Prologue | SHOTS IN THE DARK
A DARK SEDAN turned off Pacific Coast Highway and slipped into the driveway of a gated Malibu beach house worth, had to be, seven or eight million.
The driver buzzed down his window and passed an electronic entry key over the reader.
The pair of high wrought-iron gates rolled open, and the sedan pulled up to the garage doors, the gates closing smoothly behind it. The driver got out of his car and looked around.
He was a medium-height white guy in his thirties, short brown hair, wearing a denim jacket, khaki pants, rubber-soled shoes, latex gloves. He saw that the cool modern house was screened entirely by shrubbery and protective fencing, hiding it from the road and neighboring homes.
He approached the alcove that framed the front door, noted the security camera focused on him and the biometric keypad.
Returning to the car, the driver opened a back door and said, "Last stop, young lady."
He leaned into the backseat and pulled out a slightly built female with long black hair. She was out of it, completely unconscious. Smelled like roses and soap. With a grunt, the man maneuvered the limp body, slung her over his shoulder.
When he got back to the door, he pressed the female's finger to the pad, and the door lock thwacked open.
They were in.
The man in the denim jacket didn't turn on the lights. Sun came through the extensively glassed walls, bounced off the floor tiles, and made everything plenty bright enough to see.
The foyer led to a large skylighted living area with rounded walls and curved windows facing the ocean. To the left was a hallway to the master bedroom and bath. The man opened the bedroom door with his foot, and when he reached the bed, he eased the woman off his shoulder and arranged her on the blue-and-white pinstriped bedding.
He fixed a pillow under her head, then went to the window seat. Under the hinged lid was a metal box, and inside that, a custom Kimber .45 handgun. The guy in the denim jacket popped out the magazine, checked it, slammed it back in with his gloved hand. The gun was loaded.
He returned to the side of the bed and, aiming carefully, shot the woman in the chest at close range. Her body bucked, but when he pumped in the second and third shots, she didn't stir. He picked up the three spent shell casings and pocketed them.
The shooter took the receiver from the phone beside the bed. He dialed while looking out the windows to the beach.
The killer hung up the phone without speaking. Then he left the bedroom and found the media center in the living room. He opened all of the cabinet doors, rifled through the compartments, and located the security system hard drive at the back.
He unplugged the drive and tucked it under his arm, then he exited the house through the front door. Once outside, he scraped away some mulch at the foot of a bougainvillea vine that scrambled thickly over the fence. He buried the gun in the shallow trench and covered it up with chipped bark.
He got back into his vehicle, started it up, and passed the electronic key across the reader on the opposite post. Once the gates had opened, he backed his car slowly into the emergency lane. Then he edged out onto the highway and headed north.
He was already thinking about this seafood restaurant in Santa Barbara called Brophy Bros. He loved that place. The clam bar had steamers, a Dungeness crab platter, and oysters on the half shell. He'd get a bottle of something worthy of his first-class day's work.
The shooter popped a Van Halen CD into the player and smiled as the dark sedan blended into the stream of traffic.
A. J. ROMANO was driving the white transport van west on I-15, a hundred fifty miles east of Vegas. The van was a late-model Ford. On both sides and across its rear cargo doors were decals saying "Produce Direct" over a basket of red, green, and yellow vegetables.
Benny "Banger" Falacci was slumped in the passenger seat, his new eel-skin cowboy boots up on the dash. Rudy Gee was in the back, taking his shift in the air-conditioned cargo section, his sleeping bag wedged between the cartons.
A. J. liked night driving anyway, but especially on those crystal clear nights you got at high altitudes out west. Bright stars. No traffic. A strip of road cutting through miles and miles of grazing land and desert terrain with a dusky backdrop of foothills like crumpled packing paper rising high and wide in the distance.
He was saying to Banger, "I made this stew, you know, me cooking for her for a change."
Banger broke the filter off a Marlboro, lit up with his lucky silver butane, opened the window.
"Jeez," Romano said, opening his window too. "Ever heard of secondary smoke? You're smoking for two here."
"It's been three hundred sixteen miles," said Banger. "That was the deal. One smoke every three hundred miles."
"Awright." A. J. went on, speaking louder now over the rush of air past the window, "so I make some noodles and a little chocolate cake. It's nice."
"Fascinating, A. J. You got the major food groups covered."
"So I'm full but not stuffed. We go to bed and at about two-thirty I wake up. I'm literally freezing."
Banger plucked a shred of tobacco off his tongue. There was no CD player in the van, no radio signal this far from any fucking thing. In a few hours he was going to be sitting at a blackjack table. He'd be sleeping in a triple-wide bed tonight. He could call Suzette at the last minute. He was thinking about that and how much talking she'd do before he could get her panties off. Or he could go to the Sands and find someone new. He was feeling lucky.
"I dial up the electric blanket. Still my nips are hard as diamonds."
"Christ," Banger said. "Change the subject, do you mind?"
"I notch the heat up to nine. That's weld," said A. J. "I'm still freezing my ass off. When I wake up again, I'm sweating like I ran a couple of miles—"
"What's happening there?" Banger asked.
"I don't know. That's what I'm asking. Is my heart acting up on me?"
"What's happening there," Banger said, pointing through the windshield at the red lights up ahead.
"That car, you mean?"
"It's slowing down."
"Asshole should have filled up in Kanarraville."
"Pull around him," Banger said.
But A. J. was decelerating, saying, "Guy runs out of gas on this road, he could get eaten by a bear."
But the car in front of them wasn't running out of gas. It was crawling, giving a Chevy in the left lane, headlights off, a chance to catch up and pull alongside the van.
"What the fuck is this now?" A. J. said, staring at the Chevy six inches from his door. "What's this asshole doing?"
"Brake. Brake!" Banger yelled. "Pull around him."
A. J. Romano leaned on the horn, but it had no effect. Their van was hemmed in, being shunted toward the Pintura exit, and he had to either slam into the car beside him or barrel down the ramp.
A. J. jerked the wheel to the right, sending the van down the exit ramp, while Banger was digging under his seat for his piece. Next thing, metal was grinding against his door and the van was off the exit, forced onto some kind of spur road.
Banger was yelling, "You mother," as A. J. stood on the brakes. The van skidded in dirt and plowed through a wire fence into the middle of fucking nowhere, dust shutting out the view and filling the cab.
Car doors banged shut in front and behind. Banger gripped his piece with one hand and undid his seat belt with the other, ready to bolt out the door, but a man's face was in the window, a punk he'd never seen before, yelling, "Grab the ceiling."
A. J. had his hands up. "Banger," he yelled, "do what they say."
Banger pulled up his gun from below the window opening. There was a bright flash and a loud report. Banger slumped, exhaled, and didn't move again.
Inside his head, A. J. screamed, Oh, my God. They killed Banger. A .45 was pointed at his left ear. "Listen to me," A. J. said. "I don't know you. I didn't see nothing. Take what you want. I got six hundred bucks—"
A. J. didn't even hear the gun go off. He twitched, but that was all.
THE VAN'S REAR cargo door blew open, and Rudy Giordino jumped down from the back. His right leg buckled, but he had played ball in high school and had good balance. He came out of the stumble into a dead run.
His head was clanging from the tossing he'd taken in the back, but his instincts were intact. He ran under a black sky, across the flats and parallel to the road.
His blood whooshed across his eardrums and he still felt the aftershocks of gunfire.
Christ. Guns had gone off in the cab.
They'd been jacked.
Rudy Gee ran, flashing on his gun, lost under the cascade of boxes in the back of the truck. He thought about Marisa and Sparky and how he wasn't supposed to die yet, not gunned down out fucking here. He had so many plans. He was still a kid.
It felt good to run. He was making distance, could almost hear the cheering in the stands.
Behind him, a guy name of Victor Spano took careful aim with his .45, bracing against the side of the van. The dude was making it too easy, running in a straight line.
Victor squeezed the trigger, felt the kickback as the round found its mark. The guy making a break for it stopped running like someone had called his name. Then he dropped to his knees and did a face-plant in the dirt.
Victor walked up to the dead guy and put a shot into the back of his head just to be safe. If you fired a gun and no one heard it, had you still fired the gun?
"Is he dead?" Mark called.
"He says he wants to go have pizza with us," Victor yelled.
"Get back here, okay? We need help with these two."
Victor helped stash the first two dead guys in the Chevy. Mark backed up the car, and Victor and Sammy stuffed the third stiff in with the other two.
Then, as planned, Victor got behind the wheel of the transport van, and all three vehicles motored off the dirt road and back out to the highway.
Ahead of him, the Chevy peeled out, taking off toward Highway 56 and Panaca, Nevada. Victor Spano, a guy with a future, headed for LA, and Mark, in the Acura, for Cedar City. From there, Mark would be doubling back to Chicago.
It had been a good night. The jacking had taken a total of nine minutes including the cleanup.
He'd kept his mind on the business until this minute. Now, as the van made good time toward LA, Victor Spano started to think about his paycheck.
He was a millionaire and a made man.
This had been the most incredible day of his life.
Excerpted from PRIVATE: #1 SUSPECT © Copyright 2012 by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.