by D. G. Speirs
Copyright (c) 2017
The drive up Pacific Coast Highway was pleasant enough. Traffic wasn’t too bad, no one had done anything stupid to gum up the works. A pretty spring morning, the fog burning off early enough under a warm sun. Not quite postcard weather, but close.
I had the top down on my Audi A6 convertible as I cruised through the traffic lights by Huntington Beach Pier, passing surfers already finished with their morning rides. Lucky stiffs, I thought. I watched as a pair of young ladies crossed at the light in front of me in bikinis that stretched the imagination and at least four laws of physics. Very lucky stiffs.
“Ogling without a license again, Louis?”
I groaned inside. Veronica had remotely activated a video call on my car’s dashboard. I like Vee, she runs things like a well-timed engine at the shop. But she tends to be a bit judgmental, such as disapproval of my perusing anything in a skirt when I’m on the clock. Make that everything in a skirt. Vee is inclined toward the idea of all business, all the time.
I glanced at her image on the dashboard. “Why, no, dear to my heart. You know I only have eyes for you.”
“Uh-huh. Keep them on the road instead, sweet talker. And why aren’t you in here, anyway? You’re late.”
I sighed. Only Vee could think of 7 a.m. in the OC as late. This was prime time for waves. Or pancakes. I waggled a finger at the camera pickup. “Not late, chica. Morning’s all mine. Boss gave it to me after we finished the job last night.”
“Finished what job?” Vee frowned. “I don’t see any—”
“The Vaspron case. Closed it last night.”
She rustled through folders on her desk, pulled out one and opened it. “The Jimmy Choo prototypes? But we only got that a day—”
“And a half ago. All done.”
“He found them?”
“You even have to ask that question? Cute, too, peep toes with a copper and salmon wedge. You know, with your legs, I think you could actually pull them off— “
“Louis, a little less Project Runway, please. What happened?”
“Camille Vaspron was set up, but it wasn’t who she or her insurance company thought. Stephanie Rockwell, wife of the CFO. And before you ask, no, per usual I am without a clue as to how the Boss figured that part out.”
“Of course not.”
“Yeah, well, as soon as the Rockwells head out for their evening soiree, or dinner, or Parcheesi, Boss does his thing. The moment he’s inside, it’s a beeline for a closet on the second floor, full of linens – towels, sheets, what not. But he just reaches out without hesitation and touches a spot under a shelf.”
“Let me guess – hidden switch?”
“Right on one. Mrs. R’s shoe closet was hidden behind – only it’s not a closet, it’s a room. Big room, with at least three, four hundred pairs.”
Vee whistled. “And I thought I had a habit. So, it was a clean job?”
I hesitated as I slowed for another light. “Of course. I follow the Boss in, we grab the Choos and are out of there with the door sealed in under three minutes. Total piece of cake.”
Vee drummed a set of manicured fingers on her desk as I switched lanes around a mom in a minivan sipping a Starbucks and about to hit a car pulling out of a parking space. As I watch that calamity in my rearview she says, “Uh-huh. Now what actually happened?”
“What, the fender-bender here?”
“No, last night. You never say ‘piece of cake’ unless you’re hiding something. It’s one of your tells.”
I swore silently and made a mental note to work on that. “Well, there was the little matter of silent alarm we tripped as we closed up the room.”
I downshifted the Audi. “Okay, me. And the private security guards with their not-so-friendly puppies on the way out. Oh, and did I mention the car chase.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Do I even want to know?”
“I’m perfectly fine, thanks for asking.”
“Ouch. The car I acquired during the chase won’t trace back because of where it ended.”
Vee leaned back, anger smoldering. “Pray tell where possibly could you have put a stolen car that it would never be found?”
“The LAPD Impound Lot.”
Vee opened her mouth to reply then stopped, puzzled. I grinned. “Boss is not the only one with a few tricks up his sleeves. And for the bonus round, since this was stolen property we recovered, the chase was private security, not police. I doubt the Rockwells are going to whine to my old buds in blue about our little visit.”
“I’ll listen in, just in case.” She made a notation in the file. “But a chase? Louis, what were you thinking?! We’ve talked about collateral damage— “
“Vee, my job description is precise. Three words – keep him safe. I did that. Job over, and he gave me the morning off. So how about just a tiny bit of slack, okay?” I slammed my brakes to avoid rear-ending a UPS truck.
“Fine.” She glanced off to one side. “Wait, you have the morning off. So why are you on PCH headed toward the office so early?”
I grinned at the camera pickup. “You’re tracking my GPS signal? Before breakfast? Vee, this is a breakthrough moment in our relationship.”
“I’ll break your moment next time I see you.”
I chuckled. “I’m sure. Look, in your opinion, I may be a grossly overpaid, glorified babysitter, but I’m not stupid. Something’s bound to turn up. So I figured I’d stash myself at the Harbor House next block over, order up a short stack and coffee, and chat up Angie until you call— “ Something in my brain snapped in place, lighting the light bulb dimly. “You’re already calling. No pancakes for Louis?”
“No pancakes for Louis. Straight on in, errand boy. We got a new one, looks pretty hot.”
“Scotch bonnet. He took this call himself.”
I considered that. Not many got past Vee. “On my way, be there in ten.”
She shook her head. “Fifteen. You have traffic.” She cut off the call. I pulled around the car ahead of me and sped north.
Our office will never be hard to find. Just drive along PCH to Sunset Beach and look for the water tower – the one people live in. It had been used by railroads to water steam trains that carried passengers from L.A. to San Diego, but by the 1970s it was scheduled to be torn down. Some architect thought outside the box and figured it might make a unique home. Eighteen months later they restored the tower with three stories of living space, an elevator to go with the old staircase up from the ground, and views that go on forever. It’s had a few owners over the years. I asked the Boss how he acquired it. He just smiled and said he found it.
Sure he did.
“Made it.” I stood in the doorway of our shared office twenty minutes later, sucking wind. It had been a long night, I had been shot at, I hadn’t had a lot of sleep, and my breakfast plans were ruined. Now this. Sure I was kind of a big guy, six one, two ten, maybe a little on the chunky side. But I keep up.
Vee didn’t glance up. “Took you long enough.”
“Hiking up ten stories on an empty stomach didn’t help. You could have warned me the elevator was on the fritz. Or answered the intercom when I called.”
“You did? I must have been busy.” She switched her monitor to the Water Tower’s operation display. The elevator was marked red – manual lock down. She reached out a manicured finger and tapped the touchscreen. The indicator switched from red to green. “There, all better now. I wonder how that happened?” She batted her eyelashes at me.
Now in other times, a mook like me might try to throw his weight around and intimidate a woman like Veronica, go on about how men are smarter or more superior, etc. But Veronica has an MBA from Stanford, a career in the WNBA and overseas in the Turkish version of it, stands six inches taller than me and can give me a go on the range with a pistol. What was the old phrase? In heels and backward? That is Vee to a tee. I tend to avoid conflict above the banter level, the woman defines the term ‘above my paygrade.’
“Appreciate that.” I kept my voice carefully neutral. “Any idea what sort of case?”
“I don’t know. Call came in, wanted to talk to him alone, and asked me to pass a single word. Once I did, he took the call in private. Ten minutes later, he told me to expect visitors soon.”
“What was the word?”
She looked up at me. “Nawfar.”
“Nawfar?” I searched through my mind. It tickled something from my time in the Army back during Iraq. “Arabic. It means— “
The voice carried a slight foreign lilt, the exotic trace that visitors and guests found intriguing. Me? I just figured he wasn’t from Jersey. I turned around. “And a good morning to you, Boss. We were just trying to— “ The words dribbled to a halt as I stared at him.
Tomas del Mundo, a.k.a. Boss, stood there, all lean five-feet-ten inches of him, a mug of some green blended concoction in one hand. Oh, and he’s stark naked. I worked hard to move my eyes upward toward the ceiling. Behind me, Vee made a tiny squeal; she must have looked up at my sudden silence. The sound of keys tapping meant she shifted her attention to her monitor.
He took a sip of the green goop and wiped the mustache it left behind on his free arm. “You were saying, Louis?”
I began to recite in my head the batting averages and OPS numbers of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals starting lineup. “We, uh, were trying to figure out who our new client is?”
“Ah.” He looked past me. “Care to come join the discussion, Veronica?”
“No, I’m good right here.”
Tomas looked at me, puzzled. “What’s with her? Is everything all right?”
I took a deep breath. “Notice anything about your environment, Tomas?”
“It seems fresher today like I’m more in touch with—” He paused. I pointed a single finger downward.