PI Nikki Griffin – a badass bookseller who punishes abusers – is back in S. A. Lelchuk's One Got Away…
Nikki Griffin, a private-investigator when she isn’t running her small bookstore, is on a case. The matriarch of one of the wealthiest San Francisco families has been defrauded by a con-man, and her furious son enlists Nikki to find the money. And find the con-man.
Nikki isn’t a fan of men who hurt women. Her secret mission, born of revenge and trauma, is to do everything she can to remove women from dangerous situations—and to punish the men responsible.
As Nikki follows the trail toward the con-man, she realizes that no one involved is telling her the whole truth. When the case overlaps with her attempt to protect a woman in trouble, and Nikki’s own life is put in danger, Nikki has to make terrible choices about who to save—and how to keep herself alive.
Release date: April 13, 2021
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Print pages: 320
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One Got Away
When about to hand over the keys to something important, seeing doubt is never reassuring.
I raised my helmet visor. “You don’t park motorcycles, do you?”
The young valet eyed my red Aprilia like it might rear back and kick him. “I can try,” he offered. “I have a bicycle. Two wheels. That’s kind of the same.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
“There’s street parking down the block,” he suggested. In answer I pulled up next to the row of polished brass luggage carts, the motorcycle’s big engine echoing under the confines of the covered entrance. I cut the engine, used my bootheel to flip the kickstand down, swung a leg over, and pulled my helmet off.
“I’m not sure if you’re allowed to leave it there,” the valet said, watching me with mild interest.
I headed for the revolving door. “Call me an optimist.”
It was my first time at the Grand Peninsula in Nob Hill. A storied San Francisco hotel, white stone, colonnaded like a palace, partially rebuilt after catching fire in the 1906 quake. Presidents and movie stars had stayed here; weighty matters discussed by important people in tomb-silent suites. My motorcycle boots clicked through a marble lobby of soft peaches and grays, chandeliers spilling golden light. Whoever handled decorations had a healthy flower budget. Vases of careful arrangements spurted like bright fountains. The clientele seemed to be largely what someone had once described to me as WORMs: white, old, rich men. If there were other five-foot-eight women in leather bomber jackets and motorcycle boots, I wasn’t seeing them.
A bony manager type in a funeral-black suit approached. “Can I help you find something?”
“I could use an elevator. Got one?”
He didn’t smile. “Are you a guest?”
“In the next life, I hope.”
“In that case, who are you here to see?” he prodded.
“I thought that was my concern,” I said.
“If you’re sticking to the lobby. But the hotel’s concern—if you’re going up.”
I smoothed hair that had been mussed by my helmet. “Martin Johannessen asked me to meet him here. He should be expecting me.”
The manager took a deferential step back, as though a scowling, ten-foot-tall Johannessen might pop up in front of him. “My apologies.”
Apparently, the person I was about to meet could open doors. About five seconds later, I was in a very nice elevator, headed up to the penthouse level. The gilded door and ornamental bars made me feel like a bird in the world’s most expensive cage.
* * *
“Nikki Griffin. Thank you for coming on short notice.”
Martin Johannessen was in his mid-fifties, clean-shaven and fastidious, dressed in a navy suit. I didn’t know much about men’s fashion, but he didn’t seem to shop in the clearance bins. I followed him into a spacious living area scattered with plush couches and polished furniture. Floor-to-ceiling windows showed off the San Francisco Bay. It was a mirror-clear day and I could see Alcatraz Island and, beyond that, the Golden Gate.
“Coffee? Tea?” he offered.
Martin pressed a button on the wall. “They’ll bring some. Come, sit.”
We sat. I crossed my legs and got comfortable. “What’s the problem?” I asked him.
He frowned. “How do you know there’s a problem?”
“People don’t hire me for wedding planning.”
“True enough, I suppose.” He seemed to be thinking about where to start. A distracted man who, even in the midst of his distraction, meant to be careful about what any speech might cost him. “There is, as you surmise, a problem,” he finally admitted. “Rather a substantial one, in fact. It has to do with Mother.”
He fell silent as a waiter rang and entered, pushing a linen-covered service cart. The waiter poured coffee for us out of a silver urn, then set the urn down and left. Johannessen fiddled with the creamer as he continued. “Mother is quite elderly, at eighty-one, but still insists on staying in the same Russian Hill duplex she’s occupied for the past twenty-five years, since my father passed. She can be quite fixed in her ways. It was only after she backed into a gas station attendant last year that we got her to finally agree to a chauffeur.”
“Better late than never,” I observed, since he seemed to expect me to say something.
“That’s quintessential Mother,” he went on. “As her son, I feel I can use the word ‘stubborn’ with both affection and accuracy. And Mother insists on maintaining a rather high degree of control over her affairs.”
“I like her already.”
Johannessen gave me a thin smile. “Many people like Mother. She is undeniably vivacious. She is also undeniably wealthy.” He offered a meaningful look. “Some people like that, too.”
I didn’t say anything. He wasn’t done.
“After my father passed, she never remarried, but she continued to see a series of … well, gentleman friends, for lack of a better term. Dalliances, affairs of the heart, whatever you want to call it. Which is fine, of course. She should be free to see whomever she likes.” He added sugar to his coffee, sipped, then added more.
I had already lapped him. I helped myself to another cup. Seeing he had fallen quiet, I prompted, “Except.”
As I had hoped, the word seemed to wind the music box back up. “Recently, this past year, she began seeing a younger man,” Martin resumed. “A much younger man. An Englishman, an Oxford-educated psychologist in town for a lecture series. Mother became quite … enamored of this fellow. Not that she shared a great deal of this with us, God forbid. She plays her cards close, Mother does.”
He looked surprised at the question. “Myself and my three siblings. William and Ron—my two older brothers—and Susan, my younger sister.”
I took advantage of the moment to ask, “Are you close with them?”
Martin stirred his coffee. “Maybe close is the wrong word. My sister maintains a certain remove from our family. As for my brother William, he was in a rather awful accident almost a month ago. It left him in a less than communicative state.”
“Ron?” He seemed to be thinking how to phrase something. “At no time in my life would I have called us especially close.” Family was not a topic that Martin seemed to relish discussing.
“So, Dr. Oxford, on the lecture circuit,” I said.
Martin nodded. “Except it turns out that the fellow is neither a doctor nor an Oxford man.”
As the saying went, a stitch in time saved nine. “How much?”
He stared. “How much?”
“How much has he taken? Isn’t that why I’m here?”
“You certainly have a way of cutting to the chase, Nikki.” He sipped his coffee, different emotions playing over his narrow face. “Mother, as I said, demands a high degree of autonomy over her affairs, but I’ve managed to get my hands on a few of her financial statements. As best we can tell, over the last year she has transferred at least one point five million dollars to Dr. Geoffrey Tyler Coombs. Needless to say, the man does his banking offshore.”
“One and a half million. No wonder you want to get it back.”
“Yes, indeed,” Martin agreed. “A lot of money. And that’s not counting several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of luxury watches, hotel stays, and some extraordinarily sizable department store bills. And a Porsche.”
I tried to think of something cheerful to say. “Boxster?”
“No such luck. A 911.” His face drooped. “Fully loaded.”
I poured myself a third cup of coffee. “How bad a dent did that leave?”
“Well, the money is obviously significant, but truth be told, Mother will be fine.”
“Just to be clear, he’s not actually stealing this?”
Martin shook his head. “I wish he was, believe me. Things would be a lot less complicated. But no, Mother has been duped into giving all this freely enough, from a legal standpoint.”
“Then what’s bugging you, the morality?”
He didn’t answer directly. “May I ask, Nikki, what you know about our family?”
I shrugged. “Same as most people, probably. You oversee a pharmaceutical fortune over a century old, you give money to every worthy cause between here and Pluto, and you pop up on the Forbes lists as fast as they can print them.”
“True enough.” He nodded in assent. “But there’s a reason you don’t read much about our family in the papers. Despite our considerable holdings and fairly prominent place in San Francisco society, we have always prized discretion. No messy tabloid fodder, no melodramatic suicides or scandals. There’s the well-known saying that all press is good press. Members of our family are taught from a young age to believe the reverse. With the exception of our charitable works and foundation, we try to avoid publicity.”
There didn’t seem to be anything for me to say, so I kept quiet.
Johannessen poured more coffee for himself. “My mother is elderly. She hasn’t been in perfect health. I loathe the idea of her being taken advantage of—conned, to call a spade a spade.”
“Does she feel that way?” I wondered.
“Does anyone who’s being conned?” he returned. “By the time they understand the truth, it’s too late. In the meantime, for all I know, maybe it feels like the most exciting thing in the world. As her son, I want to intervene before things reach a point of real harm. The man is a thief and deserves consequences, but I am also motivated by a more practical concern. If word gets out that our family is an easy target, every swindler in the world will show up with a bouquet of roses and sweet words for Mother.”
“Why not go to the police?”
“He’s done nothing illegal. Not yet, anyway.”
“So what do you want me to do?” There were a few reasons people liked to avoid police. My prospective client had named only one of them.
As if confirming my thought, Martin steepled his hands and stared at his intertwined fingers. “I overheard a conversation between them. Very recently, this was, last week. I have reason to believe that my mother is being blackmailed by this man.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“They were talking quite frankly about money—but a much larger amount, in the millions. I heard him tell her that she needed to decide soon—something to that effect. Or the genie would be out of the bottle—that was the phrase he used.”
“Do you know what it’s about? The blackmail?”
He shook his head. “I have no idea. That’s what I need you to learn.”
“Did you try asking your mother? That seems easiest.”
Martin’s face soured. “My mother can be quite private. My whole life, she has always made it clear that she will come to us if seeking our advice. I tried to talk to her and got nowhere.”
“What do you want me to do after I find out? If I can find out.”
Martin had clearly thought about this. “Then we offer Coombs a choice. Either lay off and buy a one-way ticket out of town, or face immediate arrest.” He turned the cup in his hands. “Can I count on you, Nikki? Will you help?”
“I can try.” I poured myself more coffee. I’d gone through three cups already, and had every intention of continuing right through to the end of the pot or the end of the meeting, whichever came first. I drank my coffee black. Cream and sugar were distractions. The Grand Peninsula did a good job with their coffee. Fancy hotels didn’t always guarantee good coffee. Kind of like family money didn’t always guarantee good sense.
“You’ll be working on an expense account, naturally,” added Martin. “Spare no cost whatsoever.”
I nodded, hoping he wouldn’t add that I should leave no stone unturned. It was astounding how many new clients felt the need to drop that in.
He pulled a wallet-size photograph from his pocket. “Take this. You can keep it.”
I put my cup down and took the picture, seeing a broad-shouldered, good-looking man in a tailored pearl-gray suit, sitting at an outdoor café. Gold flashed from a cuff link, and his eyes were piercing blue. I looked closely. There was something about his face. Even here, through the small photograph. As though his eyes seemed to promise interesting things.
“Anything else you need?” Martin wondered.
Copyright © 2021 by S. A. Lelchuk
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