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“What do wounded warriors do when they return from war missing a leg or two? These tough guys start The Purple Heart Detective Agency. Using battle-tested skills, laughing all the way, when others have turned their backs, these sleuths solve mysteries. Rock Neelly’s novel is easy to pick-up, hard to put down.” - Robert Beattie, author of Nightmare in Wichita: Hunt for the BTK Strangler“Rock Neelly hands the reader well-defined, believable characters, caught up in a deft blend of old-school detective noir and modern technology.” - Brian Dobbins, author of The Witch’s Cartel and CorryvilleThe sudden disappearance of a magician isn’t usually cause for alarm, but it’s a different story when the disappearance isn’t part of the act.Clay and Roddy are two war veterans – both amputees - trying to rebuild their shattered lives through their struggling Purple Heart Detective Agency. Then the beautiful Angela Thayer enters the picture, asking for their help in finding her missing friend and employer, Trevor Baker – stage name, Merlyn the Magician. The high profile case promises to jumpstart their careers…until the search leads to betrayal, intrigue and mind control. And then the murders begin...A hard-boiled detective story of murder and mayhem, a war story of pathos and survival, an action story of intrigue and violence, a love story of abandon and betrayal, a stick in the eye of the entertainment industry, wry social commentary on how America treats its veterans of war, but mostly a rousing tale of brotherhood in war and beyond. And of course, a foul-mouthed monkey named Jerry.
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POST MORTEM PRESS
Walter Reed Hospital
Fort Benning, Georgia
The Monkey Lab
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LARMC) Germany
The Sacramento Zoo
The Road of Death
The Monkey Lab
South of the Big Empty … and Back
Just North of the Big Empty
For Kara and Lucy, thanks for putting up with me pounding away at a keyboard at all hours of the day and night. And then sleeping late when the muse struck me and I worked until the wee hours. I love you both and you make the house
lively and fun – and loud!
But most of all, I thank my wonderful wife, Vicki. She is my ROCK. Thanks for keeping me real and for your love all these many years.
“Let it be known that he who wears the military order of the Purple Heart has given of his blood in the defense of his homeland and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen.”
- George Washington
General and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army
August 7, 1782
THERE’S A FINE LINE BETWEEN contemplation of suicide and attempted suicide. At least according to Roddy. I made the mistake one day of referring to Roddy’s attempted suicide, and he angrily corrected me. “I damn well never attempted suicide,” he spat back at me.
I looked at him in confusion. “You put a pistol in your mouth.”
“Yeah, so? I told you I contemplated killing myself. Those were pretty tough times, Grace.”
“And a barrel full of lead in your mouth is pretty close to the deed,” I replied.
Roddy laughed. “You think as big as my mouth is that if I attempted it, I would have missed?”
“I guess not,” I said grimly. I paused. “So the line is that fine?”
I examined him for an instant. “So is it an attempt if you take off the safety?” His shoulders stiffened, and I felt clarity like a cold wind around us. I stared at him. “Did you take off the safety?”
Roddy didn’t answer, and he rolled his wheelchair out of the room.
A year before, Roddy called on a December night in 2006, breathless and disturbed, his sentences addled and unfinished. I met him at a mall parking lot in Ventura, north of L.A. At first glance I could tell Roddy was in a bad way.
My first impression was to compare him to a hollow point round, spent and fragmented after ricocheting off the flat hard pack of Iraq’s northern desert. In my mind, Roddy was misshapen like that misdirected bullet. His legs were gone, of course, and his torso and arms were bursting with muscle, twitching with tension and more than likely speed. His face was gaunt, cheekbones stretched impossibly tight. His eyes were shadowed with even darker crescents under each. His irises were dilated, glowing like a jungle cat’s as they peered out from a reed bed’s tangled maze along the Euphrates. Below his sunken eyes, Roddy’s mouth, always expressive, turned down on the left side, an unlit cigarette jutting out. He clutched a familiar brushed silver Zippo lighter in his right fist. He didn’t speak as I walked to his vehicle, the driver’s door open wide. As I approached, he lit the cigarette. The expulsion of smoke from his lips was purple in the vapor lights’ glow.
His pick-up truck sizzled from his high speed escape from northern California. The engine was so blistering hot it pinged in the parking lot, hissing as condensation from the air conditioner dripped onto the black tarmac still scorching although it was just past midnight. A rare late season heat wave gripped the valley. The Santa Ana winds raged in from the desert, dry and beastly. On nights like these, the cops were always busy. It was a night that disturbed souls and sleep.
Roddy finally spoke. “Thanks for coming down, Gracer.”
“It was never a question. I always got your back, Rod. You know that. But what’s up? You sounded so bad, so busted up on the phone.”
He shook his black hair, which was longer in my memory than now, and of course, longer than it had been in Iraq. It trailed in his face like an Elvis impersonator. He didn’t bother brushing it out of his eyes. “Sorry, I had to call from a payphone. I don’t have a cell phone. Couldn’t afford the payments. Lost my job up in Ukiah . . . my fault. I just stopped going. Couldn’t take my folks’ charity either.”
I stood in front of his pickup, his door open, his engine off. The oversized black GMC was equipped with hand controls. The remainders of his legs, thick thighs that stopped halfway down to where knees should have been, were encased in his ever-present cargo shorts, hemmed tight. He wore a Dwight Yoakum tee shirt stretched across his enormous chest. I had never seen him this jacked with muscle, even when he was two foot taller. I wondered if he was using steroids.
I nodded, showing empathy and understanding. “You should have called me.”
Roddy laughed humorlessly. “Yeah, like you’re flush . . . ’cause you’re really knocking it down after getting turned down on your bid to get back on the force. Your lawsuit’s dismissal made the papers even up in Bum Fuck Ukiah. Seems like missing one leg is the same as two as far as getting a job, you know.”
“Yeah. I started my own gig. An agency.”
“Insurance?” His eyebrows were raised, my coolness in jeopardy.
He smiled. “And?”
I dropped my head, my eyes breaking away. “Fuckin’ starvin’. A case here or there, but chasin’ unemployment fraud, bail skips, or husbands looking for hand jobs ain’t getting it.”
Roddy laughed low. “Well, at least you got a plan. A bad plan, but a plan nonetheless. I don’t even have that. Well, unless you call a tank of gas and driving six hours at eighty miles an hour, hoping to dodge the highway patrol, a plan. I guess the plan’s to keep Ukiah in my rearview mirror.”
“Last night . . . Wait, is today Sunday?”
“Yeah. Well, technically Monday now,” I said, looking at my watch.
Roddy ran his hands through his hair. His chin had a day’s stubble, as did the line above his lip, but he had little growth on his cheeks and just a dark smudge along his jaw line. His nose was sharp and had a shine on it. “I was at a party Saturday night. Lindy was there, you know, my high school girlfriend. I hadn’t really seen her, except for the one time when I first got back and I was in a bad way then. Way too many painkillers and too much self-pity, you know?”
I nodded, letting him get it out.
“Anyway, she’s there, back on Christmas break from Berkeley where she’s doing awesome, working on her master’s now, and she’s got this asswipe with her, but to be honest, I think I’d like him if he wasn’t with her and I had legs, but he is and I don’t, so fuck him, you know? Anyway, she’s back and I’m at this party, this kegger. And it’s weird because it’s not any different. That’s what is weird. It is exactly the same as before the war. Everyone from my high school class is there. Five plus years removed, but if they’re in college, then they’re back for Christmas, but most aren’t and those losers are working for peanuts around town or carrying their Daddy’s water, or just dealing pot or whatever. The point is that it was exacto mundo the same as before I left—except I’m totally different. I’m missing both legs and stuck in a fucking chair. Let’s just say I’ve developed a different frame of reference since Iraq.” He pointed to the wheelchair in the bed of the truck. I stayed silent.
Roddy shook his head. “So anyway, I’m star attraction at the pity party. Everyone coming by and saying how sorry they are for me, and I’m thinking, ‘Why are you sorry for me, motherfucker? You’re the one stuck in this episode of Twilight Zone, man.’ Anyway, so I talk to Lindy and her guy and it’s awkward like it’s supposed to be. But then they go off and I am dying to get high and I see Lindy’s two best friends, Kate and Jenny, sneak out the back. I know they’re heading out to burn one, but I can’t follow ’cause they’re sneaking down the back stairs and nobody there has seen my gorilla act. I am definitely keeping my butt in the chair. So I bop on out the front and wheel it around the block. I go down the street, around the corner to the alley. I roll my ass down there and as I get to the party house, I see Kate and Jenny talking as they light a joint.”
“What did they say?”
“Kate says, ‘Wow, did you see Roddy? He’s so different, so fucked up. Can you imagine Lindy’s life if she would have married him before he left? You know they talked about it.’
“Jenny replies, ‘I know. I know. Lindy really dodged that bullet.’
“And Kate says, ‘Yeah, but obviously Roddy didn’t.’ And then they both laugh their stoned asses off.” Roddy slid his tongue over his teeth, forcing his lips out of a pucker into a grin with no humor in it.
I looked him in the eye. “And what did you do?”
Roddy laughed. “I rolled right up to them and told those two bitches that all three of them, Lindy included, had missed out on a chance to marry a man whose dick literally drug on the ground.”
We both laughed. I had tears in my eyes and so did Roddy. But then I noticed Roddy’s were real. He was crying. I stood there for a moment as he sobbed. “What did you really do?” I asked him as he wiped the tears onto the back of his hands and transferred them to the tops of his shorts.
“I went out into the desert and found a place under the stars, and then I jacked a round into the chamber of my trusty Smith and Wesson nine millimeter and I stuck it in my mouth.”
I reached out and touched his arm, which was resting on the window of the open door. He pulled away like it was a cattle prod, but then he relaxed, realizing it was me. He shrugged, an apology for the involuntary jerk away. “But you didn’t do it,” I said.
“Nah, too much of a pussy.” Roddy’s mouth seemed dry and his words parched.
“So you came here because you knew I would understand?”
“No, I came here because I knew you would take me in.”
I smiled at him and said, “Come on, you can sleep on my couch.”
Roddy replied without looking up: “I fit on a loveseat these days.”
“YOUR MAGICIAN DISAPPEARED?” I smirked. “Isn’t that kind of the point?”
The woman, a prospective client, laughed in an eloquent, almost rehearsed way. “Illusionist is the more accurate term.”
I stepped away from the desk to the window of my Los Angeles office. Traffic below moved at the light. Though still clogged with rush hour traffic, Figueroa Street thinned out by mid-morning. The sun would soon clear the tops of the buildings to the east, and I would have to pull my shades.
I met her eyes, still making light. “He goes by the stage name Merlyn. Merlyn the Illusionist is not very catchy.” I raised my brows for effect. “Merlyn the Magician is what it says in the TV Guide.”
The prospective client, Ms. Angela Thayer, laughed again. “Mr. Grace, I would never have suspected a private eye to be so funny.” Her balanced blond hair, expertly highlighted, moved with her head’s turn. I noticed that her chin was a tiny bit too sharp. It might have been the only flaw I could find. Her face, her hands, the way she crossed her legs—she was almost too perfect, like an amalgam of everyone’s idea of the perfect woman. The problem was that she was beautiful in the way a committee would decide what beautiful was—she might not fit any living person’s idea of it. Too perfect, too unapproachable, too damned good looking. She looked like, what, the dictionary definition of perfection? It shook me.
Yes, she was beautiful, but she had me with her voice, and particularly her laugh. It was melodious, inviting, and immediate. It might as well have been a siren’s song—maybe a siren crooning some Joni Mitchell, because she did have just a little of that West L.A. lilt in her words and in the way she tossed her hair and held her head. I realized it had been too long between words. I had been taking inventory of her. I returned to the desk. Ms. Thayer had likewise paused for me in her caramel-colored blouse with round Asian buttons, her ginger-toned slacks and understated, deep brown leather pumps like she was used to being looked upon. I realized I had been staring for way too long. She stood and light from the window illuminated her face.
“Trevor Baker is his real name,” she said. “And this is probably a false alarm. He’s disappeared like this before. It is just that so much is on the line right now.”
“I read in the Hollywood Reporter about his Vegas deal.”
“Yes,” she replied. “It was a remarkable amount of money for someone who was just a year ago a relative unknown, but the TV specials were such a success that the offers just started pouring in. Have you seen the shows?”
“No,” I replied. “I don’t watch too much television. Dodgers’ games sometimes.”
She nodded. “Of course, Trevor dresses as Merlyn on stage with the long gray hair and the whole costume, so he’s still able to go around in civvies and not get mobbed. I get recognized more than he does. I brought a photo so you could see Trevor, not Merlyn.”
She handed it to me. I had seen commercials for his shows on television, and I think he was endorsing some kind of car tire right now, but always as Merlyn. I would have never recognized him on the street. Trevor Baker was a compact man with bright green eyes and relatively short brown hair. His ears might have been a little pointed, but they were closely pinned to his head. His brow was prominent and his eyes slightly hooded. The picture she handed me showed him standing with Jay Leno. Baker was at least half a head shorter than Leno. He must have weighed no more than one-fifty and couldn’t have been more than five foot nine. The magician was slim and his arms were highly defined. He wore jeans and a USC football tee shirt. Baker had sunglasses pushed up on his head. His hair receded a tiny bit, but it was tousled with blond highlights in all the right places and correct percentages. There were motorcycles in the background of the shot. I put that in my memory bank.
She gave me an appropriate amount of time to take in the picture and then she spoke again. “Rehearsals for our Vegas opening are supposed to start in three weeks. We’re bonded, he and I, to begin the rehearsals at the casino in Vegas by then. If we don’t, our backers have the ability to opt out. He received $30 million. I got two. This deal will make us or break us. We begin rehearsals three weeks from today. We lose everything if they pull out. That can’t happen. You’ve got to find him. Frankly, I don’t have the money to pay back if he doesn’t show.”
“And you’re his, what? What is the right term? Apprentice?”
She smiled again, “No, just his stage assistant. The Beautiful Belinda.”
“Belinda? I thought you said your name was . . .”
“Angela Thayer, yes,” she paused. “It’s Angie. But Trevor wanted the alliteration. Angie didn’t work for him on stage, so Beautiful Belinda it was. And still is.”
“Gotcha.” I made a mental note of her use of “Angie.” It was how she thought of herself. “So you say Mr. Baker has done this before. Disappeared for a period of time? As long as this, nineteen days, in the past?”
“Yes,” she replied from the window, now staring down onto the street at the cars at the light, like she might see her magician suddenly step from a cab to the curb. “Usually I would give it no mind when we’re not working. But this time is different, of course, with everything on the line. His personal assistant, Karen James, pays his credit card bills. She came to me on Sunday afternoon and said that there had been no activity on any of his credit cards since the beginning of the year. He came back from northern California on the 30th, and since then no one’s heard from him. That scared me, so I called you and made this appointment.”
“Did you attempt to call him?”
She turned to me. Her violet eyes blinked with emotion. “Dozens of times. And I had Karen check with his phone company. He hasn’t used his cell in the same amount of time. Trevor just dropped off the face of the earth.”
“Does he have a place he would go?”
“He has a condo in Cozumel, but I spoke to his housekeeper there. She hasn’t seen him. There are no plane tickets on his credit cards. He didn’t say anything about going anywhere else, not after he got back from Palo Alto. I’ve been to his house. His luggage all seems to be there. His place seems normal, and there was food in the fridge like he intended on being home. Trev doesn’t like spoiled food in the refrigerator. Usually he tells Karen when he’s going to be gone so he doesn’t come home to furry stuff in the fridge.”
I motioned. “More coffee?” She nodded yes. “You said he went to Palo Alto. Why there?”
“Well, actually, that’s why I called you,” Angie said. She leaned to me as I reached for the carafe on the desk’s edge. I could smell her perfume. Lilacs and something expensive. I picked up the carafe and filled her cup. She curled back into her chair. She blew on the coffee and steam trailed away from the cup. She left lipstick, pale pink with a hint of henna, on the lip of the mug with her sip.
Traffic seemed louder now on the street as Angie paused to drink her coffee. I stepped to the window and took the latch in my hand. The window was old school—it actually opened. The wind had a chill at this hour. After all, it was January and my building was still in the morning shade, but it wouldn’t be cold for long after the sun cleared the mirrored building across the street. I closed the window and turned to Angie.
“I don’t follow. Why did you call us?”
Her head turned to me, no longer in reverie. “I thought of the Purple Heart Detective Agency. I saw the news story about you and your partner.” She nodded to the lobby where my partner, best friend, and sidekick, Roddy, sat in his wheelchair.
I nodded. Most of my clients these days had seen the news stories. See, after 9-11, I resigned my position with the LAPD and enlisted in the army. It was kind of an honor-thy-father thing, but there’s no need to go back and examine my motivations right now. Near the end of my three-year tour, I lost my left leg just below the knee in second battle of Fallujah. After nearly nine months at Walter Reed, when I got back to L.A., I applied to get back on the police force. I wanted my old job back as a detective. I didn’t get it and sued. Long story short, I lost. So I went private. The whole ordeal was exhausting, and the press coverage had been intense. Ultimately, it had been good PR for the agency, but the experience had been one huge, humiliating loss.
Looking up from my thoughts, I pretended I had been pondering Angie’s comments by picking up a pen and scratching down on my pad. “Losing that lawsuit ended up actually bringing in a lot of business.”
Angie looked down into her cup and then met my eye. “Not that news story. The one about the girl who couldn’t walk. How you heard about her needing a new racing wheelchair.”
“That never made the eleven o’clock news, actually.”
She smiled, and I felt her blatant attempt to win me over. I felt its directness, but nonetheless, her parted lips and perfect smile, both deliberately glamorous and muted, pulled me in. She somewhat lowered her voice as she spoke. “I know, but some of the stars around the Hollywood Hills have kind of a reverse TMZ-type blog and I read about it there. They said you paid three thousand for the wheelchair and another two to pay for the girl’s mother to go to the track meet . . . where? In Baltimore, to the Nationals? Money you didn’t have and then you were evicted from your lease?”
Roddy’s voice interrupted from the door where he sat in his wheelchair. His eyes were shaded by his wraparound glasses with tinted lenses that darkened in light. They showed gray from the lamplight. “It was more gallant than that. Prince Valiant here bought her new carbon fiber wheels for $1500 each and shipped the whole gizmo to Maryland on his own dime, too, for another two grand. Wiped out his life savings. All for a girl he hadn’t met. Then lost his office when his landlord found out he couldn’t pay.” Roddy smiled, one eyebrow raised as if she would doubt his veracity. “Sorry to intrude, but Clay would never tell you the whole enchilada truth about that.”
Angela Thayer looked thoughtfully at me for a moment. “And you did that out of just the sheer goodness of your heart?”
Roddy laughed. “Hell no, he did it out of guilt for past sins.”
I stared at him for a moment. “Actually I did it because Ramona Dunker had a chance to win the Paralympics, but someone stole her racing chair from her mom’s apartment in South Central, and she needed someone to step up. So I did. And she won the juvenile division national championship in the 10K.”
Angie nodded. “At great personal cost to yourself.”
“Well actually,” I said, “some anonymous benefactor also read about the whole deal in that Hollywood Hills blog and paid in advance for a three-year lease on this place for the agency. Some celebrity philanthropist. I don’t even know who it was. So it all worked out.” I shrugged.
Angie set her coffee cup on my desk. “It was a very grand thing to do.”
Roddy rolled away muttering, “Or maybe the act of a desperate man at his wit’s end—one with a messiah complex.”
“Thanks for the jaded comments, Roddy.”
His words floated back in the room: “I’m just saying you never bought me a carbon fiber-wheeled speedster.”
I shook my head with a sheepish grin as Angie rolled her eyes in amusement. I addressed her. “I’m glad you called us, but what’s the connection from Palo Alto to the Purple Heart Detective Agency? Why did Trevor Baker’s trip up there make you think of us?”
Angie’s eyes narrowed as she answered. “Trevor learned that this high-level security defense contractor in Palo Alto was doing research into phantom limb pain. I don’t know how he found out about it. He said he wanted to meet with a scientist there. That it could make him the best illusionist ever. I don’t know what he was talking about. It made no sense to me, but a lot of what Trevor talked about when he talked about magic made no sense to me.”
“What was the company in Palo Alto’s name?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he said. I just remembered him talking about the phantom limb pain thing . . . and it made me think of you guys.”
I swung my legs onto the desk. I tapped on the calf of my left leg. It sounded hollow in the still of the room. I laughed in a self-deprecating way. “Clayton Grace, your local neighborhood one-legged detective, at your service.”
Angie leaned back in her chair. “Are you offended? I am so sorry.”
I waved her off and I smiled ruefully. “No, Miss Thayer, not at all. Sorry if I gave you that impression. It’s just funny that me missing a leg made you call us.”
Her eyes showed concern, but my words seemed to console her. However, a sudden darkness in her eyes veiled her thoughts, and she said, “Did you see a lot of violence during your tour? I mean, I know you lost your leg, but beyond that, was it as bad as they say? Iraq, I mean.”
I paused for a moment, trying to decide how to answer. Was she asking if I was mentally unbalanced, some kind of maniac with post-traumatic stress disorder? Or was she asking if I had killed someone in the war? I decided it was probably the latter, and of course, it wasn’t the first time I had been asked. My voice was flat as I responded. “Roddy and I both saw a lot of action. And yes, it was as bad as they say. Much worse, really. But if you are concerned about our stability, this is the beginning of my fourth year with the agency. Roddy joined me a year in. And in three years, I’ve never had to draw a weapon, but I am licensed to carry. Roddy too, but just because we were soldiers does not mean we’re inherently violent.”
Angie blushed. “I didn’t presume . . . oh, I don’t even know why I asked.” She turned her head, but her chin stayed up. “But as regards to violence,” she said cryptically, “never say never, right?” Her voice was low and her comment struck me as off-base and out-of-bounds, so I decided to ignore it.
I tried to smooth things over. “Roddy and I are both past all of that fuss—the war, the lawsuit,” I lied. “It seems like a long time ago.” I moved us back on topic. “We’ll take your case. It’s a thousand a day, plus expenses. Five days up front.”
She reached into her clutch and pressed an envelope into my hands. “Here’s thirty thousand. Please find him fast.”
AFTER ANGIE WAS GONE, IT didn’t take long for Roddy to explode into the room. While he generally stayed in his chair when clients are in the offices—most seemed disturbed at his gorilla-like method of transport—he seldom stayed on wheels otherwise. Before losing his legs, he was six-foot-four. His arms were long, much longer than his torso, and his biceps were ripped, bulging with the repetition of launching his body forward on his knuckles—which is how he arrived. To get around, Roddy would slam his fists into the carpet and propel himself, landing three or four feet forward, then again, and again.
He launched himself upward, not unlike a gymnast mounting the high horse, into the office chair in front of my desk. His countenance in the chair could not have been more different than Angie’s. While she’d had a softness, maybe a weariness about her, Roddy was all iron and kinetic energy. His lean, sculpted cheek-boned face was notched below his slightly longer than G.I. flattop of black hair. His eyes were black with nearly no irises. They were dilated, and I knew he was high. He sported a black pearl earring in one ear. He had a soul patch, the slightest goatee, really just a wisp, no sideburns and glasses with black upper frames that wrapped his face like a baseball player’s shades. The glasses crossed over his Italian nose, flattened a bit from a fight in boot camp. He had on a Black Keys tee shirt cuffed above his “guns,” and his ever-present cargo shorts were strapped tight to his narrow waist, hemmed closed efficiently at the base of his stumps. Sometimes it is hard for me to comprehend that he is still only twenty-seven years old. Fallujah was 2004, only two centuries ago.
“So?” he asked expectantly.
“I took the case,” I replied. “Typical. Cheating husband thing, you know the drill.”
His eyes popped. “You’re shitting me? Somebody’s cheating on her. Jesus, she’s the hottest chick I ever saw. That’s just fuckin’ crazy.”
I sat down smiling. “Yeah, I’m shitting you. It’s a missing person’s case.” I looked him in the eyes. They were jittery black marbles. “You at thirty thousand feet today?”
He looked down briefly. “Nah, just a couple pills. Pain was pretty bad. I couldn’t sleep. Didn’t sleep much at all.”
We both were quiet for a moment. But it wasn’t an awkward pause. Roddy and I had been together too long for there to be awkwardness. Sometimes I think we breathed in sync. We met in boot and had been together ever since. We were together in Iraq and got blown up there together. We were at Walter Reed together. Now we owned a business together. And according to army records, we both had the same problem. Both Roddy and I were listed at the VA with phantom limb pain. Both of us get meds for it. I didn’t have any pain, though. I gave Roddy my Percocet. They never gave him enough to get through a month, and they wouldn’t give him Oxy. Not anymore.
I told Roddy the details. He knew what to do. We had worked missing person’s cases before. “You get me both a skinny and a mambo on Trevor Baker, okay?”
Roddy was the best computer guy I ever saw. I knew he cut corners, maybe broke a law or two when we were after something, but he was good enough to never let anything he did lead back to us. If he hacked somebody, they might figure out they’d been hacked, but they wouldn’t ever know it was us. I trusted him with my life, so why wouldn’t I trust him with the business?
“I can get the skinny here, but the mambo will require that I get out of here for a little while. Need to take the signature somewhere neutral.”
“Do what you do, Rod.”
A skinny was a biographical profile, whatever was available on the web, through sources like LexisNexis, but a mambo was pulling information from bank accounts, police reports, insurers, private email, law offices, and the like. Accessing information like that was technically illegal, but very handy in our line of work. And Roddy knew enough to never put together a mambo here. I didn’t know where he went when he practiced his “black arts.” He just dropped into a hole for a while. Both of us had areas where “need-to-know” separation helped keep both the locals and the feds off our backs. Not that we were outlaws. It was just that sometimes it was expedient to be able to access a document without having to get permission.
It didn’t take Roddy long to get me a skinny on Trevor Baker. Within two hours, as I set the wheels in motion of depositing our newfound funds and paying back debts, Roddy yelled that he had finished the skinny report.
Roddy was drinking an energy drink. A bag of baby carrots sat on his desk. Despite his drug habit, he was very health conscious, ate well, and worked out like a fiend. He munched a carrot as I sat on the credenza facing his desk. I slid back until my shoulders rested against the wall. My legs dangled.
Roddy started in a drone. “Trevor Daniel Baker. Thirty-four years old. Resident of Topanga Canyon. Entertainer. Born in Sheboygan, Michigan. Father abandoned the family early on. Mother was a school teacher. Never remarried. Trevor her only child. They seemed to have lived pretty hand-to-mouth. Mother is Wendy. Still alive. Retired. She has a Facebook account. It appears Trevor bought her a house. Mother Wendy has a sister and a brother, Trevor’s uncle and aunt. No contact from Trevor that I could find with any of them. They don’t seem to know he’s gone missing, either. Not frequent or close contact, so no one’s the wiser.”
I nodded my chin at the carrots on his desk. Roddy tossed me the bag.
“According to IMDb, Trevor started with magic early on and won a few local talent contests. Ended up on a local midday news show at thirteen. Played some country fairs. Went to Michigan State in 1995, but ended up in a comedy troupe. Moved to Chicago. Right place, right time. Landed a spot in Second City and launched this whole Merlyn the Magician stage thing.
“Oh yeah, he got married for like two minutes while in Chicago. He went on the road and never came back. Dari, nee Williams, got tired of waiting. Baker divorced her. She’s remarried, and there doesn’t seem to have been any contact in years. No kids. No current girlfriends, starlets at a couple of premiers, gay rumors, but given that no one gives a flying leap if he is batting from the other side of the plate, no sign that he’s in the closet.”
I feigned a yawn. “You’re boring me.” I knew Roddy well enough to know he had something or he would not have called me in.
“Have some fuckin’ appreciation for what I do,” he laughed. “Okay, the Merlyn thing starts working five years ago in a big way and he incorporates metal music to his act and boom! He’s on the college circuit, opening for Coldplay and shit. That was when ‘Beautiful Belinda’ joined him. They do a couple years in the trenches. Anyway, they film a TV special for Discovery and it kicks ass in the ratings. Six more specials and he rents a place in Topanga. Most people think he bought it, but he’s renting. Did buy a chunk of land back up in the hills.
“Back to the career thing. After the TV specials crank big numbers, Shazam! Vegas comes knocking. Thirty million for an exclusive at the Horse Thief Casino and Theatre. A three-year run with an option. TrB Magic—that’s Trevor Baker Magic, his own company, incorporated and had an IPO recently. Most of his thirty mil went back in. It’s openly traded though. There’s other investors.”
“I’ll get a list for you.”
Roddy smiled. “And what?
“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Roddy smirked. “That should be my line to the one-legged P.I.” He laughed a quick one. Rod took a sip of caffeine, a grin still on his face, enjoying his joke. But then serious. “I don’t have all the poop yet. I’ll have to mambo some of this, but here’s the thing. You know how you told me he went to Palo Alto?”
I reached and grabbed another carrot. “Yeah?”
“I found a record of his flight home on the thirtieth, last month.”
I waited, Roddy wanting me to beg.
“But I found a speeding ticket for him in Salinas, south of Palo Alto two days before. He was driving a black Land Rover, a Discovery, registered to him. Eighty-two in a fifty-five.”
“So Baker drove up, but he flew back.”
“Yeah, one-way ticket, and I got a feed for San Fran airport parking garages too. You can access the license plates. The Land Rover is not at the airport. At least not on-grounds.”
“So Baker left the vehicle somewhere in San Fran and now he’s in the wind?”
“So Trevor’s missing and so is his Land Rover?”
Roddy nodded. “Fuckin’ A.”
I HAD ARRANGED TO MEET ANGIE at Trevor Baker’s Topanga Canyon home, so I left Roddy to his devices and headed west on the Santa Monica Freeway in my Jeep Rubicon—a dark blue ragtop. I had the top up as a cool breeze coming off the ocean buffeted the vehicle. Topanga was between Beverly Hills and Malibu, but up off Highway One and the ocean. Technically, it was still part of Los Angeles, but because of fire restrictions, zoning ordinances and vegetation, it was like a different part of the state. Down low, Topanga was kind of a poor man’s Pacific Palisades, closer to downtown L.A. and full of multi-million dollar mansions, although even the poor men were pretty wealthy in both zip codes. But Topanga was wilder and less dry-cleaned—touristy down low where the gawkers got off the 101 for brunch, but it was locals only up past the exit off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and even more so off the Old Topanga Highway. Many of them were second or third generation Topanga hippies, and three years of detective work had taught me they were less than enthusiastic about private eyes pulling up in their driveways.
Way up, past the village, was high desert, but I didn’t drive that far. There were lots of big homes in the village. Little roads tucked away from the main drag led to homes with stars looking to hide out. And further up in the hills, pot farms tucked themselves away in remote arroyos, booby trapped with shotguns ready to kill trespassers or lost hikers. But I stayed down in town where everything was picturesque.
I legally owned three handguns, one of which I kept in the office. It was a Beretta 92, a nine millimeter firing semiautomatic. I had a conceal-and-carry permit, but I seldom did carry the weapons on me. Most of my professional activities required recording or filming equipment, and there were few days when I felt the need to actually carry a weapon on my person. However, I did keep two in the Jeep. The first was a man’s gun—a Ruger SR40. This pistol packed a wallop with a .40 caliber bullet but had a surprisingly light recoil. I kept the weapon in the glove compartment and a shoulder harness under the seat. Although most of the time, if I did get it out, I simply dropped the slim weapon into my side coat pocket, as I almost always wore a suit coat on the job. The second weapon in the Jeep was a tiny gun—a Sig P238. It was less than six inches long and less than four inches tall. It was a miniature of the famous Colt Mustang .38 caliber. However, this tiny version only had a six-bullet magazine, and I kept it in an ankle holster in the pocket on the front of my driver’s seat. However, I had never even worn the ankle holster. Though both weapons were in the car, I carried neither of them today.
I said I legally owned three handguns. I also had one throwaway—just in case. It was sealed in an oilcloth bag inside a metal box magnetically attached to the top of the support bracket to my Jeep’s exhaust system above the vehicle’s muffler. This .38 had been bought with no names given at a gun show, and I’d cleaned it and used hydrochloric acid to remove the serial numbers. I hoped to never get it out, but I also did not plan on doing time for a justified shooting that could not easily be explained and that could happen in this business.
Roddy also had a variety of weaponry—most of it bigger and badder than my assortment. His assortment included a Desert Eagle—a massive pistol owned previously by some badass Israeli and which, despite its colossal size, fit Roddy’s immense hands. He also kept a couple of scoped sniper rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, and a couple of Saturday Night Special throw-downs. He kept most of that collection of nightmares in a storage facility downtown rented under an alias. In our three years in business, neither of us had drawn a weapon, at work or otherwise.
Baker’s home was not too far off the main drag, not far up the canyon, still in civilization, just past a Mexican restaurant called Abuelita’s. It was a left-hand turn to the north, up the mountain. I found myself on a street with houses stashed away from prying eyes—far from spectacular, though still expensive. Most of the “bungalows” would fetch over a million—two if you could find one to buy. And you wouldn’t be able to.
The homes here were built originally in the late 50s or early 60s and then refurbished after the Northridge quake in ’94. Many of the homes here and those closer to the Santa Monica Freeway slid off their foundations during the quake. The structures were rebuilt with new earthquake regs and better amenities. The lawns were small and perfectly groomed all the way up the street. Baker’s house was a Southwestern style split level. I pulled in the drive and saw what I assumed to be Angie’s Lexus on the stamped concrete drive. She met me at the door before I knocked. She wore the same clothes as when I had seen her earlier that morning.
“Hello again. You’re early.” She smiled, and I was again reminded of just how damned beautiful she was. She let me in, stepping to the side to allow me to pass into the foyer. The living space here was dappled in muted sunlight from a huge picture window to the west. The sun was at its zenith, and the light filtered in through a blue Palo Verde tree that lifted its head above the house, perhaps fifty feet tall, its leaves rustling in the ocean wind that penetrated all the way up this narrow street.
“Great place,” I said, moving into the center of the living room, which featured low-slung black leather couches, white carpet, and a monstrous flat screen TV on the roughhewn, deep gray stone wall opposite the kitchen and dining room. The other walls were thick white stucco, Mexican adobe three feet thick. A fireplace with gas logs was opposite the front door, cold and dark. The granite wall was two stories high and finished with the loft of the second story facing it. Timber rails protected the second floor from the living room’s open ceiling. There seemed to be an office on the second floor in the open space, facing the vaulted roof.
I noticed Angie watching my eyes as I took in the room and above. She waited patiently. Then as my eyes came back to hers, she asked: “So what are we looking for? What can I do to help?”
I shrugged quickly. “Don’t know. I won’t know until I see it. I don’t think that you can help, really. I want to get a feel for Trevor. What he likes. What he doesn’t like. What he does when he’s not working. What he reads, what he watches, sites he visits on his computer. I just need to snoop around.”
“Oh, his laptop,” Angie interjected. “I found it beside the chair over there in its case.” She handed it to me. “Here.”
I took it and nodded thanks. I set it on the couch. “I’ll have Roddy give it a look-see.”
Angie furrowed her brows a bit. “So you want me out of the way?”
I smiled and shook my head no. “I just don’t want to keep you here. This will take me awhile. Maybe a couple of hours. If you have something to do . . .” I trailed off.
Angie tipped her head toward the back of the house. “I think I’ll use the pool if that’s all right with you. You gotta love L.A.—January and it’s warm enough if you’re out of the wind for a pool day. Might as well, right? I can’t work until you find Trevor.” Angie smiled forlornly.
“Sure,” I answered, already looking at the magazines and letters left haphazardly on the end tables. “I’ll yell if I need anything.” She shrugged and left me to skulk about.
Trevor Baker was not an overly neat man. His business letters, bank statements, and junk mail were all jumbled on the end tables. There was another random stack on the desk upstairs, but nothing of real interest immediately caught my eye as I thumbed through it. I bundled anything relevant to his finances and put those items in my coat pocket for Roddy’s mambo report. I went through the desk drawers, through the cabinets, the closets, through his clothes, coat pockets, under the beds, and even through the safe, which was in his master bedroom closet but wasn’t locked. Baker’s office wall upstairs was covered with framed celebrity photos of the magician with various well-known Hollywood types. I recognized a few. Some I didn’t, but they all had the look of money and the ease of spirit that a lot of money for a long time brings. I found nothing that raised my hackles. There was nothing in his garage, except a beautiful Harley Davidson three-wheeler. The engine was cold.
In the bedroom, I looked through the nightstands. I found condoms and a couple of porn DVDs—standard issue, not gay. Guess that answered that. Then next to the box of condoms, I spied a white envelope. Inside there were two photos. They were nudes of a brunette, maybe about thirty. She was stunning, twisted sideways, lying on the bed in this room in the photo, her hair splayed across the pillow, her face to the camera. She was turned and wound in the sheet so that her breasts were exposed but linen covered her privates. The angle still exposed the line of her ass and the length of her legs. She was tan with no tan lines, and her hands were thrown over her head free of her hair. Her deep brown eyes were looking into the camera with a devilish joy, and her finger nails were red, flat against the headboard, her thumbs hooked underneath. The second photo was much like the first, as if the photographer, Baker, I presumed, had taken them only an instant apart. I found the camera in his closet, a Nikon. Turning it on, I found the two photos on the digital memory. They were the only two stored. The time stamp on the photos was for twelve days ago. Baker had been gone nineteen. Hmmm. These photos had been taken one week after the last time anyone had spoken to him. Had he been back? Or had he not taken these after all?
I put the envelope with the two photos in the pocket of my sports coat with the bills, business letters, and bank statements. I wondered who the brunette was. I wondered who took the nude photos of her.
Downstairs was a dud for the most part until I went through the trash can in the kitchen. There was little in it, except at the bottom where I found a wadded up paper bag. It was from an antiques bookstore in Salinas, near where Baker had received his speeding ticket on his way to Palo Alto. The receipt was still in the bag. It was made out for cash—$1200 plus tax. The line item said “Edgar Cayce Private Journal/Notebook.” The receipt had the same date as had the traffic ticket—December 28.
I rose from the trash receptacle and turned as Angie came into the kitchen. She wore a white French bikini and nothing else. She held a tall plastic tumbler. She had iPod buds in her ears and she was looking down at a magazine as she came in the sliding glass door. She was not expecting me to be on the floor in the kitchen. As I stood, we nearly collided. She stopped inches from my chest. Angie’s hair was pulled back, and her skin glowed from sun. I could smell coconut oil. Her breasts were nearly touching me. I know my face went totally red. I didn’t speak. She was incredible.
To be honest, I wasn’t really used to being around women like her—or women of any type these days. Since I had returned to California from Walter Reed, it seemed like the women I met fell into three categories: one, those who couldn’t wait to get out of the room when they found out I had been in Iraq and had lost a leg; two, those who volunteered to sleep with me for a chance to see it (making me like a geek at a freak show); and three, those who displayed the rare ability to figure out I had a missing leg and then pretended to ignore it, allowing the six-hundred-pound gorilla in the room to control conversation by its very pseudo-invisibility. After a few encounters with each of the three types, I had essentially given up on relationships with the opposite sex. Roddy claimed I was projecting my anxieties on unsuspecting females, never giving them a chance. Perception is reality, I would remind him. Plus, the fact that Roddy had, since his return, used prostitutes to satisfy his needs weighed heavily in my ability to take heed of his advice or perspective. Nonetheless, being broke, self-conscious, and starting a business had kept the dating game off my radar for a long while. So it was with some self-recrimination that I found myself face-to . . . well, face-to-chest with the most beautiful woman I had ever met. I rose to my full height and tried to look unfazed, failing miserably.
She laughed, stepping back. “Awk-ward,” she said, moving around me to the refrigerator to get water from the door. She again looked at me alternating my stares from the floor to her chest. She smiled impatiently. Angie spoke and I consciously made eye contact. “Did you find anything interesting?” Her words were playful, teasing me.
I didn’t take the bait. “Maybe.” I held up the receipt and she read it. I said, “I’m looking for this book, but I don’t remember seeing it in the bookcase.”
She looked serious. “Do you want help?”
“Not if you’re gonna walk around like that.” I bobbed my chin toward her assets.
Angie laughed. “Hey, these things were expensive, and I’ve got to give it to Trevor. He hired me before I got the additions. But I take it you approve?”
I laughed. “Yeah, but they’re distracting. I’m not going to detect anything if you walk around like that.”
She shrugged. “Mr. Grace, they’re just tits. It’s not like I can take them off like a wooden leg.”
I stood there for a moment waiting for the import of her comment to take hold. The realization of what she had said dawned on her. She blushed, and the bloom flowed down her face to her neck and onto those beautiful breasts. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean . . .” She waited a moment to regain her composure.
I helped her out. “No offense taken, but they’re still distracting.”
“Oh hell, I’ll get a cover-up.” Angie was gone for less than five minutes as I looked around the garage, searching for the book. But it was a no-go. No journal. I came back to the living room to think where next to look. Angie came back down the stairs, wearing a white terrycloth robe. She tipped her head to the side as if to say, “Satisfied?” I nodded my approval as she moved back to the kitchen.
Angie crossed to the counter and picked up the bookstore receipt. “It says journal/notebook. Maybe it’s more like a tablet or binder. Not a book. I’ll help you. If it’s here, we’ll find it.”
We went back through the house, each taking a room at a time, but finally after combing through the upstairs bedrooms and office, we found it in the living room. I was tossing the bookshelf again for a third time as Angie looked around the leather furniture. She found it beneath the black leather chaise. A throw blanket draped off the edge, and the journal rested in its folds. When Angie lifted it, we both saw the weathered leather journal resting on the floor. She picked it up and handed it over. She beamed at me in giving it.
It was a leather-bound book, about eight-by-ten, and perhaps an inch and a half thick. The pages were parchment of some kind and were yellowed with age. The cover was cowhide, grained and cracked, dried from years on a shelf or in a desk drawer. A flattened, dirty, nearly translucent bit of what I presumed to be rawhide marked a page midway through the book. It was scraggly, four inches taller than the book itself with scraps of what might have been hair stuck to it. It too was dried and grim. Ignoring the bookmark, I turned to the page it marked. In a flourishing hand in black ink, the top of the page said, “Telepathy: Successes and Failures.” Perhaps thirty pages of notes followed in a scrawled cursive, many notated with dates, starting with 1924 and moving forward until the last noted date of 1937 in the last chapter. There were some diagrams of the brain, most quite primitive. I didn’t bother to read the text. That could wait for later.
“Who was Edgar Cayce?” Angie asked, looking again at the receipt.
“I don’t know much about him, but I think he was some kind of clairvoyant from the 20s and 30s. But look at this book. This is talking about mind-reading. Was Trevor into the occult?”
Angie raised her eyebrows, shrugging with a smile. “No more than any other magician calling himself Merlyn.” She raised one eyebrow. Moving her eyes from the journal, she positioned her gaze onto my other hand. She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Yuck, what’s that?”
I looked at my right hand. I absentmindedly held the bookmark by my index finger and thumb. Now under closer scrutiny, I could tell the appendage had fingers, sinews dried to the tiny bones of an arm and dehydrated ligaments. I held it up, nearly translucent, to the picture window, filaments of hair clinging to the limb’s skin. Angie and I both said it at the same time.
“It’s a monkey’s paw!”
ANGIE AND I WERE SEATED at the kitchen table at Trevor’s, and we now both had tumblers of water. I looked over the supposed Cayce journal that Trevor had paid $1200 for in the week before he had disappeared. Angie broke the silence as I pored over the book.
“Look,” Angie said, “all of this telepathy monkey paw stuff makes the Trevor I know look pretty weird. He isn’t like that.” She shook her head. “Will you take me up the mountain? I have a place I want to show you. It will show you what Trevor’s really like.”
“Sure,” I said. “Where are we going?”
“Trev is building a home up the canyon—a long ways up Topanga. You need to see the site he chose.” She stood. “Wait while I change clothes.”
As Angie walked out, I watched her from behind, admiring the tan of her lean legs. While she was gone, I called Roddy.
“Sup?” he answered on the first ring.
“Still checking out the house. I got Baker’s laptop. I’ll bring it by when I come back down.”
“‘Okay. I downloaded all seven of the Merlyn’s TV specials, since you’ve never seen them. Man, you should see the one where he makes the guys from that pawnshop reality series think they lost all the guns from under the counter. And his card tricks, holy shit, I cannot figure out how he does it.”
“Rod, listen, man. I want you to call Karen James, Baker’s personal assistant. See if she knows anything and can get you passwords and whatever to his phone and email accounts. I really need to find out the name of the defense contractor Baker saw in Palo Alto. That’s first thing. Things went whacky as soon as he went up there.” I gave him Karen James’ number.
“Will do. See you when you get back with the laptop.”
Angie was still not back, and I could hear the sound of the shower running upstairs, so I picked up the Edgar Cayce journal and began to read. As best I could tell, it seemed to be a how-to for telepathy. The author, Cayce I would presume, although the journal was hand-written and unsigned, stated that telepathy required a gift and that not everyone had the ability to read minds or to travel through time to see events already past or yet to come. However, those who did have the gift needed a conduit, a talisman, in order to establish contact with the divine. The talisman needed to be something, an object—an item of clothing, for instance—and that object needed to have an emotional link to the person with whom the seer wished to connect. Objects, even places, Cayce believed, could become imbued with emotions, coated with a “spiritual scent” that only those with the gift could figuratively smell, or more rightly, intuit. Cayce believed that loss was the strongest of emotions. I pondered that for a moment. I no longer heard the shower but assumed Angie would still be a few minutes. I read on.
Cayce believed that loss carried such strong emotive resonance that spirits became trapped between the afterlife and the living because of the powerful effect upon the spirit by profound loss. Those whose spirits had suffered intense loss felt an almost infinite need to reconnect, to reestablish union. Loss of a loved one could drive one mad in life and could drive a spirit to such despair that it became trapped between worlds. But it also left trails, trails which someone, even “a lowly channel,” as Cayce called himself, could follow. Cayce followed these trails in his trances. And that was how he made his readings, following psychic trails like a hunting dog follows its prey. Cayce felt the loss of a child was perhaps the strongest of emotions and would therefore leave the strongest psychic trail. It only required someone with the gift and with the right talisman as a starting place to track it down—to connect with the spirit. However, Cayce wrote he assumed that the loss of a limb was an emotion of similar psychic pain and therefore, the phantom limb pain experienced by amputees was indicative of the lost limb trying to reconnect to its source. He was interested in providing readings for amputees because of the strong emotive value of the lost limb. I stared at the page.
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