“I hope you didn’t have a big breakfast, amigo.”
Jack Abernathy needed to see me. It was urgent, and No, not something that could be handled over the phone. I had to see to believe.
“A cup of coffee and a Danish,” I answered, hesitantly. “What’s going on?”
Jack had no office staff. He was the sole proprietor of LA Investigations, LLC. When I walked into the inner office he was parked behind his desk, an unlit cigar in his mouth. He was a big man, showing more than a few unhealthy measurements, but also a man who was solid, stern, showing little inclination toward the jovial.
I plopped down in one of the chairs in front of his desk. “What’s my breakfast have to do with LA Investigations?”
“Well, check this out, amigo.” He tossed me a photo stuck to a white poster board backing, then felt it necessary to advise me: “Try not to puke.”
Jack Abernathy ran LA Investigations the same way I ran Praetorian, Inc. The only difference being that Praetorian was private security while LA Investigations was private snooping. His firm was a business, and Jack was all about business. He avoided charity cases, seedy clients, always took healthy retainers, and somehow managed to keep his agency above LA’s moral cesspool. His hardheaded and ethical approach made LA Investigations a highly sought-after and respected agency. This made Jack Abernathy – by my reckoning – the owner of the most successful private detective agency on the West Coast, certainly south of Frisco – Spade and Archer notwithstanding.
“What’s you got here, Jack?” I leaned forward and picked up the photo. If Jack had handed me season tickets to the Rams, I would not have been more surprised.
I looked up. “Is this a joke?”
The offices of LA Investigations were down Melrose from Robertson, in the direction of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. A prime location, Jack had explained, to capture the crumbs that fell from the overflowing table at the top.
“If it’s a joke,” answered Jack. “I don’t know on who.”
The eight-by-ten glossy was a shot of one of the more recognizable politicians in the state, Zebadiah Hauser, a congressman from the hills south of Orange County. The papers were full of hints that the guy was considering a run for the Senate next year. I also got it that the photo I was holding would not likely appear in any of his upscale campaign brochures.
“Jesus,” I said.
“And then some,” added Jack.
Did I stress strongly enough that Jack runs an investigative agency, because most private detective agencies don’t do much by way of investigating at all? Most operate like jacks-of-all-trades, cobbling together various low-life activities that keep money in the bank but tend to soil one’s character. Many shady agencies survive and profit from marriage or business dissolutions offered through manufactured evidence; there are other agencies who concoct honeypot traps (gay or straight) for the purpose of extortion; then there are the true primitives who pretend to run private security, which tends to mean hiring a couple of heavy lifters from the gym whose idea of diplomacy is offering a smile to go with the kicking-in of someone’s teeth; finally there exist the hard core grifters who run private patrols in wealthier sections of LA, which allow for an occasional inside burglary – and No, I’m not kidding. Like I said: LA’s moral cesspool.
I looked at Jack. “How real is this?”
“It’s not photo-shopped.”
The picture was a full body shot of the famous politician – completely nude and looking all big smiles. Without the slightest hint of embarrassment, he was standing, or rather bent over at the waist, naked and spreading his ass cheeks for a full-blown shot of his anus, sans fig leaf. No modesty here, with our conservative hero from ultra-Christian Orange County coyly gazing around his shoulder and throwing a toothy grin into the camera’s lens. In large, black-marker handwriting, the caption at the top of the photo read: “All for you, Darling! Come take it anytime!”
I looked up at Jack. “This is way fucked.”
He smiled, “Wade, this is no time to play with words.”
“Come on, Jack. This isn’t a joke. This could ruin this guy.”
“And then some.”
“Whose handwriting is this?”
“Hauser’s,” Jack answered, using the politician’s name for the first time.
I blinked. “What? Are you sure?”
“From the horse’s mouth,” Jack replied.
“You got this photo from Hauser himself?”
Jack nodded. “And Hauser makes no bones about it – so to speak – I got the photo and a hefty packet of cash yesterday, by messenger. The messenger was out of a law firm in Long Beach, and the packet was, like I said: hefty.”
“So, you never met with Hauser?”
“Only his lawyer – Roy Lyman – and then only by phone. Recognize the name?”
“Yeah. Lyman’s a big shot election and campaign lawyer.” I wiggled the photo. “Someone want’s money for this?”
“What do you mean?”
Jack took the cigar out of his mouth and rolled it in his thick fingers, examining the end as if contemplating lighting it. “According to Lyman, the pix arrived at his West Hollywood law offices by private messenger about ten days ago. It was in a tamper-proof envelope with a short note: Tell Hauser that someone will be in touch.”
“If it’s blackmail, isn’t sending it to his lawyer a little odd?”
Jack raised his hands in a hapless IDK gesture.
“The messenger know anything?”
“Apparently not,” replied Jack. “But it’s a reputable delivery service. I’ve used them myself.”
“Where did it originate?”
“Their offices in Seattle. I called ’em first thing. They don’t know anything. A guy walks into one of their offices and pays for the delivery in cash.”
“They obviously have offices in LA.”
“They do, with delivery service straight to lawyer Lyman’s office.”
“The original guy didn’t have to fill out any paperwork or leave his name?”
“Yeah – sure.” Jack stopped playing with the cigar and laid it off to the side. “The name was Bob Jones, the return address is a Bob’s Big Boy, out on Ventura Boulevard, here in LA.”
“Nope – signed the delivery request Bob Jones.”
“And I take it that Bob Jones doesn’t have anything to do with Bob’s Big Boy?”
“Wade, you should be a detective.”
“He didn’t need to show any ID?”
“Apparently not. It was a cash transaction.”
“He leave his address?”
“Yeah. Bob’s Big Boy.”
Jack gave me the eye.
“Okay, Jack, what’s all this have to do with me?”
“I’ll get to that,” he replied. “Take another look at the photo. There’ll be a test later.”
I looked again at the photo again, then laid it on the desk. “Okay, it’s a nasty photo and Zeb Hauser’s gay.”
“Bi,” Jack corrected me. “And almost no one knows that – especially not his plastic enhanced trophy wife and two-point-five kids.”
“Who took the picture?”
“His secret lover boy,” answered Jack.
“How do you know that?”
“Lawyer Lyman,” answered Jack. “And he’s been Hauser’s lawyer long enough to know where all the bodies are buried.”
I picked up the glossy again and looked it over. “Okay, who’s the lover boy?”
“Lyman couldn’t or won’t say, but he did say it’d been over for a long time.”
“That’s not helpful.”
Jack shrugged. “I can’t beat it out of him.”
“Yeah, but it’d sure be nice to know how this got from the photographer to the extorter.”
“It’d be someone who wanted Hauser fucked – if you’ll excuse the expression.”
“You’re excused.” I tossed the print back onto the desktop. “Hauser’s an ambitious politician. The key word here being politician, which means that that somebody could be enough enemies to fill the Coliseum.”
“But wait a second,” I said, waiving my hand in a gesture of resignation. “Why doesn’t Hauser go public? These days coming out as gay’s not that big a deal. Hell, in LA you damn near get a merit badge for coming out of the closet.”
“Yeah, except Hauser’s not in LA. His political base is in Orange County and Riverside – way too born-again for this kind of crap. They’ll tolerate lying and stealing and whoring – but being buggered? No way!”
“What’s he want from you.”
Jack picked up the unlit cigar and put it back in his mouth, then let his lips curl in a smile around it. “Lyman made a half-serious suggestion that I find the bastard and kill him.”
“He was laughing, but who knows.”
“How’d he know you weren’t recording the call?”
“I guess he knew my reputation for privacy and integrity.”
That comment was neither hubris nor braggadocio. Jack Abernathy had spent a lifetime building a business with a near celebrity status. LA Investigations was grounded on loyalty, honesty, and the kind of trustworthiness you can’t buy. Hell, even the cops took Jack’s word when he gave it, and they don’t trust anyone, not even each other.
“All right, Jack – once again,” I kept at him, “what do you want with me? I don’t have any hit men on my payroll.”
Jack sat up and looked across the desk at me. “The day before yesterday the sender of the pix bypasses the lawyer and gets hold of Hauser himself – on his private cell, no less – and wants to set up a meet.”
I frowned. “Private cell? We’re back to his boyfriend.”
“Sounds like, but lawyer Lyman says no.”
“How’d this extortionist get the private number?”
“Did Hauser recognize the voice?”
“Lyman says no, but maybe Hauser was lying about that too.”
“Lyman’s got a funny damn client,” I commented. “And now he’s your client too?”
“Doesn’t matter, Wade. Clients lie all the time. That’s why they go to private agencies and not the police.”
“Okay, I got that,” I replied. “But still, what am I doing here?”
“Remember I said there’d be a test later. This is it, but I’ll let you cheat. Look at the photo again. You see anything unusual about it, about him – Hauser?”
For a third time I picked up the 8 x 10 and looked it over. “Jack, I don’t see anything not unusual about it.”
Jack gestured with his unlit cigar. “Look at Hauser’s face.”
I did. “Yeah – so?”
“He’s got a mustache.”
I looked at the photo again. “Okay, he does, so what?”
“He doesn’t have one anymore and hasn’t had one for about the last ten years,” replied Jack. “I Googled pictures of Hauser going back a couple of decades.”
“So, what’s it mean?”
“That the photo’s a decade old, at least, and probably more. But the fact that the lawyer didn’t realize or mention that the photo’s ten years old means that Hauser might be fudging facts in some other areas too.”
“What other areas?”
“The boyfriend thing.”
I dropped the photo back on the desktop and waited.
Jack eased back in his chair. “I’ve been in this business long enough to learn to trust my instincts.” Pausing, he searched my face for a moment. “There’s something real hinky about all of this. Maybe a buried body or two that even Lawyer Lyman doesn’t know about.”
“So, where do you go from here?”
“Not me, amigo.” Jack grinned and winked at me. “You’re on point here.”
“I’m gonna put Praetorian on the payroll.”
“You serious? Doing what?”
“Neither Hauser nor Lyman want to get within a hundred miles of this cheese-dick. He’s paying me to do the meet, only I got a better idea.”
“I want a couple of your men to get to the meet, find out what this is all about, and deliver the prick a message.”
That drew a chuckle from me. “I hope you’re not asking to have the message delivered with brass knuckles.”
“Not unless it’s invited, amigo,” replied Jack. He wasn’t smiling. “But I do want the message delivered in the strongest possible terms.”
“What’s the message?”
“After your man finds out what this is about – and what the asshole wants – let it be known that the photo is a fake – use the missing moustache as a hint that the pic was photo-shopped – and if the individual doesn’t agree to back off immediately, they’ll make a citizen’s arrest on the spot for extortion. Get ’em to be intimidating and scary as hell.”
“But you said the photo’s not a fake.”
“I know, but if Hauser wasn’t lying to his lawyer, and his ex-boyfriend doesn’t figure into this – and I think he might be right on that, only for the wrong reasons – our little exhibition will give the leech something to worry about. And if Hauser’s ex-beau is the origin of the photo delivery, then the bluff won’t work, and Hauser’s wrong, and we’ll know it’s his lover-boy who’s behind this little shakedown and we go from there.”
“Jack.” I shook my head. “Praetorian doesn’t do this kind of work. Why don’t you do this?”
Jack laughed. “Come on, Wade, I’m old, fat and bald, who the hell am I gonna scare?”
At thirty-two, Jack Abernathy was only a year older than me, and as for fat, well he’s fat like an NFL nose-tackle is fat. In other words, I would never describe Jack as old and fat, and I knew damn well that he could be scary as hell.
“But what about your own people?” I asked.
“Come on, Wade. I hire my people because they don’t stand out or look menacing. That’s what makes them good at surveillance and peeking in windows.”
“So, what’d you have in mind, exactly?”
“Some of your guys are pretty intimidating and can handle themselves if need be. I was thinking about Reece Strickland and you can pick the other.”
I had to admit that Reece Strickland would fill the bill and was one of the few men I’d be worried about tangling with in a back-alley. Reece was an ex-light heavyweight boxer who got close to a title shot, then deteriorating eyesight ended his career. He kept himself in fine shape, and despite approaching fifty, he could take out most of the upper-rank black belts in the dojo, and that included me. I could only wish he was available.
“Reece is already working,” I informed Jack.
“Then how about Biggie?”
Biggie Johnson took pride in avoiding violence and that counted big-time in my book and with my business. A lot of guys in the private security business like the flash and dash of public confrontation – a chance to bully and show off for the ladies. However, successful personal security is all about low profile, all about walking quietly and carrying a big stick – far from sight. Biggie was a few years older than me, quiet, appearing almost shy at times, but his focus was narrow and intense – it never wavered, never flinched or drifted off, and even on a bad day this intensity helped Biggie with a look that could crack a mirror. Biggie, whose full name was Alvoid Phillips Johnson, was available.
“Pick someone else,” repeated Jack. “Better safe than sorry.”
“This could get expensive”
“No worries,” replied Jack confidently. “It’s Hauser’s wallet. He gave me carte blanche.”
“I hope he’s heeled.”
“He is. I told you, Lyman sent me a fat packet of cash – fat.”
“Okay, another man,” I rolled my eyes around the ceiling. “How about John Sweet for his side-kick.”
Jack chucked. “Great. Two black guys that need to duck and turn sideways to fit through a doorway. That’ll work.”
“How about a name and location?”
“I don’t have either – yet.”
“What do you have?”
“Only what I told you.”
“That’s kind of tough to plan for. When do I get more info?”
“As it comes in, amigo. But consider Biggie and Sweet on L.A. Investigation’s payroll as of tomorrow.”
“For how long?”
“I’ll bill Hauser for three days.”
“You’re pretty free with his money.”
“I told you: carte blanche,” he reminded me. “And it’s cash money.”
“Okay, but don’t expect my people to salute and call you boss?”
“They won’t even see me,” Jack replied. “Tell them to stand by and be ready to roll on five minutes’ notice.”
“Can I ask why Lyman picked you?”
“He said it was for my sunny disposition.”
“I can see he doesn’t know you.”
“And for my reputation for confidentiality.”
I knew that was true.
“And that reputation extends to me?”
Jack smiled. “Sorry, Wade, that’s confidential.”