I haven't posted in a long time, a combination of summer diversions and editing Winner Takes All. I thought since sales of Win or Go Home have been, well let's say flat for the past month, I thought I'd include a chapter to create some interest.
Parker killed the car engine and surveyed the strip mall. It was late morning but few people were around. The parking lot held the usual eclectic assortment of cars. A few minivans, some weathered but rust-free Japanese subcompacts, a moped, a Harley and his personal favorite: an oversized sedan that belonged in the ‘60s and probably had been owned by somebody’s granny so it only had 20,000 on the odometer. A police car cruised by on the avenue, slowing a bit as it passed two women clad in mini-skirts and tube tops walking toward Parker. The breeze off Puget Sound lifted fast food wrappers and plastic bags. The women—barely out of their teens—grimaced as the chilly air hit them. The cops did a U-turn and pulled in ahead of them. The squad car lights began flashing and the girls stopped without being told and glared at the cops. One of them opened her purse and lit a cigarette. The other started texting.
Parker spotted the pay phone, sheltered under a blue hood between two storefronts. The phone directories were long gone. Only the chains remained. Taggers had decorated the inside of the hood with urban hieroglyphics. He dropped in a quarter and dialed. Angel picked up on the first ring. “Yeah.”
“I’m at the Sound Heights Mall,” said Parker.
“What do you see?”
Parker turned around. “Well, out on the street the cops have stopped a couple of women and they’re talking.”
“Hookers, probably. Not their usual time. Must have had late dates,” said Angel. “How about the mall?”
Parker left the receiver hanging and walked backwards into the parking lot. There were larger and less dated malls only minutes away. The businesses here seemed destined to make the Chapter 11 listings before long. Some loyal customers persisted, but this neighborhood had few permanent residents. Out in the street the cops had handcuffed one woman. The other continued to text. He picked up the phone. “Bamboo Gate Nail Salon, Emerald City Confidential, one abandoned, SeaTac Crafts and Tru-Valu Pawn Shop,” he recited.
“Well, start at the nail salon. They probably work eighteen hour days. Maybe they remember seeing something. Did you remember Norton’s mug shot?”
“Yes, boss,” Parker deadpanned, and hung up.
The Bamboo Gate served as the eastern anchor of the mall. An authentic bamboo sign swung from wrought iron supports above the entrance. The paint had faded and peeled but he could read the subscript: We welcome walk-ins. No checks, please. Parker paced off the distance from the payphone to the front door. Twenty feet. Cigarette butts littered the sidewalk in an untidy circle a step or two away. For once he appreciated smokers. There was a chance one had seen the caller.
Parker entered and looked around. Music drifted through ceiling tiles, tickling his memory. The lyrics were Vietnamese but the composers were Lennon and McCartney. The air smelled of ethyl acetate, the major ingredient of nail polish. Six manicurists were working, facing the front window while their customers watched a TV hanging from the ceiling in the rear.
One by one, the manicurists stopped to look at him. They all wore identical blue smocks with white collars. None looked out of her teens by much. The sounds of quiet chatter dwindled to nothing, leaving the Vietnamese Beatles to compete with a talk show. In the farthest cube, a woman set her tools down and strolled in his direction. She carried her small frame with the air of someone in authority even though she was a full head shorter than Parker. She wore her hair spiked; tiger striped black on orange—or was it orange on black? But that didn’t grab his attention as much as her blue eyes.
“Can I help you?” She grabbed his hand and spread the fingers apart. “We—ah—not do nails for many guys here. You not look gay.” She dropped his hand and demanded, “What you want?”
“Information.” Parker flexed his fingers; her grip had been that strong. “I don’t need my nails done. I can be generous.”
“You a cop?”
“Bail recovery. Bounty hunter.” Parker flipped his slim wallet open and showed his ID. The woman looked it over and said something in Vietnamese. A chorus of tittering erupted behind her. “What’s the joke?” he said.
“You no look like bounty hunter on TV,” said the girl.
“Not ugly enough for you?”
She made another comment and her co-workers laughed again. Parker shrugged and looked around. Some of the customers had turned their heads to check out the conversation. “I say you think highly of yourself,” she said.
Parker showed her the mug shot. “Three days ago somebody called him from that phone out there. Maybe he came to the mall later and walked by the window? Maybe a few weeks before?”
She took a look. “White men all look same. But he never been around.”
“You sure about that?” Parker opened his wallet again, this time exposing the fifty tucked behind the ID. She tilted the picture and squinted. She showed it to all the girls in their cubes.
“Sorry, they no see him either,” she said. “Wish we did. Business bad. Hard to pay rent.”
Parker gave her his card. “Office and cell numbers. You see him, call. You remember something, call.” He flicked the corner of the fifty before he put the wallet away.
She smiled at him as she slid the card under the meager stacks of bills in the register drawer. “Hey, you got wife or girlfriend? Maybe you buy her manicure. Give you a good price.”
“Not attached,” he said. “But I’ll try to refer anyone I meet.” He pointed at the door. “The shop next door: Emerald City Confidential. Dating service?”
The girl cleared her throat and mimed a spitting action. “Whores around here don’t use buildings. Do it in cars, in alleys, everyplace. Stay away, you get sick.”
Parker gave her a smile of his own. “I don’t mean it that way. I want to ask them questions. What kind of place is it?”
“Private eye. A pig.”
“The pig have a name?” he asked.
“Decker. He think he important because he used to be cop. He ask me for date like I am street girl. I tell him to go away, he get mad and kick the wall.” She pointed to a divot in the drywall and made a hissing noise as she curled her fingers like cat’s claws.
“What’s your name?” said Parker.
“Annie, I’m dying to pay somebody for information.” He took the fifty out and handed it over. “Keep your eyes open, that’s all I’m asking. This is a deposit. Deal?”
Annie took the bill and slid it into her bra. She looked down and tucked it a hair farther. Parker walked out the door thinking the fifty was wasted, but who knew? At least some unreported income for the shop. God knew it could use a stimulus package.
Parker walked to the pay phone and looked up at the Emerald City Confidential sign. He hadn’t noticed the surveillance camera when he called Angel. It was bolted below the green block letters twelve feet above the sidewalk. The builder had used glass bricks to create two rectangular windows on either side of the door, which was metal and looked as robust as a bank vault. He had seen gun stores that had less secure entrances. Brass screws attached the numbers of the street address to the door and below them: Office hours by appointment only. He stood there asking himself: what would Angel do?
He knocked on the door and waited. Out in the street the cops and the hookers were long gone. On impulse he closed his hand on the doorknob and twisted. To his surprise, it was unlocked. He had no plan. He had left his paperwork in the car. His gun, too. He held his breath and pushed the door open. Seeing nothing, he stepped across the threshold.
The door closed with a crisp click. He stood still, adjusting to the gloom, aware of stale smoke and the smell of sweat. The glass bricks were more opaque than they appeared. “Hello?” he said into the void. He spotted a switch on the wall and flipped it. The fluorescent tubes overhead made a pinging noise as they warmed and came to life. Five armchairs upholstered in dreary, synthetic colors appeared in the flickering light. The cushions had been oxidized to black after years of compression. A low table to the left could have held magazines but didn’t. Maybe the clients didn’t read. Maybe someone had taken them. The light was lousy anyway.
Two doors led out of the waiting room. The first was fitted with a state of the art steel and brass dead bolt. It would take an explosive to open it. The other one couldn’t have kept out a curious fifth grader. Angel had taken him to an abandoned house once to show him how to enter by force. One hard kick against the jamb would do the trick. In this case it wasn’t necessary, as Parker tried the tinny looking knob and turned it slowly, silently. He allowed the latch to re-engage without opening the door. He thought about his gun, safely locked in his trunk. What did he have to fear? Thinking of nothing, he knocked. Shave and a haircut, two bits. Silence after the echoes faded. He pushed the door and waited while it swung out of sight and bumped the wall.
An oblong computer screen illuminated the room with understated blue tones. He peeked left and right to verify the room was unoccupied and then flipped the light switch. Here there were more comfortable furnishings: a leather sofa against the wall, a massive wooden desk, a filing cabinet and a standup refrigerator next to a sink.
Parker walked past the computer to the wall behind the desk. Unlike Angel’s office, where every square inch of space was occupied by a plaque or photograph, the motif here was Spartan. A private investigator’s license issued to Leonard Howard Decker. Next to it a laminated plaque depicting a mythical, four-legged creature in green holding a flaming torch with its claws. 341st Training Squadron. “Detect and Defend” inscribed underneath. Next to it, an 11x14 photograph of two men in fatigues posing in front of a Gothic style cathedral. It looked European but Parker couldn’t place it otherwise. The final exhibit in the gallery was an award for meritorious service dated July 1995 honoring Patrolman Leonard H. Decker.
The file cabinet contained just empty manila folders with colored tabs displaying case names. The files were most certainly all on the computer, which displayed a screensaver picture that disappeared when Parker touched the mouse. A login screen demanding user ID and password took its place. Hacking wasn’t part of his repertoire so he let it alone. The desktop contained only an ashtray with three cigar butts, a telephone and a framed photo of a girl, maybe early teens, with a winning smile and brown eyes. The desk drawers had miscellaneous stationery supplies and nothing of interest. Parker wondered if the surveillance camera feed went directly to the computer or to a hidden recorder. He even checked the wastebasket, but found nothing.
It occurred to him to leave a note. A polite request for a return call and information. He found a pen and piece of paper and started writing when the snick-snick sound of a semi-automatic being racked froze him. “Help you find something?” said a deep voice.
“Looking for a pen,” said Parker. “I was going to leave a note.”
“Care to explain why you were fucking with the computer?”
“I touched the mouse, that’s all.”
“What did you plan to write?”
“My name and number,” said Parker. He hadn’t heard the door open but now the approaching footsteps were obvious enough. They stopped a couple of feet behind. The gunman’s breathing sounded harsh, as if he had a broken nose, improperly set. The sounds came from a point higher than Parker’s ears, meaning the gunman was at least six-four. In spite of his size he had approached within a few feet before Parker knew it. Parker kept still. The gunman didn’t move either. Waiting for Parker to do something stupid or just planning his next move?
Yang had tried to show him how to take down a gunman in this position. Forgetting that he broke the first rule: never let someone sneak up from behind, what next? Get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. Would the guy risk shooting at his own computer? It was only the screen; the CPU sat on the floor. A new monitor at Best Buy cost 150 bucks. OK, rule two: after moving right, whirl and grab the gun arm and smash it against the desk. Follow that if necessary with a knee to the groin. Piece of cake.
A semi-auto pistol needed five pounds of pressure and three-eighths of an inch trigger pull to fire. Odds were the gunman already had a couple of pounds on it already. Would Parker bet his life he could get out of the way?
“Raise your hands up and turn around slow.”
Parker made the move using baby steps, hands as high as he could reach. He looked at the gun first. It wasn’t a Glock like he had. This was a Colt .45 M1911 model, the traditional military sidearm issued for many years before the government went to the Beretta 9mm, and the gunman held it left handed. Parker’s fantasy of disarming him would have ended in disaster. “My name is Rick Parker. I work for Rainier Bail Recovery. ID is in my pocket. Put the gun down.”
“I’m Lenny Decker. But then, somehow I think you knew that.” He kept the Colt trained on Parker.
“I’m looking for somebody else,” said Parker.
“I know how bounty hunters work. What made you come here?”
“Got a tip about a bail skipper named Michael Norton.”
“You armed?” said Decker.
“No. I left it in my car,” said Parker.
Decker lowered the Colt and began to laugh. “You dipshit,” he said between bellows. “Show me the ID.”
Decker slipped the Colt into a shoulder holster once he had his hands on Parker’s wallet. Parker had been accurate with Decker’s height: easily six-four and with only a slight paunch. Not the sort of guy you’d hassle unless you were drunk and aching for a fight. He’d been right about the broken nose as well. Whoever had hit him meant business. It begged for a good nose and throat surgeon to straighten it. If Decker hadn’t gone down from the blow, he probably left his assailant in worse shape: his hands were massive.
Decker tossed the wallet on his desk and paced back and forth, staring at Parker the whole time. His skin had lost a battle with adolescent acne, adding to his menacing appearance. “What sort of tip are you talking about? You think I hide fugitives?”
“Pay phone out front. Somebody called Norton’s house from it right before he fled.”
“It’s a free country. I don’t use pay phones.”
“Maybe you saw who did.”
“Maybe you noticed how I don’t have much of a front window,” said Decker.
“You’ve got a security camera pointed at it.”
“It’s pointed at the sidewalk.”
“Can I see the tape from last week?” asked Parker.
“Wouldn’t do you any good. It recycles every 24 hours. You’re on it. So are any clients who’ve seen me. They like things confidential. That means secret, in case you didn’t know.”
Decker’s expression gave away nothing. He could be lying about the tape. Parker had been lied to by experts. He had a hunch, which was worth nothing. It didn’t matter. Decker didn’t act like a guy who was careless, other than leaving his office wide open this once. Parker tried playing to his ego.
“Too bad for me, I guess. So tell me: I bet you’re good at finding people who don’t want to be found. Suppose the phone call was your only clue. What would you do?”
“I wouldn’t waste my time breaking in places, that’s for sure.”
“The door was open,” said Parker.
“It still is. Get out. I know who you work for. You don’t have the first clue about what you’re doing. If you don’t want to get hurt, stay away from me.” He motioned Parker toward the door and touched the butt of the Glock for emphasis.
Parker dropped one of his cards on the desk and took out Norton’s mug shot. “I’m looking for him. I pay good money for information that helps me.”
“Never laid eyes on him. I’ve got work to do. Get the hell out,” said Decker.
“We’re going to run down all the numbers called from the phone booth and your number as well. If any of them match, I’ll be back.”
“Do your worst, bounty hunter,” sneered Decker.
Parker called Molly from the car as he pulled away from the curb. Decker stood in his doorway, watching. A homeless man pushed a shopping cart along the sidewalk, talking to the air. Parker briefed Molly, leaving out the part about Decker’s Glock. “He wasn’t cooperative but I’ve got an idea. Check the numbers called from the pay phone and Decker’s office.”
“Doc, did you think I was a complete moron?” said Molly. “I’ve been doing that all morning. It’s SOP when we know a target has used a payphone. I’ve got, let’s see, about 75 calls to run down. Check with me in a couple of days and I should be able to give any positives.”
“Oh.” No wonder Decker had looked at him with such scorn. Another rookie mistake. Molly had been decent enough not to rub his nose in it. “I’m driving to interview Mrs. Norton next.”
“Have fun,” said Molly.