Dec 1 2012 10:00am
Good Junk by Ed Kovacs is the second Cliff St. James mystery, a thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans (available December 11, 2012).
While wrestling with guilt over having accidentally killed a mixed martial arts opponent in a sparring session, private detective Cliff St. James returns to New Orleans and finds himself assisting the police in an investigation of the murder of a U.S. government “black projects” engineer. St. James quickly uncovers “The Buyers Club,” a murky network of seedy arms dealers and foreign intelligence agents purchasing state-of-the-art weaponry and high technology, perhaps abetted by elements of the U.S. government. As members of the Buyers Club start turning up dead, St. James fights for his life and sanity as he struggles to solve the murders and undermine a treacherous espionage conspiracy.
Funny, that a concerned friend would ask me to come and look at a couple of dead bodies in an effort to cheer me up. Maybe not cheer me up, exactly; maybe Honey wanted to distract me, get my mind engaged in something other than bruising guilt over having recently killed a guy in my fight-cage ring. That it had been unintended, during what was supposed to have been a friendly sparring session, was of no solace to the dead ﬁghter. But unlike my dead mixed-martial-arts opponent, the two dead men here in a grubby parking lot surrounded by CSI techs and crime-scene tape were both very intentionally dead, most likely at the hands of a third party, despite New Orleans Police Homicide Detective Honey Baybee’s assertion that this was a probable murder/suicide.
The black guy, the one in the high-gloss white Mercedes S550 with fancy rims, was thirty-ish and had the kind of GQ looks that suggested a certain pampering, and I’m not talking about by Mama.
“Pretty Boy here was deﬁnitely killed in the car,” I told my friend Honey. “Nice manicure.”
“Ty Parks,” said Honey, wearing latex gloves as she rifled through the guy’s wallet. “Same address as the other victim. Gay lovers, I figure.”
I’d seen bloodier car interiors, but I wouldn’t want the cleanup job. “Plays havoc with the resale value.”
“New headliner, new seats. Pull the pieces of skull out of the leather trim. Still, you run a CARFAX on this vehicle, what will come up? ‘Never been in an accident, but a guy got his brains blown out in the passenger seat.’ Is that a selling point?”
Honey knew how to ignore me better than most. I think she took comfort from the fact that I was being my usual wiseass self. Since I didn’t want her worrying, I worked hard to generate my customary patter and mask my deep funk while pretending nothing was wrong with me. But there was a lot wrong with me, and it was only partially due to the fact that my adopted city was still largely in ruins, one year after a Cat 5 hurricane had nearly wiped us out.
“They both worked at Michoud. Both stiffs.”
“Security clearances?” I asked.
“Not sure. They do secret stuff at Michoud?”
“It’s a federal facility, part of NASA. They’re known as being the external tank people for the space shuttles, not exactly hush-hush work, but who knows what all goes on out there.” I checked out Ty’s gold diamond ring, thick gold chain bracelet, Kenneth Cole brogues. “This guy is pretty tricked out for a civil servant punching a clock.”
“So is his buddy. Del Breaux. Fifty-three years old.”
I’d been leaning into the front-seat area and backed off to straighten up. “Sugar daddy, you think?” I used the sleeve of my Polo shirt to mop the sweat that had beaded up on my forehead. At 8:19 in the morning it was already ninety degrees with a humidity to match. It’s why the smart tourists stayed away in summer; tourists staying away was maybe the only good thing about August in the Delta. We were still shaded here in the parking lot, otherwise the corpses might be puffier than Paul Prudhomme after a night of binge drinking tequila shooters.
“Breaux has some sort of business downtown. On Poydras.” Honey read from a business card extracted from a second wallet. Breaux’s personal effects—keys, cell phone, cigarette case—were secured in plastic evidence bags. “Breaux Enterprises. One Shell Square. Forty-ninth floor.”
I glanced over at Breaux, an older white male sprawled supine about twenty-ﬁve feet away, getting photographed by a squirrelly crime-scene tech who kept whispering, “Say cheese,” before each snap.
“Forty-ninth floor is almost the penthouse. That’s some pricey high-rise real estate.” I circled the car, checking for abnormalities. “This is a brand-new, hundred-thousand-dollar ride. Let me guess; it’s registered to Breaux Enterprises.”
Honey nodded. “Leased.”
“Luxury, ﬁne German engineering, and a look that says to everybody else, ‘I’ve got it, you don’t, so kiss my ass.’ ” I checked out the Michoud decal on the driver’s side of the windshield. “So Mister Breaux works at Michoud, but he’s also a business tycoon?”
“Does anyone in New Orleans not have a scam on the side?”
“Speaking of that . . . you sure the chief okayed me being here?” Chief Pointer and I had a long history, none of it good, dating back to when I had been an NOPD cop. I’d been doing pretty well as a private investigator since resigning from the department almost exactly a year ago, but I couldn’t imagine the chief wanted any part of me.
“He agreed you act as an unpaid consultant. Attached to the Homicide Section. To me, speciﬁcally. I made him put it in writing. Said you’d never believe me if he didn’t.” Honey handed me a signed sheet on the chief’s letterhead.
I scanned the document authorizing me to assist Honey. “This from the guy who’d like to sauté my liver with some onions?”
“You read the papers. He’s ﬁghting for his job. We’re the murder capital of the planet. He’s the scapegoat. He knows you’re good. And he loves the nice headlines I’ve brought the department. We deliver a couple of high-proﬁle arrests? He might make it to the end of the year. Keep the letter. You’ll need it.”
“I can’t believe you went all the way to Pointer to get me aboard,” I said, crossing toward the body of Del Breaux.
“The average homicide dick is working twenty-three cases. I’m lucky. I only have seventeen murders on my plate,” she said, following, as she made a notation in her pocket notebook.
Honey wasn’t the kind of friend who ever asked for much, so when she called me this morning and asked for my help, almost pleading with me, there was no way I could refuse her. I’d assumed she was pretending to need my assistance because she felt concerned about me. But now, as I looked at the corpses, I couldn’t be sure about that; this was a rather sophisticated crime scene. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. I simply had to spring myself from a self-imposed isolation and come out to help her if I could, regardless of her motivations. That was ﬁne, even though I would prefer to be buried in my couch, feeling sorry for myself and avoiding all contact with the outside world.
Actually, I’d do just about anything for Honey, but since Chief Pointer had personally derailed my career as an NOPD cop, solving murders to help prolong his reign was almost too much to bear. Especially on a brutally hot hurricane season morning, with Del Breaux lying in a thickening pool of blood and other fluids, the flies already starting to tuck in.
“Well, detective, I’ll give you my best shot. Maybe we can grab some good press. The gay angle will help. And you got a double murder here; this is no murder/suicide. The Times-Picayune gives double murders more ink.”
“How d’you figure this for a two-bagger?”
“If this was murder/suicide, then it’d be a crime of passion. Rich old Mister Del here is not going to drive his high-priced ride over to Shit Street for a love-life meltdown. And I don’t buy the idea that he shoots his squeeze in the car then gets out and walks over here. To do what, deliver a soliloquy to the wall? To get a better cell signal? And look around; I don’t see much in the way of lights or security cams here.”
“That’s not unusual in this city.”
“Granted, but this would make a good place for a secret meet,” I said, slipping on a pair of latex gloves. “We’re surrounded by two-story brick walls with no windows.”
The bodies had been found by two location scouts on contract to a Hollywood ﬁlm production. I hadn’t asked, but I wondered if the movie script had called for a gritty place to shoot a drug buy. We stood on crumbling black asphalt in a boxed-in rear parking lot to a defunct bakery warehouse in a neighborhood where it was easier to ﬁnd crack than a loaf of bread.
The city was full of such locales, but this parking lot could make a list of Top Ten Scuzzy Places: rusted-out car bodies sat useless with nothing valuable left to strip; rats rooted through piles of stale and fresh garbage; a bloodstained mattress soggy from recent rains smelled of mildew and worse; thousands of broken glass shards from cheap booze bottles speckled the faded blacktop; third-rate, busted-up furniture teetered in piles where it had been arbitrarily dumped; and the caustic stench of urine insistently impinged on the sense of smell like an itch that wouldn’t go away.
If those ﬁlm boys hadn’t stumbled on the crime scene and called it in to PD, I ﬁgured the friendly locals would have already helped themselves to little things like the car, wallets, cell phones, jewelry, and maybe even the shoes of the deceased.
“Crack dealers work the corner, but I don’t think we’re looking at a drug buy gone bad,” I told Honey. “These boys weren’t crackheads; they were too in love with themselves for that.”
“I had uniforms talk to those dealers. But you know how that goes.”
“ ‘Don’t know nuthin’; ummm, didn’t see nuthin’,” I said, using my best thug impression, then squatted down next to the second corpse, who had a better blond dye job than a lot of Uptown ladies I’d known carnally. A 9mm Steyr M9 sat inches from the outstretched right hand. Like Ty Parks—the stiff in the car—Del Breaux’s appearance just screamed well-heeled metrosexual: his IWC watch had to be worth close to ten grand. Its gold face matched the gold color of his handmade linen shirt, and I doubted that was an accident. He probably had expensive watches with different face colors to match different outfits. I checked his Armani belt, Mizani raw silk slacks. I gingerly checked out the Bally loafers, then moved up the body. Breaux’s hands were soft; skin maybe a little too tight around the eyes for a guy in his fifties, unless you’ve been under the scalpel. Whatever the case, Breaux and Parks were simply immaculately dressed, in what I guess they call “casual chic.”
For me casual chic was a pair of pressed, khaki-colored 5.11 Tactical pants with hidden, inside-the-waist pouches for black anodized handcuffs, my subcompact Glock 36, and an extra magazine. Not to mention the extra cargo pockets to accommodate the knives I always carried, plus all the electronic gadgets. I was a gadget guy, pure and simple. I liked tools and having them handy.
Which meant my concealed digital video cam was recording everything I said, saw, and heard. I’d found memory to be too fallible and impeachable, especially in court.
Hunches stand on shaky legal footing as well, but I’d come to honor them. And I suddenly had the nagging suspicion that a guy like Del Breaux wouldn’t own a scratched-up, Steyr M9, kind of a clunky-looking, poor man’s Glock. The Steyr is a perfectly ﬁne weapon, mind you, sold at a nice price point; I’d shot one at a range. But the M9 didn’t strike me as being fancy enough for this guy. He’d have some pricey SIG SAUER or HK or any number of other semiauto handguns that cost three or more times what the Steyr went for, and that held a haughtier cachet. Again, just a hunch, but since I’d already concluded Mr. Del was murdered, the gun probably would prove to be untraceable.
Honey bowed her head slightly as she rubbed her eyes. Murder/ suicide was a neat and tidy package, but now, if I were correct, she was looking at having nineteen homicides on her plate. She looked tired most of the time since leaving the joy of eight-hour shifts as a patrol ofﬁcer and joining homicide, where she was on call 24/7. Eighteen-hour days were now the rule, not that she could get any kind of a normal night’s sleep. Her thirty-year-old baby blue eyes had lost some sparkle, and her freckly skin was paler than normal. But she still had the sexiest blond French braid in the state—she wore it that way in case she got called out for a SWAT op—and kept the same slightly muscular but still feminine physique. I was happy for her because her career was taking off, but I missed all the time we used to spend together.
“Not sure I see this as a double murder,” she said. “You saw the temple entry wound? Triangular tears to the skin. Soot. Seared skin. He shoved the barrel right against his head.”
“To me it means the killers were smart enough to fake the suicide right.”
“That’s pretty up close and personal.”
“Exactly. But have you studied our victims, the way they’re put together?”
“They’re well dressed.”
“It’s a little bit more than that. They’re meticulous about their looks. A guy with a two-hundred-dollar dye job, monogrammed custom-made shirt, silver cigarette case, and designer socks is not going to leave the homestead wearing badly scuffed Swiss loafers. Freshly scuffed, I might add. On the heels. I’ll bet you forensics will ﬁnd microscopic pieces of black asphalt from this parking lot embedded in the abrasions.”
Honey bent down and checked out the heels of his shoes. “How did I miss that?”
“You would have caught it. I’m just a second brain, that’s all. Breaux died right on this spot. He either stepped out of the car or they pulled him out. Then they dragged him over here, scraping his shoes along the way. The shooters wanted to separate him and Ty Parks.”
“More than one shooter, huh?”
“Got to be. Breaux has soft hands, but he’s a big guy. And buff. Probably a workout fanatic. Got to look good for the young lover.”
“So you think two, maybe three killers?”
“Breaux’s house is over in Broadmoor. But something tells me we should check his office ﬁrst. After I ﬁnish up with the coroner.”
“This is your case,” I said, pulling off the latex gloves that made my hands sweat even worse than the rest of me, “so you have to attend the autopsies. But do you want me to beat the bushes in the meantime?”
She ripped a page from her pocket spiral notebook and handed it to me.
“Your to-do list. Check in at the main gate at Michoud. You’ll be meeting with the head of security and Breaux’s supervisor.”
I raised my eyebrows. “They work on the weekend?”
“Government types? Hell no. They’re coming in ’cause they’re worried about something.”
“Maybe Mister Breaux knew some big secrets. What’s this phone number written here?”
“Somebody at that number called Breaux’s cell at twelve fifteen this morning. The last call he ever got.”
I studied the number with interest.
“I’ll call you when the coroner has finished ﬁlleting our victims. And don’t forget to call Kendall.”
I flashed a look of complete confusion.
“We were supposed to go to his birthday party.”
“Right.” Kendall Bullard had worked for me on a few cases and had proven to be a shrewd operator and a great street source. An MMA ﬁghter I had coached for many years, Kendall had successfully made the jump to the UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Partly because Kendall had become one of the most popular athletes in the city, a number of other serious ﬁghters had asked me to coach them, and the mixed-martial-arts classes I’d been teaching for years at my dojo in the Lower Garden District were now all wait-listed.
“What’s he doing having a brunch party, anyway? Why not have it at night, when people get off work, so it’s easier for them to come?”
Honey gave me a pitying look. “Today is Sunday.”
“You would have caught it. I’m just a second brain, that’s all.”
Honey turned away and went back to work.
She was right to worry about me.
I’d forgotten Kendall’s birthday party because I hadn’t intended to go. Kendall was a good friend, and under normal circumstances you couldn’t have kept me away. But I felt far from normal. I could fake it, like I’d just done with Honey. I could mouth off, crack jokes, deduce a scenario from a collection of facts, and generally stand around looking like I was okay. But I wasn’t.
The emotional roller coaster was a rough one, especially at night. And especially when I was alone, which was most of the time, since I didn’t hold a regular job. I’d stopped working out, arranged for others to teach my classes at the dojo, taken a hiatus from coaching, turned down any new PI work, started hitting the sauce pretty hard, and virtually abandoned my daily run. People might call it “reevaluating” or “taking stock of one’s life,” but I knew it to be a cancerous malaise that nibbled all around my edges.
Since unintentionally killing Bobby Perdue, I’d withdrawn from most social intercourse and had become the Frozen Man. I’d just sit in my loft for hours upon hours feeling like a heavy gray mass weighed upon me. I knew I needed to do something to help myself, but I’m not a guy who will pop a Prozac or start seeing a shrink. I’d tough it out somehow, because that’s the way I operated.
My main form of therapy was telling myself repeatedly that I hadn’t meant to kill the kid. It was a horribly tragic accident, and I felt awful for twenty-year-old Bobby Perdue and his family. The whole thing had messed with me in a way nothing else ever had before, not even the deaths of my father and brother. Plenty of ﬁghters have died in the ring, but damn it, he died in my ring. I couldn’t stop thinking about why this had to happen. What had I done to deserve being drafted against my will as the kid’s executioner? As a result, I not only felt depressed, I also brimmed with anger. Righteously pissed off didn’t come close to describing my prime sentiment. An undirected rage that I barely controlled ran right below my surface interactions, one reason I had largely avoided people for the last month. I was running on a super-short fuse as I feigned normalcy, and that might mean trouble.
I tried to blink thoughts of the kid from my consciousness as I sat in my 1986 Bronco and gave Kendall a quick call, apologizing for missing his birthday party. I had a different party in mind, so I drove the Bronco around the corner from the murder scene and jacked up two crack dealers.
New Orleans thugs were universally amoral parasites who weren’t worth the powder it would take to blow them to hell. They absolutely hated the NOPD. They would never help us, ever. After stealing a car, trashing it for no reason, and then abandoning it, they would often use indelible markers to scrawl obscene messages on the dashboard—not that they could spell or construct a grammatical sentence—directed at NOPD. Of course, if you ever read a police report, you’d know that not all coppers graduated at the top of their English class, either. But our hoodlums were absolute scum. On the West Bank, in the days after the Storm, thugs had tried to shoot repairmen off cell-phone towers in Algiers. People who had come in to help ﬁx the city, they tried to kill. You would think the hoods would have wanted their cell phones working to aid their larceny back then, but no one ever accused them of being anything approaching smart. In the chaos of the Storm, after looting scores of restaurants and bars (note to the apologists: a big-screen TV is not a necessary item for survival), the grateful thugs would leave their calling card by defecating into a cash register. That’s the kind of human garbage I now stared at.
Sharp, powerful thunderclaps from a storm cell rolling in from the Gulf punctuated the tension between me and the two men in their late teens who stood about ﬁve feet from me. They wore the gangsta regalia of sagging jeans, oversized white T-shirts, and askew baseball caps.
I had no street cred with these guys and didn’t feel like wasting time trying to establish any; I had too much to do.
“You guys can make it easy or hard on yourselves: your choice. What do you know about the murders of the two men in the Benz over in that parking lot? What do you know; what have you heard? Sooner you help me out, sooner PD is out of here and you can get back to your dope deals.”
They both had longish chee-wee-type dreads. Neither would make eye contact. One just scratched his chin looking bored, using his other hand to hold up his five-times-too-big-sized pants; the second dealer shot a quick glance in my direction, then turned to the side and spit.
“Don’t know nuthin’,” said the spitter.
I lunged forward, yanked the pants down on Mr. Chin Scratcher so they fell around his knees, and then knocked him on his ass. I spun the spitter around and slammed him against the side of the Bronco.
“Don’t you look at me and spit, you piece of shit.”
I wrenched the spitter’s arm up behind him, and he yelled in pain. I looked down at the chin scratcher. “Hands behind your head, or I will break your fucking face.” The chin scratcher stoically complied.
I wore an Alpha Hornet loosely on my right hand. The super-lightweight Hornet, made of a reinforced polymer, looked like an elongated, visionary take on a set of brass knuckles, but it wasn’t used for straight punches. It was a compliance tool. Not authorized NOPD carry, but then again, I wasn’t NOPD. A blunt tang protruded from each end; I now turned my right hand so a tang pressed down on a pressure point on the spitter’s wrist, and he screamed.
“You got a name, shitbag?”
“Yeah.” He pronounced it “yeh-ya,” with two syllables.
“Well, what is it?”
“What’s taking you so long to apologize to me, Marvonne?”
He didn’t speak quickly enough, so I pressed down with the Hornet.
He screamed and then blurted out, “I sorry!”
I didn’t have any particular ax to grind against these two leeches, or drug dealers in general, as long as they were nonviolent, because without users, there wouldn’t be suppliers. But our local crack dealers sold to kids. I’d seen it dozens of times when I worked patrol. That’s where I drew the line, so to hell with these two.
“What do you know about those dead guys?”
I started with the pressure, but he talked quick. “We work dis corner daytime. Umm, night we be at, umm, Earhart and Galvez.”
“Did I ask about your work habits, or did I ask you about some murders?”
I dug the tang into his wrist. His knees buckled and he yelped like a scalded Chihuahua.
“Two SUVs, I hear.” The words shot out fast; he wanted this over. “Dark color. Pull out da lot after couple, three gunshots. ’Bout two dis mornin’.”
I made a mental note: Two SUVs, 2:00 A.M.
Then I released Marvonne with a shove and let him fall hard to the ground. For a long moment I stood over both men, silently begging them to mouth off or make a move. The rage that had been below the surface since accidentally killing Bobby Perdue now coursed through my system with a vengeance.
The thugs were smart enough not to look at me or make a sound, and I was smart enough to let it go, take a silent deep breath, get into the Bronco, and drive off.
The phone number Honey had scribbled down for me had to be a land line, because it would ring and ring and not go to cell-phone voice mail. I didn’t want to call my inside guy at Bell South so early on a Sunday morning, so I kept calling the number, and the fifth time I called and after the thirtieth ring, a very polite female answered, screaming, “What do you want, asshole? You’re driving me crazy!”
Whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, funky blues playing in the background, what sounded like baseball on TV, and the ping ping ping of a video poker machine. Had to be a bar.
“I think I left my keys there. What’s your address?”
“Banks and South Alexander.”
“You the bartender?”
“Who wants to know?”
“A very big tipper.”
“Sandi’s the name. Come by for a drink and I’ll look for your keys.”
She hung up. It wasn’t much of an invitation, but a Bloody might take a little of my edge off.
It was easy to spot Sandi since she had her name tattooed on her neck in one-inch Algerian-font script. I wondered what she’d think of that tattoo once she hit her sixties, or once she sobered up, whichever came ﬁrst. She’d been pretty maybe ten years ago, needed to see a dentist, and a couple of hundred sit-ups a day would nicely tighten up her slight beer pouch.
A half dozen beer-swilling guys and one old black lady with a cocktail in a plastic cup and glued to a poker machine were sitting around getting hammered in the cool, colorful confines of Banks Street Bar. I spotted one security cam above the bar pointed at the cash register, reminding me that, damn it, it’s your employees that you have to watch more than your customers. The pay phone was in a corner and maybe not covered by a security cam.
The sandwich-type chalkboard on the sidewalk next to the front door hadn’t been changed yet, so I knew that Walter “Wolfman” Washington had played last night, meaning they probably had 200 people crammed in here, even though city code for the joint was 110 bodies. So I doubted any employee would remember someone using the pay phone at 12:15 A.M.It would come down to video.
I told Sandi I found my keys, bought us both a Bloody Mary, and tipped her twenty bucks. She really liked that and warmed right up to me. I gave her my PI business card.
“Sandi, I’m working with NOPD on a homicide. I need to check your security video from last night. How many cams you got in this place?”
“Two outside, two inside, but you need to come back when Junior is here, maybe seven tonight.”
“Can we make it happen now, sweetie?”
I showed her the letter from Chief Pointer and put two more twenties on the bar. She reached for the bills as she read the letter, but I held them in place.
“The two dead guys aren’t in a hurry anymore, but I am.”
She sized me up. A gal who has been around the block a few times can get good at that.
“Follow me,” she said, and winked, scooping up the money.
The video results were not as accommodating to the investigation as Sandi had been. The dark footage looked inconclusive at best, but still, I copied the video onto a thumb drive. As I sped toward New Orleans East and the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, I sucked on a couple of menthol lozenges, lest the suits I was about to meet object to the notion of an investigator imbibing while on duty.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is that Del Breaux’s Department of Defense–issued laptop computer be located immediately and returned to us here.”
Ralph Salerno was ex-FBI and Chief of Security at Michoud. Short, beer gut straining at his belt, crew-cut brown hair going gray, and the wrinkles around his mouth didn’t suggest he smiled a lot. This was the third time he had mentioned the laptop.
“I understand your concern. You’ll be the ﬁrst to hear about it when we ﬁnd it,” I said. That was bullshit and Salerno probably knew it.
“I still can’t believe Del is dead. And Ty Parks too.” Harold Klenis, a silver-haired man in his seventies, sat erect behind his desk in his third-floor ofﬁce. Salerno had made a big deal out of keeping me in the hallway outside while he insured that Klenis had left no sensitive documents out in the open for prying eyes to see before letting me enter. If he’d known I was wired for video and audio, we’d probably be having this meeting out in the parking lot.
I’d already seen Breaux’s desk here at Michoud, set up in a project room with about seven other desks. I’d found little at his workstation and nothing of a personal nature at all. He must have kept everything he needed in his missing laptop.
I’d also seen the small ofﬁce of Ty Parks, just off the shipping docks. Parks’s office had been heavily decorated with framed family photos, whimsical mementos, tchotchkes, and Post-it notes. Salerno refused to let me check Parks’s computer but said he’d provide NOPD copies of any ﬁles not of a proprietary nature. I spent thirty minutes carefully going over the place before we went up to Klenis’s office.
“How did Breaux get along with the other members of his team?” I asked Klenis.
“Just ﬁne. Del was meticulous and held himself and everyone else to the highest standards. He was a highly experienced metallurgical engineer. A respected ﬁgure. People knew he had worked at Skunk Works on the Stealth—”
“Harold, let’s don’t go there,” interrupted Salerno, acting like he was running the interview. He was one of those ex-FBI types who had put in his twenty and now earned a healthy six ﬁgures in his second career pretending he knew everything there was to know about securing a sensitive facility and the secrets therein. I didn’t like him and I figured the feeling was mutual.
I stared at Salerno. “The thing is, while you kept me waiting in the lobby for twenty-ﬁve minutes after I signed in, I used my cell phone to do a simple Internet search, and what do I ﬁnd but a Who’s Who in Science and Engineering article stating that Del Breaux worked on the Stealth program. That means, Mister Salerno, that we definitely can and will ‘go there.’ If either of you gentlemen hold back on me, here’s what’s going to happen: NOPD units with lights flashing will roll up in front of your homes and you will be paraded out past your wives and kids and neighbors for a ride down to Broad Street and an unfriendly interrogation in a murder investigation.”
I let that hang in the air as I stared down both men.
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Mister Saint James. Please excuse my colleague, but as you can imagine, his job is to be obsessed with security.”
I ignored Klenis and stared hard at Salerno. “His job today is to cooperate.” That’s right, Fido, you’re not the biggest dog in the room anymore. “Save the whitewash job for some rookie.”
Salerno met my gaze but not in a challenging way. He tried to use a look that I had perfected; he tried to look at me like I wasn’t important, but he couldn’t pull it off and ﬁnally looked away.
“Just to clarify, yes, Del Breaux worked at Skunk Works back in the late eighties. He worked on many other black projects, which, I’m sorry, but I’m not cleared to discuss with you,” said Klenis.
“You mentioned he had very high standards. Did that cause any friction?”
“Not really. Everyone knew up front that if you were going to show something to Del, it had better be right.”
“So he was here nine to five?”
“He was only consulting. Came in two days a week, ten or fifteen hours a week.”
“So as far as you know, none of his coworkers had it in for him, no resentment, couldn’t stand him for some reason?”
“Well there’s always ofﬁce politics. We all have to work with people we don’t particularly like, but as far as I know, there was nothing of an ugly nature, if that’s what you mean.”
“Were Breaux and Parks gay? Did they see any of their coworkers outside of work?”
Both men shifted in their seats. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate to discuss that,” said Salerno. “Federal regulations prohibit—”
“Screw the regulations; I got two dead guys in a parking lot. Gay, straight, bi, asexual—I could care less. But I need facts. Facts help solve murders.”
“Yes, they were gay, and they were a couple. They made no secret of that, and that is the best policy for people in sensitive work, I think,” said Klenis.
“It eliminates the blackmail potential,” said Salerno, deciding to go along with Klenis.
“The funny thing is, you never would have known it. There was nothing about Del’s manner or behavior that indicated he was a homosexual. As to off-hours socializing, I’d have to say no. Del wasn’t friendly with any employees other than Parks.”
“Tell me, since your work is so hush-hush here; did he have some information that might have gotten him killed?”
“Like what? What are you suggesting?” asked Salerno.
“You know exactly what I’m asking. Since you can’t tell me what your secret program is here, is it possible Breaux was killed for his laptop? For what was inside it?”
Klenis looked uncomfortable merely considering the question. I guess he didn’t want to believe that maybe it could happen to him, too. I expected that Salerno would be handling these kinds of questions and that he’d most likely stonewall me.
“Well, I suppose you’ll be ﬁnding that out and telling us,” said Salerno. The subtext of Salerno’s response told me that this was a super-secret program of the highest order. But I wanted somebody to say it.
“I thought I made it clear we weren’t doing those kinds of non-answer answers. I’m not here to debate the merits of how things get classiﬁed, and I’m not asking you to compromise national security. But there’s secret work and then there’s the kind of secret work that a foreign government will do just about anything to get its hands on. Was Breaux working on the former or the latter?”
“The latter,” said Klenis, matter-of-fact.
“Thank you, that’s helpful. What kind of security clearance did Breaux hold?”
Klenis looked to Salerno, who looked like he was in some kind of retreat as he tried to decide how to answer. He was now the bottom head on a three-man totem pole. “A Top Secret SCI clearance with a polygraph.”
“I’d rather not get into the exact nature of his clearance compartmentalization, if that’s all right with you,” said Klenis. “That information going into a police report could become public, and coupled with Breaux’s résumé, a foreign intelligence agency might deduce what we’re working on here.”
“Okay. What about Parks?”
“He had a Secret clearance when he was in the air force. But he didn’t have an active clearance. His work as the shipping manager wasn’t of a sensitive nature,” said Salerno.
“And how did Parks get along with his coworkers?”
“Are you kidding? There will probably be two hundred employees from Michoud at his funeral. He was a great guy, knew how to manage staff, never had a complaint. Incredibly well-liked.”
“Were Breaux or Parks being investigated for anything? Were they under any suspicion? I mean, the red flags are pretty obvious. Ultra-expensive luxury vehicle. Pricey jewelry, accessories, clothes . . .”
“Breaux’s income as a government consultant was substantial, and his trading company did very well. He submitted yearly financials. The fact that he legitimately earned so much made him less of a risk. He passed every security evaluation he’d ever taken with flying colors,” said Salerno.
“So neither of them were being investigated or looked at, officially or unofficially?”
“I didn’t say that.” Salerno looked at me evenly. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. It takes something like three years. When the painters ﬁnish it, they go back to the beginning and start all over again. That’s how I run my shop here. The investigations never stop. But the details of all that are classified.”
How interesting. Salerno had just refused to go on record stating that Del Breaux and Ty Parks were not being investigated.
“So, other than the laptop, is anything missing, Mister Klenis?”
“Documents, files, equipment—”
“A full inventory and a security review will begin tomorrow, as a matter of policy. I’m sure Mister Salerno will let you know how that develops.”
Now I was the one getting the bullshit. I smiled and nodded.
I stepped out of the Michoud administration building into the furnace of the afternoon. Moisture condensed on my sunglasses so heavily that I couldn’t see. As I wiped my glasses clean I ﬁgured I was in a race with the Feds to ﬁnd Breaux’s laptop; maybe with local FBI, maybe special agents flying in from DC. Either way, I wanted to find it first. Breaux’s computer would contain the most pertinent clues to any work-related motives for his murder, and I wanted those clues for myself.
I was halfway to the Broadmoor District—I remembered Breaux’s home address from his driver’s license—before the air-con in my classic, midnight-blue-and-white Ford Bronco sufﬁciently cooled the vehicle to the point I could stop sweating. I preferred biking whenever possible, but it often wasn’t practical since the Storm, nor that much fun when the pavement felt like the surface of Venus.
The Bronco functioned as a good PI work truck, outfitted not only with hidden compartments, but with racks of locking compartments as well. I stocked weapons and ammo, surveillance and tracking electronics that I might need to plant, night vision and other optics, lock picking and burglary tools, disguises and changes of clothing, an evidence-gathering kit, a well-stocked combat ﬁrst aid kit, MREs, a case of water, and other supplies. I had a computer built into the dash and could project a heads-up display on the windshield. She had exterior high-resolution video cameras providing 360-degree coverage, so I could use her as a surveillance vehicle even when empty. Like I said, I liked tools. Mechanically, the Bronco was perfect. Like some middle-aged gals, she could use a little bodywork and desperately needed a paint job, but just as with people it was the inner guts that really counted. I kept the tires dirty but the tread deep. No need to make her attractive to the city’s legion of car thieves, although often a thug would boost whatever was at hand simply because he was tired of walking and needed something to drive for a week or so. That’s why I had a kill switch installed. Nobody would be stealing my Bronco. And I kept the bullet holes in the tailgate to remind me not to overestimate myself or to take my security for granted.
I had a second truck, a massive monster that I tried out of pure guilt not to drive. There was enough guilt shadowing my life. I didn’t feel razor sharp but seemed to be focusing better now that my mind was engaged in the investigation. I’d surfaced from a dark gray malaise, and while I still felt emotionally raw, I wasn’t thinking about the dead kid all the time. That was good; that was an answer to my prayers.
I called Honey, ﬁguring she’d want a break from the stench of the autopsy room, even if it was just to take a phone call. I’d always spread a generous amount of Vicks VapoRub under my nose as a masking agent before going in to witness the procedure, but Honey had told me she wanted to get used to the smell. We had agreed to disagree; one could get used to being tortured every day, but would you really want to?
“You sound like you’re in a car,” I said, surprised.
“Six murders last night in the great city of New Orleans. Plus five dead from car accidents. A couple of suicides.”
“So the bodies are stacked in the temporary morgue like chips on a roulette table.”
“And the coroner is still short of staff. He’ll give me a heads-up in a few hours. I’ll go in then,” said Honey. “What happened at Michoud?”
“Breaux had a government laptop and the Feds want it back. We need to get it first.”
“That might be a problem.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Just left Breaux’s ofﬁce on Poydras. Jammed over there after the coroner told me to chill.”
“And? What did you find?”
“It’s what we didn’t ﬁnd. The place had been sanitized.”
“Yeah, it looked like some kind of model ofﬁce. That no one actually worked in. New computers but no digital files. No notes, papers, Rolodexes. Fax-and copy-machine memories had been wiped.”
“Building security would have video,” I said.
“I’ll have it tomorrow. Security says a crew of guys with a work order and invoices came in overnight. At two twelve A.M. Delivered a bunch of new office equipment.”
“Out with the old, in with the new. So maybe they got Breaux’s laptop as well. Unless . . . are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Pretty sure so,” said Honey. “Meet me at 9412 Derbigny Street.”
Del Breaux’s house.
“I’m just rolling up,” she said. “Damn. Looks like these boys didn’t do anything small.”
Copyright ©2012 Ed Kovacs
Ed Kovacs has worked for many years as a private security contractor deploying to challenging locations worldwide. He is a member of the Association for Intelligence Officers, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America. When not on a contract, he splits his time between his home in Southeast Asia and his aircraft hangar home at a Southern California airport.