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By Mark Sullivan
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For Betty Jane
IT WAS NEARING midnight that late-October evening on a dark stretch of beach in Malibu. Five men, lifelong surfers, lost souls, sat around a fire blazing in a portable steel pit set into the sand.
The multimillion-dollar homes up on the fragile cliffs showed no lights save security bulbs. Waves crashed in the blackness beyond the firelight. The wind was picking up, temperature dropping. A storm built offshore.
Facing the fire, four of them with their backs to surfboards stuck in the sand, the men sipped Coronas, passed and sucked on a spliff of Humboldt County’s finest.
“Bomber weed, N.P.,” choked Wilson, who’d done two tours in Iraq and had come home at twenty-six incapable of love and responsibility, good only for getting high, riding big waves, and thinking profound thoughts. “With that hit I most assuredly have achieved total clarity of mind. I can see it all, dog. The whole cosmic thing.”
Sitting in the sand across the fire from Wilson, hands stuffed in the pouch pocket of his red L.A. Lakers hoodie, N.P. wore reflector sunglasses despite the late hour. He smiled at Wilson from behind his glasses and scruffy beard, his nostrils flaring, his longish, straw-blond hair fluttering in the wind.
“I second that emotion, Wilson,” N.P. said, and flicked the underside of his cap so it made a snapping sound. His voice was hoarse and hinted at a southern accent.
“Wish I coulda scored weed that righteous in the go-go days before the crash,” said Sandy dreamily as he passed along the joint. “I would have seen all, slayed the markets, and lived a life of wine, women, song, and that beautiful herb you so graciously brought into our lives, N.P.”
Sandy had lost it all in the Great Recession: Brentwood house, trophy wife, big job running money. These days he tended day bar at the Malibu Beach Inn.
“Those days are frickin’ long gone,” said Grinder, barrel-chested, dark tan, dreads. “Like ancient history, bro. No amount of pissin’ and moanin’ ’bout it gonna bring back your stack of Benny Franklins, or my board shop.”
Hunter, the fourth surfer, was stubble haired and swarthy. He scowled, hit the spliff, said, “Ass-backward wrong as usual, Grinder. You wanna bring back that stack a Benjamins, Sandy?”
Sandy stared into the fire. “Who doesn’t?”
Hunter nodded toward N.P. before handing him the roach. “Like Wilson was saying, N.P., this weed brings perfect vision.”
N.P. smiled again, took the roach and ate it, said, “What do you see?”
Hunter said, “Okay, so like we rise up and storm Congress, take ’em all hostage, and hole up in there, you know, the House chamber. We do it the night of the State of the Union Address so they’re all in there to begin with, president, generals, frickin’ Supreme Court too. Then we make the whole sorry bunch of ’em hit this weed hard enough and long enough they start talking to each other. Getting stuff done. Tending to business ’stead of bitchin’ and cryin’ and blamin’ about who spent the biggest stack and for what.”
“Speaker of the House hitting it?” Wilson said, laughed.
Grinder chuckled, “Yeah, on the bong with that sourpuss senator’s always trying to shove his morals up your ass. That man would be in touch with his inner freak straight up then.”
“Not a bad idea,” Sandy said, brightening a bit. “A stoned Congress just might get the country going again.”
“See there, total clarity,” Wilson said, pointing at N.P. before getting a puzzled expression on his face. “Hey, dog, where you come from, anyway?”
N.P. had showed up about an hour ago, said he’d take a beer or two if they wanted to partake of the best in the state, Cannabis Cup winner for sure.
Smiling now, N.P. turned his sunglasses at Wilson, said, “I walked down here from the Malibu Shores Sober Living facility.”
They all looked at him a long moment and then started to laugh so hard they cried. “Frickin’ sober living!” Wilson chortled. “Oh, dog, you got your priorities straight.”
Joining in their laughter, N.P. glanced around beyond and behind the fire, saw that the beach remained deserted, and still no lights in the houses above. He took his chance.
He got to his feet. His new friends were still howling.
Nice guys. Harmless, actually.
But N.P. felt not a lick of pity for them.
“N.P.?” SANDY SAID, wiping his eyes. “Whazzat stand for, anyway? N.P.?”
“No Prisoners,” N.P. said, hands back in the hoodie’s pouch again.
“No Prisoners?” Grinder snorted. “That some kind of M.C. rap star tag? You famous or what behind them glasses?”
N.P. smiled again. “It’s my war name. Sorry, dogs and bros, but a few people have to take it the hard way for people to start listening to us.”
He drew two suppressed Glock 9mms from the pouch of his hoodie.
Wilson saw them first. Soldier instinct took over. The Iraq vet rolled, scrambled, tried to get out of Dodge.
N.P. had figured Wilson would be the one. So he shot him first, at ten yards, a double whack to the base of the head where it met the spine. The vet buckled to the sand, quivered in his own blood.
“What the…?” Sandy screamed before the next round caught him in the throat, flattening him.
“Frick, bro,” Grinder moaned as N.P. turned the guns on him. The surfer’s hands turned to prayer. “Don’t blaze me, bro.”
The killer’s expression revealed nothing as he pulled the trigger of each gun once, punching holes in Grinder’s chest.
“You mother-loving son of a…!”
Hunter lunged to tackle him. N.P. stepped off the line of his attack, shot him in the left temple from less than eight inches away. Hunter crashed into the fire, began to burn.
The killer glanced up at the closest homes. Still dark. He pocketed the guns. The wind blew northwest, hard off the Pacific, swirled the beach sand, stung his cheeks as he dragged the other three corpses to the fire and threw them in, facedown. The smell was like when you singe hair, only much, much worse. But that would do it, a nice touch, increase the panic.
N.P. got a plastic sandwich bag from his pocket. He crouched, opened it, and shook out what looked like a business card. It landed facedown in the sand. He kicked it under Sandy’s leg, picked up six empty 9mm shells, and pocketed them. His beer bottle he took to the ocean, wiped it down, and hurled it out into the water.
Satisfied, he snapped the underside of his Lakers cap, waded into the surf up to his knees. He walked parallel to the beach, toward Pacific Coast Highway, head down into the wind, the salt spray, and the gathering storm.
A VANISHING ACT
SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, as the first real storm of the season intensified outside, the lovely Guin Scott-Evans and I were sitting on the couch at my place, watching a gas fire, drinking a first-class bottle of Cabernet, and good-naturedly bantering over our nominees for sexiest movie scene ever.
For the record, Guin brought the subject up.
“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” she announced. “Remake.”
“Of all the movies ever made?” I asked.
“Certainly,” she said, all seriousness. “Hands down.”
“Care to defend your nomination?”
She crossed her arms, nodded, smiled. “With great pleasure, Mr. Morgan.”
I liked Guin. The last time I’d seen her, back in January, the actress had been in trouble, and I had served as her escort and guard at the Golden Globes the night she won Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Despite the danger she was in, or perhaps because of it, a nice chemistry had developed between us. But at the time, relationships were not clear-cut in her life or mine, and nothing beyond mutual admiration had developed.
Earlier that evening, however, I had run into her leaving Patina, a first-class restaurant inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex, where she’d been attending a birthday party for her agent. We had a glass of wine at the bar and laughed as if the Golden Globes had been just last week, not ten months before.
She was leaving the next day, going on location in London, with much too much to do. But somehow we ended up back at my place, with a new bottle of wine open, and debating the sexiest movie scene ever.
“The Postman Always Rings Twice?” I said skeptically.
“I’m serious, it’s amazing, Jack,” Guin insisted. “It’s that scene where they’re in the kitchen alone, Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson, the old Greek’s young wife and the drifter. At first you think Nicholson’s forcing himself on her. They wrestle. He throws her up on the butcher block covered with flour and all her baking things. And she’s saying, ‘No! No!’
“But then Nicholson comes to his senses, figures he misread her, backs off. And Lange’s lying there panting, flour on her flushed cheeks. There’s this moment when your understanding of the situation seems certain.
“Then Lange says, ‘Wait. Just wait a second,’ before she pushes the baking stuff off the butcher block, giving herself enough room to give in to all her pent-up desires.”
“Okay,” I allowed, remembering it. “That was sexy, really sexy, but I don’t know if it’s the best of all time.”
“Oh, no?” Guin replied. “Beat it. Be honest, now. Give me a window into your soul, Jack Morgan.”
I gave a mock shiver. “What? Trying to expose me already?”
“In due time,” she said, grinned, poured herself another glass. “Go ahead. Spill it. Name that scene.”
“I don’t think I can pick just one,” I replied honestly.
“Name several, then.”
“How about Body Heat, the entire movie? I saw it over in Afghanistan. As I remember it, William Hurt and Kathleen Turner are, well, scorching, but maybe that was because I’d been in the desert far too long by that point.”
Guin laughed, deep, unabashed. “You’re right. They were scorching, and humid too. Remember how their skin was always damp and shiny?”
Nodding, I poured the rest of the wine into my glass, said, “The English Patient would be up there too. That scene where Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are in that room in the heat with the slats of light, and they’re bathing together?”
She raised her glass. “Certainly a contender. How about Shampoo?”
I shot her a look of arch amusement, said, “Warren Beatty in his prime.”
“So was Julie Christie.”
There was a moment between us. Then my cell phone rang.
Guin shook her head. I glanced at the ID: Sherman Wilkerson.
“Damn,” I said. “Big client. Big, big client. I… I’ve got to take this, Guin.”
She protested, “But I was just going to nominate the masquerade ball in Eyes Wide Shut.”
Shooting Guin an expression of genuine shared sympathy and remorse, I clicked ANSWER, turned from her, said, “Sherman. How are you?”
“Not very damned well, Jack,” Wilkerson shot back. “There are sheriff’s deputies crawling the beach in front of my house, and at least four dead bodies that I can see.”
I looked at Guin, flashed ruefully on what might have been, said, “I’m on my way right now, Sherman. Ten minutes tops.”
SPEEDING NORTH INTO Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway, driving the VW Touareg I use when the weather turns sloppy, I could still smell Guin, still hear her words to me before the cab took her away: “No more dress rehearsals, Jack.”
Pulling up to Sherman Wilkerson’s gate, I felt like the village idiot for leaving Guin, wanted to spin around and head for her place in Westwood.
Wilkerson, however, had recently hired my firm, Private Investigations, to help reorganize security at Wilkerson Data Systems offices around the world. I parked in an empty spot in front of the screen of bougainvillea that covered the wall above the dream home Wilkerson had bought the year before for his wife, Elaine. Tragically, she’d died in a car wreck a month after they moved in.
Head ducked in the driving rain, I rang the bell at the gate, heard it buzz, went down steep wet stairs onto a terrace that overlooked the turbulent beach. Waves thundered against the squalling wind that buffeted various L.A. Sheriff’s vehicles converged on a crime scene lit by spotlights.
“They’re in the fire, four dead men, Jack,” said Wilkerson, who’d come out a sliding glass door in a raincoat, hood up. “You can’t see them now because of the tarps, but they’re there. I saw them through my binoculars when the first cop showed up with a flashlight.”
“Anyone come talk to you?”
“They will,” he said, close enough that I could see his bushy gray brows beneath the hood. “Crime scene abuts my property.”
“But you have nothing to worry about, right?”
“You mean did I kill them?”
“Crime scene abuts your property.”
“I was at work with several people on my management team until after midnight, got here around one, looked down on the beach, saw the flashlight, used the binoculars, called you,” Wilkerson said.
“I’ll take a look,” I said.
“Unless it’s dire, tell me about it all in the morning, would you? I’m exhausted.”
“Absolutely, Sherman,” I said, shook his hand. “And one of my people is coming in behind me, in case you have the driveway alert on.”
He nodded. I headed to the staircase to the beach, watched Wilkerson go into his house and turn on a light, saw moving boxes piled everywhere.
Either poor Sherman was leaving soon, or he’d never really arrived.
MY CELL RANG when I was just shy of the yellow tape.
It was Carl Mentone. Also known as the Kid, a twenty-something hipster, tech geek, and surveillance specialist I hired last year in one of my smarter moves.
“You here already?” I asked.
“Up on Wilkerson’s terrace,” the Kid replied. “Eagle’s perspective.”
“Shoot what you can in this slop. Record what I’m transmitting.”
“Smooth on both counts, Jacky-boy. I’ve got a lens hood, no need for infrared with the lights, and I’m already getting a feed from your camera to the hard drive.”
“Don’t call me Jacky-boy,” I said, clicked the phone, saw a sheriff’s deputy coming to the tape, and shifted the pen clipped to my breast pocket. The Kid and I now saw the same things.
“We’re asking people to stay away,” the deputy said.
I showed him my badge. “Jack Morgan. Who’s commanding?”
The deputy got lippy. “You may have clout over at LAPD, but…”
I spotted an old friend moving out from under the tarps, called, “Harry?”
Captain Harry Thomas ran the sheriff’s homicide unit. I’d known him since I was a young teenager. Sixty-two now, the homicide commander had been a friend of my father’s, back before my dear old dad crossed the line, bilked clients, and ended up dying in prison. There was a time, when the old man was going downhill, and before I joined the marines, when Harry Thomas was one of the few people who seemed to care what happened to me.
Harry’s craggy face broke into a grin when he saw me. “Jack? What the hell brings Private out here in the middle of a storm?”
Ducking the rope past the miffed deputy, I said, “Four dead bodies burning in a fire, and my client owns the house right above us.”
“Public beach,” Harry said, glanced at Wilkerson’s home. “Thin reason to be inside my crime scene, unless your client wants to confess?”
“He’s clean. But now that I’ve had to leave my incredibly lovely date in the lurch and I’m all the way here, I’m curious. Can I take a look?”
Harry hesitated, said, “No funny business, Jack.”
“Uh-huh,” the homicide captain said, not buying it. “Boots and gloves.”
A few moments later, wearing protective blue paper booties and latex gloves, I ducked under the tarp system that had been erected over the crime scene. The space stank of burned flesh. The victims, four men in après-surf wear, lay facedown in the wet ashes of a fire pit. Forensics techs were documenting the scene. I got out a tissue and pretended to blow my nose before passing it over the camera pen on my lapel to remove any raindrops.
Harry said, “Dog walker found them. Crazy to be out in this storm. Lucky for us, though. We managed to protect it within an hour of when we think the shootings went down. Illegal to have a fire here with or without a portable pit. It was like they were begging for trouble. People are very touchy around here about the rules.”
“C’mon, Harry,” I said. “You think someone double-tapped each of these guys over fire pit rules? This looks professional. A planned hit.”
“Yeah,” he admitted, distaste on his lips. “Looks that way to me too.”
“All locals. All die-hard surfers. One’s a former investment guy, tends bar now down the highway. Another’s a young vet who came back from Iraq with some issues. The other two: still waiting. They weren’t carrying wallets like the first two.”
“Armed robbery gone bad?”
“If one of them was carrying something valuable enough, I suppose.”
“Or they all shared something in common, a secret, maybe, and this was revenge,” I replied, squatting to look at the sand around the corpses’ feet. “Rain and wind must have hammered this place. No tracks, no drag marks.”
“That’s all she wrote until the lab work tells me more,” the homicide captain said. “But about that, Jack: I won’t be keeping you in the loop.”
In an easy manner, Harry was telling me that, old friend or not, my time was up. I was about to rise from my crouch when I noticed a mustard-yellow card sticking out from beneath the dead bartender’s leg.
Before anyone could tell me not to, I scuttled forward and snatched it up.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” Harry demanded.
Back of the card was empty. I flipped it to face my camera pen, paused, handed it to a scowling Harry Thomas, and saw what was written in eighteen-point letters:
THE KILLER WHO called himself No Prisoners drove an Enterprise rent-a-car toward a set of automatic doors in the City of Commerce in southeast Los Angeles. He pressed an app on his iPhone and the doors began to rise, revealing a large, high-ceilinged, cement-floored work space that had once housed a diesel truck repair shop, with three additional roll-up doors at the far end.
He took the place in at a glance: two white delivery vans, six cots, a makeshift kitchen, four metal folding tables pushed together to create one large surface covered with computer equipment, and several tool and die machines, including a lathe, a grinder, and a welding torch with two tanks of acetylene.
Five ruggedly built men turned from their work to watch him pull in out of the rain, park, get out, and draw the two Glocks from the pouch of his Lakers hoodie. None of the men looked remotely concerned. Not even a blink.
The killer expected no less of them.
“How’d it go, Mr. Cobb?” called one of the men, late twenties, with a gymnast’s muscles and the attitude of an alley dog that has fought for every scrap life has grudgingly yielded to him.
“Outstanding, as expected, Mr. Nickerson,” the killer replied before setting the guns in front of a bald, lean Latino man who sported tattoos of the Grim Reaper on both bulging biceps. They were new tattoos, livid. “Break these down, Mr. Hernandez.”
“Straightaway,” Hernandez said, accepting the pistols. He laid them on a heavy-duty folding table set up as a gunsmith’s bench. A sniper’s rifle sat in a vise awaiting adjustment.
A slighter man, early thirties, with a bleached goat’s beard, got up from behind a row of iPads, all cabled to a large server beneath the tables. “Did the rain screw up the feed?”
Cobb removed the sunglasses. “You tell me, Mr. Watson.”
Watson took the sunglasses from Cobb, cracked open a hidden compartment in the frame, removed a tiny SIM card. While he fitted the card into a reader attached to one of the iPads, Cobb tugged off the baggy sweatshirt, revealing a ripped, muscular physique beneath a black Under Armour shirt. He reached beneath the collar of the shirt. An edge came up. He pulled.
The beard, the latex, the blond wig, the entire No Prisoners disguise came off, revealing a man in his late thirties, with a gaunt, weathered face that time and misfortune had chiseled into something remarkable. Scars ran like strands in a spider’s web out from the round of his left jawline toward a cauliflower ear barely hidden by iron-gray hair.
It was the kind of face people never forgot.
Cobb knew that about himself, and he’d suffered for it in the past. He wasn’t going to make that mistake twice. He laid out the pieces of the disguise on a third folding table before looking to a wiry African-American man holding another iPad connected to a set of earphones hung around his neck.
“Where are we, Mr. Johnson?” Cobb asked.
- Acclaim for Private
- "Private will grab you from page one and force you to sit there until you turn the very last page. A great start to new a series from the master of fast-paced thrill rides."—lorisreadingcorner.com
- "Slick and suspenseful."—BookLoons.com
- "PRIVATE mixes action, mystery and personal drama...Patterson and Paetro may well be on their way to rivaling--and possibly surpassing--the popularity of their Women's Murder Club series."—BookReporter.com
- On Sale
- Feb 10, 2014
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Little, Brown and Company