an excerpt from
Mona Lisa Eyes
(A Danny Logan Mystery)
by M. D. Grayson
July 5, 2012
THERE WERE PEOPLE AROUND. CROWDS OF people. There were always people around. “Sophie—over here!”
“Sophie—wave!” People always wanted her, to be seen with her, to have their picture taken with her. Seattle wasn’t as bad as London, but still, there was little peace. Sometimes she was okay with it—even found it flattering. Most times, though, it was a little much, and she wished she could be seen but not bothered—just left alone. Still other times, she wished she was invisible altogether—the proverbial fly on the wall. Those times she mostly just stayed home.
It was worse when Nicki was around and talked her into going. Sophie Thoms watched her older sister enter the Genesis Club like royalty, arm in arm with friends Judie and Josh, the instant center of attention in a place where everyone competed fiercely for the spotlight. She smiled as she watched the trio make their way across the floor toward her booth. Nicki, dressed in a short, clingy black dress, was in her element—smiling brightly while pretending to ignore the admiring glances, the jealous looks, the calls.
The popular Goth club was packed shoulder to shoulder with Seattle’s leather and lace devotees. Siouxsie and the Banshees belted out “Cities in Dust” over the PA at sound levels loud enough to cause ripples in Sophie’s Perrier to the beat of the music. Dim red overhead lighting made it impossible to tell whether the person in front of you wore heavy eye makeup (safe bet here), or whether it was just the shadows playing tricks.
“Love your dress!”
Sophie turned, startled to see the waitress bringing a new round of drinks to the table. She relaxed upon seeing the familiar face. “Yeah?” She lifted an arm to show the tight black sleeve adorned with layers of black lace. “You like?”
The waitress nodded. “That’s sick! I love it. You guys have the best dresses—you always look beautiful whenever you come in!”
Sophie smiled. Even if she didn’t share Nicki’s unconditional love for the crowds, she had to admit that she’d always shared Nicki’s love for the dramatic—the long, flowing black dresses, the studs, the bold makeup. It was a way of enjoying a little fantasy in the midst of her day-to-day reality.
In London, the Goth scene had been an important way for Sophie to declare her independence from her demanding father in an unequivocal, in-your-face manner. Now, several years later and half a world away, it had become a simple way of setting aside the duties and accountabilities of a demanding job. Today, even if just for a few hours, the clubs were Sophie’s way of shedding her buttoned-up daytime persona and becoming someone else—someone who could still be dark . . . mysterious . . . naughty, even. She smiled at the waitress. “Dressing up’s half the fun, right?”
“Sure.” The waitress giggled as she picked up an empty glass. “And getting undressed is the other half.”
Sophie flushed. “I suppose it depends on who you’re with.”
The waitress stopped and thought for a second, then shrugged. “Nah,” she said, shaking her head. She laughed and moved on.
“Sophie!” Nicki cried as she fairly bounced into the seat beside her. “Oh my God! You should have gone outside with us. It was bloody marvelous.”
“Yeah, right,” Sophie said, looking closely at her sister. Nicki and Josh liked to pop outside every twenty minutes or so for “refreshments,” but Sophie never went. The head-rush, the giddies, the dilated eyes, the flushed cheeks, the rapid-fire speech—all that was Nicki’s thing, not hers. “Here, wait a second,” she said as she reached over and flicked away a small white crystal from Nicki’s upper lip.
Nicki smiled. “I’ll have you know I was saving that for later.”
Nicki gave her a fake frown. “Ah, poor Sophie. You’re always looking out for me, aren’t you?”
Sophie gave her a little scowl.
“No?” Nicki said, dramatically surprised. She sniffed hard, then leaned forward. “Okay. What’s the matter? You’re not having fun?”
Sophie gave her a wry smile. “Sure. Bucket loads.”
“Yeah, right.” Nicki, despite her buzz, still sensed an underlying tension in Sophie’s voice. She stared hard into her younger sister’s eyes, serious now. “Well, not that you asked, but if you had, I’d say you’re working too fucking hard, little sis.”
“Me?” Sophie smiled. “Not really, I’m—”
“Ricky!” Nicki squealed, “Oh my God!” Nicki’s attention spun away from Sophie as a tall, handsome man approached. She hopped back out of the booth and threw herself at the man, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.
Sophie just smiled and shook her head.
“Who’s that?” Josh asked. He and Judie had slipped into the booth on Sophie’s other side.
Sophie shook her head. “Don’t know. Probably some bloke she just—” Sophie was interrupted by her cell phone buzzing against her hip. She’d been expecting a call and had been practically sitting on the phone to make sure she didn’t miss the vibrating buzzer.
She looked at the number and then answered quickly. “Did you get it?” she asked. She listened intently for a few moments, then nodded. “Brilliant. Okay, right. I’ll be there.” She rung off and put the phone away.
“Well folks, I’m afraid that’s gonna do it for me,” she said, sliding toward the edge of the booth. “I have an early meeting in the morning.”
“What?” Nicki demanded, as Sophie stood up. She let go of the tall man. “You’re leaving? Already? You can’t leave yet, Soph! We just got here!”
Sophie tapped her watch. “Wrong. We’ve been here for over an hour, and I told you earlier I couldn’t stay late. Eight o’clock in the morning I have a meeting.”
Nicki gave her a confused look, mouth slightly open. “Jesus, Soph. Eight o’clock? You were serious about that?”
Sophie reached back and grabbed her purse. “Yep. Gotta go.”
Nicki looked at her carefully. “You sure you’re alright?”
Sophie smiled. “Nicki, I’m fine. I haven’t had anything to drink at all.” She gave Nicki a little smirk. “Or any other type of refreshments, for that matter.”
“Yeah, right,” Nicki said. “But really? You’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Really. And if you’re thinking about trying to talk me into staying—don’t even start.”
Nicki stared into her eyes for a moment and said, “Well . . . if you must.”
Sophie nodded her head. “I must.”
Nicki leaned over to Sophie, and the two hugged. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
Sophie nodded. “Perfect. Love you.”
“I love you too.”
Sophie looked at her. “You be careful, Nick. I mean it.”
Nicki stuck her tongue out, then said, “Go home, party pooper. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Nicki watched Sophie turn and make her way through the crowd to the front door. It was the last time she would ever see her sister.
I LEANED OVER THE BEAUTIFUL GIRL and watched her for a few moments. She slept soundly, lips parted, and her dark, shiny hair was splayed across the pillow. It never ceases to amaze me that Antoinette Blair ended up in my bed, after all these years. Me—Danny Logan. I kissed her gently on top of her head. “I gotta take off,” I said softly. It was 6:00 a.m., still dark outside with a typical Seattle October light rain falling, and I needed to get a training run in before work. I looked at her and shook my head. Where I find the discipline to drag my sorry self out of a warm bed with Toni Blair in it, I’ll never know.
“Be careful,” she murmured, stirring. She rolled over and turned away from me. As she did, the sheet fell away, revealing a long shapely leg and a bare, heart-stopping ass. Toni likes to sleep with no pajamas on (lucky me), and for a moment I was sorely tempted to jump back in the sack. Alas, I’ve learned my lesson about what you might call “uninvited advances during dreamtime.” Toni places a high value on her sleep, and I have to be very careful about how I go about waking her up. Do it wrong, and I’m almost guaranteed to get a hard elbow to the ribs. I sighed. I had a race coming up. I needed to get the run in anyway.
Still facing away, she sleepily said, “Stop staring at my butt, perv.” She reached back and drew the sheet up. “And remember we’ve got the Wards at nine.” Then she murmured something I couldn’t understand before falling back to sleep.
* * * *
Two hours later, I sat in my office at Logan Private Investigations, or Logan PI as we call ourselves, and reviewed the numbers while I waited for the Wards to arrive. There’ve been 113 murders in the Seattle area from the start of 2008 through September 2012. This may sound like a lot, triple digits and all, but actually we’re pretty lucky around here. One hundred and thirteen murders in nearly five years is a tiny number compared to almost any other big city in the country (Chicago gets that many every few months if you base the numbers on 2012). New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore—pick one. All of them are much more dangerous places than Seattle—even adjusted for population size. There’s undoubtedly some sociocultural explanation for this, but I prefer to believe that it’s because up here in the Northwest, we’re just a little more laid-back and easygoing than people in those other big cities. In general, people around here don’t seem to be wound quite as tightly as they are in a lot of those other places. Give us our Gore-Tex and our lattes, let the ’Hawks steal one from the Packers every now and again, and we’re happy campers. Like I said, we’re lucky up here.
Then again, I suppose how you view luck depends on your perspective. If one of the 113 who were murdered was your wife or husband or son or daughter or—as in the case of the Wards who were due in soon—your niece, well, then you probably look at the numbers a little differently. And you probably don’t feel so lucky.
* * * *
“Thank you for agreeing to meet us on short notice,” Cecilia Ward said with a very polished British accent. The morning rain dripped from her black London Fog trench as she shook my hand, looking me straight in the eye, seeming to size me up. Her gaze was steady; her grip was as firm as most men’s. She’d arrived a minute ago, precisely at 9:00 a.m., accompanied by her husband, Oliver. Cecilia was an attractive woman—late forties, I’d guess. She was trim, and her blonde hair was worn stylishly short with long bangs. As she unbuckled her coat, I saw that she wore a dark tweed business suit and a white chiffon blouse buttoned at the neck. A dark leather purse with brass buckles hung from a strap over her shoulder and she carried a slim, matching attaché case in her other hand. My fifteen-second first impression: this was a very efficient woman, probably all business. She could have been on her way to a sales meeting or, in her case, perhaps a board meeting.
I smiled. “It’s our pleasure, Mrs. Ward. We were pleased to get your phone call yesterday.” I released her hand and turned to Toni. “Allow me to introduce my partner, Antoinette Blair.”
Cecilia nodded. “Ms. Blair,” she said primly. She turned to the man beside her. “And please allow me to introduce my husband, Oliver.”
Oliver was a tall, distinguished-looking man with dark hair beginning to turn silver at the temples. I guessed him to be in his late forties, maybe early fifties. Like his wife, he too was elegantly dressed. He wore an expensive navy pinstripe suit over a crisp white shirt with a lavender silk tie—and even a matching pocket square. The pair made what the Brits would call a very handsome couple.
We shook hands. “Mr. Logan. Very pleased to meet you,” he said with an accent that matched Cecilia’s. “Your firm comes highly recommended.”
I tilted my head. “Highly recommended? Really? I’d like to hear more about that.”
He smiled. “Well, it seems . . .”
“Oliver, dear,” Cecilia interrupted, reaching up and touching him on his shoulder. Her touch was gentle, but the effect was immediate—Oliver froze mid-sentence. He looked over at Cecilia. She looked at him for a moment, then turned to me. “We’re on a bit of a schedule, here, Mr. Logan. I wonder if we might just get started.”
Oliver looked at me and shrugged. That settled it, then. The boss had spoken, and who was he to say anything about it?
I turned to Cecilia. I was right: no chitchat, all business. I smiled. “Certainly. By all means. Follow me.”
* * * *
We hung their coats, then led Oliver and Cecilia back to our conference room, which overlooks a currently rainy, gray Lake Union. After we were all seated, Cecilia wasted no time in getting started.
“Mr. Logan, obviously we’re here about the murder of my niece, Sophie Thoms. To get right to the point: we’d like to hire you and your firm to represent our family in the investigation. I assume this is the type of work you do?”
“Potentially,” I said. “We’ve done similar work in the past.”
“Good. Perhaps it would be appropriate, then, for Oliver and me to tell you what’s happened.”
I smiled. “Please do.”
“Very well, then. On the night of Thursday, July fifth, my niece Sophie Thoms accompanied her sister, Nicki, and a small group of friends to a local nightclub called the Genesis.” She formed the words deliberately and said them as if they had a sour taste. “Nicki stayed late—no surprise there. But sometime near 10:00 p.m., Sophie received a telephone call. After the call, she told Nicki she was due at work early the next morning, so she intended to leave and drive herself home.
“The next day, July sixth, Sophie failed to show up for work—she works at the Beatrice Thoms Memorial Foundation, our family charity. At first, we were . . .” She searched for the right word, then found it: “concerned, but not alarmed. That changed, though, when we hadn’t heard from Sophie by the following morning. Oliver contacted the authorities and reported her missing. More than a week passed with nothing happening before some genius at the Seattle Police Department finally connected Sophie’s disappearance to the fact that a young woman’s body had been pulled from the Cowlitz River one hundred miles south of here on July sixth—the very day Sophie had failed to report to work. Later that same day, Oliver accompanied a local detective to identify the body. Sadly, it was indeed Sophie.”
During the ensuing pause, I looked at her for a moment, and for the first time noticed the drawn, tired look in her eyes—the battle-weary look of someone who’d been on the front lines for too long. I suppose I could understand if the last few months had not gone down easily for Cecilia.
“And then,” Oliver said, “after I identified Sophie, the very next day we collected her body and flew her back home to her parents in London.”
“Right,” Cecilia said. “And the local police have been bumbling about, looking for her killer ever since. To no avail.”
The clock ticked quietly for several seconds before Toni said, “We’ve seen the news coverage. We’re very sorry for your loss.” She shook her head. “It’s so very senseless.”
Oliver nodded as he clenched, then unclenched his hands. “It is, isn’t it—completely senseless. My niece did nothing to deserve this.” His voice carried a mixed tone of sorrow and disgust. He leaned forward across our conference room table, as if to make it easier for Toni and me to hear him. “She was twenty-six years old, for Christ’s sake. She had her whole life in front of her.” He looked back and forth between us for a second, and then he rocked back in his seat.
Cecilia reached down into her attaché case. “I took the liberty of bringing in a few newspaper clippings on the off chance you hadn’t seen them already.” She pulled out a few papers with scanned newspaper articles on them and slid them across the table to me.
Police say few clues
I recognized the headline. The story had been so big—Sophie Thoms was a name so well known—that almost immediately the national news networks also picked up on it and began running with it. Within days, every talking head on television was pontificating about the disappearance of the young woman.
“It was a completely miserable week,” Cecilia said, “the week after Sophie went missing. We had no idea what to think. I mean, if Nicki had been the one to disappear, we wouldn’t have worried so much. Nicki does things like that from time to time.”
“But not Sophie,” Oliver said.
“No,” Cecilia agreed. “Not Sophie. Sophie was the responsible one of the pair, even though she was younger. She was not one to simply disappear. I was very worried something was horribly wrong.”
Toni and I had followed the case closely this past July—I guess we were as obsessed about a missing-celebrity case as anyone else, especially given our experience with another missing celebrity, Gina Fiore, the year before. We didn’t know Sophie, but based on the lessons we’d learned in the Fiore case, I think we both suspected that it was likely a wealthy young woman like Sophie Thoms had chosen to disappear, just as Gina Fiore had chosen to do the year before. Sophie had probably decided that a break from the dull routine of fund-raising was in order and had secretly jetted off to the Mediterranean for a month. That was our theory, anyway. As a matter of fact, we figured she was probably getting a big kick out of watching the search efforts while safely tucked away in someone’s Lake Como villa.
Of course, Cecilia’s premonition had been proven right and the rest of us wrong—dead wrong—when, at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, July 16, in front of a nationally televised press conference, our friend Dwayne Brown of the Seattle Police Department announced to the world that Sophie’s body had been pulled out of the Cowlitz River ten days prior and had been lying on a slab in the Lewis County morgue the whole time the search had been under way in Seattle. The Lewis County medical examiner confirmed that Sophie had been strangled and dumped in the river on the evening of Thursday, July 5. A couple of fishermen discovered her body the next day, but the Lewis County Sherriff had been unable to identify her. Amazingly, even after the wall-to-wall television coverage, no one in the Lewis County coroner’s office recognized her. After a week, the sheriff sent a flyer to local jurisdictions from Portland to Vancouver, BC, in hopes that someone might know who she was. When the flyer eventually landed on Dwayne Brown’s desk, the mystery was solved. Dwayne and Gus, being missing-person specialists, transferred control of the Sophie Thoms Task Force over to the homicide detectives. The manpower was doubled and the task force focus shifted from a missing person to a homicide investigation.
* * * *
Cecilia pushed a strand of her blonde hair back behind her ear and continued. “I should state at the outset that neither of our nieces cared much about decorum. They’ve grown up in an age that seems to reward outrageous behavior.”
Oliver shifted in his seat, and I glanced over at him just in time to see him make a little eye-roll grimace.
Cecilia either didn’t notice, or else she did notice and simply ignored him. “I suspect that their continued appearance on page six must have caused a great deal of embarrassment to their parents—my brother, Sir Jacob Thoms, in particular. Nicki’s sex tape with that American rock-and-roll singer was probably the last straw. It certainly would have been for me.” She shook her head. “Poor Jacob. I can only imagine he hoped that by moving the girls to Seattle, perhaps the responsibility of being on their own in a distant location would encourage them to—” she searched for the right word, “—frankly, to grow up, to live their lives in what you might call a more dignified fashion compared to the manner in which they’d been behaving in London.”
“Either that,” Oliver said softly, “or he hoped that their being half a world removed from the London paparazzi would somehow take them out of the limelight.”
Cecilia glanced at him, and then she continued. “Perhaps. In any case, Jacob sent them to us.” She paused, then added, “God help us.”
“And did it work?” I asked. “Did they ‘grow up,’ as you put it?”
“To my surprise, I’d have to say yes as regards Sophie. Less so with Nicki, although I feel compelled to admit that she has managed to mostly stay out of the newspapers here.” She paused, then added, “And out of jail.”
“You said Sophie’d grown up since she’d been here?” I said.
Cecilia nodded. “I can’t vouch for her behavior after hours—we weren’t privy to that, and I can only imagine what happened then. But she did seem to be taking her time at work seriously. She had seemed to mature some.”
“That rather undersells it, dear,” Oliver said, smiling. He turned to us. “I worked with Sophie on a daily basis, and I can say without reserve that she seemed to have a knack for relating to our donors. Sophie was quite effective.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I wasn’t clear about that—I wasn’t sure Sophie actually worked at your foundation.”
“Yes, she did,” Oliver said. “Jacob appointed her to the board, but her everyday assignment was donor relations.”
“And what is it that the Beatrice Thoms Memorial Foundation actually does?” Toni asked as she took notes.
“Our Foundation is a relief organization,” Cecilia said. “My brother formed it and named it after our mother, Beatrice Thoms. The primary mission is to help the desperate peoples in the countries of eastern Africa—Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia in particular.”
“You said donor relations,” Toni said to Oliver. “What does that entail?”
Oliver nodded. “Fund-raising, donor communications and interactions—that sort of thing. He paused, then added, “Of course, our initial reason for moving the fund’s headquarters to Seattle from London back in 2006 was that we’d noticed a certain degree of resonance with the technology crowd here. They tended to be relatively young and quite wealthy, with well-developed social consciences. They responded to our message with vigor. Sophie was able to tap into this—frankly, even better than I’d been able to. Her, her—” he struggled for the word.
“Vibrancy,” Cecilia said.
“Exactly. She was a natural. Her vibrancy, her passion, her youth enabled her to quickly connect with our donor base. They liked her—loved her, actually.” He smiled. “Frankly, I think they treated her like a rock star.” Oliver had been getting enthusiastic, but suddenly he sobered, remembering why he was visiting us.
We paused for a moment, catching up with our note taking. When we were done, Toni said, “Why don’t you fill us in a little about Nicki while you’re here.”
Cecilia looked at her watch. “Alright, then. We still have a few minutes.” She looked up at us. She shook her head. “Nicki. Where should I start?”
“Does Nicki work at the Foundation as well?” I asked.
“Humph,” Cecilia said, chuckling. “Technically, yes. She sits on the board and draws a decent salary—same as Sophie did.” She paused, and then she added, “But unlike Sophie, she’s rarely attended board meetings, and she seldom comes to the office.”
“So it’s fair to say that she treats her role differently than Sophie did?” I said.
“That’s one way of putting it. Another way, perhaps more to the point, would be to say that if it so much as resembles work, Nicki suddenly becomes disinterested. She has nothing like Sophie’s work ethic.”
Oliver shook his head. “I hate to say it, but I must agree. As regards our Foundation, Nicki seems to have no interest in the plight of the peoples of Africa.”
Cecilia added, “I’m not sure that she has an interest in anything at all aside from parties and social functions.”
“Got it,” I said, nodding. Unless I was mistaken, I’d seen the Nicki Thoms type many times before: wealthy parents, lots of freedom, lots of money, low expectations. Have fun, but not too much fun. Keep it quiet. Above all, don’t embarrass Mom and Dad.
“Let’s switch up. In my experience, trouble often stems from vices and bad habits. Let’s talk about drugs—was Sophie involved with drugs? Or Nicki? Any problems there?”
Oliver shrugged. “In all honesty, this isn’t the type of conversation topic that either of the girls would have felt comfortable having with us. But, from my own personal experience, Sophie never gave me any reason to suspect that she might have been high on drugs.”
“Nor I,” Cecilia added.
“Well . . .”
Cecilia took a deep breath. “Mr. Logan,” she said slowly, “you must realize that it’s not easy for our family to open up about what we consider to be our internal affairs—our ‘dirty laundry’ as it were. We typically keep such . . . delicate matters to ourselves. That said, I suppose I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we have reason to suspect that Nicki may have problems with drugs, and perhaps with alcohol as well. I’ve smelled both liquor and marijuana on her breath and clothing several times. She tries to hide it, but I’m not that old—certainly not the old fogey she takes me for. I was around in the eighties, you know.”
I smiled politely. “I understand.” Actually, if I worked really hard at it, I could just about picture buttoned-up Cecilia taking an experimental bong-hit as a teenager. I started to smile at the mental picture. Fortunately, Toni kept us moving.
“Obviously, our conversation is confidential,” she said.
Cecilia nodded. “Of course.”
“That said, have you provided this information to the police?”
Cecilia nodded again. “We have.”
“Good,” Toni said.
We asked a few more background questions—boyfriends? girlfriends?—that sort of thing, but by ten o’clock, we had enough information to be able to evaluate the case. I leaned back in my chair and stared at the rain on the windows for a few moments, considering everything I’d heard. I glanced at Toni, but she didn’t notice, so I turned back to Cecilia. “Mrs. Ward, first of all, thanks for all the background information. We probably asked a few more detailed questions than I’d originally intended, but it’s easy to get caught up in the case.” I paused, then continued. “When you got here, I think you said you wished to hire us to represent the family. What is it you expect us to do for you?”
Cecilia looked at me, puzzled. “Simple. Find out who did it. Find out who killed Sophie and dumped her into the river. Help bring the bastard to justice.”
“Find out who did it,” I repeated, nodding. Sure. Piece of cake. “There are two obvious questions. First, why do you think our little firm would be able to find something that a forty-man police task force has missed?”
Cecilia gave me a hard look. “You’re good at what you do, right?”
I studied her for a moment, and then I nodded. “Yes, we like to think so. But that’s no guarantee that we’d be able to add any value to the investigation. Your money could end up being wasted.”
She gave me another firm stare. “Well, I most certainly do not agree with you, Mr. Logan. Even if you prove unable to find Sophie’s killer, you would still be representing us—the family—as the police continue their investigation. And your participation alone, even in that role alone, means our family would be doing something—not just sitting around waiting. Waiting for the police whose competence, in all honesty, is suspect. Believe me, our money would most assuredly not be wasted. My brother and I have spoken at length about this. We have a good deal of faith that you can help us. One way or another.”
I had to admit that parts of this actually made a little sense. It wouldn’t have been the first time we’d been hired by the victim’s family to essentially serve as liaison to the police. “Fair enough,” I said, “and I appreciate your faith in our firm. Second question, then. Sophie’s homicide is still an open investigation with the Seattle Police Department. As you can probably imagine, I think it’s highly unlikely that the task force would welcome us with open arms, know what I mean?” Actually, I thought we’d be about as welcome as a tax audit.
She smiled. “Mr. Logan, I’m certain that won’t be a problem. You see, it was the Seattle Police Department who recommended you to us in the first place.”
“No shit?” The words flew out before I could catch them. “Pardon me; I mean, really?”
Cecilia smiled, apparently pleased with herself that she knocked me off guard. “Indeed, Mr. Logan. I had a conversation with them at which time we discussed the possibility of bringing in a fresh set of eyes. The detective in charge of the investigation immediately recommended you.”
“The detective in charge—and who might that be?”
“Lieutenant Ron Bergstrom.”
Ron Bergstrom. We knew Ron, but only barely. He’d given us some advice on serial killers when we searched for Gina Fiore last year. Ron had seemed like a sharp enough guy at the time, but he was our one and only contact. I had no idea why he’d refer the Wards to us. Based on the way this conversation was going, though, it was starting to look like I was going to find out soon enough. Besides, if I had to guess, I’d guess that Cecilia would probably settle for nothing less. She was a formidable, determined woman.
I glanced at Toni—the other formidable, determined woman in the room. Her face was a mask—I couldn’t read her. Except for a few questions here and there, she’d hardly said a word so far. In fact, now that I realized that, her failure to raise any of the obvious questions this case posed was starting to register in my brain: she had an agenda, something she’d noticed. I looked at her, and I know she saw me, but she refused to look my way.
I turned back to Cecilia. “Okay—fair enough. You asked when I could give you an answer. If you’d be so kind, please allow us the rest of the day to talk with Lieutenant Bergstrom, check with the appropriate parties, and meet among ourselves. How about if we have you a final answer in the morning?”
She pushed her chair back. “Excellent, but do hurry.” This was our cue, and we all stood up. She reached across the table and shook our hands. “We very much look forward to working with the two of you, along with the other members of your team.” She smiled. “And—since I’m confident you’ll soon be on board, I’d like you to have a look at this.” She reached into her purse and pulled out an invitation and handed it to me. I read it quickly:
You are cordially invited
to attend a private luncheon ceremony
marking the dedication of the
Sophie Thoms Memorial Fund
for African families in need of assistance.
The ceremony will be held at
noon on the afternoon of
Saturday the 20th of October 2012
Spanish Ballroom at the
Fairmont Olympic Hotel in
“We’d love it if the two of you could attend tomorrow. We could introduce you to some of the people you’ll probably want to speak with during the course of your investigation.”
“Tomorrow?” I nodded, surprised and trying to picture our schedule. “Okay, thank you.” I looked down at the invitation. “Assuming everything goes as expected this afternoon, I suppose this would be a good place to start.”
Cecilia nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Thank you very much,” Oliver said, stepping forward to shake my hand. “We’d be very grateful if you could help us.”
They turned to leave, and I remembered something I’d meant to ask. “You know, I do have one question before you go.”
She stopped and looked at me. “Yes?”
“Before we started, Oliver said that we came highly recommended.”
She smiled. “Allow me to explain. Does the name Andrew Hayes ring a bell?”
It did. I smiled. “MI5 Andrew Hayes?” If it was the same Andrew Hayes, we’d had the opportunity to work with him earlier this year on a different case. “Do you know Andrew?”
She shook her head. “Personally, no. But Andrew happens to be good friends with my brother—they attended Queen’s College together. When Mr. Bergstrom recommended your company to me, I talked this over with Jacob, naturally. He, in turn, contacted Mr. Hayes to check you out. Turns out Andrew didn’t need to check you out—he not only knew you, he was able to immediately recommend you without reservation. I believe he said you were ‘the bull in the china shop’ that this case sorely needed.”
I chuckled. “Bull in the china shop.”
“Exactly. It’s not meant to be derogatory,” Cecilia said. “Look at it this way. Somewhere out there, my niece’s killer is watching—laughing, even. With every day that goes by, the trail becomes one day colder, and he becomes one day safer. I’m sure you’ll agree that a bull in the china shop is exactly what this case needs.”
I WALKED BACK TO MY OFFICE while Toni walked the Wards to the lobby. Logan PI was in the midst of a distressingly recurrent cash-flow crisis, and I was eager to look for solutions. When I realized that I’d left my notepad in the conference room and walked back to get it, I glanced out the conference room window that overlooked the parking lot on the south side of our building and was surprised to see that Toni had walked Cecilia all the way down to their black Mercedes. Oliver was following and holding a black umbrella for the two women. I watched them as they talked by the car for a few seconds when suddenly, I was even more surprised to see Toni lean forward and hug Cecilia and then Oliver before they got in the car.
Really? I mean, she’s known them, what, a little over an hour? And already, she’s saying good-bye with a hug? I shook my head. Toni’s about a thousand times better with people than I am.
Could be it’s a gender thing. I didn’t used to pay any attention, but now I’m starting to notice that with guys, we tend to talk, ask questions, process information, and then move on. Not much in the way of subtleties, not much nuance—usually not much emotion unless we get pissed off for some reason. For us, things are pretty much black and white, thank you very much. Since I’ve been with Toni, I’ve learned that with women, it’s way different. They look for—and often seem to find—hidden layers of meanings, feelings, and whatnot—the kind of stuff guys like me never even see—the crap that goes right past us. Women find messages inside of messages. “What do you think she meant by that?” Toni would say after we’d leave a conversation with someone. I’d look at her, confused, and then I’d shrug. “I don’t know. Probably meant just what she said.” She’d give me a look that basically said I was completely hopeless. Fifty shades of gray? Yeah, I’d say . . . at least.
In early 2007 I was still in the army stationed at Fort Lewis. I was taking classes part-time at the University of Washington, working on my bachelor’s in law, societies, and justice—the U-Dub’s version of a criminal justice degree. I was already a senior when I met Toni. We shared several classes together that semester. I was obviously struck by her—she was drop-dead gorgeous—medium tall, slick black hair, striking tattoo on her left arm. Plus, she was smart and very nice to me to boot—something that I didn’t take for granted, since I was unmistakably a soldier and the war in the Middle East was not all that popular on the U-Dub campus back then. But the furthest thing from my mind then was that in less than six years, that beautiful woman and this former army grunt would fall in love and live and work together. I’d have sooner thought I’d win the lottery or maybe go to the moon.
Toni joined me when I started Logan PI in early 2008 right after we both graduated and I was discharged. After four years of professionally inspired “noninvolvement,” we finally connected early this year. Now, seven months later, things are clear to me. Toni was it—she is the one for me. I’m not saying I’m ready to actually get down on one knee and propose—I’m not quite there yet. But for me to even be thinking about the M word is pretty mind-blowing. I’m sure my head hasn’t fully caught up with my heart, but I am getting there.
Which causes me no small amount of consternation given the nature of our job. I turned and made my way back to my office. In the past year alone, I’d managed to put Toni into situations where she’d been jumped by assailants, kidnapped, drugged and left to die in a burning barn, been shot at, and forced to confront a gang of lecherous drug-addled pimps in order to save my sorry ass. Through it all, she came through better than I’d ever hoped. She doesn’t seem to get scared—she mostly gets mad. Sometimes, I think she’s as tough as I am. Other times, I’m pretty sure she’s tougher. And she’s smart and has a detective’s intuition to boot. But the closer we’ve grown, the more I worry about her.
I’d just opened a budget spreadsheet when she walked in. She plopped down in the chair across from me and, as is her habit, propped her Doc Martens up on my desk. “So what do you think?” Her eyes were sparkling as she grinned at me while giving her gum a real workout.
I shrugged, pretending nonchalance. “Interesting case.”
She stopped chewing, cocked her head and looked at me like I’d said something funny. Not hee-haw funny, but weird funny. “Interesting case? Okay. Let me put it to you another way. What do you think about the wealthy British family—royalty, practically—that seem to have decided that none other than little ole’ Logan PI is the only outfit in Seattle that can help them bring their daughter’s killer to justice? What do you think about that? Is that the kind of case you might happen to think would be good for our reputation? Our careers?” She shrugged. “Just askin’.”
I smiled. I knew Toni’s style well by now, and I’d seen and experienced most of her methods. Often, when she wanted to make a point with me, she started by questioning me, probing, to see if she could get me to commit one way or the other. I was wise to this, so I decided to flip the Q & A session back her way—see if I could get her to speak first. I shrugged, continuing to stare at the spreadsheet and act at least a little disinterested. “I’m not sure. What do you think?”
She gave me a hard look, then she shook her head and laughed. “Jesus, Logan. What is this? A test?” She stared at me for another couple of seconds, then she nodded and smiled—a sly little smile. “Okay. You want to play devil’s advocate. You want me to go first.” She nodded, then hopped up. “Alright, Mr. Smarty Pants, I’ll bite. How about this.” She leaned forward and said a single word. “Yes.”
“Yes. Hell, yes, in fact. Assuming Ron Bergstrom’s okay with it, I say yes—I think we should take this case. Yes, we can handle it. And, unless there’s some sort of dramatic revelation in the next, oh, say, ten minutes or so, I will state this very recommendation at the staff meeting.” There it was—the Toni Blair direct, in-your-face approach. No problem. I knew this approach too. I could deal with this.
I leaned across the desk until my face was inches from hers. “You’re sure about that, are you?”
She nodded. “Yes, I am. It’d be good for our rep.” She glanced at my computer screen and played her trump card. “And besides, think of the business. We sure could use the money.”
Ouch—not fair. Toni knew my soft spot and she went right for it. We hadn’t had a decent paying job in over a month and, if we didn’t get one soon, I’d be forced to dip into my “rainy day” fund—something I loathe doing. I equate it to going backward, and I’m a “going forward” kind of guy. Besides, I’d already had to tap the rainy day fund twice this year and it wasn’t all that healthy to begin with. This case could certainly be helpful, money-wise.
“And even aside from the money? Here’s something else,” she said.
“Yeah. There’s more.” She paused. “I like them.”
“You—” I started to say before she cut me off.
“I like them.” She enunciated each word slowly and distinctly. “I like the Wards. I know—Cecilia’s a little pushy, but that’s just who she is. Underneath all that, they seem like honest, sincere people.” She stood up. “Their niece has been murdered, and they need our help. The police seem to be stuck in the mud. Maybe we can make a difference.”
I shook my head. “Geez, Toni,” I said, speaking sincerely now. “It’s been three months. You really think we’re going to be able to do anything?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. But we’ll never know until we give it a try, right? That’s all they’re asking.”
I nodded, but I was skeptical.
She looked at me and gave me a smile. “Besides, you know us. We can usually stir things up if we try. Bull in a china shop, right?”
I thought about this for a few seconds, and then I shook my head. “Alright. Let’s bring it to the group.”
* * * *
The rest of the Logan PI crew was already in the office, so after Cecilia and Oliver left, I’d called a quick huddle-up in the conference room for an hour later at 11:00 a.m. When I walked in a couple minutes early, Toni was already there, talking to Richard Taylor. Richard’s a tall, white-haired seventy-something-year-old with bright blue eyes and a quick smile. After serving twenty-eight years on the Seattle PD and rising to the rank of lieutenant, he retired in 1988 and started Taylor Investigations. Twenty years later, he was slowing down a little, having fun doing guest lectures at the University of Washington where, in the fall of 2007, he’d met a couple of enthusiastic criminal justice students—Toni and me. A few months later, Richard and I made a deal, and he sold me his company. A couple months after that, we changed the name to Logan Private Investigations. Although he’s not technically an employee (he works his own hours now and receives no salary), Richard still loves the detective business. He’s been involved in nearly every major case we’ve worked. If he’s in town, he shows up nearly every day, and he rarely fails to make a meeting. We get the benefit of his nearly fifty years of law enforcement wisdom in exchange for simply providing him an office and a desk. He’s happy; we’re happy.
I walked over to my chair at the head of the conference table. “Morning, guys.”
“Good morning,” Richard said. “I understand you’ve got us a new case.”
I smiled and glanced at Toni. “I see that someone’s already filled you in.” Toni stuck her tongue out at me.
“No, no,” Richard said, sensitive to the game of office politics. “She just gave me a quick summary.”
“I’ll bet she did.” I sat down and leaned back in the big leather chair.
Richard continued. “But I have to say, from what I’ve heard, the case sounds excellent, Danny—a real high-profile job. Just what the business needs to bump us up to the next level.” Among Richard’s many talents is a keen appreciation for the business aspect of running a private investigation firm. He should know—he actually lived it for twenty years. He knows the importance of keeping the casebook filled. He smiled. “I can’t wait to talk about it.”
At that moment, Joaquin “Doc” Kiahtel walked into the conference room. Doc is a tall Chiricahua Apache Indian, transplanted to the rainy Northwest from the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico by way of an eight-year stint in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He’s a quiet man, someone who doesn’t usually reveal much in the way of outward emotions. I met him at Fort Lewis. Not counting Toni, he’s probably my best friend. “Hey, bro,” I said when he walked in.
He glanced at me and gave me a very slight nod and said, “Ya Ta Say.” This actually means something like, “Welcome, brother” in Apache, but Doc uses it more as an all-purpose greeting.
Doc was followed by Kenny Hale two minutes later. Kenny’s what you’d have to call the opposite of Doc. While Doc is tall—maybe six four or so—Kenny’s no more than five eight. Doc weighs in at around 230; Kenny’s 150 or 160 tops. Doc’s the strong, silent type. Kenny rarely shuts up. Doc’s an action guy. Kenny’s a cerebral kind of guy. He gets in trouble when he tries to become an action guy, which is why he’s our technology wizard. The firewall that Kenny can’t breach is yet to be invented. This comes in pretty handy for us because so much of PI work these days involves obtaining and interpreting data, which is invariably kept tucked away on databases somewhere.
This morning he was breathless. “Dude, I found her. This is it.”
I cocked my head and looked at Doc. He rolled his eyes a little and gave a quick shrug. I turned back to Kenny. “Great, man. I’m really happy. What are you talking about?”
He slid his chair back and flopped down. He paused, letting the tension build, and then he said, “I met someone.”
I studied him carefully. This had happened before, more than once.
“Not just anyone,” Kenny continued, “she’s the one.” He was beaming, and then suddenly got very serious. “Danny, I need to talk to you right after the meeting. Okay?”
I nodded. “No problem. Anytime.” This could be interesting.
I looked around and got the meeting started. “Well. Now that the announcements are out of the way, it appears as though Toni has a new case she wants to present—” I smiled at her, “—to those whom she hasn’t already presented it to.”
We hadn’t discussed how we’d present the case to the others beforehand. I’d have thought that my turning it over to her like that an hour after our meeting would have at least caught her a little off balance, but she jumped right in like we’d rehearsed it. I shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d even found time in the last hour to prepare a little PowerPoint presentation. She fired up the projector and had the show all ready to go, one step ahead of me. She walked to the monitor. “Okay. Let me get started.” She opened the file, and her first slide was a close-up of Sophie. “Please meet Sophie Thoms.”
The room was quiet—we all stared at the large photo without speaking. I’d only seen newspaper and TV photos before but seeing her now, larger than life on the screen in our conference room, I could see that Sophie had been a hauntingly beautiful young woman. She had long, golden-blonde hair with bangs and big, dark brown eyes that seemed to look right inside you. Her skin was very tan—the contrast with her light hair was striking. Knowing, as I did, that she was gone gave the photo a powerful, dramatic effect. Eerily, her eyes seemed able to look right through me, directly into my soul. I shuddered and stared, mesmerized, while Toni got started.
“You’ve all heard over the past few months about Sophie’s murder,” she said. She proceeded to give the timeline, such as we knew it, anyway. She flipped through maps that showed where Sophie lived, worked, and was ultimately found in the water. She described Sophie’s background—her parents, her sister, and her aunt and uncle. Her presentation was surprisingly detailed for one hour’s worth of prep. She was playing for keeps—she really wanted to sell the guys on this job. When she was finished, she concluded by saying, “Apparently, the police aren’t getting anywhere in finding Sophie’s killer, so when the family brought it up, SPD recommended that the family bring us in. This presents us with a wonderful opportunity to step into a high-profile case and maybe do some good and raise our image at the same time.” She paused a second, then advanced the slide back to the start—the close-up of Sophie. Cleary, she recognized the power of the photo. She turned to me. “That’s pretty much it.”
I nodded. “Good. Very good.” I turned to the group. “Comments?”
“Well, as I said earlier, I think this is very exciting,” Richard said. “Very exciting. A real opportunity. My only concern would have to be about coordination with SPD. But frankly, that’s an easy problem to solve. If SPD recommended us, then I suppose we just need to confirm that with Ron Bergstrom and figure out how they’d like us to fit in.” He looked at Toni, smiling broadly. “But Toni’s right. This is the kind of case that puts PI firms on the map.”
I nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate the high-profile aspect of this case, but there is something for us to consider.”
“Here he goes,” Toni said. “Mr. Buzzkill.”
I ignored her. “The last time we tracked down a murderer, three of us almost got burned up in a barn.”
“And blown up too,” Doc added.
I nodded. “That’s right. Who could forget? Anyway, burned up and then blown up. Nobody’s bothered by that? Nobody’s worried about the danger of going after a killer?”
Doc’s expression flashed a picture of contempt before quickly returning to normal. He’s seen plenty of bad guys in his time, and they don’t intimidate him much. “That last one didn’t turn out too bad,” he said. “And those guys were nasty. I’ll bet they were a lot more dangerous than whoever killed this girl.” He nodded toward the picture of Sophie.
“Could be,” I said. “But remember the old saying—just because you walk through a pit of snakes and come out the other side without getting bit the first time doesn’t mean the next snake you meet’s not gonna kill you.”
He looked at me and smiled slowly. “I like snakes.”
“C’mon, boss, let’s do it,” Kenny said. I turned to him. Kenny. Poor Kenny wasn’t even experienced enough to be scared.
I looked at Toni. “I already know how you feel,” I said.
She gave me a little shrug, and then raised her hand, rubbing her thumb and fingers together in the universal sign for money. She knew where I was weak, and she was reminding me.
In the end, she was right: this was a good job for us—we could definitely use the funds. I made my decision. “Alright. Let’s go the next step. We’ll talk to SPD and see how they feel. But listen to me and listen good: if we get in—we’re going to be careful, and we’re going to work as a team. Nobody gets kidnapped this time, right?”
* * * *
Ron Bergstrom works in the homicide division at SPD headquarters in downtown Seattle. He was out when I called, so I left a message. I hoped that he’d call back sometime that afternoon, because we’d promised the Wards we’d answer them the next morning. I’d just checked the time on my computer when Kenny knocked on the door frame. “Now a good time, boss?”
“You bet. Come on in.”
He stepped into my office and closed the door behind him. “Can I sit down?”
“Sure.” I pointed to one of the chairs across from my desk.
“Thanks. I’ve got something I need to ask you . . . it’s kind of a favor.”
“Fire away, man.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“It might piss you off.”
I tilted my head a little. “Quit screwin’ around—you’re starting to piss me off now.” I waved my hand in a “come on” motion. “Out with it.”
He squirmed in his chair. “Okay. I know that technically I’m supposed to be the head of IT around here.”
“Technically? Dude, you are the head of IT around here.”
“Yeah, I know. But I’ve got a new girlfriend . . .”
“So you said.”
“Yeah. It’s like, I was over at the GameStop in Bellevue Square, right? And I was checking out a poster for Halo 4.” He looked at me. “It’s not out yet. Anyway, I was looking at it, and I was asking this guy at the counter about video resolution on it, and this good-looking girl walks up and first thing she’s like, ‘It’s native 720p’ and I’m like, ‘No way,’ and she just nods her head.” He nodded his head to show me. “So I look at her and I’m like, ‘Really?’ And she says, ‘Yeah. I work for 3-4-3 in Kirkland. I’m on the development team.’” He leaned back and slapped his hand to his forehead. “Can you believe it? So we started talking and, and—dude, it was like magic.” He shook his head in wonderment. “We just hit it.”
I smiled and nodded. “That’s very cool, man. I’m happy for you.”
“Right.” He leaned forward and spoke softly. “Danny, she’s the one, I’m telling you. I never felt this way before.”
I smiled. “Congratulations. I can see she made an impression.”
“I knew you’d understand,” he said, “with you and Toni and all.”
I will say that even though I’d seen Kenny pretty worked up from time to time, I don’t think I’d ever seen him as excited as he was then. “So what’s all this have to do with you being head of IT?”
He sobered up fast. “That’s just it. I kind of fucked up.”
I stared at him for a few moments and, when he didn’t say anything, I made the little “c’mon” motion again with my hand.
“When I met Meghan—that’s my girlfriend’s name, Meghan. Anyway, when I met Meghan, I told her I was a private investigator.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“Well, she heard me, and she immediately interpreted that to mean I was like a field guy—kind of like Magnum, P.I.”
I nodded. “I can see where she might mistake you.”
“C’mon, boss,” he protested. “This is serious shit! She thought I was out doing hard-core investigation, like the kind of work you and Toni and Doc do.”
“You didn’t straighten her out? You didn’t tell her that you’re our computer specialist?”
He squirmed some more. “Not exactly. I mean, by that time, it was kinda too late. I couldn’t. I mean, she knows I work with computers. But she thinks I do that just as part of my bigger job.”
“Your ‘bigger job’ meaning Joe Super PI?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
I leaned back and rubbed my chin with my fist. “You tell her you sit in on stakeouts?”
“Yeah. She was impressed. But I think she believes I do more. She thinks I’m out solving cases.”
I thought for a few moments. Without doubt, Kenny does as much to solve cases around here as anyone. “Dude,” I said. “Hell, anyone can park their sorry ass in a van and stare at a door all day. No one can do what you do on computers though.”
He nodded. “I know.” He paused for a moment and didn’t say anything.
“So where’s all this leading, anyway? What do you want me to do?”
“Well, if it’s okay with you, I want to do more fieldwork for a while. I figure I can always move back into office work from the field later. That way, eventually I can tell Meghan I got kicked upstairs from the field, and it would be truthful.”
I rubbed my chin some more as I considered his request. “And your cred will be solid.”
He beamed. “Exactly. You got it.”
I nodded slowly for a couple of seconds, and then I folded my hands on my desk and looked straight at him. “Let me point something out, champ. Did you ever stop to consider that this little fabrication might not be the strongest foundation you could have on which to build your new relationship with Meghan? I mean, think about it. If she’s really your soul mate, the future love of your life, mother of your children—all that shit? If she’s all that, then this little shading-of-the-truth thing right off the bat might not be your wisest move.”
He leaned forward, excitedly. “But you see, that’s just it! It would be completely true. I’d actually be in the field.”
I looked at him, and then I shook my head slowly. “You’d ‘be in the field’? Dude, this sounds like you’re splitting hairs to me. Like it all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is—one of those sorts of things.”
He shrugged. “C’mon, boss. I really like her. I don’t want to screw this up any worse than I already have.”
I looked at him. “What about the computer work around here? If you’re out playing superhero, how’re we going to get by without your computer skills?”
He smiled. “Simple. I’ve got that figured out. I’ll do both. I can do the computer work on my laptop standing on my head. You know that.”
This was probably true.
I took a deep breath, and then blew it out slowly. “I don’t know, man. I got to say, I don’t think thi