Prologue | "YOU'RE DEAD, JACK"
TO THE BEST OF my understandably shaky recollection, the first time I died it went something like this.
Mortar rounds were thumping all around me, releasing what sounded like a shower of razor blades. I was carrying Marine Corporal Danny Young over my shoulder, and I loved this guy. He was the toughest soldier I’d ever fought beside, funny as hell, and best of all, he was hopeful --- his wife back in West Texas was pregnant with their fourth kid.
Now his blood bubbled down my flight suit, splashing on my boots like water from a drainpipe.
I ran across rocky ground in the dark, and I choked out to Danny, “I’ve got you; I’ve got you. Just stay with me, you hear me?”
I lowered him to the ground a few yards away from the helicopter, and suddenly there was a concussive explosion, as though the ground had blown up around me. I felt a stunning hammer strike to my chest, and that was the end.
I died. I passed to the other side. I don’t even know how long I was gone.
Del Rio told me later that my heart had stopped.
I just remember swimming up to the light, and the pain, and the awful reek of aviation fuel.
My eyes flashed open and there was Del Rio in my face, his hands pressing down on my chest. He laughed when my eyes opened --- and at the same time tears ran down his cheeks. He said, “Jack, you son of a bitch, you’re back.”
A dense curtain of oily black smoke rolled over us. Danny Young lay right there beside me, his legs splayed at weird angles, and behind Del Rio was the helicopter, burning bright white, getting ready to blow.
My buddies were still in there. My friends. Guys who had risked their lives for me.
I choked out a few words. “We’ve got to get them out of there.”
Del Rio tried his best to hold me down, but I used an elbow to swing at his jaw, and connected. He fell back and I got away from him, started running toward the fallen bird just as its magnesium skin caught fire.
There were Marines in there, and I had to get them out.
The fearsome chunk-a chunk-a chunk of fifty-caliber machine gun ammo hammered. Ordnance exploded inside the aircraft. Del Rio shouted, “Get down, asshole. Jack, get the hell down!”
I felt all of his hundred and ninety pounds as he tackled me to the ground, and the helicopter disappeared in white-hot flames. I wasn’t dead, but a lot of my friends were. I swear to God, I would have traded myself for them.
I guess that says a lot about me, and I’m not so sure that all of it is good. You’ll see, and you can be the judge.
Sit back; it’s a long story but a good one.
Prologue | " YOU'RE DEAD, JACK"
IT WAS TWO YEARS after I got back from Afghanistan and the war. I hadn’t seen my father in over a year, had no reason or desire to see him again. But when he called, he said he had something important to tell me. He said it was urgent and that it was going to change my life.
My father was a manipulative, lying bastard, but he’d hooked me, so there I was, walking through the forbidding visitors’ gate of California State Prison at Corcoran.
Ten minutes later, I took a seat at the Plexiglas partition as he came into the cubicle on the other side and grinned at me, showing his gappy teeth. He had been handsome once; now he looked like Harrison Ford on meth.
He grabbed the phone, and I did the same on my side of the partition.
“You’re looking good, Jack. Life must be agreeing with you.”
I said, “You’ve lost weight.”
“The food here is for rats, son.”
My father picked up where he had left off the last time I’d seen him. Telling me how there were no gentleman crooks anymore, just punks. “They kill a clerk at a Stop-N-Go. Turn a robbery into a life sentence --- for what? A hundred bucks?”
Listening to him made my head hurt and my back and neck stiffen. He ragged on blacks and Hispanics for being stupid, and here he was, serving life for extortion and murder. Same time, same place as the punks. I felt ashamed for all of the years I’d spent looking up to him, turning myself inside out to get an “Atta boy, Jack” instead of the back of his hand.
“Tell you what, Tom,” I said. “I’ll have a chat with the warden. See if I can get you transferred to the Bel-Air or the Beverly Wilshire.”
He laughed. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
I finally smiled. “You never change.”
He shrugged and grinned back at me. “Why should I, Jack?”
I noticed new tats on my father’s knuckles. My name was on his left hand, my brother’s name on the right. He used to knock us around with those fists, what he called “the old one-two.” I drummed my fingers on the ledge.
“Am I boring you?” he asked.
“Hell, no. I parked my car in front of a hydrant.”
My father laughed again, said, “I look at you, I see myself. When I was an idealist.”
Narcissistic SOB. He still thought he was my idol, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“Jack, let me ask you a serious question. You like working for that useless, pathetic hack Pinkus PI?”
“Prentiss. I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m happy. It’s a job I’m good at.”
“You’re wasting your time, Jack. And I’ve got a better offer.” He made sure he had my attention, then said, “I want you to take over Private.”
I guess he’d gotten to the part that was supposed to change my life.
“Dad. Remember? All that’s left of Private are a lot of file cabinets in a storage unit.”
“You’re going to get a package tomorrow,” my father continued, as if I hadn’t spoken. “It’s a list of all my clients --- and the dirt I had on them. There’s also a document putting your name on my bank account in the Caymans,” he said. “Fifteen million dollars, Jack. All yours. Do with it what you will.”
I raised my eyebrows. Private had once done first-class investigation for movie stars, politicians, multimillionaires, even the White House. My dad had charged the maximum for his services. But fifteen million? How had he earned that much, and did I really want to know?
“What’s the catch, right?” he said. “Simple. Don’t tell your twin about the money. Anything I ever gave him he snorted or gambled. This is your birthright, Jack. I’m trying to do the right thing for once in my life.”
“Did you hear me say that I’m happy at Prentiss?” I said.
“I wish you could see your face, Jack. Listen to me. Stop being the ‘good twin’ for half a frickin’ second and think this through. There’s no such thing as good money and bad money. It’s all the same. Just a medium of exchange. And this is an opportunity, a big one. Fifteen million dollars’ worth of opportunity.
“I want Private to be remembered as the best. You’re a smart, good-looking kid, and on top of that, you’re a frickin’ war hero. Bring Private back to life. Do it for me, and more important, do it for yourself. Don’t talk yourself out of a really good thing. Make Private the best in the world. You have the money, the talent --- and the compassion --- so do it.”
A guard put a hand on my dad’s shoulder. He hung on to the phone, looked at me with a kind of tenderness I hadn’t seen since I was five or six, and said, “Have the life you deserve, Jack. Do great things.” He touched the glass with his palm, then turned away.
A week after my visit to Corcoran, Tom Morgan took a shank to the liver. Three days later, my father was dead.
Part One | FIVE YEARS LATER, AND ALL GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN
PEOPLE TRUST ME with their secrets, and I’m not exactly sure why. It must be something in my face, probably my eyes. Guinevere Scott-Evans had taken a chance and trusted me with her life and career a couple of months back.
Now she gripped my hand as I helped her out of my dark blue Lamborghini. She moved her narrow hips demurely, straightening out the black dress that fit her perfectly. She was gorgeous, an A-list movie star who was also genuinely funny and smart enough to have graduated from Vanderbilt.
I was Guin’s date tonight for the Golden Globe Awards, her way of thanking me for tailing her rocker husband, who, it turned out, had been cheating on her with another man.
Guin was grieving, I knew, but she had her game face on for the Globes. She wanted to be seen tonight with a hunk --- her word --- and I could tell she also wanted to feel desirable.
“This’ll be fun, Jack,” she said, squeezing my fingers. “We’re at a great table. Everybody from Columbia Pictures, plus Matt, of course.”
Guin was up for best supporting actress for a love story she’d made with Matt Damon. I thought she had a chance to win; I certainly hoped so. I liked Guin a lot.
The fans out front of the Beverly Hilton were enjoying the pregame warm-up, calling out Guin’s name as we headed up the rope line, cameras snapping away. A fan pointed her phone at me, asking me if I was somebody.
I laughed. “Are you kidding? I’m just arm candy.”
Guin let go of my hand to embrace Ryan Seacrest, who pulled her into the spotlight. The fans wanted her, but she put her arm around my waist and brought me into the shot at her side.
Seacrest went with it, admired the cut of my tux and asked my name. His brow wrinkled as he tried to figure out if he knew me --- and then Scarlett Johansson arrived, said “Hi, Jack” --- and Guin and I were shooed along the red carpet that ran through the gauntlet of bleachers up to the entrance of the Beverly Hilton.
Wrong time for my cell phone to ring.
“Don’t take it, Jack,” Guin said. “You’re off duty. You’re mine for tonight, okay?” Her smile dimmed, and worry shadowed her beautiful features. “Okay, Jack?”
I glanced at the caller ID. “This’ll just take a second.”
The caller was Andy Cushman, and I couldn’t believe it. Andy was a rock, but the voice on the phone was strained to breaking with tears.
“Jack. I need you to come to the house. I need you here right now.”
“Andy, this is not a good time. Trust me, it isn’t. What’s wrong?”
“It’s Shelby. She’s dead, Jack.”
Part One | FIVE YEARS LATER, AND ALL GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN
DEAD? HOW COULD Shelby be dead? There had to be some mistake. But how could there be?
I was the one who had introduced Shelby to Andy. I was best man at their wedding less than six months ago. I’d had dinner with them last week at Musso and Frank. Andy told me they were going to name their first kid Jack. Not John or Jackson, just Jack.
Had Shelby suffered a heart attack --- at her age? Had there been a car accident? Andy hadn’t said, but he was devastated. And what hurt Andy hurt me.
I stuffed a wad of bills into the valet’s hand, escorted a visibly upset Guin to the ballroom with apologies, and handed her over to Matt Damon. When I got back out to the street, my car was waiting.
I was in shock as I sped toward the Cushmans’ home in my over-the-top sports car. The car was a gift from a client whose terrible secret I kept. When it wasn’t in the shop for repairs, it was a cop magnet.
I slowed as I entered the Bluffs section of Pacific Palisades, the heavily patrolled village of small shops and homes within walking distance of the ocean. Ten minutes later, I braked in Andy’s circular driveway.
Dusk was coming on. There were no lights on in the house, and the front door was wide open, the frame splintered.
Was an intruder in the house? I doubted it, but I took my gun out of the glove box before I went in through the open door.
Three years in the pilot’s seat of a CH-46 during wartime had sharpened my visual acuity. I was adept at doing vigilant instrument scans, and then, in the next second, checking the ground for movement, dust, smoke, reflections, human outlines, or flashes of light.
As an investigator, I had another practical application for my somewhat unusual ability to pick out anomalies. I could look at a scene and almost instantly see what was out of place: a random speck of blood, a ding on a painted wall, a hair on a shag carpet.
As I entered the Cushmans’ house, I scanned the living room for any signs of disturbance. The cushions were neat. Rugs were straight. Books and paintings were all in place.
I called Andy’s name and he answered, “Jack? Jack. I’m in the bedroom. Please come.”
I kept my gun, a custom Kimber .45, drawn as I went through the airy rooms to the master bedroom in its own wing in back.
I felt for the switches by the doorway and threw on the lights. Andy was sitting on the side of the bed, hunched over, holding his head in bloodstained hands.
Jesus Christ! What had happened here?
Unlike the living room, the bedroom looked as though it had been tossed by a tornado. Lamps and picture frames were smashed. The television had been ripped from the wall, but the cord was still plugged in.
Shelby’s clothes, shoes, and underwear had been flung haphazardly around the room. Oh, Jesus. Jesus Christ!
Shelby was lying naked and very dead, face-up, in the center of the bed.
I tried to take it all in, but it was impossible to comprehend. Shelby had been shot through the forehead. From where her blood had pooled on the pale satin sheets, it looked like she’d taken a second shot in the chest.
Shock made my knees weak. I fought my impulse to go to Andy, to go to Shelby. I couldn’t, mustn’t do that. Stepping foot into that room would contaminate the crime scene.
So I called out to my friend, “Andy. What happened here?”
Andy looked up at me, his round face pasty white, his eyes bloodshot, his wire glasses askew. His face and hands were bloody. His voice was tremulous when he said, “Someone killed Shelby. Shot her just like that. You’ve got to find out who did this, Jack. You’ve got to find the bastard who killed Shelby.”
With that, my best friend broke down and cried like a little boy. The tough thing --- I’d seen Andy cry as a little boy too.
Part One | FIVE YEARS LATER, AND ALL GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN
I FELT THE floor shifting under me, but I knew Andy was counting on me to think straight for both of us. Having a clear head in an emergency, that was supposed to be my calling card. I was Jack Morgan, right?
I told Andy to stay put, made my way back out to the car, and returned with an MD 80, the best camera ever made for shooting crime scenes. It had night vision, GPS, and spoke in a dozen languages --- should I ever need to be told I’d left my lens cap on in Farsi or Mandarin.
I snapped off a dozen shots from the bedroom doorway, captured every detail I could think to cover.
While I took the photos, I tried to imagine what could have gone on here during the actual murder.
Apart from the blood on the bed and on Shelby, there was no other obvious trace around: no spray or prints on the walls, or drag marks or drips on the floor. She had almost definitely been killed in her bed. I pictured Shelby cowering against the headboard as the intruder busted up the room. He’d forced her to lie still, hadn’t he? Then he shot her twice --- in the chest and forehead. She had bled profusely from the terrible wounds, and then she had died.
Whatever the intruder’s twisted motive, it clearly couldn’t have been robbery. Shelby was still wearing her engagement ring, and an even bigger diamond was hanging from a chain around her neck. Her Hermès handbag was on the dresser, clipped shut.
So if this wasn’t a burglary, what was it?
A thought occurred to me, the same one a homicide detective would have. Had Andy killed his wife? Was that why he had called me here? Because I was probably the best person in LA to handle this, to make it go away.
I talked calmly to my friend, telling him how sorry I was and how shocked. Then I asked him to leave Shelby where she was and come with me.
“We have to talk this through, Andy. We need to do it right now.”
He came to the doorway, moaned, and sagged against me.
I held Andy up as I guided him to a chair in the living room. I took a seat on the sofa, separating myself from Andy on purpose. The next ten minutes or so were going to be bad --- for both of us.
I asked the easy questions first. “Did you call nine one one?”
“I --- I didn’t want the cops here until I called you. No, I didn’t call the police.”
“Andy, do you own a gun? Do you have a gun in the house?”
He shook his head. “No. And I never have. Guns scare the crap out of me. You know that.”
“Okay. Good. Did you notice --- was anything taken?”
“The safe is in my study. I came in through the garage. I’d been at the office, and I put my briefcase in the study before I went into the bedroom…. Everything looked okay. I don’t know, Jack. I wasn’t thinking about a robbery. I can’t concentrate right now….”
I peppered Andy with more questions, and he answered them while looking at me as though I were a lifeboat and he a man overboard in a turbulent sea. He said he’d last seen Shelby that morning when he left for work, that he’d spoken to her from the car an hour ago. She’d sounded great.
“This is a tough question,” I said. “Was she seeing anyone? Or were you?”
Andy looked at me as if I’d lost my mind and said, “Me, Jack? No. Her? She loved me. There was no reason to do that. We were both in love, totally in love. I never thought I could feel the way I felt about Shelby. We were trying to have a baby.”
I took a controlled breath, then I pushed on. “Has anyone threatened your life, or Shelby’s?”
“C’mon, I’m basically a glorified bean counter, Jack. And who’d want to kill Shelby? She’s a sweetie. Everyone loved her….”
I had to ask him. “You have to tell me the truth, Andy. Did you have anything to do with this?”
In about five seconds, Andy’s expression went from grief to shock to fury.
“You’re asking me that? You know how much I loved her. I’m telling you now and I never want to have to say it again. I didn’t kill her, Jack. And I don’t know who did. I can’t imagine this happening. I can’t, Jack.”
Night was falling. I reached up and turned on a light. Andy was looking at me as though I’d punched him in the face.
Christ, I was his best friend.
“I believe you,” I said. “The cops are going to grill you, though. Do you understand? The husband is always suspect number one.”
He nodded his head and started crying again.
I got up and went into the foyer. I called Chief of Police Michael Fescoe at his home. Fescoe and I had become friends in the past couple of years. He was depressed due to his crap job, but he was a good man, and I trusted him.
I gave Fescoe the rundown, told him that Andy and I had been childhood friends and frat brothers at Brown and that I could vouch for his character a hundred percent.
I stayed with Andy as the cops and the CSU arrived. I heard him tell a detective that Shelby didn’t have an enemy in the world.
And yet, whoever killed her had made a point.
This was not only an execution.
It was personal.
Part One | FIVE YEARS LATER, AND ALL GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN
JUSTINE SMITH was an elegant, serious-minded, academically brilliant brunette in her midthirties. She was a shrink by trade, a forensic profiler, and Jack Morgan’s number two at Private. Clients trusted he