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Sample of DEADLY SECRETS

Cal Corwin, Private Eye

BOOK 5

January, 2006. San Francisco, California.

 

California “Cal” Corwin hated giving people bad news, especially on a Monday. It was the worst part of a private eye’s job. “Mrs. Devlin, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your husband is not cheating on you.”

With anyone else, this would be good news, but Cal’s client obviously wanted a certain specific result.

She was about to be frustrated.

The woman who peered back across the top of Cal’s wide wooden desk was a fifty-something cougar who’d no doubt passed for thirty-nine for many years, aided by soft lighting and superb plastic surgery. Her elegant wardrobe and stunning jewelry ensemble cost as much as the restored Victorian house-turned-office they were sitting in. The woman was beautiful, but in a detached, icy, frozen-faced sort of way. Her perfectly dyed blonde hair framed a face that dared not wrinkle without permission—and if the woman herself seemed cold, her brilliant blue eyes embodied the heart of a mile-thick glacier.

The young man sitting beside her—hell, let’s be honest, an overgrown boy—sported his own crop of precious metals and jewels. Holding the ice queen’s lacquer-nailed hand—palm up, in the submissive position, Cal noted—he glanced at the woman nervously, and then at Cal. Cal knew from her investigation that this fawn had only recently dropped out of a local community college after taking up this highly profitable relationship.

“Are you sure he’s not cheating on…on her?” he asked, jerking his chin toward his mistress as if he had to specify the subject of his question.

Cal ignored the kid and fought to keep her face neutral. “Ma’am, there’s nothing there. Nothing to find. Your husband is one of the most respected and skilled cardiovascular surgeons on the West Coast. He does keep long hours, but unless he’s banging the staff in fifteen-minute increments between surgeries, I’m sorry, he’s simply working.”

Mrs. Devlin regarded Cal coolly. “I hope you don’t believe a weak declaration like that justifies your fee. I paid you to find something—and you’ve failed.”

Conversations like this with Devlin had made it clear that what the client really wanted was for Cal to manufacture evidence, for example by taking photos that implied he was inappropriately affectionate with his colleagues. It wasn’t that hard to do. Pay a hooker to grab and kiss him on the street, or to approach him in his car. Take a hundred shots and pick the most incriminating one.

With jobs like this, the sleaze just kept getting deeper, but Cal refused to set up an innocent man, no matter the paycheck.

Hiding her frustration, Cal flipped open the folder on her desk. She pulled out a thick sheaf of photographs that either she or one of the Estridge brothers—Meat and Manson, the M&Ms—had taken over the previous two weeks. She also pulled out a log of the activities of the allegedly unfaithful husband. “This is his routine. Here are surveillance photographs, four per hour minimum. Note the time stamps.”

The kid pawed through them as if eager to catch a glimpse of something scandalous. Likely an accomplished peruser of pornography, it didn’t take him more than a few seconds to determine they lacked what they sought. He glared at Cal in confusion, perhaps even a hint of desperation.

Mrs. Devlin hadn’t even glanced at the materials before her. “What about Tuesday and Thursday nights, Miss Corwin? He told me he volunteers at St. Luke’s Hospital, but I know that isn’t true.”

“Because you called and checked on him,” Cal said finishing the woman’s thoughts. She pulled a single photo from the pile that she had taken personally, with some difficulty. It showed the husband in question working intently on something, a long wooden instrument in his hand. He appeared to have a dirty lab coat on.

No, actually, a smock.

“Is he…painting?” Devlin said with a look of shock, even disgust, jerking her hand from the clutches of her pet fawn as if this were worse by far than being presented with photographs of her husband under a pile of naked teenaged girls slathered in baby oil.

“He’s been taking classes,” Cal told her. “Basic oil painting, still-lifes mostly. He’s not half bad, as far as I can tell.”

“But why would he do such a thing?” the woman asked, nonplussed. “Why would he engage in such a…such a…pointless, childish activity?”

Interesting, that you’re asking why he’d take up a “pointless, childish” hobby rather than why he felt the need to keep it secret, Cal thought. That speaks volumes about the poor man and how he views you—and you, him.

The kid reached out to grasp Mrs. Devlin’s hand again. “Surely in these classes…the art classes, they painted other things? Nudes? That would be cheating in a sense, wouldn’t it? That old man staring all night at the body of some naked woman?” His face lit up with excitement. “Better yet, a man? Maybe he’s secretly gay!”

Cal stiffened, disgusted by the kid’s naked desire to destroy a good man. She spoke tonelessly, poker-faced in order not to insult her paying client. “No nudes as far as I can tell. Maybe in a future class.”

The woman obviously picked up on Cal’s mood. She stood abruptly as the kid squeaked in surprise. The glaciers in her face glared down at Cal. “I trust our business here is done. Not to my satisfaction, but evidently to yours.”

Cal kept her seat. “Not quite,” she said, pulling out a bill she had prepared early, judging that this would be the end of this case. She slid the papers across the desk. “This is an itemized list of my expenses and hourly rate. Your retainer covered the majority of the investigative cost, but not all.”

The woman didn’t even deign to acknowledge the paper, simply stared back at Cal. “Pay her, Jeremy,” she said. Devlin turned abruptly and marched away and out the front door.

An awkward moment later, the boy reached out and took the bill, counted out a dozen Benjamins and dropped them on the desk, trying to imitate his mistress in her disdain.

Cal laughed. “You better run along unless you want to find yourself back at community college, Jeremy.”

This horrific idea shattered his brittle cool and he raced out the door after Devlin.

I keep saying I won’t take these jobs, Cal thought, shaking her head. Let other private eyes do infidelity cases. I’ll stick to work that doesn’t drip with slimy rancor.

Still, she had to pay bills. Principles were nice, but work was work. She wouldn’t have taken Devlin’s case except the money was so good, and California Investigations hadn’t exactly been lighting up the private eye world lately. Skip-tracing and serving legal documents had kept her afloat, but if she didn’t get something real soon, she might have to do more infidelity cases. They were the most common, and the most lucrative legit jobs—and she refused to take the shady ones, like corporate espionage.

Hell, she might even have to advertise, like an ambulance chaser. “Do you suspect your spouse is cheating on you? Well, give Cal Corwin a call at…”

She shuddered at the thought.

Her phone rang as she was about to pour herself another cup of coffee. She saw a number she knew well on the caller ID. Sergei Volkov, her godfather.

“Dyadya,” Cal said, calling the man uncle affectionately in Russian. “Are you missing me at the poker tables?”

“Nyet, Solntse,” he answered in his heavy accent, replying with his own pet name for her—sunshine.

“Well, that just hurts.”

“I miss you as always,” the old man continued, “but not at my tables. They are not for you right now. I wish to hold you to your promise, for your own sake. You haven’t been playing somewhere else, have you?”

Cal closed her eyes and remembered losing Madge, her 1968 Mustang California Special—her dead father’s car—on a reckless bet months before. She’d been arrogant and too eager to put the other player in her place, and had paid the price.

Fortunately, she’d been able to get the car back—but it had cost. “No, I’m not playing anywhere else. I’m on the wagon for the full six months like I promised, and then I’ll be back, as good as ever.”

“Or you could quit forever.”

That prospect felt like a stiletto in her brain. Never to touch the felt, turn the cards, shuffle the chips? Might as well give up life itself. “No, Sergei. I can’t.”

“I know.” He paused. “Until then, you should stay busy. Get your adrenaline fix some other way.”

“What do you think I’ve been trying to do? But it’s all shit. Adultery cases. Makes me feel filthy.”

“I think I can help you,” said Sergei, “and you do me a favor by helping good friend of mine.”

“Remember what happened last time I did a favor for you?”

“Yes, you do good. You find a woman-killer.”

“And ended up fingering her to your mob buddies, who whacked her. I’m not playing that game again.”

“This case is not like that.”

“Promise?”

“Cross my heart, solntse. No whacking.”

“Letterman would have a field day with you, Sergei.”

“I don’t know. I watch Leno.”

Of course he did. To comedy, Letterman was a surgeon, Leno a butcher. Sergei was more a butcher type of guy.

“Okay. So, what’s your case?”

“Not mine. Friends. They have problem I believe you can help them with.”

Cal sat a little straighter. It’d be good to go right into another case—if it weren’t more filthy crap. “What do they need?”

“I let friends tell you their own problems. Not my place to speak for them.”

“Fine,” said Cal with a roll of her eyes. “Do you have a name and number for these friends of yours? They’d better not be mobbed up.”

“No mob. The name is Nikolai and Lydia Mikhailov,” Sergei said, and recited a telephone number. “These are not Bratva. They are my friends. People of respect and dignity. They are also people of some means, so do not skimp your fee on my behalf. They can pay well. They will expect your call.”

A slight smile touched her lips. “In that case, I’ll call them now. And Sergei?”

“Yes?”

“Spasibo.”

She could hear the answering smile in his voice. “No, I thank you in advance for helping my friends.”

Damn. The man sure knew how to lay an obligation on someone. Very Russian.

She dialed. After two rings, a woman with a rich earthy voice and a hint of a Slavic accent answered. “Hello?”

“Yes, is this Lydia Mikhailov?”

“It is. Who is this?”

“I’m Cal Corwin, a private investigator. A friend of Sergei Volkov.”

The woman released a pent-up breath at the other end. “Yes, thank you so much for calling, Miss Corwin.”

“Perhaps we should set up an appointment to meet. I’m free the rest of the day.”

“Would it inconvenience you too much to come to our home right away? The matter in question is of greatest urgency to us.”

“Of course.” Cal had no problem meeting clients in their homes. It gave her greater insight. As in poker, everyone had tells. A home shed them like leaves. She took down an Outer Richmond address —the district in the City, not Richmond across the bay—and could see by the street and number that it was close to the ocean. Pricey. Sergei had meant what he said about his friends being of “some means.”

Cal told Mrs. Mikhailov she’d be there as soon as she could. As she paused on her way through the empty walkout basement and into the private parking lot behind, she didn’t see her semi-assistant, Mickey Tucker. The computer room was empty—empty being a grossly inaccurate term for a room filled with trash and electronic equipment, but grossly was right on the money.

She pushed aside her annoyance. She couldn’t expect him to keep regular hours unless he was working on a specific case, and the Devlin job had involved very little online investigation. In slow times, Mickey’s pay consisted of this crash-and-gaming pad, food and caffeine.

However, if this job turned out to be as lucrative as Sergei said, she’d pay Mickey—and crack the whip. Like a fat young steer, Mickey needed a crack of the whip now and again to get him moving—for his own good.

Grabbing the keys to Molly, her blue Subaru Impreza WRX rally car, she headed west through the quaint and charming neighborhoods of Dolores Heights and up into Twin Peaks. It wasn’t the fastest way, but it avoided some of the lunch rush, and the roads were a lot more fun. The usual overcast and sharp ocean breeze made it that much more interesting.

The homes grew steadily more expensive as she crossed over Golden Gate Park, drove west and neared the ocean. While most of the houses were built so close many touched their neighbors and fronted directly on the gridlike streets, the detached Queen Anne she approached sported an actual yard around its four stories, black roof, and white wooden siding with yellow trim. Mid seven figures, she estimated. After parking in the driveway, she stood and gazed a moment in appreciation, mentally raising the rate she planned to charge.

A brass doorknocker in the shape of a hammer striking an anvil brought a short, elderly but bright-eyed and spry woman to the front door. She didn’t look like a maid or housekeeper. The family either answered their own door, or this was an exception for Cal.

“Mrs. Mikhailov?” Cal asked. “I’m Cal Corwin. We spoke on the phone earlier?”

“Yes,” the woman said with a strained smile, opening the door wide. “Please come in. Thank you for meeting us. Call me Lydia.”

Cal stepped inside onto the creaky but immaculate floorboards. The woman surveyed the street before closing the door, as if checking for watchers. Cal felt her mind shift into a higher gear. This certainly didn’t feel like a “catch my spouse cheating” vibe. Lydia was concerned—perhaps even frightened.

“This way,” said Lydia, leading her deeper into the house. “My husband is in the sun room.”

They walked through an interior filled with pictures and heirlooms, to a cozy conservatory addition projecting from the southwest corner of the house. Modern triple-paned windows stretched from floor to ceiling on three sides, and warm sunlight bathed every surface. A tasteful riot of plants and flowers accented, but did not overwhelm, the sunny room.

A lean, balding man set a book aside and stood to greet her. Cal guessed he was a vigorous seventy-five or so.

“Miss Corwin,” the man said with a smile and a stronger Russian accent than his wife. “I am Nikolai Mikhailov. Thank you so much for coming.” He reached out and took Cal’s hand in both of his.

“Thank you. Sergei thought I might be of assistance to both of you.”

The man’s face clouded. “Of course. Please sit, Miss Corwin.” When Cal did so the man resumed his chair across from her. He set the book aside and Cal saw it was something by Asimov.

“Might I offer you something to drink?” Lydia said.

“Coffee, please,” Cal said and Lydia retrieved a tray obviously prepared in advance. The rich aroma of expensive brew filled the room as the woman poured.

Cal took a sip. “Jamaican Blue?”

Nikolai nodded. “You know coffee.”

“A little.” She savored the delicious, smooth flavor while Lydia poured her own cup. Nikolai already had a glass of hot tea, Russian style, at his elbow. “Perhaps you should tell me how I might be of assistance.”

Nikolai opened his mouth to speak when Cal’s phone rang. She grunted an apology and pulled it out. Her mother. She declined the call. Starlight had been getting more and more needy lately, calling Cal for no reason a half dozen times a day. She set the phone on silent and slid it into an inner blazer pocket. “Sorry. Please go on.”

“It is our son,” said Nikolai. “He is missing.”

Cal briefly visualized a child, and then reminded herself of the couples’ age. “How old is he?”

“Thirty-two.”

Cal took notes. “What’s his name?”

“Evan Nicholas Mikhailov,” answered Nikolai, pronouncing Evan in the American way. “In some older records he may be known as Ivan Nikolaievich.”

“Why the difference?”

“Because we wanted our son to have an American name. We came to this country before the Soviet Union fell. It cost us dearly to do so. There was no going back. Even today, many in the motherland consider us traitors. Evan was young at the time and it was a simple matter to file paperwork to legally change his name.”

“I see,” said Cal. “What makes you think he’s missing?”

“He hasn’t called in two days,” Lydia said. “And before you remind me of my son’s age, please understand, this is extremely out of character for him. We speak every day, faithfully…until now.”

Cal nodded. “Have you filed a Missing Persons report with the police?”

“We have,” said Nikolai, “but our son is an adult, and a man. We have no evidence of foul play for them. They give us platitudes, but cases like these, they are not a high priority.”

“What does your son do for a living?”

“He’s a chemical engineer,” said Lydia. “He specializes in the extraction, collection and processing of natural gas.”

“I wouldn’t think he’d have much work around here,” said Cal.

Lydia shook her head. “No, he travels a great deal, consulting, mostly to Asia, he has told us.”

“Where was he last seen for sure? Here, or overseas?”

“He had just returned,” said Nikolai. “He phoned and said he would come by for dinner to tell us about it, but never showed. That was Saturday night.”

“Has he mentioned having any trouble with anyone?”

Both shook their heads.

“Has he seemed depressed or troubled lately?”

Both shook their heads.

“Does he have a girlfriend?”

Nikolai shook his head while at the same time Lydia nodded. They seemed surprised at their mutual disagreement.

“A girlfriend?” asked Nikolai. “Who?”

Lydia shrugged. “I don’t know, but a man acts differently when he is involved with a woman. I know my son. He definitely had someone.”

“So, neither of you met this woman?”

Both shook their heads. Nikolai frowned at his wife. “You knew, but did not ask?”

“I thought we would discuss it at dinner Saturday.”

Cal scribbled in her notebook. “You’ve tried everything to contact him?”

“Yes,” answered Lydia. “He doesn’t answer his phones or email. I’ve left many messages.”

“Sorry to have to ask obvious questions, but have you checked his home?”

“Yes, we checked it, as well as his office. It doesn’t look like he’s been there recently.”

“You mean, like he never got there after he landed?”

“That was our impression. You may have a different one.”

“Has he been having any financial or legal problems?”

“Not that we are aware of,” said Nikolai. “Evan told us business was good—very good, he said. He had plenty of money, and he was proud of it, not to take anything from us. Of course, we would have given him anything, but it is good for a young man to stand on his own feet.”

Cal’s phone vibrated. She ignored it again. “Could he have left the country again on short notice? Maybe something came up? Perhaps even he decided to go on a romantic getaway with his girlfriend?”

Both parents shook their heads, and Nikolai spoke. “You do not know Evan. That is not like him. He plans everything and lets us know. He also knows that we would worry and would never do that to us.”

Something tickled in the back of Cal’s mind. “Why would you worry about him?”

The couple clearly resisted the urge to exchange glances, and kept silent longer than was necessary to answer the question. “We have been through a great deal in our lives,” Nikolai eventually answered. “Evan knows this, and that there is evil in the world. Americans do not understand this, but it is true. Only someone who is naïve or does not care about his child would not worry every second of every day.”

Cal was sure they were hiding something and wondered why. She decided not to tip them off as she revised her view of the couple. They weren’t merely concerned parents. There was something deeper.

“You will help us?” asked Lydia hopefully.

There was no question she’d take the case. They were right about the police. The cops would put out the usual notices, but without evidence of a crime, that’s all they’d do. She needed the work, they needed her, and it wasn’t sleazy.

“Of course I will. I’ll need a recent photograph of your son. Also, keys to his home and office as well as written permission to enter and search anything he owns—properties, vehicles, everything. Oh, keys to his car too.”

“He didn’t own a car. If he needed one, he borrowed ours, or rented, or took a taxi.”

Cal scribbled that down. “I need all contact info you have for him as well as travel itineraries as far back as you have it. Also, a list of friends and acquaintances and their contact information.”

“We will give you all of that, though…friends? He never introduced us.”

“Fine, whatever you have. And I’ll need a retainer for ten thousand. Here’s my standard agreement.” Cal pulled out a contract for services. All of her printed contracts were “standard agreements,” though she had several versions with various rates. This one listed her highest.

After all, Sergei had told her not to give them a discount.

She fought the urge to do so anyway, the urge that always came up when someone blameless asked for her help. She’d worked pro bono a few times, and it seldom ended well. People didn’t value what they didn’t pay for, and they valued most what they’d paid for dearly.

Lydia glanced at the contract. “This is a pittance.” She lifted her eyes to bore into Cal’s. “I need your full commitment to finding my son.”

“You have it.”

“Nevertheless… I will give you a twenty-thousand-dollar bonus when you find him.”

Cal took a breath. “There’s no need—”

“Do not argue, Miss Corwin,” Nikolai said. “We believe in providing generous incentives to all in our employ.” He smiled. “Another thing I like about America. More carrot, less stick.”

“Let me get my checkbook.” Lydia stood and left.

Cal stood as well, peering curiously around the room at the exotic pictures and artwork, most of it Russian. “How is it that you know Sergei, Mr. Mikhailov?”

Nikolai smiled and sat back in his chair. “That is a story for another day, Miss Corwin.”

“The short version?”

The older man seemed to consider. “The Russian community here is not large. Everyone knows everyone.” With this non-answer, he went back to his Asimov.

Cal killed ten minutes examining the artwork until Lydia returned with a check and handed it over. With it she passed Cal a large envelope. “This contains everything you asked for.”

Cal ignored her vibrating phone again. “Thank you. I’ll be in touch.”

“I’ll see you to the door.”

As they walked through the rooms, Cal noticed photographs of the Mikhailov family of decades ago—a handsome Nikolai, a pretty, dark-haired Lydia, a serious child that must be Evan. There was also a photo of Nikolai at perhaps forty years of age in a uniform Cal didn’t recognize.

“Was your husband in the Soviet military?” Cal asked, pointing at the photo.

Lydia gave Cal a bemused look and hesitated, as if not sure how to answer. “Something like that.”

At the door, Cal held out her hand. “I’ll get right on this.”

The woman surprised Cal by giving her a heartfelt hug, and then without another word pushed Cal gently outside and closed the door. The deadbolt turned with a metallic clunk.

Cal stood for a moment on the ornate porch, thinking—of the check in her pocket, of little Ivan who became Evan, and of the things they weren’t telling her.

THE END of the Deadly Secrets sample.

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