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Authors: Jonathon King

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BOOK: Don't Lose Her
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Over a phone line or even out of sight on the other side of a wall, his speech was flawless. But when talking directly to another person's face, command of his voice and tongue eluded him, and his stutter was pronounced.

Though the odd handicap kept him from ever being a courtroom lawyer, it in no way stole from his brilliance in knowing the law and the inside workings of government and business. His dual degrees in law and business, from Temple University and Wharton, only honed an already exceptional mind. His connections were worldwide. His client list was long and distinguished, and he was as adept at legal counseling as he was at steering those clients toward wealth-building investments and opportunities.

Billy knew where the money was, both here and overseas. And he knew those who had it. Thus the list of friends and people who owed him was enormous, and powerful.

But I also knew what money could do. And the beauty of being a private investigator instead of a cop was the advantage of using it.

“Can you pull together every major federal cocaine bust made in the tri-county area over the last couple of years on that thing?” I asked.

Billy didn't look up, but cocked his ear, thinking, trying to guess my angle.


“Get me the addresses of those busts and names. If Escalante is involved with this, then the sellers he's been feeding product to might be the ones with ears.”

“I'll get you a printout,” Billy said, agreeing with my strategy without saying so. “And I'll get you some bribe money.”

“Twenty-dollar bills,” I said. “Thieves and dealers don't trust hundreds anymore.”

“Just tell me how many,” Billy said. “She's out there, Max, and I need her back.”

Chapter 7

K, shit-hits-the-fan time,” Rae whispered when they finally got there. She knew it was coming, knew it when Danny gave her the instructions­ and then when that asshole Geronimo looked her in the face and just pointed his finger. Danny had told her the woman was coming and all she had to do was watch her, keep an eye on her, don't let her do anything stupid or try to get away or scream or pound on the door or anything. Just watch her and don't say a word.

Say nothing—that's the one thing Danny really hit hard on. And that's what Alvin the Indian from fucking Keewaydin who everyone called Geronimo meant when he pointed his finger at her. Not a word. No voices. No words. No accents. No skin touching skin. Absolute silence until it was over.

Yeah, right, no skin touching skin, unless you meant Geronimo's braves shoving the woman through the door of this crappy little room onto the crappy little cot. So now she's here. Your job? Just watch her in silence.

Rae could tell in an instant that it was some rich bitch, even with a bag over her head. She could tell by the Ann Taylor suit and the hint of expensive perfume still seeping off her. Yeah, even a trailer-trash girl like her had been to the mall in Traverse City and had tended bar at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, where the big money wives dressed up and flaunted it, sitting at the bar and crossing their legs with that shush of expensive nylons and dress fabric that never gets worn from excessive use or the touch of an iron.

And just as quickly, Rae could tell the woman was pregnant from the way she swung with her bloated belly and protected it as she kinda bounced on the mattress when the braves shoved her, shielding her stomach above all and not giving a shit if her head hit the wall.

Goddamn Danny! I knew it. I just knew it.

My man Danny, gotta sure thing going again and what happens? Goes right into the crapper.

“This'll be a sweet gig, Rae. We take a free trip down to Florida, get outta this ass-freezing weather for a few weeks. We go down there and do this job for a few days and, hey, you're part of it, baby. You aren't just sitting around and waiting for me, you know, like you always complain about.”

Yeah, she did bitch about those times when he was jacking cars for other guys who didn't have the skills that Danny had or the moxie to get out in the daylight hours and slide a cod-buster under the door jamb and record the owner's key signature and then come back the next night and hotwire the thing. Sure, Danny was good, but all that meant was that she was standing around in the boring bar watching the Land Rover owner sip his martinis and making sure she gave Danny a call if the guy happened to get up to leave.

Waiting on you to have the fun, you with the skills and the contacts and the balls—yeah, she did get tired of that.

So he says this time is different.

“I got you in on the deal,” he says. “You're part of it, babe. They need someone like you and I told them you were perfect for it and they're paying us both, like, a shitload of money and then we just party awhile afterward, sit in the sun, go down to Margaritaville, you know?”

You never learn, Rae, you just don't learn, and now here you are, sitting in a fucking hot wooden room like a fucking jail cell with a woman with a bag over her head who has probably been kidnapped for some kinda ransom by a bunch of lunatics downstairs along with your man, Danny.

And the bitch is pregnant. The one goddamn thing you yourself have avoided like the plague all your life and held up like a badge of honor every time another one of your friends went and popped out another kid that put them further on the dole and deeper in the welfare ditch and you smiling and nodding at all their little, “Isn't she cute and such a little doll,” and telling them, “Congratulations,” when you really meant: “Dumbass. Whyn't you just jab another stick in your eye?”

Rae knew the usual outcome all too well because she was one of those babies. Apparently sired by a man she knew only as her mother's ex.

More babies—Jesus!

So now here you are with another pregnant woman. Another one in trouble but it's feeling more and more like you're in cahoots with what's putting her in trouble and fuck that. Fucking Danny. Gonna be so easy. Now the woman says she can see you through the hood and knows where you are. Bullshit. You can tell because when she says it her head isn't even turned in the right direction. She's trying to trick you like everybody else who thinks they're smarter than you.

How many dozen of them have you seen at the resort or over at the Indian casino: tourists walking in and lording it over the locals, the hicks, and the help. She's lying and you know she's lying. And then the bitch says she's a federal judge and holy hell is coming down and you really fucked up this time and goddamnit, Danny, maybe the woman ain't lying about that!

Chapter 8

he room stayed quiet, but there was noise outside the door: metal grinding on metal and the sound of hissing, like air pressure releasing but at a lower octave. Diane would hear a pop; then the low hissing would go on and on until she heard the clanging sound of something falling on a hard floor.

She could smell the odor of something burning. At first, she started to panic: Were they setting fire to the building? Would they burn the place down so that they didn't leave evidence? Would they simply burn her alive after such a bold kidnapping on a street corner? Burned alive: the thought made her quiver.

In her mind, she revisited one of her first cases as a prosecutor, a fire on an old sugar plantation out near Clewiston in which the manor house burned to the ground. There'd been only one victim, the wife of the prominent elderly owner, dead of smoke inhalation in her own bedroom.

Diane had been called to the scene because when firefighters arrived they'd found the bedroom door locked from the outside. When they'd battered their way in, they knocked back the flames but discovered the burned body of the woman on the floor just inside. The battalion chief had noted fingernail scratches on the inside enamel of the doorframe.

In subsequent interviews, Diane found that the woman had been suffering from Alzheimer's and that her husband, who had been in the company of a local brothel owner that very night, admitted that he locked his wife in for her own safety when he went on his regular sexual forays. His was a storied name in the history of the county, but Diane had gone after him with a negligent homicide charge and made it stick despite the politics. The sitting judge had sent him to Starke, where he'd died before his sentence was fully served.

Her father, by then an appellate court judge, had admonished her not for being strident in the face of political pressure, but for showing up at the scene. Leave it to the detectives, he'd told her. But Diane had always felt that many in law enforcement and the courts saw her as the pampered, rich-kid judge's daughter. She'd always been determined to stick her nose into it and check out the scene firsthand if she could. That one may have been a step too far.

Now, the recollection of the medical examiner carrying out the woman's charred remains made Diane shiver. Would the relatives of a dead plantation owner hold a grudge and try to burn her to death for her actions nearly ten years earlier?

Again, Diane calmed herself.
You don't kidnap a federal judge just to kill him or her—at least not right away,
she thought.
You've got to get something for your trouble, for your risk.
She was rationalizing, but she couldn't completely stifle the fear that knotted in her throat. She could still smell the odor of something hot, but it wasn't smoke, and it did not increase.

Something was happening on the first floor from where they'd taken her up the stairs, but still there were no voices. Not a distinguishable word was said. Not outside, nor in this room where she knew, just knew, someone was still sitting or standing nearby watching silently. It had been hours now, she was sure of it, even though she told herself over and over that her anxiety only made the time go slower.

It was hot, but somehow not humid. In a Florida summer, it would be intolerable in a place like this where the hot air and humidity would rise and make it a sauna. But it was March, supposedly the peak month for beautiful Florida weather. She had figured out how to puff out the fabric of the hood on her face to create a bit of a gap, a pocket in front of her nose and mouth so that she could breathe easier. But it was still a cloying, almost gasping affair when she let herself start to panic. She had to control it for herself and for her child.

“May I have some water?” she finally said, knowing her captor was there. “I'm very thirsty. The baby needs the hydration. You must know that, sir.”

Nothing but silence. She quieted again, straining to hear the breathing sounds she'd heard before. How big was this room? Had he moved far enough away to keep her from hearing him breathe?

“Please,” she said. Her throat was parched and tight from anxiety, and her plea came out as a grainy whisper: “Please.”

She heard the floorboards creak, once, twice, a third time—and then it stopped. She tilted her head up as if she could see the figure approaching even though the hood was opaque.

When she felt something against the bottom of her chin, her first reaction was to pull away, to buck at the touch. But no violence followed—only the damned silence. She took four breaths and then leaned forward again. After a beat, she felt pressure under her chin, followed by the feeling of something poking and then sliding up under the hood: not a finger but a straw. The sharp edge of a plastic straw rubbed at the bottom of her chin until she managed to maneuver it into her mouth and suck on it, bringing the liquid into her mouth. Coca-Cola, strong and syrupy, flowed.

She hadn't been a Coke drinker since her youth, but the coolness of it and the slight carbonation were like rushes of fresh air. She took in more of it, knowing that in the long run the sugar and caffeine would help keep her alert and partially energized. She leaned into it and tilted her head down, thinking she might use the lift of the straw against the fabric of the hood so that she could peek a glance at the floor or bed. But suddenly, she felt a push against her forehead as she was forced back. The straw was pulled harshly out and straight down. Again, Diane heard the floorboards; he'd stepped back.

She let the silence go on for three beats and then said: “Thank you. You are very kind.”

Chapter 9

aiting for something to happen is the most difficult part of organized law enforcement, and it was one reason I was glad to be out of it. The feds in Diane's office were ordering in more coffee. Billy was working his sources on the computer. Everyone in the room was waiting for one thing: the bleating of the phone and the call that would make some form of ransom demand for Diane's life.

With the exception of a few nutcases out there, criminality is a simple, logical outgrowth of human need: greed, retribution, sexual gratification, power.

The odds were stacked against the possibility that three maniacs would mistakenly sweep a sitting judge off the streets in the middle of the day. The fact that they were smart enough to ditch her phone and credit cards and cash meant they weren't run-of-the-mill idiots. They had another motivation, and the FBI glommed onto the answer that Diane's involvement in the Escalante case was that motive. I shared their supposition, but I couldn't just sit and wait for the next step to be dictated by the other side.

With Billy's approval, I left the courthouse and went to the main branch of American in downtown West Palm Beach.

Inside the lobby, I asked for Mr. Armistead as Billy had instructed and was quickly met by a man in his late fifties with the kind of combed-back gray hair that was gelled into minute, perfect rows leading from a high forehead to the perfectly clipped back of his neck. He had a weak chin, which he tried to hide with one of those macho mustache-and-beard combinations they call door-knockers.

Still, he was wearing an expensive suit and had a ring on his right hand that probably indicated the graduating class of some Ivy League university. But after adjusting my handshake to avoid the ring's bulk, I didn't give it another thought.

“Mr. Freeman,” Armistead said, and with a come-this-way gesture he led me to a corner office, which I quickly surmised was not his private one but an open affair any bank officer could use on the fly.

The art on the wall was a Florida watercolor of swaying palms and white-capped ocean and taupe beaches. There were no personal photos on the immaculate desktop, and Armistead did not even give the computer screen a look when he sat down.

“Mr. Manchester has given us his instructions. And if you will only sign for this, Mr. Freeman, and please show me some form of ID, we can take care of this as quickly as he has urged.”

A photo ID: the guy was giving me a hundred thousand dollars in cash on an ID and a signature. I always admired Billy's contacts. I didn't want to be him, but I did admire his connections.

I showed my Florida driver's license and signed. Mr. Armistead glanced at the ID. I was sure that he had already sized up the courier sitting before him: a tall, lean man whose specific age would be difficult to guess because of his athletic carriage and tanned and healthy complexion from extended periods of outdoor living. He might have been put off by my oxford shirt minus the tie, and my un-ironed khakis. And he may have noticed my scuffed leather boat shoes but probably hadn't yet detected that I wasn't wearing any socks.

It's a look I've cultivated because it makes people think: Cop? Boat captain? Salesman? Tourist? It's bland enough to cover a lot of bases and keeps me from sticking out. In my business, you don't want to stick out.

Giving a hundred grand in cash to a guy who looked like an upscale deckhand or an aging Applebee's waiter might not have been among Mr. Armistead's usual banking duties, but again, Billy's name smoothed all doubts. The man pulled a stuffed, softbound attaché case from under the desk and pushed it toward me as if it might be unlucky to hold on to it too long.

I didn't bother opening the case, and the banker's stone-faced look indicated that he certainly would not encourage it, even in the quasi-privacy of the office.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, and he only nodded.

I walked out of the bank with the attaché and went back to my car, which I'd parked deep in the corner of the lot in a Floridian's favorite spot—under the shade of an old banyan tree. Shade, even in March, is coveted by those of us who know better than to put anything in the corrosive direct rays of a subtropical sun. You could bake bread on the front seat of a sedan parked on asphalt without shade in a couple of hours.

After working an eight-hour shift in summer, it's every office worker's wonder that the polymer plastic making up radio knobs and door handles and gearshifts isn't melting and dripping onto the floor mats when they get to their cars.

I had also backed the Gran Fury into the spot up next to a ficus hedge to give me some cover when I popped the trunk and lay the attaché inside. I opened the case. I don't care who you are or how rich you've become, seeing that much cash in twenty-dollar bills will make you blink your eyes and catch your breath. I took out six thousand three-packs in purple bindings and closed the case. Then I took my keys and reached far into the back of the trunk.

After Billy had given me the Fury, I had a friend weld a steel drawer up above the space where a spare tire should go. You couldn't see it if you just opened the trunk and looked in; you needed to know it by feel. I unlocked the drawer, retrieved a bundle wrapped in oilcloth, replaced it with the case full of money, and relocked it.

I closed the trunk, surveyed the landscape for interested or furtive eyes, and then got into the driver's side. Once settled behind the wheel, I unwrapped the oilcloth to expose the sig sauer P226 Navy handgun I'd been given by Rob Maine, a Florida gun expert who'd become another new friend. He'd been aghast that I was still harboring my old 9-mm police-issue handgun. He knew I was living out on the edge of the Everglades, and said the moisture was going to turn the old 9 mm into a hunk of rust despite my regular care of the weapon.

“Use the SIG,” he said. “The SEALs do and it isn't completely waterproof, but it's phosphate-coated, and a hell of a lot better than that old thing you've got.”

I dropped in the fifteen-round magazine and checked the ammunition, thumbing the first two out, looking for rust. Maine had also “gifted” me a box of 9-mm rounds that he'd sealed around the primer area with a diluted mix of clear nail polish.

“Wouldn't want you to snap a wet load when some gator's got you by the balls out there.”

I worked the slide. Everything was clear.

I do not like guns. I don't like the trouble they can lead to, or the aftereffects they can leave behind. But I was going somewhere with a wad of cash in my pocket to meet a guy who knew some guys who knew everything there was to know about drug dealing in this area of South Florida, and that combination demanded backup I wasn't going to get. I slipped the gun under my seat and started the Fury.

Clarence Quarles—they called him CQ. And even though a cat can sometimes change some of his stripes, more often than not you're still going to find him near the same litter box he grew up in.

Clarence was a tall, skinny, chocolate-skinned athlete who had the gift of some combination of bone density and fast-twitch muscle that could catapult his six-foot-seven-inch frame to heights you could only gawk at. His splayed fingers seemed to do magical things on a leather-covered ball, making it move and spin and float in the air, giving it a radarlike attraction to an orange hoop just twice its circumference. He could run, inexhaustible, like a gazelle, and had a shooting range that made NBA scouts drool and defensive players cry.

I had met him through a friend, a teacher in fact, who had a seemingly mystical effect over Clarence that had led the kid from a despicable neighborhood on Tamarind Avenue in West Palm Beach to a prep high school in New England to a scholarship at Boston University. There was something in CQ that had kept him from signing a pro contract as an undergrad, had kept him in school studying economics, and had kept him coming back to this place on spring break to see his family and shoot hoops like he'd never left.

If you ever asked him why, he'd stretch out those impossibly long arms, turn his pale white palms to the sky, and quote Popeye the Sailor Man: “What? I yam what I yam.”

It made people shake their heads. It made people wonder. It made me smile. Billy knew and loved the kid and would be appalled that I would bring him into this mess. But I knew CQ had connections. And I was going to use any and all means to find Diane.

I parked the Fury in the street fronting the Dunbar Village housing project within eyeball distance of the basketball court. I knew CQ hung there—a mama's boy come back to the roost. His mother's home was thirty feet away from the rusted gate entrance to the court. From her porch, she had watched her boy from the time he learned to walk. And CQ knew she was watching: that fact may have saved him.

When I closed the door of the Fury, the noise caused a dozen sets of eyes from the court to look over, while another untold number that I couldn't see surely peeked out from gauzed curtains and dusty venetian blinds. A tall white man in an old-school police car didn't just pull up to this neighborhood without being noticed.

Knowing this, I headed directly to Mrs. Quarles's front porch instead of the court where I had already spotted Clarence sitting idle on a bench, surrounded by four or five other players. Before I reached his mama's front yard, her son got up, picked up a basketball with one hand as if he were snatching an errant cantaloupe from the ground, and started shooting free throws at the far basket.

As usual, Clarence's mother was sitting on her porch, a lap full of sewing in the folds of her day dress, her tapered and weathered fingers busy with close work.

“Good day, Mrs. Quarles.”

“Yessir, Mr. Freeman,” she answered, looking up at the sky. “I believe the Lord has done us right today.”

“How have you been, ma'am?”

She moved her gaze from the azure sky over to the courts where the players had gone back to more important things than assessing the stranger who'd put a wrinkle in their day.

“I got my boy home. And I rose for yet another day on this earth, Mr. Freeman,” she said and turned a smile on me. “So I'm on the plus side, sir.”

“Indeed you are, Mrs. Quarles,” I responded, taking my time, knowing the ritual. Since her son's tremendous athletic skills had turned him into a commodity in high school, no coach, no recruiter, no so-called adult fan, was allowed to address or approach him without the permission of his mother. If you broke that rule, you automatically lost access. That's how it was and it was upheld by CQ and thus by everyone else.

“That's some kind o' old-time vehicle you got there, Mr. Freeman,” the elderly woman said, again without looking at the subject of her sentence. “Reminds me of bad times.”

Her tone was conversational, carrying no other meaning than a simple statement. But the message was there.

“Yes, ma'am. She's an old classic. Billy gave it to me as a present.”

“Is that right? And how is Mr. Manchester? We don't see him as much as we would like to.” The mention of Billy improved her demeanor. A hint of a smile came to her face. “He still livin' on top of that big ol' palace down on the beach?”

“Yes, ma'am, he is. And although he is in good health, Mrs. Quarles, he is working very hard. In fact, I came by today to see if Clarence might be able to help Mr. Manchester with something.”

The elderly woman looked at me, studied my face in the way I was sure she had studied the eyes of every recruiter or coach or vice principal of a private school or any other man who came to her porch bearing propositions for her son.

“If it's for Mr. Manchester, I'm sure Clarence will want to help,” she said, now looking past me toward the court, indicating I was allowed to speak to her son. I took my foot off the first step and my elbow off her banister.

“ 'Cause I know Mr. Manchester would never put my boy in a bad situation,” she said. The inflection was a mix of question and command.

“No, ma'am,” I said before turning away. “He wouldn't.”

I slipped inside the fence of the basketball court and walked toward the far end. The players, all African Americans ranging from elementary school children to prematurely gray, yellow-eyed men, lowered their chins but raised their eyes, cutting looks at yet another white dude in search of CQ.

“Yo, Coach,” someone yelled from the deep corner of the court. “I gotta sweet jumper, too, like to light up yo' field house like a star.”

The comment elicited a number of guffaws from the other players.

“Hey, man. I take CQ a dozen times one-on-one. He ain't that good,” the young caller said.

More sneers from the others and then from a group on the bench: “Shut up, nigger. You can't take CQ's mama with that raggedy-­ass game a' yours.”

“Why don't you come out here, nigger, an' I sho' you what's raggedy-ass?”

I kept walking, though I felt a grin pulling at the side of my mouth. If a white man had used such a racial epithet on the playground, or anywhere else for that matter, words or fists would be flying. Here it was ritual. I did note that when the braggart commented that he'd beaten CQ in one-on-one games in the past, CQ himself had never turned from his concentration on his own basket. I saw him simply shake his head and shoot another free throw.

As I approached, I watched him bounce the ball twice, then position it delicately in the web of his elongated fingers. With a fluid motion like the slow whip of a willow tree limb in the wind, he shot the ball in a parabola that I knew was too high for a standard free throw. Yet the orb rose with an exaggerated backspin, pierced the hoop without touching any part of the rim, and because of the spin, struck the macadam and bounced back perfectly to CQ, who had not moved from his spot at the free-throw line.

I was three steps behind him, and he had not turned his head.

“That the way Pistol Pete Maravich did it, Mr. Freeman?” he said, still not turning, but again positioning the ball on the tips of his fingers and letting go another shot, exactly the same, with the same rotation and result.

BOOK: Don't Lose Her
5.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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