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I HAD GOOGLED plenty of info on Justine Smith before I met her. Funny thing, though: even the most serious, businesslike websites couldn’t resist slipping in how great-looking she was.
Justine Smith, the stunning second-in-command to Jack Morgan at Private L.A.…
Justine Smith, well known to the L.A. underworld for her unsurpassed police smarts, is also known to the L.A. paparazzi for her unsurpassed figure and face…
I couldn’t resist: I pressed the Google Images button and took a tour of some mighty impressive photos. Justine posing with fifteen police officers after a major blow-and-smack bust in Venice Beach; Justine, all businesslike at her desk, with Mayor Garcetti on the other side; Justine in a very snug gray Versace gown at the Oscars.
I was mentally reviewing these images as I waited for her at the Sydney airport Customs arrival. Jack Morgan, perhaps the most important private investigator in the world, was sending her to help me launch Private Sydney, his latest addition to what is probably the most important investigative bureau in the world. Once described by Jack himself as “what Interpol tried to be, what the FBI wants to be, and what the CIA should be.”
Private was located in major cities throughout the globe. Now Sydney would house headquarters for the Asia-Pac branch. And Jack Morgan had chosen me, Craig Gisto, to oversee this newest jewel in the Private crown.
Jack Morgan had the resources—both personal and financial—to do it. He installed scientific police and laboratory equipment that went beyond state of the art. He paid university researchers to bring their findings to him first. And Jack Morgan had something else…
He had the brains to hire the best people. Yeah, I know that sounds easy, but it doesn’t happen much. A lot of CEOs say they want the best people, but what they really mean is “I want someone almost as good as me” or “someone who’s really good… at taking my shit.” Not Jack. He wanted the best. And in his mind, that meant equal amounts of brainpower and guts.
It was a select group, all right, and I was excited, ecstatic, and frankly terrified that Jack Morgan had put me in it. Having Justine help me was another wise move. She knew Private; she knew Jack Morgan. And, watching her—the first passenger out of Customs—I immediately knew one thing: the Google image search had not done her justice.
I held back and let her family greet her first. There was her sister, Greta, and Greta’s husband, Brett Thorogood, my new best bud. Brett was the deputy commissioner of New South Wales Police and was nothing but happy to have Private Sydney opening in his town. Brett and Greta’s kids—Nikki, eight, and Serge, ten—ran to their aunt Justine. Hugs and kisses all around. Then I stepped forward. I shook Justine’s hand. This was going to be one fine partnership.
I’d parked my Maserati GranCabrio in the pickup zone. The Thorogoods headed off after we’d all synchronized watches for the launch party that evening, and we were off, pulling out of the airport and onto the sun-drenched freeway.
Neither of us knew then that we were in the fast lane—the very fast lane—headed toward a great big pile of shit.
That same night
HE RUNS LIKE a crazy man, a horribly injured crazy man. The stumbling and falling, long strides of a man overwhelmed with pain and fear.
He runs, gasping, then he hits a hard object—face-first. His nose shatters, sending a cascade of blood and snot down his face, agony through his head and down his spine. The man falls back, slams to the floor. His head cracks as he hits the concrete.
He has been deaf since birth. He can sense his frantic heartbeat. The rumbling of his stomach. He feels the blood on his stomach and hips. The blood feels more like a thick syrup than a thin liquid.
He is blind. They have tied a leather sack around his head, fastened it at the neck with wiring and rope. The leather sack is tight and painful and totally immovable from his neck.
He vomits. The vomit starts to fill the leather bag that covers his head. The sack begins to fill with the chunky, nauseating upchuck. He is about to drown in his own hideous diving mask.
The man hits a wall. Literally. He clings to it and suddenly feels a searing pain, a slash in his right thigh. Now two deep wounds shoot into his back. He thinks, Kidneys. He also thinks he cannot collapse. If there is salvation it will be entirely due to his own willpower.
He feels the vibration of feet, people running after him. A burst of terrible agony in his back. Two thumps propel him to the wall. He smells fresh blood. He smells tire rubber. Another crunch, his thigh exploding. He keeps to the wall; blood drips from his nose, his leg, his back. He feels wet all over.
I’m not really awake. I’m not really asleep. I am afraid that the pain is so great that something will explode. Like in a mad cartoon, the top of my head will shoot right up and off. The pain will burst out of me like the fire spitting out of a volcano. My eyes have disappeared. They have been replaced by swirling pools of agony. How will I see the long white tunnel of death when it comes to take me away?
He keeps trying to feel his way along the rough cement wall. He moves left. He wills his knees to hold him up. And that works. For a moment. A bullet stings his right earlobe. He keeps moving. Sharp flying pieces of the wall bomb his hands and bare arms. Then another bullet. Now the pain is so encompassing that he is not certain where he’s been hit. A new source of burning pain erupts. It is the back of his neck. The new blood and the old vomit mingle.
A doorway. He feels an iron handle. The door opens. He can no longer move from the waist down. The man falls through the open door. He falls headfirst onto a concrete floor. The pain eases. Maybe it’s a dream. Maybe they’ve slipped a painkiller into him. Maybe, he thinks. Maybe.
He lies there.
Blind. Bloody. Deaf. Dead.
PLEASE EXCUSE MY raging ego, but I think most police types would say that I’m a good private investigator. (After all, Jack Morgan chose me to open and operate Private Sydney.)
Now, please excuse my really raging ego, but I think quite a few women would say that I’m a pretty good romancer. (After all, I’ve sported more than a few fine lady types around the hot pubs of Sydney.)
What can Craig Gisto not do? Well, high on the list is throw a party. The best I’m capable of is bringing in a few cases of Tooheys Extra Dry, setting out a few bowls of crisps, and hoping for the best.
Well, the kind of party—excuse me… reception—I had to give for the official opening of Private Sydney was not the kind of party I usually threw.
So I asked Mary Clarke, my second-in-command, how I should handle the situation. Mary looked at me as if I’d been born last Tuesday and said, “Hire a caterer and forget about it.” Then she added her favorite phrase: “Now why didn’t you think of that?”
As is often the case, Mary had the correct solution. Wild Thyme Catering filled the huge atrium reception area of Private Sydney with tables full of cold prawns and rock lobster, skewers of tenderloin chunks, huge bunches of sunflowers. The bar had good Australian Shiraz and even a few tins of ice-cold Tooheys.
As soon as I felt certain that everything was going smoothly, I was hit by a problem. Suddenly a tremendous crashing sound filled the room. At first I thought one of my fancy caterers had dropped a tray of fancy crystal glasses.
I watched as Mary Clarke spun around on her heels in the direction of the crash. Mary’s very tall, muscular—a big-boned woman—but she has the reaction speed of an Olympic gold-medal sprinter.
A nanosecond later I turned to see what had happened. I didn’t have to look far. A few feet from where I’d been standing was a human figure, facedown on the floor. Blood was pooling around the body. Mary crouched beside him. I knelt, and as the people in the room gasped and turned dead quiet, Mary and I turned the corpse over to reveal a vision of horror: a male with some sort of hood tied over his face. I had seen a few seconds earlier that he had both stab wounds and bullet wounds in his back. Now that he was lying on his back, his right thigh looked like a piece of ragged, jagged, bloody meat.
I looked over for a moment and saw Justine Smith and her brother-in-law, Deputy Commissioner Thorogood, standing over me and the dead man.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Thorogood said as I tried in vain to undo the wires and ropes that held the leather hood in place.
“Let me,” I heard someone say. It was Private’s techno and lab genius, Darlene. My usual picture of Darlene was of a skinny woman in a drab gray lab coat, protective goggles, and a thick, white hairnet. Tonight she was dressed in a snug red silk dress, and “skinny” had turned to “curvy.”
She slipped on a pair of latex gloves that she happened to have in her pocketbook, and then—I shouldn’t have been surprised—she dug into her bag a little deeper and produced a multifaceted knife. One of those facets was a wire cutter. She cut through the wires and rope quickly, and then Thorogood and I eased the sack from the victim’s head.
“Holy fuck!” Justine said. She was speaking for all of us.
The victim’s eyes had been gouged out. The sockets were red craters. A gray and beige bundle of nerves oozed from the left one. Nerves stuck to the dry skin. The blood around his neck mixed with—I wasn’t sure what it was: a disgusting-smelling brownish-yellow-pink liquid.
As if she could read my mind, Darlene said, “It’s vomit.”
It was tough to guess the guy’s age, but what little amount of skin was left intact was smooth and lightly tanned. He was a young kid, maybe in his late teens. At the most he was twenty years old.
I saw Johnito Ishmah, the youngest guy on my team, standing behind Mary.
“Johnny, get everyone out of here. Everyone.” Then I looked at Mary and said, “Come with me.” We both stood up as I watched Deputy Commissioner Thorogood pull out his phone. I heard him say, “Inspector…” And I knew his boys would be here in a few minutes.
“Well, not your average gate-crasher,” I heard Darlene mumble as Mary and I headed toward the bloodstained service door.
WE OPENED THE door and followed the trail of blood down three flights of stairs.
“How’d he manage to get so far when he had to be so weak from blood loss?” I asked.
“Probably had some people helping him along,” Mary said. Yeah, I thought, why didn’t I think of that?
As we approached the first floor, Mary said, “Passage ahead leads to the garage.”
Holy shit. The concrete garage walls looked like someone had thrown buckets of red paint on them, almost like a macabre kind of modern art. As we picked our way round the puddles, I leaned on the second door, and we were out, onto garage level 1. Plenty of blood still, oval droplets on the rough concrete. The sort of splashes someone makes when they are running and bleeding at the same time.
The poor kid had stopped here; blood had pooled into a patch about two feet wide that was rippling away toward a drain in the floor. The trail led off to the left. Three cars stood there: a Merc, a Prius, and my black Mas. Tire marks close to the bend, more blood.
I bent down and picked up a shell casing, holding it in the tissue still in my hand.
“.357 Sig,” Mary said. She was ex–military police, knew a thing or two.
Mary surveyed the ceiling. “They’ve got cameras everywhere,” she said.
“The guard at the gate has the security-camera monitors.” I led the way to the guard booth, and I found exactly what I was afraid of. The place had been hit.
Glass everywhere, the guard slumped unconscious but not dead, a row of monitors an inch from his head. The cable to a hard drive was dangling. Standard system—record the garage for twelve-hour rotations on a terabyte hard drive. Wipe it, start again.
“They took the hard drive,” Mary said, nodding at the lead.
I crouched down beside the guard and lifted his head gently. He stirred, pulled back, and went for his gun. Of course, the gun was gone too.
“Whoa, buddy!” Mary exclaimed, palms up.
The guy recognized me. “Mr. Gisto.” He ran a hand over his badly bruised forehead.
“Easy, pal.” I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember anything?”
He sighed. “Couple of guys in hoodies. It happened so bloody fast…”
“All right,” I said, turning to Mary.
There was a sudden movement beyond the booth window. I looked up to see a cop in a power stance, finger poised on the trigger.
A moment later Deputy Commissioner Thorogood appeared in the doorway. Thorogood touched the officer’s arm. “Put it down, Constable.”
It was then that I saw a third guy. He was standing next to Thorogood. Average build, five ten, with a cold, lived-in face. I recognized him immediately and felt a hard jolt of painful memories. I was absolutely sure the guy recognized me also. But he stood motionless, expressionless.
Yep, he was still the same devious son of a bitch.
A COP CAR screeched to the entrance gate. Right behind it was a van with the word FORENSICS on its side.
Outside, Thorogood made the introductions. He was oblivious to the animosity that was starting to fill the air. “This is Craig Gisto and Mary Clarke, Private Sydney—a new investigative agency started by a friend of mine, Jack Morgan, in L.A. These guys head up the Sydney branch. Craig, Mary, this is Inspector Mark Talbot, Sydney Local Area Command.”
Mary extended her hand. Talbot didn’t shake it.
“And what exactly are they doing here?” Talbot looked straight at me as he spoke. I half smiled back.
“We have an arrangement…,” Thorogood responded.
“I sent an e-mail, for God’s sake. We help Private, Private helps us. Understand?” Thorogood didn’t wait to hear if Talbot understood. Instead he turned to me and said, “So, what do we have here, Craig?”
“Lotta blood. Your forensics guys’ll have fun. The hard drive for the security cameras in the booth walked.” I motioned with my thumb toward the booth. “And I found this.” I pulled the tissue from my jacket pocket and handed the bullet casing to Thorogood.
“That should have been left where you found it,” Talbot said.
Thorogood ignored the inspector. He looked hard at the casing and said, “.357 Sig. Okay, so what do you and Mary want from us?”
“Give Darlene access to the crime scene and ten minutes with the body before it’s taken to the morgue,” Mary said.
Thorogood nodded. “Fine.”
“That’s bullshit!” Talbot exclaimed, and glared at us. Then he saw Thorogood’s expression—icy and pissed off.
Talbot shut up. But I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
DARLENE’S LAB STOOD just off the atrium corridor where Private Sydney’s launch party had been. It was Darlene’s own little kingdom. In spite of the grim work she often dealt with, in here she felt relaxed, isolated from the troubles of the outside world.
She had designed the lab herself and been given carte blanche to install the best equipment available. Better still, through her contacts, she had some technology no one beyond Private would see for years to come. Frankly, there was no one in Australia—perhaps even in the States—who was as superb at this job as Darlene.
She was completely revved up to deal with the grotesque, uninvited corpse from the party. Police Forensics had worked through the night and cataloged everything before passing on the samples to Darlene an hour ago. A courier had delivered a case of test tubes and a USB at six a.m. She’d already been at Private for an hour.
She opened the clasps of the sample box and looked inside. Each test tube was labeled and itemized by date, location, and type. They contained samples of the corpse’s blood, scrapings from beneath his fingernails, individual hairs from his jacket. She had put together a collection of her own photographs and a file from the police photographer.
There was no ID on the body. The victim was male, Asian, between eighteen and twenty-one years old. Both eyes had been hacked out with a sharp instrument. It was clearly not a professional job. By the condition of the wound, it was done at least thirty-six hours before death. The sockets were infected. His clothes were thick with filth. They stank of sweat, urine, and excrement. He’d probably been wearing them for days, held captive someplace. But the jacket he’d worn was expensive—Prada. His hair had been well cut, maybe two weeks ago. This was a rich kid.
So it seemed likely they were looking at kidnapping, Darlene thought. Maybe the kid had escaped his captors. Maybe he’d stopped being useful. Maybe the family had refused… No way of knowing—yet.
She removed seven test tubes from the case and walked over to a row of machines on an adjacent bench, each device glistening, new. She slotted the test tubes into a metal rack, pulled up a stool, switched on the machines, and listened to the whir of computers booting up and electron microscopes coming on line.
The first test tube was labeled “Nail Scraping. Left digitus secundus manus.” With the tweezers, she slid out the piece of material. It was a couple of millimeters square, a blob of blue and pink. She placed it on a slide, lowered a second rectangular piece of glass over it, and positioned it in the crosshairs of the microscope.
The image was a yellowish white. Set to a magnification level of x1,000, human flesh looked like a blanched moonscape. She tracked the microscope to the right and refocused. It looked almost the same; only the details were different. She set the tracking going again, back left, past the starting position. Refocused. Paused. Sat back for a second, then peered into the eyepiece once more. “Now, that’s just weird,” she said.
AS I PULLED into the parking lot of Private, I wiped away a trickle of sweat running down my cheek. My car’s thermometer read ninety-two degrees. Then, as I eased into my parking spot, my cell phone rang. I guessed that it was Darlene. I guessed right.
“Hey, Darlene. What did you find out?”
“The police have ID’d the victim. His name’s Ho Chang, nineteen, left Shore School last year. His father is Ho Meng, a very well-known and very wealthy importer-exporter. The boy was reported missing more than two days ago.”
“Well, that’s something.”
“I found out some other stuff too.”
“I’d rather show you—in the lab.”
“See you in a minute.”
I got to Reception and was surprised to find Mary and Johnny waiting for me. It was only eight a.m. I was even more surprised to see a tall man in a finely tailored silk suit standing with them. Beside him stood a guy in a gray suit. A bodyguard, I guessed. He had that certain boneheaded look about him. And his suit was neither silk nor finely tailored.
Johnny nodded to me and exited. Then Mary said, “Craig, this is Mr. Ho Meng. Mr. Ho, my boss, Craig Gisto.”
We shook hands.
“I just heard the sad news,” I said. “Please accept my…”
He raised a hand, shaking his head slowly.
I stopped talking. Then I said that we should go to my office.
Mary and Ho sat on opposite ends of my sofa, and I pulled round a chair. Meanwhile the bonehead stood by the door, arms folded.
“Mr. Ho and I have met before,” Mary began. She was wearing cargo pants and a tight, short-sleeved black T-shirt that accentuated the girth of her arms. “Mr. Ho was a commissioner in the Hong Kong Police Force. I met him when he delivered a special lecture at the Military Police College a few years back.”
“I would like you to find my son’s killer,” Ho responded. His voice was remarkably refined. I guessed Oxford or Cambridge.
“I assume the police are—”
“I do not trust the Australian police, Mr. Gisto.”
I watched him. He’d drifted off into grief for a second, but then his expression hardened, and he spoke again.
“My son was reported missing more than two days ago. His death was preventable. The police did nothing.”
“I’m sure they tried.”
“Please do not make excuses for them, Mr. Gisto.” He held his hand up again. “They’re either incompetent, lazy, or lacking resources. Whatever it is, I won’t work with them.”
Mary, of course, realized that I didn’t want to get into a debate on this subject.
“Mr. Ho, what can you tell us about your son? Any clues how he got into this trouble?” Mary asked.
He sighed. “Chang was a wonderful boy. Headstrong, for sure. Like his father. He was profoundly deaf but struggled for independence. He was a highly accomplished reader of lips. Insisted he have his own apartment as soon as he left school.”
“He was deaf?” I said, surprised.
Ho nodded. “From birth.” He glanced at Mary. “Listen. I would be the first to admit that I’ve not always been a model father. Chang’s mother died twelve years ago. I’ve been obsessed with my business. I could never find the time. I shouldn’t have let him leave home so young.”
“When did you last see your son?” I asked.
“Thursday night. A family dinner—rare—at Rockpool.” I knew Rockpool, the most expensive restaurant in Sydney.
“So that would be three days ago?”
“Yes. I went to his apartment on Friday morning. He wasn’t there. I tried to SMS him, e-mailed him. Nothing. I reported him missing by late afternoon.”
Another glance toward the window.
“The police called me just after midnight, when they’d identified Chang’s body. I went to the morgue at six this morning.” His voice was brittle. “I saw what they did to him.” He looked at Mary, then at me, his face like a mannequin’s. “You have to find the killer, Mr. Gisto. I am a very wealthy man. It matters little to me what it costs.”
DEPUTY COMMISSIONER THOROGOOD was coming into Reception just as I was escorting Ho Meng and his bodyguard to the elevators.
Thorogood and I then walked silently back to my office.
“That was the father of the murdered kid,” I said as we sat down. “He’s mighty pissed with your people.”
Thorogood’s face creased into a frown.
“He can’t understand why you didn’t save his boy.”
“So he’s come to you?”
I nodded. I could tell that Thorogood was trying to remain calm.
“Well, you know our agreement, Craig. We share intel.”
“He doesn’t want to talk to the police.”
The deputy commissioner blanched, anger in his eyes. “Well, it’s not up to him, is it?” he snapped. “If he’s withholding evidence…”
I let it go, went to change the subject. There was a knock on the door. Darlene poked her head round. “Bad time? You said you’d—”
“Sorry, Darlene,” I said quickly. “Come in.”
“Deputy Commissioner, you’ve met Darlene Cooper, haven’t you?”
He stood up, extended a hand. “We… ah… met last night at the…”
Darlene gave the man a brief smile. The girl was a cool paradox, beautiful and brilliant—a nerd who would also look great in a
- Praise for the Private series!
- "A thrill-a-minute, plot-driven story full of twists and turns...an addictive read from first page to last."—BookReporter.com on Private Games
- "[A] classy thriller...clips along with twists and turns that come at you from all angles...The talented writing team has scorched the road of suspense and set it on fire."—NightsandWeekends.com on Private: #1 Suspect
- "Jack Morgan is a great protagonist...Bring on even more Private."—TheMysteryReader.com on Private
- On Sale
- Aug 26, 2014
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing