New Essay Up at the Federalist

Don’t particularly care for the title they gave it, but such is life. This one is a semi-sarcastic examination of the idea of ‘The Age of Faith’ as it applies to the modern age

Sample:

We’re not taught how to reason in school: we’re just presented with “right answers” and told to put those down. Science textbooks don’t delve into the complexities of research, competing theories, the long, hard process by which accumulated facts slowly create a clearer and clearer picture of the workings of nature. They just list the facts, laws, and theories as ready made, sometimes with an understated sneer at those who initially doubted them for failing to give the right answer.

It’s like this with most aspects of our lives. When was the last time you actually heard someone lay out the reasons why, say, racism is wrong, or democracy is good? We don’t make arguments, just statements of faith based on what we’ve been taught to say.

The trouble is that this kind of faith-based approach is very fragile (which is one of the reasons the old Christians didn’t use it). It’s apt to breed resentment and rebellion, and to crumble if the observed facts don’t seem to match the received doctrine.

We’re sometimes told with horror that half the country doubts evolution. Well, why shouldn’t they? They’ve been taught it as a matter of faith, not as a scientific fact dug out of nature through observation and reason. They’ve simply been told, in essence, “This is true and you’re a bad person if you don’t believe it.”

We should only expect some people to rebelliously turn their backs on it for that reason alone. Then again, there’s the fact that anyone of basic intelligence can see where evolution, as it is usually taught, seems to contradict the observed world around us. It doesn’t make sense that the vast variety, beauty, and efficiency of the natural world came about simply by random mutations that happened to be beneficial (I am told modern evolutionists generally think the situation is much more complicated and interesting than that). So, when forced to choose between the rather patronizing faith that’s been shoved down their throats or their own good sense, they choose the latter.

Read the rest here.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson and Sarah Rockford in ‘A Snare of Attraction’

AL+VL 2            Sarah Rockford returned to consciousness with a throbbing headache and a very dim recollection of what had happened the night before. She sat up, rubbing her head and trying to figure out where she was. It obviously wasn’t her own apartment; her whole place probably could have fit in the bed alone, and besides, this room was much too fancy.  The bed on which she lay had very soft, silken sheets of an exquisite pattern. Elegant, dark wood furniture filled the room, and there was a large, curtained window covering most of one wall.

She remembered being at Walter Deaney’s party yesterday afternoon…had she passed out there somehow? No, she remembered leaving. Or rather, being forcefully ejected by one of Deaney’s partners in crime. The memory of that made her angry, which caused her head to throb harder, but also brought back more of the night before. She’d gone home, changed, written down her notes, had dinner, and had been working on compiling a usable story when…

Sarah remembered everything at once: the knock on the door, the attack from behind, the sweet, sickly smell of chloroform. She threw off the covers and leapt out of bed as if she expected it to trap her. For a moment she stood in the middle of the room, trembling a little, trying to think.

She’d been kidnapped; that much was clear. By whom? Probably one of Deaney’s people. Had they brought her back to his house? She went to the window and pulled back the curtains to reveal a spectacular view of the Los Angeles skyline. Deaney’s house was surrounded by trees and a wall; this definitely wasn’t Deaney’s house.

Then where? And, come to think of it, if she had been kidnapped, why hadn’t they restrained her in any way?

Hubris, she decided. Or perhaps they didn’t think they needed to.

She went half-heartedly to the door, which of course would be locked. Except it wasn’t. More and more confused, she pushed it gently open, expecting to find a sentry or something, but the hall was deserted.

Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and resolving not to be lured into complacency, she slipped along the passage in her bare feet, moving as silent as a beam of light, her ears straining to hear any sound that might indicate pursuit or ambush.

The upstairs hall ended in a glorious double staircase under a gorgeous chandelier. Tense and frightened as she was, Sarah couldn’t help admiring the décor. The walls were richly paneled and hung with paintings; all of a classical school. Most showed scenes of battle and heroism, but a few were portraits. They were so lovely and so interesting that she wished she could have had time to examine them properly. But while escaping from people who’ve drugged and abducted you is really no time for art appreciation.

She padded down the steps, uncomfortably aware of how exposed to view she was on the stairs. If anyone entered the hall, they’d see her at once. At the bottom, three corridors led off in different directions, while another staircase led down. Since Sarah didn’t know where to go, she selected the corridor leading directly away from the staircase on the idea that it might lead to a door.

In this, it transpired, she was right. The corridor led to a kind of conservatory, which led out onto a glorious patio centered on a circular pond surrounded by lush garden. The flowers and exotic plants were spectacular, and so placed as to create the impression that they grew from the building itself. Again she wished dearly that she could have paused and admired them. Whoever had abducted her, she thought, at least had excellent aesthetic tastes.

Yet, at the same time, she wondered again why she had been left alone. She began to mistrust her run of good luck; surely it wasn’t natural for anyone to be this careless? The fear she had felt upon realizing that she had been abducted did not diminish upon finding herself apparently alone in the house. On the contrary, the longer she went without seeing any kind of guard, the more nervous she became. She felt as though she were being led on, lured into a trap. Yet there was nothing to be done but to keep going; to let herself be drawn on to her doom.

Sarah shook herself; thinking like that wouldn’t help. She slipped out into the garden, and the glorious smell of flowers and fruit was all around her. The pond was lined with lilies, and there was even a very lifelike model of an alligator lying beside it to give the impression of a real tropical pool. And on the far side of the garden, under the limbs of what appeared to be a peach tree, she saw a gate.

Sarah hurried forward eagerly, hoping to be through and gone before anyone noticed. But when she reached the gate, she found that it was chained and padlocked. She looked about, but the fence was too high to climb and none of the trees in the garden were tall enough to get over it (and even if they were, she’d only break her leg trying to get down on the other side).

Heart hammering, sure that someone must have noticed her efforts to escape by now, Sarah turned to go back to the house and try to find another way out. It was at this point that she made a most unwelcome discovery; the alligator by the pond was not a model after all, but a living, breathing reptile. It had stood up on its four stubby legs and was walking toward her, mouth half open, green, slitted eyes fixed on her.

###

            “Morning, detective,” said Andre. He had slept little the night before, expecting every minute for either the police or the mob to come knocking at his door. He, his man Benton, and Liu Sho, the gardener, had sat up most of the night with rifles in hand just in case it came to a fight. But no one had come so far, and Andre wondered whether he dared to hope the two crooked detectives hadn’t been able to identify him as he ran off carrying their unconscious would-be victim to his car.

“Mr. Fireson. To what do I owe this early pleasure?” Detective Crane groaned.

“I had a idea that a warrant might be issued for my arrest,” said Andre.

That seemed to make him sit up.

“Is that right?”

“Yes, you see, I kidnapped someone last night.”

There was a pause.

“Is this a confession?”

“Not exactly. I only did it because two of your people were on the way to do much worse. See, I was at a shindig being thrown by Walter Deaney yesterday for reasons of my own and I happened to run into this girl…”

“Short, blonde, and much too confident for her own good?”

“You know her then.”

“Unfortunately yes,” growled Crane. “And I explicitly told her not to mess around with Deaney.”

“Well, she didn’t listen to you.”

“Is she…?”

“She’s safe,” said Andre. “She’s the one I kidnapped.”

There was a pause.

“I’m going to assume there is a way that will make sense.”

“Deaney figured out what she was up to and sent some people to get her, so I had to get her fast. There was no time to explain, so I just chloroformed her and threw her in my car.”

Crane gave a low whistle.

“I appreciate your looking out for the kid,” he said. “She has a tendency to get herself in over her head.”

“So I’ve noticed,” said Andre. “Something you should know, though; the men Deaney sent after her were cops.”

“Cops?”

“Plainclothes detectives. I happened to hear him making the plan; orders were to take her to someone named Mistretta, and…”

“What did you say?”

“I said Deaney ordered two cops to take her to Mistretta.”

Crane swore.

“So Deaney’s mixed up in it too,” he muttered.

“Mixed up in what?”

“Never mind,” said Crane. “Can’t tell you now. Look, who were the two cops? Did you get their names?”

“Benton’s the one who saw them,” said Andre, but at that point he heard a piercing scream from the patio.

“And I’ll let him tell you,” he said. “Sounds like my guest is up.”

He handed the phone off to Benton and hurried out to the patio. Liu Sho followed him, rifle in hand, no doubt to ensure his beloved flowers were safe. They came out of the conservatory, saw the scene before them, and both exploded into laughter. Sarah Rockford was crouched precariously on one of the higher branches of the peach tree while a large alligator stood below, looking up curiously at the stranger who had wandered into his domain.

“Good morning, Miss Rockford,” Andre called. “I see you’ve met Richelieu.”

He walked up to the gator and patted his flank affectionately. The girl was too frightened, too confused, and too angry to answer right away. She just clung to the tree branch, giving him the most withering glare she could manage from her position.

“Don’t worry; he’s mostly harmless,” said Andre. “I think you just surprised him is all.” He patted the alligator behind the head and the beast shut its eyes contentedly. “Would you like some breakfast?”

“Are you asking me or him?” she asked, nodding at the alligator.

Andre laughed.

“Both.”

About fifteen minutes later, the two of them were sitting opposite each other at the table on the upstairs balcony. Benton, after finishing his conversation with Detective Crane, had produced mouth-watering omelets with his usual infallible skill, while Sarah had been given a chance to change into spare clothes that had once belonged to Andre’s mother. The dark blue frock might have been rather out of date, fashion wise, and was a bit large for Sarah, necessitating the use of safety pins to keep it in place, but he thought the color suited her very well.

She sat rigid and suspicious as Benton brought the food out to them, not even touching the steaming mug of perfectly prepared coffee even as Andre sipped his gratefully.

“As I said,” he began. “I can explain everything.”

“You drugged and kidnapped me,” she said. “How do you explain that?”

“Listen and you’ll find out,” he said. “But if you’re thinking I brought you here just to poison you, you’re mistaken. Besides, Benton’s cooking is worth being poisoned over.”

She glared at him, then, as though with reluctance, picked up the coffee and sipped it. Her expression changed at once.

“Oh, I see what you mean!” she exclaimed.

Andre smiled.

“Benton is one of the most gifted chefs I’ve ever met,” he said. “You wouldn’t think it to look at him, would you? He used to crack heads for the mob.”

“And now he cracks heads for you?” she asked, taking a forkful of omelet and gasping with delight as she tasted it.

“Sometimes,” Andre said. “But I’m not a criminal, Miss Rockford.”

“Then I suppose that was your twin brother I heard conniving with Deaney yesterday?”

“I was lying to him,” he said. “Pretending to be crooked in order to find out how crooked he was. I find it’s a useful tactic for straining the scum from my pool. My company, Miss Rockford, is bound up with my family name, and I will not have that associated with any kind of low or criminal activity. We had everything stolen from us once; that is not going to happen again.”

She looked at him with some surprise. Evidently his earnestness surprised her.

“So how did you catch me at the safe?” she said.

“I meant to crack it and get the ledger myself so that I could turn Deaney over to the police,” he said. “Same as you, I’d guess. By the way do you even know how to crack a safe?”

“I know the theory,” she said.

“I know the theory of an atom bomb; doesn’t mean I can make one,” he answered.

“Okay,” she said after a few moment’s consideration. “I’ll admit that your story would explain a lot of things I wondered about, like why you threw me out instead of…of doing anything else. But then why kidnap me?”

“Because Deaney was onto you,” said Andre. “One of his people saw you from the backyard. You were standing in the window, remember.”

“Oh!” she said with a shocked expression. “I didn’t think of that.”

“No, I guessed you didn’t,” he said. “So he sent some of his dirty cops over, and they were going to take you away to torture and murder you. Since I didn’t have time to explain all this last night, I just knocked you out and took you home.”

Sarah looked at him with an odd, far away expression as she absorbed all of this.

“I see,” she said. “Then I guess I should thank you, shouldn’t I? But…just so we’re clear, you’re not going to torture and murder me or anything, are you?”

He smiled.

“Probably not,” he said. “But we’ll see.”

She smiled, a little uncertainly, and they resumed eating.

“I hope you slept well,” he said by way of turning the conversation to more general matters.

“Yes, I always sleep well when I’ve been chloroformed,” she said.

“Benton’s done his share of abductions,” said Andre. “He suggests that I might have overdone the dose slightly. My apologies.”

“I’m sure you’ll get it right next time.”

The conversation then turned to the house, and she asked about the paintings and the garden, and this carried them through the rest of breakfast. After they’d finished, however, they resumed discussion of the day before, and Sarah told him her side of the story, while Andre filled her in on some other details, including the whole conversation he’d overhead between Deaney and his associate.

“That was probably Mr. Cummings,” she said. “He’s the only one I really spoke to, and the only one I told my cover name.”

“So, there’s Deaney and Cummings,” said Andre. “Then Mistretta, whoever that is, those cops…what were their names, Benton?”

“Detectives Tyzack and Aldrige,” he answered.

“A nice little conspiracy,” said Sarah. “’Noted businessman and mathematics professor head smuggling ring.’ Probably have to punch that up, but it’ll make one heck of a story.”

“Detective Crane seems to think it’s all part of something he’s working on,” said Andre.

“You know Detective Crane?” she said in surprise.

“We’ve met,” said Andre. “He was glad to hear you’re safe.”

“That was sweet of him,” she said. “He was pretty adamant about my not going after Deaney.”

“And he was right; you nearly got killed.”

“’Nearly’ is the important word,” she said. “Still here.”

He frowned at her.

“Your story on Hunar Contractors said one of them tried to bury you alive in concrete. That actually happen, or was it just to spice up the story?”

“No, it really happened,” she said. “Didn’t have to embellish it at all; it really was that close.”

She spoke lightly, but her tone didn’t quite match her eyes, or the way she fingered her fork nervously.

“So, you’ve almost been killed twice in, what, the past week or two?”

“Pretty much,” she said. “But, like I say, I’m still here.”

Andre looked at her. He felt a curious pain about the region of his chest. Sarah had turned her head to watch where Liu Sho was tossing bits of meat to Richelieu in the garden below. Andre was struck again by how lovely she was, and how young she seemed. Though only twenty-six himself, he often felt older than he was, what with running a company and carrying the responsibility for his family name. He now felt responsible for the girl across from him, almost as if she were his daughter…no, not like that. Not like that at all.

“The question is,” he said, trying to shake off the feeling. “How do we keep it that way?”

“We catch Deaney,” she said. “Break up the conspiracy.”

“I was thinking of a more immediate solution,” he said. “Why does Deaney want you dead?”

She looked at him in surprise.

“You know that as well as I do,” she said. “I heard him talking to you and sharing all his dirty little secrets.”

“Right,” said Andre. “He wants to kill you before you share what you know with anyone who might do something about it, and he wants to find out just how much you do know. So it seems to me the way to stop him would be to just tell what you know.”

“You mean, go public?”

“No, I mean tell the police. Once they have our statements, the damage will be done and Deaney and his crew will be too busy dodging the cops to want to go after you.”

“Except you said the cops are working for him.”

“Not all of them,” said Andre. “Crane certainly isn’t. We may not know how many of the cops are dirty, but he can’t own the whole department.”

Sarah nodded.

“That might work,” she said. “Especially if we could swear it out to Crane.”

Andre called for Benton to bring the phone, and the valet appeared at once. Andre dialed the detective’s number. Crane must have been expecting a return call, for he answered on the first ring.

“It’s me again, detective,” said Andre.

“Been expecting you,” he said. “Tyzack and Aldrige haven’t said a word about what happened last night; didn’t even put in a report. You haven’t had any visitors this morning?”

“No.”

“Hmm, that’s odd,” said Crane. “I can’t believe you gave them the slip this easily. They must mean to get at you somehow, but I just don’t see…”

“We were just thinking about that,” said Andre. “Listen, the reason they want Sarah dead is that that she’s a witness to Deaney’s corruption. So am I. But if we swear out a statement at once, damage will be done and they’ll have no reason to go after us.”

“That’s probably your best bet, short of actually putting them in jail,” Crane agreed. “We’re at the station now; how fast can you get here?”

“We’re leaving right now,” said Andre, nodding to Sarah who was already standing up and draining the last of her coffee.

“Watch yourselves,” said Crane. “These guys are smart. They might be waiting for you.”

“They’ll be sorry if they do,” said Andre.

A few minutes later, Andre and Sarah were in the backseat of his sedan as Benton drove out of the gate surrounding the mansion.

“Can you handle a gun?” Andre asked, opening a hidden compartment under the floor to reveal two rifles and four handguns.

Sarah whistled.

“Sure,” she said, accepting a small automatic, checking the magazine, and racking the slide. “What do you do; run guns?”

“Of course not,” he said rather sharply as he closed the lid so that it blended perfectly with the carpet. “But I do make them and there’s no sense in making guns if you don’t have them handy. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to tangle with some nasty people. Car’s modified too; it’ll stand up to most things, at least long enough for us to get out.”

Sarah nodded, getting the gist of what he meant.

“You think they’ll try to ambush us on the way?”

“I think we’d be stupid not to expect it,” he answered.

They drove out of the hills and down in the direction of the precinct. It was a Sunday and traffic was comparatively light. Even so there were a good number of cars on the road. Andre and Sarah eyed each of them suspiciously as they passed, watching to see if they made any strange moves.

“So how did you get into the arms dealing trade?” Sarah asked.

“Family business,” he answered. “My father started it after coming back from World War II: made custom hunting rifles out of a workshop, built it up from there.”

“Now you make guns for the military.”

“Partly,” he said. “We mostly target the civilian market, but with the African situation we’re looking to cut a deal with the government.”

“Does it bother you at all, making weapons? I mean, the morality of it.”

He frowned at her suspiciously.

“Just journalistic instincts,” she said. “Have to ask that kind of thing because the readers would want to ask it.”

“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “Because at the end of the day all law, all convention, all civilization in fact comes down to the use of force. I think it’s as honest a job as any to try to ensure the right side has the power to back itself up when it comes to the point.”

She looked at him with admiration.

“That’s a good answer,” she said. “I actually would like to do a story on you sometime.”

He chuckled.

“I appreciate that. Now let me ask you something; you’re, what, eighteen? Nineteen?”

“I’m twenty,” she said a little defensively. “Almost twenty-one.”

“Well, even so, how’d a girl like you end up chasing down stories like this?”

She sighed and gave a little shrug of her shoulders.

“Just trying to survive.”

Andre looked at her, and as he did so he noticed a large semi truck pulling alongside them in the right hand lane, and another pulling up in front of them.

“All things considered,” he said, drawing his own pistol. “I think you might be in the wrong line of business.”

Sarah swallowed and tightened her grip on her gun.

“Benton,” Andre said.

“Sorry, boss,” he said. “Came up too fast…”

All at once, they found themselves boxed in by three large trucks; one in front, one behind, one to the right. On their left was a guardrail and a drop down a steep incline.

“We’ll be coming up on smoother ground soon,” said Benton. “I’ll peel off there. Don’t think they’ll expect us to go off road.”

Andre, however, suspected they wouldn’t be allowed to get that far.

“In the meantime,” he said. “We’re not going to play around.”

He rolled down the window, leaned out, and began shooting at the tries of the rear truck. He got off three shots before he realized that there was another vehicle in play. A large helicopter was swooping low over them, something large and circular dangling from beneath.

The truck’s tire blew out under the assault of bullets and the driver had to pull sharply to the right to avoid going off the edge of the road.

“Clear behind!” Andre shouted.

But it was already too late.

The helicopter swung overhead, and the device dangling from its belly snapped onto the roof of the sedan with a bang as loud as the gunshots. It was a giant electro-magnet.

A moment later, the sedan and its passengers were lifted clear off the roadway and into the sky.

Sarah screamed. Andre and Benton both swore. The helicopter swung around, sending the car’s occupants tumbling about, and headed for the ocean.

“They’re gonna dump us!” Benton shouted.

“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do!” Sarah said.

Andre looked around, thinking. It looked bad; there was no way to detach the car, and even if they did it would just crash against the ground below. They couldn’t reach the helicopter from here; they were at the end of a twenty-foot cable. They had absolutely no control over the situation.

Like rats in a trap, he thought bitterly.

He turned to Sarah, who seemed to be reaching the same conclusion. Her face was pale and frightened, and her breathing was coming quick. Once they were out over the ocean, they were doomed. The car would be dropped, they would ride it down, down to shatter upon impact, either killed outright or knocked unconscious to drown inside the broken vehicle…

Then Andre had his inspiration.

“Out of the car,” he ordered, holstering his gun.

“What?” said Sarah.

“Climb onto the roof,” he said. “Onto the magnet.”

“Oh, I see what you mean, boss,” said Benton enthusiastically as he rolled down his own window.

Andre stuck his head out the window and found a precarious handhold where the roof of the car met the rear window. He pulled himself gingerly up, holding tight against the wind, braced a foot against the window base, then began straightening himself, reaching for the great hook connecting the magnet to the cable. It was almost in reach.

The car shuddered as they hit a burst of air turbulence and he was nearly thrown free. But as he bounced up he made a snatch for the cable and caught it. It was greasy and the metal scratched his palm, but he held tight and pulled himself up onto the magnet itself.

Toward the front of the car, Benton was heaving his huge bulk out of the driver’s seat and reaching for the magnet. Andre caught his outstretched hand, braced himself against the cable, and strained to pull his massive valet up out of the car. Between his own strength and Benton’s the huge man soon sat alongside him on the magnet, gripping tight to the wire.

Meanwhile, the coastline zipped past below them. They were over open water now. Any second the car would drop.

Sarah poked her head out of the window, her blonde hair whipping about her face.

“Come on!” Andre shouted. “You can do it!”

She reached as far as she could, got a grip on the back of the car, and stood on the window base, then reached for Andre’s outstretched hand. They were almost touching.

Then the car dropped.

Sarah sprang clear just as it fell. For one terrible second she hung suspended in mid air, arm outstretched, hair flying, her mouth open in a disbelieving scream. Then Andre, reaching as far as he could, seized her arm in an iron grip. It was a lucky thing that she was so light. There was a painful jerk on both their shoulders, but she didn’t fall. Sarah seized Andre’s hand in both of hers and hung precariously beneath the magnet, while two hundred feet below the sedan hit the water with a terrible splash.

“Are you okay?” Andre called over the wind.

“I’ve been better!” she called back.

Andre pulled Sarah up onto the magnet and a got a grip about her waist with one arm while he clung to the cable with the other. A moment later, the magnet was hoisted up by a winch beneath the helicopter, so that the three were now crouched directly below the undercarriage.

Meanwhile the helicopter, apparently oblivious to its new passengers, banked around and began flying parallel with the coast maybe a half-mile out. It also began to descend.

“Where do you think it’s goin’, boss?” Benton asked.

“No idea,” Andre answered.

The helicopter continued to descend. They had started out about two hundred feet up. Now they were half that and still getting lower. There were a number of boats out today, and it briefly occurred to Andre to wonder what they thought of the sight of three people clinging to an electro magnet slung below a large helicopter.

Then he spotted one ship in particular; a large, elaborate yacht growing nearer every minute. A yacht with a helipad on the stern.

So that was where they were headed, and he thought he could guess whom it belonged to.

The helicopter was now about fifty feet over the ocean and maybe a quarter mile from the yacht.

“Can you swim?” Andre asked Sarah.

“Well, yes, but…”

Andre turned to Benton.

“Go with her and make sure she gets to Crane.”

Benton was too good a servant to argue the point or to fail to understand. He simply nodded.

“Hold on, what are you…” Sarah began.

“Keep your legs tight together and try to fall straight down,” he said.

“No, wait…!” she began, but it was too late. Andre threw her off the edge of the magnet and she fell with a shriek into the ocean. At the same time, Benton saluted and jumped off after her.

The plan was a desperate and possibly foolhardy one. But Andre Fireson wasn’t the type of man to let people chase him all around Los Angeles. He meant to go straight into the lion’s den and see what he could find there.

The helicopter arrived over the yacht and descended to land. Andre sprang clear before he was trapped under the machine and ducked out of sight beneath the edge of the pad. The helicopter landed, and a tall, slender figure emerged from the deck, accompanied by two guards. Andre recognized him at once.

Throwing caution to the winds, he stood up and strode forward. The guards drew their guns, the helicopter pilot swore, and the central figure started visibly, but Andre merely nodded as though he’d just walked into a board meeting.

“Good morning, Mr. Gallano,” he said. “I see we meet again.”

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson in Necessary Evils

AL 2

Andre Fireson was no stranger to elegant afternoon affairs like this one. Being the President of a major arms manufacturer, he’d often had to wine and dine his way to a lucrative business deal. They could even be enjoyable at times; there were worse ways to spend an afternoon than among well-educated, successful men and beautiful women in fine clothes.

This wasn’t going to be one of those times. Today he had a very particular goal in mind. He needed to know whether his potential business partner was the monster he was rumored to be.

Once again, it came back to the looming war in Africa and his contract negotiations with the government. Things were moving, and Andre had almost locked down his deal when word broke that Magpie Holding and Shipping, his usual company for moving his product, had been implicated in the breaking Hunar Contractors scandal that was rocking the LA business community. He’d dropped them at once; Firebird Arms didn’t need any bad press right now.

Trouble was, this left him with no immediate way of moving his product around. He needed to find a new shipping company fast, and Roper Transport seemed the obvious choice. It was, after all, one of the top such companies in the Western United States, and the board was pressuring him to sign with them and be done. But Andre had heard too much about Walter Deaney to want to do business with his company. At least, not without first finding out just how much of what he’d heard was true.

So, when Deaney had invited him to come to his party that weekend to discuss their possible deal, Andre had accepted. It would give him a chance to find out just what sort of man Deaney really was.

His initial impression had been unexpectedly favorable. Deaney was about seven or eight years his senior: dark, handsome, and with a strong voice and easy manners. He had, Andre knew, been a professional fighter, and for a while they talked sport. Deaney told a good story, and he seemed affable and charismatic. His house was richly, if not tastefully, furnished, and his food and drink was excellent. Yet the longer they talked, the less Andre liked him. There was something about Deaney’s affability that rang hollow: the expression in his eyes didn’t quite match that of the rest of his face, his laughter was a little too hearty, and in any case Andre had learned to distrust anyone who tried too hard to be liked. A man of real substance, he believed, didn’t cater to the opinions of others; between two decent, honorable men, liking would occur without forcing it. Deaney was too lavish with his compliments, too hearty with his laughter. He was ‘slick’ would be how Andre would put it: as slick as an ice rink.

Andre took a moment when Deaney when to greet some people to take a turn about the garden and chat with a few of his fellow guests. He found them, as he’d expected, to be much of a piece with their host: very friendly, very eager to please, and generally empty of substance.

About an hour later he and Deaney sat down at the bar and got onto the subject of business.

“You understand, of course,” said Andre. “That you would be running extremely valuable cargo for the United States Government.”

“Naturally,” said Deaney. “I’ve handled sensitive material before, don’t you worry. My people can keep secrets.”

Andre studied him thoughtfully. Should he lay his trap now? No, not quite.

“That’s good to know. Still, with such valuable cargo, shipping carries certain dangers. Have you had any trouble with hijackers?”

Deaney sipped his drink and shook his head.

“Nope, never any trouble of that sort,” he said. “My drivers know their business. We can mark the truck as hauling something like potato chips or bowling pins and no one would know the difference.” He grinned. “We take security very seriously, Mr. Fireson.”

Andre nodded. I bet you do, he thought.

“Glad to hear that, Mr. Deaney,” he said aloud. “Now, tell me more about…”

He trailed off, for he had suddenly realized they were no longer alone at the bar. A small, very young-looking blonde girl in a white and blue patterned dress sat almost directly behind Deaney. He guessed she was about eighteen; probably the daughter of one of the guests, and most likely with no idea what she’d sat in on.

“Miss?” he said, raising his voice slightly to get her attention. “Do you mind? This is a rather private conversation.”

Deaney started a little and turned around to see whom Andre was talking to. What happened next surprised him; the girl seemed to jump and her face took on an expression as though she’d just come face-to-face with a cobra. Evidently, she knew who Deaney was.

“Sorry,” she stammered, looking from one to the other. “Excuse me.”

She took her drink and hastened away, both men watching her as she disappeared back into the crowd.

“Suppose this isn’t the best place for private conversation,” said Andre. He had an uncomfortable idea it would be best for the girl’s sake to pass the incident off as casually as possible. “Especially,” he added in a low voice. “As I want to talk to you about some potential…extra services.”

“Suppose not,” Deaney laughed. He checked his watch. “I’ll tell you what, I need to see to a few things, but when I get back, why don’t we continue this in my office upstairs?”

Andre agreed to this and Deaney went off to speak to one of the other guests. Andre sipped his glass thoughtfully. A chance to see Deaney’s private office was too good to miss. If he’d get answers anywhere, it would be there. Besides, it would be best to lay his trap where no one would overhear it.

His valet Marco Benton drifted over.

“Notice anything?” Andre asked.

“Not yet,” Marco rumbled. “Waiters are all with the catering company. Only ones working directly for Deaney are Booker and the maid.”

“Booker?”

“That guy,” said Marco, nodding at what appeared to be a slab of well-cooked beef from the buffet that had sprung to life and put on a tuxedo. “Edmund Booker. There’s a goomba if I ever saw one. If he had anything to do with this spread, I’ll eat my cookbook. Guy’s got no class; you can see just by lookin’ at him.”

“Notice anything about the other guests?”

Marco shrugged.

“Typical rich types; not real gentry like you.”

“Appreciate that,” said Andre. He thought a moment.

“You notice a girl; real short, blonde, white and blue dress?”

The big valet shook his head.

“Nope, can’t say I have.”

Andre frowned, processing what that might mean. Marco was very observant, not to mention had an eye for the ladies. If he hadn’t noticed her, that could only mean she hadn’t been here very long…

“Keep an eye out for her,” said Andre. “Might be nothing, but…you never know.”

“Sure thing, boss,” said Marco, and he retreated as Deaney returned.

“Shall we, then?” he said, gesturing at the hall with his drink.

“Please,” said Andre, picking up his own.

Deaney led the way upstairs and down the hall into a wide, well-proportioned room that would have been elegant had it been more tastefully furnished. Andre’s well-honed sensibilities recoiled at the mishmash of clashing art styles, from the deco clock on the white mantel to the Victorian desk by the window and the Edwardian sofa and chairs before the fire.

“There we go,” said Deaney as they entered. “Now we can be a bit more private.”

“Nice room,” Andre said, focusing on the structure rather than the content in order to make the words sound convincing. “Renoir?” he said, nodding at what he recognized as one of the artist’s more garish works.

“Original,” said Deaney proudly. “Got it off some art galley that went bust. That one’s a Cabanel.”

“So I see,” said Fireson, though how any man could endure having these two paintings in the same room was beyond him. He suspected that framing their price tags would have been more to the point.

“But,” he said, tearing himself from the subject with an effort. “I presume you didn’t take me up here to show me art.”

Deaney grinned approvingly.

“That’s good,” he said, gesturing at one of the armchairs. “I admire a man like you; you know what you want, you go for it. Now, you said you might be interested in some…extra services?”

Firesone sat down on the edge of the chair, looking Deaney hard in the face, trying to read him. He’d have to tread very carefully here.

“Hypothetically speaking,” he said. “Say I wanted to move my weapons to a different client, without my present client being aware of it. Say I were to order your company to take a little extra in a given shipment, deliver it to these other clients, then proceed with the standard order without recording the difference.”

Deaney leaned back on the sofa, his eyes narrowed, dangling a half-full glass in one hand. For a moment, the two men studied each other, almost fencing with their eyes, seeking weakness.

“That would be illegal,” Deaney said at last.

“So it would,” said Fireson. “Do you object to that?”

Deaney smiled slightly, and the fencing match continued for another few seconds. Then he shook his head with a careless air.

“Not at all.”

Fireson smiled and sat back in his armchair, picking up the drink he’d set down on the side table.

Got you, he thought.

“That’s out of the way, then,” he said aloud. “I’m sure you know how tricky it can be to find the right kind of help.”

“Oh, I do,” said Deaney. “And I appreciate your approach.”

But Andre was not done yet.

“One thing further I need to know,” he said. “Do you have any experience in this regard? I don’t intend to trust my reputation and my business to amateurs.”

Deaney seemed slightly taken aback and gave a laugh that was even more out of harmony with his eyes than usual.

“Amateurs?” he said. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Fireson. My people and I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.”

“So you say,” said Fireson. “Anyone can talk. I never take anything on hearsay, especially a man pitching his own services.”

Deaney sipped his glass, eying Andre thoughtfully. Possibly he was trying to detect trickery, but in this case there really was none; Andre’s father had taught him that rule, and he followed it to the letter in all his dealings.

“Fair enough,” said Deaney, setting down his glass. “Let me show you something.”

He got up and went to the Renoir painting. Andre guessed what this meant, and sure enough, a moment later Deaney had swung the picture away from the wall to reveal a safe behind it. He turned the dial a few times (taking care to position himself between it and Andre), then opened the door. Inside Andre had a glance of several neatly arranged folders containing numerous documents, but Deaney ignored these and instead took out a small, black ledger. He shut the safe door and led Andre back to his desk, where he laid it flat and opened to a certain page.

“Take a look at that,” he said. “But don’t touch.”

Andre bent over the ledger (vaguely aware of a faint smell of oranges as he did so), and studied it. It was a record of shipments made over the past month; shipments where the contents were written in code and the locations were all to or from Mexico. Two entries were marked ‘lost’ and accompanied by the letters ‘EJ’ followed by a question mark.

It was obvious to Andre that he was looking at the record of a smuggling operation, and to judge by the numbers, a very successful one.

“Hm,” he said. “Impressive. And you’ve been doing this how long?”

“Several years,” Deaney answered.

“Never been caught?”

“Never caught,” said Deaney with a satisfied expression. “The cops have had their suspicions, but they haven’t been able to land anything one me. I’m pretty good at covering my tracks.”

“So I see,” said Andre, trying not to look at the ledger as he spoke. Deaney closed the little book and returned it to the safe. Andre followed him, the beginnings of an idea – reckless, but not unworkable – rising in his brain.

“Well, Mr. Deaney, you certainly know how to run a business,” he said aloud. “I’ll run it by my board, but I think I can safely say that we have a deal.”

He held out his hand and Deaney shook it. Andre registered the faintly triumphal look on his face, and the fact that his hand felt as thought it were made of steel wires. He made a mental note to wash his own hand very thoroughly.

“Glad we could come to an agreement,” said Deaney. “Shall we return?”

Andre picked up his glass and followed Deaney out of the office and back down to the party. As he went, he worked out his plan in his mind.

When they entered the living room, Deaney excused himself and went out onto the patio to speak with his other guests. Andre waited until he was sure he was out of sight, then drained his glass and set it aside.

“If anyone asks,” he told Marco (who had dutifully appeared at his side the moment he returned). “I’m in the bathroom.”

“Got it.”

He slipped back out of the living room and into the hall, then up the stairs as silently as he could and back to the office. He guessed he could count on maybe five or ten minutes before he was missed; hopefully that would give him time to get into that safe and get that ledger.

When he opened the door to the office, however, he found that the safe was occupied.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he said, louder than he had intended in his surprise.

The girl jumped back from the safe with a small shriek of alarm. He pulled the door shut behind him; whoever she was, he didn’t want anyone to hear them.

It was the same girl who had been at the bar: bright blonde hair, wide hazel eyes, and barely clearing five feet. She seemed momentarily struck dumb by his appearance and only stared at him with evident fear.

Andre looked at the safe. It was still shut. She had obviously had the same idea he had…only what was she even doing here? More importantly, how much, if any, of the recent conversation had she overheard?

“Who the hell are you?” he asked.

She swallowed and seemed to gather her courage.

“I…I’m a cop,” she said. “And my superiors know where I am.”

This was such a patently desperate maneuver that he didn’t even bother contradicting it.

“How long have you been in here?” he asked.

She squared her small shoulders and gave him a defiant look.

“Long enough to hear some very interesting things, Mr. Fireson,” she said.

So she’d heard it all. She’d been spying on them. That might be awkward for him. But more importantly, if she was spying on Walter Deaney, and if things like her gambit at the bar were her idea of subtlety…

“You’re not a cop,” he said bluntly, still working things out in his mind. “And I don’t think anyone knows your here.”

“That’s all you know,” she said, unable to keep a faint tremor out of her voice.

“You’re right: I do know that,” he said. “If you never left this house,” he went on, thinking aloud. “I don’t think anyone would come looking for you.”

The girl licked her lips nervously. He’d frightened her. Well, good; better scare her off now than have her keep snooping around until an actual crook found her. Andre looked at her, then about the room. He made up his mind and started toward her.

“Stay back!” she said, retreating.

“Shut up,” he snapped. “You’re getting out of here right now.”

“I…what?” she said, apparently confused. This gave him the chance to close in and seize her by the arm; not too hard, but hard enough to ensure she wouldn’t wriggle away. As he did so he caught that same scent of oranges, recalled smelling it by the curtains, and understood where she’d been hiding.

“You are going to walk out with me,” he said in his commanding voice that very few people ever disobeyed. “We are going out the front door, to the gate, and you are going to leave and I am never going to catch you around here again. Understand?”

She blinked, evidently confused that he didn’t mean to murder her on the spot.

“That’s it?” she said. “You’re just gonna let me go?”

“Let you go?” he said, tugging her after him as he started for the door. “No, I’m going to make you go.”

He marched her out into the hall and down the stairs. Andre caught Marco’s eye as they entered the hall and he motioned for him to follow. At the front door they encountered a few other guests.

“Gate crasher,” Andre muttered. “She’s just leaving.”

The girl didn’t struggle and didn’t protest. She accompanied him to the gate without making any kind of a fuss, though Andre could feel the tension in her body as they went. He guessed she still didn’t quite believe he was going to let her go unharmed.

He jammed the switch to open the gate. As it creaked open, he looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard, then lowered his face to her ear.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing here,” he said. “But you have no idea what you are dealing with. Stay away from this if you value you life.”

With that, he pushed her through the gate. A little harder than he had meant: she nearly fell on her rear. As she recovered, he jammed the switch again and the gate slid shut.

The girl turned and fixed him with a furious, hateful glare from the other side of the bars. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until that moment that Andre realized that she was beautiful. It seemed to him as though he had never seen a lovelier girl in all his life than the one who stood glaring vindictively at him through the bars.

A moment later, she turned and disappeared down the street. Andre felt strangely dissatisfied with himself as he turned back to the house. Marco had joined him surreptitiously. For such a big man, he had mastered the art of moving quietly.

“Follow her,” Andre ordered. “I want to know who she is.”

Marco nodded, opened the gate just enough to slip his bulk through, and disappeared. Andre stood for a moment, frowning in thought, then turned back to the house

He didn’t feel like going back to the party, and as he’d already gotten what he’d come for there didn’t seem much reason to stick around anyway. So instead he strolled along the path leading around to the garden, looking over the flowerbeds.

The path led him around the corner of the house, away from the direction of the patio and the main party going on in the living room. Things were quieter here; the noise of the party was reduced to a kind of dull hum. He was able to think.

There’d be no going back to the safe today, and probably no more chance for him at all. But there might be ways of getting around that; he had money, and he connections, and the man who had both very rarely found an insurmountable obstacle. In any case, he’d escaped the shame of having his family company linked with the likes of Deaney…at least, assuming the girl didn’t spread the word around, though he supposed he could deal with her one way or another. Bringing Deaney to justice might have to be another man’s task. Perhaps he’d get in touch with Detective Crane and inform him of what he’d learned.

As Andre was musing on all of this and admiring Deaney’s flowers (the man kept a good garden, he had to admit), he suddenly became aware of voices coming from the house. This wasn’t the hum of indistinct music and talk coming from the party; these voices were much closer, low, and serious. Among them he recognized Deaney’s own.

They were coming from a half-open window leading into one of the smaller ground floor rooms. Andre slipped closer to try to hear, blessing the softness of the soil about the flowers that masked the sound of his movement. He stood against the wall beside the window, listening.

“Sure, I noticed her,” Deaney was saying. “Good-looking, fun-sized blonde. Guess she was a gate crasher. What about it?”

The other man hesitated before answering.

“Did you happen to notice what she did while she was here?”

“Not especially,” said Deaney. “Got herself a drink at the bar while I was talking to his lordship, until he shooed her away.”

“Ah,” said the other man. “I see. And you didn’t notice her anywhere else?”

“No, not until he dragged her out of the house. Why?”

“Because I did,” said the other. “I had a nice view of the windows on that side of the house, and I looked up and saw that same girl hiding behind the curtains in your office.”

There was a pause.

“When was this?”

“You figure it out,” said the other dryly.

Deaney swore aloud.

“Did you get her name?”

“She said it was ‘Linda Mitchell,’” said the other. “But she was lying. She’s a good liar, but not good enough. Still, I don’t suppose she’ll be hard to track down.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Deaney. “I’ll talk to our people in the police; have them pick her up, then we dump her in the ocean.”

“You’d better find out just how much she knows first,” said the other. “I really would rather not have any more surprises just now.

“Right, right,” said Deaney. “Instead of the ocean I’ll have them take her to Mistretta, let him play with her for a bit, see what shakes out. It’ll give him a chance to redeem himself.”

“Very good; I will leave it in your capable hands, then,” said the other. “Only next time, be sure to check behind the curtains.”

Andre stepped away from the window, carefully knocked the dirt off his shoes, then headed quickly back toward the front door. As he did, he met Benton waiting for him.

“Tell me you found something,” he said.

“Drove off,” said Benton. “Got her plate, though.”

“Good,” said Andre. “Because we need to find her. Now.”

###

It was later than Andre would have liked when Benton finally parked the big black sedan around the corner from the run-down apartment building.

“Are you sure this is the place?” Andre asked.

“According to my friends, this is where she lives.”

Among his many other qualities, Benton had a seemingly endless series of contacts, ranging from associates of his days cracking heads for the mob to city clerks, bankers, and tradespeople. Whatever the job, he knew someone who could make it happen. Tracking down the girl had been a simple matter of passing a few bills around the county records office, which had revealed that ‘Linda Mitchell’ was in fact a freelance reporter by the name of Sarah Rockford. In fact, that she had been the very one who broke the Hunar Contractors scandal and so created this whole mess in the first place. If nothing else, the girl certainly had courage.

Andre was a little surprised at the place. He knew she had been playing a part that afternoon, yet it still seemed strange that the beautiful, elegant young woman he’d thrown out of Deaney’s party should live in what he could only describe as a dump.

“Wait here,” he said. “Keep the engine running. Cops show up, try to stall them.”

“I don’t think I have to wait,” said Benton darkly, nodding as another dark sedan pulling up in front of the building.

Andre swore. Going in the front was no longer an option, not unless he meant to knock out two cops. Even if he knew they were dirty that wouldn’t help him much; he didn’t know how far up the scale the corruption went. In any case, if he gave the police a reason to come after him, that would also give them a shot at the girl.

Only one choice now.

“Stall them,” he said. “But don’t engage.”

He slipped out the back of the car and went around the back of the building while Benton got out and made straight for the two plainclothes detectives making for the front door.

The building was about five stories high, and according to the address they’d found, Rockford lived on the third floor. It was one of those old brick buildings that came with a metal fire escape that led down into the alley behind it. From the ground the only way to access the fire escape was a sliding ladder currently raised some ten feet off the pavement.

Andre quickly surveyed the layout, then took a running leap at the alley wall, jumped off, and just caught the lowest rung of the ladder with his outstretched hand. It clanked in what seemed a dangerously loud way.

Though he was a rather short man – only five-foot-five – Andre had worked hard to build an extremely powerful body, and he easily hoisted himself up the ladder to the first platform. He then lowered the ladder before continuing: he had a feeling they would need to get away quickly.

Trying to move as quietly as he could on the rickety metal structure, Andre ascended to the third floor, where he started looking surreptitiously through the windows, hoping against hope that the girl would be in one of them so that he didn’t have to invade more than one apartment tonight.

Andre didn’t believe in luck, which is perhaps why he seemed to have an unusual amount of it. In the fourth window on the third floor, he found her. The room was tiny and cramped, piled high with papers, books, and assorted debris. Rockford had changed out of her dress and was now wearing pale blue pajamas. She was sitting on a kind of combination couch and bed, a notebook in hand, chewing thoughtfully on a pen.

Time was rapidly running out; the police would be at her door at any minute. Yet still Andre hesitated, watching her. Partly, this was because he suddenly realized he had no idea how he was going to approach her; his original plan had simply been to knock on her door and talk to her. However, the fact that he was now obliged to enter through the window made that much less practical, as did the fact that they were on a strict time limit. At the same time, if he tried to enter now, she’d scream and probably try to run…ending up right in the arms of the corrupt cops.

Many years of brutal financial negotiations and hard study had left Andre with a keen strategic mind, and it didn’t take him long to concoct a plan: a risky one, and not likely to endear him to the girl, but one that seemed most likely to succeed. Still watching Rockford from the window (which was partly open to let in a breeze), Andre slipped a hand into his pocket and quickly began to prepare what Benton had euphemistically referred to as “Plan B.”

He had no sooner finished than there was a knock on Rockford’s door.

“Sarah Rockford? LAPD.”

Rockford looked up with a surprised expression, set her notebook aside, and rose to answer the door.

As soon as she turned her face to the door, Andre threw the window open wide (thankfully it didn’t stick) and slipped in behind her. A second later, he had seized her about the middle and clapped the chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth.

She immediately screamed into the cloth and began thrashing and fighting as savagely as a badger that’s been caught in a snare. Her foot kicked sharply up and back, and her elbow jammed into his stomach, but Andre knew how to fight and how to grapple: he kept his knees turned in to deflect the kick and Rockford wasn’t strong enough to do any damage to his muscular abdomen. He held tight to her, gripping her left wrist in his right hand so that his arm encircled her slender body, pinning her right arm to her side and using his greater bulk to hold her in place as much as possible as she kicked and squirmed helplessly.

In any case, the chloroform very quickly took its toll. After a few seconds’ furious and futile fighting, Rockford’s movements became sluggish, and finally she slumped limp and unconscious in his arms.

The police were hammering on the door now, shouting for her to let them in. Andre stuffed the rag back into his pocket and carried the unconscious girl back through the window, which he pushed shut behind them. He slung her over his shoulder – it was a good thing she was so small – and carried her as quickly as he could down the fire escape, which rattled audibly under his tread.

There was a distant crashing sound as the police broke down the door. Andre descended the ladder one-handed, then dropped the last four feet and ran for it just as a voice from overhead shouted, “Stop! Police!”

Andre was around the corner in an instant, where Benton waited in the idling car. He threw the unconscious girl into the back seat then climbed in after her, and Benton was off before he’d even closed the door.

“Close one, boss,” said Benton.

“Too close,” Andre agreed. He threw a blanket over the small, huddled form on the floor, just to make sure no one looked in and saw her. He felt strangely guilty as he did so. Though he’d done it to save her life, and he hadn’t had much choice in any case, it wasn’t pleasant to think that he’d attacked, knocked out, and kidnapped an innocent girl. That was going to be difficult to explain.

Benton chuckled from the driver’s seat.

“What’s so funny?” Andre asked in a sharp voice.

“Oh, nothing,” he said. “I was just thinking of what she’s gonna say when she wakes up.”

Andre sighed and rubbed his temple, feeling suddenly tired.

“It’d be more helpful if you’d think of what I’m going to say,” he answered. “Because I sure as hell don’t know.”

 

The Ten Commandments of Murder: Available Now

I’m a big fan of ‘cozy’ mysteries: Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, I can’t get enough of them. Naturally (because that’s how my mind works), I’ve always wanted to make one of my own. So, I did, and it’s now available on Amazon.

TCM v2.jpg

“A house of many sins is a house of many motives.”

A gunshot shatters the night in the Long Island mansion of Wareham. An odious houseguest has been murdered and rich, directionless Alfred More is found holding the weapon that killed him…only he didn’t do it.

With a charge of murder staring him in the face, Alfred turns to the top private detective in New York: the huge, unpretentious Malachi Burke. Armed with his own ‘Ten Commandments of Murder’, Burke sets about sifting through the secret sins of the household to find which among them has violated the command, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’

Available for purchase here.

Indestructible

The irreplaceable Caroline Furlong of A Song of Joy shares music videos featuring two ear-catching song both titled ‘Indestructible.’ One of the songs I’m well familiar with and used it as the theme of one of my favorite Godzilla characters: the indomitable Anguirus, which I now present for your consideration. Enjoy!

(Apologies for poor video quality: this was before I’d ironed out the video-capture process)

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Sarah Rockford in Crime Uninvited

VL 1

Sarah Rockford reflected that it was a very strange thing to be sitting across the table from a man who had come very close to murdering her only a few days before.

“Thank you for consenting to see me, Mr. Lepton,” she said. “This won’t take long.”

Lepton said nothing. He was looking at her with a hungry kind of expression, rather like how a wolf might look at an unwary rabbit.

“I’m doing a follow-up piece on the companies you worked with,” she said. “And which I understand you’ve so obligingly provided to the DA’s office.”

“It’ll get me out sooner,” he said. “Something for you to look forward to.”

Sarah swallowed and tried to look as though she hadn’t understood.

“Right, well, the reason I’m here is that I noticed you omitted one particular company from your statement.”

He said nothing.

“Roper Transport,” she said. “A shipping company. You renovated their warehouse on Erago Street and it burned down two days later. A young lady was killed in that fire. Burned so badly that they had trouble identifying her. You gave testimony against every other company that you did business with, but not them. Why?”

Lepton tapped his stubby fingers on the table, still looking at her with that same hungry expression. His lips curled back from his teeth in a savage grin.

“You mean to look into them, do you?”

“Perhaps,” she said. “If I think there’s a story there.”

“Oh, there is,” he said. “Biggest story of the decade.”

Sarah thought that, considering the decade was less than a year old, that wasn’t saying much, though she refrained from mentioning this.

“See, the reason I didn’t say anything about them is that I knew the DA is never gonna move on them.”

“Why not?”

“Too afraid,” he said. “Walter Deaney, that’s the head of the company, he’s ruthless. No one’s going to mess with him. Anyone who does, well…” he grinned. “That fire went up much sooner than I expected. And I don’t think that girl was there by accident.”

Sarah frowned, tapping her small chin.

“You say you think it was deliberate murder?”

He shrugged. “Didn’t hear it from me.”

“And you didn’t say anything to the DA because you didn’t think they would do anything about it. But surely, they’re not afraid of…of that sort of thing?”

“Might be,” he said. “That’s for you to find out. That is, if you’ve got the guts for it.”

###

            Sarah Rockford was not the kind of girl who was to be deterred by danger. She had her living to earn: her story exposing Hunar Contractors had been a huge hit and the Daily Spinner, her usual newspaper, was offering her big bucks for a sensational follow-up. If this worked out, she might actually be able to start saving money, and for a girl of twenty with nothing but her brains and her looks to get by with, that was something to consider. Besides, having already survived one murder attempt, she rather felt that she could handle anything that came her way.

She was optimistic like that.

Sarah’s first move, after leaving the prison, was to read everything she could find on Roper Transport and its CEO. What she found was very interesting.

Walter Deaney had started out, not as a businessman or worker, but as a karate champion. He’d won multiple tournaments, including placing second in a world championship, before turning his attention, and his winnings, to business. He had purchased and now ran one of the most successful shipping companies in southern California and did business throughout the western United States and into Mexico.

More to the point, he had been the subject of several lawsuits. Most of these were related to harassment or assault, but the most interesting one had been an indictment for smuggling that had seen Deaney brought to court. All the lawsuits had ended in an acquittal for him. The criminal charges, she noticed, had been brought just after the fire that had destroyed the warehouse renovated by Hunar Contractors.

This brought her to the fire and its victim. The dead girl found in the wreckage was named Anna Billings, and she had been the warehouse receptionist. A very pretty, brown-haired young woman with a shy, sweet smile. Sarah thought she would have liked her. It was sad to think of all that prettiness being burned up, and to think of the terror and confusion that must have comprised her last moments on Earth.

Sarah read the report of the incident. The official story was that the girl had been back in the main part of the warehouse, which mostly kept highly flammable materials, and that the fire had started suddenly and she hadn’t been able to escape. There was no good explanation for why she was there in the middle of the night, except a comment by Deaney that that particular warehouse had reported minor inventory discrepancies. He didn’t actually come out and say he thought Anna had been stealing, but the implication was clear.

It was when Sarah read this that she realized that she hated Walter Deaney: hated him in a way that she had hated very few people. Bad enough he had murdered the girl, but then he trashed her reputation as part of covering it up.

Not only that, but Sarah felt a connection with Anna Billings. After all, if she didn’t miss her guess, the girl had suffered the same fate that she herself had narrowly escaped: being murdered because she was trying to do the right thing. It must have taken courage for her to even try, and that courage had been rewarded with a horrible death and posthumous slander. It wasn’t right. It shouldn’t be.

Sarah resolved then and there that she would bring Deaney down. This wasn’t just about surviving anymore; this was a crusade. She’d see Deaney arrested, or she would die trying.

The trouble was to figure out a way to make that happen. He’d already survived several lawsuits with nary a scratch. That must mean he had connections, as well as money. Meanwhile, Sarah Rockford was a young freelance reporter who struggled to make enough to keep body and soul together: she stood barely five feet high, had no real friends in LA, and her connections mostly just amounted to a single old detective. Her chief assets were her ability to write, her refusal to give up, and her excellent face and figure: not much with which to tackle a millionaire businessman-criminal-fighter.

She picked up her phone and dialed Detective Crane’s number.

“Crane speaking.”

“Detective, it’s me; are you busy?” Sarah asked.

There was a brief pause.

“Do you ever actually read the papers, kid?”

Sarah had momentarily forgotten about the gang war that was ravaging northeast LA.

“Well…” she began.

“That means ‘yes,’” he snapped.

“But wait, listen; I’m onto something I think could be really big…”

“Then I definitely don’t want to hear about it! Last night, in case you missed it, someone fired a grenade launcher in a residential neighborhood, and I’ve gotta untangle a goddamn conspiracy to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

“Then can you at least pass it on to someone else? Someone not as busy?”

Crane sighed and his voice grew a little gentler. He sounded tired.

“Kid, this thing involves cops. I don’t know who all I can trust. I’ll hear you out, ‘cause you’re usually right, but no promises.”

“Okay,” she said with a deep breath and she started to lay out her suspicions. Crane, however, cut her off.

“I already know all about the Deaney case: I was one of the lead detectives on it. He’s a slimy bastard, and I’d like nothing better than to see him in jail or in the ground, but that case is over. He was acquitted and we couldn’t link him to the girl’s death. Sorry, kid; that’s just how it is sometimes. Doesn’t matter we know he’s guilty if we can’t prove it.”

“So, if you got more evidence…”

“Don’t you dare go snooping around Deaney!” Crane shouted at her so that she jerked the receiver away from her ear in alarm. “You understand me? That man is dangerous and way out of your league. If I find out you’ve been messing around him, I’ll throw you in jail myself until you learn common sense!”

“Okay, okay!” she said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you actually cared about me.”

“I want you to promise me, Sarah, that you are not going to try to investigate Deaney, understand?”

Sarah registered the use of her name and was oddly touched by it. But she had no intention of giving any such promise.

“Let’s say I’ll be careful, how about that?”

“Sarah!”

“Gotta go, detective! Thanks awfully much for the threats and warnings.”

And she hung up as he tried to shout at her some more.

Sarah was surprised by the vehemence of Crane’s response; he usually tried to warn her off from dangerous stories, but never that strongly before. Granted, Deaney had already killed – probably – at least one person who had been looking into him. And, of course, it had been Crane who had had to rush to her rescue when Lepton tried to kill her, and it sounded like he’d be too busy to do anything of the kind now. Also, her having narrowly escaped being murdered recently would no doubt make him more concerned about her, which was kind of sweet.

She leaned back in her bed, surrounded by the newspapers, documents, and notes she’d been using for research, clasped her hands behind her blonde head, and tried to think.

Should she press on, or should she let it go for now? Letting it go would be the smart thing. After all, it wasn’t as if they would never go after Deaney: it would just have to wait until Crane was done with his present case. Anna Billings was dead, and so were who knew how many others; there was no hurry on their account. Besides, if Deaney was as dangerous as all that, probably she wouldn’t do any good sticking her nose into things.

And yet…

Sarah thought of the pretty, smiling face of the dead girl, thought of how Deaney had lied about her to escape justice, how seemingly no one was willing to stand up to him, and a hot, burning anger rose in her chest. It wasn’t right. It shouldn’t be.

She didn’t know what she could do about it, if anything, but she was going to try. She’d figure something out.

###

            As it happened, Sarah had an opportunity to begin her war on Walter Deaney almost right away. During the research that followed on her resolution, she uncovered the news that Deaney was hosting a party for various friends and business associates that weekend at his house in the hills. There would be a lot of people there, most likely more than Deaney personally knew. If she could manage it, it would be a good chance to get close and see what she was up against.

Sarah made her plans very carefully. She took most of the money from her last paycheck and rented an elegant blue-and-white sundress that would hopefully allow her to blend in with the rich crowd. She drove down to Deaney’s neighborhood and strolled about by his house to try to get some idea of its situation.

The house was a two-story, modern structure; very square and angular, with a high wall all around it breached by an iron gate. The gate, as she saw when a car drove up, operated electronically. The grounds, she had to admit, were very nice, with flourishing trees, neatly trimmed hedges, and bright flowerbeds. From the sound of running water she guessed there was a fountain or stream in back.

Most significantly, as it turned out, was the fact that there was a line of bushes just inside the wall broken only by the gate. She guessed this was to deter anyone who might try climbing the wall, but it might have other uses as well.

Those few days before the party were anxious ones. Sarah did her best to keep up with her work and did as much research as she could on Deaney and his company. She spent a lot of time working on her novel, trying to distract herself, but it wasn’t much good and she suspected she’d have to junk almost everything she wrote in those days. It was hard to focus when she was so anxious.

The day of the party finally arrived, and Sarah dressed herself carefully, applied makeup, and did her hair as well as she could. She doubted that she fit the part perfectly, but hopefully no one would look too closely…or, rather, they wouldn’t look too critically. Since she was a beautiful woman in an elegant dress, she couldn’t really expect no one to look at her, only that they wouldn’t be thinking too much when they did so.

She drove her ancient Corvair down to Deaney’s neighborhood and parked it a good distance away. Then, covering herself in a men’s overcoat and fedora – the coat was so big on her that it nearly reached her ankles – she slipped down the street. It was about four in the afternoon, but it was a mildly chilly day, so hopefully she didn’t look too conspicuous. In any case, the idea was simply for no one to connect her appearance outside the party with her appearance inside.

Sarah paced a little in front of the wall guarding Deaney’s house, waiting for her opportunity. It came when a big, fancy car pulled up to the iron gate. It opened, the car drove in, and Sarah slipped in behind it, ducking behind the bushes as she did so.

Her heart hammered and she felt a quiver of mingled fear and excitement: she was all-in now.

Travelling behind the line of bushes, Sarah made her way from the gate to a spot where a large tree and a few flowerbeds would make her approach less conspicuous. She could hear animated conversation coming from the house and the backyard: the party was in full swing to the point that probably no one would notice one more guest. She took off her coat and hat, bundled them up, and stashed them behind the bushes, then stepped out, adjusted the fit of her dress, and moved boldly towards the back of the house.

As she’d expected, there were a lot of people present: women in rich, elegant dresses, men in suits or polo shirts, here and there a waiter bringing people drinks or offering hors d’oeuvres. It was all so elegant and so upscale that Sarah felt immediately self-conscious. It wasn’t at all the kind of thing she was used to, and she was sure she must stand out like a sore thumb. But so far no one had paid her any mind, so she moved boldly in among the others and took a drink from a passing waiter.

A few of the men had begun to notice her. She smiled and drifted about, not sure where to begin. All her plans had been about getting into the party and then getting out again; the experience of actually being at a rich, elegant party given by a millionaire for other millionaires was something she hadn’t considered.

Fortunately, she soon noticed an older man standing off by himself beside the pond that filled part of Deaney’s garden and was fed by an artificial stream. Deciding he seemed the least intimidating person present, Sarah drifted over to him.

“Hello,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ve met? My name is Linda Mitchell.”

The man was about sixty-five, with a broad, pleasant kind of face. He smiled at her and accepted her offered hand.

“James Arthur Cummings,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Mitchell. How do you know Mr. Deaney?”

“I don’t, as a matter of fact,” she said. “Though I would like to meet him. You see, I came with my fiancée, but he’s off somewhere talking business, and I get so bored with that sort of thing. Do you know Mr. Deaney well?”

“Yes, quite well,” said Cummings. “I taught him when he went back to school after he gave up fighting. I used to be a mathematics professor, you see. Retired now, I’m afraid; I just couldn’t connect with this younger generation. You might say we’re old friends.”

“I see,” she said. “Then you can point him out to me.”

Cummings looked about.

“He’s not here,” he said. “Must be inside working on another one of his deals. That’s the only reason he holds these things, you know: chance to make connections and negotiate on the side. Very sensible of him.”

“Very,” said Sarah. “Well, I think I’ll go inside and see what’s become of my fiancée. Lovely to meet you, Mr. Cummings.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Ms. Mitchell,” he said with a slight bow.

Sarah drifted across the patio and into the house. There she found a spacious, high-ceilinged living room full of little knots of people, all deep in conversation. From what she could hear it was mostly either business (“If we were to close this deal soon it would make for a tidy end to the fiscal year…”) or gossip (“Of course, you’ve heard so-and-so was having an affair…”). Sarah drifted through, smiling and trying look as if she were enjoying herself. Her heart was hammering painfully against her ribs at the expectation that sooner or later someone would realize she didn’t belong there, and yet it was rather thrilling at the same time..

Then she saw him. Walter Deaney stood by the bar, leaning on it with one arm and holding a drink as he spoke with a rather short, but intense-looking young man. Deaney was, Sarah had to admit, very handsome, with swarthy skin, dark, neatly-groomed hair, and an athletic build. He was about in his mid thirties, but showed no sign of having lost any of the vigor and power he must have had as a fighter.

Sarah moved closer on the pretext of getting a drink (she’d hastily deposited the one she had on a sideboard). She slipped behind Deaney to speak to the bartender.

“Martini, please,” she said.

“…never had any kind of trouble of that sort,” Deaney was saying. “My drivers know their business. We can mark the truck as hauling something like potato chips or bowling pins and no one would know the difference. We take security very seriously, Mr. Fireson.”

The intense-looking young man nodded.

“Glad to hear that, Mr. Deaney,” he said. “Now, tell me more about…”

He trailed off, and his eyes snapped onto Sarah. She pretended not to notice.

“Miss?” he said. “Do you mind? This is a rather private conversation.”

Deaney started a little and turned around, and Sarah abruptly found herself looking directly into his shrewd, penetrating eyes. To her own slight surprise, she felt suddenly very afraid.

“Sorry,” she stammered. “Excuse me.”

She took her drink and retreated, the cold, intense stares of the two men following her.

Sarah had been taken off guard at just how intimidating Deaney was when you met him face-to-face. She began to realize what Crane had meant when he said he was out of her league.

Yet now that she was here, she felt she had to see the thing through. At the very least, now that she knew he was distracted, she thought she’d take the chance to do a little searching.

Sarah surreptitiously emptied her drink into a flowerpot and, holding the glass, went up to one of the mingling groups.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Can you point me to the little girl’s room?”

She didn’t really listen too closely to the directions; the important thing was that they led out of the living room and away from the rest of the party. There was no one in view in the hallway. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure she remained alone, Sarah slipped up the stairs, making no more noise than a mouse. She made her way along the upper hall, glancing into the rooms as she went until she found the one she was looking for: Deaney’s office.

It was a wide, elegant room, richly furnished. There was a fireplace with a carved stone mantle, a huge, oaken desk before the window, luxurious green velvet sofas and chairs, shelves lined with books, and several large, fine oil paintings hung upon the wall. Everything was expensive and lavish, though it didn’t amount to any consistent taste: the chairs and sofa were Edwardian, the clock on the mantel was Art Deco, one painting was in the academy style, and another was Impressionist. Sarah suspected Deaney cared for none of it for its own sake, only as a means to show off the size of his wallet.

Closing the door softly behind her, Sarah stole into the room and went straight for the desk. She had no idea what she was looking for, or where she was likely to find it; she wanted something that might point to Deaney’s criminal actions, or at least give a clue where to look.

Sarah started methodically going through his desk, starting with the center drawer and moving from there. But she hadn’t gotten far when she heard voices approaching from the hall.

Hastily, she closed the draws and looked for somewhere to hide. The only option, it seemed, were the curtains, which were drawn wide open. She ducked behind one and found that it mostly covered her (it was times like this that she thanked God she was so small), leaving only a little bit of her side exposed, though as this was in front of the window, with the westing sun blazing through it, she doubted anyone would notice the whiteness of her dress.

She seized the inner folds of the blue, velvety curtain to keep it from moving just as the door opened and the two voices came in.

“There we go,” Deaney was saying. “Now we can be a bit more private.”

“Nice room,” said the other voice, which Sarah thought belonged to the intense young man Deaney had been speaking to at the party: Mr. Fireson. “Renoir?”

“Original,” said Deaney. “Got it off some art galley that went bust. That one’s a Cabanel.”

“So I see,” said Fireson. “But I presume you didn’t take me up here to show me art.”

“That’s good,” said Deaney. “I admire a man like you; you know what you want, you go for it. Now, you said you might be interested in some…extra services?”

“Hypothetically speaking,” said Fireson. “Say I wanted to move my weapons to a different client, without my present client being aware of it. Say I were to order your company to take a little extra in a given shipment, deliver it to these other clients, then proceed with the standard order without recording the difference.”

There was a brief pause. Sarah couldn’t help herself. She very slowly and cautiously pulled back one end of the curtain to peer out. With barely an inch of her face showing between the curtain and the edge of the window, it was unlikely anyone would notice her unless they looked directly at her. And fortunately the two men were facing each other sideways on to her. They were looking at each other intently, Fireson leaning forward, staring at Deaney from under his brows. Deaney lounged on the sofa in a relaxed position, his head back, eyes narrow, a glass in his hand.

“That would be illegal,” said Deaney.

“So it would,” said Fireson. “Do you object to that?”

Deaney looked at him a moment longer, smiling slightly. Then he shook his head.

“Not at all,” he said.

Fireson seemed to relax. He sat back in his armchair, picked up the drink he had set down, and smiled.

“That’s out of the way, then,” he said. “I’m sure you know how tricky it can be to find the right kind of help.”

“Oh, I do,” said Deaney. “And I appreciate your approach.”

“One thing further I need to know,” said Fireson. “Do you have any experience in this regard? I don’t intend to trust my reputation and my business to amateurs.”

Deaney gave a faint, slightly offended laugh.

“Amateurs? Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Fireson. My people and I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.”

“So you say,” said Fireson. “Anyone can talk. I never take anything on hearsay, especially a man pitching his own service.”

Deaney took a sip of his glass, eying Fireson thoughtfully.

“Fair enough,” he said. “Let me show you something.”

He set down his glass and went to the Renoir piece. He felt along the edges, and the picture swung out to reveal a safe embedded in the wall behind it. Sarah’s heart leapt with excitement. Deaney turned the dial a few times, then opened the safe door. Sarah couldn’t see too well what was inside, but Deaney took out a small ledger and went to his desk.

Sarah held her breath as the two men passed right in front of her. She was painfully aware of her orange scented shampoo and thanked her stars she hadn’t thought to wear perfume.

Deaney laid the ledger out on the desk and opened it to a certain page.

“Take a look at that,” he said. “But don’t touch.”

Sarah couldn’t see what the page contained, and she didn’t dare try to get a better look. There was silence for a moment, and she wondered that they couldn’t hear her pounding heart.

“Hm,” said Fireson. “Impressive. And you’ve been doing this how long?”

“Several years,” said Deaney.

“Never been caught?”

“Never caught. The cops have had their suspicions, but they haven’t been able to land anything on me. I’m pretty good at covering my tracks.”

“So I see,” said Fireson.

Deaney closed the ledger and returned it to the safe. Sarah breathed again as they moved away from the desk.

“Well, Mr. Deaney, you certainly know how to run a business,” said Fireson. “I’ll run it by my board, but I think I can safely say that we have a deal.”

He held out his hand and Deaney shook it. Both faces held faintly triumphal looks, and at that moment Sarah loathed them both so much that it was all she could do to stay silent.

“Glad we could come to an agreement,” said Deaney. “Shall we return?”

He gestured at the door and the two men departed.

Sarah waited a moment to make sure they didn’t return then stepped out from hiding. She was trembling all over, both with fear and excitement. It had been a narrow shave, but she’d come through; she hadn’t been caught, and she’d heard everything those two crooks didn’t want her to hear. What’s more, she now knew where the brute kept his secrets.

The smart thing, she knew, would be to get out of there right now. She had already pushed her luck more than was wise. But she was dying to get a look at that ledger. Besides, she was feeling triumphant: she’d infiltrated Deaney’s home with no one being the wiser and overheard a criminal conspiracy without being caught. She was beginning to have a very high opinion of her own skill and luck.

With a glance to the door, Sarah hurried to the picture and felt along the edges. She found a latch near the top corner, pressed it, and the painting swung out to reveal the safe.

Now came the tricky part. Sarah had never cracked a safe before, though she thought she understood the principle. She pressed one ear to the metal and began slowly turning the dial.

The room was very quiet; the noise of the party below was little more than a distant hum. Her heart was hammering in a distracting fashion, and a little voice in her head was screaming for her to get out now while she had a chance and not to be a fool. But she could hear the faint tick-tick of the dial moving, then a slightly louder click as it passed the tumbler. She made a mental note of the number, then began again…

“What do you think you doing?”

Sarah gave a faint shriek of alarm and jumped back from the safe. The compact, intimidating form of Andre Fireson stood before the door, which he was just closing behind him.

There really was not any kind of good explanation for her behavior, and anyway Sarah was too surprised and too frightened to say anything for the moment.

Fireson looked from her to the safe then back again.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“I…I’m a cop,” she said. “And my superiors know where I am.”

He glared at her.

“How long have you been in here?”

“Long enough to hear some very interesting things, Mr. Fireson,” she said defiantly. She squared her small shoulders and looked him square in the face, hoping against hope that she could bluff him.

“You’re not a cop,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone knows you’re here.”

“That’s all you know,” she said.

“You’re right: I do know that. If you never left this house, I don’t think anyone would come looking for you.”

Sarah licked her lips nervously. Fireson was not a large man, but she could sense the power in him. If he wanted to hurt her, there would be very little that she could do about it.

He looked at her, then about the room, and then started toward her.

“Stay back!” she ordered, stepping back away from him.

“Shut up,” he said. “You’re getting out of here right now.”

“I…what?” she said. This was not at all what she’d expected.

Fireson closed the picture over the safe, the seized her by the arm, not cruelly but firmly.

“You are going to walk out with me,” he said. “We are going out the front door, to the gate, and you are going to leave and I am never going to catch you around here again. Understand?”

“That’s it?” she said in surprise. “You’re just gonna let me go?”

“Let you go?” he said, pulling her to the door. “No, I’m going to make you go.”

They marched out into the hall together, Fireson keeping a firm grip on her arm and Sarah moving along with him. She still didn’t quite understand what was happening: he knew she’d overheard him plotting his crimes, so why was he just throwing her out?

They descended the stairs and out the front door, past a few other guests.

“Gate crasher,” Fireson explained. “She’s just leaving.”

Outside, he marched her down to the gate and jammed the switch to open it. As the iron gate creaked open, he glanced around and then said in a low voice. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but you have no idea what you are dealing with. Stay away from this is you value you life.”

With that, he fairly threw her through the gate so that she nearly lost her balance. As the bars shut between them, Sarah fixed him with the most hateful look she could manage before turning and heading back to her car.

That, she reflected, had been a strange and rather humiliating end to her adventure. She didn’t understand what Fireson had meant by his final words, or by the fact that he had thrown her out rather than trying to silence her. Perhaps, she thought, he was less willing to commit murder than Deaney was. Well, he was a still a crook though, and she didn’t mean to let Fireson get away with his crimes either.

As she coaxed her battered old car into motion, however, her natural optimism reasserted itself. After all, things could have gone much worse; she’d gotten into Deaney’s house, found out where he kept his secrets, overheard him plotting with a compatriot and more or less gotten away with it. She felt rather proud of herself: at any rate she’d escaped without ending up in any real danger.

So she thought. But she had never been more wrong in her life.