As soon as they hired me and told me the details of the case, I knew it was going to end badly. That was as plain as the cultured marble on the law firm’s walls.
“We want you to find someone,” Lawyer #1 said.
All three of them were lawyers, and partners, in one of the largest and most feared firms in Detroit. The firm’s name alone was said to instill fear, panic and quick settlements.
Lawyer #1 was an older bald guy with the giant skin folds at his forehead that appeared and disappeared with each new expression. I knew his name, but for safety’s sake I’ll just stick to numbers. Besides, numbers just seemed to fit these guys better.
“And not just anyone,” Lawyer #2 said. His voice was high-pitched and whiny. Probably a tax attorney.
By the way, I should probably introduce myself. Naturally I have a name, but I’ll spare you that as well. Again, that whole safety issue.
The important thing for this story is that these guys called me the Garbage Collector, behind my back of course. There were a lot of fancy private investigators on the law firm’s payroll. They used them for the white collar crimes, the paralegal overcharging hours, the rich client cheating the IRS, etc. When they needed a guy who could get the dirty work done for them, though, that’s when they called yours truly.
“He’s our partner,” Lawyer #3 said. He was a short, squat guy. The only one who wasn’t wearing a suit jacket. His silk shirt was straining against his chest muscles. I worried about a button popping off.
This is the point where I knew it was most likely going to end badly. Finding a wayward client is one thing. Going after a blood brother of these guys was going to be sticky business. Bloody business, most likely.
“He’s developed an unquenchable appetite for an African-Asian prostitute named Hanicka,” #1 said.
“Hanicka,” I noted, jotting it down on a notepad.
“And Colombian cocaine,” #2 said.
“The white stuff,” I said, adding that to the notepad as well.
“And a Floridian villa called Jamaican Bay,” #3 said.
“The Sunshine State,” I said, putting that down, too, then adding a little sun with a smiley face. I enjoyed taking notes.
“I admire the international flavor of his addictions,” I said, deciding not to bring up the fact that they had already done quite a bit of homework. Usually, some of that would be left to me. My warning signals had gone to Code Red. But honestly, I was already thinking about my fee and a plane ticket to the land of Ponce de Leon. Anything to get the hell out of Detroit. The Motor City was bad enough in decent weather. Now, in February, it had all the charm of a leper colony.
“In order to fund his new vocations,” # 1 said, “Our esteemed partner has come up with a clever financing plan.”
“He made off with a host of the firm’s confidential materials,” said #2. “Materials that he’s using for a variety of purposes, chief among them blackmail.”
#3 slapped a plane ticket and a check on the mahogany conference table.
“Find him and deliver him to the authorities,” he said. “We’ll make sure the proper officials are notified ahead of time,” he said.
“But first,” said #1, “Please carefully separate said materials from our lost brethren and quietly deliver those back to the law firm.”
I sneaked a peek at the check.
It was triple my usual fee.
“One more thing,” #1 said.
“We would be remiss if we didn’t include this addendum,” #2 concurred.
“Absconding is not our friend’s historical pattern,” #3 said. “How shall I put this? Let’s just say he knows how to stay put in a demilitarized zone.
Great, I thought. A vet.
“Vietnam,” #1 said, reading my mind.
“Green Beret,” #2 said.
“Accomplished martial artist, as well,” #3 added.
I suddenly felt as if I’d been underpaid. When you work with lawyers like these guys, it’s not a question of if you’ll take one for the team, it’s only a matter of when.
The Florida air hit my face like the warm, wet kiss of Life itself. As I walked toward my rental car, relishing the feeling of the hot sun on my skin, I heard in my head the sound clip from a horror movie: “It’s alive!”
I happily threw my leather jacket in the back of the white Chevy Malibu, rolled the windows down and hit the smooth, pothole-free highway toward a wayward lawyer debauching himself in Paradise.
There were several addresses in my pocket, all covering an area roughly 100 square miles. They were locations Lawyer #4 had used various credit cards, traced by his partners back in Detroit.
There was also an anomaly. One mysterious phone call trace that had taken place some fifty miles from the credit card purchases.
The partners had told me they believed their ex was living in the general area of the credit card purchases and that the phone call was most likely made during some sort of trip.
Although I agreed with them verbally, I believed just the opposite. The credit card purchases were most likely done on purpose, an attempt to throw his pursuers off track. The phone call was the mistake.
So I slammed the credit card information into the Malibu’s glove compartment and headed off for the area of the phone call. It had been made from a place called The Seminole, a bar between Ft. Myers and Naples on the Gulf side of Florida, two hours north of Miami.
By the time I got to The Seminole, I was tired, thirsty and pretty sure no one was following me. I’m not paranoid, but like I said, this case was going to be nasty and it wouldn’t have surprised me if the lawyers back in Detroit had something up their sleeves beside matching Cartier watches.
Anyway, I landed at the Seminole and the first beer went down in about four or five gulps. The second one took about four or five minutes. The third one was still in my hand when I started thinking about why Lawyer #4 would have chosen The Seminole for the place to make a call. It was a hole-in-the-wall, non-tourist destination. Just a few locals, and judging by the amount of mowed grass stuck to their work boots and socks, most of them seemed to be employed in the landscaping business.
Had Lawyer #4 been here for a drink? Dinner? Had he been golfing all day? Sending out manila envelopes with blackmail materials inside? Swimming at the beach? And then he stopped in here on the way…where?
When I called the bartender over for Beer #4, I flashed my picture of Lawyer #4. I love symmetry.
He actually considered it.
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” he said. “Why you lookin’ for him?”
“His great aunt died and he’s the only heir. About fifty large coming his way if I can find him.” I had to lie. This guy looked like a Florida native. On the way over, I’d seen a bumper sticker on a white pickup truck that had read: “Happiness is a Northbound Yankee.”
“What’s your cut of that?” he said, his eyes full of jaded suspicion. Hadn’t anyone told these guys they’d lost the Civil War? I made a note to send Ken Burn’s documentary to this guy.
“Fifteen percent finder’s fee.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” he said as he popped the top on my best friend from Holland, Mr. Heineken. He walked away shaking his head.
Yeah, screw you too, buddy.
I moved away from the bar, found a small table and opened up the thin dossier my employers back in Motown had provided me.
It was a single sheet of paper with about five single-spaced paragraphs. Not really anything historical, like his military service record. Just stuff that would help me find him.
Lawyer #4 liked to sail. He liked to golf. He liked to play tennis. Occasionally he fished. He was a reader. He liked movies. Mostly smaller independent films, not Hollywood blockbusters.
Nowhere on the sheet of paper did it tell me why such an obviously accomplished man had fallen into drugs and disrepair, so far down the hole that he resorted to crime. There were usually only a handful of reasons for that descent, all variations of a theme. Frankly, I didn’t care. I just wanted to bag him without him bagging me.
I spent the next two weeks canvassing golf courses, sailing clubs, tennis clubs, marinas, and artsy movie theaters, usually ending up in the vicinity of The Seminole for dinner.
Oddly enough, the case broke wide open at a barbershop.
I went in, sat down in the chair and the old man started clipping. I looked down at the ground and saw my still jet black hair clips landing next to the unswept floor’s remains. My clips were an ink spot in a sea of white.
“Do you know how to cut hair that isn’t gray?” I said. A couple of the old men laughed and then I knew what I’d been doing wrong.
After the ten dollar hair cut, it would have cost me seven bucks if I was over 62, I went to an art supply store, got a white art pencil, took out my black-and-white photo of Lawyer #4 and used the white pencil to turn his fine head of hair into a dignified silver mane. Then I went back over the same rounds I’d been making for two weeks.
Two days later at the artsy movie theater, I got a hit.
“Oh, yeah. He sees just about every movie,” the young lady told me.
The next night, opening weekend for a film called “The Willow Weeps,” I set up my stakeout as far as humanly possible from the theater. After all, this guy had done a reasonably good job of hiding from his former partners. I didn’t want to spook him by being overeager.
Five minutes before eight o’clock, Lawyer #4 arrived. He had the hooker with him, which made me wonder if he’d leased her for a more long-term arrangement. I passed the time reading an AARP magazine I’d picked up somewhere.
97 minutes later, they came back out and I watched them get into a silver Cadillac. Following them wasn’t too difficult, despite the preponderance of shiny Cadillacs driven by gray-haired men.
They drove to a gated community, which was a problem. River Oaks. With a guard and a gate. Damn.
I watched them drive through the gate and I kept going. I pulled over to the shoulder of the road and hesitated for one brief second.
I put the hazards on, popped the trunk, threw the tire iron next to the back tire, climbed the fence and took off through the swampy grass next to the housing development. I could still see their taillights as they turned into the groups of homes and condos to the left of the gate. I prayed the community didn’t have super fancy security systems.
I made my way closer and watched the Caddy park in front of a small villa. I emerged from the grass near a play structure, for the grandkids no doubt, and strolled past the villa. I mentally recorded the number of the villa, then made my way back to the car. I threw the tire iron back in the trunk and went back to my hotel.
The next morning I was back. It took five cups of coffee and two deposits in the urine bottle before Lawyer #4 arrived for a late morning jog. He answered my prayers by leaving the compound and heading over to the running trails at the state park. I got out the necessary gear and waited for him to return to the entrance. Forty-five minutes later he did.
That’s when I shot him.
The gun was from my arsenal: a veterinarian’s rifle with a healthy dose of ketamine. Special K as the young kids at raves like to call it.
Lawyer #4 went down without a fight. Hey, they don’t call me the Garbage Collector for nothing.
I propped him in the passenger seat of my car and put an extra pair of sunglasses on him. Then I grabbed the subdivision i.d. tag from his fanny pack and drove through the gate directly to the villa. I put an arm around Lawyer #4 and brought him to the front door – he was quite a load. I unlocked it and went inside.
No one was home.
I set Mr. #4 on the couch, went out to the garage and brought some duct tape back inside. I trussed my quarry thoroughly and set about searching the villa.
It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for. It was in a room obviously used as a makeshift office. There was a computer and next to it and several boxes of documents bearing the name of my employer’s firm back in Detroit.
I went through the rest of the house very thoroughly. No other documents, no other computers. I detached the monitor from the main body of the computer and carried the hard drive out to the garage. I beat it into a few hundred little pieces with a rough framing hammer, then poured charcoal lighter on it, carried it in a metal garbage can to the back of the house by the grill and set it on fire.
Back in the living room, #4 was coming to. I carried the boxes of documents down and set them next to him.
Charbroiling the computer had made me thirsty so I got a Diet Coke from the fridge, went back to the living room and observed Lawyer #4.
Something had been bothering me, and now, watching my prize begin to stir, it started bugging me even more.
First of all, Lawyer #4 didn’t really look like a lawyer. Not that you can generalize. I’ve certainly seen them in all shapes and sizes. It’s just that before I became a p.i., I used to be a cop. And there’s just something about other guys who’ve either been cops or been in some kind of law enforcement position that sends your warning flags up.
Lawyer #4 was sending a few of my flags up. Way up.
His build, for starters. He was heavy. Not a giant guy, but big. And really solid. Not the kind of Brad Pitt Zone Diet kind of muscularity Hollywood favors. I’m talking big, hard muscles you get from years of training and/or fighting. Not necessarily working the Bowflex.
Two. His hands. Not a lot of scars, but several on each hand, across the knuckles. They were fighter’s hands. And I don’t mean fighter as in boxer. I mean fighter. On the streets or the back alleys.
Again, not a huge red flag, after all, a lawyer could have been a streetfighter from a tough neighborhood who made something better of himself.
Still, I had a feeling.
I went to the kitchen and got a serrated steak knife, then went back and cut off Lawyer #4’s shirt.
The tattoo wasn’t special ops. It was a prison tat.
This guy wasn’t a lawyer. And he hadn’t been a Green Beret in Vietnam as I’d been told by my employers.
This guy was a professional bodyguard.
And then it hit me. That initial feeling of things turning out badly had been more than that. It had been my instinct telling me I was being set up.
I went through the documents in the box. They were gibberish. Sheets and sheets of meaningless information.
They’d known all along.
And now I knew, too.
I had one shot to find her.
They would want to take her out of there as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.
I left the bodyguard trussed up, but with the knife close by so he could free himself. I ran out to the car, threw it in gear and rocketed out onto the highway, thinking they’d watched me watching the bodyguard, knew I was going to take him down while he was jogging. So they moved in, got her, and got out, leaving me to take the blame once what was left of her body washed up on shore somewhere, whatever the sharks decided not to eat. And they’re not known for being picky eaters.
I used my cell phone to call the marina. The only marina in the area if you had serious money.
I got the receptionist, named the law firm, and said I was a caterer needing to deliver a gourmet picnic basket for the law firm’s boating party.
She checked her records.
The firm had no boat at the marina.
I swung onto 41 South.
As I drove, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the cockroaches back in Detroit. They weren’t going to fly her out for the simple reason it’d be better to kill her down here. So if they were going to kill her here and dump her body someplace and they weren’t using a boat, they’d probably do it in one other place.
I drove ninety miles an hour, approximately. I figured my odds weren’t that bad. According to my map, there was only one road to the Glades from here and I figured they had maybe a ten minute head start. But they wouldn’t want to speed and attraction attention.
I notched it up to a hundred, as fast as the piece of shit rental car would go. And I caught up to them ten miles from Everglades City. The touching off point for any forays into the swamp. As soon as I pulled up to the gray Buick, I knew it was them. Two bullet-headed thugs in suits in the front seat. The top of someone’s frizzy hair against the bottom of the back window. She was probably unconscious and bound. Slumped in the back seat.
I dropped back into traffic and followed them to a small, public marina. They parked in front of the public information area and one of the slabs of meat went into the little building.
The other one went around to the trunk of the car.
That’s when I shot him in the back of the neck with the tranquilizer gun. He took two steps and stumbled, luckily, on the side of the car not visible from the information shack. So when his partner came out, I shot him in the thigh. He took three steps and fell on the other side of the car.
I hurried out and saw the girl in the backseat. She was trussed up with nylon ties and a gag. Here eyes were open. She didn’t look scared.
I didn’t have much time. I loaded the two guys into the trunk of their car, undid the girl’s ties and walked her back to my car with my arm around her. I had no idea how many people were in the information building just how much they had seen. I backed out of the lot so my license plate wasn’t visible. It might buy me a little more time.
Back on 41, I turned right and headed toward Miami.
After a few minutes, she sat up a little straighter and looked at me.
“Who are you?” she said. Her voice was firm and low. A lawyer’s voice.
“A former employee of the same firm you worked for.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Are you going to take me back to them?”
“That’s what I was hired to do,” I said.
“And I don’t think I’ll be fulfilling my end of the bargain. I believe in lawyer’s terms it’s called misrepresentation.”
“Are you the Garbage Collector?” she said.
“I really hate that name. But yes.”
“Your reputation precedes you,” she said. She glanced back over her shoulder. No one was behind us.
After a beat, I said, “What do you have on them?”
She let out a long sigh. “Money laundering,” she said. “For the mob and a big collection of drug dealers.”
“Were you blackmailing them?”
She smiled, a tired exercise. “You don’t blackmail these guys.”
“So they tried to bring you in, you said no, then you had to get out. But they weren’t about to let you out.”
“No one gets out.”
“Why didn’t you go to the Feds?” I said.
“I did,” she said, an eyebrow raised. “They had an agent guarding me but he left for his jog and then they came and got me.”
“Oops,” I said.
“Now what,” she said as much to herself as to me.
I thought about it.
“I have a buddy who makes people disappear,” I said. “He’s in Arizona.”
“I don’t have much money,” she said.
“I’ve got some money from the law firm. I don’t think they’ll be asking for its return.”
She smiled just a little bit.
“Consider it your severance package,” I said.
She gave a slight nod and I turned the car around.
Pointed it toward Arizona.