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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.
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.