Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chapter Three

"You get some sleep?" Mike asked, checking to see that his client was out the door before pulling a Marlboro Light from the pack and lighting it.

"Not enough," I grumbled.

"Yeah, me either. It's never enough. But hey, this one'll be easy, I promise. Back by dinnertime, and with a good enough payout for you to take the next couple of days off."

I was interested immediately. Easy and a good payout don't usually go together. Easy usually means low bail, low bail usually means nonviolent. Good payout usually means I'm tracking down Charlie Manson or something.

"Who's the job?" I asked, straightening up in my chair across from Mike's desk.

"Girl -- lady, I guess -- from Century City. Failure to appear. Some reason, judge set her bail at half a million. She called me, posted right away."

"And she missed her court date?"

“Apparently so. Shouldn't have any problems tracking her down -- she's got a real job and everything. Probably just forgot. Got her info for you here," Mike said, tossing me a legal-sized envelope with a few sheets of paper folded inside.

"No psycho boyfriend, none of that, right?" I asked.

"Near as I know, man, she lives alone. Ain't even got a cat."

"All right. I wrap this up before sundown, you're buying the beer."

"Deal, man."

As I walked back out to the Beast, I opened the envelope. The first page was her bail agreement with Mike -- and on the first line, her name.

"OK, Laura Mills. Let's see where you're hiding," I mumbled as I started the car.

The file had both her home and work address, and nine times out of ten, that's where I found someone I was looking for -- at one of those two places. It being the middle of the day and all, I decided to start at the work address, a place called Umbra Dynamics. On her bail agreement, she'd listed her occupation there as "Staff Scientist." That was nice and vague.

The address on the form was down near the Santa Monica Pier, so I had a little bit of a drive. The weather was nice, a little hot maybe, but I drove with the windows down. Air conditioning in the Beast hadn't worked since two summers ago, and fixing it was a pretty low priority. I tossed a Slipknot disc into the in-dash CD changer and zoned out for most of the drive.

Umbra's office was a nondescript place, a tiny couple of rooms above a tourist shop. I walked the stairs and knocked on the door, which buzzed as it opened. A young woman in a sharp black business suit sat behind a desk. She seemed to be the only person there.

"May I help you?" she asked with a pasted-on smile.

"Yeah, I'm looking for a Laura Mills. She's employed here as a Staff Scientist?"

The young woman behind the desk blinked, but her smile remained firmly in place.

“I'm sorry. We don't have anyone here by that name."

"You're sure? You don't need to check a directory or anything?"

"I'm sure. Thank you for dropping by.”

So that was that, then. I don't claim to be a genius or a master of the study of human nature, but I knew I was being lied to. It was kind of hard not to notice when the person doing the lying was so bad at it. Plus, I knew Mike had verified this lady's employment as soon as he'd posted her bond. Mike took his business seriously, and he wouldn't have fucked this one up.

I'd try to figure out why this lady was giving me the runaround later. For now, it was off to the home address in Century City.

I'd never actually known anyone who lived in Century City. I mean, an address in that area came with a decently high income, but not celebrity-high, so none of the actors I'd met in my former career lived around there. And it wasn't stuntman or bounty-hunter low, either, so none of my current co-workers lived in the neighborhood, either. It was mainly lawyers and other professionals, I guess -- people I didn't have much in the way of day-to-day dealings with.

Still, though, Fox Plaza was in Century City, and MGM was headquartered there too, so I'd been there before for meetings and stuff. It wasn't too tough to find Laura Mills' apartment, on the ninth floor of a high-rise building that looked, well, like a lot of the other high-rises in the area. The info we had on her indicated she lived alone, so I was expecting her to answer the door. Most times, all it took was me showing up at someone's door for me to do my job -- the advantage of being big and scary, as Mike had explained to me when I'd come to meet with him after bailing Ethan out of jail.

"You've got a definite 'don't-fuck-with-me' look, man," he'd told me, lighting up a cigarette as I sat across from him. "Nine times outta ten, people will go with you just because you look like you'll kick the living fuck out of them if they don't."

"And the tenth time?" I'd asked.

"Well, tenth time can be a bitch. Every so often, you get one of these crazy motherfuckers who's all-fired sure he can take you down. That's when you have to actually be scary. Know how to shoot a gun?"

I did. I'd done a lot of weapons training for various jobs as a stuntman, and I'd gone out to the live-fire range for fun a couple of times.

"Good. Long as your criminal record is clean like you say, you shouldn't have any problem getting a conceal-carry license once you get certified."

He was pretty much right there. After a two-week training course, I had my license and all of my paperwork sorted out. And he was also right about me being able to pull most people in without having to really say or do much. Being big and scary-looking did tend to make people want to do what I told them. Just like the stuntman gig, I got the bounty-hunter gig more thanks to genetics than any kind of skill or talent.

I knocked on Laura Mills' door and waited about thirty seconds. Nothing. California law allows me to enter a client's home without permission if they've violated bail, so I decided not to knock again. Mike taught me how to pick most locks -- I didn't ask where he'd learned. Still, it only took me a couple of seconds to open the door to apartment 9G.

Even as I hacked the door, I was thinking about my next move. No answer to the knock meant she probably wasn't there, but it didn't mean she wouldn't be there at some point. I'd look around, try not to leave any sign I'd been there. See if I could find any evidence that she'd left, and if so, where. If I couldn't, I'd hang out outside, watch the place for a while, see if she turned up.

I knew she was gone as soon as the door opened, though. From the dried blood on the carpet, rust-brown rather than red, I guessed the guy on the floor had been dead for a couple of days. Laura's apartment had good ventilation, but I figured it wouldn't be too long before her neighbors noticed.

And that meant I had to call the police, though I really didn't want to do that.

It's not that I didn't care about the guy laying face down in a pool of his own dried blood on the floor. I mean, I kind of didn't -- I didn't know who the guy was or anything. But I didn't want to call the police simply because it meant that I probably wouldn't get to do my job now. It meant I probably wasn't going to get paid for this one.

Here's the thing -- cops aren't terribly worried about finding some people, and I don't mean any disrespect to the police when I say that. It's just that if you did something kind of minor, like skipping a court date, and you're not home when a patrol officer happens by. . . well, they're not going to run you down. They're not going to shake down your co-workers, your spouse, your parents, whatever, because they simply don't have the time and the resources to waste on your dumb ass. That's where people like me come in, and that's how I make my living.

But it's a different story when a dead body gets involved. Then the LAPD becomes a machine, an omnipresent network of individial law-enforcement professionals who all have their eyes open and looking for you. That's when they'll drop by your work every sixteen minutes, stake out your mom's apartment, and follow your husband around for days on end. They suddenly become way better at my job than me, and there are a lot more of them. My chances for getting paid look pretty grim at that point.

Of course, I couldn't *not* call them just because I still needed to make money. So, sighing, I pulled out my StarTac and dialed my buddy Eric.

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