Starring Sam Spade
This story requires an introduction. Sam Spade is a fictional detective created around 1930 by author Dashiell Hammett. Spade was the detective in the book and film, The Maltese Falcon. He lived in the same apartment the author lived in, and later during radio broadcasts of The Adventures of Sam Spade, he was given a secretary, Effie Perrine, played by Lurene Tuttle. Howard Duff played him mostly on the radio until being replace by Steve Dunne, but that’s a whole nother messy period you’ll have to go look up on the web. Philip Marlowe was another detective from that era, created by author Raymond Chandler, and he too got his own radio program. You can find most of the existing episodes for both of these characters online just by searching. I have taken the liberty to update Sam Spade to present day. The story starts on January 1st, 2019. Sam has a smart phone, a computer that takes dictation, the cloud, google maps, you name it. However, he’s a bit of a technophobe and he still does not carry a gun. Effie is just as sweet and ditzy as ever, and as always, she just loves her Sam. Oh, and just in case you've not figured it out yet, she's not at stupid as she pretends to be. So, as oft repeated in this game: On with the show!
“Ring ring . . . ring ring!”
“Sam Spade Detective Agency.”
“Effie? What have you got on?”
“Oh, Sam! Do you mean like clothes?”
“Yes, Effie, just like clothes.”
Softly she asks, “Is this a dirty phone call, Sam?”
“How presumptuous of you, Effie. You know I only make those to my mother.”
“Oh, Sam. There you go making fun of me. But I’m wearing that nice pants-suit, with the white, ruffled blouse you got me for Christmas, you know, that Gift card to Kohl’s.”
“Yes, Sweetheart. You’ve got some good taste in clothing.”
“But why, Sam?”
“Why do you have good taste?”
“Sam,” she sang out pleadingly, “Why do you want to know what I’m wearing.”
“I’ll be right down to record our latest caper. Tomorrow you can do your thing and get it off. But tonight, we dance, drink, and dine.”
“Oh, Sam!” Effie squealed.
“I’m calling this one the Unconscious Conspiracy Caper . . . or maybe the Enough is Never Enough Caper . . . or maybe . . . I’m taking my little Effie out tonight because of Our Huge Bonus Caper.”
Sam burst through his office door a bit faster than usual and missed Effie’s awaiting hug by three feet, while cheerfully tossing a check in the air that she fumbled all the way to the ground where it landed face down. She turned it over and squealed, “Oh, Sam! A hundred thousand dollars? Who did you have to kill?”
“He was already dead, Effie, and his remains are in a Ziplock.
I’m going to record and upload to the cloud on that intransigent box on my
desk, and you, Dear Effie, can deposit that check by phone, in person, email or
fax, however you do it . . . and go get your hair and nails done. It’s on me. Just
keep the phone on you. Oh, and since this will take a while, go out and buy a
whole new wardrobe . . . keep the receipts and we’ll call it back pay.”
“Oh, Sam . . . but when do I—”
“Tomorrow, Effie. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. You polish up the transcript, add some punctuations, and send it off to the good judge who just paid us a boatload of bananas for one of the most interesting capers you’ll ever hear. But for now, off you go. Off you go. I need to struggle alone with my technological ambivalence, and if I need any help, you’re seconds away, playing Words with Friends on the office cell phone.”
“Oh, Sam . . .”
“Goodbye . . . goodbye . . . out the door . . . the sooner I’m finished the sooner we wine, dine, and dance.”
“Oh, Sam!” and the door closed behind her. Her tiny voice faded off down the hallway, “Oh my Sammy my Sammy my wonderful Sammy my Sammy . . . .”
At his computer, he once again went over the instructions Effie had taped to the top, far right corner of his huge monitor. Simple instructions for a simple mind, though Effie knew he was no simpleton, just a technophobe with everything set up before him, and a few mouse clicks to see if the damn thing’s working.
He’d click on the Dictaphone App, type in the name of the case/caper, and start talking away. The safety check, to make sure everything was working had just two tiny parts.
Whether it went to the cloud was an unknown till Effie returned. And she might seem like a ditz, but after she went through his transcripts, a fix here, some punctuation there, and a bit of polish, Sam, upon reading it, felt he’d like to see that movie someday.
As his usual, he blew into the mic before him, followed by, “Testing, testing, one, two, three . . . do you read me?”
To the Honorable Amy Spieler, Superior Court Judge, Monterey, California, Samuel Spade, License Number 137596. Subject: The Unconscious Conspiracy Caper.
I got your call on January 1st, at 8:35, a bit early it seemed for the first of January, and I apologize for your having to ring twice to get me to pick up. I thought I must be dreaming. You told me how urgent it was, but did not know I was in Santa Barbara for the holidays. I took the scenic route to your office in Monterey arriving in six hours instead of the usual five because I just had to stop for a bacon cheeseburger and a soda, and look out over the blue Pacific for a spell. Lately it seems, I only experience the ocean when someone saps me and tosses me in it.
In your office, you got to work right away.
“Sit down, Mr Spade, it’s good to finally meet you.”
“Call me, Sam, Your Honor.”
“Since the subject of this meeting is called Sam, how about I just call you Mr Spade?”
“His name is Sam Schusterman, my cousin. Only it’s really Samael . . . very Jewish spelling. He’s the owner of the Diamond City Brewing Company in San Jose. A privately held corporation. He’s worth over seven or eight billion dollars and last fall he came to me for some advice. As you probably know, I cannot practice law, although I can give legal advice and recommend lawyers.
“Sam came to me saying that someone in his family wanted to see him dead.
“It sounded a bit crazy. I’ve known Sam most of my life, that wasn’t the Sam I knew. He is one of the kindest, gentlest, thoughtful human beings I’ve ever known. This Sam seemed psychotic, harried, paranoid—it showed all over his face and in every move he made.”
“So where is he now?”
“Car crash on his ride home after the New Year’s party he attended at his son-in-law’s mansion, just a stone’s throw from the Hearst Castle.
“That’s why I called you.”
“I’ll bet I’m thinking the same thing you are right now.”
“You know about privileged communication . . . right?”
I nodded but my thoughts shot back to the crash site. I’d seen it on the drive north. They’d cleared one lane and directed traffic around the site.
“I hired a private eye in October . . . or . . . no, it was October. I hired him to gather information on Sam, oh, and his family. He reported back the name of his doctor, and I called him. Privileged information, as you might not know, can be shared with relatives and friends concerning a patient’s care. It was then that I was informed that Sam was suffering, possibly suffering, from dementia. They’d done some testing, wasn’t sure if it was early stages Alzheimer’s, but definitely some solid indications of dementia.”
“And who was the shamus you hired to look into him?”
“Sorry, Your Honor, private d—eye, ahh private eye.”
“He’s from down around the Hollywood area, name of Philip Marlowe. Came highly recommended. Have you heard of him?”
“Yes, the name rings a bell.”
“Marlowe started putting together a list of possible suspects, or who he suspected might have a reason to kill my cousin, but the thing is, the more paranoid Sam got, the more he started to cut off his family, and the more reasons Marlowe came up with that his family would want to see him dead.”
“So he was committing suicide by psychosis, then.”
“It started blowing up way out of proportion. The more paranoid he got the more he cut off the family, the more he cut off his family, the more reasons Marlowe came up with that his family might want him dead. The attorney I recommended to Sam, because of his dementia, kept in touch, telling me he was constantly modifying his will until it looked like he was going to cut everyone off and will it all to the state of Israel. By then Marlowe’s list grew to include even his well-off kids who really didn’t need anything, and in his final report, his list of suspects—”
I ended your sentence for you, Your Honor: “had shrunk to just ‘everyone’.”
“That’s it exactly.”
“I’m never surprised when someone well off commits a crime to get more. One thing about greed, it has no limit. A bum will kill you for ten bucks, a millionaire will kill for a billion.”
“And that’s why you’re here. Sam is dead. The police suspect foul play. Marlowe suspects everyone, so you’re here for a second opinion, and to help out. When you meet the sheriff, you’ll see why. When can you get started?”
“I’ve been on the clock for nearly seven hours.”
I left your office, Judge Spieler, with a list of everyone and their personal information. I called the San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s office for the location of the crash using the longitude and latitude you’d given me. They told me where it was, but that it was in the jurisdiction of the Monterey County sheriff’s office. I texted the coordinates to my secretary, and she found it on Google Maps.
This is the site of the crash, Your Honor.
His car jumped the rail and collided with that boulder. That’s what kept him from going over the cliff, but my call to the sheriff at the site was a bit strange. He told me his car had exploded, as if it had hit an IED. I took off to view the crash scene myself.
The drive was lovelier than usual, watching the sun set, with light clouds stretching over the horizon soaked in a flashy display of reds, yellows, orange, and even sort of a blue halo. I’m sure I would have waxed a bit more poetic had I not been driving to a murder scene.
As the twilight began to ebb, traffic started slowing up, I assumed from the crash site up ahead. I turned on the gadget Effie had gotten me, gave the voice command she taught me to open TuneIn radio, and happily everything worked this time and I enjoyed classical KUSC the rest of the ride.
It was dark when I finally arrived, and the cops tried to wave me on, I stopped, showed them my license, told them why I was there, and they pointed down the road, just about a hundred yards or so where I’d find a pull-off with the sheriff’s car parked there.
No one had tried to cordon off the area, just a few cops directing traffic, and lanterns everywhere lit the place up like a Hollywood shoot. I saw the police boats below that were packing things in and getting ready to head out. Shining my flashlight on them, I saw two different colored bags ready to be hoisted on board. The sheriff told me later that one color was for things that just didn’t belong there and the other for body parts.
“It was old Sam’s newest car,” the young but large sheriff told me. “A classic Ferrari, 1964 250 LM. He’d already been pulled over twice by my boys. Had a heavy foot, but with that much car, who could blame him. On his last stop, he told the deputy that he’d gotten it for just under 12 million dollars . . . a real steal. Just gave him another warning and sent him home.”
In the light from the lanterns, I saw that he wore a tapered uniform shirt, probably sewn by his wife, I assumed, and he looked like he just stepped out of a movie with a strong jaw, and the sandy brown hair of a surfer, that showed when he took his hat off and wiped his wet, sweaty hair back.
“Choppers, hot cars . . . they’ve been speeding up and down this stretch since it was built. They hate road repair season. We usually point them up into the mountains, but everyone loves the view of the Pacific.”
I let him talk. No real experts had arrived yet. They needed the ATF, coroner, and accident investigators from San Francisco, I figured. The sheriff told me everyone would arrive tomorrow, except for the coroner, who upon hearing the condition of the body, told them to bag the parts, because he was on vacation.
Pointing my noggin toward the site, I asked him exactly where the “corpse” had been coming from and going to, and he looked at me, held it, and said, “I’d be very careful with your terminology, Mr Spade. We don’t really have enough body parts to make a corpse yet.”
I liked this young man.
“His family showed up this morning, and they said he celebrated the new year with them, his daughter and son-in-law. Their place is in San Simeon, a half hour south.”
“And where was he headed?”
“To his home in Monterey, about a two and a half hour drive. Although the way he drove, he could knock a half hour off that.”
“Awfully late for a long drive.”
“You don’t know Sam Schusterman. Any excuse to get out on the road with that car. It was nearly a new moon, so pretty dark, except for quite a few yachts out that night celebrating.”
“What year was that car?”
“They didn’t crash well back then. I don’t see many signs of a fireball, a few, but couldn’t the crash itself count for pieces of car everywhere?”
“That’s what my boys said when we first arrived, only one problem with that theory, Sam’s body took the brunt of the explosion, and we’re going to be recovering body parts for. . . weeks,” he exaggerated. “Took half an hour to find his head. We’re going to wait for the ATF to tell us what happened here. Everyone’s running around making calls without the right input. I don’t know what happened here, but, ya know? I can live with that . . . as long as it takes to put the pieces together.”
My eyebrows refused to come back down. I’d never met a small town sheriff with that much wisdom and savvy, but later I learned he’d graduated from Berkeley . . . and still later I heard that he’d been pushing for a school for cops to be built there. I Googled that and it looks like it’s coming to fruition.
It was a welcome change, since most of the cops I’ve worked with over the years jump to snap conclusions, leaving private dicks like me to finish the investigation just to prove to them how wrong they can be.
But I could not help noting the look on his face as he turned his head back to the crash scene. He pursed his lips. There was something he wasn’t telling me.
On the short walk to my car, I decided to first visit the daughter and son-in-law. Have a look around. I called ahead to make sure I wasn’t interrupting their dinner and was told they had a late lunch because of . . . there was a pause and I told him I understood. I plugged the address into my phone and headed south.
I was greeted at the door by their servant, a tiny little lady who truly fit the part. Her maid’s outfit couldn’t have been more realistic had she gotten it for Halloween. She asked me to wait in the foyer. It took a seemingly long time to be greeted by the head of the household.
“Welcome, Mr Spade,” he said extending his hand. “You’d said on the phone you were hired by Amy. I’m not sure why she’d be involved, but come on in. Can I fix you a drink?”
He was much shorter than I’d expected, Your Honor. His features feminine, but gestures rough, with a head of pitch-black hair, slicked down with what I assumed to be Wildroot Cream-Oil. He looked like he was going off to work, in a suit that cost more than I make in a month, and what I assumed were shoes made with Italian leather.
“From the looks of this place, I’ll bet you’ve got some pretty good Scotch.”
“Only the best, Mr Spade.”
“Call me Sam.”
“Sam is Anna’s father’s name, we’d better stick to Mr Spade.”
“Have it your way. May I call you . . .”
“Lee, just Lee. Anna is up in her room. She’s taking it all very badly.”
The room was large and lavish, tastefully decorated, with a huge bookcase on one end filled with what I assumed were a few first editions. Just paces away stood matching reading chairs, each with focused reading lights to the side. The bearskin rug in front of the fire place was a bit much. People don’t have bearskin rugs anymore. They went out with lovebeads. Oh, and not one but two zero gravity chairs faced the lush and long purple sofa. Those cost a pretty penny. And that sofa!
He handed me my drink, we lifted our glasses in salute, and I took a swig.
The Scotch was smoother than Natalie Portman’s backside, and Lee noted the look on my face with a pleasant smile. I just had to examine the bottle and reached down for it.
A 1961 “The Balvenie.” Something I’d only heard about but never tasted. It was sweet, fruity, with a few notes of sherry.
“Wow,” I said to a proud, smiling Leroy.
“Sipping whisky,” Mr Spade.
“At about five hundred dollars a sip, I’m sure,” I said, realizing I’d been clumsily gauche. Dollar amounts are only tacitly tossed about among the rich, though often used in boasting about the great deal you got—but it got me a smile and a chuckle from this Bakewell character.
“You should have been here last night. We opened a 1959 Dom Perignon at midnight, but prior to that we opened a bottle of Macallan’s Lalique Cire Perdue, 1946. I sent my man out to buy it at auction in 2010. That’s it, still in its decanter on the shelf. It was quite spectacular.”
“If it’s much better than this one, call me an ambulance because my heart is about to give out.” They were definitely conspicuous consumers, but then who isn’t today?
“Oh here she is,” as he turned to introduce his wife Anna slowly making her entrance, just the hint of a smile on her lightly rouged lips, hardly a sign of makeup, but noticeably no sign of crying all night, at least no redness in her eyes.
“This is Mr Spade, Dear,” turning to me, “And this is Anna, my wife.”
I Bowed slightly, “Ms Bakewell?” Anna bowed back.
“Amy’s hired Mr Spade to investigate your father’s accident last night.”
The first look to cross her face was fear, then sadness. Her dyed blond hair folded over the top of her sweat suit that must have cost over a thousand bucks if a dime, and I wondered if she was planning on going for a jog, or if this was her hangover outfit. She wasn’t steady and held onto her husband’s shoulder.
“Does Amy suspect there was . . .”
“It looks like it wasn’t an accident.” The look on both of their faces was mixed, but no show of surprise.
“The Sheriff told me you’d been to the crash site, but since then they’ve found clues to an explosion.”
“Don’t cars normally explode in a crash?”
“Only in the movies, Ma’am. This one seems suspect. They’re waiting for the ATF from . . . San Francisco, I assume.
“Do you mind if I ask a few questions?”
“Are we suspects?” Anna asked with eyes quite wide.
“Everyone is suspect in cases like these,” Lee comforted her. “Have a seat over there, Mr Spade. Would you like a refill?”
“I’d like a case of this stuff, but sure.” I knew that a case would probably cost me two years income, my first born male, and a pinky finger, so I’ll let someone else turn down that refill.
As I questioned them, Lee stood leaning up against the fireplace, while Anna sat across from me on the sofa. They were both slightly turned away from each other as if they were hiding something from the other. That was noteworthy.
I learned who had attended the party the night previous. The two of them, the two boys, Jake and Aron, and of course the victim who sat in one of the zero gravity chairs. He’d had only one glass of champagne that evening. Wasn’t much of a drinker. And then there were the servants, Lee’s “man” as he called him, and a maid who was an occasional chef and the chief caterer to their party, though I learned that Anna was the head cook in the family, and loved baking bread, especially French baguettes which she made on weekends. Dinner that night had been buffet style, with a linguini casserole, Swedish meatballs, and something I’d never heard of: Atomic Buffalo Turds, which left Anna giggling as the words came out of her husband’s mouth. They’d been smoked in the barbecue outside, on the porch extending off the kitchen. The maid had spent most of the night circulating, serving up hors d’oeuvres consisting of twenty year old cheddar, aged gouda, Roquefort, and some stilton from England, oh, and we can’t forget the prosciutto imported from Italy. I could only imagine their garbage can filled with colorful toothpicks with ribbons.
“Where was your chauffeur all night?”
“He was in his room, watching TV, eating something they’d fixed earlier for him and drinking champagne.”
“And where is his room?”
“At that end of the house, over the garage,” Lee said pointing. “My man’s room is next to ours.”
“And where was he all evening?”
“He was in the kitchen. He and Iris, our maid, ate in there and watched the ball drop on the television . . . when she wasn’t out here serving the guests. They both came out for the midnight celebration and drank champagne with us.”
“Did anyone leave the party that night? Go outside?”
Lee shook his head with a smile of disgust on his lips. Anna turned away.
“They all went to look at Sam’s new car,” he finally said.
“New? I thought he’d had it . . .”
“It was new to them. I don’t think they’d seen it before that. He never drove it to work, only to play. He’d only driven it here once before. You can hear it coming from ten miles away.”
He looked over at Anna who was still looking away.
“Anna hated that contraption,” he continued. “She thought he was going to kill himself the way he drove.”
“He refused to be driven anywhere. Had to be in control. We once brought up getting him a chauffeur but he’d have none of that. He was just so stubborn,” she punctuated pointedly.
As a detective, I like to focus on body language more than spoken words. Both were hiding something. Lee was haughty and dismissive, while Anna displayed both disgust and shame at times.
“Who went outside . . . to look over the car? You said, ‘They all.’”
“Both of her brothers.”
“Jake and Aron?”
Anna sat silent, just glancing over at me once in a while exhibiting sadness, but her eyes lowered. Again, that look of shame.
“Anyone else? Your man? Iris, your maid.”
“Nope,” he said looking directly at me. One shoulder jerked just slightly. There was the lie. So I asked Anna. “Did you see anyone else leave to see the car.”
“No,” she shook her head staring off. “That fucking car. He loved that fucking car.”
“More than he loved you?”
Her head shot in my direction with a look of disgust, but then relaxed as she covered her eyes, crying softly.
Lee turned toward her but did not move. I’d learned enough about the party, so I switched my focus.
“What do you do for a living, Lee?” I knew already. Wanted to hear him tell me.
Anna responded instead. “He’s in the Guinness Book of Records,” she almost smiled.
That was something. I smiled up at Lee and asked, “Ate the most Atomic Buffalo Turds in one sitting?”
He laughed. Shook his head. “I’m actually the second person, not the first. I sold a building a day for 365 days.
“That was right before we got engaged,” as he turned his gaze toward Anna.
“He bought me an engagement ring. Quarter of a million dollars.” That surprised me. Was she bragging? or complaining?
“I see you’re not wearing it. Just a band . . . you have there.”
“It’s heavy, clumsy. I just wear it out, when socializing.”
“And what do you do, Anna?”
“I was Dad’s executive assistant.”
I noted the use of the past tense . . . already.
“She ran the business. He sat in his executive chair,” Lee said harshly.
“I suppose now you’ll just take over, at the brewery?” I said looking at Anna.
“Yeah,” she responded dully, looking down at the carpet.
I expected sadness. After the death of a loved one, even if you murdered him, there was expected sadness. But Lee was hiding something, and Anna looked guilty.
“So you’re still in real estate, Lee?”
“Yes, but mainly high end.”
“Like the Hearst Castle, there up the road.”
“I’d love the commission on that one, but it’s not for sale.”
“He sold Dad his home,” chipped in Anna.
“Is that so? Did he live there long?”
“About ten years. Mom died five years ago. He’s never gotten over it. Uterine cancer.”
“Big place then.”
“Very,” Lee added. “Heck of a view. Overlooking the ocean, craggy rocks, amazing sunsets. Beautiful home.”
“I’ll have to see it. Anyone there now?”
“The servants are still there. They were just informed this morning, but I’ve told them they can stay until things settle down, or it’s sold, or Aron moves in.”
“So, you’ve seen the will?”
“He was very vocal about his will,” Lee said suddenly startling himself and looking like he shouldn’t have said that.
“What’s a place like that worth?”
“I got it for him right after the housing crash, but you know, a place like that doesn’t really drop that much in price. He paid around 25, it’s now valued at 29.”
“I assume millions,” I smiled.
“Yes, yes,” Lee smiled nodding his head. “He got it for a steal. Like that damn car.”
“Yes, I’ve already heard he thought that was a steal.”
“He loved spending money,” Anna said softly, shaking her head and staring at the carpet. “He’d overspend on something if he thought it was a steal. Really didn’t matter what he paid, as long as he was convinced he got it at a steal.”
I saw Lee looking at the clock over the doorway and I spoke up, “I see I’m taking up too much of your time.”
“Yes, I’ve got to meet with the attorneys. They’re arriving soon.”
Funny that he didn’t say we’ve got to meet, but then Anna didn’t look like she was up for it.
“I will leave you two to it, but I’ve got a little favor to ask.”
Lee perked up.
“Do you mind if I take a look at that bookcase?” I asked, pointing over my shoulder. “I just know you’ve got some rarities in it. I love books, especially ones I could never afford.”
I knew he’d agree. He liked showing off his wealth.
“Sure thing, Mr Spade. We’ll say goodbye now and you know the way out.”
We shook hands, Anna nodded toward me as he grasped her elbow helping her up and escorting her out.
I headed to the bookcase, but was more interested in something else. When I was sure they had gone, I turned and went back.
The odor in the air told me they’d had a fire that night, and a fire is the best place to hide evidence. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I started shuffling through the ashes with their poker, finding still warm coals.
And then I spotted it. The cap of a pop bottle, burned unrecognizable except it was definitely a pop bottle cap. I turned and looked about the room. Only the dead bear a few feet from me lay looking up at me.
I touched it to see how hot it was. It wasn’t, so into my pocket it went.
In the foyer I called toward the kitchen, “Iris?” I knew where the kitchen was, because every time she was brought up their eyes aimed in that direction. Body language is important.
A door opened, and her head, maid’s cap and all, popped out asking, “Yes?”
“Hi. Just one question: do they recycle here?”
“Everything, Sir. Anna demands it.”
“That’s all. Thank you,” and I took my exit. I wanted to look over Sam’s mansion, but first I had to stop at Aron’s computer shop. I’d been told he lived and worked out of his home, and had three part-time employees. He was located about ten miles south of his sister’s mansion.
Approaching the stop sign to Highway 1, I saw something in the road reflecting the street lights. I pulled over, took a tissue out of the glove box, and went to look. I wiped a bit from the road and smelled it. Brake fluid. Just about a teaspoon.
None of the cars in that neck of the woods leaked anything. This was something.
“Sam Spade, you must be Aron.”
“Yeah, we’re closed.”
“I saw that the shop’s lights were all out but you can’t fool me!”
That struck him upside the head a bit. He shook his head and stepped back to shut his door.
“I’m not here for that. I’m working for Judge Amy Spieler.”
“Yeah,” he said stepping into the open doorway. “She’s my old man’s cousin.”
“She’s hired me to investigate your father’s accident last night.”
He turned his head away, and I’m not sure what that slight look of surprise turned into, but his face was composed as he turned back and told me to come in.
He looked like a young Bob Dylan, with hair everywhere, and had a T-Shirt that read, “I Paused My Game To Be Here,”a pair of old jeans, and sneakers that looked like they’d been bought at WalMart. His complexion rough and pale, like he hadn’t had a steak since the turn of the century. He could have been a vegan, or a lush.
I filled him in on where I’d been and who I’d interviewed, and how the sheriff suspected foul play. He took it all in while pulling a beer from his fridge and popping it open. It was a Sam Adams Cream Stout, probably the only beer I liked, so I asked, “Got one for me?”
“Oh, sorry. I have terrible manners, I’m told. But that’s because I like computers more than people. Here . . . and here’s the opener.”
Every time I told him something, he pulled his lips in as if wondering where I was going with it, so I kept it up, trying to find a change in his expression. I finished with, “So, how’d you get into this business?”
I learned that he’d always liked computers, that in fifth grade he’d written his first program, a game that he shared with friends, and a few years later learned that someone stole his idea and was making a fortune off it. In high school he took up hacking and often left notes, “Kilroy was here!” on his friends’ computers.
Kilroy? I just had to ask about that.
He told me about his grandfather, that he’d been rescued from Bergen Belsen by the Brits. He’d seen the graffiti in Germany and France as he tried to reunite with his family. Sadly, he found no survivors. But when he came to visit the kids, he’d always somehow sneak into Aron’s room and leave a tiny Post-It Note with that drawing on it somewhere in his room.
He’d died from a heart attack just days before 2000.
“So did you study computers in college?”
“I dropped out my sophomore year. I was bored. In computer science, they’ll only teach you something once it’s become obsolete. I was a C student getting A’s because it was just too easy.”
“So then what?” that beer was amazing.
“I went to work for my dad. IT work at the brewery, but that got boring. Didn’t need me full time, and they could hire a college grad full time and pay him twenty bucks an hour to sit around, so I just asked the old man if he’d give me some start-up money for my own business.”
“The way you say that, he turned you down.”
“Yeah, he said I had to make something of myself first. So I joined the army.”
“But I graduated at the top of my class in AIT. I applied for Iraq/Afghanistan because I’d heard that there were jobs hacking into confiscated computers and phones. I’d also heard that contrary to everyone’s beliefs, the military was using some top secret, leading edge technology. I really wanted to see that.”
He shook his head.
“Couldn’t get near it or it didn’t exist. Ever been in the military?”
“Rumors. It’s all rumors. You never hear the straight poop till you’re under attack.”
He paused staring straight ahead.
Looking up he finally said, “And once you’re there, you’re never going home. They just keep coming up with reasons you can’t leave. So at my first actual chance to get out, signed my papers, got my check, and never looked back.”
“So then you started this, eh?”
“First the welcome home, and beer. I really missed beer. Had to be smuggled in over there. Hash was everywhere, but I missed the beer. Dad threw a party, all the relatives were there, then he took me outside and handed me a bank book. I thought those things were obsolete. He told me I’d done good. Made him proud. That I could go start my own business and he hoped I’d get rich at it. And here we are now.”
“How much was in that bank account?”
“This,” I said looking around, “did not cost three million dollars.”
“No, it did not.”
When we were all finished talking about his history, all I had really learned was that gamers and hackers hate work, but love to play. They made their work play, and were always amazed people paid them for it. You got a problem, they come in, fix it, and walk out with a couple hundred dollars. His favorite spiel to the customer was, “If you’ve got a really difficult problem, I can fix it in a few minutes. If it’s impossible, it’ll take a bit longer.”
Then he showed me “the room.”
I quickly learned that this was “his” computer room, probably the biggest room in the house. His shop was outside facing the street. But this was his room, filled with computers dating back to the late seventies, and a few he’d built just last week with the latest of the latest technology. He had a work desk where he tore them apart and put them back together, and on the wall a steel framed cork board where he pinned up jobs, completed and to be completed. But these were his jobs. His employees, he told me, had their own board in the shop.
I asked him why the low tech. Didn’t they keep jobs on their phones and laptops . . . or tablets?
He said he just liked the visual. There they were, didn’t have to look in a phone or computer, they were always right in front of his face.
“What are these?” Steel looking things, attached all around the steel edge of the bulletin board.
“Magnets. Pull one off.”
“This thing is powerful.”
“I pull them out of hard drives. Won’t be around much longer. We’ll have solid state drives soon. Their sizes are growing.
“Wanna see one of my favorite computers?”
That was interesting. It had a CRT with green characters. Must have been older than him, years older.
“It’s M/PM, the operating system. Derived from C/PM. Was around in the early eighties, I think. A multi-user operating system.”
That was interesting.
“IBM retarded the industry ten, maybe twenty years by choosing DOS as their first operating system. We’d have had Windows at least a decade earlier if they’d gone with M/PM. But since IBM had the clout at the time, everyone just jumped right in and bogged down the entire industry.”
“What do you do on it.”
“Nothing. I play the old games. Like Ladders. Was made for the Kaypro, the first luggable. And get this. I can get unheard of points because changing the code is as simple as opening up the debug and modifying the characters, all the ladders, and prizes, even shorten the jumps. You see the screens right in Debug. I have about 12 versions of that game. Oh, and I play robot wars. The program comes with robots already programmed to take over the core. You have to write the code to create a bot that beats them at it.”
“Sounds like a virus.”
“Exactly. This program taught a lot of people how to write viruses. Idiots. People aiming for immortality because their damn viruses will be around for eons.”
“I take it you’re a bit of a hacker?”
“I love hacking. In fact, some of the best hackers work in security for the government, after they’ve served some time in the pokey.”
Pokey. Another word out of the past.
“So I take it . . .”
“No. Never. Malicious hackers always get caught. I served in the army. Not about to serve time in jail.”
I thought I’d seen him shiver just then. I had more questions.
I asked about the party.
He liked the gathering. The food. Even had a sip of the Scotch, though he admitted that he preferred beer. I asked how much his old man drank, and like the others, he said he wasn’t really a drinker. A glass of wine at Shabat, though they weren’t really a religious family. No Scotch? His old man didn’t like Scotch, though he did say that he’d had “one for the road.”
That was interesting. I asked what it was.
“In a bottle?”
“Yeah, with a straw.”
“Served by the maid?”
“Anna gave it to him. She always had a six pack of Coke for him.”
I didn’t have to ask if the bottles were plastic.
“One more thing. Did you go out to look at the old man’s car?”
His answer came after a pause.
“Yeah, me and Jake.”
“You’d never seen it before?”
“Just from a distance. I don’t visit dad, and he doesn’t come here. He’s disappointed that I’m not a billionaire yet.”
“Did you look under the hood?”
“Nope, not interested in engines. The chauffeur did.”
“He was out there?”
“He lives on top of the garage. I guess he heard us out there. As long as we were looking over that thing, he wanted to take a look under the hood. Jake did too.”
“Did you go inside? inside the car?”
Again a pause. “It’s just a car. A nice one I’ll admit.”
I stood waiting. He hadn’t answered the question. He looked up, knowing I was waiting, and looked down and to the right.
“I think I opened the door, yeah, just to see the upholstery, the dashboard. Dad sunk quite a bit into it, at least that’s the story. It’s a car. They get you from point A to point B. I ride a mountain bike most of the time. I’ve got a Toyota for customer visits. Gotta carry tools and parts.”
He’d told me more than I had asked.
“What’s that you’re driving?” he asked me.
“Nissan Versa.” I laughed. “I Googled ‘cheapest car in America’ and it came up, located one near me, and bought it with a credit card. You’re right. Gets you from point A to point B.”
“So am I a suspect? he asked over his shoulder.
“Everyone’s a suspect.”
He turned off his monitor, and in the reflection I thought I saw a slight smile, which was gone when he turned back to me. “Well, I hope you’ll do your job and get my name off that list.”
“Just one more thing. Your unit, the commander? platoon leader? Anyone who knew you there?”
“You are really checking up on me.”
“Gotta be thorough. Besides, the longer I work the more I get paid.”
“Same here, but I have minimums. Otherwise I’d not make a dime at this. Sometimes it’s just a matter of turning everything off then on again. Do you know how many people are afraid to turn off their modems?”
I got everything I needed and more. He liked to talk. Liars tend to tell you more than they’re asked.
It was late, I needed a place to stay. Siri found me a Quality Inn less than half an hour from the crash, and for just $65 per night. I had my choice of rooms since most had already checked out that day. They told me where I could get a bite that was still open, and that ended my day.
The next morning I headed out, up that beautiful highway to the old man’s mansion. I slowed, of course, passing the crash site. The ATF was there. Also spotted a few FBI jackets. I checked my phone and Lee had already texted me images of the home with descriptions. I didn’t want to waste much time there. Most likely wouldn’t find anything useful in this investigation, but I did want to talk to the servants.
It wasn’t hard to find, and yes, it certainly was the most expensive place I’d ever visited. I drove in slowly looking for a security system. I spotted just two cameras, but later I found out from the servants that there were four, all installed by his son Aron.
You told me, Your Honor, that you’d never been to visit his home, though he’d been to your place, so here are the photos his son-in-law sent me with descriptions.
This is the driveway entrance the arrow points to the first camera and movement detector. As you can guess, he’s got the best high-end system you can buy. There are movement detectors everywhere, and they can distinguish between a dog and a person walking on all fours. His cameras all show up on a huge TV the servants showed me, in a special room. An alarm alerts everyone in the house and he’s also contacted by phone with all his cameras or a focus on one. I learned that in the past month he’d had one more camera and two or three more movement detectors installed, but not by Aron.
No one there really wanted to see me. The butler and maid were in their early fifties, married to each other. The chef said, “Call me Charlie,” was young, 25, just out of chef school, the San Francisco Cooking School.
He seemed too thin to be a chef, but then I never asked him if he jogs regularly. The driveway to the road and back must be a quarter mile, and then there’re the walking paths.
I asked him how much something like that costs, cooking school, and he told me about 25 grand. I whistled. He said, “But get this. After three months here, the old man took me aside and handed me a check. He said, “This is for your schooling. Put the rest away for that rainy day. I was in shock, but he’s one of the most generous men you’ll ever meet. He loved spending money, but still, that was something.”
I’d learned that Sam had lost the original chef there to a heart attack. He’d previously been one of the teachers at that school, and when he retired from teaching, he went to work for Schusterman. So Schusterman called the school asking for their best student, and that’s how Charlie landed the job.
He was a good looking Mediterranean mixture, with straight teeth and a crooked smile. His nails were clean and manicured, and his hair trimmed and neat. He was the kind of guy you’d like touching your food.
When they had all gathered in the living room, I told them to sit, relax, I just wanted to listen. It took a while, they were genuinely saddened by their loss.
When they finally got going, they each told me how his behavior had started changing last summer. How he began distrusting his family, began fearing them, and started changing his will. The house had been going to Aron, but that ended. He wanted the place sold off. I asked if they were going to be taken care of in his will, and the husband and wife team looked sadly downward as they spoke. He’d always told them he’d take care of them, enough to retire comfortably, but as of late he kept adding more and more for them and it did not make them happy. “It’s sad. Just sad.”
“We don’t need a lot,” the missus said. “It’s just sad how he kept cutting off his family. Sure they were all spoiled, but that’s life. They were good to him. It’s just sad.”
“They weren’t that good to him, Mr Spade,” contradicted the butler. “They hardly ever visited. Sure everyone was here for their mother’s funeral, but then nothing. And they seemed cold to him. Charlie hugged the old man more than anyone in his family.”
I looked over at Charlie. He’d told me his grandmother was Sicilian, taught him a lot of cooking early on. And then there was all that touchy feely stuff, a poor but proud race of people. How he’d got the name Charlie was strange. I thought Charlie was Germanic, or . . . didn’t matter. He appeared authentically sad too. They all loved Schusterman.
“He told me I could open a restaurant on my own. It was something to look forward to, but to tell the truth, I never wanted to leave this place. That guy loved everything I made for him. Loved trying new things. If you look in the fridge you’ll see we flew in stuff from around the world, only the best. It was a joy to work for him.
“Tonight we’re going to celebrate his life with Steak Diane, the best filets imaginable, shitake mushrooms in the sauce, steamed broccoli with a Chinese sweet sauce over half, a sharp cheddar sauce over the other half, Beluga Sturgeon Caviar on his favorite crackers, followed by a dessert of Turtle Cheesecake, his favorite. Oh, and the Champagne.”
“I thought he didn’t drink,” I inserted.
“Yeah, I asked him that when I helped him put away it away. He’d ordered three cases from France. A cuvee, the finest. ‘Why so much?’ I asked him. And you know what he told me? ‘It’s for my guests.’ Once in a while he had guests, and we were to treat them not just like royalty, but like family. That was important to him. We were serving his ‘family.’
“And then you know what he told me?” and paused. A too long of a pause, but a smile was germinating on his lips. Finally: “‘But if I should die . . . early,’ he said solemnly, ‘you and those two upstairs, I want you to raid this like you were drunken pirates.’”
“So, the butler did it . . . and the maid . . . and his chef,” I joked.
They tried to laugh. They just loved that old guy and it showed. They were more saddened by his passing than his family.
As I was about to leave, I called the sheriff from my car and got the latest. I made sure he texted me his email and the address where ATF would be going over the automobile. It was still too soon for a coroner’s report, they were still gathering up bits and pieces, but what they’d put together so far sat up in San Jose, at the Medical Examiner’s office.
I thought my next stop that day should be the brewery. I was interested in how his employees were taking the old man’s demise. And if any of his family showed up. Just a general feeling of the place. It can tell you a lot. And if not, I’d always get to sample their brews. Aron apparently didn’t drink it. I’d seen only that cream stout in his fridge.
I flashed my license around when needed. They’d all learned of the crash as they came in that morning, but everyone was shocked to learn that foul play was suspected. Just the flash of my license and an introduction told them that.
None of the family showed up that day, but I wanted to see the head offices. At what I assumed had been Anna’s desk, I found a very efficient, and very sad middle-aged redhead who nearly jumped as I opened the door. Deep lines extended from just below the top of her nose, under her grey/blue eyes to almost her cheeks, where a light rouge had been applied. I introduced myself and explained why I was there and that I wanted to look around. Her eyes darted quickly to the door that Schusterman must have worked behind, and when I turned, she quickly told me, “You can’t go in there!”
“And why not?”
“I just can’t let you go in there. It’s . . . it’s . . . it was his private office?”
“May I sit over there then?”
“Yes, and make a call, read a magazine, and wait for the police to arrive with a search warrant.”
“Police?” her dark blue eyes lit up.
“Certainly. Murder investigations often involve investigating the victim . . . and his family . . . and his employees.”
She stared at me sharply, but then looked away and down to her left. “You may go in, Mr Spade. Just don’t move too many things around. He had his own system in there and hated finding anything out of place.”
“I’m pretty sure he won’t be doing that again very soon.”
It was big, with huge windows behind the boss’ chair. Since so far everything I’d seen had cost way too much, it was difficult not to try to put a dollar sign on everything I saw. I’m sure none of it, including the carpets, was anything I could ever afford. But the sparseness, the absence of anything really work related was most prominent in my mind.
The family was right. He did nothing. I found an ashtray, spotless. Someone along the line said he smoked cigars occasionally, illegally imported Cubans. This was the only sign of that. I took a seat in a chair I’d like to steal, settled in and quietly felt everything.
I looked at the huge drawer to my right, bottom of the desk, and when I pulled it out, I found exactly what I thought I’d find. A humidor half full of cigars. I took one. He wasn’t going to miss it, and I might just light one up after I’m invited to a meal cooked up by his people back at his home. I took another. My father always said I was his one child who would try everything twice.
Inside that drawer was a lighter, gold and diamond studded, and a bottle of butane to refill it. Even a box of wooden matches, I suppose for those times he liked to light up as they did in those movies out of the forties. The candle was interesting. The label read: Smoke Odor Exterminator, Cinnamon Apple.
The drawer on top had two pens, a rubber band, a pencil with a broken tip, and a few papers full of business stuff that I’m sure I didn’t understand. Taped to the outside wall of the drawer were important phone numbers. I understood. You can only trust your phone so much. Some numbers just have to be written down. Reaching to the back of the drawer, I found a piece of equipment I was thoroughly familiar with. It was an electronic bug detector that also found hidden cameras. Looked like the top of the line. Upon inspection, I found a slight flaw in the plastic where the cover connected to the piece. It had been opened and tampered with.
The top of his desk was like the rest of his desk. Wood. Fine wood. Nothing covering it, like most executives’ desks. Just the ashtray to his right. So he was right handed. A photo of his wife, I assumed, to his left, in a frame that looked like it was designed by the craftsman who’d made the desk, and a stylish light, gold plated, flexible neck, old style with a three-way bulb inside that I just had to scrutinize. I’d seen this bulb before. It created oxygen and cleaned the air. The lamp was immovable, almost as if glued to the desk, but Schusterman wasn’t the kind to injure his desk like that so I moved it about till I finally figured out it was attached by suction cups.
Then there was the phone. A multiline phone with a speaker, intercom, and buttons to somewhere he must have memorized. They were not marked. The line went down the right side of the desk, near the corner, attached with some kind of invisible plastic. It was the type of phone that could be easily bugged though all that can be obviated by using his cellphone. But still, I just had to look. I took it apart just enough to find a bug, but nothing.
Under the desk the first thing I noticed were new scratches on the unfinished wood, on the right side. The line went into a compartment that had been added onto the desk, and recently from the looks of the scratches. A line came out, down to the floor where it was plugged in. You could barely see the plug since it was covered in carpet. Quite fancy.
I got up and stuck my head out the door and asked the temp, “Did Sam have any work done in here recently? Electronic? Phone?”
“I only know the rumors.”
“And they were . . . ?”
“That he’d called in some professionals to make sure he wasn’t being bugged.”
“And how long did they stay.”
“No idea. Anna would know.”
I needed to know right then and there. If something fishy was going on, the evidence would soon be destroyed. I always carry my tool kit in my inside jacket pocket, right next to my empty wallet.
Removing the cover under the desk, I discovered exactly what his “professionals” had installed. Not only was the phone bugged, but there was a listening device so that any conversations near that desk could be recorded. I assumed the recorder was near Anna’s desk.
I pulled out my phone and took a picture of it, then replaced the cover.
“I’m going to need to take a look at your desk,” I said exiting the old man’s office.
Again a look of shock. A quick scan showed the bottom left, large drawer had a lock on it.
“Do you have a key?”
“Why don’t you slip out for a coffee break.”
She just stared up at me wide-eyed.
“Or you can sit there and wait with me for the warrant to arrive.”
She started to leave, but I stopped her with, “You have to give me the okay so I can continue here.”
“Okay, okay. Have at it.” That exchange, for the record, was recorded into my phone.
It was an easy lock to pick, and I took a quick photo. It was all there. But what came first? The chicken or carton of eggs. Was his paranoia justified, or did his paranoia justify their bugging him?
I decided to take a stroll through the brewery. I’d built up a thirst. But before that, one last check.
“Hello, Sheriff?” He was back at the crash site.
“Yes, Sam. Whatcha got for me?”
“The old man’s office is bugged, but the reason I’m calling,” I paused as I turned on Schusterman’s bug detector, “I’m testing a bit of high tech.” The thing was worthless. “Can you hold?” and I ran into the other office where the recorder was definitely working.
“Sheriff? I’ve taken photos of the system, and I’ll bring some evidence you can use. But now I’m off to get a beer.”
“Enjoy, Mr Spade. We’re just about finished up here. These federal boys are really thorough.”
I disconnected the recorder, it was digital, and put it in my pocket along with the tampered bug detector.
And that must have built up a fine thirst because I was really looking forward to a beer, or two.
I’d only seen breweries in movies, so upon finding the huge vats after asking around, I asked the first person I met if the brewmaster was around. He came down stairs from atop the vats and shook my hand. I told him why I was there with a flash of my license, and he just hung his head. He looked just like you’d think a brewmaster would look. Large and puffy, with a red face, glowing eyes, and if you didn’t know he was sober, you’d think he was sampling the stuff all day long. It was that shine in his eyes.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Since it started up, some forty years ago.” There was no smell of liquor on his breath. And beer is the worst. A cop pulls you over after just one beer, and you’re blowing on his breathalyzer and performing some kind of circus routine out on the roadway.
“Which is your best brew?”
“Our Oktoberfest, but that’s seasonal. We took home first place with that one, three years in a row. We’ve got pretty good stout and a winter ale.”
“Can I get a sample?”
“Of course. You a beer drinker?”
“Of sorts, but Scotch is my usual.”
Their stout wasn’t on a par with Sam Adams’, but the ale had a nice ring to it. I’d order that with a burger. As I sipped it, I was told that last year, it too had been a winner.
I didn’t know a thing about beer contest, prizes, what constitutes a winner, but as he spoke he pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the far wall decorated with blue, red, and white ribbons. I guess that must mean something. The only contest I’d ever been in was a police line-up, and they didn’t give ribbons to the winners.
“Is Jake around today.”
“No. None of the family is here today.”
“What does Jake do here.”
He paused, then said, “Absolutely nothing.”
I learned that he spent his time with a clipboard, walking around the docks.
So that’s where I headed next.
“But wait, Mr Spade. You have to try our newest. I think it’ll take the blue ribbon next year. It’s our Brown Ale.”
He poured me a half glass and he sipped the rest out of the bottle.
It was delicious. “Mmmm, what gives it that nutty flavor?”
He held the bottle off to the side, staring at it, and finally answered, “Most likely the old man’s screwy family.”
“I’ma steal that, you know,” and we both laughed.
The loading dock wasn’t very busy that day. The workers there told me that barrels and bottles went out just twice a month, and ingredients came in about once a month. Most of their time was spent cleaning, and helping cart everything about the place. Extra help was hired on when the real work began.
“Is the foreman here?”
“You mean Jake?”
“Not today, though this is usually when he returns to work.”
“In the fall, he takes off to work as a hunting guide.”
“Who takes over?”
“That’d be me,” said this huge hunk of a man coming up from behind me. Everything about this guy was big and bulbous, from his cheeks, to his chin, to his arms and belly. I nice insulating layer of fat covering what I’ll bet were enough muscles to toss me ten yards.
“So you work under Jake.”
“That’s a laugh.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“I’m the real foreman here. Jake’s a spoiled brat and clueless about what really goes on here. Sam’s always called him a lazy good-for-nothing. Had him on the payroll so he wouldn’t starve . . . and could pay his alimony and child support. I don’t know what he makes hunting, but he’s apparently pretty good at that. Loves to hunt. Hates to work.”
That was all I needed to hear, and I decided to go and check into a motel in Monterey, make some calls, gather my notes, and again Siri didn’t let me down. She found me the Carmel Wayfarer Inn for just 69 bucks a night.
I called the Sheriff along the way to request phone records—he was way ahead of me. He’d subpoenaed the phone records of the family and all the servants after a few minutes at the crash site. So that’s what he’d been holding back at our first meeting. He surmised foul play immediately and put together a list of possible suspects immediately, but later I learned that minutes after hearing of the crash, he’d called Philip Marlowe.
Once in my room, I opened my bank app and saw how generous you’d been, Your Honor.
I then put in a call to Fort Benning to speak to someone from Aron’s outfit.
I got the call back in just minutes. It was his platoon leader.
He was hesitant at first, Your Honor, until I told him Aron was a suspect in a murder investigation, but then the flood walls collapsed.
First he told me what I’d already learned, that Aron hated work, but loved to play. The IT stuff was busywork for him, but he did seem to enjoy working with cutting edge technologies, when available. The thing was, that sort of thing wasn’t the military’s standard fare. And he loved hacking. Aron was in charge of pulling the data off bin Laden’s computers. He was also sent out after some of the IED explosions where the trigger mechanism was in question, and that he had solved the mystery; that they were rigged up like the detection systems used here in the US at traffic stops, where magnets informed the traffic lights that cars were waiting at the stops. The one thing they couldn’t figure out was how they got there, but that insurgents looked like civilians and all the civilians looked like they could be insurgents, and they’d been hired to lay the roads.
But it was the suicide bombers where his genius had shown. It seems that when soldiers spotted a possible bomber, and then confirmed visually using binoculars, sharpshooters would take them out with a shot to the head. But suddenly, that seemed to be triggering the explosives.
I immediately flashed on the television shows in which someone holding a trigger called out, “If I release this button, everything blows up!”
“Dead man’s switch?”
“That’s it,” the captain responded.
For one thing, pressing and holding that button for any length of time can make your hand go numb. “Sometimes the thing went off early. We knew this because though the damage was extensive, there were far too few casualties. It had to be something else,” he told me.
“Most of the time,” he added, “a suicide bomber has to press a trigger.”
“And so you take headshots.”
“That’s in the movies, Mr Spade. A bullet through the medulla oblongata can immobilize the target, but it can also send his body into spasms. We called in some experts to give our unit lectures, and there are some strange things that can take place after death, such as the Lazarus sign, and cadaver spasms. Must scare the hell out of new orderlies.”
The sharpshooter unit collected some high resolution photos, and that’s where Aron and the crew had spotted the mechanism. It was between their fingers. Most likely, it didn’t require much pressure to hold it, but upon being shot, the human body goes limp, hands open, and boom.”
“We finally recovered that trigger mechanism when it failed. They were going to call in the bomb squad to disarm the target, but when Aron heard about it, he saluted as he ran past me and called out ‘No need!’ and stole a jeep.”
“So the army hasn’t changed very much over the years,” but wondering why he referred to his snipers as sharpshooters. That was a new one on me.
“Still have to sign a jeep out. But we overlook a few infractions now and then.”
“Did Aron ever duplicate the trigger.”
“He had to. We needed to see how it worked. So he built a few, connected them to blasting caps, and not a single one failed.”
“One more question, Captain: how easy is it to smuggle explosives into the US.”
“For soldiers? Impossible. Dogs can detect that stuff and everything going back to the States is sniffed before shipping and upon arrival. Besides. C4 has a strong smell of almonds.”
I called the Sheriff again and asked if he could get a search warrant and look for a laboratory of sorts at Aron’s place.
“Yeah. I’m going up to ATF and see what they’ve found. Oh, one more thing. Did that old car have much steel in it?”
“Yeah . . . pretty sure the alloys came along much later,” he said.
As I drove up to San Jose I wanted to kick myself. Where was Jake all this time? Where’d he spend the night? What’s his connection? Is he the only one we needed to take off the lists of suspects? Too damn lazy to kill his old man?
The ATF was located in the Federal and District Court complex. Ample parking across the street. They knew I was coming, and a young lady with loud mid-heel shoes escorted me ‘clickity clickity clickity’ through the hallways after placing a Visitor’s Pass on a lanyard over my head as if it was a Hawaiian lei.
The inspection area is normally off limits to civilians, except on tours, but I’d told them I might have some ideas as to the trigger mechanism.
As usual with government workers there were four men in suits standing around watching the workmen going over the parts they’d collected.
After introductions, I asked what they’d found so far.
“The head of a nine volt battery and residue. And magnets. We’ve learned a lot about magnets from IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve already been sent to the lab.”
“It wasn’t very big, was it,” I put in my two cents. They knew automatically I was referring to the bomb.
“Just big enough, it seems,” said the short, thin and balding man in charge. His hands were clean, so he was hired to just oversee.
“The crash alone would have killed him,” another chimed in.
“I think the bomb was set to go off another time,” I added.
They all nodded their heads, adding, “Yeah.” But it was a perplexed “yeah.”
“You said you had an idea as to the trigger mechanism?” short and thin asked me.
“One of his kids, an Iraqi vet, he knew a bit about those things.”
“If it survived, it’s here. The trouble is whatever was close to the bomb disintegrated upon explosion.”
That was one thing I was pretty sure of. They comb crash sites picking up the smallest pieces, anything that looks out of place.
“Mind if I have a look?” I asked.
“Have at it.”
The smaller parts were spread out over a canvas spread out on the ground. “That’s where we found the head of the nine volt. It was difficult at first to figure out what it was because it had nearly melted.”
The larger pieces were on a table each piece being separated by the workers so that it could be inspected. I picked up a few asking, “You’ve checked for finger prints?”
“Every piece that could have been touched.” But I knew that, I could see where they’d been dusted. It was the steel I was interested in. The tail pipe was next to me, but I probably wouldn’t find anything there, except, I just happened to look inside and there it was.
“What did you find there?” one asked.
Again with the surprised looks. Obviously they were just bureaucrats, the experts were doing the hard work, in fact, the one next to me looked over at me and smiled his approval, then gave a half shake of his head as if to say, “Missed that one.”
“It probably landed there while all the pieces were being gathered up. The pipe is steel.” The fella next to me silently smiled and nodded. Sure enough, he been the one who found four magnets already, all attached to the steel parts.
I recognized them right away. Magnets from hard drives.
“Oh, and we found this,” the other tech to my left handed it to me. “We knew right away it didn’t come off of the car. Way too new.”
It was braided wires, Your Honor. Like this in the photo except burnt and nearly unrecognizable.
I then said something that had to be on their minds: “Wires have to be connected to something, soldered.”
“We’ve examined that battery’s head, and found that something might have connected one of the terminals, but solder melts at the temperatures that bomb created, so we’re waiting for the lab results.”
“A plastic spring would have melted in that heat too, but if it was inside the door, wouldn’t the connectors have been blown away?”
One of the techs examining the smallest pieces spoke up, “Then I think we found one of them.” He placed it into a small clear plastic tube and brought it over.
The short boss held it up, took a magnifying glass off the table and turned to his gopher, “Take this to the lab and see if you can find traces of solder.”
It was tiny, very tiny. I asked the tech who handed it to me if it had been found with one of those electromagnets used at bomb sites.
“Might have been, but that tiny piece came connected to one of those powerful magnets.”
“Do you know something we don’t, Mr Spade,” asked the head bureaucrats.
“For one thing, those magnets are pulled out of hard drives. And I’m pretty sure we know where they came from.”
Your Honor, I informed them of everything I’d learned from Aron’s platoon leader about his work with bomb triggers, and then I told them my hypothesis: “If he’d rigged it to go off at the party, he’d have been the number one suspect, but if he could rig it to go off at the victim’s home, a place he hadn’t visited in months, then someone would suspect that the bomb was waiting there for him. That he’d triggered it by running over it or something like that.”
Two of the techs had left the table and sidled up to the group.
“Here’s what I figure. He attached it to the bottom of the car right below the driver and set the trigger inside the door. The thing is, he didn’t want it to go off by closing the door, and he didn’t want it to go off when the victim opened the door at the party, so he had to place an arming device inside the door that would arm when closed, and then trigger when the door was opened some three hours away, or two hours the way the old man drove.”
Both of the techs folded their arms and tilted their heads slightly.
“The design had to be simple so that he could pull it off in a matter of seconds, but the research of the design of the car door could have taken weeks, learning the widths and tolerances between all the parts in a closed door of that particular model. That’s where an examination of his internet search history would come in handy, but he’s a computer wiz and you can bet that’s been erased cleanly.
“Then all he had to do, after attaching the bomb, was place the arming device somewhere in the door, using silly putty, I suppose, and close the door. Then connect one wire to the battery with a clip of sorts.
“Then, when the old man got in, nothing. When he closed the door, he armed the bomb. When he opened the door, the plastic spring broke the connection and Papa is blown to heaven.
“He’d learned all that in Iraq.”
The two techs loved it, Your Honor, but the bureaucrats still stood looking perplexed.
“The only problem was the accident. The doors flew off and Papa got blown away two and a half hours early.
“And now I have to go see the ME. We still don’t know the initial cause of the crash.”
One of the techs leaned in and grabbed my hand saying, “Very nice to meet you, Mr Spade.” I gave a short wave to the rest and I was off.
Arriving at the County of Santa Clara Medical Examiner’s office, the front desk told me that Dr Michelle Jorden and a few others were all on vacation and would be back in three days. The sheriff had texted me the case number: 20190006-XM, which I showed her and I was directed to the office of Misty Padilla and Chris Garcia. The former being a forensic autopsy technician and the latter an investigator. Both were having coffee and giggling, which stopped as I stepped through their open door.
After introductions, Garcia shook my hand, “Well, Mr Spade, I thought private eyes only existed in old movies.”
“Sometimes, Sir, I feel like I’m in an old movie.” Ms Padilla laughed and turned away. They looked like a cute couple, both Hispanic with a genuine Hollywood hero and heroine appearance. Even the smocks they wore added to the Hollywood look because of its long-time fascination with doctors, hospitals, and murders.
Garcia leaned back, “I think I’ve found something that might be of interest to you, but right now we’ve got a Dr Oz in there. He’s applied for a job here, but he’ll be gone by the end of the day.”
“We gave him the job of assembling the parts, and it’s as if we’d given him a thousand piece puzzle of a big white circle. The last time I looked in he was humming the song Dry Bones. You know, ‘Well, your head bone connected from your neck bone; Your neck bone connected from your shoulder bone . . . .’”
“Rumor has it,” chimed in Ms Padilla, “he might work well with dead bodies since he’s made so many of them in his practice.”
“Mind if I just look in?”
“Go ahead. Double doors at the end of the corridor.
I pushed the door open enough to peek in, saw the guy, his back to me, dressed in a white smock. I listened closely, but all I could make out was, “Quack quack. Quack quack,” and I walked back to the office.
“That was quick.”
“No, that was quack.”
Misty pressed a button on her desk and spoke into what must have been an intercom system saying, “Dr Oz. Go grab a cup of coffee. Take a break.”
“Right this way, Mr Spade,” said Garcia, and as soon as the wizard passed their door, he headed out waving for me to follow, with Misty right behind.
“It’s his head,” Garcia said turning it over face down. Having gloved his hands, he picked up some kind of surgical tool and lifted a bit of hair on the back of the victim’s head. “See that?”
“It looks like a bullet winged the back of his skull there. It’s straight, not enough to kill him, but deep enough to knock him out.”
“The only problem,” Misty added, “is upon examination, it’s not smooth. Whatever hit him was jagged.” She handed me some close up photos of the wound.
“Ya think someone threw a rock at him?”
Garcia laughed. “Only if they could toss it at about 3,000 feet per second.”
There was silence. I stared at the photos.
“What if it was a hollow tip bullet?”
“We thought of that too, but we know what that would look like and this isn’t it.”
“It was night, along the coast. Might have been chilly enough for him to close his window.”
“I think you’re onto something.”
“Yeah, and if it was a hollow tip, it would have expanded hitting the window first.”
“Yes,” cried Misty. “We never thought of that, but then, we’ve not examined the car.”
Garcia grabbed a magnifying glass and leaned in for a closer look.
“You know? I think you’ve solved this.”
“I’ll give a call to the ATF. They’ve got the car there. Ask them about the windows. I’m pretty sure safety glass was used back when it was built. They should be able to find signs of a bullet hole.
“One more thing. Have you conducted a toxicology report yet?”
“What we could scrape up is down at the lab now.”
Yeah, I thought. “I’ll bet you don’t get many bomb victims in here.”
“His bladder was empty when the body arrived, but we might have put together enough fluids for a tox screening.”
They were all smiles as I waved goodbye. “Stop back any time, Mr Spade,” Misty sang out as I exited the swinging doors.
I made my phone calls as I exited the city heading south. If someone had fired a shot at him, I knew exactly where that shot had been taken from. Heck, I parked there.
I called the sheriff, and he said he’d meet me there.
And this, Your Honor, is a photo of where I had parked my car when I first visited the crash site. That’s the spot I figured the shooter had to be waiting for Sam.
“He was probably going a bit faster than the shooter expected,” I told the sheriff as we stood in the turnoff. “Only grazed the back of his skull, enough to knock him out,” I relayed what Garcia had told me.
We both stood, arms folded, leaning up against my car, staring at the terrain across the road.
Here’s the screen shot I pulled off of Google Maps, Your Honor, and both the Sheriff and I knew exactly what had to be done.
“ATF found signs of a bullet hole, by the way,” the sheriff filed me in. “Good call. Funny how you can’t find what you’re not looking for.
“Darrel?” he said into his radio on his shoulder, “Get down here with a metal detector. We’re going to find a bullet.”
“The best shot in the family is Jake. He’s a hunter. Pretty good, word has it.”
“Yup,” nodded the sheriff.
“But he was at the party. I forgot to ask where he spent the night, and I haven’t met with him yet.”
“He’s got a place south of his sister’s, about half an hour or 45 minutes away. In the fall he’s got a cabin in the mountains,” he said pointing north east. “His group of guides.”
“His phone records?”
“Yeah. Just one text that night. It said he’d be leaving in fifteen or twenty minutes.”
He turned his head slowly toward me. “A burner.”
It was time to talk with Jake. The funeral wasn’t set yet, so he shouldn’t be too busy right now. But first a stop at the Bakewells.
As I pulled off the road, I kicked myself again. I’m getting old. Time to retire. I’d forgotten the brake fluid mark as I passed by it again, and called the AFT one more time.
I told them what I’d found, and if it was at all possible, for them to check the brake fluid lines. That was, if they could be found.
I was met at the door by the maid. “Oh, Mr Spade, I’ll get them for you.”
“Just a second, Sweetheart, what’s your name?” It’s not like me to forget a name.
“I’m Iris, Sir.”
“Iris, I’m happy to meet you,” I said looking into her warm, grey eyes and softly grasping her hand in both of mine. She appeared sincerely gentle and giving.
She told me to go right in, and I did. The first thing I looked for was that bottle of Scotch. It was right where it had stood yesterday. Just asking me if I was thirsty.
Anna came down first. “Mr Spade, we didn’t expect you back so soon. Have you discovered anything yet?”
“Enough to know it was no accident.”
She looked away, sad, and then ashamed, and then smiled up at me.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
I smiled staring up at that beautiful bottle of Scotch.
She grinned and went over to the decanter still on the table between the two zero gravity chairs and poured me a healthy glass of the second best Scotch I’ll ever taste. I toasted her with my glass and took a sip still staring at that bottle on the shelf.
Mr Bakewell came in extending his hand. I shook it and said, “You didn’t tell me that your chauffeur had gone out with your brothers-in-law to look at the car.”
He poured himself a glass and then looked up with a fake look of surprise (he’d held it way too long), “He did?”
“Yeah, Aron told me. He and Jake had a look under the hood. Can you call him down? I’d love to talk with him.”
“I’ve given him the week off.”
“Two weeks, Dear,” Anna corrected him.
“Ahh, yes. Two weeks. It’s been pretty hectic, as you can guess. He put in a lot of overtime over the holidays.
“Anna, when did your dad have that work done in his office, the telephone?”
She looked shocked, then guilty as hell, and fumbled for her words.
“I . . . oh . . . maybe a month ago. He was sure someone was bugging his phone. He was just so paranoid.”
“Did you call them in or did he?”
“He did. Philip Marlowe, you know him? Mr Spade?”
I nodded. Yes. Yes. Yes. We’ve all heard of Philip Marlowe. “Go on.”
“Marlowe gave him a list of the best local companies to check his phones and make his lines secure.”
“Was it the same company that put the recorder in your drawer?”
She burst into tears and covered her face.
“The old man was crazy,” Lee burst out. “We know he was seeing his doctor, but his office won’t return our calls. We have a right to know his diagnosis.”
“We just had to find out what he was up to,” Anna cried through her tears.
“Anna put her heart and soul into that business,” Lee quickly interrupted. “She was supposed to take over when he retired. We had to find out what he was doing.”
“And what did you learn?”
“That he was looking for buyers. He was going to sell the damn brewery and leave us nothing.”
I noted the “us” word.
“So you’ll contest the will.”
“You’re damn right we will. He wasn’t in his right mind when he changed that damn thing. He must have made twenty changes since Thanksgiving.”
“Where did Jake go after your party.”
“We put him up in the guest room. He’d been hitting the liquor that night and we didn’t want him driving home.”
That was interesting.
“Does he make a good living at the brewery.”
“Hardly. He’s twice divorced, had a child with each. Alimony and child support eat up his check. Luckily his father bought him his home as a wedding gift, but he’s behind on his property taxes. He probably makes more as a hunting guide than at the brewery.”
“Is he home now?”
“Lord knows. He could be out drinking with his buddies. The season ended, and he doesn’t hunt hogs.”
I got Jake’s address and headed south. Just as I pulled into San Luis Obispo, I got a call from the ATF. It was Jerry, the tech who’d shook my hand just as I was leaving.
“Mr Spade? If you get me to look for just one more clue to this accident, we’re going to have to put you on the payroll.”
“So what’d you find, Jerry?”
“The reservoir was totaled in the crash, and the lines had been damaged by the explosion, but I did find one that must have come loose during the crash and had been blown free. And you were right to check it. It has a pin hole in it. All the way through.”
“Can you guestimate how far he could have gone before he ran out of fluid.”
“It’s a high powered car. Needs a quick response on the brakes, and there’s a lot of pressure in there. I’d say a half hour at the most before he lost control. Does that help?”
“Nothing helps me anymore, Jerry. It looks like everyone north of Santa Barbara was trying to kill this guy.”
“Do me one favor, Mr Spade?”
“Take me off your list of suspects.”
I turned onto Jake’s street, a middle class neighborhood. It was a cool 65 degrees, according to my phone, and kids were outside playing. I’d passed by what must have been a high school a bit earlier and all the tennis courts were full, but with oldsters, not kids.
Out in front of Jake’s place I saw the garage door was open, but no car. His lawn was trimmed, but the edges were shaggy. He probably hired kids in the neighborhood to cut it. His garage had a work bench, but hardly any tools, just gun cleaning solutions, rods, and a few used pads that smelled familiar when I picked them up. The cement floor showed no leaks. I went around to the front door and rang the bell. I listened. No movement. I gave a quick walk around the place, looking in the windows. He was definitely a bachelor. It had a scattered look replete with beer cans and open pizza boxes.
I’d learned he worked for Schmidt Guide Service, about an hour north, so I Googled them on my phone, misspelled it twice on that damn tiny keyboard, then spoke it into the phone and Siri didn’t get it right either, but finally found their phone number and called. No answer.
So I called the sheriff, Howie was his name. I’d finally written it down. I asked to meet with him and was told he’d be in for the next two hours or so. That was in King City, so bye bye Pacific Ocean, it was 101 I’d be taking.
It was right off the highway, but sure enough, the GPS had me exit early so I could tour the damn city till I found it.
He waved me into his office and I took a seat. He leaned back in his X-chair with his hands behind his head. He was silent.
“Well,” I started, “Who goes first?”
“I hear you’ve been busy, Mr Spade.”
“Still can’t find Jake.”
“Neither can we.”
Outside of that, I was about to learn his office was right on top of this caper.
All the phones connected to the family were being monitored and recorded. Even at the brewery and Sam’s house. Bank accounts had been subpoenaed, and the only transaction that had stood out was the $100,000.00 that had been deposited in the Bakewell’s chauffeur’s account just before Christmas.
“They’ll probably tell you it was his bonus.”
“That’s what we were thinking. Still, it’s a pretty hefty bonus.”
They hadn’t found a lab at Aron’s place, but his deputies did find the bullet. It was a 300 Magnum, hollow point. It sat up in San Jose now, ballistics looking at it, but the sheriff and I both felt the rifle would never be found. If it had been one of Jakes buddies, he knew the mountains better than a mountain goat. They’d gotten copies of Sam’s will from you, Your Honor. Smart move to make you his executor. And those changes and dates gave his office a picture of his mental state, Howie told me. I wasn’t interested in the will. I just wanted a feeling for the stink his machinations created for his family.
I leaned over and placed Schusterman’s bug detector in his desk.
That made him sit up.
“Schusterman had a group come in, search the place and install an anti-spying system under his desk. Marlowe had recommended them. It was even encased in something that would require a blowtorch to get into,” he told me.
I pulled a tool from my pocket, held it up, and said, “I got in with this. Whatever had been installed, got uninstalled right away.”
I laid the recording device on his desk, telling him what it was, and then pointed to the bug detector saying, “Lights up, looks like it’s working. Doesn’t do a thing.
“Oh, and speaking of Marlowe, you used his report to gather up a list of suspects.” That was just one thing he’d been holding back.
“We were on it by sunrise the morning after.” He flashed me a sheet of paper saying, “Their chauffeur used his credit card for gas three times, and now twice in Reno.”
“Anything new on that burner phone.”
“This is kind of interesting, Mr Spade. I had some deputies scour the area for his hunting guide buddies, and it seems, that when they are out hunting, they all use fresh burners. Hunting in this area is very competitive and they just don’t want anyone knowing where they are or what they’d doing. They have their favorite spots, even a good deal of camera’s hidden in the forests. So they can’t afford to give away their secrets.”
“And your interviews?”
“We’ve made an appearance here and there. The usual questions. But to tell you the truth, Mr Spade, [That was an interesting turn of phrase. Had he been lying to me up to this point?] we’re letting you do the detective work.” He hit the intercom asking me if I’d like a cup of coffee. “Black.”
She must have been waiting outside the door because I got the cup and a smile in what seemed like seconds. “Candi, this is Mr Spade. Famous detective who’ll be visiting us for a while.”
“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr Spade.” She bowed, seeing my hands were holding that hot mug.
“And it’s a pleasure to see an honest smile, Candi.”
As her short skirt passed through the doorway, I looked up at Sheriff Howie and asked, “Read many detective novels?”
“Not at all. I read so much stuff here during the day, when I get home, I just want to cuddle up with the missus to one of her Lifetime or Hallmark movies. And yes, I put up with them because I love her, and, besides, I fall asleep quickly.”
“One of the themes in those dusty old books is, ‘Stay out of police business!’ The detective is constantly harangued by the police who refuse to share a thing with him. But obviously, you’re from a different planet.”
“Sam . . . may I call you Sam?”
“It’s about time.”
“Our murder rate is zero. We deal with assault, burglaries, and rapes mostly. Years ago, a few gang-related murders. Up in the City . . . Carmel . . . no, Carmel Point, they still have an unsolved murder from 1981. But in Monterey the local police handle all that.
“This is my first one. And that hit me the second I got the call. Marlowe had filled me in on old man Schusterman’s state of mind and how he’d been to see his lawyer more and more so there were no surprises. But I have no idea how to even start a murder investigation. You’re elected in this county, and they never ask to see your college grades. When Judge Spieler told me she’d hired a detective, or another detective, we nearly broke out the champagne.
“So . . . you fill me in.”
Your Honor? You have no idea how contented I felt listening to Sheriff Howie. I’ve dealt with the cops for years, and most police are too dumb to be detectives, and most detectives are too stupid to know how stupid they really are, and once they’ve come to a conclusion, it’s harder to separate them from it than pulling apart two mating dongs. There is just no second guessing.
So I filled him in.
“You’ve gotten the reports from ATF?” He nodded. “If we find the lab or person Aron got the explosive from, then we’ve got him on that, although I think we have enough to arrest him already, if we can depose his platoon leader. And here’s something I found in the Bakewell’s fire place,” as I put the burnt pop bottle cap on his desk.
“I’m hoping they found at least a few tablespoons of bodily fluids to do a tox screen. He was served up a Coke by Anna before leaving the party.
“You’ll have to pick up the chauffeur, but extradition is out of the question. Not enough evidence to get that, but if you can get him here, he might crack under pressure. First murder and all. All we have left is to find the shooter.”
“And how do you intend to go about that?”
“When you hire a hitman who is not a professional, he’s got something on you. I’m going to stir things up and try to build some friction between Jake and his buddy.”
“I see, get them at each other’s throats. He might ask for more money to leave the country . . . or something.”
“Or there’ll be another murder, and that one could be solved by Candi.”
“She’d be the right person. She’s a heck of a lot smarter than I.”
For one thing, I thought, she’d probably know it’s “me” not “I.”
“Your deputies interviewed all of the guides at that outfit?”
“Yeah, just two didn’t have an alibi. The others all checked out.”
“One more thing,” I asked standing. “Where’s Marlowe now?”
“No clue. His job ended the moment Schusterman died, but he is hanging around the area. I hear he’s been spending time up at the brewery, sampling beers and shooting shit with the men. He can really spin a yarn, I’m told.”
“Yeah, he should be in the movies but I’m not sure his ego can fit on a wide screen.”
Howie shook my hand laughing and I left with two names and all their info. Time to go hunting.
The first name, Richard Spit was at home with his family. I called when I arrived at his place and asked him to come out to my car. He was curious, and since he’d been interviewed by the deputies, he didn’t ask any questions.
“I don’t know what I can tell you, Mr Spade. Told the cops everything I could remember.”
“How about telling me one more time?”
He’d spent Christmas with his family, and hunting season was coming to a close. He had two more trips to guide and when he finished he stayed up at one of their cabins, and his family went to her parents’ place to celebrate the new year. The kids stayed up all night eating McDonalds to watch the ball drop.
“You didn’t make any calls?”
“Sure. Called the wife a couple of times. Told her I’d be home the next day. But you probably already know we use burners out here.”
“Where is it now?”
“We trash them as soon as we leave. We’re not allowed to even carry our own phones to work.”
“That’s the SOP for your outfit?”
“And why is that? They’re flip phones, right.”
“Few people know that right around year 2K, the feds put a GPS tracker in all phones. You couldn’t use it and most didn’t know it was even there. But you could be tracked, with pretty good precision.”
“Can you tell me your story backwards?”
“Humor me. Then I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Okay, let’s see. I trashed my phone. I got into my car and drove off. I finished my hunt and went to the lodge, oh, and I called the wife . . . once or twice, can’t really remember, I was exhausted, and then I went off with the clients to hunt . . . backwards.”
“Enjoy the new year,” I said shaking his hand. “Nobody will bother you any further.”
Off to the next one. The odds in Vegas shrunk rapidly as I drove. Nobody would be betting against this one. He was a piñata filled with secrets, and the only question was how hard I’d have to beat him with a stick to get him to spill them.
I called him and he told me quickly, “I told everything to the cops already. I’ve got nothing to say to you.”
“Then I guess the sheriff will have to pick you up and I’ll talk to you in his custody.”
“Can’t you just leave me alone?”
“Won’t take more than ten minutes, I can assure you.”
“Alright. I’m watching a college game at Buffalo Wild Wings. I’m sitting at the bar. You can’t miss me. I’ve got on orange dayglow tennis shoes.”
That was weird. But it sure made him easy to find. I took a seat next to him. He turned his head toward me then looked away saying, “So you must be Sam Spade.”
“I must. And you must be Eddie Hopper. Single, 26, auto mechanic most of the year, a sniper in Iraq.”
“Actually, we like to be referred to as sharpshooters. The enemy are snipers.”
That was the truth. And even answered my question about the terminology.
“So tell me, what were you doing New Year’s Eve?”
“I’ve been over that with—“
“Amuse me. But first I’ll need a Sam Adams Cream Stout,” I said tuning to the bar tender, “And an order of your second hottest wings.”
“Celery and blue cheese?”
“Naw. Sounds too healthy.”
I refused the glass and took a swig from the bottle. That was refreshing. I realized I might just stick around there longer than the ten minutes I’d promised Eddie.
I looked over at Eddie. He was turned away watching the game. I tapped him on the shoulder, “The floor is yours.”
He looked back, then down at his beer glass. “I finished a hunt on the thirtieth. Didn’t have anywhere to be for a few days, the auto shop was closed, and there was a cabin empty on the north trail so I decided to stay there. I grilled up an elk steak, had a few beers and fell asleep. I was exhausted. The next day I slept in till noon, got up, had a beer, and cleaned my rifles. The temperature had dropped, and so I built a fire. I decided to stay there and leave for home the next day. So I grilled up another steak, put in a DVD and watched Avengers: Infinity War. Then it got dark, I put some more logs on the fire, put another DVD in drank beers and fell asleep.
“What was the second DVD?”
“Spectre, James Bond,” he answered quickly.
“And the next day?” I nibbled at the wings in between sips of beer, even ordered a second, but I kept my focus on Eddie’s face. They say that the average person tells three lies every ten minutes. This guy was trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. The asymmetrical shrug of his right shoulder and eyes looking up and to the right contradicted his lips as he told me about falling asleep.
“I closed down the place, turned off the electricity, got in the jeep and headed back to headquarters. Trashed the phone. Got in my car, and headed back to my condo. That’s it.”
His words came out fast, but his face read guilt and shame, and the only time he looked at me, I read fear.
I finished off my wings and as I started cleaning up with a couple of wet napkins, I asked him if he could repeat his story backwards.
“What the fuck?”
“Humor me. Tell me your story backwards.”
He looked confused.
“I got in the jeep—“
“No, you went to your condo.”
“Yeah, I went to my condo, and then . . .before that . . . I fixed an elk steak . . . no I went to headquarters—“
“You trashed your phone.”
“Yeah . . . I . . . I”
“It’s okay,” I put my hand on his shoulder. “A lot of people can’t do it.” I purposely left off “because they’re lying.” They’ve rehearsed their story over and over, but in order. They’ve not rehearsed it backwards.
I paid off my tab. Looked over at Eddie the shooter, and told him thanks, and that I was heading back to the sheriff’s office. I added, “They’ve picked up Jake and it seems he’s ready to crack.” Then I walked away without looking back . . . though I did take a peek at the mirror behind the bar and Eddie looked like a freshly caged fox.
I’d gotten a text from the Sheriff while sitting there, but let it go. Outside I saw that the chauffeur had used his credit card just outside of Sacramento and was already being transported to his office. As I hopped in my car, I got another text: “Eddie just called Jake.”
I called Howie, “Yeah he’s trying find out if Jake’s in custody.”
“He will be in about fifteen minutes. That call gave away his location and deputies are on their way to pick him up.”
“Have San Luis Obispo pick up Eddie. He’s our shooter.”
“What evidence have you got on him?”
“Just the fact that he’s lying worse than a husband caught cheating. But you’ll get a confession out of him faster than he can field dress an elk.
“Heat up some coffee, I’m on my way.”
As I pulled into the sheriff’s parking lot, I spotted what must be the chauffeur being escorted inside. He was in handcuffs, so obviously he didn’t want to “come along peacefully.”
I waved to the staff as I entered the building. Candi was on her feet already with a tray of coffee, and the sheriff told me to come right in. The look on his face reminded me of Sylvester with a mouthful of Tweetie Bird, and so I said the obvious: “Spit it out.”
“Aron’s in lockup. ATF sent dogs to his place, and they found traces of explosives in the jacket he wore that night. Jake and Eddie will be here soon, but get this,” and he paused.
“Okay, I give.”
“You son-of-a-gun. The ME’s office wouldn’t have even looked for it. I mean, the body was hamburger, and they’d already determined what had killed him, and despite procedure, sometimes they get lazy. But because of your inquiry . . . they found GBH in his system. Or what was left of his system.”
I’m sure I couldn’t help smiling, Your Honor.
Howie stood up. “We’ve only got one interrogation room in here so it’s going to get pretty crowded . . . before the hour is up. Would you like to attend the chauffeur’s interrogation? I’m sure you’re probably better at this than I am.”
“Sure, but whatever I say, don’t look surprised. Just go along with it. Oh, and when Jake and Eddie are here, make sure they see each other, but keep them at opposite ends of the building.”
I loved his smile. “At least that we know,” he grinned. I’ve taken classes, you know. Internet classes, but still, classes.”
I followed him into their one and only interrogation room and stood up in the corner. He sat down across from the chauffeur (hadn’t been told his name yet, but then I hadn’t asked), and asked him, “Mr Bryant, would you like me to take those off?” pointing at the handcuffs.
Not bad, I thought. Good gesture to get him on our side.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“No.” He lied. He was scared. This would be easy.
“Your boss’ father-in-law died in a car accident in the morning hours of January first. And you left early that morning on vacation. Was that before or after you heard of his death?”
“I . . . I . . . just now.”
“So you don’t remember rigging the car to crash.”
“And you’re lying,” I added. This was too easy.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Sam Spade, and I’m here to save you from spending 25 years behind bars.”
His look of fear, the widening of his eyes, and then the drooping of his head told me it was time to reel him in.
I put my hand on the sheriff’s shoulder. He knew I was about to close the sale and sat quietly looking at the suspect.
“Mr Bryant, is it?”
He looked up at me nodding.
“Lee Bakewell is here and he’s going to be grilled a lot harder than you’ve been. It’s all over your face, your guilt. And you were one of the people who looked under the hood of that car that night. You’re a chauffeur. Chauffeur’s know cars. They know maintenance. They know a bit about their workings . . . and mechanics. Jake was there too. But he’s an idiot. Only one person could have put that hole in the brake fluid line and that person could spend the next 25 years in prison . . . or not.
“We’ve got both of you and the first one to give up the other will get a lighter sentence.
“You can talk to the county attorney, isn’t that right Sheriff?”
“Oh, yes, in cases like this they’re very willing to make deals . . . especially to put away the one behind it all.”
His confession was recorded, transcribed, and set before him for a signature.
The Sheriff was a kind man. It was a pleasure watching him interact with Bryant.
“Listen, you’ve got a clean record, you were looking at more money than you’ve ever seen in your bank account, you had a lapse of judgement. I’ll put in a good word for you. Just sign.” What he wasn’t told was that he hadn’t had to do a damn thing and Schusterman would have still been just as dead that night.
It was all over and Mr Bryant sat cuffed in the backseat of the car that had brought him in, only this time he’d be heading north.
We celebrated with a cup of coffee. And with his last sip, Howie looked up at me saying: “Eddie.”
“Perfect choice. Do you want to handle this one?”
“Yeah, I think I can do it. Though this guy’s got a few misdemeanors on his record. Mostly bar fights and disturbing the peace.”
“Yeah, PTSD. Nobody comes back from war the same. And he was out there doing the killing.”
Sheriff Howie is a quick learner. He knew it would be a bit more difficult. But terrified that Jake would crack first, Eddie quickly flipped on him. Neither of us had the heart to tell him that he’d missed the shot. Though, it did contribute to Schusterman’s ride to that brewery in the sky.
I asked Sheriff Howie if he could do me one favor.
“Anything you want, Sam.”
“I’d like to do a final interview with the Bakewells. You can have your people ready, down the road, and I’ll send a text when it’s time to haul them in.”
“Be my guest. Couldn’t have solved this without you.”
I’d had an ulterior motive for that request, though still, I wanted to fill in a few gaps that had been bothering me.
Upon my arrival, there was a car parked front of their garage. It was a black, late model Porsche. So they had company.
Iris met me at the door and passed her hand to their living room as if I’d been expected.
The new face I did not recognize, but he was drinking my Scotch.
Lee greeted me with, “Mr Spade, I’d like to introduce you to Philip Marlowe.”
So that was the guy. We shook hands and Anna asked, “Can I fix you a drink?” as if I could possibly turn it down.
“I take it you’re here to update us on the investigation, Mr Spade.”
“Mind if I sit in one of those chairs?” I said pointing to Zero gravity near the liquor.
I was in heaven. I’ve never felt a more comfortable chair in my life, not to mention the sipping Scotch in my hand. But Lee was waiting for an answer.
I told them that they’d made a few arrests while watching Anna. Her face showed relief.
“Arrests?” queried Lee.
“Yes, your brother Jake and one of his hunting buddies conspired to assassinate Anna’s father.” That produced a bit of surprise, in both Lee and Marlowe.
I looked up at Marlowe who stared into his glass. I’d heard stories of what a lady’s man he is, which must have been exaggerated. He was as homely as an abandoned used tire.
“You were the one who suggested the company to install a secure phone in his office?”
“Did you know that the next day Anna called in someone to finish the job?”
“No I didn’t.”
“Did you inspect their work?”
“Of course, even got him a bug detector.”
“That had been tampered with.” He looked perplexed.
I turned to Anna.
“And how did you pull that off?” Again with the tears. Tears of guilt.
“Aron,” was her only response.
“But he’s not been seen at the brewery for some time now.”
“I took it into the city where he fixed it.”
“You mean rigged it.”
“Yes, it only looked like it was working.”
“Aron is sitting in jail too.”
Both of them were surprised. Not Marlowe though.
“They found traces of explosives in his jacket pocket.”
“You suspected, Marlowe, correct?”
“Everyone, but . . .”
“I think I’ll be taking my leave,” Marlowe said placing his glass on the table near the liquor stand, and without looking at anyone headed for the door.
I called out after him, “Couldn’t protect the old man, could you?”
“Listen, Spade,” he spit out turning back at me, “I told him he needed a bodyguard. I told him not to come to that party without one. He just blew me off and went to take a nap so he’d be fresh that evening. I warned him.”
And he was gone.
I looked at Anna.
“How much GBH did you spike his Coke with?”
She fainted and Lee ran to her and turned her over on her back as I slowly removed myself from that heavenly chair. “Quick,” I said, “Get her some brandy.
As I knelt next to her, I added, “And pour it down her throat while she’s still unconscious.”
I’d learned all my first-aid from thirties and forties detective movies. But to my complete surprise he left her there on the carpet and headed for a decanter. I looked down at her and picked up her hand. I held it directly above her face and dropped it. It missed her face. She was faking. But most likely, she really did need that glass of brandy.
I texted the Sheriff that his prisoners were all ready to be picked up.
I went back to that chair and took a seat, picking up my glass and taking a sip.
They put on a fine show for me, employing the best method acting I’d seen in years. Their dance moves seemed almost unrehearsed as he helped her up and back onto the couch. When they were fully relaxed and aware that I’d been staring at them, we looked into each other’s eyes and I gave the closing line to this one act play: “Your chauffeur flipped on you, Lee.” Curtain.
Or is it “curtains”?
There was a knock at the door, and I yelled out, “Come on in! These two are going to need a ride. They’ve been drinking.”
After a hard day’s work, after a solid investigation, there’s no more heartwarming sound than the finality of handcuffs being applied.
After nods and firm smiles from the deputies, they perp-walked them to their cars. Too bad the media wasn’t there to capture it. Though I was pretty sure they’d create a three, or four or five ring circus at the trial. I wondered if they’d be tried separately or together. But I didn’t really care. They were going down and I was left alone for a game of hopscotch, only this was an adult version, with real Scotch. I fixed my eyes on that bottle and placed my glass on the table next to me, picking up a clean one. I walked slowly across to the shelf holding that mystical decanter. I’d researched it the night previous and knew all about it. I poured myself a double, and before taking my first sip, I swished it around in that glass, contemplating this $16,000 drink I was about to enjoy.
So, there you have it, Your Honor. Everybody did it, but nobody knew everybody was doing it. In the end they all got caught. And were this a Western, I’d have to say something like, “He just needed killin, Your Honor,” but sadly he just needed love.
(Effie . . . you know what to do.)
About two months later, Judge Amy gave me a call to tell me the following. That Schusterman’s attorney had met with the buyers Sam had been negotiating with and sold the brewery for 3.8 billion dollars. That all of his holdings and investments were liquidated and his net worth came to just over $8 billion. His attorney had talked him out of just giving it all away to Israel. Schusterman had been angry, and after he cooled down, his attorney helped him make out a will he was happy with. $4 billion went to cancer clinics and cancer research in his deceased wife’s name. He added on to the local Jewish Community Center a wing named after her, and gave a huge donation to the local synagogue that he’d been inside once or twice. His servants got the house and will live their lives out there, after which it will be sold with the money going to Israel. He gave enough to his chef to retire on or build a restaurant. He’s most likely opting for the latter option. He even gave a couple million to Iris, the kids’ maid, because she always treated him well and made him feel at home more than anyone in is family ever had. He gave to his Alma Mater that will build and name a building after him. Nearly all the rest went to his favorite charities: Green Peace, the Southern Poverty Law Center, St Joseph’s Indian School, St Jude’s Hospital, the NAACP, and the rest to Native American charities that he had his attorney research for him. He paid his attorney well enough for him to retire, but then came the kicker.
“Sam? she said.”
“Yes, Your Honor?”
He took really good care of me and I’m already donating most of it to charity. However, he had a special clause in his will that you’re going to like.
“Me? Your Honor?”
“Yes, Sam. He bequeathed twenty million dollars to the person or persons I had hired to investigate his family.”
I’ve never been shocked into silence before . . . but when I could finally speak, I thanked her, I think, kissed the phone, and nearly threw it against the wall, except it hit me: I needed to call Effie.
As of that moment, I officially retired, and years ago, friends would have told me to “make an honest woman out Effie,” except that she’s the most honest and sincere little lady I’ve ever known. Sure, the twenty plus age difference loomed large, but she was the only woman on earth who would marry me and never be tempted to knock me off for my new found wealth.
“Make me the happiest man on earth!”
Naw, that was too cliché.
“How’d ya like to change my diapers someday?”
Too honest. But she’d do it.
Gotta love that little woman.
I guess I’ll just grab my mother’s rings, put them in her hand, kiss that dainty little hand, and tell her we can be on our way to the French Riviera right after we tie the knot.
And thus ends my story, the story of Sam Spade Detective, and all I have left is: “AMF, sayonara, over and out.”
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