“Here’s what we have on the ever-running man,” Hy said.
He dropped the fat file on my desk and sat in one of the clients’ chairs, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankle.
I poked the file with my fingertip. It was at least three inches thick, with multicolored pages. “This is the job you mentioned last night at dinner?”
“And why’s he called ‘the ever-running man’?”
“Long story. Maybe you should read the file, and then we’ll talk.”
I shook my head. “I’d prefer an overview from you first.”
Momentarily he looked disconcerted, running his fingers through his thick, dark blond curls. A handsome man, my husband, with his hawk nose and luxuriant mustache and intelligent brown eyes. Normally self-assured, too. But he seldom dealt with me on a professional basis; I’d contracted a few times with Renshaw & Kessell International, the security firm in which he was a partner, but I’d reported to either Gage Renshaw or Dan Kessell. Sitting in my clients’ chair and having me set the terms was something Hy wasn’t altogether prepared for.
To put him at ease, I motioned to the file and said, “Facts, reports, other people’s insights—they’re static. Why don’t you fill me in, make the situation come alive.”
He nodded. He was primarily a hostage negotiator, not an investigator, but he understood the process. “Okay. You asked . . . ?”
“Why you call him the ever-running man.”
He steepled his fingers under his chin. “Because every time anyone’s seen him he’s been running away, and because we’ve been chasing him for two years. It seems he’s capable of running forever.”
“And why are you chasing him?”
“He has a vendetta against RKI. As you know, we’ve got offices in most of the world’s major cities. Some are large—New York, Tokyo, Paris, Chicago. Some’re medium-sized—Atlanta, Toronto, Sydney, Munich. And others’re staffed by one or two people who refer clients to the nearest large office and provide support for our operatives when they’re working in the area. There’s a complete list of them, along with contact information, in the file.”
“And the ever-running man . . . ?”
Hy stood and began to pace, hands clasped behind his back. “It started two years ago last month. January seventeenth. The auto industry and allied businesses were cutting back on corporate security, and we’d downsized our Detroit area office in Farmington Hills. We had only three people working there. On the seventeenth, the office manager was putting in overtime. There was an explosion, and she was killed.”
“The cause of the explosion?”
“Something to do with a leaking gas line—at least that’s what the police said. We weren’t satisfied with their investigation, so we sent an operative back there to ask around. A woman who was working in an office across the street noticed a man running away from the building a few minutes before it blew, but it was dark and she couldn’t see him very well.”
“You took that information to the police, of course.”
“And they said yeah, sure, thanks a lot. And back-burnered the case.”
As Hy continued speaking, he unclasped his hands and began making the wide, swooping gestures that are characteristic of those who fly airplanes. I had never had that mannerism before I became a pilot, but now I caught myself employing it with increasing frequency. It gave me the illusion I could soar even when earthbound.
“Okay,” he said. “We put it down as a one-time occurrence. But a month later there was another explosion in a small office in Houston. In the middle of the night, so nobody was killed, thank God, although a witness who was returning home late saw a male-sized figure running in the vicinity. The HPD said the explosion was deliberately rigged, and the FBI was called in, but they never came up with so much as a suspect.”
“And I take it no terrorist organization claimed credit for it.” In this post–September eleventh world, that was the logical assumption.
“No. The bomb wasn’t much of one—simple black powder with a primitive timing device. Guess he was still learning how to build them.”
“Obviously that wasn’t the end of it.”
I was surprised I hadn’t an inkling of what seemed to be a major problem, but I knew the reason Hy hadn’t told me about the explosions before this: RKI’s inflexible need-to-know rule. Even significant others or spouses didn’t need to know about attacks on the firm’s infrastructure. But why hadn’t I read about the explosions in the papers or seen something on the news?
Well, of course. The media hadn’t linked them, and individually they weren’t much of a story. Explosions in distant places—unless they’re massive or terrorist-related—rarely make the local newspapers.
Hy added, “The police reports’re all in the file.” He fell silent, staring out the window at the rain falling on San Francisco Bay.
I waited, letting him tell it in his own way and time.
“The next office he hit was Kansas City—again, no one on the premises, and again, someone seen running away. The KCPD techs lifted fingerprints, but they weren’t in any of the databases. The FBI began taking more of a serious interest. Our people worked hard at minimizing information passed on to the media. Not a good thing for our clients to realize that their security firm’s offices aren’t immune to attack.”
“And, again, the case was back-burnered.”
“After a while, yes.” Hy sat back down. “That’s when we went on the defensive: closed the smaller offices that weren’t worth policing, and put twenty-four-hour guards on those that were. For a while we thought he’d stopped, but the next year he went farther afield, to Mexico City. Guess he didn’t want to risk another bombing on US soil so soon after Kansas City. The Mexico City PD’s investigation wasn’t much—they really didn’t care about an attack on an American security firm. But the fingerprints they found matched those from Kansas City.
“After that the guy went underground for a few months, until the guard at our Miami office spotted someone sneaking out of the building and got the bomb squad there in time. No prints, no leads, and again we managed to control media coverage. Finally, last August, he hit our training camp. Blew up a bunch of the clunker cars we use for the new ops to practice evasionary driving.”
I thought back to the previous summer. I’d been working a case in the Paso Robles area, and Hy had been spending an unusual amount of time at the training camp in the southern California desert near El Centro.
“You call in the police?”
“Hell, no. We don’t even make the camp’s existence public. The Imperial County Sheriff’s Department knows it’s there, but most of the locals think it’s some secret government installation. Besides, as explosions go, it wasn’t much of one.”
“And since then?”
“Nothing. But I don’t believe for one minute that he’s quit. I feel like I’m sitting on a pile of dynamite, and so do Gage and Dan. This guy’s targeted us for some reason, and . . .” Hy spread his hands. “So will you take on this job for us? Find the bastard?”
I asked the obvious: “Why, when this has been going on for two years, are you only asking me now?”
“Dan was determined we handle it ourselves; you know how he feels about outsiders. He was opposed to us hiring you the few times we did. And Gage claimed it was too big a case for you, until I pointed out some examples of big cases you’ve solved. Frankly, I think he’s still pissed off at you for the way you outsmarted him down south years ago.”
I smiled. Before Hy joined the firm he’d taken on a job for them to negotiate the return of a kidnapped executive, but had disappeared along with the ransom money. Renshaw had hired me to find him—buying into my claim I held a grudge against Hy—so he could recover the money and then kill him. Instead I’d rescued both Hy and the executive from the kidnappers. Gage hated to be conned—especially by a woman.
I asked, “So how’d you convince them I was the one for the job?”
“As I said, I used examples. And reminded them that you’re an investigator, while none of us at RKI is; what we do is prevent crimes, and failing that, negotiate. We know now that we can’t handle this ourselves, and as far as the cops and FBI are concerned the cases’re cold. Besides, you’re an outsider—fresh perspective.”
“Okay,” I said. “Do you have any idea why this guy has targeted RKI?”
“No, but these explosions have been rigged by someone who’s very familiar with our operations. Maybe a disgruntled ex-employee who’s getting information from an insider.”
“Or he’s an insider himself. In any case, I’d need a good cover story in order to visit your offices and training camp and talk with personnel. Otherwise, my connection to you would make it pretty clear what I’m doing there.”
“Gage and Dan and I have talked about that. Your cover would be that you’re my new wife and want to learn the business.”
“A wife who just happens to own a detective agency.”
“Look, McCone, we’ve always kept our professional and our private lives separate. I doubt anyone would make the connection. Besides, this agency is owned by Sharon McCone, not Sharon Ripinsky—which is what we’d call you. The staff at our office here in the city know you, of course, but you’ve seldom visited headquarters or any of the other locations.”
“Still, somebody might recognize me. I’ve managed to keep my face off the TV and out of the papers for a while, but . . .”
“So we disguise you. Dye your hair blonde—”
“No, you don’t!” My fingertips went protectively to where my black hair brushed my shoulders.
He shrugged. “Cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“Not that particular bridge. We’re never crossing it.”
“Okay, okay.” He held his hands up placatingly. “So you’ll take it on?”
I considered. It struck me that we might be jeopardizing our marriage; neither Hy nor I responded well to authority, and in the investigator-client relationship both sides attempt to wield a fair amount of it. “Who would I report to?”
He smiled. “Knew you’d ask. Not me; I’d never subject you to that. You can take your pick—Gage or Dan.”
“Gage, then.” Better the one I’d had ample practice at manipulating.
“So it’s a deal?”
“Deal. I’ll have Ted draw up the contract. But I’ve got to warn you: since the job will take me away from day-to-day operations here and probably involve a fair amount of travel, I’m going to have to ask for more than the usual retainer.”
“Retainer?” Hy widened his eyes, all innocence. “How, when your husband is in need, can you charge—”
“Retainer. Ten thousand will do for now.”
“Surely you didn’t expect me to give a family discount?”
“I didn’t, but I had to disabuse Gage and Dan of the idea.”
“Well, I’m glad we’re all on the same page now.”
We both stood, and I went over and put my arms around him. He was wearing his old leather flight jacket, and I pressed my nose into it, breathing in its familiar aroma.
“So you’re off to San Diego?” I asked. RKI’s world headquarters were located in an office park in nearby La Jolla.
“Yeah. I should be back here by Thursday, latest.”
“You taking Two-Seven-Tango?” Our beautiful red-and-blue Cessna 172B.
“In this weather?” He gestured at the rain pelting down outside the big arching window of my office at the end of Pier 24½. The bay, and a lone tugboat churning by, looked dismal.
“It’s a high ceiling,” he added, “so I could fly, but I’m not a glutton for that kind of punishment. Southwest’s five o’clock flight, a beer, and some of those stale pretzels’ll suit me fine. Besides, you might need the plane when you start working on this.”
“Good. I’d rather entrust you to the airlines, pretzels and all.”
We kissed, and then he moved toward the door that opened onto the pier’s catwalk. “Read that file tonight, will you?” he said.
“What else do I have to do?” My tone was somewhat edgy, and I tried to balance it with a smile.
“You could dream of how you’re gonna spend RKI’s money.”
“Yeah. Dream of writing checks to contractors for the house renovation. I’d better read the file.”
I let myself into the apartment and shut the door, set on the glass coffee table my briefcase and the pizza I’d bought after leaving the pier. The one-bedroom unit on the top floor of RKI’s converted warehouse on Green Street at the base of Tel Hill was the firm’s former hospitality suite, reserved for clients who had reason to fear for their safety. A few years ago a drive-by shooter had attempted to take out one of those clients, spraying the warehouse’s brick façade with bullets and nearly hitting an innocent bystander. After that, Hy—who primarily worked out of San Francisco—had decided the company should shelter at-risk clients in a less conspicuous location: they’d bought a small apartment building in a nondescript neighborhood out in the Avenues as a safe house, and after that the Green Street apartment went unused. Except for now, when Hy and I occupied it while our house on Church Street was under renovation.
I turned on a table lamp, pulled the curtains shut against the February darkness. The light revealed a sterile living room: tan leather couch and chairs, white carpet and walls, motel art. The rest of the apartment was equally bland, and there was little to reflect Hy’s or my personalities or lifestyle. Most of the furniture and breakable things from the Church Street house were in storage while contractors worked to make the small earthquake cottage more habitable for two people.
We both hated the apartment, and spent whatever time we could at Hy’s ranch in the high desert country near the Nevada line or at Touchstone, our oceanside retreat in Mendocino County. But those places were too far away to commute from, either by plane or by car, on a daily basis. We’d been here since the first week of January, when renovations on the house began, and already we were chafing at our confinement—a confinement made more difficult by the building’s oppressive security. If I spent too much time there, I felt as if I were under house arrest.
And I missed my cats.
Ralph and Alice were used to going outdoors, so we’d decided that cooping them up in a small apartment would result in chaos. In addition, Ralph had diabetes and required twice-daily insulin shots, which were administered by Michelle Curley, the teenager who lived next door, because—okay, I admit it—I’m afraid of needles. Finally we’d left the cats with said teenager, in familiar territory where they would be well cared for and free to come and go as they pleased. ’Chelle reported they were doing well, aside from a definite hostility toward the workmen at the house, and they certainly seemed fine every time I stopped over to visit them and consult with the contractor. Last Friday, I’d found them sitting on the fence between the adjoining yards; when I patted them, they’d given me brief, friendly glances before turning evil eyes upon our workers.
I opened the pizza box, contemplated its contents, and went to the small kitchen for a glass of wine. Came back, contemplated again, and decided to wait a while before I ate. My briefcase was fat with the file Hy had presented me with, but I felt no desire to take it out and read it. Only a restlessness that made me pace the floor as Hy had done in my office.
I needed to get away from these white walls and the motel-style watercolors of mountain lakes and meadows. Although I was usually content when alone, tonight I needed company. I went to the phone and dialed my friend and sometime operative Rae Kelleher. Only an answering machine at the Sea Cliff home she shared with her husband, my former brother-in-law, country music star Ricky Savage. Only machines at Hank Zahn’s and Anne-Marie Altman’s—my married attorney friends who, because he’s a household slob and she’s a household perfectionist, live in separate flats in the same building. Only a machine at the apartment that my office manager, Ted Smalley, shared with his life partner, Neal Osborn. Only a machine at . . .
Where was everybody?
I leaned against the wall by the living room window, which looked out onto the rear alley, and pulled back the curtains. The rain had stopped. A lone light shone in the building across the way, shielded by blinds. A cat slunk through the shadows. A couple of buildings away, a garbage can lid thumped, and moments later a man jogged along in a peculiar, uneven gait—probably one of the city’s many scavengers who Dumpster-dived for the edible or useful.
I could go to a movie. No, too restless. Have dinner at one of the many restaurants in the neighborhood? Why, when the pizza—my favorite, Zia’s Lotsa Pepperoni—didn’t appeal? A drink at the brewpub around the corner that Hy and I occasionally visited? A walk? A drive?
No, no, and no.
Then I thought of my half sister, Robin Blackhawk. Robbie was in law school at UC–Berkeley, and for weeks she’d been trying to get me over there to see her redecorated apartment. I knew she studied hard on weeknights, but maybe she’d be willing to take a break and have dinner with me. Then I could come back and tackle the file.
Robbie was home, glad to hear from me, and said I should come right over, bring some wine, and she’d fix us exotic omelets. I put the pizza in the fridge, grabbed a chilled bottle of Deer Hill chardonnay, and left the apartment.
The guard on the desk in the lobby that night was Jimmy Banks, a student at USF who was putting himself through a graduate program in history by working part time at RKI. I liked Jimmy a lot, and had occasionally sat at the desk with him, discussing San Francisco history. I’m something of a local history buff, while Jimmy was just getting to know the city. He was especially fascinated by my tales of the wild days of the Barbary Coast and the Gold Dust Saloon, which had stood on this lot before they knocked it down to build the warehouse.
Jimmy looked up from his textbook and waved at me as I went out the door. When I was in college, I’d also worked as a security guard, studying between rounds at various office buildings both here and in Oakland. At the time, I’d thought I was going to be a sociologist—although just what I’d do in the field was unclear. The security job had led me into investigation when I’d discovered that there’s little need for sociologists who don’t possess advanced degrees. Strange, where circumstance takes you. I hoped Jimmy would be as fortunate.
My old red MG sat across the street. RKI had an underground garage, but this parking space was so convenient that I hadn’t bothered to put the car away in its slot. I was just taking my keys out when—
The percussive blast threw me against the car. I felt heat on my face, and my ears rang. When I looked back across the street, I saw smoke billowing from RKI’s building. The doors to the lobby had been torn off their hinges and were lying on the sidewalk, and glass rained down from the upstairs windows.
I scrambled around the MG, crouched in its shelter.
Another explosion, louder. It rocked the car, sending me off balance. I righted myself, peered over the hood, saw that its paint was blistering from the intense heat. Flames were shooting up from the building’s roof. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard people shouting, feet slapping on the pavement, and the sound of a siren in the distance.
Another blast, this one quiet compared to the others, but it was the proverbial straw. I ducked down as the building’s brick façade began to crumble.
Copyright © 2007 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust