Release date: May 26, 2020
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 417
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Listen to a sample
She liked his car. It was the first time she had been in an electric. All she could hear was the wind as they cut through the night.
“So quiet,” she said.
Only two words and she had slurred them. The third Cosmo had done something to her tongue.
“It’ll sneak up on you,” the driver said. “That’s for sure.”
He looked over at her and smiled. But she thought he was just checking on her because she had messed up her words.
He then turned and nodded through the windshield.
“We’re here,” he said. “Is there parking?”
“You can park behind my car,” she said. “I have two spaces in the garage but they’re like…one behind the other. Totem, I think it’s called.”
“Oh, right, right. Tandem.”
She started to laugh at her mistake, a spiral laugh she couldn’t get out of. The Cosmos again. And the drops from the green pharmacy she took before heading out in the Uber that night.
The man lowered his window and crisp evening air invaded the comfort of the car.
“Can you remember the combo?” he asked.
Tina pulled herself up in the seat so she could look around better and get her bearings. She recognized that they were already outside the garage gate at her apartment. That didn’t seem right. She could not remember telling him where she lived.
“The combo?” he asked again.
The keypad was on the wall and within reach from the driver’s window. She realized that she knew the combo that would open the gate but she could not remember the name of the man she had chosen to take home.
As he punched the numbers in she tried not to laugh again. Some guys really hated that.
They entered the garage and she pointed to the spot where he could pull in behind her Mini. Soon they were on the elevator and she pushed the correct button and then leaned into him for support. He put his arm around her and held her up.
“Do you have a nickname?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Like, what do people call you? You know, for fun.”
He shook his head.
“I guess they just call me by my name,” he said.
No help there. She dropped it. She could figure out his name later, but the truth was she probably wouldn’t need it. There would be no later. There almost never was.
The door opened on the third floor and she led him into the hallway. Her apartment was two doors down.
The sex was good but not extraordinary. The only thing unusual was that he didn’t push back against her requirement of a condom. He had even brought his own. Kudos for that but she still thought he would be a one-timer. The search for that indescribable thing that would fill up the emptiness inside would go on.
After he flushed the condom he got back into bed with her. She was hoping for an excuse—early start in the morning, wife waiting at home, anything—but he wanted to get back in bed and cuddle. He roughly moved in behind her and turned her so her back was against his chest. He had shaved himself and she could feel the tiny spikes of returning hair pricking her back.
She got no further with the complaint. He pivoted his body and now she was on her back completely on top of him. His chest was like sandpaper. His arm came around from behind her and he bent it at the elbow into a V. He then used his free hand to push her neck into the V. He tightened his arms and she felt her air passages collapse. She could not yell for help. She had no air to make a sound. She struggled but her legs were tangled in the sheets and he was too strong. His hold on her neck was an iron vise.
Darkness began shading the edges of her vision. He raised his head off the bed and brought his mouth to her ear.
“People call me the Shrike,” he whispered.
I had called the story “The King of Con Artists.” At least that was my headline. I typed it up top but was pretty sure it would get changed because it would be overstepping my bounds as a reporter to turn in a story with a headline. The headlines and the decks below them were the purview of the editor and I could already hear Myron Levin chiding, “Does the editor rewrite your ledes or call up the subjects of your pieces to ask additional questions? No, he doesn’t. He stays in his lane and that means you need to stay in yours.”
Since Myron was that editor, it would be hard to come back with any sort of defense. But I sent in the story with the suggested headline anyway because it was perfect. The story was about the dark netherworld of the debt-collection business—$600 million a year of it siphoned off in scams—and the rule at FairWarning was to bring every fraud down to a face, either the predator’s or the prey’s, the victim’s or the victimizer’s. And this time it was the predator. Arthur Hathaway, the King of Con Artists, was the best of the best. At sixty-two years old, he had worked every con imaginable in a life of crime centered in Los Angeles, from selling fake gold bars to setting up phony disaster-relief websites. Right now, he ran a racket convincing people they owed money that they didn’t really owe, and getting them to pay it. And he was so good at it that junior swindlers were paying him for lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays at a defunct acting studio in Van Nuys. I had infiltrated as one of his students and learned all I could. Now it was time to write the story and use Arthur to expose an industry that bilked millions each year from everybody from little old ladies with dwindling bank accounts to young professionals already deep in the red with college loans. They all fell victim and sent their money because Arthur Hathaway convinced them to send it. And now he was teaching eleven future con men and one undercover reporter how to do it for fifty bucks a head twice a week. The swindler school itself might be his greatest con of all. The guy was truly a king with a psychopath’s complete lack of guilt. I also had reporting in the story on the victims whose bank accounts he had cleaned out and whose lives he had ruined.
Myron had already placed the story as a co-project with the Los Angeles Times, and that guaranteed it would be seen and the Los Angeles Police Department would have to take notice. King Arthur’s reign would soon be over and his roundtable of junior con men would be rounded up as well.
I read the story a final time and sent it to Myron, copying William Marchand, the attorney who reviewed all FairWarning stories pro bono. We didn’t put anything up on the website that was not legally bulletproof. FairWarning was a five-person operation if you counted the reporter in Washington, DC, who worked out of her home. One “wrong story” spawning a winning lawsuit or forced settlement would put us out of business, and then I’d be what I had been at least twice before in my career: a reporter with no place to go.
I got up from my cubby to tell Myron the story was finally in, but he was in his own cubicle talking on the phone, and I could tell as I approached that he was on a fundraising call. Myron was founder, editor, reporter, and chief fundraiser for FairWarning. It was an Internet news site with no paywall. There was a donate button at the bottom page of every story and sometimes at the top, but Myron was always looking for the great white whale who would sponsor us and turn us from beggars into choosers—at least for a while.
“There really is no entity doing what we’re doing—tough watchdog journalism for the consumer,” Myron told each prospective donor. “If you check out our site you’ll see many stories in the archives that take on powerful kingpin industries including auto, pharmaceutical, wireless, and tobacco companies. And with the current administration’s philosophy of deregulation and limiting oversight, there is nobody out there looking out for the little guy. Look, I get it, there are donations you could make that might give you a more visible bang for your buck. Twenty-five dollars a month keeps a kid fed and clothed in Appalachia. I get that. It makes you feel good. But you donate to FairWarning, and what you are supporting is a team of reporters dedicated to—”
I heard “the pitch” several times a day, day in and day out. I also attended the Sunday salons where Myron and board members spoke to potential white-hat donors, and I mingled with them afterward, mentioning the stories I was working on. I had some extra cachet at these gatherings as the author of two bestselling books, though it was never mentioned that it had been more than ten years since I had published anything. I knew the pitch was important and vital to my own paycheck—not that I was getting anywhere close to a living wage for Los Angeles—but I had heard it so many times in my four years at FairWarning that I could recite it in my sleep. Backward.
Myron stopped to listen to his potential investor and muted the phone before looking up at me.
“You in?” he asked.
“Just sent it,” I said. “Also to Bill.”
“Okay, I’ll read it tonight and we can talk tomorrow if I have anything.”
“It’s good to go. Even has a great headline on it. You just need to write the deck.”
“You better be—”
He took his phone off mute so he could respond to a question. I gave him a salute and headed toward the door, stopping by Emily Atwater’s cubicle on my way out to say goodbye. She was the only other staffer in the office at the moment.
“Cheers,” she said in her crisp British accent.
We worked out of an office in a typical two-story plaza in Studio City. The first level was all retail and food, while the second floor was walk-in businesses like car insurance, manicure/pedicure, yoga, and acupuncture. Except us. FairWarning wasn’t a walk-in business, but the office came cheap because it was located above a marijuana dispensary and the venting in the building was such that it brought the aroma of fresh product inside our office 24/7. Myron took the place at a heavy discount.
The plaza was L-shaped and had an underground parking garage with five assigned spaces for FairWarning employees and visitors. That was a major perk. Parking in the city was always an issue. And sheltered parking was an even bigger perk for me because this was sunny California and I rarely put the top up on my Jeep.
I had bought the Wrangler new with the advance on my last book, and the odometer served as a reminder of how long it had been since I was buying new cars and riding bestseller lists. I checked it as I fired up the engine. I had strayed 162,172 miles from the path I had once been on.
I lived in Sherman Oaks on Woodman Avenue by the 101 freeway. It was a 1980s Cape Cod–style apartment building of twenty-four townhomes that formed a rectangle enclosing a courtyard with a community pool and barbecue area. It, too, had parking underneath.
Most of the apartment buildings on Woodman had names such as the Capri and Oak Crest and the like. My building stood nameless. I had moved in only a year and a half before, after selling the condo I had bought with that same book advance. The royalty checks had been getting smaller and smaller each year and I was in the midst of reordering my life to live within the paychecks from FairWarning. It was a difficult transition.
As I waited on the sloping driveway for the garage gate to lift, I noticed two men in suits standing at the call box at the pedestrian gate to the complex. One was white and middle fifties, the other a couple of decades younger and Asian. A little kick of wind opened the Asian man’s jacket and I got a glimpse of the badge on his belt.
I drove down into the garage and kept my eyes on the rearview. They followed me down the slope and in. I pulled into my assigned space and killed the engine. By the time I grabbed my backpack and got out, they were behind the Jeep and waiting.
He had gotten the name right but had pronounced it wrong. Mick-a-voy.
“Yes, McEvoy,” I said, correcting him. Mack-a-voy. “What’s going on?”
“I’m Detective Mattson, LAPD,” the older of the two said. “This is my partner, Detective Sakai. We need to ask you a few questions.”
Mattson opened his jacket to show that he, too, had a badge, and the gun to go with it.
“Okay,” I said. “About what?”
“Can we go up to your place?” Mattson asked. “Something more private than a garage?”
He gestured to the space around them as if there were people listening from all quarters, but the garage was empty.
“I guess so,” I said. “Follow me. I usually take the stairs up but if you guys want the elevator, it’s down at that end.”
I pointed to the end of the garage. My Jeep was parked in the middle and right across from the stairs leading up to the center courtyard.
“Stairs are good,” Mattson said.
I headed that way and the detectives followed. The whole way to my apartment door I was trying to think in terms of my work. What had I done that would draw the attention of the LAPD? While the reporters at FairWarning had a lot of freedom to pursue stories, there was a general division of labor, and criminal scams and schemes were part of my turf along with Internet-related reporting.
I began to wonder if my Arthur Hathaway story had run across a criminal investigation of the swindler and whether Mattson and Sakai were about to ask me to hold the story back. But as soon as I thought of that possibility, I dismissed it. If that were the case, they would have come to my office, not my home. And it probably would have started with a phone call, not an in-person show-up.
“What unit are you from?” I asked as we crossed the courtyard toward apartment 7 on the other side of the pool.
“We work downtown,” Mattson said, being coy, while his partner stayed silent.
“What crime unit, I mean,” I said.
“Robbery-Homicide Division,” Mattson said.
I didn’t write about the LAPD per se, but in the past I had. I knew that the elite squads worked out of the downtown headquarters, and RHD, as it was called, was the elite of the elite.
“So then what are we talking about here?” I said. “Robbery or homicide?”
“Let’s go inside before we start talking,” Mattson said.
I got to my front door. His nonanswer seemed to push the answer toward homicide. My keys were in my hand. Before unlocking the door, I turned and looked at the two men standing behind me.
“My brother was a homicide detective,” I said.
“Really?” Mattson said.
“LAPD?” Sakai asked, his first words.
“No,” I said. “Out in Denver.”
“Good on him,” Mattson said. “He’s retired?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “He was killed in the line of duty.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mattson said.
I nodded and turned back to the door to unlock it. I wasn’t sure why I had blurted that out about my brother. It was not something I usually shared. People who knew my books knew it, but I didn’t mention it in day-to-day conversation. It had happened a long time ago in what seemed like another life.
I got the door open and we entered. I flicked on the light. I had one of the smallest units in the complex. The bottom floor was open-plan, with a living room flowing into a small dining area and then the kitchen beyond it, separated only by a counter with a sink. Along the right wall was a set of stairs leading up to a loft, which was my bedroom. There was a full bath up there and a half bath on the bottom floor beneath the stairs. Less than a thousand square feet in total. The place was neat and orderly but that was only because it was starkly furnished and featured little in the way of personal touches. I had turned the dining-room table into a work area. A printer sat at the head of the table. Everything was set for me to go to work on my next book—and it had been that way since I moved in.
“Nice place. You been here long?” Mattson asked.
“About a year and a half,” I said. “Can I ask what this—”
“Why don’t you have a seat on the couch there?”
Mattson pointed to the couch that was positioned for watching the flat screen on the wall over the gas fireplace I never used.
There were two other chairs across a coffee table, but like the couch they were threadbare and worn, having spent decades in my prior homes. The decline of my fortunes was reflected in my housing and transportation.
Mattson looked at the two chairs, chose the one that looked cleaner and sat down. Sakai, the stoic, remained standing.
“So, Jack,” Mattson said. “We’re working a homicide and your name came up in the investigation and that’s why we’re here. We have—”
“Who got killed?” I asked.
“A woman named Christina Portrero. You know that name?”
I spun it through all the circuits on high speed and came back with a blank.
“No, I don’t think so. How did my name—”
“She went by Tina most of the time. Does that help?”
Once more through the circuits. The name hit. Hearing the full name coming from two homicide detectives had unnerved me and knocked the initial recognition out of my head.
“Oh, wait, yeah, I knew a Tina—Tina Portrero.”
“But you just said you didn’t know the name.”
“I know. It just, you know, out of the blue it didn’t connect. But yes, we met once and that was it.”
Mattson didn’t answer. He turned and nodded to his partner. Sakai moved forward and held his phone out to me. On the screen was a posed photo of a woman with dark hair and even darker eyes. She had a deep tan and looked mid-thirties but I knew she was closer to mid-forties. I nodded.
“That’s her,” I said.
“Good,” Mattson said. “How’d you meet?”
“Down the street here. There’s a restaurant called Mistral. I moved here from Hollywood, didn’t really know anyone and was trying to get to know the neighborhood. I’d walk down there for a drink every now and then because I didn’t have to worry about driving. I met her there.”
“When was this?”
“I can’t pinpoint the exact date but I think it was about six months after I moved in here. So about a year ago. Probably a Friday night. That’s when I would usually go down there.”
“Did you have sex with her?”
I should have anticipated the question but it hit me unexpectedly.
“That’s none of your business,” I said. “It was a year ago.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Mattson said. “Did you come back here?”
I understood that Mattson and Sakai obviously knew more about the circumstances of Tina Portrero’s murder than I did. But the questions about what happened between us a year ago seemed overly important to them.
“This is crazy,” I said. “I was with her one time and nothing ever came of it afterward. Why are you asking me these questions?”
“Because we’re investigating her murder,” Mattson said. “We need to know everything we can about her and her activities. It doesn’t matter how long ago. So I will ask you again: Was Tina Portrero ever in this apartment?”
I threw my hands up in a gesture of surrender.
“Yes,” I said. “A year ago.”
“She stay over?” Mattson asked.
“No, she stayed a couple hours, then she got an Uber.”
Mattson didn’t immediately ask a follow-up. He studied me for a long moment, as if trying to decide how to proceed.
“Would you have any of her property in this apartment?” he asked.
“No,” I protested. “What property?”
He ignored my question and came back with his own.
“Where were you last Wednesday night?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, we’re not.”
“What time Wednesday night?”
“Let’s say between ten and midnight.”
I knew I had been at Arthur Hathaway’s seminar on how to rip people off until the 10 p.m. start of that window. But I also knew that it was a seminar for con artists and therefore didn’t really exist. If these detectives tried to check out that part of my alibi, they either would not be able to confirm the seminar even existed or would not be able to find anyone to confirm I was there, because that would be acknowledging that they were there. No one would want to do this. Especially after the story I just turned in was published.
“Uh, I was in my car from about ten to ten twenty and then after that I was here.”
“Yes. Look, this is crazy. I was with her one night a year ago and then neither of us kept in contact. It was a no-go for both of us. You understand?”
“You sure about that? Both of you?”
“I’m sure. I never called her, she never called me. And I never saw her at Mistral again.”
“How’d that make you feel?”
I laughed uneasily.
“How did what make me feel?”
“Her not calling you back after?”
“Did you hear what I said? I didn’t call her and she didn’t call me. It was mutual. It just wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
“Was she drunk that night?”
“Drunk, no. We had a couple of drinks there. I paid the tab.”
“What about back here? More drinks or right up to the loft?”
Mattson pointed upstairs.
“No more drinks here,” I said.
“And everything was consensual?” Mattson said.
I stood up. I’d had enough.
“Look, I’ve answered your questions,” I said. “And you’re wasting your time.”
“We’ll decide if we’re wasting our time,” Mattson said. “We are almost finished here and I would appreciate it if you would sit back down, Mr. McEvoy.”
He pronounced my name wrong again, probably intentionally.
I sat back down.
“I’m a journalist, okay?” I said. “I’ve covered crime—I’ve written books about murderers. I know what you’re doing, trying to knock me off my game so I’ll make some kind of admission. But it’s not going to happen, because I don’t know anything about this. So could you please—”
“We know who you are,” Mattson said. “You think we would come out here without knowing who we’re dealing with? You’re the Velvet Coffin guy, and just for the record, I worked with Rodney Fletcher. He was a friend and what happened to him was bullshit.”
There it was. The cause of the enmity that was dripping off Mattson like sap off a tree.
“Velvet Coffin closed down four years ago,” I said. “Mostly because of the Fletcher story—which was one hundred percent accurate. There was no way of knowing he would do what he did. Anyway, I work someplace else now and write consumer-protection stories. I’m not on the cop shop.”
“Good for you. Can we get back to Tina Portrero?”
“There is nothing to get back to.”
“How old are you?”
“You already know, I’m sure. And what’s that got to do with anything?”
“You seem kind of old for her. For Tina.”
“She was an attractive woman and older than she looked or claimed to be. She told me she was thirty-nine when I met her that night.”
“But that’s the point, right? She was older than she looked. You, a guy in your fifties, moving in on a lady you thought was in her thirties. Kind of creepy, you ask me.”
I felt my face turning red with embarrassment and indignation.
“For the record, I didn’t ‘move in on’ her,” I said. “She picked up her Cosmo and came down the bar to me. That’s how it started.”
“Good for you,” Mattson said sarcastically. “Must’ve made your ego stand at attention. So let’s go back to Wednesday. Where were you coming from during those twenty minutes you said you were in the car driving home that night?”
“It was a work meeting,” I said.
“With people that we could talk to and verify if we need to?”
“If it comes to that. But you are—”
“Good. So tell us again about you and Tina.”
I could tell what he was doing. Jumping around with his questions, trying to keep me off balance. I covered cops for almost two decades for two different newspapers and the Velvet Coffin blog. I knew how it worked. Any slight discrepancy in retelling the story and they would have what they needed.
“No, I already told you everything. You want any more information from me, then you have to give information.”
The detectives were silent, apparently deciding whether to deal. I jumped in with the first question that came to mind.
“How did she die?” I asked.
“She had her neck snapped,” Mattson said.
“Atlanto-occipital dislocation,” Sakai said.
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
“Internal decapitation,” Mattson said. “Somebody did a one-eighty on her neck. It was a bad way to go.”
I felt a deep pressure begin to grow in my chest. I did not know Tina Portrero beyond the one evening I was with her, but I couldn’t get the image of her—refreshed by the photo shown by Sakai—being killed in such a horrible manner out of my mind.
“It’s like that movie The Exorcist,” Mattson said. “Remember that? With the possessed girl’s head twisting around.”
That didn’t help things.
“Where was this?” I asked, trying to move on from the images.
“Landlord found her in the shower,” Mattson continued. “Her body was covering the drain and it overflowed and he came to check it out. He found her, water still running. It was supposed to look like a slip-and-fall but we know better. You don’t slip in the shower and break your neck. Not like that.”
I nodded as though that was good information to know.
“Okay, look,” I said. “I didn’t have anything to do with this and can’t help you with your investigation. So if there are no other questions, I would like—”
“There are more questions, Jack,” Mattson said sternly. “We are only getting started with this investigation.”
“Then what? What else do you want to know from me?”
“You being a reporter and all, do you know what ‘digital stalking’ is?”
“You mean like social media and tracking people through that?”
“I’m asking questions. You’re supposed to answer them.” . . .
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