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Elvis Cole and Joe Pike keep their promises. Even if it could get them killed…
Elvis Cole is hired to find a woman who’s disappeared, a seemingly ordinary case, until he learns the missing woman is an explosives expert and worked for a Defense Department contractor. Meanwhile, LAPD K-9 Officer Scott James and his patrol dog, Maggie, track a fugitive to a house filled with explosives–and a dead body. As the two cases intertwine, they all find themselves up against shadowy arms dealers and corrupt officials, and the very woman they promised to save may be the cause of their own deaths.
The Drop House
THE WOMAN STOOD in the far corner of the dimly lit room, hiding in shadows like a fish in gray water. She was small, round, and dumpy. The fringed leather jacket probably made her seem rounder, but she'd never been a looker. She reminded Mr. Rollins of an overripe peach, and the peach was clearly afraid.
A steady rain fell from the overcast night. The dingy, one-bedroom bungalow west of Echo Park reeked of bleach and ammonia, but the windows were closed, the shades were down, and the doors were locked. A single yellow twenty-five-watt lamp provided the only light. The chemical smell gave Mr. Rollins a headache, but he could not open the windows. They were screwed shut.
Rollins wasn't his real name, but the man and the woman probably weren't using their true names, either. Amy and Charles. Amy hadn't said three words since they arrived. Charles did the talking and Charles was getting impatient.
"How long does this take?"
The chemist's answer was resentful.
"Two minutes, dude. Relax. Science takes time."
The chemist was a juiced-up, sleeved-out rock pile hunched over the coffee table. A hiker's LED headlamp blazed on his forehead. He was heating the contents of a glass jar with a small torch while watching two meters that looked like swollen TV remotes. Rollins had found him cooking meth eight years ago and used him often.
Charles was a trim man in his forties with neat brown hair and the tight build of a tennis player. Mr. Rollins had made three buys off Charles in the past year, and all had gone well. This was why Mr. Rollins let him bring the woman, only now, seeing her, Rollins wondered why she wanted to come. She damned near pissed herself when Rollins searched her and made them put on the gloves. He made everyone who entered the house wear vinyl gloves. Rollins did not allow food or drinks. No one could chew gum or smoke cigarettes. The list was pretty long. Mr. Rollins had rules.
He smiled as he adjusted his gloves.
"They make your hands sweat, don't they, Amy? I know it's a pain, but we're almost finished."
Charles answered for her.
"She's fine. Tell your man to finish up so we can get out of here."
The chemist mumbled without looking up.
Rollins smiled at Amy again and glanced at the round plastic container beside the chemist. It was filled with a material that looked like yogurt and felt like modeling clay.
"Where'd you get this?"
Charles stepped on her answer again.
"I told you where we got it."
Rollins considered pushing his pistol up Charles's ass and popping a cap, but he did not let his feelings show.
"I'm just making conversation. Amy seems nervous."
Charles glanced at Amy.
Amy's voice was whisper-soft when she finally spoke.
"I made it."
The chemist snorted.
Then the chemist sat up and gazed at Rollins.
"Whoever made it did a righteous job. It's the real deal, brother."
Charles crossed his arms. Smug.
Rollins was impressed. The material in the Tupperware was not easy to come by. Charles claimed the woman had two hundred kilograms.
"What about tags?"
The chemist turned off the torch and unplugged the meters.
"Ethylene test shows zero. I'll know parts per million when I run a samp at home, but the stuff is clean, bro. No tags. Untraceable."
Rollins thanked the chemist, who packed his equipment into a green backpack and let himself out through the kitchen. A light winter shower pattered the roof.
Charles said, "So now what? Are we in business?"
Rollins sealed the lid on the Tupperware.
"The buyer will test it himself. If his results are the same, we're golden."
Amy spoke again and this time she sounded anxious.
"I'll make more for the right buyer. I can make all they want."
Charles took her arm, trying to turn her away.
"Let's see their money first."
Amy did not move.
"I have to meet them, you know. That's a requirement."
Charles steered her toward the front door like a shopping cart. Rollins quickly stopped them.
"Back door, Charles. Never the front."
Charles swung the woman around and aimed her toward the kitchen. After insisting she come, Charles couldn't get her out of the house fast enough.
Rollins opened the back door and asked for their gloves. He gave Amy a gentle smile.
"Buyers don't like to be met, but they'll make an exception for you, Amy. I promise."
She seemed ready to cry, but Charles pulled her out and they disappeared into the rain.
Rollins locked the kitchen door and hurried to the front door, where he peered through a peephole. When Charles and Amy reached the street, he returned to the kitchen and opened the back door to air the place out. The tiny backyard was dark and hidden from neighbors by overgrown bushes and a sprawling avocado tree.
Rollins stood in the door breathing air that didn't stink of ammonia and called his buyer.
A coded way of saying the tests were positive.
"Very good. I will send someone."
"You have the other things here, too. I've told you for a week to come get this stuff."
"I am sending someone."
"I want it gone. All of it."
"He will take it."
Rollins put the Tupperware in the bedroom with the other things and returned to the kitchen. He still wore his gloves and would wear them until he left. He took a one-liter spray bottle from beneath the sink and sprayed bleach on the kitchen counters and floor and door. He sprayed the coffee table where the chemist had done his work and the stool on which the chemist had sat. He sprayed the living room floor and the doorjamb between the kitchen and living room. Rollins believed the bleach would destroy the enzymes and oils left in fingerprints or spit and erase DNA evidence. He wasn't convinced this was true, but it seemed sensible, so he bleached out the house whenever he used it.
When Mr. Rollins acquired the house, he made several changes to better serve his needs, like screwing shut the windows and installing peepholes. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive, and nothing to attract the neighbors' attention, none of whom knew him, had met him or, hopefully, seen him. Rollins did only enough maintenance to prevent the house from becoming an eyesore. He let people stay from time to time, never anyone he personally knew and only long enough so the neighbors would think the house was a rental. Mr. Rollins had not built a fortress when he acquired the house, just a place of relative safety from which to do his crime.
Rollins put away the bleach, returned to the living room, and turned off the lamp. He sat in the darkness, nose burning as he listened to the rain.
1742 Zulu Time.
Mr. Rollins hated to wait, but there was big money at stake if Charles and Amy were real. Rollins wondered if Charles beat her. He seemed like the type. She seemed like the type, too. Rollins's older sister married a man who abused her for years until Rollins killed him.
Rollins checked the time again.
Rollins put his pistol on the couch. He rested his hand on the gun, checked the time, and closed his eyes.
The rain stopped.
Someone knocked at the front door.
Rollins jerked to his feet and moved quickly into the kitchen. The buyer's man would never use the front door. That was a rule. Everyone used the back.
Rollins quietly closed and locked the kitchen door as knocking came from the front.
Knock knock knock.
Rollins slipped off his shoes and hurried to the front.
Knock knock knock.
Mr. Rollins peered through the peephole and saw an adult male in a dark rain shell. The hood was back and the unzipped shell exposed a loud patterned shirt. Average height, Anglo, dark hair. The man pressed the bell, but the bell didn't work, so he knocked again.
Rollins held his pistol close as he watched.
The man waited a few seconds and finally walked away.
Rollins watched for another two minutes. Cars passed and a couple went by huddled beneath an umbrella even though the rain no longer fell. The world appeared normal, but a siren wailed in the distance. Rollins had a bad feeling.
Rollins phoned the buyer again.
"The person you sent, he knows to go to the back?"
"Yes. Of course. He has been there before."
"If you sent someone, he didn't show."
"Hold on. I will find out."
A second siren was screaming. Closer.
The man's voice returned.
"He should have been there. This is not right."
"I'm jammed up here, man. I want to leave."
"Bring the material to me. Not here. Someone will meet you by MacArthur Park, there on the northeast corner."
Rollins felt a flash of anger, but kept his voice cool. Rollins had made a fortune off this man and stood to make more.
"You know the rules, Eli. I'm not driving around with your things in my car. Come get this crap."
Rollins was pocketing his phone when he heard a wet crunch in the yard and pounding on the back door.
Rollins hurried to the kitchen, checked the peephole, and saw a face he recognized. Carlos, Caesar, something like that. His eyes were bright and he was breathing hard when Rollins opened the door.
Rollins scratched gloves from his pocket.
"Put on the gloves, you idiot."
Carlos ignored the gloves and ran to the living room, trailing mud and grass. He peeked out the nearest window, bare fingers touching the shade. A helicopter passed overhead so low the little house shook.
"Fuck your gloves. You hear that? The police are on me, bro. Ain't this fuckin' cool? I smoked their blue ass!"
The helicopter rumbled away, but circled the area.
Rollins felt a burst of fear. Thoughts of mud, grass, and fingerprints on the shade vanished. He touched aside the shade and saw a blazing searchlight sweep the next street.
"You brought the police."
Carlos turned away, laughing.
"I lost them, bro. I could be anywhere."
Rollins felt as if his head were filling with angry maggots. The helicopter orbited overhead, lighting up the shades. The chop of the rotor moved away and slowly circled.
"How the fuck did this happen?"
"They made my face. I got warrants, y'know? Relax."
Carlos flopped onto the couch, giggling, wired on adrenaline and chemicals. His muddy shoes were on the cushions.
"They don't know where I am. They gonna roll over us and keep right on rollin'."
Rollins gathered his thoughts. The house was now lost. The goods in the bedroom were history. The mud and the grass no longer mattered. Rollins could not allow himself to be found here with the material in the bedroom and this giggling idiot on the couch. Rollins accepted these facts and the acceptance brought calm.
The pistol was no good to him now. Rollins returned to the cabinet where he kept the bleach and took out a rusted, fourteen-inch pipe wrench. The wrench easily weighed three or four pounds.
Carlos was still stretched on the couch when Mr. Rollins went back to the living room. He strode directly to Carlos without saying a word and brought the wrench down hard. He felt the head go on the first blow, but gave it two more. Rollins dropped the wrench and put on a fresh pair of gloves. He pressed the pistol into Carlos's hands, both hands so it would look like Carlos had handled the gun, and dropped it beside the wrench. If Rollins was picked up, he did not want a gun in his possession.
The helicopter passed again. The shades flashed into blinding white rectangles and once more filled with black.
Rollins trotted to the front door and looked through the peephole. A police officer passed on the sidewalk and another spoke with people across the street. Rollins closed his eyes. He took slow, measured breaths as he counted to one hundred. He put his eye to the peephole again. The policemen were gone.
Rollins returned to the kitchen. He wore a dark sport coat and slacks. There would be blood splatter, but the blood would be difficult to see at night on the dark fabric. He had a nylon rain shell, but decided not to put it on. The sport coat was better. The police were looking for a young Latin guy in a black T-shirt, not an older, well-dressed Anglo. His car was several blocks away. If Rollins could get away from the house and beyond the police perimeter, he still might survive.
The light returned and slid away again.
Rollins moved in the moment of darkness. He opened the kitchen door, peeled off his gloves, and stepped out. A cop and a German shepherd were in the backyard. The dog was a deep-chested brute with angry eyes and fangs like daggers. The cop shouted as the dog charged.
MERYL LAWRENCE GAVE ME three things on that rainy night when she hired me to find Amy Breslyn. She gave me an address in Echo Park, two thousand dollars in cash, and a corporate personnel file with so much information about her missing friend it could have been compiled by the NSA. It probably was. She gave me these three things, but nothing else. Everything else was secret.
The Echo Park address was four or five years old and probably no longer useful, but it was on my way home. Twenty minutes before ten that same night—fifty-two minutes after I agreed to find Amy Breslyn—I parked beneath a streetlight during a soft, feathery rain, one block from the Echo Park house. I would have parked closer, but no other spots were available. A fire hydrant saved me.
A teenage girl chased a young boy past the window of a house across from me. Next door, a middle-aged woman in purple tights pedaled an exercise bike. Behind me, a balding man laughed at a television as large as a wall. Nine forty was early. Every house on the block was alive with life except the house I came to find. It was dark and lonely and promised to be a waste of time.
I was watching the purple woman when my phone rang.
"Elvis Cole Detective Agency. We do it in the rain."
Humor. I am my own best audience.
Meryl Lawrence's voice was quiet within the darkness.
"I found her house key. I guess it fell off the console. It was under my front seat."
I had met with Meryl Lawrence in her car behind Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. She hired me in a parking lot because Ms. Lawrence did not want to be seen with me. She paid me in cash because she wanted no record of our association. Like so much about Amy Breslyn, my relationship with Meryl Lawrence was Top Secret.
I said, "Good work. Now I won't have to climb down her chimney."
"Are you coming back? I'll give you the key and her alarm code."
"Not tonight. I'm at Lerner's house."
Her voice perked up.
"Has he seen her?"
"Haven't spoken to him yet. I'm waiting for the rain to stop."
She sounded deflated. The address belonged to an aspiring writer named Thomas Lerner. Lerner and Amy's son, Jacob, grew up together. After college, Lerner wanted to be a writer, so he rented the Echo Park house for cheap and set about typing. Jacob Breslyn went to work as a journalist and happily traveled the world until he and thirteen other people were killed by a terrorist blast in Nigeria. Amy changed after Jacob died, Meryl told me. Amy withdrew and was never the same. Now, sixteen months after Jacob's death, Amy had simply walked away, vanished, disappeared, over and out, gone. Meryl did not know if Amy had kept in touch with Lerner or if he still lived at the Echo Park address, but if anyone knew Amy's secrets, Meryl felt it would be Amy's last and only link to her son.
"It doesn't look like anyone's home. If he's here, I'll see what he knows. If he moved, maybe I can find out how to reach him."
"Ask if she mentioned a boyfriend."
She had gone on about the boyfriend in Vroman's parking lot. Meryl Lawrence had never met the man, didn't know his name, and couldn't describe him, but she was one hundred percent convinced a man was behind Amy's disappearance. Sometimes you just have to let them vent.
"I only met Thomas the one time, but he should remember. Tell him I haven't been able to reach her, so I'm worried, but don't tell him I hired you, and please for God's sake don't mention anything else I've told you."
"I know how to handle it."
"I know you know, but I want to make sure you understand. Everything I told you is strictly off-limits."
"If I understood any better, it would be tattooed on my head."
Meryl Lawrence swore me to secrecy because she was afraid. She was a senior executive for a company called Woodson Energy Solutions, where Amy Breslyn had been a chemical production engineer for fourteen years. They manufactured fuels for the Department of Defense, which meant their work was classified. The first thing she asked when we met was if the word 'confidential' on my business card truly meant confidential.
I told her, "Yes, ma'am, it does."
"Swear to me. Swear you won't breathe a word."
Four days earlier, Amy Breslyn had taken a leave of absence without explanation and with no advance warning. She did so by email. Meryl and her bosses tried to reach Amy, but their calls and texts were not returned. A day later, Meryl went to Amy's home. Amy was gone, but nothing seemed amiss. The following day, Meryl discovered four hundred sixty thousand dollars missing from Amy's department. Meryl kept this discovery secret. She believed her friend had been coerced, and hoped to handle the situation without involving the authorities. She hired me off the books and without her company's knowledge. She also refused to give me access to Amy's office, corporate email, and any information related to Amy Breslyn's work. Security.
"I'll get the key from you in the morning. Want to meet in the same place?"
"Oh my God, no. It's too chancy. I have to be in West Hollywood tomorrow. Pick a place, and plan on meeting me at seven."
I suggested a parking lot at the corner of Fairfax and Sunset. Meryl Lawrence liked parking lots.
"All right, tomorrow at seven unless I hear otherwise. Maybe you can settle this tonight and save us the trouble."
From the look of the dead little house, I doubted it.
"Is it still raining?"
"If you do it in the rain, get out of your car and find her."
One hour into the job and I was already getting attitude.
I fingered through Amy Breslyn's file by the hazy glow of the streetlight. Her corporate portrait showed a round woman with light brown hair, a soft face, and the sad eyes of someone who lost her only child for reasons no sane person could understand. If she wore makeup, I could not see it. She was as anonymous as a blur in a crowd except for the fact this particular blur possessed a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from UCLA. I tucked her picture into my pocket.
When the rain stopped a few minutes later, I walked up the street and went to Lerner's door. A porch lamp hung beside the door, but the bulb was as dark as the rest of the house. I knocked, waited a few seconds, and knocked again. I pressed the buzzer, but the bell didn't work any better than the lamp. Lovely.
I knocked some more, then went back to my car.
Twelve minutes later I was deciding whether to wait or return in the morning when an LAPD helicopter thundered overhead so low it rattled my car. Its searchlight crawled across the nearby houses, making their newly wet roofs shimmer. I craned my head to watch. A flashing radio car suddenly filled the street three blocks ahead and more lights flashed in my mirror. A second black-and-white crowded the intersection one block behind me. The helicopter boomed over again, raking the ground with its light. I twisted and turned. Whatever was happening was happening fast. More radio cars joined the first two, strobing the houses with red and blue flashes as a small army of uniformed officers dismounted to block the street.
The people who lived in the houses appeared in their windows or came outside to watch. I got out of my car and watched along with them. The Los Angeles Police Department was surrounding their neighborhood like a gathering thunderstorm.
A short man in a faded sweatshirt came to the door of the house behind me and called out with a Spanish accent.
"What they doin'?"
"Setting up a perimeter. I think they're looking for someone."
He joined me on the sidewalk. A woman holding a baby took his place in the door.
The helicopter flew in a lazy circle three or four blocks wide, burning the earth with its searchlight. We stood below in a brilliant white pool so bright we squinted, but then the pool was gone.
The man hooked his thumbs in his pockets.
"We got too much crime 'round here. I got babies in my house."
I pointed at Lerner's.
"The dark house on the next block. Does Thomas Lerner live there?"
He stared at the house.
"Young guy. Anglo. He'd be twenty-eight or twenty-nine, something like that. Thomas Lerner."
He shook his head before I finished.
"We been here three years and there ain't no Lermer guy there."
"Was some black chicks when we moved in, but they gone. A Filipino dude stayed there for a few weeks and we had a man from El Salvador, but that was a couple years ago. Nobody livin' there now."
The news wasn't all bad. If the property was a rental before, during, and after Lerner lived there, the landlord might have a forwarding address or Lerner's rental application. The rental app would give me the names and addresses of employers, references, and maybe even Lerner's parents. Finding him would be easy.
Several officers were working their way toward us, going from door to door. An officer with dark hair came up the sidewalk. Sergeant stripes were pinned to his collar and his name tag read ALVIN.
I said, "What's going on?"
"Suspect pursuit. Latin male, twenty-five to thirty. He's wearing a black T-shirt with a skull on the front. You guys see anyone like that run through here?"
We told him we hadn't.
The homeowner said, "What he do?"
"Homicide warrant. We spotted him over on Vermont, and chased him this way. We're pretty sure he went to ground here in the neighborhood."
The homeowner glanced at his wife and lowered his voice.
- On Sale
- May 31, 2016
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Hachette Book Group