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The Color of Greed Prologue

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

The Color of Greed

Prologue

A forty-foot cruiser floated idly next to the dock at the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club, just north of Seal Beach on the Southern California coast. A recent storm in the Pacific had churned up enough sea to send choppy waves now and again into the bay. As the boat rocked up on a wave, the name Maid Marion flashed momentarily into view in the moonlight. The sound of two voices interspersed with giggles echoed from below deck.

A tan young man and a cute girl in shorts and a halter top were making out on the curved bed in the boat’s lower cabin. As he heated up, the young man made his move to climb on top of the girl. Realizing where things were headed, the girl straightened her arms between them and managed to break his grip momentarily.

“Darryl, are you sure no one will see us out here? What if someone comes along? I don’t feel safe on this boat.”

“Are you kidding? It’s just like a house on the water. We are completely alone, Sandy. Trust me.” Those two words were uttered countless times by a boy to a girl to invoke favor from the gods of love. Darryl’s hopes that they would work yet again soared when Sandy smiled, untied her top and dropped it onto the floor. The two resumed their fevered grappling until a loud thud echoed in the cabin followed by an unpleasant scraping sound. Darryl ignored the interruption twice and pressed on, but when it happened a third time, Sandy’s eyes bugged wide and her body stiffened.

Darryl knew then he would have to deal with whatever was making the horrible sound.

“What was that?” said Sandy, right on cue, reaching for her top.

“Wait here,” ordered Darryl, impatiently. He was halfway to the stairs. “I’ll be right back.” He thought it was probably a tourist who hadn’t secured his boat well enough. A couple of quick knots and he’d be back for business. Darryl climbed up to the deck and peered around. The thump repeated behind him. He turned and saw a forty-foot sports yacht scraping against the seaward side of the dock. It was an Azimut 40, high-end luxury and nicer than most, and there didn’t appear to be anyone on board. The edge of the hull screeched loudly as the boat pushed itself outward. Darryl hopped onto the dock and ran toward the boat that now drifted ten feet away.

“Hello? Anyone on board?” he shouted, listening in between for any sign of life. Nothing. When the boat drifted back toward the dock again, he leaped onto the rear deck. “Hello,” he said, once more. There was no sign of anyone. As he searched in the pale moonlight for a line to tie the boat, something bumped into the back of his ankle. He jumped and let out a girlish yelp. It was only an orange mooring buoy that had rolled across the deck. Darryl laughed at himself, shook his head and continued searching until he found the dock line. He tied the back end of the boat to a cleat on the dock, and then went below to look around.

Meanwhile Sandy managed to get her top back on and came up on deck just in time to see Darryl ducking into the interior of the derelict yacht. She pulled on her sneakers and hopped onto the dock and from there to the rear deck of the other boat. She noticed the yacht’s name Clarice painted in cursive on the back panel. Several gruesome scenes from the movie The Silence of the Lambs flashed into her head. Sandy shivered involuntarily and decided not to follow Darryl below deck. Feeling safer in the open air, she climbed up to the overhead flybridge. There was a sundeck behind a control panel full of dials. She noticed a rumpled piece of canvas along the railing. When she pulled one edge to move it out of her way, the canvas shifted and a man’s body rolled out and flopped on its back in the center of the deck. The face was bloody and had no eyes. Sandy screamed.

~~~

Next week I’ll post Chapter 1 of The Color of Greed.

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Chapter 1

Seagulls

The police showed up within minutes, despite the late hour. Even a call from a small yacht club like the Alamitos got fast service. Yachts meant wealth, and wealth meant there were bound to be important people demanding action through their most influential connections. By default, the case fell to robbery-homicide. Hearing the location, Detective Rafferty knew better than to bitch. Cases involving the wealthy rolled downhill—fast. He raced to the scene, hoping to get out in front of the media noise. Most of these calls were not crimes, and if they were, the parties involved usually wanted them swept under the rug as quickly and quietly as possible. Rafferty arrived at the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club at three thirty, wishing he had stopped for coffee. He hated cases like this. They reminded him how long he had until retirement, and how unlikely it was he would ever save enough to buy even the cheapest of the boats he saw docked there.

Detective Rafferty stopped and took in the whole scene. The local uniforms had detained the young couple who had found the body, and were getting their statements. The coroner’s office had sent Dr. Sharon Becker, their top pathologist, who was already examining the body. Rafferty liked her. She knew her business and didn’t try to get into his. One of the uniforms approached him.

“What are we looking at?” asked the detective.

“White male, thirty-two. ID we found says the vic’s name is Randall Hope. The boat is not registered at the local yacht club.”

“How did it get here?” demanded Rafferty.

“Working on it,” said another detective who had arrived at the scene.

“Those two found his body on his boat.” The officer pointed to the scared young couple sitting on the back of an emergency vehicle. The girl looked to be in shock.

Rafferty walked over to the kids who had found the body. “You two all right?” he asked, almost sounding like he really cared.

“I am,” said the boy. “Sandy is pretty shaken.”

The girl was in that state of shock where she looked like she was going to cry, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t be much help.

Rafferty talked to the boy. “So you’re Darryl Harmon?”

“Yep.”

“And this boat?”

“It’s my dad’s. He lets me use it sometimes.”

“I’m sure he does. You found the other boat drifting?”

“Yeah. It rammed the dock a few times. I went on board to tie it up. That’s when we found the body.”

“See anyone else?”

“No, sir. Just the dead guy.”

“And you don’t know him?”

“Never seen him or his boat. It’s a nice one, though.”

“I’m not so sure he would agree. Okay. Make sure we have your phone number and such. You can go. I’m done with these two,” he said to one of the uniforms standing by.

The other detective returned. “The boat—is it a boat or a ship? I can never remember.”

“Go on, go on,” urged Rafferty.

“Oh yeah. It’s registered to a Clarice Smith Hope—she is the vic’s wife. It’s registered at the Catalina Island Yacht Club. Very exclusive. He must have been out somewhere near the island, and then the Catalina Eddy must have pushed the yacht into the mainland.”

“Catalina Eddy? Sounds like a pirate name.”

“It’s a weather phenomenon that swirls around the Catalina Island area. Currents and wind can move a boat around.”

Rafferty turned to the uniformed policeman. “You get anything else?”

The uniform looked at his notes. “No sign of a struggle. The witnesses claim not to know him. And—”

“Yes?” said Rafferty, impatiently.

“His eyes.”

“What about them?”

“He doesn’t have any.”

Rafferty got interested for the first time. “Show me.”

The officer led him to the yacht that was now secured properly to the dock. Spotlights had been rigged up and Rafferty could see Dr. Becker working up on the flybridge.

“Hey, Doc. Hell of a night to be working. Anything interesting?”

“Always. Come on up, Tommy.” Rafferty loved when the doc called him Tommy. It had a ring of familiarity he longed for. One of these days he would return the gesture. Rafferty stepped carefully onto the yacht’s rear deck and climbed the stairs to the flybridge. Lying face up on the sundeck was a man with empty sockets for eyes.

“He wasn’t kidding,” said Rafferty, in the detached manner you might expect from a veteran homicide detective in LA. He had seen much worse.

“Who wasn’t kidding?”

“The kid downstairs. No eyes. What do we got? Some freaky ritual murder?”

“Not unless you want to start arresting the seagulls.”

“You’re telling me seagulls did that?”

“Here’s a gull feather and those are bird droppings,” she said holding up a white and grey feather and pointing to several splotches on the deck. “Gulls eat shellfish—clams and oysters—and scavenge. Probably took his eyes for a couple of oysters on the half shell.”

“Thanks a lot, Doc. I won’t eat oysters any time soon.”

“The point is, no ritual murder. No sign of murder at all. Of course, we’ll need a tox screen and full exam to be sure. But with the hemorrhage in his cheeks, if I had to guess I’d say heat stroke or heart attack.”

“You’re no fun today, Doc.”

“Got to call ’em like I see ’em.”

“Okay. Let me see if I understand this correctly. We have a stupid rich guy who stayed out in the sun too long, had a stroke and got blown over here by a wind called Eddy. That sounds like a wrap to me. Doc, let me know if anything turns up on the autopsy. Otherwise, I’m closing the book on this one.”

“Will do, Tommy,” said Dr. Becker. Rafferty liked the sound of that.

~~~

Chapter 2

The Widow

The phone ringing next to the bed had not woken Raja. He kept the volume down to a barely perceptible level. Nor had the woman’s distraught voice on his computer messaging system pulled him from sleep. Although the early sun was just peaking over the treeline and into the bedroom of his three-story home on the northern tip of Clearwater Beach, Raja Williams had been awake for almost an hour. He had an uncanny sense of trouble when it was coming. Much like the internal clock that tells nocturnal beasts to head for the safety of their homes long before daybreak, or an animal’s recognition that a storm is coming before there is any change in the weather, Raja had a sixth sense about trouble. He thought of it as his own internal version of stormwatch. However, in Raja’s case, he always headed right toward the storm. Although someone might say that made him dumber than the animals, Raja saw it as a point of responsibility. If he knew about something, he should do something about it.

And this morning he knew about something. The signs had been building inside him for nearly a day. That’s why he was awake and alert when the voice began.

“Mr. Williams, my name is Clarice Hope. I need your help.” The voice sounded sad and desperate, two things Raja could never resist, especially in a woman. He grabbed the phone.

“Hello. This is Raja Williams. Clarice Hope, did you say?”

“Yes. I’m calling you at the recommendation of a mutual friend, Mary Steinberg. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Raja could feel the agony choking her voice through the phone. He also knew by the throbbing at his temples that the storm brewing in his head the last couple days was going to be a category five hurricane. He put the call on speaker and jumped up, pushing his wavy chestnut hair back and pulling a pair of jeans over his satin boxers.

“Yes, I know Mary,” said Raja. Know her. She was Mary Steinberg, of the Connecticut Steinbergs, whose twin sons had been kidnapped for ransom in Mexico last year. He had saved them both and busted up a drug and kidnap ring working both sides of the southern U.S. border. But that was another case. “Sounds like you need help, Ms. Hope.”

“Please. Call me Clarice. And it’s Mrs. Hope … or it was.”

“Tell me what happened?” asked Raja. He could feel the relief wash over Clarice at the prospect of a sympathetic ear.

Clarice Hope poured out the recent events ending with, “My husband has been murdered.”

“I’m sorry,” said Raja. There was not much worse than an unexpected widow, especially if she loved her husband. Mrs. Hope obviously had.

“The problem is, the police have closed the case and ruled it natural causes, or, at worst, an accident. My husband was thirty-two years old and experienced at handling a boat on the ocean. I know it was murder. And I know why. At least partly. But, I can’t talk on the phone. I am prepared to pay you well if you will come out to Los Angeles and help me get justice. I’m a very wealthy woman, Mr. Williams. Money is no object.”

“You’re right about that,” said Raja. He didn’t accept pay for his services. He did let clients cover the job expenses as a matter of exchange, and he did, on occasion, request a favor of a former client, no questions asked, which they always willingly did. He called it his pay it forward program. Raja looked at his watch. It was ten in the morning on the West Coast.

The woman continued, “Mary assured me of two things. You are the best at what you do. And, I can trust you. Right now, I need someone I can trust.”

“I can be there by five o’clock. I’ll be flying into Long Beach Airport. Meet me in the Legends of Aviation Restaurant at five thirty. You can buy me dinner.”

“Thank you.”

“I haven’t done anything yet. Hold your thanks until I’m done.” Raja always solved his cases, but solution is in the eye of the beholder. There was one thing he had learned as a private investigator. You can promise a client results, but not that the results will be what the client wants. Some clients are unhappy with the truth.

“Okay.”

“I’ll see you at five thirty.” Raja ended the call. He had a bad feeling about this case. Clarice’s husband would not be the only one to die. Nevertheless, he called Mickey, his pilot, at the airport to set his flight plan to LA.

On the way to the Clearwater Airpark where he kept his private jet, Raja called the one person he needed to. Raja didn’t have many close friends, either personal or professional. It kept life a lot simpler. Vinny was the exception on both counts.

“Now what?” asked the familiar voice, feigning irritation.

“I’m flying to LA to check out a case.”

“Already?”

“Gotta go where the wind takes me, Vinny.”

“I don’t suppose you would take my bet that there is a female behind this particular wind,” said Vinny. “I’ll give you great odds.”

“You know I’ve never been a gambling man. You want to ride along?”

“I’m just beginning to unwind from our last case. Do you need me now?”

Raja knew Vinny would go if he asked. “No. But, maybe later. I’ll keep you in the loop. What are you doing to unwind?”

“You know the old saying, a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”

“That begs the obvious question.”

“Nonetheless, my lips are sealed.”

“Okay, well, have fun, whatever you are doing. I’ll call you if I need you.”

“Later.” Vinny and Raja were the kind of friends who didn’t have to sweat the small details.

After the jet did a rough slingshot takeoff, necessary due to the short runway length, the flight to LA was smooth with Mickey piloting Raja’s custom Hawker 1000. The plane had been retooled for short takeoff and landing and for increased range. The jet was fast as lightning and, with Mickey flying it, could drop on a dime. Raja had run across Mickey O’Toole flying guns in to rebels in the Congo, and assumed he was a gun dealer at the time. When he found out Mickey only flew small quantities of weapons into the country as a front for bringing in the desperately needed medical supplies that were otherwise being blocked by both sides in the civil war, he hired Mickey as his pilot.

Mickey had a sweet deal, and he knew it. All he had to do was take care of any upkeep on the multimillion dollar jet and he could use it for his own rent-a-jet business in between flying Raja around. The jet touched down in Long Beach at five o’clock West Coast Time.

“Don’t suppose you want to stick around for a few days?” asked Raja.

“I do have an Atlanta charter scheduled for Sunday that I’d like to make, if that’s okay with you,” said Mickey.

“Sure, go ahead. I have a feeling I am going to be here for a while. How long is the charter trip?”

“A week. It’s a honeymoon in the Bahamas.”

“Okay. Better add a case of Dom on me.”

“That’s a lot of champagne.”

“You only get married once, right?”

“We can always hope,” said Mickey.

“Call me when you’re back in Clearwater.”

“You got it, boss.”

Knowing Mickey, he would probably wolf down some food while the plane refueled and head right back to the East Coast. Raja checked his watch, noting he was just in time to meet Clarice Hope as planned. He headed to the Legends restaurant. It was a nice little place that had been newly renovated in an Art Deco style, with murals of classic planes from the early days of aviation. Nothing fancy, but they served a decent meal and the casual, relaxed atmosphere would help him get to know his new client. When he entered, he saw a woman sitting at a table. Raja knew Clarice was in her fifties, but she didn’t look it, at all. She was well-preserved with attractive curves. Modern science could do wonders these days.

The woman looked around nervously, like she felt out of place.

“Mrs. Hope?” asked Raja as he approached. “Clarice?”

“Yes, yes,” she said, looking relieved. “I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“I said I would,” said Raja bluntly.

“Of course. Don’t take offense. I mean nothing by it. It’s just that, well, I have not had much luck getting any cooperation lately—especially from the police.” Clarice shook off her troubles for a moment, and looked Raja over. “You are much better looking than Mary let on.”

Despite her recent loss, Clarice had not lost her eye for younger men. Raja had done his homework. Thirty years back Clarice had been a finalist in the Miss Universe contest, where she had caught her first husband’s lecherous eye. He was thirty years her senior and not much to look at, but he more than balanced the marriage equation as the sole heir to the Crayola crayon fortune. You might not think there was much money in wax crayons, but millions of kids happily scribbling in their coloring books had made her first husband’s family uber-wealthy. Clarice had been faithful arm candy for him for fifteen years until he died. Then the bulk of his estate fell into her lap. Turnabout is fair play, so when she passed forty, Clarice began a habit of dating young virile men, mostly athletes or actors.

It wasn’t Raja’s nature to judge. He said only, “Thank you,” and sat down across from Clarice. He looked at her expectantly.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been so out of sorts since Randy died.”

“I understand. Tell me why you think he was murdered.” Raja had an unusual manner that combined empathy with a sometimes withering bluntness. While he had a knack for putting people at ease, he had little of the social veneer most people used automatically to grease their relationships. And, he had no tolerance for small talk of any kind. It was something he had learned from his Jamaican grandmother. When he was a young boy, she would listen to him babble and then say, “Sonny, if you have nothing important to say, your lips should not be moving.” As an investigator, he had learned that much of what people say does more to confuse the facts than clarify them. So his curt manner could sometimes rub someone the wrong way, as well. The maddening part was that he didn’t seem to care which one he did.

The pleasant smile dropped from Clarice’s face. “I know he was murdered,” she asserted. “As I told you on the phone, he was healthy as a horse. And his seamanship was practiced—more than I preferred.” A pained, sad look gripped her face for a moment and her face turned red. “He usually didn’t go boating alone. I doubt he went out alone that day.”

“What was her name?”

“I didn’t begrudge his party friends, but I didn’t want to know them. You understand?”

Raja understood he hadn’t gotten an answer. “Do you have a name?”

“No.” Clarice turned a darker shade of red. Her dalliances with younger men had been the acts of an aging woman craving validation, devoid of the emotional connection Clarice actually needed. That is, until she met Randall Hope, a tennis player twenty years her junior, whose kindness had captured her heart.

Seeing she cared enough to have motive, Raja had to ask her the obvious. “Clarice, did you kill your husband?”

“No, of course not,” she said without any lag. “I may be a middle-aged woman, but I’m not a fool. It wasn’t like that. We understood each other. I loved Randy and he loved me.”

Raja was satisfied she was sincere. “Okay. The murder?”

“Randy found out something—something about some important people.”

“What people?”

“I’m not sure, but it had to do with business and politics. He said it could ruin a lot of people, and he even mentioned the governor.”

“Governor Black?”

“Yes.”

“Some personal scandal?”

“I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me what it was, but I know he was scared. He said he was going to talk to someone he thought could help. And to think I donated to Governor Black’s campaign.”

“That’s pretty vague, but it does present a possible motive.” Raja did not sound convinced.

“That’s not all. When I contacted the coroner’s office to request that they take another look at the circumstances of his death, I found out his body had already been released to a funeral home. And he was immediately cremated.”

“Did he want to be cremated?”

“Yes, but that’s beside the point. He had only told me his wishes. We had talked about documenting his intent in a will, but we never did. Just the idea of making a will creeped him out so badly, we dropped the whole thing. No one else would likely have known, and certainly no one should have authorized the cremation.”

“Now we have a fact that doesn’t fit. I think you are right, Clarice. Randy was murdered. I am going to help you find out how and why.”

Clarice exhaled forcefully. A hint of anger flashed in her sad eyes. “Good. I want someone to answer for what they have done.”

Raja waved the waiter over to their table. “Let’s order some food and we’ll make a plan. I’m famished.” Raja was pleased to be on another case.

The two ordered dinner and a bottle of wine. Raja sent a text while they waited for their food. While Clarice sipped a glass of white Bordeaux, Raja studied her closely. She was actually a decent sort of person, more innocent than her sophistication would have you believe. Despite her bluster, she had no idea the size of the hill they were about to charge up. Raja only hoped he could keep her out of the line of fire he knew was coming.

They ate in silence. Afterward while they sipped coffee, Raja said, “I’m going to need some time to dig around. Is there someplace you can go—someplace outside the city?”

“Do you think I’m in danger?”

“Probably not, since you are still alive. But, I do want to keep you safe. Whoever killed your husband may not know how much he knew or what he told you.”

“Ironically, I was invited to go to the governor’s private party on Friday night, but I certainly don’t want to go now. I do have a horse ranch near Santa Barbara. I could head up there if you think that would be prudent.”

Raja sent another quick text message on his phone. “Let’s call that Plan B until I find out a little more. For now, I want you close by. A hotel here in Long Beach, perhaps?”

“Okay. I’ll be at the Marriott. Let me know what you find out.”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

~~~

Chapter 3

The Party

After meeting with the widow, Raja checked into a small no-name motel near the airport. Then he called home to Florida.

“Okay, Vinny, what do we have?”

“You act like I’ve got nothing better to do than work on your cases. Did it ever occur to you that I might be otherwise engaged?” Raja knew that Vinny could not stay away from a case any more than he could, but he played along.

“Yes, of course,” he said, changing his tone. “If I am not interrupting your personal life, could I ask a couple of questions?”

Vinny ignored the attitude, and said, “Lucky for you, I am presently free. I did a search on the governor’s party and on Governor Black in general. The governor is pretty well connected. He got elected primarily on the promise to bring corporate business back into the California economy. I’m still looking for any direct connections to Clarice or her husband. As for the party, it is a very private affair, not the PR ball type of event, set to be held on a private estate in the hills above Los Angeles.”

“Whose estate?”

“Don’t even know that yet. The host running the party is Veronica Jansen, but she doesn’t own the place. Just a hired gun. There is no rental contract on file anywhere. The property was once owned by a dead actor named Bob Hope, but it is currently held by a corporation registered in the Caymans. Looks to be a shell company. I’m still tracing the money that bought the place, but it’s buried. Even the invitations to the party were printed as blanks and all hand inscribed by a trusted aide. So far, no records of who’s attending, but I’m still looking. There is a tight lid on this one, Raj.”

“The tighter the lid, the bigger the secrets.”

“Then there must be ginormous secrets connected to this party. You best be careful.” Vinny had a habit of picking up on every new slang word or phrase that came along in the computer culture.

Although the hipster lingo offended Raja’s Oxford sensibilities, it was a small price to pay for Vinny’s skills. “Not to worry,” he said. “I’ve got the best hacker in this hemisphere looking over my shoulder.”

That was no exaggeration. After a short criminal career hacking into banks, Vinny had “volunteered” to work for the NSA in exchange for immunity from prosecution. When she saw firsthand how intrusive the government had become, Vinny’s NSA career ended abruptly after the names of several criminal operatives who were on the government payroll, among other sensitive information, were accidentally dumped onto the Internet. Although there were questions about her patriotism and the usual threats, there was never any question about Vinny’s mad skills with a computer. The NSA feared what else might get exposed, and quietly released Vinny from their service.

“Best in this hemisphere, you say? I should be offended,” said Vinny.

“You are the one who told me Wu Tsing in Hong Kong was the best.”

“True dat. He is. Okay, you are forgiven. You’ll find some new hardware in your bag that we will need to break out for the party. There are micro-cameras that will snap on your lapels inconspicuously. You can use a hand controller in your pocket to take pictures. The cameras are wide angle and self-focusing. Pretty much aim and shoot—just stand still when you do.”

“I thought you would simply tap into the security cameras,” said Raja.

“Word is they will be offline for the party. I doubt I’ll be able to activate them remotely. They are keeping this hush hush. What’s up with that?”

“There are always high profile events for the supposed big donors that get all the fanfare and media. This party is for unique supporters who aren’t on the donor rolls. Individuals who don’t want media attention or in some cases, people who can’t afford to have anyone looking too closely at where their money is coming from or what it is used for. They are known simply as ‘friends.’”

“Friends with secrets. Sounds like we are fishing in the right pond,” said Vinny.

Later Raja called Clarice. The one thing he wasn’t going to be able to do inconspicuously was get into the party without an invitation. He would need some help.

“Clarice, it’s Raja.”

“Yes, have you solved the case?”

“I appreciate the confidence, Clarice, but no, not yet. And, I’m sorry to say, I’m going to need more of your help. I’m reluctant to ask. It involves the governor.”

“Ask away. I’ve never been intimidated by politicians or businessmen, though both tried after my first husband died. No reason to start now. What do you need?”

“I need you to take me to the governor’s party on Friday night.”

“So you do think he’s involved?”

“At this point, I have no reason to think so. But it is a good place to start.”

“I want to help. Count me in.”

“Great. I’ve got some preparations to make first. I will meet you there at eight sharp. Can I count on you to get there on your own?”

“I’ll get there all right. I’ve got my Bentley. But, I can’t promise to behave. I am grieving, you know.”

“We’ll deal with that at the party. Eight sharp.”

“Eight it is.”

Raja arrived at the estate by seven, giving him a chance to check the place out. It was a large isolated hilltop property. An expansive three-story mansion covered the top, providing magnificent views all around. On one side were more hills and the mountains beyond. The other side looked down on the city.

A silver Bentley pulled up in front just before eight. Clarice Hope climbed out, dressed in a one-of-a-kind blue evening dress that tastefully accented her curvaceous figure. Raja greeted her at the entrance. “How are we doing?” he asked.

“I don’t know how we are doing, but I plan on getting drunk. Let’s do this.” Clarice took his arm.

Raja knew how tough this would be on Clarice. She hid it well, but he could tell she was hurting. He put his hand on top of hers and they entered the party.

Just inside the door, a tough-looking man in a tux that tried but failed to hide his muscles took Clarice’s invitation. He wore a Bluetooth headset on his ear. After looking the two of them over, he nodded his approval. Raja was in.

The interior was spacious, with twenty-foot ceilings and an area the size of a full basketball court where the party was centered. In the middle of that room was a ten-foot ice sculpture likeness of the governor of California, Robert Black. Archways all around opened onto more large rooms, which opened onto outdoor patios. The place was a palace.

“Clarice, why don’t you go powder your nose while I do a little recon. I’ll meet you by the governor’s monument in fifteen minutes,” said Raja, pointing to the ice sculpture.

“I’m taking shots of all the patrons,” said Raja, into his micro earbud headset. Both his lapels had the wide-angle cameras that Vinny had rigged up.

“I need clear images, so remember to stand still.”

“I am a professional, I’ll have you know.”

“And let’s skip the booty shots. As lovely as they are, I need faces for ID.”

“Okay, okay, Vinny. I better mingle.”

An attractive forty-something woman was smiling and heading toward Raja. “I don’t remember seeing you at any of the governor’s parties before,” said the well-dressed woman covered with expensive jewelry. “And I would have noticed you.”

“Thank you. I’m sure I would have noticed you, as well,” said Raja, but with an entirely different meaning in mind. He remembered it was a party and adjusted his charm setting. “I’m sorry to say I’m here with someone else.”

“Loyal, too. How rare. You must call me,” she said, slipping her business card into his hand before walking off.

Raja looked at the card. The name Miranda Cummings was scripted on the front in gold and it had only a phone number on the back. Raja thought she probably had them printed in bulk. “There you go,” he said. “I got her card. No picture needed.”

“Just try to keep on task,” said Vinny into Raja’s ear.

“Can’t a fellow have fun doing his job?”

“Not if I’m going to get the pictures I need to identify everyone. Fuzzy pictures take ten times longer for my face recognition software.”

“I can’t believe you couldn’t just hack the guest list.”

“Are you kidding—the actual names of the governor’s real key campaign donors? That list is guarded like Fort Knox. Never put online—at least I haven’t found it—and you know I would. I bet you won’t see any photographers there tonight either.”

“No doubt. Quiet now, I’ve got company.”

Two young ladies approached Raja. After a short exchange Raja saw the widow Clarice heading back his way.

“There’s my date now,” he said urgently. The two twenty-something girls who had just offered to take Raja home with them walked away disappointed.

“You are a popular fellow tonight,” said Clarice. “I can certainly see why. You look sharp in that tux,” said the widow, fingering his lapel, flirting and bringing her augmented breasts close to Raja.

“Oh, brother,” said the voice in his ear with disdain.

“Is the woman your husband was seeing here at the party?” asked Raja. That cooled Clarice momentarily and she scanned the room.

She stopped and stared in one direction for a long moment. “Over there. Ramona Griggsby.” The words sounded more like something rotten than a person’s name. “Her husband is a federal judge.” Across the room a tall brunette, no more than thirty, with a curvaceous yet athletic build was holding the arm of a man who was twice her age and six inches shorter. It was the judge, no doubt. Raja snapped a couple photos.

“We should talk to her,” said the widow, tugging on Raja’s arm. “I have a few choice words for her.”

“Easy, Clarice. We aren’t going to do anything. And especially not here. I told you, I only brought you along so I could get into this shindig.” Raja took her hands in his and looked into her eyes. “Look. I understand your hostility, but you need to let me do my job.”

Tears welled in Clarice’s eyes. It was clear that, despite the age difference and her husband’s indiscretions, she had loved him and suffered greatly his loss.

“Do you like scotch?” Raja asked, mostly as a distraction.

“Cognac suits me better.”

“Waiter. A glass of your best cognac, please. And a scotch—single malt—neat.”

While they waited for their drinks, one of the governor’s aides came over to officially extend condolences to Clarice.

“Mrs. Hope, I am Stanley Bryce, senior aide to Governor Black. The governor was so sorry to hear about your husband’s unfortunate accident. We didn’t know if you would be up to coming tonight.”

Clarice wanted to scream at the man, but Raja squeezed her arm firmly. Instead, she nodded mutely.

“The governor would like to give you his condolences himself as soon as he gets freed up. You know how these parties go. Lots of hands to shake.” Bryce gestured as if to take Clarice’s hand but she pulled back instinctively.

“I’ll see that she stays at the party long enough to see the governor,” interjected Raja.

Bryce looked right at Raja with a veiled flash of hostility, but said nothing. “Again, you have my condolences, Mrs. Hope,” he said, dripping sympathy. “I’ll make sure the governor finds you.”

Once Bryce was out of earshot Raja spoke. “You did well, Clarice. I know that was tough. What an ass.” Raja already did not like Bryce but he said it mostly for Clarice. He needed her to keep it together. “Why don’t you go out on the balcony and get some air. You have helped me enough already.”

Clarice raised an eyebrow suspiciously, but took his suggestion nonetheless. Happy to put some distance between herself and the people she thought responsible for her husband’s death, she headed outside.

“Vinny?” asked Raja, as soon as she left.

“Right here, boss. Stanley Bryce. I’m already on it.”

Raja could hear the rapid-fire clicks as Vinny’s fingers danced on the computer keyboard.

“Bryce is a career political operative who has worked on several campaigns. He latched onto the governor when he first ran for congress in California and has been with him ever since. He does PR, mostly black PR against any of the governor’s enemies, and he’s good at it. If the governor is involved in something shady, Bryce knows where and when and how much.”

“Could he—” started Raja.

“Kill? I don’t know,” finished Vinny. Raja loved the way Vinny tracked with him. Their connection made investigations so much easier.

“All right, let’s check his communication lines and see what shakes out.”

“Okay. How’s your date?”

“Clarice? She is having a rough time, but she’s a trooper. I don’t think she is involved in her husband’s death.”

“I concur,” said Vinny. “I checked her out going back two years, and found no sign of a covert money trail going to or from Clarice. But, boy, that woman can spend money.”

“That is what it’s for.”

“Easy for you to say. You have money.”

“Having money is an attitude, not a number.”

“So says the millionaire. You can’t win this argument, Raj,” said Vinny, “so you better get back to work and get me more pictures. And try not to get too distracted by your groupies.”

Raja scanned the room and sure enough, a group of young women on the far side were eyeballing him. One of them waved when he looked in their direction. He ignored her, snapped a picture and turned the other way. A pair of middle-aged women who were watching him looked even more dangerous than the young ones. Raja headed to the bar. “Didn’t you say you couldn’t hack the security system?” asked Raja.

“That’s right,” said Vinny.

“Then how did you know?”

“Raj, you are in a room full of rich old suits and the ladies, young and old, pursuing them. Could it be any other way?”

Raja laughed at the picture Vinny painted. It wasn’t far off. Raja Williams considered himself a Caribbean Creole. It was a vague, broad category, and like many from the Caribbean islands, his racial ethnicity had been lost in the crossroads of culture that the West Indies had been for many centuries. His ancestors had fought successfully to throw off the shackles of the colonial Spanish caste system that had discriminated against many groups. Although he could trace his ancestry to native Taino Amerindians, French, Spanish and West African sources, what percentage of each he had no clue. Raja was almond-skinned with steel-blue eyes, high cheekbones, moderately fine features and heavily-waved chestnut hair. It was an exotic look that was catnip for the ladies.

Raja sipped a decent scotch near the bar while taking pictures of all the guests who passed by. A few foreign nationals stood out in the crowd, but most of the guests were ordinary-looking American men who would have been obscure without the bejeweled women and heavily muscled men that followed them around the room. Realizing he hadn’t seen Clarice for some time, Raja made his way to the patio outside to check on her. He found her sitting alone with three empty shot glasses on the table in front of her, not a good sign.

“Penny for your thoughts?” he asked gently, sitting down beside her.

“You don’t want to buy these thoughts. That bastard.”

“Who?”

“I had a visit from the governor. Told me how fond he was of Randy … blah, blah, blah. I had to pinch myself to keep from screaming.” She showed Raja the blood on her palm where she had dug her fingernails.

“You know, Clarice, we don’t yet know if the governor was involved.”

“I know what I know. I don’t trust that bastard.” Clarice was drunk. Raja knew better than to argue.

“It is time to get you a ride home.”

“I drove here, damn it.”

“Yes, you did. But you’re not driving home.” Raja waved for a waiter and arranged for a ride. “I have more to do. Go with…” He paused and looked at the waiter.

“Max.”

“Go with Max. He’ll take care of you. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Not too early,” said Clarice, taking the waiter’s hand. The waiter led her to the coatroom to get her wrap.

Raja returned his attention to the other guests. “Am I going to run out of film in these cameras?” he asked into his headset.

“They are digital, and they automatically upload to my computer and then clear for more pictures. You can’t run out,” said Vinny.

“How about the batteries?”

“Are you looking for an excuse to leave, Raj?”

“You got one?”

“Have you taken a shot of everyone at the party?”

“Everyone but the caterers and the valets.”

“Sounds good, but what about your little girlfriends?”

Raja noticed the two twenty-somethings who were shadowing him around the party. “Perfect. I knew you’d come up with a reason for me to leave. I’m out of here.” Raja headed to the oversized double front door that stood open. Clarice was gone, already on her way home in a limousine. Once outside, Raja handed his ticket to the valet and waited, taking in the view. The clear moonlit night over Los Angeles showcased thousands of glistening lights that covered the city like Christmas decorations. The vista had an almost fairy-tale quality. LA was a wicked temptress who could steal your soul and make you forget who you were. It was one reason Raja never stayed there too long.

~~~

Chapter 4

Leonardo

The smooth rev of a familiar engine brought him back to where he stood. The valet braked hard in front of Raja, enjoying the opportunity to drive the classic car. Raja smiled. He drove many hot cars, but the customized 1966 Alfa Romeo Duetto was one of his favorites.

“Nice car, sir,” said the valet.

“Thanks,” said Raja, never taking his eyes off the car. The red Duetto glistened in the spotlights, purring like a cat. Raja climbed behind the wheel.

The round headlights swept left and right as the low-slung red sports car wound along Mulholland Drive high over the city. With the top down, the wind blew the driver’s wavy hair straight back, and the pale moon highlighted his high cheekbones and strong jaw. The narrow mountain road was as dark as it was treacherous, with sudden hairpin turns and steep embankments that dropped off into thin air. Raja loved it. The Alfa Romeo hugged the asphalt like a slot car as it slalomed along the winding road. Halfway down the mountain Raja tried to brake going into a sharp turn and felt the brake pedal sink uselessly to the floor of the tiny sports car. Only his cat-like reflexes and a quick downshift kept the car from sliding over the edge as it careened painfully around the curve in the road. The emergency brake proved just as useless as the car hurtled downward faster and faster. Twice he scraped the car into the left side embankment slowing it down enough to screech around another hairpin curve. The next turn would be the worst, where the narrow edge dropped one hundred feet below the road at the spot the locals called Deadman’s Bluff. Raja knew he would never make the turn at sixty miles per hour. He steered into the turn and then spun the leather wheel the other way, turning the car sideways to its forward momentum. For a brief millisecond the car paused as the tires dug into the road. In that instant Raja opened the driver’s door and threw his body out. Then the tires bit hard and the car flipped sideways, tumbling and bouncing several times before disappearing over the edge. Raja slid along the dirt and came to a stop just as a loud explosion echoed off the canyon walls below. Dusting himself off, he walked to the edge and stared down at the burning wreckage. Someone was threatened by his presence in LA. Whoever it was they were desperate enough to try to kill him, and stupid enough to piss him off by destroying his beloved 1966 Duetto Spider.

Raja brushed his hair back and pulled out his cell phone. First he called Clarice Hope to make sure she was okay but got no answer. Next, he punched the number two on his speed dial. After the calliope of rapid beeps, the phone rang once and he heard Vinny’s familiar voice on the other end.

“You missed me, didn’t you?”

“You might say that. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I should be worried about you. I was sure you were going to leave with those two young heat-seeking missiles.”

“You know me better than that.”

“True dat. Let me guess. Right now you are sipping expensive scotch in a too-cool West Hollywood bar.”

“Wish I were. I’m standing up on Mulholland Drive. And Leonardo is gone.”

“What do you mean? Stolen?”

“No, gone—as in gone up in flames.”

“O-M-G.”

“Your data was right. We are on to something—something big. Someone just tried to kill me. Must have cut the brake lines.”

“Hot damn! That’s great!”

“Great? It’s a good thing you are still in Florida.”

“You know what I mean. By the way, are you all right?”

“Thanks for asking. Yeah. Nothing a couple fingers of The Macallan won’t fix. But I’m going to need your help here, Vinny. Seems I poked a particularly nasty hornets’ nest.”

“Your wish is my command. When do you want me there?”

Raja could always count on Vinny in the clutch. “Next flight you can get. Call me when you are an hour from landing.” He closed his cell phone and watched as the fire below began to die out. The sirens of the fire trucks were already getting louder. He decided to be gone before they arrived. There was no point wasting time with questions he already knew the answers to, and being assumed dead would buy him time to regroup. He looked for a spot where he could work his way down on foot, and disappeared into the darkness.

Raja had gotten into the party on the widow’s invite and only done observation on the scene. Granted, as an independent private investigator he had some celebrity of his own due to a number of high profile cases he had previously handled, but the fact that someone was on to him fast enough to rig his car at the party meant the stakes were high. It also meant that the widow was being closely monitored. As he made his way down the hill, he called Clarice again to check on her. No answer—straight to voice mail. Damn. Raja called a cab to pick him up when he reached the road below. By the time he stepped out of the bushes onto Wrightwood Drive near the bottom of the Santa Monica Mountains, a yellow cab was there waiting a hundred yards ahead. Raja waved and the backup lights flashed on.

The cab eased back to where Raja stood and the driver peered cautiously out a partially open window. “I don’t get too many calls like this,” said the cabby, noticing Raja’s dusty and torn tux. “You said you had a breakdown. Where’s your car?”

Raja pointed behind him into the thick brush of the canyon. A faint orange glow flickered from the spot where the car had crashed.

“Some breakdown. You’re lucky you’re still breathing.”

“No kidding.”

“You want to go to the hospital?” asked the cabby, unlocking his doors.

“Nope. Sunset Boulevard will do,” said Raja as he climbed into the back seat.

The cab stopped in front of a cheap Hollywood motel where Raja checked in under a different name. Then he walked to a bar on Sunset Boulevard where he sat in the shadows nursing a glass of cheap scotch and reviewed the case. He had crashed an exclusive party held for the California governor. The affair had been held at some unknown muckity-muck contributor’s house, undoubtedly as payback for millions donated overtly to the governor’s election fund, or covertly to a slush fund the governor controlled. Ain’t politics grand. Raja had come at the request of a recently widowed heiress who claimed that her husband, a man twenty years her junior, had been murdered, not for sleeping around, which she admitted he did, but for something more serious he had supposedly stumbled upon.

Raja was never shy about crashing directly into a case. More often than not, his “bull in the china shop” approach would shake enough information loose for him to resolve cases quickly. Sometimes that approach created dangerous blow back, but that came with the job.

However, Raja also knew when he needed to collect more data before proceeding. This was one of those cases. He called them icebergs—lots more there than was easily seen. You better do your homework or you could end up like the Titanic.

Back at the governor’s party in the hills, a man whispered something into Stanley Bryce’s ear that brought a sly smile to his face.

~~~

Check back next week for Chapter 5.

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