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Authors: Joseph Finder

Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery

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BOOK: Guilty Minds
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11

W
hat happened to Mandy?” she said. She was wearing no makeup and was young enough that she looked beautiful without it. Her skin was nearly translucent. I noticed purplish circles, like bruises, under her gray-blue eyes. Her eyes were pretty, but they were red-rimmed.

“It’s just me,” I said.

“I don’t get it. Who are you? Besides Nick whoever? I mean, a lawyer, a reporter, what?” She had a fairly thick southern accent.

“I’m a private investigator. I’ve been hired by Slander Sheet to verify your story.”

She kept her handbag on her lap. It was a Chanel. I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling by the way she clutched it that it might not be counterfeit. “An investigator?” She narrowed her eyes in suspicion.

“They’re really going out on a limb on this story, so they want to make sure it’s solid.” I was lying, sure, but I justified it to myself on the grounds that she was, too. “They want to make sure they don’t get stuck with a bad story the way
Rolling Stone
magazine was, with that UVA story.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not important.”

She looked around the coffee shop. “So Mandy’s not coming?”

“Right.” She seemed anxious.

I’d known a few call girls, and I recognized the basic profile. They tend to be materialistic. They like their Chanel bags and their Jimmy Choos. They like to dress well because they know they look good. Call girls and escorts, unlike ordinary prostitutes, have a certain self-regard. Men pay good money to be with them, and not just for sex. It’s like having a mistress without the inevitable obligations. From the girls’ standpoint, they go to nice restaurants and black tie events and get to see a life they’d otherwise never see. In some ways it’s not a bad gig.

“And how do I know you’re for real?” she demanded.

“Here’s my business card.” That didn’t answer her question, but she took the card and glanced at it quickly. I’d written my cell number on it.

“Are you even licensed? I want to see your license.”

I was impressed. You’d be surprised at how few people ask to see my license. I took out my wallet and removed my Commonwealth of Massachusetts private investigator license. She glanced at it.

“That doesn’t do you any good. That’s a Massachusetts license. You have to be licensed in every state you work in, and we’re not in Massachusetts.”

I couldn’t help smiling. Smart girl. She was right. I fished around in my wallet and found my DC license, which I’d kept up to date since my days of working in the district. The picture showed a younger Nick Heller. Also a less jaded one. Back when I started, I didn’t know much about how the world worked. I’d learned a lot since then.

I handed it to her. She looked at it, shook her head. “We’re in Virginia. Not DC.”

I didn’t have that one with me, though I had a Virginia license, and a Maryland one, somewhere back in Boston.

“Kayla, I need to ask you a few questions about the chief justice.”

“I already told Mandy everything.”

“I know. I just need to go over your answers. Sort of kick the tires. Make sure everything’s rock solid.”

She shrugged. Warily, she said: “What do you want to know?”

“How’d you first meet him?”

“How? I mean, they told me to go to the Monroe, room such-and-such, and all that. I thought, fancy hotel, that’s a relief, that means the client’s probably not some sleazeball.”

“ ‘They’ is . . . ?”

“My boss. My manager.”

The hooker booker,
I thought. The person who handles incoming calls and assigns girls to clients.

“And . . . you knew right away he was the chief justice of the Supreme Court?”

She shrugged.

“You watch a lot of news, Kayla? You a big C-SPAN junkie? Not a lot of people would recognize the chief justice. You went to his hotel room and you went, ‘Hot damn, the chief justice of the Supreme Court’?”

“Of course not. He was just some guy.” Her eyes kept roaming the coffee shop, looking for something, for someone. She turned around and looked some more.

“Yet you somehow figured out who he was.”

She took a breath. “After my second date with him I was watching TV and I saw something about the Supreme Court and they showed video of him and I knew that was the guy from the Monroe. I thought, huh, that’s cool.”

“So you saw his picture on TV.”

“Once, when he was in the bathroom, I looked in his wallet.”

I nodded. A good answer. If she’d claimed she recognized a Supreme Court justice at first sight, I’d know she was lying. So either she was telling the truth—a remote possibility—or she’d rehearsed her answer. The breath, the pause, the way she replied all told me she was probably recalling something she’d been coached to say.

“Did he request you?”

“It . . . it wasn’t like that, far as I know. I see this guy Tom Wyden sometimes when he’s in Washington. He always asks for me.”

“Wyden, the casino guy?”

She nodded. “I guess he wanted to gift me to the guy.”


Gift
you?”

“He paid my fee in advance. As, like, a present to his friend.”

“And you know this how?”

“Cindy, my manager, told me. She said we got a special request. Why do I have to go over all this again?”

“Slander Sheet is insisting on it. I’m just doing my job. So tell me, what’s your usual fee?”

She shifted in her chair, clutched her Chanel bag. “Four to six thousand, depending.”

“On what?”

“On how much time, and is it travel or not, and what they expect.”

“That’s a lot of money.”

She shrugged, looked uncomfortable. Under her breath she said, “So maybe I’m worth it.”

“How much of that do you keep?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“It’s all part of the fact-checking. To make sure there’s no problems later on. You’re going to be asked questions like this. Probably a lot more intrusive ones.”

“Usually I get fifteen hundred out of every four thousand.”

“And how do you normally get paid?”

“Cash, most of the time. I give them the take, and they give me my cut. But the judge was prepaid. I got my cut later.”

“Fifteen hundred each time?”

“Right.”

“Now, I’m going to ask you some fairly explicit questions.”

She shrugged. Like,
I don’t care, I’m unshockable
. “Go for it.”

“Claflin a kinky guy?”

She hesitated, just a beat. Looked around again.

“Plain vanilla. Mostly mish.”

She meant the missionary position.

“Bareback?”

“Covered full service.”

Coitus with a condom. She was either a pro, or a well-trained actress. Both, I decided. She was comfortable with the language of the professional escort, but she was at the same time highly anxious. I could read it in her facial expressions, in her vocal instrument. She was being pressured into telling this story, I was increasingly certain.

“So is he cut or uncut?” It wasn’t a comfortable subject, but it had to be asked.

She shook her head, rolled her eyes, sighed exasperatedly.

“Fifty percent chance of guessing right,” I said.

She wasn’t going to answer. She didn’t know whether Claflin was circumcised or not.

Then she snapped, “Screw you, Uncle Pervy. I know I’m one to talk, but how about we leave the guy his last shred of dignity?”

I liked that. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” I told her.

She blinked a few times. “Do what?”

“You’re in trouble, aren’t you?”

She smiled uncomfortably. One of her front teeth was snaggled, cutely.

“Maybe I can help.”

Her smile faded. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It was a halfhearted protest.

“Someone’s putting the squeeze on you, and they’ve got you scared. I want you to know that I can help.”

“Screw you.”

“You know, sometimes you’ve got to trust someone in life. You think you’re being clever by being mistrustful, but that’s not the answer. You probably think you’re alone in this. But you don’t have to be.”

For a moment she looked as if she was affected, as if maybe I’d gotten through to her.

I probed a little deeper. “Someone’s paying you to lie, that’s pretty clear. But you’re not just doing it for the money. They’ve also got you scared, right?”

Her red-rimmed eyes glistened with tears.

“Whoever they are, I can protect you,” I said. “You don’t have to be alone in this.”

A look of anxiety suddenly came over her face. Her eyes swept the room once again. “You’re not with Slander Sheet! You’re a goddamned
liar
!”

“Kayla, hold on, listen to me.”

She leaped up from the table. “Get the hell
away
from me!” She grabbed her handbag and threaded her way between the tables.

I got up and went after her. She was racing through the Starbucks. People were looking up from their conversations, craning their heads, staring back at me. It looked like a quarrel, or just a bad date.

Then I noticed someone loping out after her: a large man of about thirty, entirely bald, dressed in a navy suit and tie. I did a mental rewind,
recalled him entering the Starbucks half a minute or so after Kayla. He hadn’t drawn my attention, because he looked like any other businessman, though maybe bulkier than average.

By the time I got to the door of the coffee shop, Kayla was most of the way down the block. The bulky bald man was now bounding in her direction. I considered chasing after her but decided it wasn’t worth it. I’d gotten from her what I needed. And besides, the guy was clearly her guard, a watcher, a minder. At the end of the block she scrambled into a car, a VW, and it pulled away from the curb before the bald guy could catch up with her.

She was fast.

The bald guy pulled out a phone.

I decided to introduce myself.

12

T
he bald man was punching digits into his phone. As I approached, I sized him up. He was a few years younger than me, and taller and bigger. He had a low, sloping forehead and deep-set eyes. As I came closer, I saw that his head was shaven to cover up the fact that he’d gone bald on top, typical male-pattern baldness. He looked like someone who worked out a lot in a gym. He also looked uncomfortable in his navy suit, like he didn’t wear suits very often.

He looked up and saw me and stopped dialing. His ears, I noticed, were cauliflowered. He was a boxer. It took a beat or two for him to recognize me as the guy who’d been sitting with Kayla. I could see his face go through a whole series of reactions, as gradual as a cartoon: suspicion, slow-dawning recognition, hostility, aggression. He was not a quick thinker.

“You screwed up, man,” I said.

“The hell you talking about?” His voice was high and choked.

“The way she gave you the slip. The boss isn’t going to like that.”

He squinted, and his face went through another series of reactions: bafflement, more suspicion, anger. Like: who the hell are you?

I said, “Yeah, you’re shadowing her, I’m shadowing you. Operations assessment, call it.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Call the boss and see. Go ahead. Call him right now, come on.”

The bald guy hesitated, frowned, then held up his cell phone. He looked at it and punched a couple of keys.

I shot my right arm out and grabbed at his phone, but his reflexes were quicker than his cognition, and he closed his left fist over the phone so I wasn’t able to wrench it out of his hand. In the next instant, he jabbed his right fist toward my abdomen, at center mass, aiming for my solar plexus. A boxer for sure. Good technique. I torqued my body to one side so that his fist missed, just grazing my midriff. He was clutching his phone in his left hand, which handicapped him, limiting him to his right hand.

Boxers are trained to punch as hard and fast as possible, and they follow gym rules. One of the rules is that you don’t kick your opponent in the balls. Which is exactly what I did, slamming the stiff leather toe of my brogue hard into his crotch, sinking in, connecting with a sickening crunch.

There are no rules in street fights.

For a moment he looked stunned. He made a low
oof
sound. His right fist loosened, then the phone dropped from his left fist, and he crabbed forward and collapsed into a heap. I could hear the breath expelled from his lungs. He was all folded into himself, and he clutched his sides, letting out a high-pitched, almost feminine squeal, as the freight train of agony came at him a hundred miles an hour and he was vaulted into a realm of unworldly pain, like nothing else a man will ever experience, a pain that would crescendo and then explode, reducing him to a pile of limp rags.

I snatched up his phone from the sidewalk where it had clattered a few seconds before, and I jammed a hand into his hip pocket and extracted his wallet. Then I raced away for a block or two before I slowed down to a walk and disappeared into the crowds.

13

S
till a little light-headed from the surge of adrenaline that was only slowly dissipating, I ducked into a Panera and sat at a table and examined the phone, a cheap no-brand throwaway. It looked okay, a bit scuffed up but not damaged by dropping to the sidewalk. An iPhone may be more secure, but it also would have had a shattered screen. Not this thing. The advantages of a cheap phone.

The bald guy had punched in a speed-dial sequence of digits but hadn’t had a chance to hit Send. The saved number he was about to call was identified as Home Base. As in “base of operations.” He was checking in with his boss, his controller.

Which meant that I now had his boss’s phone number. Which was a potentially significant piece of intelligence. Whoever was watching her—either to check up on where she went, because she was unreliable, or to protect her—was a phone call away.

Now at least I understood why Kayla had seemed so scared: she was being followed, openly and obviously. In a way meant to menace.

I pocketed the phone to use later and examined the guy’s wallet. His name was Curtis Schmidt, and he was a Maryland resident with about a
hundred dollars in twenties, a small sheaf of credit cards, a health-plan card, and a state of Maryland license to carry Class A large capacity firearms.

Then I found something extremely interesting.

It was an ID card issued by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police with a red stripe on it. It said that Curtis Schmidt was a police sergeant, retired.

Kayla was being followed by an ex-cop.

I thought about Kayla some more. I’ve learned to trust my instincts at reading people. She was lying, that seemed a certainty. But what was especially intriguing was how smoothly she was lying. Her lies were plausible, well thought out and well studied and expertly memorized. Her lies were built to withstand media scrutiny. She had been well prepared.

Figuring that the bald guy was out of commission for a while, I stayed in Panera and made a few calls on my new iPhone.

I glanced at my watch. Twenty-two hours remained. Time was slipping away.

Unfortunately, I had a lot of questions and not much time to answer them.

Who was behind Slander Sheet
?
Who owned it? If I could find out who owned Slander Sheet
,
I’d be closer to finding out who was spearheading the effort to destroy Claflin.

I still had sources in Washington, including a senator I’d done work for previously, and confidentially, when I lived here. Senator James Patrick Brennan had become a friend. He was precisely the kind of guy who knew where the bodies were buried. He knew a lot about the internal workings of Washington. He was savvy and connected and he’d been around the Capitol for several decades. He might know about Slander Sheet. If he’d see me. He was a busy man.

I called Pat Brennan’s chief of staff, Kelly Packowski. Kelly had been
new in Pat Brennan’s office when I lived in DC. Lovely and elegant and ferociously smart. She was still there, fortunately, and she picked right up. “Nick Heller!” she said. “How the hell are you?”

We chatted for a few seconds—she disliked small talk as much as I did, so it was pretty much pro forma—and then she said, “I have a feeling you’re calling for the senator.”

“I need to talk to him. In person would be best.” I thought, but didn’t say, that earlier in the day would be a lot better than later. Pat Brennan was a drinker—that was an open secret in Washington—and late in the day, after many bourbons, he became less than coherent. But it was already late afternoon. I’d see him when he could see me. If he could see me.

“It’s a tough day, Nick.”

“Isn’t it always?”

She sighed. “Today’s even worse than usual. Right now he’s in a meeting, but let me check in with him when he’s out and see what I can do.”

I gave her my cell phone number and hung up. Then I called Dorothy.

She answered without preface: “I think I got something on the call girl.”

“Yeah?”

“Right. Her sister’s had three meth arrests. One more time and she’s facing life without parole.”

“But does Kayla have a criminal record herself?”

“Not that I can find. Her father’s dead and her mother’s in a nursing home. She did two years at Cornelius College, which is a woman’s college in Virginia, but it looks like she dropped out. How was she in person? Did she clam up?”

“Well, she talked, but it was all memorized. Someone’s got her really scared. I feel bad for her. She doesn’t know what she’s in for.”

“The girl’s a prostitute, right? She’s chosen the life.”

“That’s kind of harsh, don’t you think?”

“I’m just saying.”

“Well, there’s something about her. I like her spirit. She’s tough.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Listen, I need you to run a phone number. And do some background on an ex-DC cop named Curtis Schmidt.”

“Who’s that?”

“That’s the guy who was following Kayla just now.”

“How’d you get his name?”

“I borrowed his wallet.”

“I won’t even ask.”

“Also, I need you to see what you can find about who owns Slander Sheet. I’m sure it’ll be some media corporation owned by a shell company or whatever, but see what you can pull up. How close you can get to who really owns it.”

“What about the hotel? Claflin allegedly stayed at the Monroe three times to meet with this call girl. The hotel must have a record of that—or not. My money’s on not.”

“That’s where I’m headed right now.”

“If Claflin never stayed there, that cuts the legs out from under this bogus story.”

“It should,” I said. “This shouldn’t be too complicated.”

For some reason, though, I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic.

I had no idea what was coming.

BOOK: Guilty Minds
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