For a long time, every time I returned from a round of golf, my wife would ask:
Similarly, having a dram of your favorite whisky is much the same. Especially true with a good book. Read a couple pages, have a sip, read a couple more. Before you know it, the sun warms your face, makes you sleepy and you are dreaming you are James Bond. You know the deal.
I'm a little different from you in the sense that instead of reading a book, I actually tried write one. So, get your favorite dram, and read "
." It's a first person narrative, detective story by your friendly scotch reviewer.
. . . .
It was 1992.
A couple of left turns followed by a sharp right was all that was needed to put me on the correct street. I cruised down Bayside Avenue holding on to the steering wheel with my left hand while I used my other to rifle through the file lying open in my lap. I was looking for where I had written down Raul Diaz's address. I kept crossing the center of the street while I tried to keep one eye on the road and my other on the damn file. Eventually, I found the address scrawled on the back of the file folder.
In one of L.A.'s more affluent neighborhoods, this boulevard was lined with million dollar plus estates on one side and palm trees, beach and the ocean on the other. As I drifted by, I noticed that one of the properties was still under construction. It was an enormous Greek revival style home with the obligatory massive white pillars out front. At the foot of the pillars was an odd pairing of statues. Alexander the Great and Zeus were frozen in commanding poses, staring blankly out toward the street. I wasn't impressed, but the magnificent view of the ocean and the bikinis littered up and down the coast proved more deserving of my attention.
It took me about fifteen minutes to drive down the street before I started to get close to Diaz's place. On the ocean side, it was a large white stucco mansion with a red clay tile roof, and a hint of a Moorish influence in its design. Of course, most of it couldn't be seen because of an eight foot high cement wall around the perimeter of the property, which was no doubt intended to keep out white trash like me.
I pulled my faded blue, custom made, 1964 Pontiac LeMans convertible into the cobblestone driveway and turned the radio down. At the foot of the driveway was a heavy wrought iron gate with two video cameras perched on top. I leaned against my door and waited for a response from the intercom system, which was built into an ivy covered gate post. The intercom squawked something unintelligible.
", I said.
", I growled, beginning to lose my patience. The stifling humidity was a continual drain on what little energy I had, and the fact that it had been a long week only aggravated my growing irritability. The visit to Diaz's place was the last one of the day. The heat didn't let up at all in spite of the fact that it was close to four thirty, but the choking smog of the downtown core had disappeared.
The gate slowly swung open, and my Pontiac crept up a stone shod driveway, which lead to a three car garage. I walked up an ascending flag stone path to the front entrance of the grand residence. The double doors opened, and an elderly man servant elegantly dressed in a blue blazer, red neck tie, white button down shirt and beige pants motioned in the general direction of my car.
." I was also going to ask why he bothered to open the gate if he wanted me to park the car on the street, but I decided to let it go, as yet another of life’s unexplained mysteries.
His majesty looked me over, shook his head, and motioned me inside. I followed him through the doorway and into the foyer. It was bright inside as the sun shone down through sky lights in the 15 feet or so high ceiling.
", the man servant ordered. Spanish guitar and orchestral music played softly in the background. I think it was Rodrigo's Concierto de Arjanuez.
I looked around and decided to park myself on a beige leather couch. The foyer was spacious, but not to the point of hearing one’s echo with every utterance. The baseboards and door trim were painted white and the walls were a soft beige. Along the walls hung pastel water color paintings in brilliant gold frames that glinted in the sunlight. The chandelier sparkled, just enough to be a pleasant distraction, but not so gaudy that it would damage one's retina. Beneath my feet was an area carpet over a marble floor. The floor covering was definitely Persian. The rectangular pattern was intricate and colorful. On a coffee table was a large hard cover book entitled Frank Lloyd Wright. There was not so much as a single crease in its spine. The sun, nice carpet and decor had a much needed calming effect on me. But then again, it might have been the fact that the place had air conditioning.
I waited about fifteen minutes, and was about to get up and leave when Raul Diaz walked in followed by a rather large companion. Diaz was about six foot two, trim and probably in his early fifties. This was a guy who usually carried himself with a great deal of confidence, but today he seemed different. His swarthy friend was a heavy set, balding bodyguard in an ill fitting navy blue suit that had a great a deal of difficulty concealing his bulk.
." Diaz paused for a moment and looked at his watch. He glanced up quickly and asked, "
." I also explained how the deductible was applied and that the claim would be paid up to the policy limit.
Diaz had been staring at the Persian carpet while I spoke. He sullenly glanced up when I finished. Judging from the blank expression on his face, it was apparent that he had not heard a word that I said. This was rather odd as the last time we had met he had been quite interested in the status of his claim. The value of it was not a great deal to a man like him, but he never missed a meeting with me and always had lots of questions. I think our dealings had a certain novelty value to him.
." He looked tired. His body guard stood motionless staring right through me. I could sense a tension in the air. Something was wrong. The last time I met Diaz, his body guard had seemed indifferent to me and had been flipping through a magazine. I think it was the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue. I guess the Frank Lloyd Wright was what his boss read.
." Diaz turned and led me through his home, which involved passing through a dark wood paneled living room, a den with a pool table, and a kitchen with lots of hanging brass pots, until we ended up in the rear of the estate. His patio gave an expansive view of the ocean. As we approached, I could hear the sound of the ocean crash on the beach below and seagulls overhead. The salt of the ocean hung in the air. His big friend followed a few paces behind. The humidity was still present, but much less of a burden with the gentle breeze blowing in off the coast. Diaz and I sat down at a table with an umbrella that shielded us from the unrelenting Californian sun. I reached into my suit jacket for a pen and almost instantly felt the big hand of Diaz's bodyguard clamp down on my left shoulder like a sledge hammer.
I didn't know what was happening, maybe they were pissed off about how I handled the claim. The bodyguard had not let go, and I saw his other hand reach into his jacket. On instinct, I reached for his neck tie and yanked on it. This caused him to lose his balance and his head smashing against the glass top of the patio table before he ended up flat on his back. Still holding on to his tie, I stood up and placed my left foot across his neck, applying just enough pressure to let him know that if I lost my balance he might end up with a crushed windpipe. I then bent down and quickly reached inside his jacket and pulled his Berreta out of its shoulder holster.
", Diaz said nervously. He then started yelling at Mario in Spanish I think something about fornication and eternal damnation.
Mario gargled as he glared at me from beneath the sole of my shoe. A little trickle of blood escaped from an abrasion on his chin. He also had a bad cut by his left temple. It was obvious that he and I were not going to be friends anytime soon. I let go of his tie and removed my foot. He immediately reached for his throat gasping while I tossed his gun over the patio ledge into some bushes below.
Mario did not have much to say.
Diaz turned away and gazed at the ocean and continued. "
Maybe Diaz was waiting for me to inquire into the nature of his family crisis, but I didn't because I didn't care. I sat back down at a different patio table, and this time without interruption, retrieved my pen from my crumpled linen suit jacket. Diaz seated himself across from me once more and stirred a drink that his manservant presented to him. The servant busied himself sweeping up the shards of glass that had once formed a table top. There were no refreshments for me. I pulled out Diaz’s file from my briefcase and pushed my pen and a form across the table towards him. He didn't read the claim settlement form, but nevertheless signed it at the bottom above his name. I reached over and took the document back, and then handed him the check.
About two months ago, I received an assignment from Mr. Diaz's insurance company, California Surety, to investigate the theft of a very large quantity of jewelry from Diaz's home. The insurance company's claims department suspected that much, if not all, of the stolen jewelry was not personal jewelry purchased with money derived from legitimate income. Rather, they thought it was the profits illegally acquired from criminal activities like drug trafficking and money laundering which paid for the jewelry. The insurance company felt confident that if they could establish the jewelry was actually the proceeds of criminal activity, they could deny Diaz's claim by relying on a rarely used policy exclusion. This exclusion specified that property illegally acquired was not insured.
Initially, I told the insurance company that their analysis was brilliant except for one small detail. They did not have one scintilla of evidence supporting their view. Moreover, the burden of proof for such a case would be quite considerable. There was no doubt that their policy holder was a significant merchant of misery, but establishing that the jewelry was purchased with drug money, and not by the profits of a multitude of legitimate businesses owned by Diaz would be next to impossible.
To prove such a claim would have required the full cooperation of the local authorities at both the state and federal levels. This was not going to happen for a very simple reason. Diaz was just not a priority with the police. He dealt exclusively in the wholesale importation of what were generally considered to be the soft drugs like marijuana and hashish. In police circles, it is the heroin, crack, ecstasy and cocaine dealers and users who are responsible for the vast majority of violent crime. These hard drug users shoot cops, do drive by shootings and also get the most media attention. Pot heads get the munchies and listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash. This may not be entirely true, and it would be a lie to say no one was ever beat up or killed over a bag of weed, but this was the view, of the LAPD and politicians who called the shots. To complicate matters further, Diaz kept an extremely low profile, and was not known to be a violent individual. On the rare occasion when he had someone slapped around, it was usually scum over whom the police were not about to get lumps in their throats.
In any case, I explained these finer points to California Surety, but they would not listen. They were totally fixated on using their little policy exclusion to save them a small fortune in order to have a pretty financial quarter. Of course, no one in their claims department was going to go up against Diaz, and get into a fight that might risk the life and limb of the adjuster. No, instead, they decided to farm out that unpleasant task to my business.
For the past seven years, my business partner, Roger Jones and I, have been operating an independent claims investigation firm. For a very modest hourly fee plus expenses, we will investigate, negotiate and settle any suspicious insurance claim that an insurance company, law firm or private corporation wish to unload on us. We tend to have a love/hate relationship with many insurance companies which loathe the thought of paying our investigation fees. However, they must use us because sometimes their own staff are not qualified or willing to do the dirty work. We get the messy claims. We do not get the neat, easy, straight forward ones. You know, like banker’s wife loses engagement ring down kitchen sink, and that sort of thing.
When I first met with Diaz at his home, I was straight up with him. I made it clear that I knew what he was all about. I told him that the fact that he was a trafficker was of no consequence to me. If he could supply the proper documentation in support of his claim then I would recommend to his insurer that he be paid in full. This made Mario extremely nervous about me from the very beginning. I am sure that Diaz had me checked out long ago, and was fairly confident that I was just an adjuster and not some cop, DEA or IRS agent. On the other hand, Mario, having limited ability in written or spoken English, and possibly in cognitive activities, may have not been as convinced as to my true identity.
During one of my initial meetings with Diaz I explained that the onus rested upon him to prove his claim, and that the best way for him to do so was to have his accountant provide me with all the original invoices of purchase of the jewelry along with proof of the method of payment. Of course, Mario and all of Diaz's other associates flipped out. They openly asked me if I was connected with law enforcement of some kind. But, Diaz ignored all of them and complied with my request. The accountant's documentation demonstrated that payment was made by cash, checks and sometimes credit card, and that the funds came from personal accounts of Diaz that accumulated the profits of several legitimately owned businesses. I typed up a report to California Surety recommending that they pay his claim. They delayed payment for quite some time while they had me try to dig up dirt on his suspicious import/export business. I knew it was a waste of time, but if they wanted to pay my fee, who was I to complain. When I interim billed the insurance company for about thirty-five hours of work I was given a lecture on how adjuster’s fee accounts were a growing drain on insurer’s resources. When I did not offer a ‘
discount, I was told to close my file and give Diaz their check.
After giving Diaz his check, I closed my briefcase and got up to leave. Mario said something to Diaz, but it wasn’t in Spanish. It was another language. Diaz looked up from the check in his hand and said, "
." There was a light sheen of sweat on his forehead.
." I tossed one on the table. He nodded politely at me and turned back to the ocean.
It was a Friday afternoon which meant the direction of traffic was heaviest leading out of the city's core. As I was headed back to my downtown office, I figured that maybe I would make good time. Not a chance. I tried a couple of different radio stations for a traffic report that might suggest a better route than the one I was taking. All the traffic reports were the same. The July fourth holiday weekend was upon us and everyone had decided to hop in their car to go somewhere. One station recommended that if you had a traveling companion, then it would be a good time to discuss the meaning of life, as it would be a long time before the snail pace, stop and go traffic improved.
When I arrived about an hour later, Janet was typing and didn't notice me walk in. She was busy transcribing either mine or Roger's dictation. Janet was in her late twenties, and had started working for us about a year ago. I liked her. Maybe too much, and sometimes I was having difficulty keeping my thoughts on a professional level. I hadn't said anything to her in that regard and was unsure whether she felt the same way. What drew me to her in the first place was her calm demeanor in spite of our rather volatile work environment. Often angry people, who have suffered some sort of a loss, would direct their venom at us. We are the first people they look to for answers, and our answers are not always well received. Unlike some of our previous employees, Janet was a quiet girl who never got angry or offended by the angry clients or the volleys of profanity and barbs that Roger and I would on occasion hurl at each other. Our offices were directly across from each other, and poor Janet had her work station situated in the middle. Our offices came equipped with doors, but we never used them.
I could hear Roger on the phone patiently trying to explain to somebody why their insurance claim was being denied. I walked into his office and dropped into one of two red leather wing back chairs that were positioned in front of his desk. I leaned back in it and put my feet up on a matching leather foot stool. I was seated next to a floor to ceiling bookcase that was well stocked with impressive text books on insurance law. Roger sat behind an enormous oak desk which was very well organized. There was an in-tray and an out-tray filled with letters, reports and telephone messages. On the desk was a single file lying open in front of him into which he scribbled notes while he argued with the person on the other end of the phone.
The furniture was expensive, but I was comforted by the fact that none of our business' money was tied up in it. When we formed our partnership I insisted on both our signatures on every check for payment of all business expenses. There was no way I was going to subsidize the luxurious level of living which Roger felt the world owed him. I was often amazed at how he managed to furnish his office in such regal splendor in view of the modest income generated by our business.
The pictures on his office walls were not prints. No, they were original oil paintings done by a young Mexican art student, very attractive I might add, who was all the rage in the galleries. Her paintings depicted peculiar scenes in California and the border region with Mexico. The painting I stared at was an abandoned Volkswagen bug in a sand dune. Except for the rust spots, the car's body was covered in an intricate graffiti design. The painting was entitled
. One day, Roger explained to me the story behind the picture. Supposedly, the artist was a recent illegal immigrant who had encountered the car on her way across the border in the desert. She spent the night sleeping in it, and in the morning she spray painted it with graffiti. Working from memory, she produced the painting. Yeah, right.
The late afternoon sunshine poured in from a large window behind Roger. I stared beyond where he sat, out the window, at an office building across the street. I had a nice view of an architect's office. There was a really cute blonde working at one of several drafting tables. Hunched over her desk, she appeared to be working intently. A heavy set older man in a suit, maybe the boss, walked by her table with a briefcase in hand and waved at her as he moved on out of view. A couple of minutes later she looked up from her work to the clock on the wall, and then started to pack up for the day. She checked her hair and makeup with a compact, straightened her glenplaid skirt, and then left. With her gone, I leaned back in the chair a bit more and looked at the light copper sky above the architect's building. A drink of scotch, maybe
, and one of Roger's cigars would have been the perfect way to end the week, but the scotch was down the hall in the kitchen, and I was too lazy to move.
Roger Jones was a short, heavy set, English guy who was 36 years old, twice divorced, and a guy who generally liked the finer things in life. Several years ago, he and I met shortly after I got my first job as a journalist for the BBC in Dublin. I had just graduated from Queen's University of Belfast, and was thrilled to be working as a reporter. At my job interview, they mentioned that I would do a lot of traveling, but they conveniently neglected to comment on the volatile working conditions. Little did I know at the time that the last two journalists sent by my employer had disappeared. Both of them, apparently, had abruptly quit.
. He busied himself supplying them with stories of bombings, assassinations, and the latest developments in the seemingly never ending conflict in Africa. I soon learned that I was supposed to do the exact same thing for the BBC. He and I would bump into each other at the same press conferences, the same hotel lobbies and, of course, the same bars. At one point, I thought the whole continent was at war. By the end of a five year stint of reporting in Angola, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zaire, and other countries, I had decided that I had to move on. I came to that realization while trapped in a bank, in what was then Zaire, during a twelve hour rebel bombardment. During that peculiar period of rather tense captivity, Roger and I talked about life in general, and decided that if we got out of that bank alive, we would definitely find new jobs.
I probably had a promising future in the BBC if I had stuck it out for another couple of years whereas Roger was not making such a big sacrifice. He knew his days with the AP were numbered. His expense accounts were very robust to say the least, and were responsible for a rapidly disintegrating relationship with his employer. We tossed around all sorts of cities to move to but couldn't seem to agree on anything. However, when he suggested we make a clean break and try our hand at journalism in L.A., it just seemed to be a step in the right direction. Why? I don't know. Maybe all the hype and romanticism of the place got to me. I had never been to California, even though I moved to America when I was twelve years old. When my father's stock broker career nearly ended in the recession of '73 and '74, my mother managed to convince him to relocate the family from Belfast to Maine. We never traveled much out of state, so I had never seen the west coast. When it was time for me to go to university, my mother insisted that I go to Queens, and so I never even had a chance to see much of the U.S. as a student. The reason Roger wanted to move to L.A. was because the climate was temperate, and he didn't have any creditors in the US, as opposed to Britain and nearly every African country.
In L.A., it turned out that none of the newspapers would tolerate Roger's free-wheeling ways. Besides, the pay was quite a bit lower. So, he looked for similar work, and that was how he ended up working as an insurance adjuster. The work was sufficiently similar in the sense that there was plenty of investigative activity that involved tape recorded interviews, as well as reports to write up, and send to insurance companies advising them the status of a given investigation. He also liked the fact that he was not chained to his desk. The job required a lot of road work. If there was a house fire in Torrance he would hop into his car and race to the scene. After putting the family up in a hotel, and arranging for a contractor to board up the dwelling, he and the fire department had to carefully examine the fire scene. Establishing the origin and cause of a fire is an inexact science requiring a scientific background and a certain intuition about how and why the fire spread in a particular direction. It also helps to have the ability to read people and their motives and ambitions. After the scene investigation was concluded Roger would return to the office and dictate a report to the insurance company advising of what had been done and what remained to be accomplished.
I think the clincher for Roger was the higher income that came with his new found vocation. The adjuster is supposed to charge only for the time spent on a file. If the file concerned a house fire where Roger was required to spend two hours sifting through the debris, then he was supposed to charge only for that two hours of work. He soon learned that some scene investigations could be wrapped up in a couple hours while another fire might take an entire day. He quickly realized that he could pad his files in terms of investigative time, which meant bigger fee accounts that in turn translated into larger income. Roger was very fond of any activity that resulted in more money. It seemed that all his fire investigations were lengthy 3-5 hour scene investigations . . .
While my future business partner was learning the ropes of his new found vocation, I had been diligently toiling away for one of the major L.A. papers covering mostly college basketball. It was quite tedious and soul sucking for a guy who didn't like basketball. So, it did not take much convincing on Roger's part to get me to make a much needed career change. He and I slugged it out at different insurance companies before we decided to go on our own, and together form our own independent claims adjusting firm,
When he finally got off the phone I smiled and said, “Sounds like you’ve got a real winner there."
Roger frowned and replied, "Some insurance broker sold her a policy without sewer back up coverage and now she has a basement filled with very ripe fecal material and wants the insurance company to pay."
“To make matters worse, you have to tell her that in such a way that you don’t lay all the blame on the broker because if he thinks we are suggesting he isn’t doing his job properly then we will never see any more work from his office.”
pen down, leaned across his desk and turned a polished cedar cigar humidor towards me. I got up from my chair and reached for a corona, clipped it and lit it up. He did the same. The cigar was very fine. The taste of the Cuban tobacco was rich and the aroma quickly filled the office. We weren’t old men, but we sure knew how to behave like them.
"Martin, my dear fellow, how would you like to double your income?" Roger asked as he exhaled a great smoke ring. He leaned back in his chair, and appeared immensely pleased with himself.
"I like my income right where it is," I lied.
"I got a friend, Santo DeGazzio, who is a bounty hunter and is just raking in the bucks. He is making around two hundred grand a year.”
“He is doing more than just working for the local bondsman. He does jobs for the mob, the D.A.'s Office, and anyone else. That's not what we are about."
"Marty, take it easy, Santo has a lot of work on his plate right now and he would like to farm out a couple of jobs to us."
"Tell him we're not interested," I said curtly.
"Look, business is down. Anyway, it's a moot point. I have already started on one of his files."
I was about to say something else when Janet came in the office. "I hate to interrupt you guys, but . . . ", she turned to me and asked "Martin where did you park your car?"
"Down on the street. Why?" I usually parked in the building's underground lot, but my pass had expired, and I didn't feel like coughing up the money for another month until things improved at work. Lately, insurance companies weren’t breaking our door down to hire us.
I got up and walked to the window behind Roger, and I could see my car being battered by Diaz's goons. Mario and two baseball bat wielding Neanderthals were busily smashing the car’s windshield. I was not impressed. Roger and Janet were saying something about calling the police as I stormed out of the office.
I was out on the street about a minute later just in time to see Mario and his two pals walking away. I marched over to my car and motioning with my cigar I called out "Eh!, Mario! you forgot this signal light!" Shards of glass that had once formed the left headlight of my beloved automobile crunched under my shoes. He turned around and appeared genuinely pleased to see me. He had my business card in his hand.
"Wow! You figured out where my office is located all by yourself?" This guy obviously had a very bruised ego that wasn't going to heal without a show down.
He crushed my card and motioned for his two muscle heads to pay me a visit. One of these goons was closer to me than the other so I dropped my cigar, and strode quickly towards him, as I wanted to finish him off before his counterpart caught up. This thug was a bit surprised when I approached him, but was certainly not backing down. When I was about three feet from him he wound up for a big swing at me, and that's when I stepped in towards him. As a result, his swing lost its force, and he lost his balance when I stomped on his left foot. As he fell, I punched him in the head for good measure.
The bat dropped to the pavement and I was reaching for it when I got clubbed by his friend. The Louisville Slugger caught me in the shoulder and sent me reeling backwards. I tumbled on to the sidewalk and I heard a lady's voice shriek. Looking up, I saw a small crowd gather on the sidewalk, but none of them offered any assistance. I was going to yell for them to call the police when that thought was interrupted by the Slugger being swung into my ribs. I involuntarily assumed a fetal like position with a burning fire in my rib cage. While I lay panting on the pavement, I saw the bastard's feet move towards me and kick me hard in the ribs. When he moved in for a second kick, I grabbed his left foot and twisted it with both hands until I felt something tear, and I heard the thug scream. While he laid on the sidewalk writhing in pain, I somehow managed to get back onto my feet.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mario standing there. He had a Berreta in his hand. I guess he didn't have much difficulty finding it in the bushes, where I had thrown it earlier in the afternoon. While I was thinking about what to do next, I heard Roger pipe up from behind me.
"Back off you sod! We've got everything on videotape . . . My secretary has got her camcorder running on us right now!" Roger paused and looked at Mario more closely and said " . . . Eh Mario . . . is that you?"
"Mr. Jones? . . .whazz you doing here?. . . " Mario responded cordially and lowered his gun. His accent was not Spanish. I couldn’t place it.
Roger was about to say something else when I cut in. "What the hell is going on here?
"Well . . . actually. . . I do", Roger sputtered. "He works for one of Santo's client's whose file I agreed we would take over." His voice dropped off, but I heard him.
Without a word, I turned and stumbled across the street back to our office building like a wounded animal freshly struck by a car. In the entrance, Janet stood there with the camcorder still pointed out at the street. I pointed my finger at her and yelled "What do you know about this? Huh?" I walked passed her hoping she would follow. Otherwise I would never find out the truth if Roger was my only source. Like any good journalist knows, you need at least two good sources for every story. Where Roger was concerned, two sources were the bare minimum.
As we rode the elevator to the fifth floor, Janet started talking. "I didn't tell you about Mario and his boss, Mr. Diaz, because Roger said you would flip if you found out."
"Damn right I would!" I said while we walked into my office. "Shut the door and start at the beginning." I rummaged through my desk looking for a pack of cigarettes as Janet started talking once more.
"Over the past week, Roger has been meeting regularly with Mr. DeGazzio and Raul Diaz at his home. The only reason I know is because I would set up the appointments, and Roger asked me once to stay behind and photocopy the Diaz file for him."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "What do you mean photocopy the Diaz file? . . . Roger's not working on that file at all. In fact, I wrapped up the Godamn thing this afternoon!"
Janet was visibly shaken and fell silent. Realizing that I was practically shouting, I paused and let out a big sigh.
"Janet, please sit down. I’m sorry. I'm just really confused because I was getting the shit kicked out of me down there on the sidewalk, and I was about to be shot in broad day light when Roger gets all chummy with my would be executioner."
Janet stared down at her hands. Her chestnut brown hair drooped down in front of her eyes. "There are actually two Diaz files. While you have been working on that jewelry claim for the past few months, Roger has been busy over the last week being brought up to date on another matter that Santo DeGazzio had originally been handling for Mr. Diaz. Nearly two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, Mr. Diaz's daughter, Sandra, was kidnaped. On the following Friday, he received a telephone call demanding two million dollars. Friday night he paid the ransom as instructed, but Sandra was not released. On Saturday, he got a second phone call advising that the price had increased by another two million. This time Mr. Diaz did not pay. A few days pass and then this week on Tuesday he received a package in the mail. He unwrapped the package and found an X rated video tape inside."
"I don't get it . . . a porno tape?", and then it dawned on me. "I take it Diaz's daughter was in it and nothing was left to the imagination?".
"Yes . . . nothing was left to the imagination", she whispered. "Right now, Mr. Diaz does not have his daughter back, and he thought DeGazzio could locate her before he got the third ransom demand. A note was attached to the video tape advising that if he did not honor the next ransom demand, then the tape would find its way on to the local cable porn channel."
"Okay Janet, from what you've told me I can read between the lines and figure out the rest. Basically, Diaz knows that if he goes to the police they will do jack shit for him because they consider him to be a low life. Furthermore, he knows that a half-hearted investigation by the police will not likely go unnoticed by the kidnappers, which could prove even more detrimental to the well being of his daughter." Luckily, I had found a pack of Marlboros by this time, and put them to good use as I tried to digest our conversation. Much to Janet's dismay, I used my tea cup as an ashtray. Where was the
? In the kitchen, but now it was not laziness, I was too winded to move.
I continued, "Diaz, of course, would use his usual underworld contacts to find out who the kidnappers are, but probably knowing how unreliable such sources can be, he decided to employ DeGazzio at the same time. Janet, do you know why DeGazzio has turned the file over to Roger?"
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat and quietly said, "No." I didn't believe her. She was an intelligent young lady who couldn't find a job in her field despite her physics degree, and found herself working for us because of the bleak economy. When Roger and I hired her, it was with the understanding that she might only be with us for a short while, until she found work better suited for her. In spite of this, she had remained with us for over a year, and I suspected that she liked her job, and had no intention of leaving.
I looked at her and she glanced away quickly. I inhaled on the cigarette deeply while I pondered just how much she really knew was going on. "Janet, you're not stupid. Why is DeGazzio trying to flip this file over to Roger?"
She got up and walked over to the window to stare down at the street. She wore a loose fitting paisley dress that concealed her slim, athletic frame. Quietly she said, "Mr. DeGazzio has no leads and basically needs Roger to help him out."
I smiled. "I would suggest further that DeGazzio has already taken money from Diaz . . . probably gouged him, and he is now realizing that he can't produce the goods. So, he approaches Roger and sells him a bullshit story about being too busy to handle this job, and that Roger could take it over in exchange for charging whatever he wants."
I tapped my cigarette and asked Janet why she kept all this from me. She said that Roger felt we would be out of business if we placed all our hopes on work coming from insurance companies. He also told her that we were getting to the point where we could not afford her if we did not diversify. I told her that work had indeed slowed down, but that things were not that desperate. I had just asked Janet to pull this Diaz file and the videotape for me when Roger walked in. He had a stupid grin on his face.
"I guess I've got some explaining to do", he said. He ran a hand through his thinning blonde hair while he waited for me to respond.
"Don't bother, Janet just finished telling me everything", I grumbled. I was tired and my head was starting to ache more than my ribs.
"Mario told me about you two mixing it up at Diaz's place. He said he's sorry, and that he didn't know that you and I were partners."
I just stared at him.
Two cops walked in on us and wanted me to give a statement identifying Mario and company. I said I didn't have a clue who they were. I was not protecting the scum, but rather avoiding a great waste of my time with the cops, their statements, and their bullshit promises to lay charges. I'd been through it before, and knew what their good intentions would get me . . . nothing. I told the cops that I confronted some creeps vandalizing my car, and no I didn't know why anyone would want to do this to me. They got the hint pretty quick, and since they didn't want to waste their time on a Friday night, they left.
While I had been patiently suffering the police interview, Roger drifted in and out of my office, and was conveniently not around after they had left. Janet had placed the file and the video tape on my desk during the police interview. I started to go through the file because I just wanted to confirm my gut feeling that DeGazzio had nothing to go on, and had unloaded this clusterfuck of a job on Roger.
It took me about an hour to review the file. Diaz's twenty three year old daughter was no bimbo. She was attending Yale and was about half way through a post graduate degree in Middle Eastern history. Why? What's Spanish girls doing studying the Middle East I thought to myself. Anyway, she just happened to be out on the west coast visiting her parents for part of the summer break. Two Saturdays ago, she left her father's mansion to do some grocery shopping and was never seen again. The following Friday, Diaz got a phone call from a male caller who demanded the payment of two million dollars cash be paid that afternoon. The caller had instructed that the money be placed in a car parked in the same parking garage of the Santa Monica shopping center where Sandra Diaz was last seen. As directed, Diaz had one of his guys go to the underground parkade, and leave the money in a sports duffel bag, on the passenger seat, in a certain numbered parking space. Diaz's associate was to leave the car unlocked.
After several hours passed, the money was gone, and Diaz's daughter was nowhere to be found. It became obvious to Diaz that he had been ripped off. So, when the second ransom demand came along the next day, he decided to gamble, and not pay up. He wanted to see if his own underworld investigative efforts could turn anything up. His gamble crapped out when he got the video tape in the mail, along with a note warning that it would find its way to a much larger late night cable audience, if he did not co operate in the very near future.
Maybe DeGazzio took on the assignment because he knew that the underground parking area was covered by twenty-four hour security cameras. Possibly, he thought that all he would have to do is get the video tape, and then he would be home free. DeGazzio did manage to get a hold of a surveillance tape, but it was not of the abduction. There was no video to review with respect to the kidnapping. Roger and DeGazzio interviewed the security guard on duty and he explained that the last guy on the earlier shift had forgotten to switch video tapes for the upcoming work day. However, the video tape that DeGazzio did get a hold of concerned another shift on the following Friday that captured a guy who picked up the ransom, but the picture quality was very poor. All that could be said about the guy who collected the ransom was that he was possibly Hispanic and had a mustache. Brilliant, that just narrowed the suspects down to about half the male population of greater Los Angeles.
After running down the video surveillance lead, DeGazzio then pulled Diaz's telephone records, looking to trace the location of the ransom caller. It turns out that the call was untraceable. Calls can be untraceable for a number of reasons like they were made from a cellular phone or it was placed from out of state or outside the country.
By the time I got to the end of the file, I could see that DeGazzio had taken seven grand up front from Diaz. Roger was charging lots of time for meetings, but had little else to show for his efforts. These two kindergarten flunkies were playing with fire, and if they weren't careful they would be getting more than their fingers burnt. Somebody was going to lose an eye or worse.
The only thing left to do was to look at the video tape. I had to go into Roger's office to view it because he had the TV and VCR. The tape was very disturbing to watch. I counted five guys, Diaz's daughter and another woman probably in her late twenties. I recognized Diaz's daughter, as she had many of Diaz's facial features and complexion. Furthermore, she was obviously heavily drugged while the other girl was much more lucid and adept at the sexual encounters.
As I watched the videotape, I found myself getting very angry because Sandra Diaz was obviously so doped up that she barely understood what was happening to her. Her attempts to push the men off her were reciprocated with slaps and profanity. The other woman was aware of what was going on, and her suggestion to the men to take it easy on Sandra was ignored. The sweaty skin, tattoos, and the over dubbed fake groans were revolting. The guys squinted under the bright lights while Sandra stared blankly into the camera.
It wasn't hard to understand why some scumbag might want to kidnap Diaz's daughter. Obviously, money was a primary motive. But, videotaping the girl's rape could not possibly further such a purpose. Whoever her captors were, they were clearly working on an entirely different level, much lower than the simple emotion of greed. There was something else going on.
I don't know why I cared about her, but it was probably the video itself. Maybe if I had just read the file, and there was no tape I would have felt little if anything towards the woman's horrible plight. However, watching it unfold revealed the enormity of what had happened. With respect to the other woman in the video, she was also being terribly exploited whether she knew it or not.
I watched the tape a second time, looking for any clues, which might hint at where it was shot. I watched it a third time and was going through it a fourth when I drifted off to sleep. The combination of the weariness from the fight in the street, and my aching head and sore chest caused my body to cry out for some sleep. I awoke suddenly when I heard voices out by the reception area along with the bad music of the porn flick which still played on the television. I sat up in Roger's swivel chair and swung around to the window and could see that it was dark. The street lights lit up the sidewalk below and there was a cleaning woman vacuuming the architect's office. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was quarter after eleven. Roger walked in followed by DeGazzio, Diaz and of course Mario.
I jumped out of Roger's chair when I saw them. They were surprised to see me. Diaz motioned with his hands for me to sit down. I had a splitting headache, which was getting worse and my ribs hurt with every breath. I couldn't take much more so I sat down. Meanwhile, the porn tape continued to play quite loudly. He walked over and turned the TV off. For a moment there was silence. What could be said? The guy might be a merchant of misery, but I couldn't help, but feel sorry for him. There were no adequate words of sympathy.
Diaz was wearing the same tired expression I recalled from when I had last seen him earlier in the day. He had changed his clothes since the afternoon, but the starched white shirt under a dark olive suit did not hide his obvious fatigue. DeGazzio fidgeted nervously on the couch in his purple silk shirt that was unbuttoned too low revealing chest hair and gold chains. If I didn't know better, I would have guessed DeGazzio was the mobster, and Diaz to be an Ivy league accountant gone astray. Surprisingly, Mario made no attempt to make eye contact with me, and instead simply stood by the door staring at the floor probably because he did not want to risk catching a glimpse of his boss' daughter on the TV even though it was off.
Roger spoke first. "Martin, I thought you would be home by now or at least at the hospital." He gave a little chuckle at his feeble attempt at humor. I just gave him a withering stare, and then he continued. "We came here to discuss Mr. Diaz's problem."
Diaz had found the wing back chair which I had sat in earlier. He slowly raised his head and met my gaze. In a desperate tone said, "I see you have watched this film and presumably you have looked at what we have", he said and pointed at the thick file on the desk between us. I nodded and then he asked in a voice of desperation, "What do you think?"
"You want to know what I really think?" I asked rhetorically. I paused and then pointing at Roger and DeGazzio I said, "I think these two jackasses haven't got a hope of getting your daughter back anytime soon."
DeGazzio jumped up from the sofa, and stabbed at me with his index finger from across the room. He sputtered, "Fuck you! . . .You Godamn mick! . . .Roger and I are bustin' our ass on this and we are gonna find her and after that I'm gonna bury you!"
I leaned back in Roger's chair and lit another cigarette. I had forgotten that my Irish accent was still noticeable after all the time I had spent away from my dear old homeland. Calmly, I said to DeGazzio, "Good, tell us what you've got?" I watched Roger take a deep breath and swallow hard. Fuck you too I thought.
DeGazzio launched into a grandiose explanation of how he had contacts with the phone company trying to trace those untraceable phone calls, and how he had a video expert studying the surveillance video in detail. The expert was supposedly attempting to get a clearer image of the guy who collected the ransom money. He then rambled on about a contact in the FBI who was unofficially working on this matter. When I heard that pathetic lie I couldn't help but laugh. DeGazzio was really angry judging by his beet red face. There was a bulging vein on the right side of his neck that pulsed so vibrantly that I feared it might explode, spewing frothy, thick, reptilian blood everywhere. It would be such a shame if any such blood soiled his pretty shirt.
"Enough of this bullshit!" Diaz yelled as he jumped to his feet. "Maguire! Tell me what you would do!"
I leaned back in the chair even more. "Mr. Diaz I would like to speak to you alone", I said.
Diaz turned to the others and said "Everyone! Out!" He slammed shut the office door behind them and turned back to me. The central air-conditioning vent above him gently hissed cool air that lifted a tuft of hair on his forehead, which was beaded with perspiration. Diaz regained some of his composure and walked over and sat down once more across the desk from me while I leaned forward. I met his gaze and said, "I thought DeGazzio had transferred over handling of this matter to Roger?"
"Your friend Roger does not impress me, and because Santo introduced him to me, I hold him fully accountable!" Diaz slumped in his chair heavily with a look of near defeat. Probably realizing that he was yelling at me, he started to apologize. "I'm sorry. Can you help me? I'll pay you anything. I have to have my Sandra back . . ." His voice trailed off to a whisper and then he started to whimper. About the only thing that bothers me more than a woman crying is a man doing the same. I started talking to him in an effort to avoid any further embarrassment.
"I'll be blunt with you. Roger and DeGazzio may have the best of intentions, but they are going nowhere with this investigation. I read the file and I watched the tape. . . . I will only take this case on if you agree to certain conditions." I couldn’t believe what I was saying. Part of me wanted no part of this shit storm, while another part, coming from a place somewhere inside me that I do not visit much had taken charge of the situation.
Diaz nodded quickly without any hint of hesitation. He mopped his brow with the sleeve of his jacket and waited for me to continue. Again, I thought to myself for a second that maybe I was getting in over my head, but quickly disregarded the idea when I remembered the video. I did have some shred of human decency left, no matter how small, there was something there.
Diaz fidgeted nervously in his chair and asked very quietly, "What is it that you want? How much?"
I told him how much I wanted. I wasn't cheap and I made it clear that I was to be paid regardless of the outcome. "I want to be paid in cash and I want you to pay me, not Roger or that other idiot. You pay me. I work for you. Your arrangement with them is your own affair, not mine."
"Agreed", he said.
"Secondly, I am not promising you anything. I will do my best to find your daughter, and if necessary I will get her myself. Furthermore, I want Roger to assist me, but DeGazzio is not to be involved. I will pay Roger out of what you pay me."
I was very tired, but had one other thing to say. "I want to meet you tomorrow morning and we will work out a strategy."
"What do you mean tomorrow? We cannot waste any more time. We have got to find her now!"
"Look, it's midnight and I'm barely awake. You look like shit. Neither one of us can even think straight. We're like a pair of punch drunk fighters, past our prime, trying to hold on to each other in a clinch, until the bell rings ending the miserable round." I stood up and said "I've been down this road before . . .trust me . . . whoever the bastards are, they want your money, and they know that your daughter is their only bargaining chip." I didn't know how comforting that comment was, nor if it was even accurate, but as usual it had tumbled out before I could take it back.
Diaz got out of his chair and with a resigned look and said, "Okay. I'll meet you here tomorrow morning at six thirty." I winced at the thought of getting up that early, but I nodded as he walked out. Roger sauntered in after Diaz left, and I reluctantly told him what had been discussed.
The following morning I got up at about 5:00 a.m. and felt like hell. My ribs still ached, and I had scrapes and cuts on my knees, but at least my headache was gone. I had a quick shower and put on a crisp white shirt. My suit from the day before was torn in the knee and blood stained, so I curled it up in a ball and tossed it in the garbage. In the closet, I found a beige linen suit that I had not worn in a while. I peered out my apartment window while I knotted my neck tie and noticed somber clouds which threatened rain. Maybe there would be some relief from the torturous heat wave. It was hard to tell what the weather was like outside with the air-conditioning unit blaring from the bottom of the window. Sometimes I felt that I lived in a meat locker. I opened the sliding door and stepped out onto the balcony. Surprisingly, I was greeted by unseasonably cool air and a grey, overcast sky.
I found my rain coat. The light weight Burberry's coat came in handy for another reason. After what happened yesterday, I was determined not to leave my apartment until I found a little hardware. Guns are like condoms in the sense that a guy always knows where they are in his apartment. The Glock had been stored in the closet underneath an old leather bound photo album in a shoe box. The hand gun weighed heavily in my hand in spite of it's mere twenty ounces. It had been a while since I had held the 9mm Austrian pistol. There was a full clip in it. I slipped it into the inside chest pocket of the overcoat, and dropped in a couple of clips with it just in case. A quick glance in the mirror confirmed there were no unsightly bulges revealing anything as menacing as a gun. I took a cab to the office.
During the ride, I rolled the cab's window down and enjoyed the cool morning air. The heat wave and its humidity were gone. The cloudy sky was a welcome change to the cigarette finger yellow skies of the past few weeks. And then it started to rain. There was a light drizzle coming down on an angle pelting my face. It felt good. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the cabbie look at me strangely. He told me that the rain would last all day. I smiled and he frowned.
I made my way into the office kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. The refrigerator didn't store anything that I could remotely call 'breakfast.' There was an old sandwich of mine that was about two weeks old and some mineral water. It didn't matter anyway because I still felt a little queasy from getting pounded yesterday. Once the coffee was ready, I poured myself a cup and headed into my office.
I read through the file a second time, hoping to notice something of importance that might have been overlooked because yesterday my head had been clouded by a wicked headache. The file may have only been a week or so old, but it was already thick with pages of Roger's and DeGazzio's notes based upon interviews with Diaz. He'd been interviewed extensively to see if his drug business might have something to do with his daughter's kidnapping. The notes on those meetings did not reveal any such link, but only served to give me a better understanding of his humble beginnings.
He was a Spaniard who entered the country illegally, and worked as a laborer in the Napa Valley vineyards. He married his wife back in those early days, while he worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week. When she became pregnant, he knew that he would have to come up with more money somehow. His brother-in-law, Raphael, was a very successful drug trafficker back in the old country, which was not identified, but I assumed was Spain. Neither Roger nor DeGazzio made any mention of Diaz's wife, but I presumed that she was also from Spain. When Sandra was born he approached his brother-in-law about setting up an operation here in L.A. He agreed and they never looked back. Raphael had been assassinated a month ago, but Diaz insisted it was due to his political affiliation and not his business affairs. I was not aware that Spain was experiencing such volatile politics. Was he a Basque separatist?
Diaz imported only hashish and acted as a wholesaler to top-level brokers who in turn sold it down through a series of dealers before the drugs found their way to the street. The file notes made mention of numerous underworld contacts, but this information in itself was not useful. He knew that there were plenty of people who didn't like him for a multitude of reasons, but he didn't have a clue who could be behind his daughter's abduction.
I was astounded at how stupidly cavalier DeGazzio was behaving by putting this criminal profile of sorts in the file. The file notes should have been left in the writer’s memory and definitely not typed. It was an act of pseudo professionalism that was unnecessary and dangerous if the memos fell into the wrong hands. Some things are better left unsaid. DeGazzio was clearly untrained and reckless. Roger and DeGazzio also had added plenty of memos filling most of the file that proposed various avenues of investigation to be pursued. Some of these ideas had at first glance some merit, but when investigated turned out to be dead ends. There were no witnesses. In general, the paperwork confirmed my suspicion that they had no solid leads.
I turned my attention to the video once more because it seemed obvious to me that neither Roger nor DeGazzio had studied it. I went into Roger's office and turned on the TV and hit the play button on the VCR. I scanned the video tape with the remote control looking for clues. This time around I noticed things that I hadn't picked up the night before. It was amazing what some sleep, and a strong cup of coffee could do to enhance one's attention to detail. I was making some written notes when I heard Roger enter the office, and go into the kitchen, probably for his usual morning caffeine hit. I went over for a re-fill.
"How's it going?" he said. "Did you have breakfast?"
"No, I've been busy dissecting that file."
Roger sniffed the air in mock disgust and said "Ah! shit man, you're not smoking in my office are you?" He smoked cigars but found cigarette smoking somehow revolting. It was irony that I just could not fathom.
"I was just having myself a hor's breakfast of coffee and cigarettes."
"Yeah, the breakfast of champions."
He refilled my cup and then we headed back to his office where I didn't waste anytime getting down to business. He sat down at his desk, and I eased myself into one of the over stuffed leather chairs that looked like it came off the set of Masterpiece Theatre. I took a sip of my black coffee and looked out the window. It was now raining quite hard. The gray sky steadily pelted the window. Roger told me that he asked Janet to come into work that day as we could use her assistance. It was good foresight on Roger's part because I had completely forgotten that it was a Saturday morning.
"I thought you and I were through after what happened yesterday", Roger said guardedly and then quickly changed the topic. "Why are you going to help out Diaz? He paused and took a sip of his steaming coffee and added, "I mean you don't like him or his business."
"To be honest, I had no intention of doing anything for either of you two. In fact, the only thing I had on my mind was dissolving our partnership. But, that all changed when I saw that video. There was something about it that really bothers me. I mean not just the obscenity, but also my gut feeling that this is more than just a cash grab. Diaz may be nothing but a common criminal in an expensive suit, but I just cannot overlook what happened to his daughter. To get into Yale means that she has not taken the easy way in life. Diaz may have money, but no amount of it is going to buy the grades to get his pride and joy into one of this nation's leading universities."
From behind me I could hear someone enter the office and Diaz's deep voice say, "Martin, thank you for your candor."
I felt a little bit embarrassed about what I said, but I decided to take advantage of the situation and asked, "Now that I have spilled my guts how about you doing the same."
Diaz took a seat on the couch behind me so I turned my chair around to face him. He folded his arms defensively and asked, "What do you want to know?"
“Does Sandra have a boyfriend?”
“Are you sure? You strike me as the strict father type. Not all daughters tell their father who they are seeing.”
Roger cut in and said, “He’s not bullshitting. Santo went out east and asked her roommate and she confirmed that there’s no guy in the picture.”
"Who would want to do this to you?” I asked taking the conversation in a different direction. The jealous boyfriend line of inquiry was weak at best. Sandra was studying at Yale. Surely, she would have enough sense not to date guys having anything to do with the porn business. Besides, this abduction was too professional. It was not the stuff of lusting, hot-headed and vengeful college boyfriends.
"I don't know. I have already been through this with your partner."
"I gather from reading the file that your brother-in-law is dead. So, who is your supplier now?"
"Well, Raphael's family has sold the business to an organization that I am not very familiar with. However, I still own a substantial parcel of land overseas. Raphael managed the property for me, which was used for the cultivation of our product."
"I take it that this new organization is not related to his family or you?"
"Who are they?" I asked.
"There are many organizations and for numerous reasons the owners are not always identifiable. I do not know who they are. They offered to buy me out and I said no. I am sure they are not behind this. If they were, they would have given me their demands by now. Besides that part of the world does not stoop to such a low level that they attack your family."
I had a feeling that I could question him for the rest of the day and not get any closer to locating his daughter. I decided to try a different approach.
"I would like to show Roger some points of interest that I noticed on the video. I understand that it may be difficult for you to watch it, so if you would like to leave the room for a few minutes, now would be the time."
Diaz folded his arms across his chest and glanced at one of Roger's paintings. In a low voice he said, "No I would prefer to remain."
I was about to object when Roger motioned me to be silent. He turned the TV monitor on, and with the remote control started the video. I told him to turn the volume down since it would not help matters for the present. I then took the remote control and began my commentary.
"There are a number of things that can be said about this tape. For starters, two camcorders mounted on tripods were used to shoot it. I know this because some of the same scenes are replayed from different angles and the camera movement is steady, too steady to be hand held by an amateur. The editing job is nothing impressive, but once again the fact that any editing was done at all is indicative of professionals involved in the production." I paused to light another cigarette when Roger interrupted me.
"This all very nice but so what?" he said. Roger was not being obnoxious. He just didn't see where I was going. On the other hand, Diaz was looking at me and judging from the expression on his face he probably had a good handle on what I was leading up to.
I stood up and walked over to the TV and said "What I am suggesting is that if we find out who the editor, lighting crew or the other lady is, maybe they can lead us to whoever is behind this video. I know a guy at the L.A.P.D. who works in vice. He has an unorthodox investigative technique that produces results. Specifically, he carefully watches porn movies as part of his investigation." Roger got a bit of a smirk on his face, but I just ignored him and continued. "He's not too concerned with the standard bump and grind stuff. It’s the stuff with violence, open drug use or underaged people in it that he examines. So, he reviews the kiddie porn and the snuff movies mainly in order to get clues as to who is making the filth. This strategy has worked for him and I think it could work for us. My point is that this guy might be able to give us some idea of where to track down the people in this video. If they would work in this particular movie then they have probably been in others."
Diaz nodded and said, "There is just one problem with what you are saying. What if they took Sandra out of L.A. or California and filmed this garbage somewhere else."
"Good point, but I am almost positive that this video was shot in L.A." I scanned through the video until I got to the spot that would prove my point. "Watch this, but pay particular attention to what is in the background."
Diaz shook his head as he didn't see it. Roger was more observant and said, "Give me that remote control." I handed it to him and he reversed the tape in slow motion frame by frame until he got to the exact spot on the tape. The frame of the video where Roger had paused the VCR showed a leather jacket lying on a couch. When the tape was played at normal speed, the jacket appeared on the couch only for an instant as the camera's view swung across the room.
Roger leaned back in his chair and shook his head in disbelief. "Marty, how in the hell did you see that? I guess you're not as daft as you look."
Diaz was visibly baffled and asked, "See what? I don't know what you guys are talking about."
Roger looked at me and asked "May I?" and I nodded. "Mr. Diaz, what you are looking at is a leather jacket on a couch. Right? But, it is no ordinary leather garment. The patch on the back of it reads Devil's Riders Los Angeles. A biker wearing that jacket has to be a full-fledged member of that motorcycle club. These guys generally do not stray too far from this wonderful metropolis. Something strange had to be going down for that biker to take his jacket off. The leather jacket with their patch is what they call their colors. These guys are supposed to never let their colors hit the ground. It's a bizarre status symbol and social statement that only makes sense to bikers."
As Roger was talking, I watched Diaz. His eyes were flat and reflecting nothing, like old worn, moss covered stones in a country brook. I could not detect any indication of the ire he surely must have had. The man was cold.
I tapped my Marlborough in my empty coffee cup and said, "Obviously, Roger and I will visit these bikers. As you know, that may not be easy. But, let's not fool ourselves, the bikers wouldn't do this on their own unless they had a problem with you?"
"I have no dealings with them", Diaz said swiftly.
"How about your competitors?", I asked.
Diaz thought for a moment and then replied, "Sure, there are lots who use them for certain . . . tasks. I am not friendly with all those who use them, but they are not my 'enemies.' They just do their thing and I do mine. I cannot imagine any of them doing this to my daughter. For the most part, we are business men, not animals."
"Did any of the local traffickers know your daughter was in town?", Roger asked.
"No." Diaz said. "Even if they did, they would not do this. If any of the competition did this to me, they would have to answer not only to me, but everyone else in the business. Women are off limits."
I believed Diaz. Roger and I were wasting our time at this point, exploring the business rival angle. This conversation was degenerating into speculation and repetitive questions. I looked at my watch and noticed that it was almost eight o’clock. It was time to get a move on things. "I think we have enough information to get started. What I propose to do is follow up with my L.A.P.D. contact. Roger, you can use all our usual sources to see what involvement the bikers have in this video. Find out if they are expanding into porn or hashish?" I paused while I thought of a few other things when Diaz cut in.
"I can use my people and contacts to see . . . ." Diaz was going to say something else when I interrupted him.
"I don't want you to do anything of the kind. There are ears everywhere and particularly where you are concerned. We must assume that the kidnapers are watching you very closely. The last thing we want is to give them any idea of how much or little we know. But, there is one item that I do need." I didn’t know if I should be asking him for this, but I had to have it.
"What?" Diaz asked without any hint of hesitation.
I walked over to the coat rack and pulled the Glock out of my rain coat. I held it by the barrel in my left hand and said, "I need a silencer that fits this." I then walked over to Diaz and handed it to him. "I want it and as soon as possible." He nodded and then got up to leave.
Roger showed Diaz out of the office while reassuring him that we would keep him abreast of any developments. I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea.
I walked over to the window and stared out at the street. It was still raining and I could see Mario holding the door of a black Mercedes open while Diaz walked towards it. I must have stared out that window for another five minutes or so until I heard Roger re-enter the office. My car was no longer on the street. Maybe it was stolen. In any case, it was a write-off, and at that time it was the least of my worries.
"Do you want me to have Janet let your pal in vice know you're coming?" Roger asked.
"No. It's better if I just show up unannounced." I put the video in my briefcase along with some of my notes. I was almost out the door when Roger spoke up.
"Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Diaz had your car towed away to be repaired."
I nodded and walked out with Roger's car keys unbeknownst to him. He should know better than to leave a spare set in his desk. Out in the reception area, I told Janet to tell him that I needed it for the day, and that if he required a lift he should give his friend, Mario, a call. Janet smiled slightly, which brightened my day as I headed out into the driving morning rain.
I pulled on to the highway in second gear. The engine roared and the acceleration snapped my head back. Roger had a new, candy apple red BMW. It was no wonder he was so eager to do work for DeGazzio. A guy needs a lot of cash to operate one of these fine automotive beasts. In any event, it didn't matter how good the acceleration was if the traffic was bottled up. I had driven half a mile down the highway when the traffic got so congested that I slowed to a pathetic five mile per hour crawl. It was a Saturday morning. You would think that people would sleep in a bit. Not in this city. It was not until all the rubber neckers had eyeballed a minor fender bender in the curb side lane did the flow of traffic pick up again to a decent pace.
The busy highway had tacked on another twenty minutes to what was normally a half hour drive to the main police headquarters that housed the vice squad. I eased into the police/staff parking area, and took the reserved spot of an Inspector Thomas
, whoever that was. I wasn't going to spend the morning looking for a parking spot. I checked Roger's glove compartment to see if there was a police manual or some bogus official looking law enforcement business card that I could stick on the dash. I didn't find one. My car's glove compartment was well stocked with such paraphernalia. It came in handy when I needed to park illegally. Being the brave soul that I am, I decided to take my chances with Roger’s car.
I signed in at the front desk and took a seat while the receptionist paged Jack Egan. Jack was a tough nut who didn't always play by the rules. He wanted results in his police work, and if that involved being a little creative then so be it. I had met him years ago when he was in a different police section handling suspicious fires. We crossed paths when my investigation of a fire involved determining what the police and the fire department had for evidence. The two of us usually worked side by side at a fire scene collecting evidence and conducting interviews. He wanted to convict the arsonist, and I wanted to secure proof that would enable which ever insurance company I worked for the basis to deny the claim. Accordingly, we ended up in court quite a bit testifying against some torch. I would appear for him during the criminal trial, and if there was no conviction then often the insurance company would still deny the claim. The policyholder, who we were sure was an arsonist, would then sue the insurer for breach of the contract as their claim was not being honored. Egan would be at our disposal when the civil litigation got under way.
Jack was a reliable source of information ever since I lied in court once about how he obtained evidence in a particular arson case. I didn't really see anything wrong with what I did because the defense lawyer would have used a civil rights infringement technicality to get his client off. If I told the court that Jack picked the lock of the defendant's office, then the defendant would have gotten off and collected a million dollars of insurance money, even though he set fire to his apartment building that had killed four people. There was no way I was going to let that happen. And I didn’t.
The main security door buzzed and then swung open striking the concrete block wall rather hard with a dull thud. Jack came through it like a bull being let out of its pen. He was a big Texan lad of 6'2", weighing in at about 220 pounds or thereabouts. He was wearing a red check shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. I guess he could get away with the casual dress code on weekends. I knew he would be in his office as it had always been his habit to clean up paper work on Saturday mornings.
"Judas Priest! Marty! How ya doin' man. I haven't seen you in ages," he boomed as we shook hands.
"I'm doing fine. I just thought I'd drop by and see if you wanted to take in a Lakers game." Jack hated basketball, but we were within earshot of the receptionist.
"Another fire?" he asked when we were alone in the corridor.
"No, this is a matter concerning your present area of expertise."
"Smut?" he asked as he pushed his office door open.
His office was a cluttered disaster area of papers, files and video tapes strewn all over his desk and on the floor. There was one TV with two VCRs hooked up to it and a high speed dubbing machine. Above his desk a flourescent light flickered and hummed. The windowless office with its concrete block, battle ship gray walls would have contributed to a more depressing atmosphere if it were not for all the football posters covering the walls along with plenty of newspaper clippings detailing how his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, were doing.
He noticed me looking at the clippings. He smiled approvingly and said, "They're gonna win this year for sure." He cleared a stack of files off a second chair and gestured for me to sit down. I tried to walk over to the chair without stepping on all the printed matter on the floor.
"That's what you say every year."
"Yeah, but this Judas year will be different. Anyway, gimme the low down on your situation."
I told Jack all about the Diaz file leaving out nothing because I knew he could keep it all under his hat. Besides, he would easily notice if I held anything back. I then gave him the video tape and he stuck it in the VCR. Jack watched it for about ten minutes before he spoke.
"Well, what do you think?" I asked. It was not like him to be so quiet. There was a lengthy pause.
"I have never seen anything like this in quite a while. I mean lots of the girls in these movies are stoned during it, but they were not exactly innocent to start with. There is no doubt the Diaz girl is strung out, and I bet you anything that it is heroin, judging by that fresh track mark in her arm."
I looked at the video and saw that there was indeed a prominent red mark on Sandra's forearm, but it could've been a mole of some kind. I was about to voice my skepticism to Jack when I noticed the peculiar quality of her eyes. They were sluggish, pinpoint pupils. Hardly the alert eyes of a post graduate Ivy League student.
"What about the others in the video. Do you have any idea where I can locate them?", I asked. I was getting a little frustrated. I needed something solid from Jack.
"The other girl in this tape works at a strip bar called Sinners Paradise
out by the airport when she's not making these flicks. Her real name is Holly Ellis, but her stage name is just Holly. Go figure. She is a very popular peeler."
"What about the men in the video? Have you seen them before?"
"I have seen them in a couple of other videos, but I don't know where they live or their names. However, I'll make a copy of this video if you don't mind. Those bastards are guilty of rape."
"Diaz doesn't want any police involvement. If you want to have a copy of the tape for future reference to monitor the guys fine, but don't start an investigation now because if the kidnappers get wind of it, Diaz's daughter is good as dead."
Jack nodded and put his feet up on his desk and started shelling a handful of sunflower seeds with his teeth. It was not a pretty sight.
"Marty, I think you are into some heavy shit here. I mean whoever did this to Diaz must really hate him, and they must be some fuckin' powerful. There are two things that should make you very nervous. One is the biker jacket on the couch that you pointed out. They are not in the porno movie business. Their involvment probably means that they are only the hired guns for someone else." Jack paused as he crunched down on some more seeds, while my stomach quivered. "Secondly, I've seen thousands of hours of this crud and I've hardly ever encountered heroin use around here. That shit is too expensive to be dished out to the women. The hustlers usually provide them with free coke, booze or pills. I think the presence of heroin oughta tell you something about who is holding Diaz's daughter."
"Do you have any idea who would've produced this video?"
Jack paused for a moment and then said, "Yeah . . . Holly Ellis' last couple of tapes have been churned out by Red Hot Productions. Two brothers, Norm and Vic Taybach run that company and they usually film their crap in a warehouse located in the industrial park in Torrance. But, this video wasn't done in a warehouse. Somebody used their own home or should I say palace. Did you notice the size of that bedroom, Oriental rugs and all the tacky gold leaf furniture and? It looked like Liberace’s fuckin’ love den."
"Have you ever seen the interior of that home in any other videos?" I then recalled that the rugs in that video were Persian, not Oriental.
"No. I mean small time hustlers will use their house or trailer over and over again for every flick they make until they are big enough to rent a warehouse. Anyone who owns a spread like that ain't in the skin flick business."
"Can you tell me anything else about the bikers? How might they fit into all this?" I asked.
"Well, all I can think to say is that they own Sinners Paradise, which probably explains how Holly Ellis got in the video."
"What do you mean?"
"These bikers don't make this stuff, but they sure help to make it happen. They supply the girls. . . sometimes runaways, but usually strippers at one of their clubs. The Taybach brothers would go to them when they need the ladies to do a flick."
"These Taybach boys. Are they mob? Connected or anything?"
"Nope. They are just low level bottom feeders tryin' to make a buck, and they don't particularly care how they do it." Jack shoved a blank tape into the other VCR and started to make a copy of my original tape. "If I think of anything else, I'll let you know."
. . . .
It was no longer raining when I got to Roger's car, which fortunately was still parked where I had left it. I sat there for a minute and smoked a Marlboro while I thought about what to do next. Sinners Paradise
was an obvious place to start, but since it was not open that early in the day I had to occupy myself with something else for a while. Another avenue of investigation would be to drop by the offices of Red Hot Productions
. My thoughts were interrupted by the ring of a cellular phone somewhere in the car. I could hear the damn thing, but I couldn't find it. It rang about four times before I managed to pop open the leather arm rest, which concealed a compartment containing the phone.
"Pizza Twice Restaurant", I said with my best Chinese accent.
"Have you ever heard of using a taxi?" Roger asked.
"The thought never entered my head."
"Are you smoking?"
"No", I said dryly as a cigarette dangled from the corner of my mouth. "I'd love to chit chat, but I've got to get going", I said quickly changing the subject.
"I made some inquiries into the recent activities of the Devil's Riders
. It would appear that they are indeed in the business of doing dirty deeds for the right price. But, that's all I know. No one has heard about this kidnapping. People on the street tell me that they haven’t moved into the porn flick business or handling hash. They are more focused on controlling the acid market, prostitution and gentleman's clubs."
"Jack Eagan in vice was able to identify the woman in the video with Sandra Diaz. She works at a posh strip club out by the airport. The place is not going to be open this early in the day, so I thought you and I could do some other leg work. Are you calling from the office?"
"Yeah, when will you be here?"
"Give me about forty minutes or so", I said.
. . .
I fought my way through the downtown traffic out to the freeway. I drove with both of the coupe's windows down in an attempt to rid the car of the smell of my cigarette. I pulled up in front of our office building, an old five story, white stucco structure that was probably a princely home at one time until it was converted into stores on the ground floor and office space above. Undoubtedly, the alteration was made by some greedy landlord without giving a second thought to the architectural horror he created. I sat at the curb and laid on the horn a couple of times. Eventually, Roger came striding out of the entrance with an umbrella under one arm and a bottle of Evian in the other. Fucking dandy! I thought to myself.
"Where are we going?" he asked after he slid into the passenger seat and closed the car door more gently than I would have. I also noticed he scanned the interior for damage. That’s ok. Fortunately, myself esteem was not shaken.
"I don't know. Why don't we grab a coffee somewhere and think about what to do next?"
"I got a better idea. After making my inquiries into the biker activities, I went over the file again. I think Santo DeGazzio did less than I thought."
I didn't like what I heard. "What do you mean?"
"Well, Santo had supposedly canvassed the grocery store for witnesses where Sandra Diaz went shopping. Her father recalled that before she left his house that she said that she was going to a particular deli or grocery store. The name of it is in the file. Santo has a note in the file saying he talked to a grocery manager who said he knew nothing. So, I decided to follow up with the manager myself just in case one of his staff might have mentioned something since Santo contacted him last. When I talked to the manager, he said he didn't know what I was talking about, and had no recollection of ever talking to Santo or anyone else about the disappearance of Sandra. In fact, he said that he hadn’t even heard she was missing."
"I see what you're getting at. DeGazzio didn't get off his fat ass to do even the most basic grunt work."
"I think it would be wise to canvass the area for witnesses ourselves", he said as he took a swig from his fancy mineral water bottle. In spite of his dandy tendencies, Roger had good investigative instincts. Whether it was a minor car accident or a multi million dollar product liability dispute, he always brought the same level of intensity to everything he did.
"Yeah, and after that we'll introduce ourselves to the home box office of Red Hot Productions
up in Torrance." I then told Roger more of what Jack had to say about the video producer.
We arrived at the Pueblo Springs Shopping Plaza
at noon. It was located in a rather artsy part of Santa Monica. There were lots of college students walking around, and middle aged women trying to look like college students. The plaza was a three level structure which circled an open court yard. The court yard consisted of a Japanese rock garden that had a ten foot water fall. There were little bonsai trees growing in outcroppings of rock. Around the garden were ornately carved stone benches where weary shoppers rested with their shopping bags, and soaked up the sun peering out from behind some rain clouds. Japanese gardens are supposed to be peaceful but this one wasn’t. All I could hear was the loud waterfall, and the smell of chlorine in the air as if I had just walked into an indoor pool.
Roger and I walked around for about fifteen minutes before we found the Wine & Cheese Cellar
. I thought it was a rather odd name for a grocery store, but judging by the considerable number of customers inside, the store's name certainly wasn't hurting business. It was a little emporium selling a wide assortment of specialty cheeses, fresh sea food and a wide assortment of colorful vegetables. There were a couple of tables located on the edge of the court yard, in front of this store, where more college couples sipped espresso and appeared to be having profound conversations involving big words like existentialist
. A green awning over the shop front was still wet from the morning rain, which had stopped about half an hour ago. Roger and I couldn't have been more out of place in our suits while the young trendy clientele milled around the store. My partner was enjoying himself immensely as he struck up a conversation with one of the young lady employees.
"Excuse me, could you direct us to the manager", Roger asked while he tried to conjure up as much charm as possible.
"Sure, he's right over there" the young blonde replied and then pointed at the check out area where a thirty something guy with his hair in a pony tail and a black turtle neck was reading what appeared to be the cash register tape. Roger continued to chat up the girl while I walked over to the manager.
"Are you the manager?"
"Yeah", he grunted while not bothering to look up from the cash register tape. Business must be good in view of the rather cold reception I was getting. I took the brief moment of being ignored by the grocer to get a picture of Sandra Diaz out of my briefcase. Once I had it in my hand I stood patiently. Roger and the girl were now with me.
"Todd, these guys are from the FBI and they wanted to know if we have seen Sandra. She's been missing for about two weeks now. Can you remember what time Sandra left that Saturday when she was here?" The grocery clerk was a pretty blonde wearing no make up, a tight black T shirt and cut off jeans with a thick leather belt. There was an earring in her eyebrow that looked painful. She glowed an innocent, happy go-lucky smile, which I had not seen or felt in years. It must be nice to be so young, naive and jubilant. It was sad that it would one day end for her as it does for all of us, when the drudgery of everyday living beckons us from university and studying abroad with the empty promise of a job and money. I remember when I left college. I thought life was going to get better, but in reality I just entered a mundane existence of working to pay bills while sacrificing what little free time I had to make more money that went to pay more bills.
"Yeah, she was in around two in the afternoon. I didn't talk to her much. Our cappuccino machine was broken", he said and then pointed at it maybe just in case Roger and I were so unhip that we didn’t know what a cappuccino machine looked like. "I was busy trying to fix it. What do you mean she's missing?", he said with disbelief, but in a very respectful tone. When his employee said we were with the FBI, I noticed he perked up considerably. Maybe there was a little stash of weed in the inventory room that worried him. He seemed to have totally forgotten about that cash register tape.
"Well, sir," Roger said in an official sounding tone, "She was last seen leaving her father's place. She told him that she was coming here to do some grocery shopping. No one has seen her since. Was anyone else working besides you two when she was here?"
"No, Elsie and I are the only ones here on weekends. Like I said, I was trying to repair the cappuccino machine, so I really didn't get to talk to Sandra. She’s a good customer."
"How about you? Did you talk to her?", I asked Elsie.
"Yeah, I did for quite a while. You see, we both went to the same girl's school until she got accepted out east and I went to Europe to live with my mom. I work the Spring and Summer here. So, whenever she's in town she always tries to make a point of dropping by."
"What did you two talk about?"
"Oh, just about how much she liked what she was studying. She's doing a masters in history you know. We also talked about how we were both still single, and finding it totally impossible to meet Mister Right. That was about it. She said she would call me sometime and then she left."
Roger was leaning against the check out counter, "Did Sandra make any mention of where she was going when she left?"
"No, not really. I just assumed that she was going back to her parent’s house. I can't believe she's missing. I mean it’s just so unlike her . . . " Elsie was going to say something else when I interrupted her.
"What did she buy that day?", I asked.
"Oh, just some organic veggies, tofu and some smoked salmon. She just had one small grocery bag to carry."
“What about boyfriends? Does she have one?”
“No. Sandra is fairly picky.”
“She must have gone out with someone recently. She is an attractive young lady.”
“No. The thing you have to know about Sandra is that her studies are very important to her. Her last boyfriend was like over a year ago.”
“Is he still around?”, I asked.
“No. He went to Columbia on an archeological dig a couple of months ago. He would never hurt Sandra. They were going out more for convenience than anything else.”
I was not impressed with the information I heard, and it showed in my expression, which may have explained why Roger stepped in to smooth everything over by saying, "Well, thank you very much for your time."
. . . .
We stopped for tacos in a little Mexican sidewalk cafe across the street from where I parked Roger's car in the mall's underground parkade. It was the same underground parking area where Sandra's car had been found. I took a swig of a Dos Equis
after a bite of my fiery taco that had extra jalapenos and said sarcastically, "FBI . . . nice touch. Between your English accent and my Irish one, it's a wonder they didn't suspect anything. Where did you learn to lie like that . . . in school?" Roger was always quite proud of his days at Eton so when ever I could, I’d make a little jab.
"Nah. My father was a member of Parliament, which gave me an inside track on that particular talent."
"How could you tell when he was lying?"
"Whenever I saw his lips move," he said without humor.
It was the first time in a while that Roger had mentioned his father. Roger was the sort of guy that you could know for years without ever learning anything about his background. I knew him well, but in spite of that I could only recall one time in the past when his family came up in conversation. It was after a heavy night of drinking at a wedding.
We were sitting in an old Mercedes he had before the BMW. He couldn't find his car keys, which was just as well since he was in no condition to be driving. I was seeing double from about five or six Rusty Nails when out of the blue he said, "I came from a horribly middle class family. My mother came from a much higher claim to society. Her family forbade me from having any contact with my father's people." He paused and took another gulp of scotch from a shiny flask, and then started talking about how he was sent off to boarding school at a very young age. "69 strokes of the cane was a record for a pupil to endure at my school in one year, but I held that record. I drove the headmaster crazy, the stupid old git. When I graduated and headed for Eaton, he had a fifty cigarette a day habit. To say the least I made him a tad bit nervous." And then he added, "Dad was the meanest old headmaster that school’s ever had. He showed no favoritism. In fact, he went out of his way to discipline me for the most insignificant wrong doings. I never spoke to him again after I graduated. He went on into politics and I went to Africa."
I finished off my last taco, and waited for Marta, our waitress, to give us the bill. Roger was not rushing himself with his enchiladas, so I lit a cigarette and surveyed the area. Across the street, there was a janitor sweeping the exit ramp of the shopping center's parkade. He was a young black guy of twenty-five or so. He had a walkman on and his practiced sweeping of the broom in his hands seemed to be in rhythm with maybe the music that only he could hear.
I got up from the table and dropped enough money on the table to cover our bill and said, "Come on, let's talk to buddy." I pointed at the maintenance guy and Roger nodded while taking one final bite of his lunch.
"Hey! Yeah! You! Can we talk for a minute?", I shouted at the janitor. I heard some tires screech behind me, and looked to see some motorist stop about a foot away from Roger who trotted his way across the busy street.
"What you guys want?" said the janitor as he removed his headphones, and looked back and forth between Roger and I.
"Do you work here every Saturday afternoon?"
"Yeah, man I do. What's it to you?" he replied as he pulled his earphones off to rest around his neck.
"We're looking for a missing person. We're wondering if you could take a look at this photo." I handed a picture of Sandra Diaz and watched him as he glanced at it.
"Shit, I don't know. There's lots of tail around here."
"We aren't the cops or anything. We're working for her father. Two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, this girl was seen shopping in this mall. She parked her car in the underground level of this parkade. No one has seen her since. We're just wondering if you saw her."
"What kinda car did she have?"
"Roger, what'd she have?" I asked.
"A black Mercedes 500SL", Roger said quickly.
"Yeah, it was a convertible right." Roger nodded and then the janitor continued. "She was Italian looking. Anyway, I was working the booth and I remember her 'cause the car was incredible. You know those are a hundred grand?"
Roger seemed to have established some sort of an automotive rapport with this guy so I just backed off and let him continue the questioning. "When did she park the car . . . just roughly?"
"Oh, I figure she must have come in around one thirty."
"When did she come back to her car?"
"Look, man I don't know", he said hastily. I sensed he knew more. He started to fidget with the controls on his walkman.
"Hey, we don't think you did anything to her. We just want to know when she left. We're trying to re-trace her footsteps to see what happened that day." Roger paused and then decided to take a stab at it and guess. "Who took her?"
"I didn't see nobody take her", he said a little too quickly. He would never make it as a poker player.
"Yeah, but you saw something and we are willing to make it worth your while. Is that cool?" Roger then reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of fifties, which he gently stuffed into the janitor's shirt pocket. The janitor looked around to see if anyone was watching us, and then he motioned for us to follow him. He led us down the entrance ramp of the parkade. We ended up in the only underground level.
"I was standing over there by that garbage can when I saw her coming back. It was probably about an hour or so later. I was doing the sweeping on this level 'cause Ralph starts his shift at two o'clock at the ticket window. So, I got bumped off that and went back to sweeping. She was walking over to that hot car of her's and I was checkin' her out too ya know 'cause she was so fine. Anyway, there were these bikers leaning against her car. They had their Harleys and shit parked up in the space next to her and they were talkin'. She told them to get off her car and that's when they got into it."
"What do you mean they got into it?" Roger asked.
"Well, they wouldn't get off her car so she started cussin' them out sayin' that it was her's. They didn't believe her. I could tell. I mean I wouldn't think it was her car if I didn't see her drive it in."
"Man, she wasn't dressed rich or nothing. She was wearin' a pair of jeans . . . you know the type . . .the ones with the knees torn out and a white T shirt with a happy face on it only it had a bullet hole in its forehead."
"What happened next?"
"Well, one of the bikers got into the driver's seat while one of the others grabbed her shopping bag and started flinging stuff out of it. That's when the girl started freakin' out hitting him. There were four of them and they just watched as he put a beatin' on her. One of them saw me and I just high tailed it out of there. That's all I saw."
"Did you call the cops?", I asked.
"Shit! no way man. I wasn't gettin' involved. Besides, I just thought that they would rough her up, and that would be the end of it. But, I knew something was wrong later when I went back to finish my sweep because the babe's car still there, but she and the bikers were gone. Her groceries were still on the floor. I kept them up in the toll booth, but she never came for them."
"Have you ever seen those bikers around before?"
"Yeah, sure I have. They hang around here lookin' for teenage runaways. They like 'em young and desperate. They feed the chicks, buy them some stuff and get 'em hooked on dope, and before you know it they are turnin' tricks for them." His matter of fact tone was a little bit disconcerting.
"This doesn't look like a place where teenage runaways hang out. The stores are too expensive", I said skeptically.
"Well man, you wouldn't know 'cause you don't work here. There's a Greyhound bus station about a block from here where all the runaways end up when they get into L.A. A lot of them get tired of being hassled down there so they wander around the neighborhood until they spies this place. They think to themselves that no one will hassle 'em here in this classy mall. Of course, they are dead wrong. I see the bikers and perverts trolling for skin in here all the time."
"Did the bikers take the girl?", Roger asked.
"Like I already told you man. As soon as they saw me, I took off. I don't know if they took her. I guess so, otherwise she would have taken her car," he replied. "It was still here the next day.”
Roger handed him our business card and asked him to contact us immediately at anytime if he saw the same bikers again. After talking to the janitor, we headed back to the office. It was still too early to visit the strip bar.
Janet was on the telephone when I entered the office, so I told Roger to have her see me, when she was free. On my desk was a small package wrapped in brown paper. I cut it open with an old letter opener. Inside was a little cardboard box containing my Glock and a silencer. Beneath the gun was a small bundle of bills which no doubt represented my retainer. I counted the money. There were twenty five crisp one hundred dollar bills. Diaz was paying me in advance for a week of work that I had barely started. The pressure was already mounting. I put the money in the chest pocket of my suit. I picked the gun out of the box and fitted the silencer on just as Janet walked in. She gasped and I quickly put it back into the box without offering an explanation.
"Do you want me to come back later?", she whispered. She was wearing a very tight fitting, red track suit and new white Nike runners with the pink swoosh. The track suit was not her usual conservative attire. God! She was not hard on the eyes, I thought. I reminded myself not to keep her in the office any longer than necessary even though the sight of her lifted my spirits immensely. I knew that she was an avid jogger and I didn't want to ruin her weekend.
"No. Please sit down. I just want you to understand that this Diaz affair is not the ordinary sort of thing we usually handle. If anyone inquires about our investigation, just take a message and do not in any way acknowledge that we are working on this matter."
"Sure. I've got some messages for you from yesterday. Do you want to go through them now?", she asked while leaning over and placing them on my desk. At the same time, I stole a glance at her chest. The zippered Addidas jacket was midway down giving a brief glimpse of some cleavage held up by a spandex top. God, I was bad. She caught me staring, so I shifted my gaze to the floor, which wasn't very convincing. And then an unexpected thing happened. She smiled.
"No thanks, just leave them to me and I'll deal with them later. Could you hold my calls." I kind of lost my breath for a second and then babbled further, "Although it is Saturday, Diaz may be the type to call every hour looking for an update. I have nothing to tell him."
The question had possibilities. I had to get my head screwed on straight. Naughty thoughts about Janet were not the reasons I was working on a Saturday morning. I opened my briefcase and sorted through my notes for the phone number of Red Hot Productions. "Here's the number of that porn company who made that video." I could see Janet cringe at my mere mention of the tape. I pushed the scrap of paper with the number written on it across my desk to her and continued. "Roger and I need to interview two insects, Vic and Les Taybach, who made the flick. Call this number every half hour or so until you get a response. Ask for either one of them and if they answer then hang up and let me know. Roger and I'll then head over there, right away."
It was the lazy way to do surveillance. Calling their place of work might tip them off, but on the other hand a phone call enabled me to avoid wasting valuable time waiting for the Taybach brothers to show up. For all I knew they might do their laundry on Saturday afternoons. If they answered at their warehouse then I and Roger could go over, and have a friendly chat or if things didn't go well, then an unfriendly chat.
She nodded and left me with my messages. I leafed through the small stack of slips and decided that none of them were pressing.
Roger popped his head in the door way and said, "So what do you think?" On the drive back to the office he had been on the car phone returning messages that Janet had for him. So, we had not discussed what we had learned so far.
"I don't know. The facts aren't adding up. This may be simply a random abduction of a college student who happened to be a drug lord's daughter. Maybe the kidnappers are the bikers who decided to pump her up on very high priced junk, just to use her in a porn flick."
"But, the abduction could not have been random because Diaz has gotten two ransom demands. On the other hand, the parking attendant's recollection of the altercation between the Diaz girl and the bikers seems credible? I mean the way he comes across, it seemed like a spur of the moment sort of a thing. Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I don’t know what to think at this point. We've got a lot more leg work to do before the pieces to this puzzle start to fit together. Roger, I'm beat. I'm gonna crash for an hour or so."
"Okay pal, I'll be back in a while", he said over his shoulder as he left.
I took my tie off and turned off my desk lamp. My left shoulder ached from the battle in the street, and the too few hours of sleep from the night before were catching up to me. I laid down on my couch feeling utterly exhausted. Over the years, I had taken quite a few naps on this old leather couch in my office. Often all night cram sessions for a court appearance the next day or night surveillance meant that I would use it for some much needed shut eye. The conflicting ideas of this case were buzzing around in my head. My ribs were still sore as hell. I tried to think about the case, but I was just too tired. The combination of the breeze drifting in the window and the soft pitter patter sound of the drizzling rain quickly put me to sleep.
I dreamt about when I was eleven or twelve years old. The creditors had seized both of my parent’s cars. Dad had lost his job as a commodities broker when the market nose dived in a recession. It was '73 or '74. I could never remember exactly, probably because I spent the rest of my life trying to forget that painful period. In the dream, the movers had come into our summer home up in Cork county much like how it actually happened so long ago. Our home in Dublin had previously been re possessed by the bank. The dream quickly became a nightmare when the movers, a couple of really stout lads took Dad away. He was yelling at them, and tried to free himself of their grip, but without success. I started to cry and Mum sent me up to my room in that old manor. Mum told me that I was to hide under the bed, and wait while she went to get dad back. My room was empty. There was no bed to hide under. I moved to the window and looked down and saw the movers driving away in a red cube van with my mother chasing after them on foot. There was no one else in the house as I ran from room to room before I ended up outside on the front lawn, at the foot of an old weeping willow tree. Frantically, I ran down the driveway and into town looking for Mum and Dad. People pointed at me and laughed. The embarrassment was unbearable. Everyone knew that my father was a failure. I was so angry with him. Down by the school, my chums in their blazers and their red and blue striped school ties saw me and started giggling as I approached. When I got close, they threw rocks from the playground. The headmaster had asked me not to return at the end of yesterday's class. The tuition check had bounced again. Word got around quick. Where were Mum and Dad? Had they gone to America like they planned? Had they forgotten me?
The nightmare ended swiftly without resolution when my thoughts drifted towards an image of Janet and me. We were having a picnic under a magnificent oak tree whose branches spread out high above. I laid on a large quilt and stared up at the blue sky that I could see between the mighty tree branches. The wisps of the occasional cloud drifted eastward to the sea. We were alone in a field. Janet was sitting up contentedly looking at the tall grass sway in the wind. She had a pair of field glasses around her neck and waited for a Blue Jay, which she insisted was nearby. At our feet was a wicker picnic basket, with a loaf of French bread, a bottle of Chardonnay, and some brie. I was telling jokes, being witty and all while debating whether to kiss her. After some thought, I mustered the courage and pulled her close. I was just about to kiss her when she pulled away. Why? Had I offended her?, I asked. She gave me a devilish smile like the one she flashed in the office when she caught me admiring her beauty. I sat up this time and leaned towards her once more. This time we kissed.
. . . .
"Have a cup of Java, you lazy boy from the bogs. We have a fun filled night ahead of us."
I wiped my bleary eyes and asked, "What time is it?" The afternoon sun was long gone, and the once refreshing warm breeze scented with rain that blew in the window now felt like a chill that could trigger a cold. It was a lazy wind as my grandmother would say. A wind which would blow through you as opposed to goin' around. A gust that would chill you to the bone.
Roger handed me the coffee and quickly glanced at his wrist watch. "Six thirty mate. Wanna hit the strip bar?"
"Yeah sure, just give me a minute." I walked down the hall to the washroom and threw some water on my face in order to revive myself. I looked in the mirror and saw the usual five o'clock shadow and a gaunt face looking much older than its thirty one years. I buttoned my collar, slipped my tie back up, and ran my fingers through my hair in an attempt to straighten it out.
Roger drove with his usual prudent manner down the city streets in the direction of the airport. He chatted with one of his girlfriends on the cellular phone while I devoured a fairly good tasting slice of pizza we picked up at a fast food joint. I chased the pizza with a can of soda and was starting to feel like my old self again. All I needed now was a cigarette, but I decided to hold off until we arrived at the club.
Sinners Paradise was set back from the street quite a bit. The entrance was very impressive. Two well dressed bouncers stood in front of the massive ten foot high, wooden doors adorned with mighty brass handles. As thick and heavy as those doors were, they could not entirely suffocate the sound of the club's pounding music that thundered from within. The wet cement steps leading up to these doors glistened in the purple light of the neon sign. The palm trees swayed in the wind. If it was not for the semi nude image of a woman etched in neon and the absence of any windows, one might have mistaken the place for an upscale restaurant. Roger pulled up at the entrance where a valet held his door and handed him a ticket. I quickly slipped my Glock under my seat and stepped out of the car. It would be risky to try and carry it into the club because the entrance would probably be equipped with a metal detector concealed in the door frame.
As we strode up the steps, I could tell that the bouncers were sizing us up. "Hard day at the office boys?" one of the bouncers said even though it was Saturday. Judging by the greeting, they obviously considered us to be just a couple of workaholic suits all played out from a long day of shuffling paper, or meetings.
"Yeah, now we need to let off some steam", Roger replied with a wicked grin.
I nodded at them as they opened the doors for us to walk through. Once inside Roger paid the outrageous cover charge to yet another beefy employee while my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the club. An applause erupted from the patrons as one of the strippers walked off the stage or what really looked like a fashion show runway. This runway, used by the ladies to walk up and down, as they danced and stripped to the music, ran the whole length of the building. The patrons, all men, sat at tables surrounding it. Beyond the runway, there were also numerous naked women dancing on top of little stools in front of the patron's tables. The club was in semi darkness except up on the stage where the lights were bright, but somehow very flattering to the women. It was already getting busy, so Roger and I ended up at a table which was quite some distance from the stage.
I couldn't help myself as I gawked at all the near naked ladies, some wearing their outfits and some not. The women were strikingly beautiful. They were all tall, mostly tanned, and nearly all seemingly oblivious to the drooling men. Nevertheless, I was not overly impressed as I could feel the presence of organized crime permeating every nook and cranny of the place. I knew there were eyes watching me and every other customer. These places tried very hard to produce a relaxed, care free, hedonistic atmosphere with their complimentary buffet and their very friendly waitresses, but I could always sense that unmistakable under current of evil.
All a guy had to do was look into the eyes of any of the women. There was a certain desperation in their eyes that not even the most plastic of smiles could conceal. I had handled enough insurance claims for strippers to know damn well that none of them genuinely enjoyed their line of work. There was always a personal demon of some kind lurking in the background that was responsible for their vocation. Drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, and our crumbling economy were the chief culprits. Out of nowhere a cheerful blonde waitress appeared wearing the shortest of mini skirts and a sleeveless, white wing tip tuxedo shirt with a red bow tie. She seemed very young, eighteen or so.
"What can I get you guys?" she asked while effortlessly balancing a tray of empty glasses in one hand.
"I'd like a Tom Collins and how about a Coors for my friend", Roger answered.
While Roger made eyes with the waitress, I searched my brain for the name of the porn actress that was in the Diaz video. When I broke free of my temporary mental paralysis, I quickly interrupted the pleasantries being exchanged and asked, "Is Holly Ellis working tonight?"
She pondered that question for a second or two as if there were certain mathematical equations to be processed before answering. "Yeah, she's on tonight starting at eight. Listen guys, after she does her routine you can reserve her for a table dance."
"That'd be most kind of you", Roger replied with a big smile.
The waitress winked at Roger and skipped away with her tray. She returned with the drinks a few minutes later and he paid her. After watching the strippers for about half an hour or so I noticed a common pattern to the entertainment. The girls would do their routine in harmony with three songs. They would take their top off to the first song. When the second song started they would writhe some more on the runway before peeling their panties. The third song was always a rock ballad during which they would be totally nude rolling around on a fur rug doing the splits or an obscene display of gymnastics involving a brass rail.
About the only worthwhile tidbit of wisdom I remember from my college days is a quote attributed to Karl Marx who supposedly said "capitalism runs naked in the Third World."
Well, capitalism is certainly demystified when one gets inside one of these so-called gentleman's clubs.
"Gentleman! I want to hear a loud applause for our next featured dancer! Holly!" The music which had faded while the DJ did his introduction returned to its same howling volume. The stage suddenly brightened as she walked on. The moment I saw her I was surprised by her apparent old fashion, girl next door, good looks. The video had made her seem so plain and unhealthy, whereas the soft lights, her costume, the applause and the music of the club gave her an incredible erotic appeal that was difficult to ignore. Oh hell, impossible to ignore.
She was a tall blonde with sun bronzed legs that went on forever, which were made even more alluring in the gartered shiny black nylon stockings. From where I sat her body appeared immaculate and perfectly complimented the French maid's uniform she had on. Her breasts were large and inviting as they pushed from beneath her white frill apron undoubtedly defying gravity with the help of a push up strapless bra. Her whole body had a deep tan without a line anywhere. The sexiest thing about her was her suggestive pout, and eyes which seemed to make every guy in the club think she was looking only at him. At the same time, she carried herself with a certain degree of arrogance while she slowly danced. I couldn't help but watch her disrobe. Occasionally, I would look away because I felt ashamed to be a man. I knew deep down what such pigs all men can be when given voyeuristic opportunities like this one. After she was finished Roger and I made small talk. Surprisingly, even Roger was at a loss for words. I sensed that he was a little embarrassed. We didn't even notice her coming, until she arrived at our table.
"Good evening gentlemen, Suzie told me that you guys wanted a table dance." I looked at the top of our table which barely provided enough space for our drinks let alone two feet.
Holly saw me glance at the table and laughed, "No silly, we call it a table dance, but actually I dance on this." She then patted a small leather stool that was tucked under her arm. I gave her a sheepish nod signaling my understanding.
Roger got control of his faculties first, "Actually, Holly we just want to ask you some questions about a girl that is missing."
"Are you guys cops because I don't have to take this you know", becoming instantly defensive. "What I'm doing is perfectly legal . . ." she was talking a mile a minute when Roger cut in.
"No. No. Relax. We're not the coppers and we know that you haven't done anything wrong. We need your help in locating a missing bird, I mean lady. Her father has hired us and we know that you can save us a great deal of time that we just don't have."
She looked away from him to a bouncer who had focused his attention on us. It was obvious that he could see that she was a little bit distressed. Up close, I could see lines etched in her face that shattered my girl next door first impression. The make up was on pretty heavy.
Roger asked, "How about a dance now?" He looked at her with his best smile and added,"Eh, we don't want trouble. We're just a couple of boring insurance adjusters."
"Insurance adjusters? What's that?", she laughed. She seemed so amused by what she heard that she put the stool down in front of Roger and started to sway to the beat of the music. Still grinning she said, "Geez, I thought you guys were vice or heat of some kind."
The bouncer came over. "Is everything okay baby?" he asked as he glared at Roger and me.
"Yeah, Frank everything's cool", she giggled. Frank nodded and walked away, but not before giving Roger and I another stern look. He assumed a position by the door where he continued watch us.
Roger leaned closer to Holly as she danced on her little stool and said, "My dear, insurance adjusters are a misunderstood lot. We don't sell insurance. Instead, we're the guys who show up while your house is burning down, and try to calm you and hold your hand."
"Sounds like a tough job. You must piss off a lot of people." She said this after just unsnapping her bra and letting it drop to the floor while R.E.M. sang of losing one's religion.
"Listen, we've got a proposition for you. You tell us what we want to know and we'll pay you five hundred dollars", Roger said.
Her expression lost all of its humor. "A proposition eh? Have you ever been propositioned?", she asked giving us a knowing, megawatt smile.
"Yeah, but only for more money", I said dryly as I joined the conversation. She laughed and turned her attention turned to me.
"Uh huh, that's right, more money. Five hundred dollars is nothing to me. You're gonna have to do better than that," she said.
"How about twenty five hundred and we won't tell management about your windfall", I said knowing that she thought we were bullshitting. In order to put to rest any doubt she had as to my sincerity, I reached into my jacket and pulled Diaz's retainer payment out and placed it in my lap below the table out of sight of the nearby bouncers. Holly couldn't conceal her surprise when she saw the money yet at the same time I knew she felt nervous. She probably recognized, as well as I did, that there were no free lunches in this world. I was betting that her sense of greed like everyone else's was stronger than the fear of the unknown.
"Two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, a college girl named Sandra Diaz disappeared from a shopping center, and has not been seen since except in a video that you were also in."
"Eh, I do a lot of shoots, and a lot of the time I don't know the girls I work with and sometimes I never see them again." Her skirt was off entirely now as she danced in her stiletto heels with just the black garter stockings and panties. R.E.M. had been replaced by AC/DC.
"This video was shot sometime in the last two weeks. Red Hot Productions were in charge of it. The girl in the video was doped up big time, and doesn’t work in the industry."
"I don't know what you're talkin' about", she said with annoyance. She looked around as she talked to us. I suspected that she didn't want anyone else to hear our conversation. I was about to lose my temper, and then thought better of it. I decided to make one final attempt to enlist her assistance.
"Holly, you're a professional. When you do one of those movies you're in control. You're making big bucks and fully aware of what is going on. Sandra Diaz was a college girl home on vacation and wasn't a willing participant. She was gang raped judging from what I saw. Roger and I are trying to find her and you're our only lead. We desperately need your help. This girl is a human being." I was careful not to raise my voice at all and tried to speak to her without sounding condescending. At the same time I continued to carefully balance the bundle of cash on my thigh.
She stopped dancing and stepped down from her stool. I couldn't tell if I had pissed her off or not. "Well, guys you owe me twenty five bucks." She then started to put her maid's uniform back on.
"Eh, what about what I said?" I asked impatiently. Roger handed her a fifty and motioned for her to give us a repeat performance. She walked over to me and dropped into my lap. I couldn't believe it. She put her arms around me quickly, but somehow I could no longer feel the cash that had been resting on my thigh. I knew it was gone.
"Just act like you're enjoying this", she whispered. The tone of her voice was flat and very business like. One would never have known though to look at her from a distance. She had a mischievous smile as she spoke. She was obviously doing this for the benefit of others who might be watching. "Remember the rules in here. You can look but don't touch." I nodded as I tried not to let my eyes wander to her heaving breasts. "I'll tell you what I know, but first I'm gonna make sure you're not vice." Both of her hands slid deftly inside my jacket and patted down my chest before reaching to the small of my back where probably a cop might stuff a .38. Once she was convinced that I was not packing, she deftly pulled my wallet out of my back pocket. She checked my ID and although there was no badge to be found, she did not relax until she found my state of California insurance adjusters’ license. Once she saw the license she let out a sigh.
"What's goin' on here Holly?" It was Frank again, the bouncer. She became tense and seemed to cling to me more tightly. The rhythmic movement of her hips to the music stopped.
"Everything's okay Frank. I just wanted to make sure that these guys aren't cops." She paused for a second or to and then said "I'm just being careful like Paulie said."
Frank leaned over and patted Roger and I on the shoulder and said, "Sorry for interrupting you guys. We just have been getting hassled a bit lately by the local authorities. How about a free drink on the house?" Roger and I nodded and he walked away and I could see him talk to a waitress. Meanwhile, Holly let out a great sigh and scanned the rest of the crowded nightclub.
"Shit that was close!" Holly looked at me with real terror in her eyes.
"Eh, Martin if you want I'll take over", Roger said in jest. He was obviously disappointed over the one on one conversation I was having with our new found friend.
Holly shook her head and then whispered so that Roger could not hear her. "I prefer you."
"How come?" I asked.
"Because you seem . . . honest. . . but I don't know about your friend", she said. It sounded like a real sucker line especially after she had satisfied herself that I was not a cop and relieved me of a not insignificant sum of money.
"What makes you say that?" I said with a cheerful grin, not missing a beat as I played along.
"Trust me, in my trade you have to be a very quick and good judge of character. I look at you and the first thing I notice is that your clothes are not designer stuff, but they're not exactly cheap either. No jewelry either tells that you're not a poser."
"Yeah, you're not posing as some multi millionaire bragging about imaginary business interests in Monaco or Paris. Most guys come in here dressed in the finest quality suits waving a big wad of cash, which is their entire pay check that they just cashed after working two weeks in a factory while living rent free at home with their mother."
"You've probably heard every one-liner out there", I said.
"Oh yeah and then some, but that's okay as long as they keep paying me. I know the game. They tell me lies and I tell them lies."
"Lies? What do you tell them?", I asked.
"Well, I usually ask them about how rich they are and let them tell me about their yacht while I gasp in awe. After I get about a hundred bucks out of them, I start in with the sex talk." Suddenly, Holly started to grind her hips into my crotch and breathing hard. She swung her huge breasts towards my face and the nipple of her right breast was inches from my mouth. "Oh baby, I can feel you. Ahh, it's big, I bet ten inches, right? I like big ones." I immediately got a raging hard on. Holly smiled as she undoubtedly could feel it. "See what I mean? You're hard even though you know its bullshit. That's normal. What scares me are the guys who demand that kind of talk and don't even get a woodie. They're the frightening ones. God only knows what they consider a turn on." Somehow, I had the sneaking suspicion that she knew all too well.
"I know you've been asked this a million times, but . . ."
"How did I ever get into this business? Well, for starters, I graduated from high school in boring old Wisconsin, and thought I'd come out here for the summer before I started college. So, I had a whole bunch of different jobs from waitressing to working in a dental clinic. When it was time to return home to go to college I just decided all of a sudden that I wasn't gonna go. My parents hit the roof, but I didn't care. I was having a blast here, going to all the parties and dance clubs. I also had a boyfriend, Charlie, who I thought was really cool at the time. He was a biker, but treated me really great . . . that is until I got pregnant. Everything changed then and by the time the baby was born he was gone. I had no money and bills were coming in from every direction." Holly reached for a glass of water that the waitress left for her, drank deeply, and then continued. "Anyway, I was having a real hard time managing to hold down a full time job and taking care of my daughter, but I was doing it somehow until Charlie sued for sole custody of my daughter. I didn't have any money for the rent half the time let alone a lawyer."
"Is that when you started stripping?" I tried to ask delicately.
"No. It's not that simple. Another guy . . . Bill . . . in Charlie's bike club offered to lend me the money for a good lawyer. Bill was always soft on me, and I thought I would use that to my advantage. I ended up borrowing quite a bit. Things were okay and my lawyer was doing a good job. I thought I had everything under control until Charlie got wind of who was financing my lawyer. Charlie leaned heavy on Bill. Bill told me that I had to pay him right away. He knew that I didn't have the money. He demanded I get the money or start stripping. I told him to go to hell." Holly paused and looked away. "Shortly after that I got beaten within an inch of my life. Charlie and I then came to an agreement of sorts. I'd get custody of my daughter so long as I worked here until Bill's loan was paid off."
"That's slavery", Roger said. I had forgotten all about him since I was quite engrossed by what I was hearing.
She shifted on my knee and turned to Roger and said, "Yeah, no kiddin', but you don't go to the cops when you owe money to the Devil's Riders. You work off the money you owe in one of their strip clubs or you die. These guys don't fuck around. I've known girls that disappeared."
"Okay, then you know that the girl we're looking for is in big trouble. I know you're sticking your neck out, but you've got to tell us everything you know about her." I looked into Holly's eyes and I saw a broken woman. No longer did I see the sultry and exotic woman who strutted her stuff up on the stage for a living. Instead, I saw someone who tried not to think too much about her own situation probably out of fear that she couldn't continue with her life.
"On Monday morning, I got this hysterical call from Les Taybach at Red Hot about a rush shoot they were putting together, and how they needed another female for the flick. I told him I was too busy, but when he said he'd pay me three grand for a half a day shoot, I changed my mind."
"That's a lot of coin. Aren't these guys small time?", Roger asked a little too excitedly for my liking. I didn't want to interrupt her train of thought so I motioned him to be silent.
She looked at Roger with obvious annoyance, and then returned to her explanation as if she had not been interrupted. I think she sensed our desperation and appeared to be relishing her new found status. This was probably one of the first times men were actually listening to what she had to say in this club. "Les told me to go up to some big spread in Long Beach. I thought that was kind of odd because we always do the shoots in their warehouse. Anyway, he told me not to ask questions because he was doing a favor for some heavy weight."
"What was the address?" I asked.
"I don't know the exact address, but I remember it was the last place on Beechwood. Anyway, I got there at about ten O'clock in the morning. Les and Vic were there with the crew who were setting up the lights and cameras in the bedroom. The mansion was decorated really tacky. Someone said it was owned by some Syrian businessman."
"What's his name?", Roger asked.
"I haven't got a clue. I was havin' a herbal tea downstairs when Charlie and some of his gang arrived with the girl you're looking for. She looked really stoned." Holly stood up and adjusted her skirt.
"What was she high on?", I asked.
"Junk. Charlie and the Syrian shot her up on some more smack right in front of us. I couldn't believe it. They did it because she was resisting them when she first arrived. One thing I've got to say about that girl is that she's a fighter."
"Then what happened?", I asked.
"Well, we all had to wait about ten minutes or so for the stuff to take a hold of her before we started filming. Anyway, once that happened, the flick went off without a hitch."
"Didn't you think it was odd that they would shoot her up right in front of you."
"Yeah . . . I sure did, but I'm not stupid. I wasn't going to ask any questions. That's none of my business. Charlie didn't speak to me or nothin'. I could tell that he was really pissed off with the fight she put up."
I listened carefully to what she had said and concluded that it was true, but not worth twenty five hundred bucks. She was holding out. I took a sip of my beer and reached for a cigarette.
"Who was this Les fellow making the movie for?" I asked patiently as I struck a match.
"For himself. I told you already that he and his brother made it."
"That's bullshit. If they were making one of their usual videos it would have been done at their rented space in that warehouse up in Torrance. Besides the bikers were the ones who brought Sandra in. What's they're involvement in all this."
"Look if I tell . . . you gotta swear that you didn't hear it from me, because I don't have a rich daddy who's gonna look out for me." Neither I nor Roger had mentioned that Sandra's father was rich. She knew more.
I took Holly's hands in mine. "Holly I promise that your name won't come up. We aren't the cops who are going to come later, telling you to testify in court. In fact, there won't be a police investigation at all if Roger and I can find Sandra Diaz." This last point seemed to be the clincher.
"Okay, okay." she sat down again next to me. "I'll tell you everything, but please don't sell me down river." She reached for one of my cigarettes and I lit it for her. She inhaled deeply, gave out a little cough and stared at our drinks on the tiny table. "I've heard through the grape vine that two weeks ago, on a weekend, Charlie and his buddies were up at that fancy shopping center a block or so away from the Greyhound station in Santa Monica. Anyway, Charlie and the guys had the Harleys out and were just toolin' around in the underground parking lot when some chick started gettin' really mouthy with Charlie. Well, he was there with a lot of the guys of his bike club, so he didn't want to appear to be takin' shit off of anyone let alone some smart ass bitch. So, I guess he beat her up and they threw her in one of the guy's van. They drove her back to the club house and basically . . . well you know . . ."
Roger offered Holly a glass of water which she took. In a hushed tone he asked her, "How did it come to be that she was put in the porno movie?" I didn't appreciate Roger taking the lead by asking questions. It's been my experience that it is a lot better to let somebody run off at the mouth and then decide for one's self what is relevant.
"Well, they intended to keep her for as long as it took to break her will before they put her on the street hooking. So, a couple of days past and during all of this the girl is telling them that Raul Diaz is her father. The guys just laughed because she's not the first girl to make wild claims about their father or family. They just thought it was an idle boast until it got out on the street that Diaz's daughter was in fact missing and that her father was looking for her under every rock."
"What was their reaction when they heard that?" Roger asked.
"Well, Charlie didn't believe it at first. So, he had some people do some checking around. It didn't take long for him to realize that he fucked up big time."
"How does the Syrian fit into all of this?" I asked.
"Charlie knows that he's got to get rid of Sandra Diaz, but the question is how? So, he puts out a couple of feelers to see if there is anyone out there who really hates Raul Diaz, and might be interested in getting his daughter. "
"For a price right?", I asked.
"Yeah, for a price. So one of the guys in Charlie's crew is contacted by a guy in the Syrian's outfit. They don't haggle the price too long because Charlie sweatin' pretty bad by that time."
"What do you mean sweating?" Roger asked.
"Charlie found out who Sandra was on Monday. He puts the word out that he's willing to unload her but there are no takers on Monday. On Tuesday still nothing. The week passes and no offers come in. Charlie had heard that Diaz had every street walker and wise guy on the look out for her. He was really paranoid that someone might tell Diaz about him. Then he gets a real twisted plan to sell her back to Diaz when he is contacted by a gopher for the Syrian on Thursday night. Charlie takes their first offer because he knows that there might not be anyone else interested."
"What about the porno movie? Why was she put in it?"
"I don't know. Honestly, I've told you everything."
"What's the Syrian want with Diaz's duaghter?", I asked.
"I haven't got a clue."
I leaned back in my chair and looked at Roger. He nodded at me. I was quite satisfied with what I heard. I finished my beer and pressed my business card into Holly's hand. "Holly, you've been a big help. If you hear of anything else give me a call."
She nodded and stared at me for a few seconds, then turned and walked away with her little stool tucked under her arm. Surprisingly, Roger did not have much to say. A guitar solo blared from a speaker while both of us remained seated, trying to regain our composure and finish our drinks.
I could sense Roger's growing excitement as we got on the expressway. He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel and hummed along with a song playing on the radio. The late night, traffic was fairly light, so the drive to Long Beach went rather quickly. During the ride Roger asked for his gun. He kept his Smith & Wesson in the most unoriginal of concealed places, buried in the glove compartment. I checked the six shooter, and found it to be loaded. He once said that he liked revolvers because they didn't jam. I suspected that it was a trite little observation he picked up in an action movie. I passed it to him and he stuffed it under his belt while letting out a little curse about how much weight he had gained.
When we exited off the highway, we entered the prosperous community in the north end. I checked a road map to make sure we were headed in the right direction. Roger usually handled all the work we got in this area, so I gave him the major intersection that Beechwood was near and that enabled him to locate it in under ten minutes. It was an older street with mature estates built into a hillside, which gave an expansive view of the glimmering city below. There were Victorian mansions next to classic, red brick Georgian homes with the half circle driveways in front. Even the street lights were impressive in their old English design that was reminiscent of London at the turn of the century. They lit up the street in a gentle yellow glow. Parked behind shiny, black painted, wrought iron gates were Mercedes, Audis and other chariots preferred by the idle rich. These were the homes of the WASP establishment. I sensed that there were no nouveau riche in this neighborhood like where Diaz lived. This neighborhood undoubtedly had covenants, which prohibited statues of Greek mythology like Zeus and Apollo from being on the front lawn.
We crept up the dark street looking for the place which Holly said was where the movie had been shot. It was a dignified English Cottage style home on the left, resting on the highest part of the hill. The exterior of the home was composed of rust colored shingles with white trim around the door and window frames. The residence looked like a home one would see in the Hamptons rather than southern California. It did not have any wall or gate around it like Diaz's place did. However, this was not to say that it would be easy to approach undetected. The residence straddled roughly two park like acres of immaculately manicured lawn and shrubbery. There were flood lights through out, which illuminated the grounds. I also noticed a handsome gatehouse at the end of the long private drive. Inside it was the silhouette of what appeared to be a man sitting at a little desk with a lamp. The gate had to be raised by the attendant for a car to gain entry, unless one wanted to go around it and cross the vast lawn.
We slowly drove past the dwelling and I scribbled down the address. Later, I'd give the information to Janet and get her to do a title search. Roger turned the car around and we cruised past the residence again for a second look.
"I don't think we should attempt to storm in there tonight," I said. The more I thought about the lay out of the property, the more hesitant I became.
"Why? Diaz's daughter might be in there as we speak. We should make a move now."
"There's no way we could take her tonight. We're just not prepared. Think about it. You and I don't know the floor plan of the place or any idea of where in that bloody mausoleum Sandra could be held. Besides, we wouldn't get half way up that driveway without getting shot to pieces." I paused after my last remark. Roger wasn't quick to respond, which meant that maybe my words had probably sunk in a bit.
"Yeah, I suppose the watchman is armed and being monitored on camera. Did you see the camera trained on the gatehouse?"
"No, I didn't and that's my point. Suppose we pull up at the gate and subdue the guard. I bet you there'd be a small army in the house ready to put us away."
"Okay! Okay! I hear you."
"What we should do is come back tomorrow and take a few photos and figure out a game plan that'll work. This is no time to be pissin' in the wind."
Dejectedly, Roger drove the remainder of the crescent until it reconnected with Herschel Avenue. He then quickly exited off that street, and moved back on to the freeway. During the drive, he used the car phone to check his voice mail messages.
“Hey! Guess what?”
“Janet left a message saying that she tried that Red Hot Productions number all day, and just got an answering machine, but she tried it from home after work and someone answered. It was Vic Taybach.”
“When did she leave that message?”
“I don’t know. How about going to Torrance now, and see if somebody is still there?”, he suggested. I nodded in agreement even though it was a long shot that they would have been working that late on a Saturday night. The digital clock on the dash advised that it was midnight.
The industrial park containing the warehouse where Red Hot Productions was located proved to be a maze of run down buildings surrounded by fences. There were countless warehouses and they all looked alike. The structures were covered in peeling and faded white and tan paint. Most of these buildings were circled by chain link fences with rusted barb wire strewn across the top. The occasional fence held back a mean German Shepard lurking in the shadows, whose eyes glowed eerily in our headlights, and then disappeared as we drove past. It reminded me of a court case I studied in university. In London there had been a warehouse that was broken into by a thief. When he smashed a glass pane of a rear door and stuck his hand in to turn the handle on the inside that is when something happened. He felt pain and noticed that he couldn’t turn the door handle. He couldn’t understand this so he pulled his arm out and then saw the problem. His hand was gone leaving a bloody stump. Inside the door he could see the faint outline of a dog staring back at him. The dog had its voice box removed by its owner so that it could not bark. The matter became public knowledge because the thief sued the landlord who put the dog there. The thief claimed that the mute dog was a trap, and that the landlord could not set traps for thieves. The court agreed.
I wondered if the Taybachs had a guard dog. God, I hate dogs.
I leafed through the file in the car, and I was able to find the street address and the unit number. They were located in unit number twelve. The door to the place didn’t have any sign on it. It was a windowless, metal door. Beside it was a large closed steel garage door where somebody could back up a truck in order to unload cargo. The parking lot was empty except for two cars. In front of the garage door was an old, rusted Honda Civic and next to it was a white Cadillac Sedan de Ville. Somebody was working late. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one without a social life, who spent Saturday night on the job.
Roger parked at the edge of the parking lot by some bushes from which we had an unobstructed view of the cars and the unit door. I reached under my seat and retrieved the Glock. It was rather bulky with the silencer on it, so I unscrewed it, and slipped it and the gun into my jacket pocket. Roger shut the engine off, and we just sat there for a moment while I thought about what to do next. We couldn’t just knock on the door, and expect to get invited in. I wasn’t even going to check the door to see if it was unlocked because I doubted very much that it would be. Roger suggested that we try and pick the lock, but I rejected that idea saying that was far too risky. We bantered ideas back and forth for about half an hour before we both fell silent thinking to ourselves. I was staring at the door when it suddenly opened, and out came a skinny guy with long hair, a ripped and torn jean jacket and a tie dyed T-shirt underneath. He prevented the door from closing entirely by sticking a rock in between it and the door frame. He then lit a cigarette.
We got out of the car and started to walk over to this guy. Roger looked at me and said, "Wanna bluff it?"
"Yeah, you can go first", I muttered. I saw the guy start to fidget nervously as we got closer. "Rog you better hurry up. We don't want him going back in there without us."
"Sir! Can you help my friend and I. We seem to be terribly lost and need some directions. Our car is nearly out of petrol, and we haven't a clue where we are." Roger's English accent was twice as thick as usual for the benefit of our new found acquaintance.
"What?" the skinny guy asked. He had an eye brow ring. How pretty. He dropped his cigarette, and was mashing it out with the heel of his Reebook sneaker even though he had only taken a couple of puffs off it. I guessed Roger wouldn't be taking the Oscar home this year.
Playing the lost tourist crap to the hilt Roger continued, "Where is the airport from here?" Roger was closest to him when the guy bolted for the door. Just as the college aged kid grabbed a hold of the door handle, Roger lunged at him and snagged him by the collar. He pulled him away with a quick jerk. The door swung open a bit before closing, but not entirely because of the rock in the way. He flung the kid against the wall of the building without letting go of him.
"Listen very carefully because I am only going to ask you once. How many people are in there?" Roger asked sharply. The guy was maybe twenty years old and was shaking like a leaf. He didn't answer the question right away so Roger shook him pretty rough.
"One . . . I mean two", he sputtered.
"One? Two? What's it going to be mate?", Roger said raising his voice menacingly.
"I mean two . . . there are two of us. Me, and Vic."
He was obviously just a kid. Probably a student. He definitely was not a hardened criminal.
"What are you guys doing in there?" I asked.
"Editing and sound . . . nothing else man." The kid looked as if he had a serious bladder control crisis, but Roger had just one more question for him.
"Any guns in there?"
"G..g..guns?" the kid said as if he could not believe his ears.
"Guns you idiot!"
"No! no guns. Please let me go", he pleaded while he tried to squirm out of Roger's grip.
Roger turned to me with a sinister look and then back at the kid. "We'll let you go so long as you get the fuck out of here now. If we ever catch you working in this filthy business again, we'll make you regret it. Got it?" I thought the kid was going to faint right on the spot, but he didn't. He just nodded continually. I smelled urine and thought maybe he was peeing his pants, but then again it might have been a change in the wind direction. I probably just got a whiff of the vapors coming up from the parking lot sewer. I couldn't say for sure. Roger let go of his jean jacket collar and the kid ran straight to the Honda Civic, started it up and sped out of the parking lot.
The door was still open a crack and light shone out onto the sidewalk where we were standing. The hall light had attracted the attention of mosquitos who buzzed by our heads in their journey to the ceiling lights. Roger pointed at the door and said, "Well, let's go inside and see what the purveyor of filth has to tell us. I nodded and followed while he opened the door. Inside was a hallway that was maybe fifteen feet long lined with the cheapest paneling I had ever seen. The linoleum tile flooring was lime green where it was not stained or faded. A couple of tiles were missing revealing dull gray concrete with dabs of hard, crusty chunks of jaundiced glue. Fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling, and the last one at the end of the hall flickered badly almost like a strobe light. As we walked down the hall, I could hear repetitive music that was so unmistakably awful that it could only be used for one thing that was worse than the music itself . . . a porno movie.
At the end of the hall was a large warehouse storage area with a fifteen-foot ceiling. On our left was a stage set depicting a bedroom. There was a white painted, four banister bed with a frilly canopy. The bed was made with shiny pink satin sheets and beside it was a night table with a brass lamp. In front of the bedroom set at the edge of the carpet was a video camera on top of a tripod. A second camera hung from the ceiling.
Directly in front of the set were numerous electrical cables and extension cords of varying thickness, which snaked up into what appeared to be a mixing board. The extensive sound board sat on top of a long table. At the controls was a pudgy guy who was nearly bald except for some thick black hair that remained above his ears. He did not wear an under shirt which meant his sheer white dress shirt permitted an unpleasant view of a chest thick with black, curly body hair and dark nipples. It was not a Kodak moment. He didn't notice us at first as he peered intently at a video monitor on his right, which displayed a topless young blonde bouncing up and down on something. Fortunately, I did not have a full view as his fat head was in the way. With his left hand he turned a dial on the mixing board and simultaneously I could hear a woman's voice groaning. However, I was fairly sure that it was not the same woman on the video monitor because her lips were not moving. Everyone's a critic, eh?
"Oh yeah baby! Yeah baby! Yeah! Yes!" That was the crud that echoed over the schmaltzy music before I mentally tuned it out, and focused my attention on more important matters at hand. I scanned the rest of the warehouse unit to see if there was anyone else around. After all, the pimply college kid in his Grateful Dead T-shirt an jean jacket could have been a liar. There was a closed door at the far end of the studio. I pointed at it and Roger nodded and made a bee line for it. As he passed by the pervert at the sound board, that is when we were noticed. He pulled a head phone set from his neck and laid them on the flickering sound board that was reminiscent of the controls of the Starship Enterprise.
"Turn that shit off!", I bellowed above the synthesizers and moaning and groaning. The fat guy stabbed at a button on a reel to reel tape deck behind him and then there was silence.
"Who the hell are you? . . . . And where's Mike?"
"He had to go home to pee."
"Never mind." Beyond the fat guy, I could see Roger pull the door open along the far wall, which revealed an empty bathroom and shower stall that was missing a curtain. Roger started to nose around. Near the bathroom door was a desk and swivel chair that attracted his attention. He leafed through some papers on a desk, and then unceremoniously dropped them on the floor as something else caught his attention. He seated himself in the office chair and started pulling out various drawers, and rifling through them glancing occasionally at some printed material and then tossing it. I knew he was enjoying himself although I had held little hope in his search for clues or useful information.
What we really needed to know was the identity of the Syrian businessman. Who was he? What kind of a man were we up against? Why did he take Sandra Diaz? Answers to those questions aren't neatly found in file folders.
"Eh! You guys! Get the fuck outta here! This is a private business!" His hand reached for a telephone, but I got to it first and ripped the receiver out of his reach. I gave it another swift yank and pulled the receiver free of the cord that attached it to the rest of it’s base.
"I'm looking for the Taybach brothers. Are you one of them?" I had moved away from him and had climbed a couple of short steps up to the bedroom set on the elevated stage. I moved behind the video camera and hunched over and peered into it. It wasn't on so there was nothing to see but I swung it around and aimed it at fat head for dramatic effect.
"Be careful with that. It's leased."
"You still haven't answered my first question." I then gave the camera a gentle nudge, not a big one, but just enough such that it lost its center of gravity in spite of the tripod and toppled over. It fell off the stage entirely and crunched on the linoleum tile.
"Yeah! Yeah! I'm Vic. Now cut that shit out, and come down from there." He wore thick glasses which I noticed kept sliding down that beak of his. Every minute or so, he would re adjust them with a short pudgy index finger by pushing them higher up on his nose.
"Vic, you made a movie recently, and we would like to hear all the details. Starting with who hired you?"
"Who are you guys? I don't need to answer nothin'. You need a warrant." I doubted old Vic knew the legal purpose of a warrant, but I had bigger fish to fry, so someone other than myself would have to educate him on that legal document.
"We're not the police," I replied.
"Then get the fuck out. This is private property, and you and your friend are trespassing." Vic had seemed to get a little more cocky when I said we weren't cops. He folded his arms across his chest and glared at me as if I was a kid he was scolding.
While Vic and I were sparring, Roger had lost interest in the desk and got out of the chair and started to roam some more through out the studio. He ended up leaning against a large speaker composed of an enormous woofer and tweeter that was set in a massive wooden case towering two or three feet above him.
"Marshal amp right? Hendrix favored these if my memory serves me correctly," Roger said and then patted the speaker gently as if it was a horse.
"Get away from it!", Vic Taybach ordered.
"I figure Jimi would be rolling over in his grave right about now if he knew what kind of rubbish you were using them for." Without warning Roger placed both of his hands on the amp's massive shell, and then with a great heave pushed and toppled it over with a great crash of splintering wood. I jumped down from the stage and casually walked around the broken camera and tripod and moved towards Taybach. He stood up and backed away from the mixing board while glancing at Roger on his left.
"Vic, Raul Diaz's daughter is missing and he wants her back." His face drained of its beet red complexion at the mere mention of my client's name. "After her disappearance, she turned up in a nasty little number you produced. Tell us what we want to know or my friend and I are going to destroy everything of value in here."
"And after that we will start on you," Roger added.
"Okay, okay, what do you wanna know?"
"Who paid you to make it?", I asked.
"Some biker told me that he had a buyer for a video if I could do it right away. He said he would split his fee with me."
"Who was the biker and who was the buyer?"
"The biker was Charlie DeSoto. I don't know his client."
"That's not good enough." I suspected that he was telling the truth about the biker because Holly, the stripper, said the biker's first name was Charlie. But, the problem with people like Holly and Taybach is that they are very adept at weaving fact and fiction so tightly together making it impossible to figure out where the truth ends and the lies start. So, one must never give the impression they believe what they hear from such a lot.
"I don't know. Honest! I just saw the guy. He's a rag head." I presumed rag head was Taybach's not so eloquent reference to a person of Middle Eastern descent.
"Where was the video made?"
"Out in Long Beach at the Arab's place."
"Uh huh.” He scratched the day old stubble on his chin. “Charlie said he would supply the guys and one girl, but that I should get another one from their club."
"Yep. I got one. She works down at Sinners. I've been using her a lot lately. She could be a . . . I mean go far." Taybach paused and glanced at Roger to see if he was behaving himself. "We got to the place at about 10:30 this past Monday morning. The spread was crawling with bikers and Arabs. It was really weird."
"What motorcycle club were they with?"
"I don't know.”
“You do know.” I pulled the Glock out and waved it at him.
“Shit are you guys hit men?” We didn’t answer. There was terror in his eyes. His forehead was beaded with sweat, and he no longer defiantly had his arms folded across his chest. Now, his gestures were more friendly.
“Devil’s Riders. That’s who Charlie rides with.”
His eyes kept darting from the Glock to my face. He was no doubt trying to read my mind by studying my facial expression for any inclination of what I intended to do with him. I gave him a stony look of disgust that was genuine. He started ringing his hands, and then rambled some more.
“Look, all I can tell you guys is that the Arab had his body guards, and the bikers had their muscle. There must have been at least ten bikers and just as many Arabs." He paused.
"Keep talking asshole," Roger piped up from behind him.
"Les and I had our guys setting up our gear in the master bedroom while these really spooky camel jockeys watched us. We were almost ready to shoot, so I told one of the Arabs to go get the cast. A couple of them leave and a few minutes later I hear some yelling."
"Where'd they go?" I asked.
"They headed downstairs. From the top of the stairs, I could see Charlie screaming at a roughed up babe. A real knock out. She broke free from one of the Arabs and punched Charlie in the face."
"What happened next?"
"She bolted. They all chased her around the house for quite a while before they eventually snared her."
"Then what happened?"
"I don't know. I had seen enough to recognize that it was none of my Godamn business. Besides, Les and I still had to set up the mikes. Holly and the guys gradually showed up one by one, and when we were all ready we just hung around and waited for the go ahead. Charlie dragged the girl into the bedroom a bit later."
"How was she?"
"She was spaced out bad. Really looped. So, I told Charlie that she was too far gone to be of any use. He and the head camel jockey told me to shut up and use her. Charlie was in one scene. I think he wanted to get even with her for that shiner she gave him."
When he said that I immediately remembered the leather biker jacket lying on the couch in the video.
"What happened to her when you were finished?"
"She passed out near the end. The Arabs took her out of the room and told us to hit the road. Charlie told me to do a rough edit of the tape, nothing fancy, and get it back to him that same day. I told him that the edit was going to take time, and I had other stuff lined up to do that day. He wouldn't hear of it, saying he would give me a grand to get it done pronto. So, I got it done that night, and one of those Arabs came by here and picked it up."
"Did you keep a copy?"
"You know who Raul Diaz is?"
"Not at first. I didn't know who he was until after the fact. You guys don't think he blames me and Les for the tape?"
"You better burn that copy, and make sure that there aren't any more floating around. After that you should give serious consideration to leaving the country on the next flight out."
"I can't do that. Our business is here." He turned around and waved his arms at the surroundings as if we were in the Taj Mahal. "Things are just starting to happen for us. Tell him that we were just doing a job. We had no idea who she was."
"Sure, we'll do that," I said and meaning it. "You know where Sandra Diaz is now?"
"No. Not at all. I mean we just went into that place, shot the video and left. That's it. In fact, Charlie hasn't paid me yet. You guys know him?"
"No." Roger said as I turned and walked out.
. . .
We headed back out to the highway once more. It was about twenty minutes past two O'clock in the morning, and I was tired. I dozed off during the ride home, and awoke just as we arrived at my place. Roger said he would drop by in the morning and give me a lift to the office.
I lived in an old apartment tower well past it's prime. The swimming pool had been paved over years ago to make room for additional parking. At the entrance, there was a fountain depicting a little kid taking a whiz, which had not worked as long as I had lived there. One of the spotlights surrounding it was burnt out. Decor was not a big concern for me just as it wasn't for the landlord. I could have afforded to live in a better building, but didn't because I found humble surroundings somehow comforting. All I cared about was the fact that it was clean and located downtown.
When I got into my apartment, I took a quick shower, and then moved out to the kitchen where I launched a major assault on the refrigerator. I pulled a large chunk of Romano cheese out. I sliced it thinly, and placed it on crackers and enjoyed them with a large glass of milk. After I had polished off most of the cheese, and had run out of crackers I decided to quit. I drank some more milk, and stared at a picture of Che Guevara that hung on a wall in my living room.
The picture was acquired while I was in university. When graduating, some foolish old political philosophy professor gave it to me on the condition that I strived to fight injustice where ever I encountered it like Guevara did. I thought about Guevara, and decided that men like him didn't exist anymore. I may have not agreed entirely with his politics, but I respected his single-minded determination in spite of the overwhelming odds against him. In one biography I had, the writer said that Guevara came from some affluence and achieved some more by obtaining a medical degree. But, on a motorcycle tour through Central and South America his outrage at the grinding poverty of so many turned into action. He gave up the middle class prosperity he had in order to make a difference. There was more to life than just living comfortable and being motivated purely by self interest. He recognized this. Why couldn't I? Was my pursuit of Sandra driven by the quest for the almighty dollar or did I really care about what happened to her? I wasn’t sure of my motivation, but had to wonder about the moral fibre of any man who would demand money of a father in his worst moment of personal crisis.
Out on the balcony were Janet's flowers in their respective red clay pots. She had left them with me when she was in the process of moving to a new apartment. The new place didn’t have enough space for all her plants and flowers. I, of course, graciously offered my apartment's balcony and she accepted saying that I would only have to look after them for a short while. But, she had moved into her new place more than a month ago and she still hadn’t collected the plants. I took great pleasure in her frequent visits to check up on her “little ones” as she called them. She would lecture me on the proper frequency of watering, sunlight, and providing lots of loving attention. I enjoyed her instruction and was a quick study.
I noticed that the sun flowers and Peonies were drooping a bit so I gave them some water. On the other hand, the two rose bushes were doing fine. Up close, I caught their scent, and then gave them a drink. On the lounge chair I closed my eyes, and tried to remember my parent's old, lake side cottage they had in Maine after we moved from Dublin. Dad had started over his career in America and did reasonably well such that he managed to afford a cottage.
Some people drink, others exercise, but cottage memories were my way of forgetting the events of any given day. I would recall the silence of the beach, and how on those summer nights the only light I could see was the soft red glow of my camp fire burnt down to its embers. The fire's remnants would warm me from the nip of the early June night air. Late in the evening, the water of the lake would lose all of its turbulence from the day's swimmers, boats and water skiers, and resume its serene waveless surface until the following morning. Dad's Golden Retriever, Caesar, would keep me company as I drank cold cans of Canadian ale that I bought across the border. I remembered the peacefulness, and made a vow to myself as I did every night that one day I would leave urban life forever and retire to cottage country.
I woke up sometime later to the shrill sounds of an ambulance, still in the big city, on my balcony with a kink in my neck. The cacophony of street sounds was too much to bear. I went to bed, but unable to go back to sleep immediately, I had to read half a page of an old mystery novel before nodding off to the sounds of Miles Davis working his way through one of his early ballads.
In the morning, the ringing of the phone brought me out of my slumber, but I didn't get to it in time. It was probably Roger. I got up, shaved and fixed myself a strong cup of black tea. My shoulder was aching, so I took two Excedrin and hoped for some relief. I had a lot on my mind, chief of which was a nagging suspicion that Sandra Diaz was probably being held in that estate in Long Beach. I picked up the phone and rang up Janet.
"Hello", she answered in a cheerful voice on the second ring.
"I hope I didn't wake you", I said as I surveyed the early morning haze above the city. Somehow I would have to gather up the courage to leave L.A. once and for all. Surely, I could find a job back east. The economy was weaker there, but hey one has to take chances in life. The fear of poverty though restrained me, trapped in the city like the drunk who is a slave to the bottle. What would Che Guevara do in my shoes?
"No, not at all. I was just doing some laundry. What's up?", she asked.
"I need you to come into the office today. Is it possible to do a title search on a Sunday?", I asked as I took a sip of my steaming Orange Pekoe tea.
"Sure. Most of the municipalities are now on-line, but you have to pay for the information."
"Great, Roger and I will pick you up in a little while if that's okay with you?" I felt like a high school kid asking a girl out on a first date.
"That would be fine", she said. There was no hesitation in her voice. If there was one quality about her that I most admired was her willingness to go the extra mile when work piled up. Or maybe it was me she liked. I hadn't sorted it all out. All I knew was that I liked her a little too much. The sound of her voice could melt me. It could ruin a professional relationship, and that was why I held back.
I just got off the phone with Janet when I heard someone knock at my door. It was Roger. I got dressed while he busied himself in the kitchen frying some eggs. I put on a pair of blue jeans and a black T shirt. I laced up my sneakers and threw on an old black, three quarter length, leather jacket with lots of zippered pockets that hid the Glock quite well.
"You look like Steve McQueen in his hey day."
"Yeah, well what's with the suit pal", I said while giving his tie a tug as I passed by the kitchen island and reached for the tea pot. "I don't think you're gonna have time for church today."
"I gotta meet our client later. I can't look like the Roto Rooter man", he said. "Come on and help me finish these eggs."
. . . .
We collected Janet on our way to the office. I used Roger's car phone to get a hold of Jack Egan at his home. The phone rang about ten times before he finally answered. I told him that I needed him to pull the file in the Organized Crime Unit on the Devil's Riders, and bring it in. I offered to repay him for the favor in the form of a free dinner at his favorite longhorn steakhouse. He was sold.
The phone was ringing when we entered the office. Janet picked it up while I made my way to my desk. It was a mess of assorted mail over flowing from my tray and unrelated files that would only serve to distract me from the task at hand. I spent about five minutes stuffing all the paper into the filing cabinet and numerous drawers. Once the desk was clear, all that remained was an old brass banker's lamp that was salvage from a fire claim I handled years ago. It still smelled a little bit smoky once in a while. I pulled out a legal size writing pad and started to jot down some notes.
Sometimes I can't see the forest for the trees. It's helpful to step back occasionally to see where one is going, and I had just reached that point in my investigation. My method was to make a brief, no nonsense action list. The process of writing down one avenue of investigation usually led to others that I might not have thought of as quickly. At the top of my list was determining who owned the Long Beach property. This may lead to the identity of the Syrian. Secondly, I recognized the need for photos of the residence and the adjacent properties. Thirdly, I needed to review the biker file that Egan was to deliver later in the morning. Roger walked into my office and derailed my train of thought.
"Diaz called", Roger said. He wants to meet us today".
"Not today. Put him off." I didn't want Diaz interfering with our investigation.
"Okay, but he's going to be pissed."
"So be it", I said. "We're not running for public office."
"Oh, I gave Janet the address of that place we were at last night. She got on the internet, and was able to down load the registered owner listed with the municipal web site. I'll send her in." Roger turned and was about to step out when I called him back.
"Did you tell Diaz that we found out where the porn flick was shot?"
"Nope", he said. I wasn't sure if I believed him. The problem with Roger was that he was a guy who wore his feelings on his sleeve. The inability of keeping secrets was one of his many character flaws. If Roger told Diaz about our run in with Vic Taybach, then he had essentially signed a death certificate for the Taybach brothers. I was sure of that. I didn’t need Diaz executing them because it would no doubt warn the kidnapers that we were making progress. I made it clear to Roger that we have to keep Diaz in the dark at this point. He agreed.
After he left, I turned back to my list, but couldn't seem to add anything else to it. So, I decided to work with what I had. I swung my swivel chair around to the credenza behind me and dialed Jack Egan's work number. Hopefully, he had crawled out of bed since the last time we talked.
"Egan here", he barked into the phone.
"Eh, chief! Were you able to get the goods?", I said carefully as one never knew how private a phone conversation was in this day and age.
"Yep. I got a copy right here in front of me", he said in that unmistakable Texan drawl of his.
"Great! Can you do another favor for me?", I asked.
"Judas Priest! They outlawed slavery ya know", he said jokingly.
I then gave Jack the address of the Long Beach property, and asked him to discreetly take photos of the house, the grounds and everything around it. He agreed, but said that he wanted a piece of the action. He was not referring to money, but rather having a little more active role in the investigation instead of just being a gopher. I said okay. When the chips were down, he was one tough, honest, son of a bitch that I could rely upon wholeheartedly. I just didn't like to drag people into my problems especially if they were not fully aware of the magnitude of the predicament at hand. But, on the other hand, Jack was no babe in the woods.
I didn't notice Janet enter the office until I had hung up the phone, and swung back around to my desk. There was a freshly brewed cup of tea in front of me and a biscuit. She was truly a sweetheart I thought as she sat across from me in the leather wingback chair. No make up was required where she was concerned to enhance her wholesome good looks. At that very moment, I felt very proud of the fact that she and I were friends. I didn't have a lot of friends and particularly of the female gender. She rested a note pad on her knee that she was tapping with a pen until it occurred to me that she was patiently waiting for me to come out of my day dream.
"Thanks for the tea", I said as I lifted the cup and took a sip.
She nodded graciously. "The informal title search I did on the computer indicates that the registered owner is a Harvey Wagner. The property taxes are paid, and the house is assessed at $1.2 million. I've got his phone number and that's about it." She handed me a sheet of paper with the information neatly typed up. Wagner didn't sound like a Syrian name to me. Maybe Holly Ellis was sending me on a wild goose chase.
Out in the reception area, the phone rang so Janet left, and I swung around in my chair once more to the credenza. Who the hell could be calling us on a Sunday. It must be Diaz. I picked up the phone and punched the number of Mr. Wagner. It rang four or five times before someone answered.
"Hello", a tired voice answered. It was obvious that I had awakened him.
"Harvey Wagner please", I asked politely.
"I'm Harvey Wagner. Who is this?" His groggy voice crackled over the telephone line. He must have had a cordless phone.
"Do you own a property on Beechwood Crescent in Long Beach?"
"Yeah, look if you want to rent it you gotta talk to the realtor. That's what I'm paying him for."
"Who's your realtor?
"Sam Goldman Goddamn it!" Click! Wagner had hung up on me before I could get another word in edgewise. I dropped the receiver back into its cradle and thumbed through the Yellow Pages to see if there was a listing for Sam Goldman under real estate services. The advertisement for Goldman Realty listed an office phone number but no home number. However, there was a beeper number. I dialed it and an operator got on the line and asked for the message. I told her that I needed Mr. Goldman to contact me immediately on an urgent matter. I hung up and then got Janet on the intercom and told her that I was expecting a call from Goldman.
I finished my tea and pondered what to do next. I didn't have to evaluate my next move for very long. It was obvious to me that Roger and I would need to move in quick on the Long Beach house. But how? And under what pretext? If Sandra Diaz was not there then the only real lead we had would be gone. Speculating on the future course of the investigation was starting to fill me with some self doubt. It's a dangerous emotion which can lead to second guessing that can prove fatal. I had always found that going with one's gut instinct was an integral part of any successful investigation.
I pulled the Diaz file out and started to carefully sort the paper into different piles on my desk, in an effort to see if I was missing some crucial aspect of this investigation. I sifted through all the papers until I remembered Holly's conversation with me. Why would a Syrian pay the bikers money for Diaz's daughter? Is the Syrian a competitor of Diaz's? I then made up my mind to bring up this issue with my client at our next meeting. I stared at my empty tea cup for several minutes or so before I was stirred from my thoughts by Janet's voice over the intercom.
"Mr. Goldman is on line two."
"Put him through", I said and waited until Janet had transferred the call. "How are you today Mr. Goldman?"
"Very well, thank you", he said courteously. "I do not believe that we have met."
"No, we haven't and I'm sure you are wondering why I have paged you."
"Yes. The thought did cross my mind. Especially since it is a Sunday morning."
"I was wondering if a property in Long Beach owned by Harvey Wagner might be for sale", I asked hoping he would recall that particular listing.
"The owner has never given me instructions to put it up for sale. He merely wants to rent it, and at present it is being occupied. Were you interested in purchasing it because I could relay an offer to the owner?"
"Actually, I have a wealthy friend who would like to view it", I replied pausing while I searched my mind for the next lie. "We have already approached Mr. Wagner and he referred us to you. Could you come to my office today with some specifics about the home like the square footage and lay out? It would be great if we could view the architect’s plans."
"Can't this wait until Monday?", he said with obvious annoyance.
"I don't think so because Mr. Jones' schedule is full tomorrow, and he leaves for London on Tuesday. I assure you that it would be very much worth your while to drop by." He agreed to do so though I could discern the reluctance in his voice. I knew for sure he wouldn't be too pleased with me when he found out that Roger had about as much interest in buying a mansion as Donald Trump had in moving into my crummy apartment.
I tried to turn my attention back to my notes, and the file to see if there was something else I was missing, but I wasn’t able to concentrate. I tore the top page off the legal pad that had my list and headed over to Roger's office. His voice boomed in the kitchen as he boasted to Janet that he had found the finest bagels in all of southern California. Accordingly, she was making a grave mistake in judgment by not trying one. She smiled and walked back to her desk with a bran muffin and coffee in hand.
"You want one?" he asked while he buttered one fresh out of the toaster oven. The aroma of the fresh bagel made my stomach growl.
"No, I'll pass." I reached for a clean tea cup and poured myself what was left in the pot. I was craving a cigarette, but I fought off the urge. I thought to myself that when this case was over I would definitely give up that nasty little habit. I seemed to be smoking earlier and earlier in the day. Only a couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have my first smoke until noon.
"Last night, after I dropped you off, I was thinking to myself that I never heard of hash being a great export of Spain", Roger said in between chews.
"So what?" The bagels smelled good.
"Diaz is a Spaniard. Right?", he asked.
"Yeah, well that's what his accent sounds like."
"Don't you find it strange that he said he and his brother in law cultivated their product on some land in the old country? I'm not an authority on drug trafficking, but I have never heard of Spanish hash. I have always understood Spain was more of a point of entry for drugs into Europe."
"What are you getting at?" Roger loved to talk and if he had an audience, he could chat all day in spite of how much work needed to be done. I was very adept at disentangling myself from his morning musings. I'd just tell him I have work to do and walk away.
"I can't put my finger on it, but I've got this feeling that Diaz's story just doesn't add up."
"Roger, I am sure that Spain's climate is well suited for growing pot. I think you're getting off track."
"Come on, when I think about hash, what types are there circulating in this town? Jamaican, Mexican and . . . ", his voice trailed off as the same thought seemed to occur to us almost simultaneously.
"Lebanese.", I interrupted.
"And guess who has got Diaz's daughter. A Syrian. Syria isn't Lebanon, but it’s some damn close."
"Get a hold of Diaz and see if he can shed some light on this subject." I also told Roger about my suspicions about the motivation for the Syrian to put the Diaz woman in the video. He must be a business competitor of some kind. Roger said he would talk to Diaz about it today.
What Roger was saying made some sense, and fit well with what we had so far. I had lived in L.A. long enough to know that kidnaping was not the usual way business was conducted in the drug underworld. In fact, I had never heard of a similar case concerning any of the various criminal organizations regardless of their ethnic background. God knows, there were plenty of Lebanese criminals in L.A. tarnishing the reputation of their honest, hard working, immigrant counterparts. Diaz was similar to many Lebanese gangsters in the sense that he tended to keep a very low profile, while deeply involved in the hashish trade.
However, Roger and I had known plenty of war correspondents who worked in Beirut. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that kidnaping was not at all unusual in Lebanon during that country’s civil war. They were often orchestrated by foreign nationals, and even sometimes by their respective governments like Iran and Syria. But, I recognized my speculation may be in vain as I was by no means well informed on the drug trade. Roger might be a weekend rebel smoking it at a thirtysomething party, but this did not make him much of an expert either. Maybe Egan had worked in the dope unit at some point in his career. I thought to myself that I would have to run it by him.
We went to his office and he busied himself on the phone trying to locate our client while I collapsed into one of his wing back chairs. I turned my attention to the file once more, and gradually realized that I was procrastinating. We had to move in immediately on the Beechwood place. Reading the file repeatedly was not going to get us anywhere.
It took about an hour before the realtor showed up. Janet showed him in, and Mr. Goldman stared at an old stain in the carpet, and then scanned the rest of Roger's office. He didn't seem too impressed. This fiftyish guy was wearing a green polo shirt, and a pair of wrinkled dress slacks that looked like he had slept in them, but I knew better. They were linen. He was quite heavy set and with a graying beard looked more like Sigmund Freud having a bad hair day than a big nickel real estate agent. He was certainly no ladies man with the thick framed bifocals. A cracked and worn burgundy leather briefcase swung from his left hand. This guy was definitely all business. Roger and I introduced ourselves as insurance adjusters, and I explained to him that the real reason we wanted to talk to him related to the kidnaping.
"What's the name of Mr. Wagner's tenant?", I asked not wasting anytime.
"That is confidential." He glanced at a chair apparently undecided as to whether he would sit down. "I don't think you have any right to know."
"Somebody has been abducted. We're trying to find that person, and have very good reason to believe that Wagner's tenant is involved." Roger gestured for the realtor to sit down, but Goldman shook his head.
"You people are not the police." Goldman paused for a moment and then looked me straight in the eye and said, "In fact, I should report you to them. I was invited here under false pretense."
I was glad that I didn't tell this guy who I was on the phone or he probably would have hung up on me like Wagner did.
"No, we're not the police, but . . . " I was interrupted by Janet's voice over the intercom announcing that Jack Egan had just arrived. I told her to send him right in, and then breathed a sigh of relief. If Goldman needed the presence of a cop to lend credibility to our investigation, then Egan would do that, and then some.
Roger's office door swung open, and banged against the bookcase that stood along the adjacent wall. Egan stood there with a big grin on his face waving with a sports bag slung over his shoulder.
"How's it hangin' boys!", he beamed. He had an Addidas gym bag which he flung at me. I caught it and tossed it aside. I presumed it contained the photos and the biker file.
"Great, take a seat," I said. "I don't believe you have met Mr. Goldman. He's the real estate agent that rented that place to our suspected kidnaper." Jack held out his hand to greet the realtor, but Goldman ignored the gesture.
"I think I will be going now", Goldman said quickly turning for the door. Jack sensing that we did not want our visitor to leave just yet remained standing in the way.
"Jack, we have figured out who was behind the film." Roger said. "But, we have a teensy weensy problem."
"What's that?" Egan dead panned. He cracked his knuckles and gave Goldman a sheepish grin.
"Mr. Goldman doesn’t want to divulge the name of this individual to us because he feels it is a confidential matter for the authorities."
Egan smiled and slapped Goldman on the back and then pushed him backwards into a chair. "Why don't ya take a load off and tell us what you know?" Jack pulled his badge out of his jacket and threw it into the realtor's lap.
Goldman examined the badge carefully and wrote the number down on a note pad. Egan rolled his eyes at me.
“So this is an official police investigation?” Goldman asked.
“What do you think I’m doing here on a Sunday morning? That place is the scene of a crime. You don't cooperate, then I am gonna want to take you in for questioning.”
Goldman nervously looked at the badge and nodded. He handed it back to Egan, reached for his briefcase and popped it open. He pulled out a couple of legal size documents. He gave us a copy of the lease, which identified the tenant as a guy named Fouad Ghattas. The name meant nothing to me. I looked at Egan and he shook his head.
Ghattas had leased the property about three months ago, and was paying $8,500.00 a month. He had given Goldman twelve post dated checks. Goldman recalled Ghattas had introduced himself as a wealthy Syrian businessman who lived alone, but seemed to have a fairly large entourage of assistants. He told Goldman that he arrived in L.A. for the purpose of expanding his business interests based out of Syria. He didn't say what those business interests were and Goldman hadn't asked.
We made Goldman draw us a rough floor plan of the five thousand square foot home. He had an excellent recollection of the various rooms as he had shown it many times before eventually renting the place to Ghattas.
The home was equipped with motion sensitive night time lights. This meant that anything that moved on the grounds at night within fifty feet of the home was lit up by flood lights and an audible warning buzzer sounded at the gate house. The windows were all wired to warn of any breakage. However, the video surveillance system was not working when Goldman leased the place to Ghattas. Goldman had told him that any changes to the security system had to be approved by Wagner. To date, Wagner and Goldman had not been contacted by Ghattas about any such changes.
Roger showed Goldman out while Egan snickered.
"What an asshole."
"Yeah, an asshole who might go directly to your precinct and report you,” I said. “Will this stir up a lot of dust?”
“Maybe. They are looking for any excuse to get rid of me. This is just something they will add to their file. Fuck ‘em.”
"Oh, so what's in the gym bag? Your jock strap. Yeah, we could flush the kidnappers out with that thing." I unzipped the gym bag and on top of a towel was the file but no pictures of Wagner's house.
"Where are the pictures?", I said while leafing through the file.
"It's Sunday morning. There's no photo mat open right now."
"Poor excuse. So, tell me what you saw."
"I saw a really big house. No movement outside. The gate house is manned by some old guy who's watching pray TV. In the driveway was a van, and a Mercedes stretch limo. There may have been other vehicles out back as the driveway swings behind a tall hedge."
"Did you see any activity inside?"
"You mean like a twenty year old girl staring out a window or something."
"Did you see anything?"
Roger came back in the office. "I got a hold of Diaz. He's on line one." I picked up the phone.
"They called again", Diaz said.
"How much do they want this time?"
"It's not money that they want now. Their first demands were just to soften me up. They want the land and its deed."
"Land in the Bekka Valley."
"Would that Bekka Valley be in Lebanon?"
"I am missing something here. I thought you were a Spaniard, not Lebanese."
"I am a Spaniard, but Sandra's mother is Lebanese."
"So, when you said that your brother-in-law and you owned some land in the old country you were not referring to Spain but rather Lebanon."
“Don’t you think that was an important fact for us to know?”
“Not really. I never thought the Syrians were behind this.”
"You said your brother in law was assassinated due to the unstable political climate. Was it because of politics or the drug business?"
"Actually, it was both."
"Please be more specific. We are trying to save your daughter. This is not the time to be unclear about anything.” I reached for my smokes and lit one.
"Politics and business are often one and the same in the Middle East. Why do you think Syria occupies Lebanon? It's not because Lebanon has any oil. The country doesn't have any. It's natural resources are not significant. Syria has a terrible economy and is very dependent on aid from other Arab nations."
"Get to the point."
"The Lebanese economy is much better. It does not have an Islamic government. It's tolerant. There are casinos, no taxation, tourism, international banking and . . . hashish. Initially, Hafez El Assad had sent his troops into Lebanon in an effort to apply pressure on Israel to give back the Golan Heights which had been lost in the Arab Israeli War. Coincidentally, Assad realized that since his troops were in Lebanon he may as well install a puppet government. Once in control of the government, he closed down all the casinos except for one. The profits of it are split equally between his son and the president of Lebanon. That's just one example. The Syrian government has systematically stuck their nose in every business going, and now are moving into my business in a big way. It is a billion dollar industry, which they want all for themselves."
"So, when a Syrian backed crime syndicate came knocking at your door offering to buy the land belonging to you and your brother-in-law, you guys refused. They killed him for refusing because they thought that you would cave in. In order to apply a little more pressure they decided to take your daughter."
"Why didn't you tell us this before?"
"At first, I didn't know this was happening. The Syrians used a front man, a Lebanese trafficker, to approach us about selling. We turned him down thinking nothing more about it. When Raphael was assassinated, I really did think it was politics. The government is controlled by Syria and Raphael wanted to bring General Aoun back from France to fight for independence."
"So, where do you think all this leaves us now?"
"I can sell the land to the Syrians, but they still will not give Sandra back."
"Why do they need the deed? If this syndicate is supported by the government can't they just take the land?"
"They have already taken the land. The syndicate wants the deed because if the political climate ever changes I could get it back with the deed. They have invested tens of millions of dollars in bribes to get that property and many others in the area."
"I suppose that kind of property has a rate of return that's a little better than your average mutual fund."
"It's a money tree with no taxes to pay, and no government interference. You wouldn't believe the cash it generates."
"Do you know a Syrian named Fouad Ghattas?"
"No . . . Why?"
"We have traced Sandra's disappearance back to this Ghattas guy."
"Maguire, you must get Sandra back because they will kill her. It is only a matter of time now. I must sign the deed over, and then they are supposed to release her, but I know they will not. They have told me that I must meet them in Beirut in two days. So, I fly out tonight. If you do not find Sandra today or tomorrow then she's . . . "
"I get the picture", I said.
We were following Roger who led the way back to Long Beach. He drove carefully signaling every lane change. His head seemed to rock from side to side probably to the beat of the latest dance track on the charts. I rode with Jack in his big red Ford accompanied by the sounds of a Willie Nelson ballad. He drove carelessly with little apparent regard for pedestrians, crosswalks and amber lights. Like most cops, he appeared to be a bad driver but wasn't, as he nonchalantly tailed Roger.
"You think she's in there?", Egan asked. His left arm hung out the window and instead of using his signal light at the intersection, he just pointed to his left and made the turn. The oncoming motorist gave us a dirty look when Jack cut in front of her. My life flashed before my eyes as I managed to survive another game of chicken.
"I don't know, but there's only one way to find out." I took a sip of my coffee, and wondered if the Styrofoam cup imparted a certain bad after taste that a paper cup might not. I was going to ask Egan what he thought, but then thought better of it.
"You got a plan", he asked as we bounced over a pot hole.
"You never were a boy scout were ya?
"Have you ever heard their motto?"
"Who gives a shit?"
"Wrong. Be prepared!"
"My friend, you said you wanted a piece of the action well you got it. Think up a plan." I slouched in my seat some more to the point where my knees were touching the dashboard.
Jack smiled. "Don't worry. I will."
I had hoped he would think of something because I certainly didn't have any ideas. Before leaving the office, we had all agreed that Roger would park hopefully in an inconspicuous location near the sprawling residence, and just check the place out. Jack and I were not to sure what we would do. The pick-up would stick out like a sore thumb in that neighborhood whereas Roger's beamer would probably go unnoticed like white hair elderly residents clad in white polyester pants with a yellow belt playing shuffle board on a Miami beach.
Jack yanked the truck on to Beechwood none to gently, which was evidenced by the squeal of the tires. We were picking up speed on this quiet residential street while Roger was slowing down. Egan fished his cell phone out of his jacket and handed it to me.
"Call numb nuts." The phone rang a couple of times before Roger answered. I passed the phone back to Egan.
"Just pull up in front of this Ay rabs place", Jack said. "I got a plan." He hung up on Roger and stuffed the phone back in his jacket.
"Is Roger wearing his seatbelt?"
"Yeah, why?", I said.
Suddenly, the truck sped forward. Roger was sitting in the beamer parked by the curb across from the gate house. Just as we were about to pass by him Jack tugged on the steering wheel, and the truck veered to the right. He slammed on the brakes and we skidded into the ass end of the BMW. About a second before the collision I managed to get my feet up on the dash in order to brace myself.
The heavy crunching sound of metal was chased by steam and smoke billowing out from underneath the hood of the Ford. The trunk lid of Roger's car was buckled. I was wearing my coffee while the cup spun on the dash. Egan had already hopped out of the truck leaving his door open before I could say a word. Roger was staring at the damage and screaming in frustration. They turned towards each other and Roger took a swing. Egan could see it coming and deflected it with his left forearm. The boys were fighting. Egan had Roger in a head lock before I managed to stop the both of them.
"Break it up you two!" I yelled.
Egan flashed a grin at me.
"All part of the plan . . . All part of the plan", the Texan grunted. He loosened the headlock on Roger, but not entirely.
"What bleedin' plan? You stupid hayseed from butt fuck nowhere's ville!", Roger bellowed as he strained to release himself from Egan's grip.
"You're going to go in your car and pretend to use the phone but it ain't gonna work", Egan said quietly. "After that you'll get out and we'll all go up this driveway to use the phone at Mister Ghattas' home. Comprende amigo?" Egan loosened his grip a bit more.
"Let him go Jack!", I ordered.
Egan released him and Roger glared at us while he gasped for a moment and caught his breath. He then got in the car and reached for his phone and then proceeded to hammer it to pieces on the dash. I turned and I could see some old guy in the gatehouse watching us. I turned back and saw Roger still in the car. He was just sitting there.
"What are you doing in there?" Egan asked Roger. "Come on!"
"I've to get my registration", Roger muttered. I wondered if he was a little dazed. He then reached across the passenger seat and into the glove compartment. I saw the registration he was getting. He slipped the revolver under his belt and buttoned his suit jacket.
The security guard was an old guy who smelled of Aqua Velva. He had some sort of a corny uniform on with a thick belt sectioned off into various compartments. The belt did not have a gun holster, just a couple of leather pouches containing probably nothing more dangerous than a jackknife or maybe fingernail clippers.
"Are you guys all right?", he asked.
"Yeah, we'll live", Egan replied. He rubbed his neck and looked at Roger.
"Can you call us a tow truck?" I asked.
"Sure, but you'll have to wait here. The phone is at the main residence. I've just got an intercom over there", the security guard said while pointing at the gate house.
"I am feeling really sick", Roger said weakly. "I need to use a bathroom."
"I'm sorry, but I am under strict orders not to let anyone up to the main house."
"Oh! For Crissakes, this is an emergency", Egan bellowed. "It's not like he's collecting for the Jehova Witnesses."
Surprisingly, the security guard relented without any further argument. He turned and we followed him up the long driveway. There was a detached three car garage that was barely visible from the street because of a high cedar hedge in front of it. It concealed three Harleys and a Range Rover. The Harleys were heavy with gleaming chrome and leather studded saddle bags. Ghattas had company. Bad company. The guard led us to the side entrance of the house. I unzipped my jacket. Roger and I walked in but Egan had disappeared. The security guard didn't notice him missing.
We stepped into a mud room with a large closet on the right and a long wooden bench on the left. The walls were painted hunter green. My sneakers squeaked on the hardwood floors. There was not a painting or a wall hanging of any kind on the walls, but there were numerous nail holes where some once hung. The place looked and felt like a rental. There was no warmth. Standing in the mud room, I could look into the kitchen and at the far end of the kitchen was a hallway on the right. On the left was a closed French door. Through the glass I could see the edge of a dining room table chair.
"The bathroom is down the hall, just beyond the kitchen, on your right", he said. Roger passed through the enormous kitchen and walked down the hall.
"Where's the phone?", I asked.
"Follow me." The guard led me out of the mud room and into adjoining the kitchen. I could hear some voices beyond a French door on the left that led to a dining room, if I remembered Goldman's floor plan correctly. On the ceramic tile counter there was a phone sitting on top of a phone book. I started to leaf through the yellow pages when all of a sudden I got very tired of the charade. I turned to the old man, and put my hand on his shoulder.
"I want you to go?", I whispered. The old man looked at me like I was crazy.
"Please go now." I let my leather jacket fall open a bit so that he could see my gun. The heel of it protruded from the inside pocket. He was visibly startled by what he saw. As he walked to the door I coughed. He looked back at me.
"How many?" I whispered. The old guy held up a hand. Five. He turned and walked out. The door closed quietly behind him. Something was cooking in the oven. It smelled like lamb. There was laughter coming from the dining room. The floor creaked from behind me and I whipped out the Glock and spun around to see Roger.
"You sure ain't no Indian", he whispered in a mock southerner's accent.
"Where's Egan?" I asked.
"Are you ready? I nodded and I walked passed him and turned the brass handle of the French door. Roger would have gone through first, but he was probably still a bit winded from the first stage of Egan's impromptu plan.
There were two bikers seated side by side at a long mahogany dining room table. One was counting a stack of money while the other was fitting a bundle into an attaché case. I recognized one of them from the porn flick. An Arab dressed in a shiny suit was sitting on a love seat chatting with two hard looking women. They wore tight jeans and black T shirts. Biker chicks. He wore black penny loafers with white tube socks.
One of the bikers stood up arrogantly. His belly spilled out from under his grubby T shirt. The tattoos spiraled up his forearms. I noticed an unusual bulge from under his leather vest. He tossed a bundle of cash into the briefcase and backed away from the table.
"Where's the girl?", I asked. Roger had his gun trained on the Arab and the women.
"What girl?", he rasped. His graying hair was pulled into a pony tail. I suppose he thought it made him look tough.
"I'm not going to ask again." He stared me down and didn't flinch. The biker had balls. I'll give him that. I waited. He waited. I reached into my jacket and pulled out the silencer. The biker didn't seem to like that. Especially when I screwed it on.
"She's upstairs . . . ." Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Arab raise a gun, but Roger shot him in the knee cap. He was now on the rug groaning as bright red blood splurted everywhere. Roger walked over and picked up the hand gun. He had ordered the women to lay face down, a request they were no doubt familiar with. The biker was still in my sights. My ears were ringing from the loud report of Roger's gun.
"I'll go get her", Roger said before I could say anything. He stepped out of the dining room, and I heard the sickening blast of a shotgun go off and the heavy thud of someone falling.
The biker reached underneath his vest, and I didn't hesitate for a second. The bullet ripped through his chest and exited messily leaving a crimson splatter on the wall behind him. His backside slumped against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. I could hear a hideous sucking sound. It was his labored breathing complicated most likely by a hole in one of his lungs. His friend was by his side telling him everything was going to be all right. I figured he was probably unarmed or he would have made a move for his colleague's small snub nose gun which now lay on the table.
I scooped up the hand gun and swung my aim to the open double set of doors at the end of the dining room which Roger had walked out. I could hear footsteps approaching and then some more muffled sounds, and then a soft popping sound. The ceiling above creaked. There was somebody upstairs.
"Maguire! You still alive?", Egan bellowed.
"Yeah", I muttered.
"Come on. I've got a problem." I stared at the biker chicks still face down with their hands on the backs of their heads. They sure knew the routine.
I walked out of the dining room and found myself in the main entryway of the home by an enormous dark wooden staircase. Roger was lying on the floor unconscious. His jaw was slack and his pallid color worried me, but I could see ever so slightly the gentle rise and fall of his chest. Blood seeped from his left shoulder. There was another biker lying a couple feet from him. His forehead was missing but he still cradled a shotgun. I noticed that Egan had a silencer on his gun too. He must have used it in order to give Roger's assailant the crude frontal lobotomy.
Egan's problem was by the front door. Sandra Diaz's head was tilted back by a large hand which had her none too gently by the hair. The muzzle of the .45 pressed against her cheek. She whimpered and tried vainly to look at Egan and I, but instead all she could do was stare up at the chandelier that lit up the front hall.
He was an enormous man. He tried to stand behind her but her slim frame was not much of a shield. They were edging their way towards the door slowly, a step at a time. Egan had his gun trained on this kidnaper, but I knew he wouldn't shoot. It was too risky. Too many cops have shot at kidnappers when they thought they had a clear head shot only to be horribly disappointed when the hostage struggled a split second before the trigger was pulled.
"Let her go", I said.
"Let us go! . . .You know I'll kill her!" It wasn't an empty threat as far as I was concerned.
"Jack drop back and cover the rear. I left some loose ends in the dining room." Immediately, Egan turned around to the dining room door with his .357 thrust in front of him. "Drop anyone who comes out."
The guy had his back against the front door and was trying to push it open. He was weezing and perspiring heavily so much that his white shirt was dripping wet around the collar that was held together by a thick neck tie. I knew it was Ghattas. He was too old and ruthless to be a lackey. This guy gave orders. He was not used to strong arming young women or anyone else for that matter. There were people to do that for him. He pushed against the door three times before it creaked open. Sandra made eye contact with me. She wasn't crying, just a stare of infinite sadness.
"I'm going to kill her like a dog you . . . ", he was interrupted by the loud reverberation of an engine come to life, and then I saw through the picture window a Range Rover race across the lawn. Ghattas yanked Sandra out the door. The bastard was making for the Range Rover.
My first instinct was to run for the door, and that was what I did. I whipped it open just as it started to splinter. Ghattas was pushing Sandra into the Rover while a guy stood on the lawn in front of them with a Mac 10. Fortunately, those Goddamn things are not very accurate even at relatively close range. I ducked back inside the house, and waited while the idiot raked the door and entry way with a continuos barrage of bullets. Suddenly, the hail of machine gun fire stopped.
Smoke and the pungent odor of cordite seemed to envelope me. Still no more bullets, and then I heard the Rover's engine rev. I burst out the doorway to find the vehicle hurtling across the lawn and ripping up the sod as it headed towards the street below. I thought about opening fire on it, but I just couldn't take the chance of hitting Sandra.
I don't know how long I stood on the lawn. People were starting to collect on the sidewalk. I just kept thinking how sad Sandra looked. I felt terrible for letting her slip through my hands. I replayed the events over in my mind thinking how I could have done things differently, but the alternatives meant either I would be dead or Sandra. Egan brought me out of my reverie with his usual tactfulness.
"You better get the hell out of here!"
"How's my partner doing?", I asked.
"Not good. I called an ambulance."
"Can I borrow your truck?"
Egan shook his head. "Nah, you better take one of the Harley's. I'm gonna have enough explaining to do when the boys in blue arrive."
I hopped on to one of the bikes, and sparked it to life and roared off into the Sunday afternoon.
I ditched the Harley about twenty minutes later at a strip mall, and made a call to Janet from a battered old phone booth. It's peeling blue painted metal and scratched fibre glass shell had been ravaged by the graffiti of the inner city's delinquent youth.
"Where are you?", she asked.
"I'd rather not say." I said as I read the lyrics to a Doors song, which had been neatly carved by a thoughtful vandal. Riders on the Storm had many verses and they were all there. "I want you to call Diaz, and give him this pay phone number." I read the number to her and glanced around. The phone booth was next to a bustling grocery store entrance. I was having a bit of difficulty hearing over the racket of shopping carts being wheeled in and out. I thought about pulling my gun out and shooting a few customers to quiet things down, but then remembered I only had two clips.
"Are you okay? The police are in Roger’s office right now." I then realized that I had left the file in my office. The cops must have found his business card on him and linked the fiasco in Long Beach with our work. On the other hand, maybe Egan had to tell them that much. One thing I knew for sure was that if the Diaz file fell into police hands then we were all in trouble. I shuddered at the thought of DeGazzio’s detailed memos of Diaz’s underworld business and contacts falling into the hands of the authorities.
“Have they gone into my office yet?”
“No, but they want to talk to you.”
“What did you tell them?” An old lady was now standing outside the phone booth and patiently waiting for my conversation to end.
“I said that you were in earlier, and that you left without saying where you were going, which is the truth.”
“Good. Remember what you said because they will ask you again. You have to remain consistent in your answers. Is anyone nearby who can overhear you?”
“Go into my office and take the Diaz file off my desk. Take it to the kitchen and put it in the garbage.”
She paused for a moment. I knew I was asking a lot of her, but it had to be done. Otherwise, Roger, Egan and I might end up in jail on a multitude of charges.
“Are you still there?”
“Yes.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper.
“Will you do it?”
“Yes,” she said as her voice trembled some more.
“Please be careful.” She sniffled. I sensed that she was close to tears.
“I will.” I felt like telling her that I cared for her or something to that effect, but the words wouldn't come out. How can you tell a person you have feelings for them when you have never dated? I hung up without saying good‑bye, and instantly regretted it.
After ending the conversation with Janet, the elderly shopper who had been waiting outside the phone booth picked up her shopping bags off the ground and moved towards the booth. Diaz would be calling anytime, and I was going to tell the lady that I was expecting an important, but then I thought to myself that he could wait. So, I stepped out of the booth, held the door open and offered to watch her bags for her. While she made her call, I reflected on how deeply involved I had become in Diaz’s crisis, and knew that I had become inextricably connected to it. There was no turning back.
After the elderly shopper called her husband to pick her up, she and I chatted for a few minutes. Her name was Edith.
“Where are you from?” she asked. She was a tall lady with delicate features.
“I live downtown,” I replied.
“No, no, I mean where are you originally from. Nobody is originally from this city.”
“Really? Do you miss it?”
“Not really. I didn’t have a pleasant childhood.”
“I can understand. I am originally from London and my childhood memories are of the German bombing campaigns, and the constant hunger. There was never enough to eat.”
“Do you like L.A.?”
“Wilbur and I loved it when we first arrived in the late sixties, but not anymore. Too much crime and the city is so big now. Going out for groceries is such an ordeal. It takes me two hours to just pick up a few things. We are terribly lonely too.”
“Why don’t you move away? Somewhere small?”
“Big city life is deceptively seductive. Good jobs attracted us here in the first place, but as you get older and retire, your job ends and with it many of your friends. Living in a big city is much like being on a speeding train. It’s so very hard to jump off.”
I nodded and saw a big lime green Cadillac from the mid-seventies pull to the curb in front of us. I helped her load the groceries into her husband’s car. She was far too frail to lift them, and her husband was not much help. He had tremors in his hands, and was unsteady on his feet. God only knew how they were going to unload the groceries without me. They thanked me and left.
I waited about half an hour and worked my way through four cigarettes before the phone rang. I told Diaz briefly what had happened, and what I felt we should do about it. Without giving it much thought, I suggested that I continue the chase for his daughter and her captor. Diaz then told me that he had heard from Ghattas' people again, and that the meeting in Beirut was still to take place.
"Did this conversation take place after my failed rescue attempt?"
"Yes." He paused for a few seconds and then added, "They have no intention of exchanging her for the deed. They toy with me, but they will probably take her to Lebanon in order to continue their . . ." His voice trailed off.
"Their cat and mouse game?", I offered.
"Yes. Something like that. These people said they respected my attempt to get my daughter back. They assured me that she would still be released after they get the deed."
“Do you believe them?”
“No. Of course not.”
"So, we may have a second chance?"
He then told me he was leaving immediately for Beirut, and that he would send a car out to pick me up. I didn't know what use I would be to him in Lebanon, and was going to argue the point, but I didn't get the chance as he abruptly ended the conversation by hanging up on me. He didn't say goodbye either.
The events were unfolding with blinding speed such that I didn't have time to really think things through. I knew that I couldn't go to the office and certainly not my apartment. Deep down, I recognized that even if those were options I would have chosen to continue the pursuit. It was in her eyes. There were no tears which made her sadness all the more difficult to forget. Those eyes would haunt me if I did nothing.
The polished, black Lincoln pulled up to the curb, and the tinted rear passenger’s window lowered slowly revealing Mario. For a split second, I didn't know whether to get in or run. We drove for a few minutes before either one of us spoke. Mario sat in the plush leather upholstered backseat with me while two of his colleagues rode up front. I didn't recognize them from yesterday. Diaz must have had a private army to draw upon.
"We are going to the . . . how do you say . . . air park?", Mario said as he struggled with his words. He had an accent, but it wasn't Spanish or Italian. I watched him carefully, and noticed he had a gold college grad ring. He saw me glance at it, and smiled with obvious pride.
"My English not to good, but my French is fine. Did you know Lebanon used to be French protectorate?" He shifted on his seat trying to get more comfortable. The grey leather seat rippled underneath as it accommodated his size.
"No", I said not terribly interested, but not too keen on expressing that particular opinion to him. I felt the heaviness of my Glock in my jacket pocket, and tried to estimate the number of seconds it would take to draw it quickly if the conversation soured.
"I graduated from McGill with degree in civil engineering. I didn't have a lot of essays to write . . . but many mathematical calculations."
"Why aren't you working as an engineer?"
"I did for some time in Lebanon, but civil war broke out in '75, so I had to leave. I returned to Montreal because French spoken there, but there was no work. Raul's wife, Nada, is my first cousin. She wanted me to come down here to look for work."
"So, you did?"
"So, I did."
When we arrived at the airport, Mario's driver took a rather peculiar route around the enormous parking garage before we ended up at a chain link fence entrance. A security guard opened it and waved us through. So much for having our bags checked, run through a metal detector, x‑rayed or whatever the hell airport security are supposed to do. The Lincoln dashed across the tarmac towards a shimmering Lear jet. Two guys stood at the foot of the folding staircase. We pulled up in front of it and got out.
As I entered the plush cabin, Raul Diaz nodded at me while he continued his phone call. I thought it was a pretty good reception considering I was the guy who had found his daughter, and lost her all in the same afternoon. He waved me to a tan, butter soft, leather seat, and I sat across from him painfully aware that Mario lurked in the cabin somewhere behind me. I remembered a scene from a bad Hollywood Mafia movie where the godfather is really nice to a long time associate just before he has him killed minutes later by a garrote wielding underling who attacks from behind. I tried to remind myself that I was not a long time Diaz associate, but somehow the thought wasn’t very comforting. I felt very uneasy and wished that I had sat elsewhere with my back up against a wall.
Diaz's phone conversation consisted of him reading numbers from what looked like a balance sheet which lay open in his lap. With a gold nib fountain pen he ticked off several columns of figures. The conversation was in English and the other party was Hal. Maybe Hal was Diaz's Swiss banker. I didn't pay much attention to the conversation because I doubted it had any relevance to the search for Diaz's daughter. After about five minutes his phone call ended.
Between us was a little coffee table with a polished copper tray filled with just about every brand of cigarettes on the market. Mario raised the tray to Diaz who selected a Marlboro and then offered the tray to me.
"No thanks, I'm trying to quit", I replied not too convincingly. I had been thinking about quitting and decided that the time had arrived.
"Won't you try?", Mario insisted. "They good for you." Life was strange. Yesterday, this man was trying to kill me with two baseball wielding thugs and today he was offering a smoke. Try and figure that one out.
I restrained a frown while Diaz raised a hand and said, "The man has spoken and wisely I might add. How about a drink?"
"Whisky and a bit of ice."
Mario turned and presumably went to fix me a drink. Raul lit his cigarette with a gold lighter and stared out the window. The smoke drifted my way, which reminded me of why I had smoked for so long. In a world where nothing is certain, people know that lighting a cigarette brings a certain level of reassurance. The taste of the tobacco is familiar and somehow comforting. When all else fails or deserts a person, the cigarette remains, which is probably why one is offered to bums on skid row by sympathetic passers by or to a man facing a firing squad.
Mario handed me my drink and I took a pull. The distinctive flavor of the Crown Royal was just as reassuring as acrid tobacco smoke. A good drink after a long and difficult day was one of life's wonderful little rituals. I looked out a cabin window on my right to see long shadows cast by the terminal building as the sun started to wane in the late afternoon.
Diaz was dressed tastefully in black pants, turtleneck, and sports jacket of cashmere or some equally fine material. I then noticed that everyone else on the plane wore mostly black or very somber colors. It then occurred to me that maybe they were all in mourning over the situation at hand. I had heard that Italian women often wore black for the rest of their life when a loved one died. Maybe this was a peculiar tradition that occurred in other places on the Mediterranean. Sandra Diaz was not dead, but her plight was grave.
Besides Mario and Diaz, there was a young woman on the plane preparing some food and two body guards who quietly played backgammon and sipped Turkish coffee from tiny ceramic cups. Large hand guns dangled from their well worn leather shoulder holsters. The door to the cockpit opened and the pilot told us we would probably be taking off in about ten minutes.
"Do you know this Ghattas fellow?", I asked.
"I made some inquiries." He leaned back in his chair and let out a yawn. "I now know who he is."
"My guess is that a guy like that probably has a palatial estate judging by his rental in Long Beach?"
"I figure he will hold Sandra at his place until he gets the deed from you."
"I agree", he said. He tapped his cigarette and added, "His place is up in the mountains. A resort area that is normally very quiet. A lot of Middle Eastern tourists go there during the summer to get away from the heat and humidity that is unavoidable down by the sea."
"What's this resort area called?"
"Ajantoun. There is normally no military in the area. If this filthy Syrian's place is now heavily guarded or there are many check points then it is a sign that he has my Sandra." He leaned forward and tapped out his cigarette and reached for a phone. "If it is quiet then you have a whole country to search." His last words hung eerily in the air.
The plane's engines fired up, but it was little more than a dull droning sound. The cabin was sound proofed quite well. The plane started forward and began to taxi down the runway. I was deep in thought as lift off occurred. Diaz spoke softly into a satellite phone in a tone much different from the one he used with me. Maybe he was talking to his wife.
At night, as we flew over the Pacific Ocean towards our first stop for refueling in Sydney, Australia. During the stop over the young lady began to bring out many dishes filled with a variety of food. There were grape leaves rolled like tiny cigars, stuffed with rice and tiny pieces of lamb. On another gleaming plate was a finely chopped salad of crushed wheat, parsley, tomatoes and onions in a dressing of olive oil, salt and lemon. The scent of warm dishes of fried smelts, and barbecued chicken filled the air. Plates of large chunks of goat cheese were to be eaten with more pita bread. The only part of the menu that I recognized was humous. Humous was a puree of chick peas mixed with oil, lemon and a sweet sesame paste. I had it a couple times in L.A. as it was popular at some restaurants. Humous is not eaten with a spoon, but rather with paper thin pita bread torn into tiny triangles. The bread is then dipped into the dish.
Raul explained that the Lebanese like to nibble on a wide variety of hors d’oeuvres before actually getting to the main course. The main course was two large salmon stuffed with finely chopped walnuts, parsley mixed with rice. I ate way too much, as more and more plates of food were delivered by the girl to our table. My protestations that I was full were met with laughter and comments like “don’t be so foolish.” Diaz and his people were very hospitable. They genuinely wanted me to eat a lot, and I could sense that they would take great offence if I did not. Needless to say, I did not disappoint them. We ate these hors d’oeuvres or mezza as he called them and the main course over the course of the evening while playing cards. He insisted that I play. When I lied and said I didn’t know how to play poker, he laughed and dealt me in anyway. After I lost the better part of three hundred dollars, I managed to gracefully extricate myself from the card game.
Eventually, I mustered the will power to push myself away from the table laden with the delightful food. I moved to a leather couch and fell asleep. In the middle of the night there was a another brief landing to refuel but I did not even raise my head to see where we were. The smiling girl, probably in her mid-twenties put a blanket over me and I went back to sleep. Some time later, I awoke in the dim cabin. Everyone was asleep. Diaz was nowhere to be seen, and then I noticed a door at the far end. He must have a bedroom. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I looked for something to read and found a book about Lebanon. It was published in the late sixties judging by the photographs. Pictures of a sunny sidewalk café with big American cars like Cadillacs and Buicks adorned the streets. As the book was published in the sixties, it made no mention of the civil war of 1975, which ripped apart the country and devastated its people.
I learned that Lebanon is a tiny country located on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. It occupies 4,000 square miles of the region making it a bit smaller than Northern Ireland. The country is 156 miles long with a width of a mere 31 miles. On its north and east border is Syria and it is bounded in the south by Israel. Two major mountain ranges run the length of the country, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. The small country has no oil nor any desert, but rather bustling ports that date back to biblical times. The people are adherents to a diverse number of religions like Christianity, Islam and an obscure religious sect called Druse. Religion has historically been the source of fighting amongst these groups. It seems that the Maronite Christians have clashed repeatedly with the Druse and the Moslems.
In the late morning of the following day, I awoke to rough turbulence as we descended upon the ancient city of Beruit. The landing was fairly gentle, and then the pilot rolled the plane to a hangar. When I got out of the plane I immediately felt the warmth of the sun and a gentle salty breeze blowing in off the sea.
Once again there was no customs to go through. I asked Diaz about it and he laughed, "Membership has its' privileges." I didn't see what was so funny, and only wondered what membership he was referring to.
The traffic was light as we drove through the city. Although the civil war had ended more than ten years ago, it still showed signs of that conflict. There were still a few burnt out and bullet riddled buildings. On the other hand there were many office towers, sidewalk cafes, and houses that were without a blemish probably because they were built after the war. What was most astounding was the sheer number of store fronts. It seemed that every available inch of space was used to sell something.
Diaz's villa was north of the city. The highway we traveled winded along side the blue green Mediterranean sea. A couple of yachts lounged off shore while a few fisherman toiled nearby from their little boats. Every couple of miles I would notice what appeared to be stark swimming pools very close to the coast with small out buildings and windmills beside them. Mario explained that the pools were not for swimmers. The windmills pump seawater into shallow pools where it evaporates leaving behind sea salt, which was in turn collected and later sold. Mario claimed it was an ancient manufacturing process that had changed very little with the times. Multi‑national corporations had long ago tried to set up modern salt processing plants, but the government always blocked those plans in an effort to preserve these traditional jobs.
There was not a cloud in the July sky as the sun shone brightly that morning. If I looked at the sea I could almost relax, but if I glanced road side I could see the check points every couple of miles manned by bored Syrian soldiers randomly stopping vehicles. The soldiers were mostly teenagers with aging M-16s at their sides. Their little huts were plastered with pictures of the Syrian president, Hafez el‑Assad. Mario explained that Syria is in full control of Lebanon. The check points were not a lot of trouble as our driver lowered his window, and discreetly pushed a pack of Marlboros into the open hand of the soldier closest to the Range Rover. He then would wave us through without a second glance.
Eventually, we pulled off the highway and went deep into the heart of a little port city called Jounieh. Mario explained that we were in the center of the Christian Enclave where the Syrians agreed to stay out. I knew we were in a different region because the ladies were dressed in Chanel styled mini skirts and smart blouses. This was definitely not the Muslim part of the country where Islam required its women to be covered head to toe with a slit for their eyes in order to prevent men from having lustful thoughts. However, the real monument that announced to a visitor that one was no longer in Muslim territory was the towering statue of the Virgin Mary in the mountain above this sea side community. Her outstretched arms seemed to calm me. It was not a false sense of security, but something else that I could not explain.
There were shops, restaurants and in between were homes and apartment buildings where the women hung laundry to dry in the morning rays. We drove through a little market where the street was congested with people milling around oblivious to the motorists. Music played from radios and people sat in cafes sipping coffee from those same little cups that Diaz's goons also drank from on the plane. Eventually, after negotiating a busy traffic circle, the driver got us out of the downtown core and into a more affluent residential area. The streets were quiet and neat. Towering palm trees lined both sides of the road and swayed a little with the early morning breeze, and just for a moment I thought I was back in California.
Two men at the gate house waved to us as we drove past them, and continued up the driveway. Diaz's satellite phone rang. He answered it and then handed it to me.
"Where are you?", Janet asked.
"Where are you calling from?" I had no idea how secure the line was which she was calling from. The office line would definitely be tapped by the police.
"I told Jack that I wanted to talk to you, and he said no, but I insisted. So, he said we would have to go to Mexico."
"So, where are you?", she demanded.
"I'm with our client in the old country. How's Roger?" I figured Janet would have found out about the botched rescue attempt.
"He's still at the Cedars Sinai recuperating from surgery on his shoulder."
"Is he going to be okay?"
"We're not sure. He lost a lot of blood and there's some internal bleeding. What about you?"
"Santo DeGazzio has been leaving messages at the office for you or Roger to call him. I spoke with him once and he was pretty frantic. He wants to know where you are."
"What did you tell him?"
"The truth and that is I don't have a clue where you are."
"Good. Don't tell him anything."
"Is Jack there?"
"Yes, I'll pass you to him. Take care, bye."
"Judas Priest! Man! How's it going?", Egan boomed.
"Good Jack. What are you doing in Mexico with my secretary?" I was a bit annoyed and had to know if he had any designs on her.
"The LAPD can tap just about any line in the state with or without the rubber stamp of a judge. Trust me, they are monitoring the airways, cellular, satellite or whatever. So, we drove down here and parked at a lovely beach. I paid a Mexican doctor $50.00 to make an emergency call to my ailing brother. Welcome to the family."
"How's the heat been?", I said not referring to the weather.
"It's a good thing you left because the LAPD are ripping this town apart looking for you."
"Any charges laid on you or me?", I asked.
"Not at this point. Your uncle Tex", he said referring to himself, "Had the smarts to pick up our shell casings and dispose of them."
"No shell casings. Smart, very smart", I said.
"Yeah", Egan laughed, "I figured that will run serious interference for ballistics and whoever's collecting evidence."
"They must be riding you hard?"
"Fuck 'em." I knew the department had been trying to push Egan out for the last couple of years mainly because he did his job too well.
"There are no free lunches in this world, so don't worry. I'll look after you." I knew damn well that he would lose his job over this mess, and I was not going to forget his assistance. Diaz was going to have to put a little extra in the kitty to take care of Egan.
"Anyway, I don't think all this shit will add up to much because the biker and the camel jockey ain't talking. I mean they will probably want to kill you, but if they won't talk to the heat then there are no charges to lay."
"Can't they be held in contempt of court or something for not cooperating?"
"Not in this case because their lawyers claim they were having lunch and cannot remember anything else after we so rudely interrupted their Sunday afternoon get together."
"What about the biker's sidekick and the women?"
"They have disappeared. There’s a lot of talk that Diaz’s people have got to them, and from what I hear I think they would have preferred to remain in jail."
"Have you heard anything anything else?"
"Rumor has it that someone from the State Department wants to interview Roger and I. The chief says we have created some sort of diplomatic incident."
"Say nothing of importance and play very dumb."
"That shouldn't be too hard to do", Egan replied dryly.
. . . . . .
I sipped some tea from behind the open French doors, and took in the view of the garden. There was a narrow flag stone pathway which was flanked by the soft red colors of oriental poppies and kniphofia. Behind these reds were the pinks and blues of peonies, campanulas and delphiniums.
Gardening was a strange interest of mine. It was peculiar in the sense that I lived in an apartment, and for that very reason it was a difficult hobby to pursue. If it weren't for my tiny balcony on which I kept a few of Janet's plants then I couldn't even call the interest a hobby. Yes, I thought, some day I would have to abandon my crummy occupation for the backyard of a turn of the century Cape Cod house somewhere in Maine with a garden much like the one before me. I would savor a good, dry glass of Bordeaux while surveying a beautifully wild garden from an Adirondack chair. I snapped out of my day dream as I heard footsteps behind me. Diaz stood beside me with some papers judging by the rustling. I could hear someone else behind us cough and then the familiar sound of a lighter.
"Your garden is quite impressive."
"Thank you. My wife, years ago, brought a landscape architect from England to design it."
"Yes that would explain the Edwardian design. I never thought peonies would grow in this dry climate?" It was only nine O'clock in the morning or so but the rays of the sun was already making the rocks in the garden shimmer.
"All those flowers are alive because they are watered every evening. In the summer it never rains . . . not until the fall. You know something about yards?", he asked with a rather odd expression on his face. I cringed at his use of the term “yard” to describe his wife's impressive garden.
"I was born in Ireland and spent my childhood there until I was about twelve. When we moved to Maine we didn't have much money, and ended up acquiring an old run down manor. Gardening was my mother's passion. The garden was a shambles. Its cement walls were crumbling, and the borders were over run with thick thorny weeds. My mother worked in that garden every day, and by the end of the summer an incredible transformation had taken place. Sometimes when I am stressed out I think about it. She forbade I and my father from talking about school, work or any other dreary mundane subject of life. The garden was a place to relax with a light book, a tart glass of lemonade and take in a bit of solitude."
Diaz laughed and I could tell he thought I was crazy. I knew he hadn't understood a word I had said. He was a man of business, money and politics, but not relaxation. The latter was probably a term he associated with laziness like most Republicans and right wing fanatics.
Someone said something in rapid fire Arabic. Diaz responded haltingly in the same language and turned to me. His frown signaled the end of our light-hearted conversation.
"Getting you into the Syrian dog's villa will not be easy. They have moved in a couple of soldier contingents." Diaz tapped some folded papers he was holding and turned to an enormous table behind us. He sat down in an over stuffed purple velvet, Louis XIV style, chair and spread out the various papers. One of them was a map that he was running his index finger along as he talked.
"This mountain road", he said as he stabbed the map with his index finger, "leads up to Ajantoun, but the check points are very tight. Everyone must have ID and those who don't live up there or have family are turned away. No new tourists are getting in. The heavy security would suggest that Sandra is being kept there."
"Do you have any pictures of Ghattas' place?"
Lingering behind us was Mario who coughed again as he puffed on his cigarette. He stepped forward to the massive cedar desk top, and reached for a fountain pen and gently pulled the map away from Diaz. He flipped over the map of Ajantoun, and on the reverse side with quick deliberate strokes of the fountain pen, he sketched the Ghattas compound, a massive three story villa. I guess the answer was “no” to my question, but between me grilling him as to what all the lines of his sketch meant and looking at the map I was able to get a pretty good picture in my mind of how difficult gaining access would be.
The property was built into the side of the Haddad mountain high above street level. The street which led to the compound was the same main road that wound up the mountain from sea level. There were no houses higher up the road than the Syrian's. The community and the Ghattas property faced west towards the Mediterranean sea below. Behind the property was nothing but mountains.
A rock and mortar wall ran the length of the residence parallel to the street. It was well lit at night, and no other houses or buildings were adjacent to it. Armed guards manned a gate house and inside there were thought to be more.
"Do you guys have access to a helicopter?", I asked.
"No, they are forbidden. Only the army has them. Planes are restricted just to entering and exiting the country by way of the airport. Anyone who flies elsewhere will be shot down by the army."
"Simply launching an assault from the street would appear suicidal", I said.
"I will get my best men to go with you. You will have everything you need. Guns, grenades everything."
"Hold on! We haven't even figured out how I am going to get into the place. The larger the numbers, the greater the likelihood of detection." Diaz was a desperate man who was also beginning to think very stupidly. "Maybe you are having visions of me leading an army undetected into Ghattas' stronghold, rescuing your daughter, and then proceeding to shoot my way out. That ain't gonna happen. It will turn into a blood bath in which I will get killed and most certainly your daughter."
"You will get my daughter back or you're dead! He shook his finger in my face. "You hear me!" Diaz's speech then switched to Spanish with a litany of curses that I recognized as a result of having lived in L.A. for a few years. He then up turned the table he stood in front of and stormed out of the room leaving Mario and I standing there no closer to a solution of a seemingly impossible situation. The fine porcelain tea cup which I had left on the table was now broken into three nastily jagged shards.
Mario bent down and effortlessly righted the heavy table. Some of the gold leaf of one table leg had been peeled away. I thought of walking out of the villa, but knew full well that I wasn't going anywhere as Diaz had made abundantly clear. The papers that had been on the table were now scattered on the floor gently lifting in the morning breeze coming in off the patio through the open French doors. At my feet, I stared at the map for a moment and then picked it up for a closer look.
"Let us figure a way into the building first, and concern ourselves later with . . . size of party to accompany you. Agreed?" He spoke calmly. Maybe he was accustomed to his boss' outbursts and tantrums. I was not and continued to bristle with anger, but nodded in agreement.
I walked out onto the patio and examined the map some more. Mario followed me. He sat on a bench next to a trellis covered by a flowering white and blue vine and stared dejectedly into his hands.
"No matter what the outcome he will send you back to America unharmed. Don't worry. He only cares for his daughter."
I ignored him and continued to study the map and his sketch on the reverse side in a frantic effort to see an obvious or not so obvious approach to the property that would have the element of surprise and a promising escape route. My eyes ran over the sketch until I noticed that neither Mario's illustration nor the map indicated what lay behind the Ghattas compound. Yeah, sure there were mountains but so what? Mountains can be crossed.
"What's on the other side of the mountain behind Ghattas' place?", I asked.
"Niha", he said.
"Say what?", I asked.
"It's a peasant village of maybe five hundred peoples."
"Can we enter the village easily?"
"It is easy to enter. There is nothing in that place. A small plot where poor farm peasants live. The road to be taken is not same that of Ajantoun because it is on the east side of the Haddad mountain whereas the road to Ajantoun is on the west side. The Niha people raise chickens and goats. Mostly the old ones live there."
"Is there any road going over or around the mountain from Niha that would enable us to come into Ajantoun from behind or more precisely approach Ghattas from the rear?"
"What about a hiking trail, travel route, anything?
"There is no road linking the two places. There are just goats, hills and the Haddad."
"What if I hiked across the mountain? Would that place me behind Ghattas' place?"
"Yes, but it might take several days." The idea seemed to genuinely intrigue him.
"Would they expect you guys to come that way in order to retrieve Sandra."
"Because there is no path, no trail . . . nothing. It's never been done. Lebanese people drive everywhere. They don’t hike or climb."
"When you say mountains, what do you mean? The Canadian Rockies or the rolling hills I see around here." I had noticed that the mountains that were above Jounieh were not particularly impressive in terms of height or cliff faces. There were no jagged peaks. Instead, there were rounded, rocky hills hidden in the lower ranges by forest and in the higher altitudes they were barren exposed rock.
"No, no, not the Rockies."
"What I mean is I have not seen anything like the Swiss Alps here, but rather something similar to the Appalachians."
"Am I correct?"
"Locate someone who can serve as a guide through the mountain. He will have to be in excellent shape." I pulled one of the sheets of paper towards me and jotted down a list of things that I would need for the hike. I then handed it to him and then watched a bee, which landed on a yellow flower.
"No one hikes in Lebanon. We are not Swiss. There are cliffs. They cannot be crossed."
"Well, find me a goat herder, a shepherd, anything. Come on man! How hard can it be?"
Mario nodded and stood up from the bench and pulled off a leaf that hung from the vine which covered the trellis and crushed it. "How many should go with you?"
I thought for a moment. The more men involved, the more complicated things would become. Some would do what they are told while others might not. There was also the issue of trust. Actually, it was not an issue because I trusted no one.
"Just give me one good man besides the guide. Someone who knows weapons and experienced in combat. God, this country is a bloody war zone. There must be a few that fit that description."
"Okay. I will find such a person, but we have forgotten another issue. How will you retreat?"
"Simple. Your mountain guide will lead I and your good soldier up and over one side of the mountain, and down to Ajantoun on the other side where Ghattas' place is located. We will enter the property from the rear, collect Sandra, exit into the hills, and cross the mountain once more to Niha. You will be waiting and able to take us away to some safe place. If the Lebanese are as unaccustomed to the hobby of mountain climbing as you say then we should have the upper hand."
"One final question."
"You ever climb a mountain before?"
"Nope, but I'm willing to give it a try."
. . . . . .
We drove up the winding and incredibly steep mountain highway that led to Niha. During the ride, Arabic pop music played loudly on the radio. It was surprisingly catchy symphonic music accompanied by bongos. I think I recognized an instrumental of Moon River. On my side of the old Peugeot, I noticed there was no guard rail separating us between a cliff edge that dropped down several hundred feet. My ears began to pop due to the rapid change in elevation. The driver could not speak English, but I knew enough French to understand that he told me that in just under an hour we would climb three thousand feet above sea level. Mario sent me a head while he remained at the villa and dispatched people into Jounieh and Beruit to collect as many of the supplies on my written list as well as locate a suitable mountain guide and soldier.
By the time we arrived in Niha the temperature had fallen to the point where I decided to put my jacket back on. It was like an autumn day. The driver cruised the sedan down what appeared to be the main street of the community towards an old church. From the front passenger seat of the rusty car, I surveyed the mountain top village of Niha.
Below the mid morning sky were about fifty or so square shaped homes. Some were of stucco construction while others were made of the same faded yellow stone that composed the church up ahead. All of these buildings had flat roofs except for the church. Every house seemed to have a garden, and not of the decorative sort that graced Diaz's property. These ones grew vegetables, and in turn surely fed families. There were tomato plants, beans and even a couple of stocks of corn in no particular order or symmetry. Other than the gardens, there was little vegetation. What little there was consisted of low lying brush dotting the rocky landscape here and there.
In the distance, encircling this tiny community was the mountain range. The mountains were not the towering, jagged formations one would associate with the Canadian Rockies. Instead, they were rounded and appeared low lying and mostly barren except for the odd tree or bush. One could almost describe the mountains as gentle or peaceful.
On the dirt road a couple of boys kicked a dusty soccer ball back and forth. They immediately stopped their game when they saw us approach and ran along side the car as we drifted down the road. Whatever happened to the time when kids scattered like mice for fear of angering the grown ups?
The driver stopped the Peugeot in front of the church at the steps. I stepped out of the car and was greeted by a swarm of boys who were jumping up and down, and talking excitedly in Arabic. Two of them were barely the height of the driver's side door, but that did not seem to discourage them from trying to peek through the window at the steering wheel and the stick shift. When I stepped out of the car my space was quickly taken by the boys who hopped in and bounced around on the cracked and sun faded leather seat. I took a look around and quickly realized that the children's fascination was not entirely unreasonable as there was not another vehicle in sight.
The driver and I did not exchange too many words because of my meager ability in conversational French. However, he was fairly proficient in the use of hand signals. There was no doubt that I was not the first foreigner he had driven in this arid land. The driver pointed to the church steps and I nodded.
I turned towards the rough-hewn stone building, and was making my way up the steps when the large double doors creaked open. The elderly priest stepped unsteadily forward as if the weight of the black wool suit was too much for his slight frame to bear. The silver cross glinted brightly in the sun causing me to temporarily look away like a vampire might in a bad movie. Sunlight was not a problem for him. His glasses were of the variety that immediately darken in the sunshine and brighten once indoors. How annoying I thought. They were probably top of the line Foster Grants twenty years ago. In the re‑runs, I think I saw Steve MacGarret on Hawaii Five O sport the same pair.
"Bonjour . . . " he said and that was about all I could make out as his greeting quickly switched to Arabic. I stared blankly at him and waited until the driver explained that English was all I understood. The driver spoke in a formal sounding tone, and the only word I recognized was Raul Diaz. Our priest seemed to perk up a little bit, and smiled stupidly at me. I walked passed him and into the church. I couldn't be bothered making any happy faces.
It was bright inside and a little cooler. The windows were not stained. Maybe the church dated back to a time before the innovation of colored glass. There were several rows of wooden pews, which would seat maybe a hundred people. I sat in one of them near the back, and the bench creaked and rocked unevenly. The wood was stiff and uncomfortably hard, but somehow worked probably to humble the greatest of egos in any congregation. Behind the altar and the priest's pulpit hung a simple wooden cross high above everything on the rear wall. To the right was a faded painted image of the Virgin Mary on the church's brick work.
The church doors opened behind me and a splinter of light shone in revealing plenty of air borne dust. I heard the slow walk of the priest and his labored breathing as he approached. He sat down in the pew beside me.
"I apologize sir. It is not common to encounter an Anglophone."
"I just assumed you didn't speak English. I spent an hour or so driving up this mountain with a guy who tried to carry on a conversation in French and lots of artful hand waving. I'm just a bit tired."
"Of course." He reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a crumpled soft pack of Lucky Strikes. Did everyone in this country smoke? He gently tapped a couple out of the packet and offered them to me. I took one. I know I had quit, but it was rather rude of me to have walked past the old sod. So, to make it up to him I accepted his modest effort of hospitality. Mario said that it was best that I stay in the church until he arrived with the men and supplies. There was nothing to be gained by having me walking aimlessly through the streets of Niha attracting attention. So, a smoke with an old priest seemed appropriate. God knows I could confess to a few sins if we ran out of things to say.
"How old is this place?", I said looking around.
"No one knows for sure but probably as old as Christianity itself. You see, Jesus, His Holiness, preached in Lebanon when he walked the earth. Mark 15:24‑31."
"He preached here?", I asked not believing him. The Virginia tobacco tasted too good. My veins welcomed the nicotine fix.
"No, not here, but in Tyre and Sidon in the south. It's in the Good Book." I didn't know my Bible very well so I was not about to get in an argument with a priest. He introduced himself as Father Eli.
The priest having recognized he had a captive audience launched into a brief history of the Christians in Lebanon. The first churches were believed to have been established in Tyre and other southern parts of the country before the community grew in size and spread north to Beirut. However, all was not fine because they were subject to regular persecution by the Roman Empire until it crumbled.
There was a brief flourishing of Christianity for several hundreds of years until the seventh century when the rise of Islam occurred elsewhere in the Arab world. Soon thereafter the Muslims entered and conquered Lebanon. Relations at first were fairly cordial, but eventually soured when Christians were prohibited from serving in the military. Accordingly, the Christians without a presence in the military did not wield political power. Churches were soon converted to Mosques and the construction of new ones was forbidden.
The Christian community then began to shrink in size and geographical location to the port city of Jounieh, and the mountain ranges behind it. In times of conflict the Christians would be pushed out of the city and into the rocky mountain region above. The people farmed the usual staple vegetables and maintained olive, almond, and apricot groves in the lower ranges. Mid way up the mountains were the apple orchards, and as the altitude increased to the highest parts vocations changed to lamb and goat herding.
The Muslim majority in the lower altitudes of the country initially attempted to rid the mountains of the Christians, but because it was literally an uphill battle they soon abandoned the attempt. The Christians were left to their rocky and barren surroundings descending out of them in relative periods of calm conducting trade down by the sea. Mountain villages like Niha date back to the times of the persecution of Christians.
I looked around more closely and noted that the main aisle between the pews was paved with irregular shaped stones that had worn smooth from maybe a thousand years of parishioners walking up and down the same aisle for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. I sat on the church pew with the old priest for about two hours before I heard the whine of a vehicle's engine gradually approach. I stood up and thanked him for the cigarette and his company.
Mario's driver wheeled the massive Chev Suburban to a stop in front of me as I came down the steps with a new respect for the church and the community. Mario was accompanied by two other occupants besides the driver. One of them was just a kid of maybe twenty two or so. Mario explained that the college kid had a name, Magid, and that he was the best guide that could be located on such short notice. We stiffly shook hands and nodded at each other.
Mario added that Magid was born and raised in this desolate mountain top village before going to university in Germany where he developed a keen interest in mountain climbing. During the summer break he would return to Niha, visit with his parents, and although he had never hiked through the nearby Haddad mountain range he was certainly up to the challenge. I took comfort in the word hike used by Mario, but was quickly disappointed when I saw a knapsack with a hammer and spikes protruding from its pouch that rested on the floor of the vehicle.
The other fellow Mario introduced me to was Samir. He stood, a giant of a man. Easily 6'5 and a lean two hundred pounds or so. The military fatigues were tight fitting, revealing the muscular physique. Slung over one shoulder was what looked like a bazooka. In his right hand he held a machine gun.
I pointed at the bazooka and asked, "Is that necessary?"
"Oh this?", he said as he casually unslung the weapon and hefted it in one hand the way a football player might toy with the ball. "Mario tells me that you guys were a little light on the details of your retreat. If we are noticed which will be most likely, they will probably figure out where we came from. We can probably get a lead on them, but they will radio Damascus or maybe Beirut for helicopter support."
Samir beamed with pride and added, "This surface to air missile rocket launcher will knock them out. They may send more than one helicopter after us, but when they see one shot down they will not risk losing any more."
"How many of them do we have?"
"One. It was all that we could locate."
With the introductions completed, we all got back in the Suburban. Mario's driver jerked it away from the church steps, and stormed down the dirt road headed in the direction of the mountain, which loomed in the distance almost taunting us. The sun was high in the sky. It must have been near noon I thought without bothering to look at my wrist watch. There was not a cloud in the sky. I hoped it remained that way.
At a distance, the topography looked like a series of long expired volcanos whose summits were eroded so much by time that they were no longer steep inclines. Eventually, the road disappeared behind us. We then crossed the harsh rock and sand landscape before getting close to the foot of the mountain. Wonderful! I thought to myself. An Irish American trying to quit cigarettes, a novice guide leading his first organized hike, and a Rambo wannabe all composing a rescue team whose mission is to liberate a drug lord's daughter from a Syrian's fortress in the heart of the Lebanese mountains. What could go wrong?
I couldn't help but stare back at Mario's vehicle as it disappeared behind a billowing cloud of dust leaving the three of us standing there. We had been driven as close to the bottom of the mountain range as possible. I turned away from the disappearing Suburban, and looked upon the task at hand. As expected, what I and my fellow climbers were confronted with were not towering snow capped peaks, but rather the rounded, barren, hills upon hills of rock, scoured by the passing of innumerable ancient glaciers. The lower ranges had a few trees which disappeared at the higher elevations. Nevertheless, the mountain posed a daunting hike because of its sheer size.
Diaz had managed to delay the meeting scheduled with the Syrian for today in Beirut. Mario's last instructions were that we had to retrieve Sandra Diaz from Ghattas' compound by tomorrow night at the latest, as the deadline was now the following morning. Up until the deadline, Diaz would try to negotiate the release of his daughter over the telephone without relinquishing the deed concerning the tract of land in the Bekaa Valley. He was going to offer more money forhis daughter, as opposed to handing over the deed, and hope that such negotiations would possibly extend the deadline some more. It sounded like a very risky delay tactic, but Mario said that Ghattas would interpret it as a sign of weakness and desperation on Diaz's part. He added that it was an Arab cultural thing beyond my limited Western comprehension. I hoped the bartering would distract Ghattas, and give us the element of surprise that was needed to pull off the rescue.
We had been left with our gear at our feet on the dusty ground. There was a thick bundle of rope, spikes, expansion bolts and hammers, tied together by some sturdy blue nylon cord. Underneath the rope and spikes were three thick leather belts similar to what a weight lifter might wear. A hand held drill hung from only one of the belts. I pointed at it quizzically and Magid said we may need it where the rock surface would not permit a hammer driven piton to be secured. Beside that pile of equipment was a canvas bag, and three backpacks. Samir kicked one of the backpacks and said, "What's in there my friend?" Magid withdrew a folded piece of paper from his pocket and read out loud from it.
"Each of these contains the following: Twelve four-ounce water packets, one full water bottle, one candle, one flashlight, one signal light, one compass, waterproof matches, ten water purification tablets, one sleeping bag, a lighter, a signal mirror, whistle, tea bags and ten four hundred calorie food bars, and two days worth of food stuffs."
Obviously, my list of supplies that I had given to Mario had been ignored, which was probably a good thing. Magid's input was impressive. I was quickly gaining confidence in him while I listened to him recite the list of supplies. Samir was tying one of his black military issue boots, which made me think about my own footwear. My black leather Nikes, although fashionable, were not the ideal article of clothing to be shod in, but would nevertheless have to do. Magid gave each of us one of the thick leather belts to put on, which also had loops for each of our legs to step into. It had all sorts of metal hoops on them. Once they were on, he came around and inspected the fit, and in my case made me tighten the belt by two notches.
"These harnesses may be needed later because there is a minor cliff face to climb", he said nonchalantly. "If we wear them, then it will be one less thing to be carried on our backs."
Hanging from my harness was a pair of what appeared to be ballet shoes. Magid explained that they were rock climbing shoes constructed of a soft polyurethane sole and canvas uppers. He didn't know our sizes so he got size tens for all of us. He added that the shoes would be needed when climbing any sort of cliff face as all available toe holds would have to be utilized. The other article of clothing hanging from each of our harnesses was a helmet. He said that we didn't need to put them on until we encountered a cliff or other similar obstacle. The helmets were of a fibre glass or hard plastic construction similar to what a bicycle helmet looks like.
Samir was armed to the teeth. Slung on his right shoulder was the compact rocket launcher. On his left shoulder an AK‑47 was suspended from a leather strap attached at its body. The machine gun was new. The shiny black metal was not scratched or faded from any apparent use. Every zippered compartment of his army green jump suit bulged with unidentifiable objects that were no doubt lethal. Over the harness provided by Magid, was a belt equipped with a holster holding a gun on his right hip, and a holster on the left that stored a large hunting knife. Maybe he was a seasoned mercenary. I couldn't tell for sure even though I had encountered a few in my past when I was a war correspondent.
Magid retrieved from a canvas bag a Mac‑10 and a Colt .45, and held them out to us. "I don't know how to use these, but Mario said one of you guys would show me." He then added that he hadn't used a gun in his life. I was somewhat surprised by the comment, but then quickly realized that this was my prejudice surfacing. Not every Lebanese youth was a terrorist just as not every Belfast boy was a gun toting IRA or Prod enforcer.
"Bring them over here," Samir beckoned from where he sat on a small boulder. He then explained the various parts of the machine gun, and hand gun to Magid. He emphasized the safety switches, and then gave some instruction in proper loading and handling of the weapons. He showed him a couple of stances, and then slid a clip home, and demonstrated first with the Mac‑10.
"At close range it is fairly easy to hit your target, so long as you have a steady hand." He then passed the machine gun to Magid, and told him to aim at a nearby tree and fire at will. The college boy gripped the fire arm tightly and fired. Not one bullet hit the tree, but he did manage to tear up a lot of sand and rock around it. The steady kick back from the weapon had been far greater than he probably had expected. It nearly lifted right out of his hands, and probably would have if he had not spent the entire clip. Samir took the Mac‑10 from him, and provided some more instruction on maintaining a proper stance and grip. A fresh clip was rammed into place, and with the safety flicked off, he proceeded to shred the tree with short bursts of ammo.
"As the target moves farther away you will find your machine gun's accuracy will worsen." Samir finished his tutorial on the Mac‑10, and then excitedly discussed the Colt .45 and its relative merits. After watching the lesson in fire arms I was convinced that Samir had considerable military training in the past.
"How about you?", the soldier asked.
"I'm well acquainted with firearms," I replied.
"Are you armed or do you want one of these?"
I produced my Glock and made sure that the safety was on before I handed it to him. Samir looked it over, nodded approvingly, and then passed it back. Magid glanced at his watch and said, "We are going to have to move very quickly if we are going to get to Ajantoun by tomorrow evening." He unfolded a map and invited with a wave of his hand for Samir and I to have a look.
"Have you hiked in this area before?", I asked after having remembered Mario's comment that Magid grew up in this mountain top village.
"Well, as a boy, I and my friends would sometimes stray a bit from the village. We would play hide and seek in these hills. But, ever since going to college, in Germany, I have been introduced to the sport of mountaineering, and now I am sure I can lead a hike through the Haddad."
I stared at the map while the young mountaineer pointed out possible obstructions in our path, like gorges and mountain walls. Afterwards, we strapped the backpacks on and started the hike. Magid was loaded up the most. He also carried most of the rope, cables, spikes and other mountaineering equipment on his back. The young man led the way as we walked at a brisk pace over the rough and uneven terrain. The first hour of the hike was quite uneventful, but passed quickly while we talked.
"I'm Maguire", I said as I offered a hand out to Samir. Mario had not told either of the men my name, and Samir and I had kind of stared each other down when Mario had been doing the introductions. I felt that it was important to try and establish so some sort of a friendly rapport. He grasped it firmly, but did not try to crush it. I have always had this theory that men who shake hands, and in the process try to pulverize the hand of who ever they meet are insecure. This guy was not insecure.
"I was asked by Mario to help out", he said with a friendly nod. I figured asked was a diplomatic way of saying that he was hired, and help out was another way of indicating that he would do the necessary by any means possible.
"You do much of this?", I asked.
"A bit", he replied with a knowing smile. He reached into a pocket and produced a pack of cigarettes and offered one. I accepted. What the hell? I thought to myself. I'll quit if and when I get out of this country.
"You know this Ghattas guy at all?", I said while we trudged along side by side with Magid a few feet ahead.
"Oh, yes. He is a jackal. He will eat his children, betray his parents, and surrender his country all for the sake of money. Money is his God." He eyed me for a moment, and then lit his Lucky Strike with the blue flame of the brass Zippo. "Ghattas, I am ashamed to say was born Lebanese, but betrayed his country to Syria."
"He is just a dog", the mercenary said with some finality, as if that answered my question.
"I thought he was a Syrian not Lebanese."
Without turning around, Magid entered the conversation. "Maybe I can explain it a little better. Do you know how the Lebanese civil war started?" I didn't answer and after a pause he continued. "As a result of the establishment of the state of Israel, a great number of Palestinians ended up in the south of Lebanon in refugee camps. These people no longer had a country. Palestine had become Israel, and the Lebanese did not want them either. The only reason they were in this country was because it happened to be next to Israel. But, the Palestinians were getting a lot of sympathy from other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, who in fact paid our government to tolerate the Palestinian presence. It was the PLO who collected the money from supportive Moslem countries and in turn bought arms. Over time, the PLO became very well financed, and as a result, heavily armed. They continued to cross the border into Israel, and would carry out attacks in an attempt to oust the Israelis. The Israelis, in turn, would fly over southern Lebanon and bomb the PLO positions. Meanwhile, we became furious with the PLO because they were destroying our country. This manner of conflict went on for years until they started retreating further north to Beirut. In Beirut, they had more arms than the Lebanese army. Fights erupted between the Christian Lebanese whose city was gradually becoming destroyed by Israeli war planes. The Christian community demanded the government get the PLO out of the country."
"They did nothing!", Samir interjected.
"The government was basically afraid to do anything because roughly fifty percent of the army was Moslem, and the government knew that they would not shoot on their Moslem brothers, the Palestinians. However, the other half of the army was Maronite Christian, and they were desperate to put a stop to the growing PLO power."
Samir flicked away his cigarette and jumped into the discussion once more. "We were prisoners in our own country. They set up road blocks, and would make us pay a toll for their cause against Israel. But, we endured all of this until 1975. Right Magid?"
"What happened in '75?", I asked.
"On April 13th of that year, a leader of our community, Pierre Gemayel, was in church with his family when they came and tried to kill him. Can you imagine? A man cannot even go to church safely? They did not succeed in assassinating him, but they killed other parishioners."
"The war started that day. We retaliated and then they did. The army split in two. On one side were the Moslem soldiers aligned with the PLO, and on the other side were the Maronite Christian militias and the Christian soldiers remaining from the government army."
"Where was the government during all this?"
"You are British? Right? You know what the rule of law is? We don't. We never had a central government? The army was never as strong as the weakest Palestinian militia group." Samir slipped his machine gun from his right shoulder and clutched it in his hand, and then continued. "It was not funded by Saudi Arabia and Syria. Our government just stepped aside as we attacked each other for fifteen years."
"What does Ghattas have to do with all this?"
"As we fought, our neighbor, Syria, saw a good opportunity to take Lebanon for herself and that is what she did. Syria supported the PLO in order to defeat us, but she couldn't beat us . . . that is until Ghattas betrayed us."
Magid leapt over a small ditch peppered with short thorny bushes, and said, "Ghattas was the leader of the second most powerful Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces. The other more powerful Christian force was led by the former general of the Lebanese army, Michel Aoun. Together they fought against the combined forces of the PLO, and Syria. It was a stalemate. We couldn't beat them and they couldn't beat us. So, Syria secretly approached Ghattas and invited him to join them and fight Aoun. If they won, he would be made a member of the new government as well as unbelievably rich."
"I take it, he joined them?", I asked.
"Yes, he did, causing us to lose. Aoun had to flee the country after many more battles which he lost. Samir lost three brothers after Ghattas switched sides. I lost many family members too. Now, you can appreciate why we no longer regard him as one of our country man, but a Syrian . . . a traitor," he said as he spat out the final words.
"The war is over now, and has been for several years. Syria has rewarded Ghattas handsomely. He enjoys the profits of many Syrian controlled business interests in Lebanon."
"I never thought Lebanon had any oil wells, so what other business could there be? Are you sure Syria isn't just in Lebanon as part of an expansionist policy?"
"Actually that may be their foreign policy too, but more importantly it is the illicit crop of the Bekaa Valley combined with control of the nation's casinos, and import taxes which generate untold billions of dollars each year. Without Lebanon, Syria could not exist. Syria’s economy is a joke. No western investment. Nothing. Their chief crop is watermelon."
"Ghattas is their bagman. You either sell out to him or die. To sell to him is to betray your country. Raul's brother‑in‑law would not sell out, so they killed him. Raul is not even Lebanese, but he will not sell out, and we will do everything we can for him. He is a patriot."
I thought this was a rather odd comment since Diaz was still a trafficker after all. No, he did not kidnap women, but his crime was still insidious. He sold the drugs that men and women across the United States became addicted to, causing the eventual destruction of their lives and the lives of their families. Diaz was no patriot, Lebanese or otherwise. He was another form of human garbage like Ghattas. The only difference was that he was a victim for a change. But, I guess that didn't alter the fact that his daughter was an innocent party.
Magid and Samir speculated that Ghattas was in Los Angeles sewing up all sorts of Syrian/Lebanese investments. They believed that kidnaping Sandra may have been little more than an inspired after‑thought to force Diaz to sell. Magid spoke in the impassioned tones of the college kid that he was. It came as know surprise to me that he was majoring in political science.
Samir stopped and turned to me and said, "If you are so smart like Raul and Mario say, maybe after this is all over you might be interested in capturing Ghattas with us."
"Listen guys, kidnaping and international diplomacy is not my bag. I've seen enough of this shit for one life time." I then explained to them that I had worked as a war correspondent in Africa having covered every coup, every outbreak of the Ebola virus, and every self‑righteous leader butcher their own people to the point that I was through with that type of work in any shape or form.
"Africa? Where did you work?" Samir asked.
"Zaire or . . . Democratic Republic of Congo or whatever it is called now?"
"Yeah, Zaire or that was what it was called back then. I covered Mobutu's vile kleptocracy."
"Oh, yes. The Leopard needed men like me to establish order. His armies were an undisciplined bunch of fools."
I didn't say anything else. Samir obviously worked for anyone willing to pay his price. He probably would not have been employed directly by Mobutu, but rather by international mercenary companies based out of South Africa, Brussels, Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe. These companies were often hired by dictators to oppress their own people in order to stay in power. A good mercenary could earn up to $2,500.00 a day. If these mercenaries were not hired by dictators, then they were often employed by mining conglomerates to protect their quarries in many African nations in the throes of anarchy.
The people may starve, slaughter each other, die of disease, but so long as the gold, zinc and copper could be raped from the land then it was okay. Mining companies would pay obscene amounts of money to dictators. These bribes were called mining rights. Once they were paid, the company would not have to worry about any sort of governmental interference like environmental or tax considerations, so long as there was not another coup. Hence, the mercenaries were sometimes brought in to maintain stability, so that the mine could operate without interruption.
Eventually, the conversation subsided, so I amused myself by paying close attention to the scenery. After about two hours I was breathing a bit more heavily than the others, but I was not about to say anything. What really bothered me were my calf muscles, which were beginning to ache a bit. Magid may have noticed my fatigue and called for a break. He took a swig of water from a bottle, and passed it to Samir and me, warning us not to drink too much because it might invite stomach cramps. When the water was passed to me, I drank deeply in spite of the advice.
"Will we be able to walk most of it?", I asked while squinting in the sunlight.
"Probably, except near the top where I will lead the climb. I think I have enough rope and pitons to get us over the top", Magid replied confidently.
Samir and I looked up above and the mountain was gradually getting steeper. Up until this point we had been zig zagging up the mountain side with relative ease as it was basically a series of steep hills. Each hill led to another one slightly higher. Magid had remarked that this area was geologically very old judging by the rounded topography. A millennium of weather had eroded these parts from once towering peaks down to rounded stone shoulders.
I was just starting to relax when Magid put his back pack on again. Samir never took his back pack off nor did he sit down. I grudgingly picked myself up off the hard and unforgiving ground, and strapped the Godamn thing back on and resumed the hike. It was heavy enough even though the hollow aluminum tubing had to be a lot lighter when compared with the solid steel frame I remembered they used to be constructed out of when I was a kid. It didn't help matters that the air was getting noticeably thinner as we progressed.
Gradually without me noticing at first, the hike started to turn into a climb. I found myself trying to pull myself over boulders, and then jumping from one to another. Magid estimated that so far our ascent was roughly fifteen hundred feet. We were making good progress, and because of that he decided to capitalize on it by skipping supper. No one was much of a conversationalist probably because all our energy had to be directed at the climb. The sparse vegetation, had become more rare and smaller as the ascent progressed.
Eventually, the trek came to a stop when we came up against the bottom of a steep rock face beyond which we could see nothing but sky. It was comprised of large sheets of rock peppered occasionally with outcrops of stone protruding almost defiantly from the mountain. Up until this point, we had made our way up the mountain on roughly a forty five degree slant. Now, we were confronted by a wall of rock at ninety degrees. Magid pulled out a map and stared at it intently. Occasionally, he would glance away from it to his watch or other parts of the soaring mountain wall in front of us. I asked if we could back track and try another route up the mountain, but no sooner had I made the suggestion than he had dismissed it.
"We have roughly forty feet to scale. It's not as bad as it looks. There are no overhangs, and there are enough outcrops for us to use for foot and hand holds."
I looked at Samir for a reaction, but he was gazing at the top of the steep rock face. There was nothing intelligent for me to say so I remained silent. Magid put a helmet on, which was not very reassuring. I was croaking for a cigarette, but my shortness of breath cautioned me against hitting Samir up for another one.
Magid dropped the bundle of rope to the ground which had been slung over his shoulder. He carefully fastened it to his belt, and knotted it with deft hand movements. A hammer hung from one of his belt loops, and there was a zippered leather pouch which he opened. It contained spikes which he counted silently. Standing there against the waning blue sky I got my first and only lecture in mountain climbing.
"What I will do is free climb this next stretch, hammering these pitons in as I go, which will be used as footholds and handholds. When I get over the top, I will secure the line and drop it down to you two. Knot the line to your belts, and then climb up using the spikes for hand and footholds. As you climb higher, tighten the line on your belt so that there is no slack. If you slip, you will only fall according to the amount of slack in the line." He paused with a pensive expression and then asked, "You guys ever do this before?"
Samir nodded while I shook my head. There was a slight breeze, which brought a chill with it as dusk approached. My empty stomach growled and my veins cried for nicotine. Following the example of the other two, I untied my helmet which had dangled from my harness and put it on. I then took my sneakers off, tied the laces together, and stuffed them in my backpack. The climbing shoes looked and probably felt like ballet shoes. All of my toes were squished together rather uncomfortably, and when I pointed this out to Magid he said that was okay. The shoes were designed purely for the purpose of maximizing getting any sort of grip or footing into any crevice which the mountain afforded.
"Samir, you go last so that you can coach him." Magid glanced at his watch again. "Oh yeah, you", he said pointing at me, "Whatever you do, don't look down. Any questions?"
"Do you have enough spikes to make it to the top?", Samir asked.
"I think so, but where the mountain provides obvious foot or hand holds, I am not going to use them so that I don't run out. You guys should watch what I do and use common sense."
"Is there anyway we can go around this thing?" I asked. I felt totally overwhelmed by the proposed climb. My stomach fluttered with butterflies. I had no idea if I could do it. Never had I done anything like that before. It was unknown territory.
"No. It's not as difficult as it may appear. All a person needs is a supple upper body and good strong legs. If you didn't have that you wouldn't have gotten this far. Just remember that anyone who is moderately fit can do this climb. I'm a certified mountain guide, and the president of my college rock climbing club. Trust me, I know what we are doing."
"A woman could do this . . . right?" Samir added.
"Yes. Women do as well as men, except in extreme conditions where there may be a rock over hang to negotiate. The only reason women sometimes run into difficulty is that they often lack the necessary upper body strength, needed in very challenging climbs."
"So, what you are saying is that this is not a very challenging climb, and that if a woman can do it then I should be able to?"
"Yes, but it takes more than brute strength to do this climb. What is needed is technique. Take your time. I know you have the stamina because you have kept with us for the most part quite well."
Magid didn't waste anytime driving spikes into the stone. It was comforting to see that he hammered them in deep, and then would pull on them with his gloved hand probably to make sure that they could support our weight. With his body slung tight against the weathered rock he slowly pulled himself up by fitting his hands into every nook and crevice. His movements were like that of a strange avant garde ballet performer. I tried to memorize his movements, the grips, the crevices, and even the way he pulled himself up higher and higher. Samir watched too and would try to predict crevices and outcrops of rock which would be used next by Magid. I listened and watched very carefully. There were some places where the rock would crumble at the mere touch of his hand sending shards of stone cascading downward. When that happened, he would use the drill on the stone. Once a hole was made in the rock, he would hammer the piton in deep.
About an hour later he disappeared over top leaving a trail of spikes behind. He had completed the lead climb and now it was my turn. The azure sky had darkened more to the point that long shadows were forming. The quarter moon was dimly visible in the sky, and I had not even started my ascent. Eventually, Magid lowered the rope. Samir secured it to my harness and I began the climb. Samir explained that Magid would gather up the line secured to my harness slowly as I made my ascent, but that I should still use the belt loops to remove as much slack from the line as possible. Magid would also have secured his end of the line to a tree trunk or the base of a boulder.
Samir gave me a hand when I stepped up and reached for the first spike. I didn't think too much about what I was doing because I suspected that any serious consideration would paralyze me with fear. I was up about ten feet when I reached for the next spike and pulled it out of the rock. A second later, I was reeling backwards falling until the rope snapped taut at my waist. With all my limbs flailing, I slapped against the mountain a couple of times before I could stop spinning. In spite of having worn the helmet, I had somehow managed to get a cut on my forehead. After that experience, I learned the importance of tightening any slack line to my belt.
Samir called out after I stopped a steady stream of curses. "Let us try again", he said. "Only this time, go slower. You are moving too fast." I didn't think I was, but I couldn't be bothered to argue the point. Blood oozed from a nasty abrasion on the top of my right hand. It stung more when a breeze swept by a little more briskly than earlier.
This time I moved more slowly, painstakingly slow. Every muscle in my body ached as I pulled and tugged at the spikes, crevices and any outcropping of rock that I could use for support. The climbing shoes did help as they seemed to provide the much needed traction of every step. I was near the top when the gentle evening breeze hardened into a cursed wind, which arrived without warning, and nearly ripped me off the face of the precipice. I hung on for dear life while the wind whipped past me. I knew that Magid was bellowing something to me from up above, but the sound of my leather jacket flapping along with the shrill howl of the wind drowned out his words.
I don't know how long I clung to that God forsaken rock as time ceased to exist. Suddenly, the wind died down and disappeared. I still did not move for a while until I was sure the wind was gone. My cheek was up against the smooth rock still warm from the sun’s rays of earlier that day. I wondered if any other human being had rested their cheek against this section of ancient rock. Eventually, I resumed the climb once I was rested and convinced that the wind would not return.
The last part of the climb was the hardest. The spikes were farther apart than at the bottom, and I was near exhaustion. I was breathing very hard, but I dared not rest again for fear of not having the will to finish. Besides my near physical exhaustion, I had encountered a considerable section of bald rock face which yielded no hand grips. The last spike driven in the stone by Magid seemed too far from the top. I didn't know what to do, but I was close enough to the top such that Magid could yell down instructions. I scanned the bare section of rock and could not see any crevices, outcropping, nothing within reach, which I could use to get past this final stretch to the top. I didn't understand how Magid had managed to overcome this part to the summit.
"You have to jump off the final piton and grab the ledge, and then I can pull you over!"
I stared at the outcropping of rock which formed the edge of the summit. It was well beyond my reach. It was at least three and maybe four feet above me. There was no way I could reach it by standing on the last piton. I thought that even if I was on the ground I couldn't jump four feet high in the air. So, it was going to be impossible to leap off the last piton and grab the edge.
"I did it! You can do it!"
"I can't! Its gotta be at least four feet above me. I can't jump that high!" The wind had picked up a bit, and its high-pitched sound was making it more difficult to be heard.
"It's not four feet above you. It only appears that way. Leap off with your right foot, and then push up with your left foot!"
I looked again at the mountain and noticed that the section of rock I was hanging onto jutted inward a few inches. A minute or so passed during which I recognized that if I leaped off the piton with my right foot, and then made a great stride with my left leg I might be able to get some sort of support from the section of rock jutting inward in order to launch myself higher and grab the edge.
"Do it now!" Magid screamed and I hesitated for a moment, and then I made my attempt. I leapt off the highest piton as planned with my right leg and with my left I pushed myself somehow higher as it glanced against the side of the mountain. I grabbed the summit's edge with both hands, and hung there for a second until I saw Magid reach down and grab me by my harness and pull me over the crest of the mountain.
Afterwards, I remained collapsed at his feet unable to move. With both of my arms extended I hugged the dry flat earth savoring every aspect of its flatness, thanking God that I was alive. I laid there, covered in sweat, panting while he suggested that I was not responding well to the thinning air at that high altitude. He made some remark about me being a smoker, and I wanted to punch him, but all I could do was gasp for air. Eventually, I got to my feet and assisted with Samir’s treacherous climb in near darkness. The sun had dipped below the horizon sometime ago, when the mercenary was up the cliff face three quarters of the way. Magid stood over the edge pulling in the line while I trained two flashlights on the rock face in a meager effort to improve visibility. The only other light source was moonlight. Samir was perspiring heavily and sounded hoarse when we pulled him over the edge, and into the relative safety of a little spot of earth.
On my own little plot of land, I unrolled the sleeping bag, crawled into it, and stared up at the black velvet sky. It had been a very long time since I had looked into such an evening sky, not scarred by city lights or violated by sky scrapers and airplanes. But, more beautiful than the glittering heavens above was the silence. It was absolute. Never had I been witness to such stillness except maybe in my mother's garden. Naturally sleep came quickly.
In the morning, I awoke to the smoke and crackle of a little fire, which Magid was tending to with a handful of dry branches. Some flaming barbecue briquettes served as fuel over which he held a copper pot with a long handle. He heated the pot until the black liquid began to froth and boil over the pot's rim. As soon as it started to boil over he would lift the pot away from the fire. He did this three times before he poured. He poured the steaming Arabic coffee into three little ceramic cups. I took a sip of the bitter black liquid which immediately warmed me up. The stuff must have been loaded with caffeine because my morning grogginess lifted quickly, and was replaced by a good healthy feeling of alertness. The coffee also made me keenly aware of every ache in my body. Muscles I never knew I had were sore.
Breakfast consisted of strips of chicken breast, slices of tomato and a bit of parsley wrapped in pita bread. During breakfast Magid explained that he had scouted around a bit, and said that we did not have to climb any higher and now could circle around the mountain to the other side. Samir asked what time it was, and I checked my watch only to discover that the lens was smashed and the arms frozen at nine o'clock. Closer inspection of myself revealed that my jeans were torn and my leather jacket had a big tear in the sleeve. I was missing one of my climbing shoes. I looked around for it, but it was nowhere to be found. Fitting my swollen feet into my sneakers proved to be a painful experience.
We walked along a natural path way of sorts, which Magid said had likely been formed by rain and melting snow running off the mountain. The ground of the narrow path way was smooth and even the rocks were more rounded. On the other side of the mountain, Samir leaned up against a massive cedar tree. The mammoth tree's trunk had a diameter of about twelve feet and its immense branches spread outward a span of twenty five feet. I was astounded by its' sheer size. Samir noticed my amazement.
"Big! eh?" He patted the trunk and added, "Did you know in ancient times, the Phoenicians made boats of cedar wood from trees just like this one. They didn't need to be painted or anything for the wood of the Lebanese cedar could be in the waters of the Mediterranean for a hundred years without rotting."
"Unfortunately, our entrepreneurial forefathers cut most of the trees like this one down, and sold them to the Egyptians, and anyone else in the market for a boat. Today, only a few like this one remain in the national park", Magid said.
Samir nodded glumly and produced a pair of binoculars. He scanned the region ahead. Below the countless series of rocky hills, boulders and slopes of broken stone was a rock strewn plain that stretched out an indeterminate distance to some lights that twinkled in the early morning mist. The plain was remarkably flat and there were no trees that afforded any cover. After Magid had a thorough look, he passed Samir's binoculars to me, and said that Ghattas' property would be found amongst those twinkling lights at the far edge of the plain.
"We should be at the foot of this mountain by mid‑day", Magid said while he referred to his tattered map. "We can then can cross that plain to the rear of the residence in the afternoon, and arrive at our destination by nightfall."
The descent was not as difficult, when compared with the previous day's climb. There were no cliffs to be scaled, but the rocky hills, great slabs of shale and sand stone still made our trek an intimidating task. Great shards of gray rock were cracked in places opening up deep, treacherous crevices. The terrain was alive with the ever present buzz of unseen crickets. Lizards hopped nervously away from us. Their color blended so perfectly with the rock that sometimes it looked as if individual rocks would sprout legs and then scurry out of sight.
My feet had blisters and my calves ached constantly with every foot step. Samir would grunt occasionally when he leaped through the unyielding land, but otherwise showed no outward sign of exertion. Magid seemed to stride painlessly and with minimal effort. Close to the bottom, I slipped when I leaped over a four foot fissure. I stumbled as I landed and fell heavily on my right knee. I had to stop for a moment until the sharp pulsing pain wore off to a dull ache. I was starting to fall behind, and the others would have to frequently wait while I caught up.
The air became easier to breathe as the descent continued while at the same time the morning mist was burnt off quickly by the rising sun. The sun bore down on us with a relentless intensity after we finally arrived at the bottom leaving only the dusty plain to cross. We stopped at that point, and for lunch our meal consisted of bottled water, grapes, tangy goat cheese, and more strips of chicken all once again wrapped in pita bread. It was good and hit the spot well. We rested for maybe twenty minutes during which I could feel my limbs starting to stiffen up like those a recently expired corpse. Samir leaned against a boulder, smoked a cigarette and swatted away a lizard that hopped on to his thigh. The lizard raced to another boulder from which he eyed a crust of bread lying on the hard packed earth.
The hike across the plain was easier and less exhausting than climbing, but nevertheless proved to be very challenging because of Magid's insistence on moving quickly. He feared that we were a bit behind schedule. We made pretty good time crossing the plain, and sure enough by nightfall we sat up behind a cluster of rocks and waited. In front of us was a chain link fence that ran the length of the rear of the property.
"Is this the place?", I whispered to no one in particular.
Magid nodded as he peered over a boulder to the court yard below. Barb wire was strung along the top of a fence, which spanned the length of the rear of the property. Samir took Magid's binoculars and scanned the area.
"Anybody think to bring wire cutters?", the mercenary asked. No one answered and then he added, "I guess we will have to improvise." After carefully examining the fence with the binoculars, Samir pointed out a spot where the fence stretched over a slight depression in the soil. It looked like a dried up mud puddle. He instructed Magid and I to use our hands and a knife to dig a crawl space for us while he provided cover. The earth was mostly sand that we easily moved. We dug down about fifteen inches under the fence. We crawled under the fence and moved to the cover of some wild ferns. Samir followed us a minute or so later.
The rear of the enormous villa was dominated by a kidney shaped pool. Around it were a couple of wrought iron patio chairs and tables. Between two enormous pillars was the rear double door entry. At Samir's suggestion, we spent the rest of the evening until about midnight just watching the property looking for video cameras, guards, dogs or anything which might alert the occupants to our presence. We also monitored the windows for any movement but saw nothing. Near midnight the double doors opened and a soldier emerged. He walked passed the doors which slowly closed behind him and leaned against one of the massive white, Doric pillars in the moonlight. He lit a cigarette and stared at the pool. The Mac‑10 was slung over his right shoulder and pointed at the ground. His dark figure reflected eerily in the pool. He appeared to be alone. Above him there were numerous windows and they were all dark. The last light had gone out half an hour ago. Magid whispered to no one in particular that it was one o'clock in the morning.
Roughly forty five minutes passed while we waited for the soldier to go back inside the mansion. He disappointed us by lingering by the pool. Eventually, he moved away from the pillar and sat down in one of the wrought iron chairs. He pulled out his wallet and seemed to be going through it while we debated what to do next.
"We are running out of time. He could sit there all night," Magid whispered nervously. "What are we going to do?"
"Kill him?" I asked. I was sure it was on everyone's mind.
"No, I have a better idea," Samir said. "It would be better if we disable him, and find what he knows of Ms. Diaz."
"Disabled?", Magid asked nervously. He was a good kid I thought that was about to see something very ugly, which he might carry for the rest of his life.
Samir did not answer. Instead, he retrieved a small black case from his knapsack. Inside were the pieces to a rifle which he pieced together expertly. The scope and the silencer were the finishing touches. He took careful aim, and I watched in the semi darkness as the first bullet tore into the guards left thigh which he clutched in agony. He fell unnaturally out of the chair to the tiled floor, and his machine gun which had been leaning against the patio table clattered to a rest just out of his reach. Without warning, Samir hopped over the ferns and charged towards the guard who cried out in pain. In mere seconds he was upon him with a hand firmly over the guard's mouth. Above the buzz of crickets, were the hushed tones of Samir, and the muffled protestations of the guard. The guard yelled again followed by silence as Samir's knife hand held high flashed in the moonlight and then descended downward.
Magid seemed shaken by what we had just seen, and said that he would go no farther. He told me that he was only supposed to be a guide and nothing more. I nodded reassuringly and told him to sit tight and guard Samir's rocket launcher, which he had left behind. He agreed to watch the windows of the grand villa, and if he saw any movement he could warn me by whistling. As I crossed the court yard, I scanned the grounds for any movement, but there was nothing. Samir turned away from the motionless guard who lay lifeless on the red tile. He dragged the body to the pool and gently rolled it into the water. It promptly sank in a spreading ink of dark blood.
"She's here," he said grimly while wiping his blade clean on his pant leg.
"He would not say."
I shook my head in disbelief at what I had just witnessed. We walked towards the rear entrance of what I had earlier estimated was maybe a six thousand square foot, two story, mansion. It could be a long night just searching every room especially if they were occupied by unfriendlies.
The eight foot arched double doors were made of wrought iron and shaded glass panels. We listened for several minutes before I tried the handle. The door creaked open revealing a dim hall. On the left, I saw two massive urns which flanked a spiral staircase. Samir and I split up with him searching the ground level while I made my way up the staircase.
Just before the second floor landing I paused for a moment. Hearing nothing I ventured into the hallway. It was a wide corridor paved in large blocks of dark green ceramic tile. The grouting was still light, which was indicative of some unknown mason's recent work. The walls were cement and adorned with canvasses depicting Arab markets, desert, and rural scenes. The passage was illuminated by an oil lamp which rested on a little Victorian table at the far end beyond which I could just make out the hall turned to the right.
The first door was on my left. The rough hewn wood hung unevenly in the doorway. I turned the brass handle after hearing nothing. The door squeaked as I pulled it open revealing a broom closet. It was cluttered with a mop and pail.
Across from the closet was a bathroom. There was only one other room in this hallway to investigate. I listened at the door for sometime before trying it. It was locked. I listened some more and could faintly hear the steady drone of snoring. The rumbling was definitely male in quality. I would pass on this room having reminded myself to return to it if I failed to locate Sandra Diaz elsewhere.
My Nikes made hardly made a sound as I tread carefully towards the end of the hall. The oil lamp flickered in the gloom casting long shadows. At the corner, I listened some more and could hear voices. There were at least two parties to the dialogue, which was carried on in Arabic. One voice was deep and rumbled through the conversation. Maybe with some training the guy could have been a half decent baritone. The other voice was higher pitched and squeaked like a rusty alto sax player. I spent a few minutes just listening to the sporadic conversation. One did not have to understand Arabic to figure out what they were doing. They were just shootin' the shit as Egan would say.
I lowered myself to a crouch and peered around the corner. The fortyish baritone was leaning backwards in a chrome chair with the two front legs up in the air. He appeared unarmed in a white dress shirt opened at the neck. He sat with his massive arms folded across his chest, staring pensively at the floor, and listened to his late night associate. The alto was a younger, medium build man, wearing paramilitary fatigues. He had a Klashnikoff at his side. The butt rested on the floor.
I eased the safety off my Glock, and decided not to bother with the silencer. I counted to three, took a deep breath and turned the corner. They didn't see me at first. I was about half way down the corridor with the Glock held firmly in my left hand, arm extended straight at shoulder height when the baritone looked up from the floor. He was startled and leaned forward causing the two front chair legs to snap to the floor with a metallic sound. Although he was no doubt surprised at the sight of me, he did not show it. However, the alto appeared to be certifiably shocked as he scrambled for the for the machine gun. I shook my head, and was about to shoot when the baritone slapped the Klashnikoff down out of his colleague's hands. The machine gun rattled noisily on the tile floor. I stood about five feet from them and let them stare down the barrel for a moment.
"Ghattas would not have you two gentlemen sitting here in front of this door at two in the morning for nothing." They stared back saying nothing. Maybe tough guys I thought.
"Still don't understand me? Maybe you'll understand this." I shifted my aim to the baritone's chest in the precise vicinity where his heart pumped and within a second he spoke up.
"Please . . . ah . . . sir . . . don't", he rumbled.
"Both of you on your feet", I ordered. They slowly stood up.
"Open the door." The lad in army fatigues produced a key and turned it in the door. It slowly swung inward revealing a dark room. The light from the hallway was dim but provided sufficient illumination that I could see a light switch on the wall. I waved the guards into the room with my gun and I followed. I flicked the light switch and then reached back and pulled the door shut.
She stood wild eyed in the far corner of the room with a brass curtain rod white knuckled in her hands. She was wearing the same happy face T‑shirt and the jeans with the tear in the knee that the mall security guard had described to Roger and I. I couldn't believe my luck at having found her so quickly.
"Stay away from me!" The pupils of her eyes were huge and I hoped that was a result of adjusting to the bright light of the room when I turned the lights on and not caused by smack.
"Eh! Mister you heard the lady!", the guard in army fatigues exclaimed. He was standing in front of me a couple of feet with his back to me.
Without any hesitation I kicked him hard in the small of his back which sent him sprawling forward on to all fours. I then swung my Glock to his obese counterpart's head. "Lay face down now!" Surprisingly, he slowly turned his head towards me and stared me down. Maybe I had offended his dignity. Maybe my tone of voice was a tad rude. I didn't give a fuck and I transmitted my demeanor quite succinctly I thought as I pressed the end of the barrel firmly against his forehead and said, "Either you get down now or I'm going to put a neat pink dot in your forehead. The hollow point bullet will tumble through your skull before exiting messily leaving a gaping hole the size of a ripe grape fruit.” He laid down. His friend was breathing heavily, but no longer volunteering any cheeky remarks.
With both of the guards staring at the floor I padded them down to make sure they were unarmed, and then turned to Sandra. She still clenched the curtain rod, but somewhat less menacingly. Her eyes darted from me to her guards and back. She was not stoned. She was terrified.
I scanned the room for something to tie up the thugs. I grabbed a lamp off an end table by the bed, and tore the electrical cord out. It was only about four feet long but would be adequate. I then walked over to the window where the curtain was collapsed in a heap on the floor. I tore the draw string out of it. It was a gold thread of sorts, and not the sturdiest twine, but would have to do. I moved back towards my prisoners and called Sandra over.
"Tie their hands behind their backs", I commanded. She shook her head. Sweat had made large wet patches underneath both of her arms and on her chest. Her eyes still continued to dart around the room from me to her guards to the window. I had to get through to her somehow, but I didn't know how when suddenly she spoke.
"I remember you . . . " she said in a whisper. "Why didn't you shoot him?" The curtain rod lowered in her hands a bit.
I presumed she was referring to my encounter with her and Ghattas in Long Beach.
"I didn't want to risk getting you hurt", I replied.
"Please, Sandra I am begging you . . . we don't have much time." I gave her my warmest look of concern that I genuinely felt and it worked. There was a God after all I thought as she tied up both of them starting with the hands and then the feet. The fat man remained motionless as she bound him with the electrical cord. The alto mumbled something unintelligible when she secured him with the curtain's draw string. I asked him to speak up, but he prudently remained silent.
I locked the door with the key and led her out into the hallway. I collected the Klashnikoff off the floor where the guard had dropped it, and slid the Glock back into my chest pocket. Clasping her hand tightly, we ran down the corridor towards the staircase when the building rocked violently followed by a short burst of automatic gun fire. I had forgotten about Samir, but apparently others had not. Sandra and I continued to dash for the stairwell when a door way on our right opened up. A shirtless man in army fatigues peered out. I swung the Russian machine gun at him and he jumped back inside slamming the door. The building shuddered once more as Sandra and I made it to the stairs.
In the confusion, Sandra had broke free of my grip and had bolted ahead. She was hard to see in the smoke, which had started to billow up from the ground level. I leapt after her taking two and three steps of the stairs in a stride. At the bottom, I saw the unmistakable silhouette of Samir with his back to me raking the smoky interior with intermittent bursts from his machine gun. In his other hand he held a grenade. I yelled at him and he glanced back at us. I pointed to the staircase and hoped he could see the figure I saw descending the stairs. Samir nodded very matter of factly and pulled the pin of the grenade out with his teeth. He hurled it at the staircase which was in our direction. Sandra was no longer in sight and I ran through the rear patio doors praying that she was ahead of me when I caught a glimpse of her tall figure running towards the fence and the rock strewn darkness from which I had emerged earlier in the evening. I could see Magid running towards her.
The explosive force of the grenade lifted me up in the air and sent me crashing into the pool. I landed in the shallow end, which I became keenly aware when my right knee slammed into the bottom of the pool. It was the same knee I had banged up in the morning. Now, it failed me completely as I tried to straighten it out. My backpack was now soaked and felt like a Steinway. So, I peeled it off and flung it on the pool deck behind me. It was then that I saw Sandra looking back at me. She was near the perimeter of the property. Samir caught up to her grabbed a hold of her hand, and pulled her back towards the fence. Magid was already underneath it.
I glanced back in order to view the carnage and saw that the spiral staircase was no longer recognizable. In its place was a blackened and twisted heap of metal being licked by bright yellow flames. Broken sections of concrete were strewn across the patio. The rear wrought iron patio doors were now missing. The air was tart with the stench of sulfur and thick with black smoke. The smoke billowed out of where once the patio doors had been. I heaved myself out of the pool and onto the deck and tried once more to stand up only to be greeted with burning, white hot pain in my knee. I glanced around for something to use as support and saw the dark out line of the Klashnikoff lying on the bottom of the pool. I thought about retrieving it, but my throbbing knee rejected that idea. I padded myself down and felt the Glock still secure in my chest pocket. I knew it was only a matter of time before they stepped out of the debris.
The yelling gradually got closer. Samir must have knocked out the power because the mansion was in darkness. One of them stumbled out suddenly on to the patio. The gash to the left side of his head was nasty. The blood ran thickly down his cheek, but he did not seem to notice it. He was too busy gasping for air between sputtering coughs. I sat on the edge of the pool silently watching, and keenly aware of my 9 mm still in my coat.
The footsteps behind made me shudder in fear when they squeaked closer. In horror, I turned to see Sandra, and not some gun toting mercenary ready to end my miserable life. I tried to wave her away, but she kept running towards me. I whipped my head around to see the soldier. He had seen her too, and had reached for his side arm.
The initial thunder clap of gun fire was followed by a steady cacophony of bullets sending up little spouts in the pool. The first few shots were a total miss, but as the slugs crossed the pool, it did not take them long to find their mark. He danced an animated jig of death as he struggled to remain standing, and did so until the machine gun clip was spent. It was as if the soldier's body was allowed to crumple to the patio tile once the shooting stopped. Sandra stared at the motionless soldier and started to shriek. Samir rammed home another clip with a loud clicking noise.
"She's crazy!", he said. Samir went on to explain Sandra had returned for me. "She's crazy", he muttered again. Sandra was falling apart. The tears ran silently down her face. There was no sniffling, no wailing, just tears.
"Sandra! Help me up!", I said. She continued to stare blankly at the soldier.
"My knee is pretty bad." I tried to bend it, and winced in genuine pain. I then tried to get to my feet and failed falling heavily. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her turn to me. I tried to look as pathetic as possible, which was no great stretch at that point. However, the clincher I think was when I reached out to her. She stared blankly at me for a few seconds and then suddenly grasped my hand and pulled me up. Samir stood guard while Sandra and I hobbled off into the night.