodded. "Yeah. It took awhile, but Sabina and I finally got the kids calmed back down. They're sleeping again."
I glanced up at Sabina and mouthed 'thanks'. Sabina nodded.
In front of me, Karyn White was looking at the table top. "Is it true what I heard?"
"What did you hear?"
"One of the cops said the two burglars worked for Gino."
I met her eyes. "I don't know. I will find out though, you can be certain of that!"
Karyn met my eyes again. "Why?"
"I don't know."
"I mean I thought this was all worked out!" Karyn was angry. "You told me when you gave that bastard his money back, that this was over! It's been four and a half years Chandler! Don't these assholes ever forget!!"
I didn't know what to say.
Sabina moved closer and rested her hands on Karyn's shoulders. "Maybe there's been some kind of misunderstanding."
"'Some kind of misunderstanding'! There are three people dead in my back yard!!"
"Karyn? Karyn, look at me!" I said.
"I'll take care of this. I promise you."
"The best way I know how," I said. "These guys only understand one thing: violence. I can be very, very persuasive when I have to be."
There was a glimmer of belief in Karyn's red rimmed eyes. "You'd do this for us?"
"Sure. I promised you five years ago that if you ever had problems with Gino's people again, I'd take care of it. I will."
"I'm so afraid, Chandler."
"Don't be. You and the kids live your everyday, normal lives. I'll call you in a few hours and let you know what happened."
"What if they come back?" Karyn asked.
"I asked Thom Pressler to station a car on each end of your street after they release the crime scene. Nobody comes or goes without being checked out."
She nodded. "The kids have school today."
"Let them have the day off. I'm sure they won't mind."
"Probably not," Karyn said. "Umm, Chandler, I'm sorry about yelling at you."
I waved it away. "I would've yelled at me too!"
Karyn smiled. "Still, all you've ever done is help me and I could be a little more appreciative. I mean, I still haven't paid you yet."
"This isn't about money," I said. "You can pay me when you get it."
I could see Sabina watching us as Karyn leaned across the table and embraced me.
"Thank you," Karyn whispered as she kissed my cheek.
"Chandler, wait a minute."
I turned. Sabina Griffith was on the front porch of Karyn's house, pulling a dark colored sweater over her sleep disheveled hair.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"I'm coming with you."
"No you're not!"
"Come on, Chandler! You can't just walk into the head of the local mob's house like it's no big deal! You'll need some back-up!"
"In case you haven't forgotten, your old employer's looking for you. Something about treason," I said.
"I can take care of myself. You've read my personnel file!"
"Yes, I have. You're in enough danger without my dragging you along on some personal crusade of my own!"
"What if I said I can get us past all of Gino's guards without them being any-the-wiser?"
I faced her. "How?"
"Can I come with you?"
I rubbed my eyes. "Sabina, I really don't have time to play--"
"I have the training to do the job," Sabina started. "I've been running all this time, waiting for them to catch up to me. With the ISP I did a lot of things I'm not real proud of. For the first time in my life I want to do something to help someone else. Karyn opened her home to me! No one's ever done that for me! Seeing her and her children cowering in fear, I-I have to do something! Please!!"
"Okay," I relented. "So tell me, how do we get past Gino's guards?"
Sabina bent over and tied her boots. "We need to make one stop first."
"You're not conning me, are you?"
Sabina smiled. "Would I do that?"
For the life of me, I wasn't sure how to answer that question.
I left Velma with Karyn White and drove Sabina back to the city.
Sabina's 'one stop' was a storage locker located a few blocks south of her former hotel. Inside the closet-sized metal vault, she opened a cardboard box after turning on a bare, overhead bulb.
"What's in the box?" I asked.
"Something all ISP field personnel are issued," Sabina said. She pulled a plastic bag from inside the box, lay it across a second, larger box.
I watched as she found a zipper on the front of the plastic bag and opened it. Inside was a gray colored, full-length, hooded-cloak. Sabina removed it from the bag and turned to face me.
"This will get us past Gino's guards," Sabina smiled.
"What is it-bullet proof?"
"Better than that."
Sabina nodded. She slipped the cloak over her head and adjusted the hood. Once she had the hood covering her head, she pulled on the front of it until a thin, see through piece of identical looking cloth covered her face.
"That might be great if we want to sneak into a monastery sometime but I don't see how it's going to get us past thirty of Gino's best enforcers," I said.
"Oh ye of little faith!"
In front of me Sabina seemed to waver slightly. As I watched she completely disappeared.
"Sabina?" I asked, trying to work past my stunned silence.
"I'm right here in front of you."
I reached out and felt her take my hand. Where our hands met, mine suddenly vanished.
"Neat trick!" I said.
"No trick to it," Sabina answered, winking back into existence. "The ISP calls it chameleonic camouflage."
"How does it work?"
"There are optical sensors woven throughout the fabric. Those sensors read the conditions around you and a small computer adjusts the coloration of the fabric," Sabina explained as she faded out again. "The cloth changes color to match your surroundings like a chameleon, only much, much faster."
"And the wavering effect?"
"It's the optical sensors trying to keep up with any movement you make. Sudden, quick movements--" her gray, cloth covered hand reappeared as she slashed it through the air, "are too much for the limited power of the suit to override and you become visible again."
"Please tell me you've got more than one of these."
"There's a second one in the box," Sabina said, fading into existence again. "You interested?"
"Yeah," I smiled. "Tell me what I need to know."
Giovanni (Gino the Giant) Bondzio's estate overlooked the downtown area of San Fernando. The estate house was a large, forty room Mediterranean styled building of cream-colored marble and flat-yellow sandstone. Romanesque gardens surrounded the palacio, where heavily armed men patrolled in two man teams.
I was watching the team of guards nearest me through binoculars and timing how long it took them to make their rounds when Sabina Griffith rejoined me.
"See anything?" I asked.
"Just a lot of guards with a lot of guns," Sabina said. "At least there are no dogs!"
"Gino's allergic to them," I answered. "Thank goodness for small favors, huh?"
"Are you absolutely certain there are no electronic alarms on the property?"
I nodded. "Gino doesn't like them. He much prefers human guards that are heavily armed. They don't break down he says."
"He's got a point," Sabina agreed. "I overheard one of the guards say Gino was going to take his morning swim."
"That's where we'll grab him. When Gino takes his morning swim, he likes to do it alone."
It was Sabina's turn to nod. "Remember what I said: the power-packs on these things only last fifteen minutes."
"I know: seven and half minutes in and seven and a half minutes out again."
"Do you know where this pool is?"
"The plans say the pool is in back of the main house on the edge of a hundred foot cliff, which is why we didn't go in that way. The easiest way for us to get there from here is to follow that path--" I pointed out a narrow, marble covered trail about seventy yards from us, "-around the west side of the house."
Sabina pulled the Sig-Sauer .45 Velma had found in Danny Raines' black bag and jacked a cartridge into the chamber.
"Since you know where we're going, you can lead," Sabina said. "I'll cover you."
We waited until we crossed the perimeter fence before turning the cloaks on. Twice we had to get off the path to let guard teams pass and by the time we reached the house I was covered in a fine sheen of nervous sweat.
"To the left," I said.
"Right behind you."
We followed the path around the corner of the house and up a flight of sandstone stairs. The pool was in front of us, surrounded by broken ionic columns and distressed marble tiles. Gino the Giant did slow, laborious laps of the dark blue pool and we could hear his labored breathing as he paused for a moment at the far end before pushing off and starting back towards us.
"Maybe the bastard will die of a heart attack," I said softly.
I went to the edge of the pool. On a small table less than a foot from the pool was a min-disc player plugged into a hidden socket in one of the ionic columns. Tomaso Albinoni's Concert number Five for Oboe blared from the speakers, echoing off the stone columns and filling the area with it's baroque passages.
Gino was nearing me. I picked up the mini-disc player and hit the pause switch.
Gino surfaced to see his mini-disc player hovering in thin air. "What the fu--"
I canceled power to my cloak and pulled the hood back from my head. I saw Sabina do the same.
"Who the fuck are you people and how did you get in here??!!" Gino demanded.
"Gino, you and I need to have a little sit down," I said.
He started for the edge of the pool. As his hands grasped the ladder to lift himself out, Sabina used her right foot and kicked him back in.
"You bitch!" he sputtered after re-surfacing. "I'm gonna' cut your fucking heart out and feed it to you!"
"I don't think so," Sabina shook her head. There was an iciness to her voice that made me glance at her. She had fixed Gino with an unblinking gaze that plainly had him unnerved. Me too.
"I'd listen to her, Gino," I said. "I don't think she likes you too much!"
"I don't like her either!"
"And keep your voice down!" I warned him. "I'd hate for your guards to find you face down in your pool!"
"It's my goddamn house! If I call my guards, they'll kill the two of you before I get the words out."
I felt myself smile. In my hands I rocked the mini-disc player from hand to hand. With a stumbling motion I dropped it and caught it just before it hit the water.
Gino hurriedly backed away. "Watch that fucking thing!" he squawked.
I felt my smile tighten. "What was that old saying about water and electricity?"
"You mean the one about them not mixing?" Sabina replied.
"Yeah, that's the one," I nodded. Holding the mini-disc player by the power cord , I lowered it to within an inch of the pool water. "Any time you want to talk Gino, just let me know."
He met my eyes. His own widened. "You!!"
"Hello again, Gino!" I grinned. "I'm honestly flattered you remember me!"
"What do you want?!"
"Just the answers to a couple of questions."
Gino stared at the mini-disc player as I bobbed it up and down on it's cord. "Wha-what questions?"
"You remember Karyn White?"
"Karyn who? I don't know no Karyn White, Black, or Green!!"Gino answered.
"Sure you do, Gino," I said. "She used to be married to Donny White and don't you dare tell me you don't know who Donny White is! Or should I say, was!"
Gino stared at the mini-disc player. "What do you want to know?"
"Good man," I smiled again. "Earlier this morning Karyn White had a couple of visitors. My police friends tell me they work for you."
"I don't know anything about it!"
I lowered the mini-disc player to within an inch of the water again and saw Gino's eyes flit nervously to it. "Gino, you're not being truthful or helpful to me and I really don't like being lied to."
"I honestly don't know what you're talking about, Harrison! Why the hell would I send some of my men after this White woman after all this time!! You gave me back the money her old man stole from me, so as far as I'm concerned, fuck the bitch!!"
"You trying to tell me Frankie Giardello and Sal Luigi aren't two of your hired guns?"
"Frankie and Sal?! They used to work for me , yeah!!" Gino was practically hyperventilating. "God, will you be careful with that fucking radio!!"
"'They used to work for me'?"
Gino nodded frantically. "I'm in trouble with the local heat over here because of them two bastards. Both of 'em sold me out to a couple of feds! Now I got problems all over the place!"
"What kind of problems?" Sabina asked.
"The city attorney's gunning for me! Right now there are a dozen warrants out for my arrest on a bunch of trumped up, bullshit charges! On top of that, I got a couple of Japs trying to muscle in on my territory, fucking crazy assed Yakuza types with samurai swords and shit! I found two of my men last week with their heads cut off!"
"You said Frankie and Sal ratted you out to the feds. What feds?" I demanded.
"I don't know their names!!" Gino whined.
"Come on Gino, you don't really expect me to believe that, do you?"
"You have to Harrison because I really don't know their names! If I did I'd tell you! I swear to Christ I'd tell you!"
I glanced at Sabina. "What do you think?"
"I'm thinking that I'm glad I'm not in that pool right now!" Sabina offered.
I chuckled. "You ever seen these 'feds' before?"
"Once!" Gino answered quickly. "I was at a fund-raiser for Governor Taylor and I saw them talking to him! This was a few months ago, back before I got ratted out!"
"How do you know it's the same two feds?" Sabina asked.
"I had Frankie and Sal followed when the trouble first started. My guys took some very good pictures of the four of them being all buddy-buddy like."
"If that's the truth, why didn't you just ice them?" I asked.
"Frankie, Sal, and I grew up together! I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, then all hell starts breaking loose! I got a contract out on both of 'em! Bring 'em to me alive so I can do 'em myself! It's some major money if you're interested!"
I shook my head. "You can cancel the contract, Gino. They're both dead."
"They got iced trying to bust into Karyn White's place last night. They killed a cop in the process."
Gino closed his eyes. "The cop got a family?"
"A wife and three kids. What do you care?"
"The only people I kill are the ones who deserve it. I know how hard it is to be a cop now."
"Is there some kind of memorial fund? I'd really like to send something to the family."
"Gino, you're breaking my heart here!" I said. I bent to one knee and brought out tri-d's of Thaddeus and Henry. "These the feds you talking about?"
"Yeah, that's the two pricks!" Gino said looking at them.
I stood up and glanced at Sabina. "You said they were talking to Governor Taylor?"
"As thick as thieves," Gino said.
"You think that's where they're getting all their money?" Sabina asked me.
"Gotta' be," I said. I turned back to Gino. "What did your old pals give the feds?"
"Most of my operation!" Gino answered. "My bank accounts. Who I buy my drugs from. Even my inside guys in the gaming industry. What they didn't get, my attorney's keeping for me in his safe in Century City! I got enough money in some off-shore accounts to live comfortably until the heat dies down. Then I'm gonna' come back here and take care of the Japs and the Spics personally!!"
"I gather the feds turned the info over to the local cops?"
"I guess," Gino said. "All I know is that when my two boys started talking to the heat, all kinds of weird shit started happening."
I frowned. "What kind of weird shit?"
"Trucks being hijacked. My inside people down in Industry getting whacked. I couldn't even cop a squat without a cop taking a look."
"Why were they so interested in taking a look at you? You've been around this city for as long as I can remember," I said. "Pretty much unmolested!"
"I don't know. It all started at that fund-raiser."
"What happened at the fund-raiser?" Sabina asked.
"Governor Taylor's putting together a war-chest and I said no. All the trouble started right after that."
"Putting together a war-chest for what?" I asked.
"Apparently LA's not big enough for him. He wants to be President."
I put the tri-d's away. "Is everything you just told me the truth?"
"As God is my witness!"
I laughed. "It'd better be, because if you've lied to me, I will come back and put a bullet right between those beady little eyes of yours. Got it?"
"Everything I told you is the truth," Gino re-confirmed.
"And, one other thing Gino: if Karyn White gets so much as an obscene phone call, I will also come back."
"I told you: that debt is paid!"
"Great! Catch Gino!"
He screamed as I tossed the mini-disc player high into the air and towards the center of the pool. It splashed through the surface and sank harmlessly to the bottom, trailing the un-plugged electric cord after it.
I pulled the cover over my face and hit the power switch.
"Let's get out of here!" I said to Sabina.
There were twenty black and whites waiting at the end of the driveway, outside the heavily reinforced front gate. I walked past two of Gino's guards, found the controls for it. As soon as the front gate started to move, the black and whites started their engines. Behind me, a half dozen of Gino's guards were startled into action by the sudden movement of the gate. Before they'd gone three steps all six were surrounded by SWAT officers and relieved of their weapons.
Sabina and I waited until most of the black and whites were inside the compound, then left through the front gate. The Interceptor was parked half a block down the street and I killed the power to the cloak as I approached the car.
"Where did the cops come from?" Sabina asked as she slipped her cloak over her head.
"I called them when we stopped by the office. I figure with what I have on this--" I removed the small recorder from my belt, "-and the files in his lawyer's office, Gino should be going away for a good, long time."
Sabina studied me for a moment. "You're not giving him a pass?"
"Hell no!!" I shook my head. "Gino may have looked like a whiney little twerp in there, but I can give you the names of at least a dozen people he's personally killed. Including one of the best vice-cops I've ever known. They found parts of him scattered for ten miles up and down the LA River!"
Sabina nodded. "I would've done the same thing."
I was storing the two cloaks in the trunk of the car when I heard another vehicle pull up beside us and stop. I slammed the trunk lid closed and turned, the recorder in my right hand.
"You're up early Ted," I said to Ted Louis, Special Investigator for the San Fernando City Police Department.
"To get this ass-wipe I'd get up at dawn!" Ted grinned.
I passed the recorder to him through an open window. "There's some pretty good stuff on here. Including something about his attorney hiding some stuff for him in his safe at his office over in Century City!"
"I always knew that bastard was dirty," Ted said.
"Yeah. I wouldn't advise sitting on this information for too long though, Ted. You know how fast information moves in this town."
"I hear you!" Ted nodded. "Who's this?" he indicated Sabina.
"My name is Sarah Rubin, Detective--" Sabina answered.
"Ted Louis, ma'am. Glad to meet you," Ted shook hands with her. "I have to say Chandler that this one is a helluva lot prettier than your last partner!"
"Thank you, Detective Louis!" Sabina replied.
Ted grinned again. "Thanks for doing this, Chandler. You too Miss Rubin."
"Just make sure the case against him's airtight," I said. "I want to see him get the needle for what he did to Pete."
"Will do, brother! Anyway, I got to jet. Thom Pressler's gonna' be thrilled to hear that we just wrapped up a dozen or so cases for him."
I shook hands with Ted. "Later."
"You too. Miss Rubin." Ted put the Ford in gear and sped away.
"'Prettier than your last partner'?" Sabina asked.
"Yeah," I nodded. "Whatever other terms you can use to describe Ted Louis, pretty ain't one of them!!"
Sabina laughed. "You've known him for awhile?"
"Since I was a little boy," I nodded. "Ted grew up down the street from me. I made a promise to him five years ago that we'd get Gino for what he did to Elise."
"Ted's wife. Before I quit the department, Ted had already taken a job over here. His first assignment was on the team trying to nail Gino. Ted's a go-getter, one of those kind of cops who doesn't quit when he gets on the trail of something. He got close to Gino's operation. Then they grabbed his wife off a downtown street."
"They used some kind of new, psychoactive drug on her. She was raped for hours. As if the rape wasn't bad enough, it was all recorded. The footage ended up in dozens of peep-shows up and down the coast. Thousands saw it."
"What happened to Elise?"
I thought for a long moment. "She loved Ted, but after awhile she got quiet. After the quiet came the alcohol, then the drugs to help her forget. Ted tried for months to get her some help. She wouldn't go. One afternoon he got off of work early and came home to a dark house. Elise had taken a bottle of sleeping pills with a fifth of whiskey. The coroner said she'd been dead about an hour. When Elise died, Ted lost interest in his work. All except Gino."
"And you promised him you'd help get Gino?"
"Yeah," I said. "Some day, some way. Maybe Elise can rest a little easier now."
"How about you?"
"There are thousands of Elise's out there. That's why I do this."
Sabina nodded. "So what happens now?"
I scratched my cheek thoughtfully. "Everything keeps leading me back to Governor Taylor. The Xentex used to blow up Joe Don Roberts' house is only used in one place in the city."
"Precisely. It also turns out that my old friends Thaddeus and Henry are working for our esteemed Governor. Interesting, huh?"
"Yeah. I'm sure Governor Taylor would deny everything."
"So am I," I agreed. "You up for a little trip later this afternoon?"
"Where are we going?"
"Kenny's working on getting those satellite photos of the ACRP. If everything we're doing keeps leading back to the ACRP, maybe we should go see why!"
I noticed it. "What?"
"So you do trust me!"
"Not entirely!" I chuckled. "But I liked the way you handled yourself in there!"
Sabina laughed. "You really are a difficult man to figure out!"
"So Velma keeps telling me!" I said. "One thing: who's Sarah Rubin?"
"Sarah Rubin was my first grade teacher," Sabina offered. "She was probably the best teacher I ever had. She'd be very disappointed in how my life's turned out!"
"Come on, I'll drop you off at Karyn's, then pick you up around five or so."
"What are you gonna' do?"
"Talk to Kenny and get a couple of hours sleep. I'm running on empty right now!"
I pushed the gear lever up to park and turned to face Velma. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Just real, real tired."
"I know the feeling."
"So why don't you come in?" Velma asked. "I've got a big old comfortable sofa in the living room."
"I promised Kenny I'd be down in an hour."
"Kenny's probably having the time of his life playing with all of Fez's toys. You can't keep pushing like this Chandler or you're gonna' fold up."
"I know," I agreed.
"But that ain't gonna' stop you, is it?"
"You know how much I hate mysteries."
Velma managed a smile. "A private detective who hates mysteries?!"
I smiled. "I much prefer answers."
"Go see Kenny!" Velma grinned. "But if you want the sofa, it's all yours!"
"Thanks Velma!" I reached across the console and stroked her cheek. "You understand me too well."
"Apparently not well enough," she caught my hand and held it in hers. "You be careful. Okay?"
She got out and started towards the house. I shifted the car into reverse and started backing it down the steep driveway. Almost to the street I stopped. Something sent a cold shudder through me.
I looked up. Velma was on the small porch to her house and was putting the key in the lock. The small hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I slammed the car back into park and bolted from it.
I saw her turn and smile at me as the door swung in and started to open. I was halfway up the driveway when the explosion caught me.
I remember going head-over-heels and landing heavily. When I looked back at the house, it was gone. I felt the warmth of my own blood on my face and could taste it in my mouth. Beyond me, just out of reach was a swatch of cloth from the old work shirt Velma had been wearing. As I watched, it burned.
"Velma!" I cried, trying to breathe. I gasped, coughed up blood, and passed out.
Copyright 2000 - M.S. Costello