White Lies by Brad Stratton

White Lies is a detective thriller concerning a beautiful missing woman, a compulsive boyfriend, a mysterious monthly $5000 payoff. Michael Chambers-cool, clever private investigator-has his work cut out for him with this case that takes him far away from his native LA and what seems at first to be a simple case. Fortunately, Michael manages to stay one step and a couple quips ahead of those who are trying to trick him, trap him and kill him.

Prologue

It was the cold that woke her, though she tried, as she always did, to hover in that nether place between sleep and waking, more observer of her dream than participant. In the dream, she was running toward school, her feet crunching across a broad, snow covered field, friends standing by the entrance, smiling and waving her on before the bell. She was running hard and her breath was short, misting over in the cold, but try as she might, she couldn’t seem to get any closer to her friends. She wasn’t wearing her mittens and the fingers wrapped around her textbooks were beginning to burn with pain. Finally, desperate, she dropped the books in the snow and ran for all she was worth. She ran until she couldn’t run anymore and, still, she could get no closer. It was then, even before her eyes opened, that she began to sense something was wrong this morning, knew instinctively that things were not as they should be. The further she rose from sleep, the stronger the feeling of unease became. It wasn’t just the cold; her mouth was dry, bone dry, and her head ached terribly, worse than she could ever remember.

When at last she blinked, that was when she knew. Dreams are never pitch black. She blinked again and turned her head, searching for the familiar glow of her bedside clock but found only darkness. Her first thought was that the power had failed but the moon had been nearly full when she went to bed and the light that should have been filtering through the curtains wasn’t there. She raised her hand to her face and wiggled her fingers, trying to make them out. Nothing. I’ll at least be able to see the stars, she thought, but when she reached to pull the curtain back, her hand hit something cold and moist and rough. She yanked it back as if she had been stung and an involuntary shudder escaped from a place deep inside her that, until now, she had never known existed. Everything was wrong: this wasn’t her room, she wasn’t in her bed and she had never known such darkness.

The fear nearly paralyzed her but eventually the need to know overcame the dread and her hand went out again, this time with infinite care. A silent litany went with it, “Please, God, I promise, I’ll do my homework and clean my room and not be such a smart ass. I’ll even call my mother and tell her I love her, just please, please, please, let this be a dream.”

When she touched the wall again, it was the same and the shudder returned, more powerful than before. She tried to breathe but could only gasp and when at last she exhaled, it came out a long, low moan that ended in a scream.

Chapter One

By rolling it between his thumb and forefinger, he formed a tiny ball. When he had it the way he wanted it, he held it above his target, aimed carefully, and let go, watching intently as it drifted down through the thick, amber liquid. There was a miniature pyramid of little, white balls on the bottom now and it reminded me of the snow forts we built in my youth, stock piling our weapons for the war with the neighbors that was sure to come. In this manner, he had deposited most of his napkin, a piece at a time, on the bottom of the candle.

The ice in his drink was melting, the sun noticeably lower in the sky, and still, I hadn’t learned the reason for his call. His name was Derek Wayland and he said he was an investment advisor, meaning he made his living at racetracks and casinos operating under the polite guises of The Chicago Board of Trade and The New York Stock Exchange. From his offices in Beverly Hills he managed large amounts of risk capital for an exclusive list of clients, one of whom had given him my number.

On the phone he had asked if I would be willing to meet him for drinks in Malibu after the markets closed and I told him I would be delighted. He wouldn’t tell me what he wanted, preferring he said, to explain in person, but I didn’t mind; any excuse to drive up the Coast Highway on a summer’s day is a good one. If I got a new client out of it, all the better.

After we shook hands he asked a few questions about my background and seemed satisfied with the answers but, so far, had neglected to tell me why I was here. I tore off a corner of my own napkin, rolled it into a ball, and dropped it into the melted wax on my side of the flame. It was kind of fun. He looked up, startled and slightly embarrassed.

“I’ve never done this before,” he said.

I didn’t know if he meant the snowball thing or talking to a private investigator.

“Not many people have,” I said.

“Would you like another?” It was the waitress. She surprised him and he jumped, glancing guiltily at the candleholder. If she noticed his handiwork, it didn’t show. She was a superb beach specimen, outfitted in a powder blue T-shirt and snug white shorts that set off a smooth, cocoa butter tan. The restaurant logo was, I thought, tastefully displayed on the front of her shirt but difficult to make out because the design was stretched in ways the artist had never envisioned. To see it clearly required careful observation. She caught me looking.

“Nice logo,” I said.

She gave me a knowing smile, “Thanks.” I smiled back, Mr. Innocent.

Derek gestured toward my beer and I nodded. This looked like it might take awhile. If I had wanted to impress him, I might have frowned at my watch and said something like, ‘I suppose I have time for one more.’ A shame I didn’t wear one. Probably a shame, too, that I had all the time in the world.

He looked at his, a thin, gold Patek Philippe, and after admiring it for a moment, made a slight moue and said he would have another, as well. The waitress gave us a big smile, as if we were, by far, her favorite customers and bounced away with our order. I looked for a matching logo on her shorts but didn’t see one. Derek was evidently looking for it too. She glanced over her shoulder and caught me again. I did a Groucho with my eyebrows and tried another smile. She shook her head and grinned.

We were in a window booth and outside, the blue Pacific stretched effortlessly to the far horizon and beyond, to a distant place where someone, perhaps not unlike myself, was sitting with a cold beer watching the waves lean endlessly into shore. I lifted my bottle to him or her in a silent toast. Below us the glare from the sand would have been blinding but the smoked glass reduced it to nothing and it was cool and comfortable inside. Under different circumstances, I would have been enjoying myself a great deal. Then again, I was out of the office and Derek was paying for the drinks. He followed my gaze and we sat that way for awhile, minding our own thoughts. Mine were mostly about the waitress.

On the Muzak tape, Jimmy Buffet was singing about “Margarita Ville.” After a little more staring, he said, “You’re right, I need to find her. Sometimes I miss her so much I think I’ll go nuts but the not knowing is what’s really killing me.”

His mouth collapsed again and it was an effort for him to keep his emotions in check. He was a solid looking young man, not handsome exactly, but good looking in a prep school sort of way. His dark hair was just starting to pepper with gray and I guessed his age at maybe thirty-eight or forty. He was starting to go soft, probably a little too much of the good life, but his tailor made up for it; neither the shirt nor the suit had ever carried a price tag. I had on a pair of faded Levi’s and a navy polo from Bullock’s. My Reeboks were new but I wasn’t sure he’d noticed. I thought the stripes coordinated nicely with the shirt.

“Her?”

“Julie, my fiancé. She’s missing.”

“Have you filed a report?”

“With the police? No. I don’t mean she’s missing exactly, she’s gone. I don’t think she’s come to any harm but she left without saying anything. None of her friends have talked to her and her parents either don’t know or won’t say where she is. It’s driving me crazy.”

“Sounds as if maybe she doesn’t want to be found.”

My response unsettled him but before he could reply, the waitress returned with our drinks and set them in front of us. I finished the Dos Equis I had been working on and handed her the bottle. Adios, amigo. She favored me with another smile, then put a pile of napkins down in the middle of the table with a mischievous grin and said, “Extra ammo.”

I started laughing and so did my potential new client but his grin had a sheepish quality to it. He handed her a twenty and told her to keep the change. If I had been paying, I probably would have too. Men are idiots. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her glance back again as she was walking away but I was looking at Derek. Was it my imagination or did her shoulders droop in disappointment? Jimmy Buffet began singing about “changes in attitudes” and “changes in latitudes.” Maybe this was the Muzak equivalent of an anthology.

Derek’s face grew serious again, “It doesn’t make any sense for her to take off like this, not tell anyone where she was going.”

“She left without a word?”

“Just a note with my secretary. It didn’t say where she was going or for how long. All it said was that she had to take care of something and would be gone for little while. And that I shouldn’t worry. Shouldn’t worry. We’re engaged for Christ’s sake. It’s been almost a week and I haven’t heard from her. How can I not worry?”

“Did you have a fight about something?”

“That’s just it. We get along great, almost never fight. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. She says she is too. That’s what’s so crazy.”

“What about her job?”

“She’s my partner, the company is half hers. I put on the dog and pony show, bring in the clients, do the baby sitting. Julie is the nuts and bolts: market analysis, systems evaluation, trading strategies, money management. I can do it but she’s better. We made a good team . . . make a good team. Listen to me, I’m talking about her like she’s never coming back.”

“How’s business?”

He sat back, took a sizable pull on his drink and gave me a speculative look. There was force behind his next words, “It’s not like that. I can’t say it wouldn’t be better for business if she were here but I can handle the trading. I love her and I’m worried about her, I miss the hell out of her. That’s why I called you, that and the not knowing. It’s turning me into a basket case.”

“It would anyone,” I said, “anyone in love.”

His mouth drooped again and he tried to hold my stare but couldn’t. He leaned forward, dropped his head and hunched his shoulders, nodded once, and sat that way, his gaze fixed on the circle of his forearms. Love is a distaff canine.

“I’ll find her for you,” I said.

He raised his head and his eyes were close to tears but the pain in them had turned to hope. Hope and a little fear. Maybe about what I was going to find.

***

Click here to buy: White Lies

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