Authors: Cheryl A Head
Copyright Â© 2016 Cheryl A. Head
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
Bywater Books First Edition: July 2016
E-Book ISBN: 978-1-61294-068-7
By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Bywater Books.
Cover designer: Ann McMan, TreeHouse Studio
PO Box 3671
Ann Arbor MI 48106-3671
This novel is a work of fiction. All characters and events described by the author are fictitious. No resemblance to real persons, dead or alive, is intended.
Thanks to my beta readers:
Veronica Flaggs and Robert McGarrah
and my fellow Writers Writing Group members:
Celeste Crenshaw, Dottye Williams,
Melanie Hatter and Traci Tait.
Special Thanks to the Bywater Books family:
Salem West, Marlo, Kelly Smith,
Ann McMan, Marianne K. Martin, and Nancy Squires
For ongoing writing love and support:
Angie Head, Leigh Mosley, Bettie Samuel,
Renee Bess and Marcia White.
A big shout out to Detroit
for my roots, tenacity and swagger.
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don't tell the truth
“Smiling Faces Sometimes”
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Charlie's chest clenched. Her lungs fought violently for air.
She shook her head, causing a cascade of pain.
Oooh . . . my head. What's happened? Where . . .?
Trying to remember, she reached for the ache but her bound hands thwarted the effort.
Shit. It was Barnes.
Cold crept along her hip bone, shoulder and ankle where the ground touched her. She felt a slight vibration accompanied by a faint sound. She strained to hear.
A truck . . . maybe a car. Must be near a road.
She swallowed hard, then let out a yell but her taped lips sent the scream ricocheting inside her throbbing head. A spasm of dread raced down her spine.
Oh God, help me.
With numbing fingers, she clawed at grass, mud, but nothing to grasp onto. Suddenly aware of her damp jeans and t-shirt, she hoped it wasn't blood.
Can't panic. Must focus.
Charlie tensed her body then relaxed, the way she'd taught others to do, and concentrated on what she could smell: earth, mildew, rust?
What is this place? How will anyone find me here? Mandy will find me. Oh, Don. Don will look for me. He's too pig-headed to give up.
Cold and unconsciousness threatened her.
“Ms. Mack, I see you've taught karate,” Don Rutkowski announced to the class of new agents at the Immigration and Naturalization
Service in Detroit. “So why don't you join me in a quick self-defense demonstration.”
Charlie's self-assurance lagged behind as she trudged to the front of the room, the eyes of the other recruits crawling her back. She wore the trainee uniform: a white polo shirt, beige belted trousers, gray cotton jacket and steel-toed shoes. Not the best gear for sparring.
“The most common mistake rookies make is to misjudge the potential of violence in our day-to-day work,” Don began. “It's true, most of our field work will involve routine investigation but we must be prepared for the person who becomes aggressive. So Mack, let's see your close-combat technique. You take the offense.”
Charlie picked up a long-handled flashlight from the equipment table and faced off with Don. The arrogant smirk on his face pissed her off. She lunged, swinging the light at Don's knee, but he deftly pivoted away from the blow, pulled the tail of her jacket over her head, and slung her to the floor. The room erupted in laughter. Charlie leapt to her feet, untangling from her jacket, and stood, red-faced, in front of her classmates.
Don smiled and invited her to try again. Charlie clamped the flashlight under her arm to zip up her jacket, then purposely dropped it at his feet. When Don glanced down, she swept her foot into his left leg, catching it with the steel toe of her shoe. He buckled, tried to steady himself, but it was too late. Charlie had him in a choke hold and he slumped to the floor. The room hushed.
“Okay,” Don said catching his breath. “What we learned here is never underestimate a smaller opponent.” He stood, giving Charlie a look of appraisal, and smirked again. “Mack, let's do one more. Here's the scenario: you're going door to door trying to find a witness, and I answer. So let's go,” he ordered.
Her confidence restored, Charlie got into the role: “I'm looking for a Mr. Patel. Does he live here?”
“No, Patel here, lady.” Don lifted the handgun from his holster and pointed it at her solar plexus. “Just Mr. Ruger.”
Charlie had frozen in place along with everyone else in the room.
“So what does a black belt do in this situation?” Don had asked sarcastically.
Someone reported his unorthodox lesson to the higher-ups, but Charlie never complained. A few days later, Don pulled her to the side to give her his highest compliment: “I'll say one thing for you, Mack. You're no crybaby.”
Yes. Don will find me, but first I have to stay alive.
Charlie flexed and released, concentrating on keeping her muscles warm and trying to loosen her bindings.
Mustn't fall asleep . . .
The bank clerk wanted a second piece of ID before Charlie could deposit the check made out to C.A. Mack Investigations.
“I've had an account with this bank for years.” Anger sprouted in the pit of her stomach.
“Well, I see you do have a long-standing account with us,” he peered at his computer screen. “But it's at our West Grand Boulevard branch, and it's our policy to verify account information. We're just being prudent, ma'am,” he said as an afterthought.
It was the word “prudent” that slowed the rise of her blood pressure. Three hours ago she'd prudently affixed an anti-theft bar across her steering wheel before entering Reliable Restaurant Supply's warehouse in Delray. She'd also clicked the car's audible alarm, twice.
Charlie shoved her investigator's ID across the marble threshold of the teller window. The teller studied the laminated card displaying her PI license number, her company name and the embossed seal of the State of Michigan under her photograph.
“Is it exciting being a private investigator, Ms. Mack?” he asked as his hands moved rapidly across the keyboard.
It was a question she answered often. People believed a PI's life was dramatic because of the depiction on TV. Sometimes she played up the misconception, but it had been a busy Monday morning and she was hungry and grumpy.
“No. We usually just ask people a lot of questions.”
The teller pulled a receipt from the printer and smiled. “Thank you for your business, ma'am.”
Detroit was having one of its marvelous summer days, warm enough to put the top down on the two-seater. The sun was steady but subdued and made the reds, yellows, and oranges of the trees sparkle with short-lived vitality. The air was mostly fresh todayâjust a hint of the enterprise along the riverâand this small corner of Delray held court like a European grand dame. But two blocks away the grandeur gave way to decay. Now the autumn glow revealed steps, roofs and people down on their luck.
Charlie sped east, heading downtown. Fort Street was wide, made for lanes of big, gas-guzzling cars. To the left was Mexicantown, on the right the expanse of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit to Canada. When she crossed Trumbull Avenue she peered toward the old Tiger Stadium. There were rumors developers would convert the former home of the Detroit Tigers, as well as the apocalyptic shell of the old train station on Michigan Avenue, into a bustling shopping complex with condos and resident amenities. But, as with so many plans for Detroit, probably nothing would come of it. In the last three decades, Detroit's decline had been tragic and highly public with a broad array of factors to blame. Bad policies, bad leadership, bad tax base, bad race relations, but through it all Detroiters maintained a scrappy determination to see their city reclaim its legacy of innovation.
She had a taste for a Greektown lamb gyro and called the office to take lunch orders. She skillfully maneuvered the one-way streets named after dead white men from Detroit's past, then avoided the bottleneck at Campus Martius Park by jogging right to West Larned Street and veering up to Monroe Avenue. When she spotted an open meter just a half block from the Pegasus Restaurant, she parked the roadster with one fluid motion. Thirty minutes later, she balanced her oversized purse and three bags containing Greek salads, gyros and an order of spanakopita and walked into the office.
Gil and Don were waiting for her. They hovered over Judy's desk in the reception area and grabbed the bags out of her hands.
“Hey wait, some of that is for me,” Judy yelled from her position over a file drawer.
“And the spinach pie is mine,” Charlie said.
Charlie surveyed Judy Novak's large, steel desk. One third of it
was covered with a half-dozen, silver-framed pictures of Judy's kids, husband and pets; the rest was claimed by pyramids of file folders.
“Where shall I put your lunch?”
“You can put it there, thanks.” Judy pointed at her empty in-box. “At least
appreciates me,” she said loud enough to be heard in the adjoining room.
Don and Gil had retreated to their desks in the bullpen to devour their Greek delicacies. Charlie dropped her purse and lunch atop the desk that had once been her father's and pulled out her chair. The office floor plan was open, with four desks arranged in a square, facing each other. A small, interior conference room with a frosted glass wall provided space for a private conversation or phone call.
The eating was done in complete silence until Judy began humming the signature song from
: “Food, glorious food, marvelous food, fabulous food.” Charlie noticed Don wiping at his mouth with a piece of his lunch bag and momentarily paused in her feast to drop a handful of napkins on his desk.
“Anybody ever mention to you that you're a control freak, Mack?” Don asked.
“Only you, Rutkowski,” Charlie replied, stabbing her plastic fork into a section of creamy spinach and feta.
She was quite aware of her Type A personality and had made an effort to tone it down since forming the agency with her two partners. On the face of it, the three seemed an unlikely trio but working together for eighteen months at the INS and then at the newly formed Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement Unit had forged a trusting bond.
“Thanks for the grub, Charlie,” Gil said, packing up his trash. “It hit the spot.”
Ignoring the napkins on his desk, Don again swabbed the greasy paper bag across his lips, stood and swished it into the wastebasket. “Yeah, thanks.” He took up position in front of the giant white board he'd insisted they buy. “Okay, Mack, give us the rundown on this restaurant thief case,” he ordered.
Judy rolled her eyes and Gil leaned back in his chair, putting one foot up on his desk. Don was a graduate of the men-should-drive-
meetings-and-cars school and the team usually deferred to him in those tasks. Charlie was chief investigator and president because it was her money they'd used to open the agency. That's why her name was on the door. Charlie gulped down the last piece of spinach pie and retrieved her notebook from her purse. “I've known the owner, Leonard Abrams, a long time,” she began. “He and my father served on boards together and he was a mentor to me when I was just out of college and doing public relations work. He's Canadian and his family has owned Reliable Restaurant Supply for more than forty years.”
“Well, as long as he doesn't try to pay us in Canadian dollars,” Don interrupted with his attempt at a joke.
Judy piped up. “I guess you haven't heard about the weak U.S. dollar, huh?”
Charlie continued before the two started sniping at each other. “Abrams brought in auditors after he got calls from several customers saying they had been shorted on their orders. Turns out one of his veteran account executives had set up an elaborate plan to steal inventory from big orders they thought wouldn't be missed. The scheme went on for at least nine months before the sales exec,” Charlie flipped through her notebook, “the name is Stringer, just disappeared. The auditors estimate the loss at more than a hundred thousand dollars.”
“Wow, that's lot of money,” Gil offered, “a Class D felony with a lot of jail time.”
Don turned to the white board. He'd already written: Client-Abrams. Workplace theft. Missing person-Stringer. Who else involved? $100,000+. “Yeah, the guy's got some real balls. Does Abrams want us to find him?”
“Yes. And it's her, Don.” Charlie said.
“Betcha didn't see that coming,” Judy quipped.
Don ignored Judy, turning to write: WOMAN!!!
“Where do we start?” Gil asked.
“Abrams wants us to find Stringer. We can start by interviewing his employees, maybe a few of his restaurant customers and anybody
else who can give us a sense of who Joyce Stringer is and where she may be. Don, I want you to join me on these interviews. Any reason we can't start tomorrow?”
“No,” Don said, adding Rutkowski and Mack to his white board notes.
“I'll set up the case file on your desktops,” Judy said, making notes. “Have you deposited the retainer, Charlie?”
“Yes, it's in the bank and we'll have expenses, so please track this one as a separate account.”
“How long do you think the investigation will take?” Gil asked.
Charlie thought a moment. “I told Abrams it might take a week or two but it could take longer. There was a bookkeeper in the scheme who's cooperating with Abrams. We'll need to speak with her. The police did routine interviews with Stringer's clients and neighbors, but they don't have the manpower to do more than issue warrants and put out a BOLO alert for Stringer.”
Don still had connections with the metropolitan police from his days wearing the uniform. “I'll check in with a couple of detectives at Metro, get a copy of the warrant and see what else they have.”
“There also had to be restaurant kitchen staff involved to carry out something like this. Someone accepting orders and ignoring the discrepancies,” Gil said. “And people on the other end of the supply chain, in Abrams' warehouse.”
“Right,” Charlie said. “Abrams does suspect a warehouse worker's involvement, but Stringer seems to be the mastermind.”
“I like the way you always see the openings, Gil,” Judy said. “Does that come from being an athlete, a car salesman or a lawyer?”
Gil sat up straight in his chair and blushed from Judy and Charlie's admiring smiles. “Maybe from all three.”
“So what about our other cases?” Don asked, changing gears. “Acosta, how is the malpractice investigation going? I hope that bloodsucking insurance company is going to have to pay?”
“They probably will,” Gil said, continuing with his report while Don drew a shark on the white board.
Judy glared at Don. The office phone rang. “It's your line, Charlie. You want me to take a message?” she asked.
“No, I'll grab it. I'm already up to date on the malpractice case. I'll be back.” Charlie headed for the conference room.
“Hello. This is Charlene Mack.”
“And this is Mandy Porter.”
“Hold on a moment.”
Judy was looking her way, so Charlie closed the door and turned her back to the bull pen.
“Last night was great.”
“It was, wasn't it?”
“Are you free to get away this weekend? I'm off duty.”
“Aww, probably not. We just got a new case. I'm sorry.”
“No need to be sorry.”
Even on the phone, Mandy's voice flowed like maple syrup. Charlie sat on the corner of the conference table. The comfortable silence was finally broken by Mandy.
“Well, just wanted you to know I was thinking of you. Call me tonight?”
“I'll be sure to call.”