During the summer of 2018, Pearl River Publishing serialized Hunt the Shadow on the Interestingauthors.com. website. The serials appear here and without any breaks. You may purchase the entire novel, ebook or print, by applying the links at the end of these opening chapters. Hope you enjoy ~ Ollie
The young woman walked up to his favorite Denny’s table and sat, jaw set, ready to battle.
“You’re Phil Pfeiffer, right?”
He looked up at a pair of brown eyes and a clenched jaw. Maybe spousal fallout from one of his cases, though she looked a little young.
“I want to hire you.” She pulled off a ballcap, sending brown spikes in several directions. “So, are you available? I’ve come a long way.”
Pfeiffer looked down at his ground school textbook and sighed. Generally, he liked kids nowadays. They acted boldly and wanted results. He dropped his pencil into the binding and closed the book. The navigation problem stretched his math limits, anyway.
“I’m sort of expensive,” he said.
She looked at his electronic calculator, circular slide rule, and full scratch pad.
“Actually, you’re not. I’ve already read the reviews. You’re reasonable, comparatively speaking, and kind of honest …”
“… and the last two reviews said you got results. I checked out your hometown, Bumfuck, Kansas, or something. And if you didn’t lie to the Better Business Bureau, your Army record, too. That’s what I want. Somebody from the Midwest, an ex-Army Ranger, and someone who’ll stand behind me until we get the job done.” She eyed him and he read her assessment: big enough, he could probably take care of himself. “You could stand to lose a little weight, but I’d say you probably fit the bill.”
Mona, his waitress, stood behind the young woman, plate in hand, listening and smiling. She seemed to enjoy watching Pfeiffer faced down by someone so young and tiny.
She finally slid the eggs and home fries onto the table. “Need anything else?”
The younger woman looked at the plate. “How about a heart doctor?”
“Hey, lighten up a little,” he said.
“It’s lunchtime, not breakfast.”
“You can eat breakfast anytime,” he said. “It’s the law. Why don’t you meet me in my office at one?”
Mona tucked her order pad in a pocket, grinning and waiting for the next rejoinder. No way was she leaving.
The young woman’s forehead wrinkled. “Look. I just got off the plane, so let’s do this. If it’s not going to be you, I’ve got to get busy looking again.” When he didn’t move, she rolled palms up. “Well?”
He looked at his books, his eggs, and the smiling Mona.
“Have the nice lady put it in a box,” the young woman said, her voice growing exasperated. “You shouldn’t eat that poison anyway.” She looked at Mona. “Sorry.”
Mona smiled. “I don’t eat here.”
Obviously beaten, Pfeiffer stood, his six-two rising well above the young woman. “Follow me … I guess.” He turned to Mona. “Hold it for me? This won’t take long.”
She picked up the plate. “As always, Phil, you don’t have a clue, do you?”
They walked the hundred steps to the tall office building and took the elevator. He punched Level 2.
“Why didn’t we just use the stairs?” Her glance lingered on his expanded waist. “You have to take the elevator because you broke your back in the war, right?”
“Yeah, right.” He dismissed her remark, pretty certain this kid would be the exception to his ebullient view of the young. “So, you checked me out on Google, huh?”
The elevator’s ding interrupted her struggle to hold back a sharp reply. He led the way to where a faulty fluorescent bulb buzzed and flickered over their heads.
“My secretary has the day off,” he said, opening the dark office and slapping the wall for the switch.
She sighed. “Please, Mr. Pfeiffer. We need to make this fast. You’ve got a heart attack waiting and I’ve only got money for this fight and very little time. Drop the bullshit.”
“Your dime,” he answered and pointed at a straight-back client chair. “Have a seat.” He pulled two forms from the top drawer. “Tell me what you want.”
Pfeiffer worked his modest Phoenix PI business with a bail bondsman and a repo man, both of whom were off fishing and merrymaking in San Diego. Now, he regretted not accepting their invitation. The big fan creaked overhead.
“You know the murderer, Theodore Braiden?” she said.
Pfeiffer took a deep breath. “The next governor of Arizona is a murderer?”
“No, he’s a scumbag and a murderer.”
“Hey, I was kidding. You wouldn’t be a Republican, would you?”
When she scrunched her dark eyebrows, ten years slipped away and she looked twelve. “He’s not a good man. He’s …” She trailed off glancing at the desktop. “Is that an NDA?”
He pushed over the nondisclosure agreement, and a blank contract. Both forms came from a free website.
She read quickly, signed, and pushed it toward him. “Your turn.” He hesitated. “Look,” she said. “Everyone tells me I’m brash. It was cute when I was a kid. Now I’m a law student about to graduate, and people just want to kick my ass. Well, I’m sorry about that, but this is the world I live in. If I don’t push, nothing gets done. Braiden killed my father for standing up to him. He did worse to my mother.”
“It’s been a few years. I’m over it. I already know he can’t be arrested, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a douchebag.”
“What do the cops say?”
“What the hell do you think? You live around here, right?”
Pfeiffer watched her for a moment and signed the agreement that would change his life forever.
“Okay, I’m in.”
“Great. I’m Emily Zadack.” She smiled with perfect teeth and held out a hand that was strong when he shook it. “You’ve never heard of me, but I have a story.”
She settled farther back in the chair and didn’t wait for his invitation. “My dad, Roman, owned Zadack Construction. Heavy equipment, big dozers, the works. He builds … built highways, overpasses, and airports with one division, buildings with the other. My uncle, Augie … Augustus Zadack, is the chief operating officer. We’re private, no stock. My mother, Sharon, was the chief finance officer and former Miss Arizona. Even better, she was smart as hell and twice the businessman either my father or uncle could ever be. They’d tell you so.” She looked up. “Oh wait. You can only ask my uncle because, you see, both Mom and Dad are dead.”
“Let’s start at the beginning,” Pfeiffer said. He didn’t shake easy and she was testing him.
“Good idea. I’ve just been handed the key to understanding the last few years of my parents’ lives, so I’m a little on edge. What I know now, I don’t like.”
For the first time that day, she looked uneasy. “Uncle Augie slipped money under the table to Theodore Braiden to buy city and state contracts. They call it ‘contributing to his campaign,’ but it was far bigger than that. My dad couldn’t stand Braiden, and never knew. Augie just kept bidding and winning, and the company expanded. My mom watched the finances, and I know she couldn’t have missed it, but she never let on. More to the point, Dad trusted them both, and knew nothing until a year before he died. When he found out, he picked up the phone and told Braiden where he could stick his state contracts.” She pulled a flash drive from her purse. “Power up your laptop.”
Fifteen minutes later, Pfeiffer leaned back. “Whoa.”
“Yeah,” Emily said. “Whoa is right. That was my mom. Sixty days ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer. It had already spread. Lymph nodes, lungs, kidneys. She looks pretty good in the video, but the doctors said she was too far gone. Surgery and transplants were not an option. Only morphine. She kept clean for the video you just saw. I think this would be a dying declaration if we took it to court.”
“You have the paperwork to back this up?” he asked. Emily nodded. “And, she only told your dad the previous year, then?”
“Right. Dad figured out about the bribery and had it out with Uncle Augie. Dad didn’t know about Mom until a month before he died. Mom admitted her part, the sex, and the second set of company books. It almost killed Dad. He could barely go to work. Everything started falling apart, and I had no idea, totally conceited, oblivious to the three people I love most in the world tearing themselves apart.”
A steely resolve. No tears fell. “So, she’d been having this affair—”
“Forcible sex is rape, Mr. Pfeiffer. No matter how you force it. There’s no affair here.” The set of her chin warned him.
“No argument from me, Emily.”
A perfunctory nod. “Braiden wasn’t satisfied with just money for his campaign, he wanted more. He had pictures and she was embarrassed.”
“You’re a lawyer.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t study criminal. I clerk maritime law for the State Department while I’m waiting for my finals to clear. But, I can read a law book, and I think we’re screwed. Besides, the state won’t prosecute for rape, and the video I’ve got makes it exculpatory … obvious the sex was consensual. Blackmail, extortion, those are better options if I’d like to screw Braiden, but I’m an officer of the court, and I won’t do that. You’ve got to remember that the state belongs to Braiden. He’s the attorney general of Arizona, and he’ll be running for governor on the next cycle.”
“That’s going to make this more of a challenge.” He tapped a pencil on the pad. “But not undoable. Tell me about the house fire.”
She took a breath and nodded. “I’d left for my last year at Georgetown. Like I said, I suspected nothing. Mom had always been this free spirit, and she liked to swim nude. Our neighborhood is a little close-in, nice, but not totally private. If she got the urge, and she did that night, she turned off the pool lights after Dad went to bed and went skinny-dipping. The fire, explosion, whatever you want to call it took out the kitchen, master bedroom, basically the entire front of the house. Mom was in the water and got a sunburn from the fire, but she wasn’t really hurt. I came home, of course. It was a mess. Everything. The business, my mom. The world was upside down.
“I’d never been told why we were so successful, Mr. Pfeiffer. Uncle Augie never let on but he knew, too, and I’ll deal with him myself. That was not a gas leak. That was getting my angrier-than-hell father out of the way. That was fucking murder.”
* * *
Pfeiffer spent the next two weeks digging through Roman Zadack’s death. Pfeiffer’s backdoor contact at the police department copied the reports showing the fire to be accidental.
Emily had fought the evidence every inch of the way but in the end, lost to the bureaucracy and decided on a private investigator.
She sat at lunch with him now.
Mona, with a wide grin, placed the Cobb salad in front of him. “Staying away from the fat burgers, I see. Good choice. Let me know when you need to burn off some of that extra energy.” She gave an extra sway of her hips as she walked off.
“Cute,” Emily said, glancing after her. “She your girlfriend?”
“No, and let’s stay on track here. The reports all say accidental, no doubts.”
“Yeah, right. What about the witness statement?” she asked. “The flash of light inside the study?”
“One person. Uncorroborated. And from across the street. Another insomniac watching television. No traces of an accelerant. I’m sure you’ve researched arson enough to know even a bad investigator can find the signs. They had the state police in on it, and they’re good. No one found anything except for evidence of a gas buildup.”
She crossed her arms, indomitable. “Money talks. Even if we can’t prove Braiden paid someone to cover up, I still want his head on a pike. He did this.”
Pfeiffer put his fork down. “I think it’s time to come clean with me, Emily. I’m willing to help you, but what are we really doing here?”
“Proving this guy killed my father.”
“Yes and no,” Pfeiffer said. “This is beyond simple vengeance. If it was only that, you’d need to get someone else. I’m not a contract killer. If I’m going to screw up this guy’s life beyond all recognition, I need to be sure of why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
She worked tight jaw muscles. “All right. That better be a goddamn good NDA.”
“It’s the best Google can buy. Talk to me.”
She pushed over her notebook and inserted a flash drive. “I promised Mom I’d never let anyone else see this, but I’m going to make an exception with you. The camera was on my mom’s desktop computer. She set this up.”
He took the device and watched the video of a woman reading in a living room chair. She wore glasses and had her hair up, yet he thought this might be Sharon Zadack. A man, presumably a burglar, slowly opened the patio French doors and stealthily slipped in. His coat collar was turned high and a baseball cap pulled low over his face. The woman apparently didn’t notice as he approached.
Pfeiffer thought he recognized the mane of silver hair as the man reached around both sides of the chair and took hold of her throat. For a moment, the woman struggled and he held. Then, theatrically, she slumped until sliding to the rug-covered floor. Her skirt hiked high over lace panties and dark thigh-high nylons. The man quickly undressed himself, his male tumescence obvious, and eased on top of her as she “recovered.” In quick moments her clothes were shed and two naked bodies roiled on the rug, accompanied by gruff, arousing language. The man’s hat flew to one side as the sexual temperature in the room spiked.
Pfeiffer hit the pause button. “I recognize AG Braiden. The woman?”
“Mom, wearing a wig for their little game.” Her eyes filled and she swallowed hard. “There are other … games that she filmed, but I think this is enough. And you can see who that asshole is pretty clearly.”
“Mom believed Braiden was responsible for Dad’s death, too, but she couldn’t prove it. After she learned about the cancer, she did the one thing she knew the bastard couldn’t resist. My mother was a beautiful woman right up to the end of her life. She told me others can’t humiliate you unless you let them. She gave me the ammunition to take that toad down. That’s what I want to do.”
“I assume Braiden will have an alibi for each of the time stamps.”
“If he doesn’t now, he will soon. Mom showed him this, and he laughed. Then he broke her nose. He took the flash drive and made it clear if this got out, he’d kill her, me, the dog, my uncle and boyfriend … if I had one. Everyone we love. He’s a very bad man.”
Pfeiffer’s own anger built and he couldn’t trust his words.
She misunderstood. “It’s all real, Mr. Pfeiffer. I guarantee it. With the right breaks, this man could be president of the United States one day. Once he wins the governorship, there’s no stopping him.”
Pfeiffer held her gaze. “In a pig’s eye.”
Pfeiffer watched the parking lot as the attendant waited for Braiden. An old man sat on a little stool in the shade of the country club’s elm tree, with a livery hat pushed back on a slickly bald, black head. An entourage walked out with the attorney general nestled between bodyguards.
Pfeiffer started his old Chrysler. Tall, with silver hair and a long, handsome face, Theodore Braiden laughed and talked expansively with another man. Two unsmiling state troopers stood by a black state car waiting to escort the AG to his next meeting. The driver opened the rear door for Braiden.
Pfeiffer fell in behind and entered the traffic. He hit send on the message screen and tossed the phone into the passenger seat.
Pfeiffer saw Braiden lift a cell phone to his ear as the light changed and the two vehicles began to move. His own phone beeped with a message.
Braiden had confirmed the appointment with Augie.
Pfeiffer texted the number 10—ten minutes.
The state car continued to the customer parking lot as Pfeiffer turned short for the building’s rear entrance.
Braiden’s Tahoe parked in Zadack Construction’s handicap spot. He waved at his escorts to remain in their cars.
Emily greeted him from the entryway desk. “May I help you, sir?”
“Appointment with Augie Zadack and I’ve only got a couple minutes. Let’s make it fast.”
“Yes, sir.” She rose. “Can I get you a water or a cup of coffee?”
Braiden’s eyes scrolled over her, the curves, the low-cut blouse, and he shook his head. “Another time, maybe. Tick-tock, little love.”
She smiled, unflustered, and walked down the hallway. He watched her sway.
“What the hell’s wrong with your intercom?” he called, then glanced at his watch. “Geezus.”
Pfeiffer stepped from the hallway and held out a hand. “Grady Martin, Mr. Braiden. It’s a pleas—”
“He’s tied up and asked me to take this meeting. I’m sure you can understand.”
Braiden considered the man before him, tall and heavy built. “You play football?”
“Yes sir, but not around here. KU Jayhawks. Can you follow me?”
Pfeiffer didn’t wait for an answer, leaving Braiden to decide his own next move. In a moment, the man followed and pulled the door closed behind him.
“I told your girl—”
“I heard, Mr. Attorney General. I hope you understand our bid—”
“Geezus, not this crap. I don’t usually do this face-to-face, you know. Only out of respect for your dear departed boss.” He looked around the room. “You wired in here? You know it’s entrapment if you are. No good in court. Besides, you called me. A personal few moments in exchange for a campaign contribution. A thousand employees in your companies, two thousand dollars each. That’s two mil.”
Pfeiffer nodded his head. “If anyone found out, we’d be in as much trouble as you. Times are tough and we need the work.”
“Yeah, yeah, times are tough for everyone. This is an eleven-million-dollar deal. You’re covered.” He looked around the room, until he saw an envelope on the corner of the desk. “That mine?”
Braiden eyed Pfeiffer and let his jaw work. Pfeiffer said nothing as the AG opened the flap and thumbed the stacks of one-hundred-dollar bills.
“Fifty thousand,” Pfeiffer said. “Down payment.”
Braiden looked up, eyes narrowing. “Bullshit. This won’t buy you a water fountain in Grenada Park.”
“I told you, sir, times are tough. You’ve made it pretty clear this is the only way we’ll get the contract.”
“What makes you think I’ll get the job awarded to you?” Braiden said. “This? It’s chickenshit.”
Pfeiffer held out his hand for the envelope. “Then, I’ve made a mistake.”
Braiden snorted and worked the thick envelope inside his seersucker jacket. “It’ll be your mistake if the state’s first payment isn’t signed over to my PAC. The whole goddamn two million.” He tapped his chest. “This is just a taste.”
Without another word, he walked out of the office, past the vacant reception area desk and into the bright parking lot.
A Channel 4 news van, lights, cameraman, and a reporter with microphone waited. The live video feed of the meeting taking place played on the news producer’s monitor.
* * *
Pfeiffer pulled into the home’s circular drive. Emily stood from her place on the decorative bench and dropped her suitcase onto his backseat.
“Appreciate the ride to the airport,” she said. “My uncle’s still wasted after sitting with the FBI until nine last night. He’s in bed.”
“Hey. I’m on your dime. Besides, I get up early. It’s the only time in a Phoenix summer I can roll with the top down.”
She scanned the fifteen-year-old Sebring convertible. “Okay, I guess. Will this make it to the airport?”
“And back with a little luck.” He grinned.
She sat and found the seat belt, handing over the check.
“Thanks,” he said. “I should probably pay you. Three months of great press for my little office.”
“You could return the money.” She smiled back at him, calling his bluff. “Kidding.”
“We’ll be in court for a couple of years, Emily. You know that, right? He’s not going quietly. Not when there’s still a chance for this to blow over. People do love their crooked politicians.”
“I know, but it was worth it.” She half turned. “Are you married, Phil?”
He glanced at her. They’d rarely talked about personal matters. “No. Divorced like three-quarters of the population.”
He handed her a Starbucks. They’d spent nearly a month in and out of depositions, attorney’s offices, and judge’s chambers. She’d flown back and forth several times to keep the state prosecutor straight on the case. Pfeiffer had come to know her habits fairly well.
“Thank you.” She accepted the cup but left the lid on.
“What’s the matter? Not in the mood for a double latte with cream and swizzle caramel?”
“Do you ever visit Maryland, Phil? You might like it.”
He hadn’t seen that coming.
She continued. “I have a nice place and live alone. You could come out and see DC. The sights, you know.”
He smiled at her and pulled into the street. “You’re a sweetheart, Emily. You’ll always be a sweetheart, no matter how tough you act.”
Pfeiffer accelerated, letting the wind fill the empty space and supply the words he couldn’t say. He didn’t know how to explain his life, and the ten years that separated them was more like a thousand. His ex, Marla, said he always talked too much, that nothing stayed inside him very long.
She reached down and tuned his old radio, letting the moment and the offer catch the wind.
Pfeiffer recalled the last time Marla and he had gone out before the final break. A high-octane movie in a near-empty theater on a weekday night. No opportunity to talk. Her idea. The marriage counselor suggested quality time, but Pfeiffer was pretty sure he hadn’t meant a Bond movie threesome.
The screen hero escaped tight scrapes by killing bad guys left and right. The villain remained untouched until the end, of course, when the hero prevailed and set the heroine free to flit away to a new life.
Marla loved the action and juked about in her seat, unconsciously deep in empathy. Pfeiffer had thought they could still make a go of the marriage and glumly watched the secondary actors drop to the wayside, dead or with devastating wounds, each with a mother and a father to mourn their passing. If that hadn’t been what she called their last date, he would have gotten up and left.
He’d never forget after Bosnia, his first war, the Defense Intelligence Agency assigning him protection duty in Europe. He discovered just how feckless some political bureaucrats treated the secondary actors in their lives, willingly allowing them to be put in harm’s way or even killed off without a second thought. On the night of that insane, brutal movie, he realized the immeasurable gap with his wife and silently gave up on their marriage.
Not unlike the gap with sweet Emily. Insurmountable. Sort of took the shine off hero work. Of course, breaking his back on the covert mission before an Afghanistan push against the Taliban didn’t help his attitude, either. That had been his final war, and he’d somehow survived. Too many others, on both sides, had not, and he mourned for each of their parents.
Pfeiffer entered the airport departure ramp, jostling for space before finding a spot at the curb. When he could push his car door open, she stopped him.
“This’ll be fine, Phil. Don’t come in. I was being silly—”
“You were being wonderful,” he said, and kissed her cheek.
She smiled. “You really are full of bullshit, you know that, right?”
“I know, Emily. It’s one of my strong points.” He took her small hand in his. “Listen. We might’ve won the first round with Braiden, but I don’t think he’s going away. Be smart when you deal with people, especially politicians.”
“I’m around them every day. I’ll prove to you just how smart I can be.”
* * *
A little more than a month later, a quick knock came to the office door. Most people in the outside hall didn’t knock. “Come in,” he called, raising his voice. Nothing.
As he rose, the door opened.
“Come in, please. Bernice Trimble?” His two o’clock appointment.
“Yes, thank you for seeing me.”
“Please sit down,” he said, returning to his side of the battered oak desk.
As the unit’s first sergeant, he’d appropriated the furniture during a final tour at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. He’d also taken away a small pension and a great friend he didn’t deserve.
Now with a thirty-something birthday somewhere in a not-so-distant and hazy future, he pushed aside his concern about life choices, and instead concentrated on the lady in his office. She reminded him of Harry Potter’s Hermione character, all grown up with bangs and a shy smile. In the middle of her own thirties, she wore her pretty face well.
She was also without a mate, but widowed.
He caught up to their telephone conversation. “You have the photographs and some old letters?”
“Yes, sir.” She handed over a small stack of prints. “There’s not many. He usually refused to pose. We never even had a portrait from our wedding. The three on the top were from a little party my friends gave us after our honeymoon. Howard didn’t want the party, but I insisted. They were mostly his employees anyway.”
He examined the half-dozen pictures, laying them out on the empty desktop. “You worked together, then?”
Howard Trimble was diminutive with thinning blond hair and a pleasant, if unremarkable face. The peevish attitude confirmed he did not like the camera.
“Howard was the owner of our little business,” she said, pushing over a few more photos. “I read where you helped out the Zadack woman after that awful politician tried to extort them. That’s why I thought you could help us.”
Pfeiffer benefited still from the fallout and had no shortage of cases to choose from. In the photo, the Trimbles stood together in their living room. She was the taller of the two, with low heels, and seemed to be enjoying herself. She even held a drink and appeared to be answering a toast from someone off-camera.
“I had that one in a frame,” she said. “I like it.”
An odd, dark painting hung between the couple. Pfeiffer spread the last of the photos over his desk. All had the same odd painting with either the wife or husband.
“What is this?” he asked, tapping the photo.
“Stars, Mr. Pfeiffer. Howard loved stars.”
He stole a glance at the bereaved wife. Bernice Trimble sort of grew on you. She smiled in a Nicole Kidman sort of way.
“I know, you don’t have to say it,” she said, allowing her large doe eyes to fall to her lap. “Howie was the best-looking man on the block. He grew better as we got older. I was never his match, even in the beginning.”
Pfeiffer didn’t agree but said nothing. He looked at their wedding party and the later photos. The guy did seem to have an air of confidence in the newest of the pictures, even with the thin blond hair. Maybe he took to marriage.
“How long were you together?”
“Three years and three months,” she replied.
A moment passed as they let a Southwest Boeing 737 rattle the lone window on its way to Sky Harbor.
Marla and he had been together seven years. Three didn’t seem like much. The pictures seemed to span longer. He’d think about that later.
“You mentioned a problem with the insurance company?” he said.
“In a manner of speaking. But in reality, no.”
Pfeiffer offered a please explain face but when she looked up, the bottoms of her eyes cupped with moisture. She was not one of the soon-to-be divorcees, he reminded himself. Bernice was different.
“I don’t know what to believe now, for sure,” she said. “I have the Heritage Life Insurance letter telling me they refuse to pay the claim. The Mexican government isn’t interested in helping so I hoped you’d be able to get a death certificate.” She paused and then added so softly, he had to strain to hear, “Or, maybe you could find Howie.”
“You don’t believe he’s … passed away?”
“If he’s still alive, please find him. I love my husband. The number of years doesn’t define the depths of one’s love, Mr. Pfeiffer.” The grit in her words belied the mousy first impression. “It’s just that he’s never been gone this long and now, I’m scared.”
They’d evolved beyond the telephone conversation.
She cleared her throat and sat up straight. “Before and after we were married, we traveled for his company.” She withdrew yellow-lined paper from her purse. “I wrote it down.”
He scanned the itinerary of middle-aged-crisis destinations. Las Vegas, New York, Miami among them.
“Okay, but I don’t understand. You vacationed together. Lots of couples do that.”
“Does the husband usually leave for long periods of time? Leave his wife in the hotel? Once he left for a week, Mr. Pfeiffer.”
“Yes, and before you say it, Howie didn’t cheat. We talked about it and I believed … believe him. Howie said this was all part of the job, and he always came back and loved me more than when he left. He had clients.”
Pfeiffer’s chair developed an itch. He liked simple cases. A few late-night surveillances in his old car, a couple photos, an interview, and a payday. The Zadack case had been an exception.
She continued. “The trips slowed and finally stopped. Last summer he left and didn’t take me along. He was gone for nearly two weeks. He gave me a reason and I tried not to push it. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself though. We’d disagree, then we’d argue. Or, more accurately, I argued.” She frowned. “Howie never raised his voice, Mr. Pfeiffer, even when he became impatient with me.”
She methodically squeezed one finger after another. “We argued just before he left to go to San Diego. He was going to be gone for three days. I didn’t know he was going to Mexico until the authorities contacted me. His boat sank in the Gulf of California. I didn’t understand and thought they had the wrong Howard Trimble. I looked Puerto Penasco up on Google and that’s a long way from San Diego.” She stared at Pfeiffer. “Howie hates boats.”
He pondered a moment, then asked, “What was the policy’s amount?”
“One million dollars, death benefit,” she said. “Two million, double indemnity for accidental.”
He took a shot. “If I can’t find him and I can get a death certificate, you’ll be happy. Correct?”
Bernice Trimble’s brown eyes squeezed like a cat contemplating a good meal. “I’d rather have my husband than the money,” she answered. “We can work out our differences. Barring that, I want that damn insurance company’s shyster lawyer to bring me the check personally. I wouldn’t mind if the son of a bitch had to wrap a bow around it.”
How could anyone not like this lady?
Pfeiffer took the case.
An hour and a half after crossing the border, Pfeiffer pulled into the parking lot at the end of Via de Las Rosas. He’d once seen the city on a weekend pass with Marla before his tour of duty in Bosnia. Time had altered the skyline with a few high-rise hotels and broad boardwalks.
One thing had not changed: the creosote-and-rotten fish odor of the waterfront. A half-dozen deep-sea charter boats rocked in the breeze, the spurned choice of a visiting crowd of spring-break college students. Wrappers and Styrofoam cups bumped against pilings as sunlight glared off the placid surface.
“Fishing, senor?” called an alert boy as Pfeiffer shoved the gearshift into park.
“No, thanks. I’m looking for Captain Benito Ramirez’s slip.”
“Yankee policia,” the boy said, his eyes going dead. He turned and strutted toward the other boats to spread the news. His small hands popped, loose-wristed, behind his sashaying body.
Too much television.
The report said Ramirez died with Trimble fifteen miles from shore. Three men squatted at the stern of a boat around a small, smoking, charcoal cooker.
“I’m looking for Captain Ramirez’s dock,” Pfeiffer said. Two looked up without speaking. His Spanish fell short so he repeated in English.
“This is it,” said one man. “But he is dead.”
“That’s what I’m checking out. Did Ramirez ever show up again? No bodies were ever found.”
“People do not return from the grave, senor.”
He wasn’t getting anywhere. “Did anyone see what happened?”
No one spoke.
“Water doesn’t look very deep here. How far out do you have to go to find fish?”
The only man who would speak rose and turned to him. “Does the senor wish to see where Ramirez died?”
“Well, sure,” Pfeiffer said, taken aback. “How much will that cost?”
The tall man pointed at the overhead sign. “Half-day fishing charter.”
“Okay.” He would expense the ride. “I’ve got my favorite lure in the trunk. Give me a minute.”
Arizona and the City of Phoenix required a permit to carry his pistol. The small card in Pfeiffer’s wallet didn’t matter in Mexico. The aging Model 1911 .45 caliber was a gift when he’d installed a stereo system for a retired senior master sergeant. Two months later when a Blackhawk rolled Pfeiffer into an aluminum ball, the gun remained in the states, the only Army memento that meant anything to him. That and his best friend, Dennis Maffesanti.
Pfeiffer had no favorite lure, although he enjoyed the comfort of the gun’s rear sight gouging the small of his back.
About a half-mile out, a line of brown effluent from the dead Colorado River transformed into a deep, azure blue. Dancing reflections of crystal droplets tossed high from the fiberglass bow. If he trusted this captain Gilberto Cisneros, the trip might have been enjoyable.
He did not.
The young deckhand had been dismissed. Only the two of them ventured out, but the gulf was smooth and the swells wide and gentle. When the land disappeared under the horizon and they were alone, Pfeiffer wondered if this had been wise.
“You know, this wind isn’t that different from my convertible,” he said. “Like a Saharan blast furnace filled with water droplets.”
“Si,” the sullen captain said. “Here. Benito was only a couple hundred meters away when the fire began.”
Pfeiffer looked over the gunnels and into the water, not sure what he’d see. A glare reflected back. A fire was news. The insurance company’s report didn’t talk about a fire, only that the boat had been lost with all aboard. Their loss would become double indemnity and they were in the business of holding onto every dollar. The landless horizon encircled the gently rocking boat as electronics beeped at the deep bottom and the occasional fish.
“What would start such a fire, Captain?” Pfeiffer asked, looking up at the flying bridge. “A fire so intense there wasn’t even time for a radio call.”
Gilberto shrugged. “Many things can burn on a boat, senor. Cooking oil, gasoline, diesel …”
“Was there an explosion, or did the boat just catch fire and burn?”
Gilberto looked down from the top of the ladder. “I saw the smoke over the horizon. Ten miles. I know nothing of an explosion.”
Gilberto, tall and many pounds leaner than Pfeiffer, dropped to the main deck. “I will bait the rigs.”
“What do we catch out here?” Pfeiffer asked as the man worked.
“We catch everything.” He took a last pole from the holder and fit a yellow-feathered lure and bright, spinning spoon. “The senor’s favorite lure?”
For a moment, Pfeiffer stumbled. “No, no. That’s all right. Let’s go with yours for now.” The lure pinched the fat around his middle. “Any cerveza on board?”
“Below,” the man replied, busying himself with the rigging.
Pfeiffer swung down to a cramped, damp cabin and retrieved two from a small ice chest. The twin diesels rumbled to life and shifted out of idle. The boat rocked forward as Gilberto’s footsteps thudded rearward.
Pfeiffer emerged and handed him one of the beers. The man seemed surprised and accepted the gesture.
The pole tip suddenly dipped.
“Fish on,” Pfeiffer said and grinned, for the moment forgetting his tenuous situation.
“Dogfish,” Gilberto said, and climbed down with an angry face. He yanked the pole from Pfeiffer’s grasp and pulled in an eighteen-inch, stone-gray shark. The animal bounced and wiggled violently at the line’s end. With a quick snap of his wrist, he slit the fish from mouth to anal fin and dropped him into the ocean, gutted to be eaten by his peers.
“Don’t like sharks?” Pfeiffer asked, thinking an old pistol and its overweight owner would hardly be a match for the master of one’s own territory.
“Don’t like anything that doesn’t know where it belongs, senor. This is not good. We move.”
He pulled out several handfuls of line and returned to the deck-level throttle. Their speed increased as Pfeiffer tried for sea legs. After a few minutes he gave up, following Gilberto topside.
“Did you ever meet Howard Trimble?” he asked, sitting in the copilot’s chair. The man didn’t answer. “The Anglo that died with Ramirez.”
Gilberto began a wide, gentle circle in the blue water. “No.”
“You also had a charter that day. Who was with you?” Maybe he could dig up a lead to follow.
“What is your name, senor?”
“Pfeiffer. Phil Pfeiffer.”
“Good,” he replied. “I will be able to tell the next person your name.”
Pfeiffer thought captains must keep manifests. How else would the Mexican government collect taxes?
“How about a description, then,” Pfeiffer said. “What did your charters look like? Maybe they stayed at the motel and I can find a name.”
“Anglos. They look alike.”
Pfeiffer turned at the little joke, but no smile creased the other man’s mouth.
They finished their beers in silence.
Pfeiffer rose to retrieve a couple more when Gilberto said, “They took more bait.”
“What do you mean, more bait?”
“Called on the radio to his son. He wanted more bait.” He shook his head with pursed lips. “Paco came in the launch. Left a few minutes later. Benito does not forget bait, senor. And Paco was very quick that morning. Paco is never, never quick.”
Pfeiffer considered this as the boat motored a straight line on the mirrored Gulf of California. “Can’t someone run out of bait?”
“A soldier does not go to battle without enough bullets, senor. And Paco went to his father. Paco did not have a GPS. How did Paco know where to go?”
“You’ve got a point, Gilberto. What do you think happened?”
The captain looked at Pfeiffer. “I never talked with the man you look for, but this was not his first time in Puerto Penasco. He and the senorita always chose Benito.”
* * *
Howard Trimble had a girlfriend?
Pfeiffer’s livelihood built itself largely around midlife crazies, and he wasn’t happy with himself that Bernice had talked him out of something he should have known. Occam’s razor. The simplest explanation was usually true.
He returned his thoughts to Gilberto. “What did she look like?”
“Anglo,” he replied, shrugging.
Impatience, his old nemesis, bubbled until recalling the distance to shore. “Young or old?” he tried but got nothing. “Tall, short, brunette, blond?”
“I maybe saw,” he answered with indifference. “I maybe did not. Who knows? Anglo, yes. Maybe bright hair.”
Pfeiffer didn’t know what bright meant.
The silence stretched until he asked, “What about when Trimble first negotiated with Ramirez? Was she …”
Gilberto shook his head before he could finish. “She chose Benito, senor. Maybe she called him. I do not know. No bargaining.”
“Did you see her after the accident?”
He glanced over, his eyebrows knotted. “No one was alive.”
Pfeiffer allowed a stream of breath to escape and cold beer to enter. No woman had been listed as deceased on the insurance reports.
“Yellow,” Gilberto said after several minutes.
“The Anglo. She had yellow hair,” he said with a shrug. “Very—pelo. Blanco rubia.”
Blond almost to white. Gilberto was trying to be helpful.
Pfeiffer learned little more the remainder of the afternoon, except that the man could find fish. If Trimble’s captain were as good as this one, he might have had some fun before his girlfriend and he bought the fish farm.
They crossed the water’s scum line with the sun low on the far horizon. Pfeiffer breathed a sigh of relief as the odors of civilization replaced the sweet sea with raw sewage and waterfront.
The captain accepted a Visa and a business card.
You may purchase Hunt the Shadow, the first in this eBook thriller series,from your favorite retailer:
My Promise to you if you’ve already seen this story: Book #1 and #2 of the Phil Pfeiffer Thriller series are based on my novels of 2013 and 2014, <em>Marsh Island and Blind Marsh</em>. Let me know if you’ve already bought them, and I’ll send you an eBook copy of <em>Hunt the Shadow or A Time for Dying</em>, or both. No charge, of course. I trust and thank you. ~Ollie