The flight from the Palm Springs airport back to Burbank lasted thirty minutes. Kenny and I parted ways on the tarmac with nods of the head. He keeps all the clubs and gear at his place so the only luggage I had was my carry-on bag that had three dirty pairs of shirts and slacks and exactly two clean, unused, and neatly folded pairs.
It’s a bad week for a professional golfer when you’re bringing home clean clothes.
I picked up my old Ford Bronco from valet parking and headed south towards the Santa Monica Mountains, where Joniel’s huge modern glass and stone showplace jutted out into the void just below Mulholland Drive. I’d left the Bronco’s removable hard-top hanging up in my garage like usual and chugged along with car exhaust, the greasy/sweet smell of taco stands, and occasional ocean breezes mixing and swirling and teasing my nostrils. Southern California was made for convertibles. Driving up Coldwater Canyon the air felt soft and a little cool and the traffic was unusually light.
One advantage to having a somewhat dented, rusted, vintage truck in this area is I don’t have to worry much about it being stolen. There’s no stereo visible because I use an iPod and plug it into an amplifier hidden under the driver’s seat. The rims are plain and white. No satellite radio, no DVD player, no twelve-way adjustable seats. If a thief ever looked under the hood, however, he might have second thoughts. I had long ago replaced the tired, underpowered 302 cubic inch engine the Bronco was born with in 1969 with a new fuel-injected, computer tweaked 351. Like the song goes, ain’t no mountain high enough. I like knowing the juice is there when I need it.
There are some great places to live in and around Los Angeles, if you have the money. The Valley is for porn stars and the worker bees who really keep the entertainment industry humming. Los Feliz and the Hollywood Hills are for the funky, artistic types like writers, TV actors, and independent film-makers. Malibu is home of the has-beens and the up-and-comers. Beverly Hills tends to be populated by the studio executives who want to brush shoulders with the biggest stars. And Hancock Park is for the biggest stars trying to get away from the studio executives.
Joniel lived above it all.
As I neared his house I ran into a traffic jam. Cops were out, directing traffic through the cluster of news vans, satellite trucks, and photographers. Lit by blindingly bright lights, reporters stood hip-to-hip along Mulholland, speaking earnestly into camera lenses, as wide-eyed tourists, local gawkers, and irate neighbors made their painfully slow way past.
After creeping along at a pace of about two-feet a minute, I finally pulled up to the menacing twelve-foot tall metal gates at the entrance to his driveway, told the cop there I was expected, and pressed a button on the intercom panel, flipping the bird at the fisheye lens camera. Everyone who’s anyone in L.A. has a gated drive.
The gate started with a jerk then smoothly rolled open. All of a sudden, flashbulbs exploded like machinegun fire, with no let up until the gate drew closed behind me.
Small lanterns illuminated the driveway as it curved downward and to the left, where the enormous house was hidden from view. I smelled oranges and a pungent, sweet flower of some kind. The landscaping was lush and exotic.
He was standing at the end of the drive, out of view of the mass of media , looking just as I’d last seen him; phone to his head, talking emphatically to someone. He flipped the phone shut as I pulled up.
When are you going to get a real ride, man? That thing’s trash.
I glanced over at a Ferrari F430 crouched malevolently on the pavement, like a ferocious predator about to spring, one of a half-dozen cars he owned worth all together a few million bucks.
It’ll take that sissy-machine in the quarter any day. Just name the time and place.
He made a phsssh sound and rolled his eyes.
Yeah, whatever. Man, you help me out of this and I just might give you one of my Italian stallions. Maybe I’ll even let you take your pick.
I suddenly got a burning sensation in the pit of my stomach, like when there’s a voice-mail message from the IRS, or the girlfriend starts a sentence with the words, I don’t understand, I’m never more than a day or two late…
I hoped he was kidding. Those cars average about 250k each. That’s a lot of help he’s wanting.
He motioned skyward with his phone, where a half-dozen helicopters vied for position.
Come on inside. They been hovering overhead all day like vultures waiting for someone to die.
As I peered up through the overhanging tree limbs that shielded us from their telephoto lenses, I thought, someone already has.
We went in through the warehouse-sized garage in which sat a few more shiny candy-colored exotic sports cars including a Sapphire blue Aston Martin convertible – which happens to be my fantasy car -- a Cadillac Escalade, a bright yellow Hummer and a row of motorcycles on display stands. My Reeboks squeaked against the polished tile floor of the garage. There was not a speck of dust anywhere. Double glass-doors led directly into the game room, where Joniel spent most of his time and where usually, this night excepted, there were a handful of buddies and luscious women hanging out, playing pool or Playstation.
In fact, of all the times I’ve been here, I couldn’t ever remember Joniel being alone.
To our right, a ten-foot high wall of glass displayed the entire San Fernando Valley, twinkling with streetlights and headlights. Another wall was filled with large plasma-screen TV’s, most of which were featuring either sporting events, porn, or cartoons. I found it momentarily odd that not one was tuned to a news channel. On second thought, maybe not so odd.
Listen Joniel, before you say anything else you need to understand something…
He waved me off.
I know, I know man. You’re not a lawyer…
Not just that. Not only am I not a lawyer, but nothing you tell me is protected by attorney client privilege. What that means is I could be subpoenaed to testify and anything said here can be used as evidence.
He turned around and fixed me with a look.
Evidence? Man, you think I did it. Jesus…
Look, before we even get into that, I just want to make sure you understand the situation. Call your attorney and ask them if you should be doing this…
That was him on the phone just now. He didn’t want me to talk to you.
But I told him I was going to. I pay him, I call the shots. That simple.
I started to say something like, but you pay him to give you good legal advice, or but you pay him because you’re not a lawyer and this stuff you’re in is serious, but instead I just asked,
He made the phsssh sound again.
Cause you’re good at finding things out that sometimes even police and lawyers and all can’t find out. That little girl that was missing. That dude took everybody’s money. You found them. You know people. You know how to work quiet in this business, low profile shit. Under the radar. No press conferences. Not trying to get famous or nothing. Lawyers, they just want the big case so they can get a show on cable. You got skills and a shut mouth, man, and I need that sort of thing right now.
But Joniel, near as I can tell, and trust me, other than seeing a few news reports on TV, I don’t know much about this situation yet, but near as I can tell, you’re a murder suspect. That’s not some theft or a missing person or a traffic ticket. It’s not so easy to fix a murder rap. What in the world do you think I can do to help?
His eyes flashed anger.
Man, what you think? Find who the hell set me up!
He turned away and let out a long breath. Joniel Baker was famous for never, ever, no matter what, showing emotion. Once last season, a hack minor-league call-up pitcher plinked him two straight times after Joniel went yard in his first at-bat. Now, after the first hit-by-pitch, about fifty-percent of all major league sluggers would’ve at least glared. Not Joniel. After the second thumping, about ninety-nine percent would’ve stormed the mound and pummeled the little jerk into the dirt. Not Joniel. He just trotted to first base both times, looking like he’d just drawn a walk, like he wasn’t sporting two Rawlings tattoos on his arm and thigh.
Maybe, I thought, that reputation was just Joniel Baker the athlete. The performer. Maybe this was Joniel Baker the human being.
Or Joniel Baker the guy with a big ugly secret. Something in my psyche, maybe because my dad was a cop, is always just a little cynical.
He walked over to a large refrigerator, opened it, and got one of those tiny little designer caffeine drinks that cost too much.
Got any vodka?
You know I do. Goose?
He pulled a bottle of Grey Goose from the freezer and set it on the bar top. Frost formed instantly on the frozen bottle and a fog of vapor lifted into the warmer air around it like a wraith searching for a new place to haunt.
I filled the glass halfway and almost drained it with one swallow. The icy liquor sliced into my brain like a bone saw. I filled it up again and sat on one of the big white leather couches. Joniel had returned to his normal composed mien. He was staring at the bank of TV screens, waiting for me to talk.
I realized on the drive up that my overall concern wasn’t for Joniel. He had enough money to buy an army of lawyers and private investigators. He’d be fine, so long as he didn’t do it. And maybe even if he did.
My concern was that young girl who never did a bad thing to anyone in her short life. The girl who told me a story at someone’s party one night, as we sat on the couch and watched the gaggle of adorers hang on every word Joniel was uttering, about trying to save the life of a rabbit she’d found that had been opened up by some wild animal and left for dead. She’d cleaned its wounds, tucked everything back where she thought it went, and sewed the poor thing up with her mother’s needle and thread. It died three days later.
Holly was seven at the time. Fifteen or so years later, she still got tears in her eyes while remembering.
A thought formed in my mind as I watched the droplets of condensation meander down the outside of the crystal tumbler. Joniel wanted me to help find out who set him up. If I took that request at face value it meant he really didn’t kill Holly. On the other hand, it could be a bullshit way of looking innocent when his lawyers marched me onto the stand to testify that he did, in fact, hire me to find the real killer. I mean, if O.J. Simpson had followed up on his vow to never stop searching for whoever killed his wife, maybe most people wouldn’t still be thinking he’s a guilty SOB. Instead he spent a lot of time playing a lot of golf. Badly. Every time I think of O.J., I still get pissed off. At the legal system. At that idiotic, vain judge. At those idiotic, vain lawyers. At all the people who chose to sacrifice justice for two people in order to make a straightforward murder case into a statement about racist cops and the persecution of minorities.
Joniel must’ve gotten tired of all that silence. He turned back to me and changed the subject.
What about that con man you went after, what’s his name?
Yeah, Souther. Damn thief. Glad I never had dealings with him. You get that money back?
I thought about all the red tape, the plane trips, the legal fees, the myriad bank accounts he’d set up, the dummy corporations, the hours and hours and hours of effort.
Not yet. I haven’t given up, though.
I could still picture his smug face when I finally caught up with him. Congratulations, Huck, he said. You won’t find a penny.
He was wrong. I found it all. I just haven’t been able to get it away from the crooked bankers and lawyers who help guys like Souther do what they do. Thanks to my testimony he drew a four-year prison sentence for embezzlement and mail fraud. And while he sits in a minimum security Club Fed, those self-same bankers and lawyers are making damn sure his money, my money, is drawing a healthy rate of return.
This is how it went down. Two years ago, a number of high-profile athletes and Hollywood stars got sucked into an investment scheme by a really smart, really slick, really believable con man. This guy, Randy Souther, had all the tools. Harvard business school degree. Maserati. Mansion in the Palisades. Surrounded by women who made your heart skip a beat just by entering the room. I mean real walking Viagras. He seemingly came out of nowhere but quickly built up a clientele that looked like the guest list at SkyBar, where he also happened to do much of his schmoozing.
And schmooze he could, man. He was passionate and exuberant and could tell you exactly why K-Mart was under-priced by at least twenty bucks a share while Boeing was overdue for a fall. He knew the numbers, he knew the corporate structures, hell, he knew the names of the CEO’s kids. The folks who signed up with his investment group early were bragging about eighty, ninety, even a hundred twenty-five percent returns on their money.
Souther was lauded in all the L.A. area glossies as a stock-picking genius along the lines of Warren Buffett, but unlike that irascible old Oracle of Omaha, Souther spent money hand over fist. Best of everything. First kid on the block. You get the picture. He was also secretive about his trades because, he said, if other fund managers copied his techniques, the phenomenal returns he was getting would be diluted.
It was a disaster waiting to happen. The numbers on everyone’s monthly statements continued climbing up Mount Everest with young, handsome, and dashing Randy Souther in the starring role of Tensing Norgay. The air got so thin up there no one could see the bottom.
Not even me.
I was in it to the tune of six-hundred grand. My entire life savings. Everything I’d won and managed to not spent. After eight months, Souther had added another five-hundred forty thousand to the balance. It was a heady time. I felt like one smart bastard.
It may surprise you to know that not all professional golfers make millions of dollars a year. It’s the hardest thing on earth to get, and priceless to those who do, but a PGA tour card is not a permit to print money. The bottom fourth of qualified players barely earn enough to cover their costs.
The key is making the cut. No cut, no money. Make the cut and you’ve made a pretty good paycheck, even if you finish dead last on Sunday. String enough of those together and voila! -- you’re in the middle six figures without ever winning a tournament. As long as you finish the year in the top 125 money-makers, you get a card to play next year. But we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, are self-employed. Subtract the caddy’s share and agent’s cut and coach’s fees and business manager and travel expenses and health insurance and there are those duffers on tour you might catch a glimpse of on any given Sunday who are hanging on financially by the skin of their teeth. Some familiar names, even. Endorsements help but if you’re not a Tiger or Phil or Sergio there aren’t many car companies banging down your door holding checks with lots of zeroes on them. The income from that little shoe company logo on my shirt is just about what a minimum-wage worker makes a year in one of their stores.
But most of us don’t play golf to get rich. Most of us play golf because we can’t bear the thought of doing anything else. I’d really hate to have to work for a living.
Sportscenter came on one of the big TVs. I watched clips of Tiger and K.J. and Lefty, half holding my breath for the highlight shot of my eagle. Nope. Missed the cut for the second time that day.
It occurred to me, and not for the first time that day, that I didn’t really know Joniel all that well. Maybe not even well enough to judge whether he was capable of murder. After all, who of us ever thought the affable rental car pitch man and former Heisman Trophy winner was before those two young lives were snuffed out with a couple dozen slashes of a really sharp knife? Oops, sorry, he was acquitted of their murders, I know. It was a civil court that found him responsible for their deaths. Big difference.
Joniel and I had hung out at this beautiful mansion occasionally, had a few drinks, ran into each other at bars or events, but it’s not like we’d ever had a warm-and-fuzzy moment of deep talk before. But, you know, it really didn’t matter at this stage in the game whether I believed Joniel was innocent.
I wanted to know who killed Holly. I’m a sucker for a woman in trouble.
Even if she’s dead.
If the LAPD was focusing on Joniel as their lead suspect, or Person of Interest as they now call it to avoid lawsuits from suspects who don’t get convicted, then I was pretty sure they weren’t looking very hard for anyone else. That’s just the way homicide detectives are. They’re essentially trained to follow the principal of Occam’s razor; the simplest solution is usually the right one. They like to solve the case quickly, get the bad guy off the streets, and pick up the next folder on that huge stack piling up on their desk and start working the next one. That’s not to say they won’t entertain a secondary theory, but in my experience they aren’t too eager to cast a wider net when they think the biggest fish is already in the boat. And my experience was growing up watching probably one of the best and certainly one of the worst homicide detectives to ever carry a shield.
I had two weeks before my next tournament. I had the time to look into things. What I didn’t have was the money. Thanks to Souther, I was almost broke. Between this year and last, I’d missed three straight cuts and was already sweating whether I’d pull it together in time to keep my card, or whether I’d be headed back to that singularly dreaded torture chamber of self-flagellation known as Qualifying School.
And the season had barely started.
I got up for another vodka. Joniel was getting impatient, sucking at his teeth and flipping one of about a hundred different remote controls that lay around the room in the air. I reached out and caught it in mid-flip and sat on the table directly in front of him to lay things out.
Here’s how it’ll work. First, stay off the phone. You’re probably already bugged, even if they can’t use it in court, just to get leads from you. Even your cell. Digital is almost impossible to tap but don’t take the chance. You can conduct normal business and bullshit on it, but anything regarding this case you should use one of your boys to get messages to people or meet them in person. Two, if your lawyer hires me on as a private investigator, then the information I come up with is probably protected by attorney-client privilege. And that includes our conversations.
He looked dubious to say the least.
And you can just call yourself a private investigator? Just like that?
Actually, I am a private investigator. I got a license a few years ago. It’s nothing in California, really, to get one.
That was the truth. All you have to be is 18, have no criminal record, and take a class for a few hours. That’s it. I needed a P.I. license to get access to some state records when I was trying to track down Souther. It’s come in handy a few times since then. It’s also gotten me in trouble a few times since then. I was hoping this one wouldn’t turn out that way, too.
So, we gotta deal?
I need some cash upfront. Expenses.
Wanna know how much I cost?
He shook his head.
Naw, man. Send my guy a bill.
Alright, question number one. Who hates you enough to frame you for murder?
Joniel slouched back into the couch and pulled a slender cigar tube out of his jacket pocket. He clipped and lit the Dunhill, fixing me with a steady gaze for the first time since I got there.
This thing gonna work, you gotta quit with the bullshit, man. Either you trust me or you don’t.
He sent a cloud of blue smoke towards the ceiling.
That ain’t your first question.