Melanie Jordan’s life seemed perfect. Until masked intruders arrive at her house, demanding gold she doesn’t have. A savage blow to the head puts her in a coma and when Melanie regains consciousness, she learns her husband has been murdered and her ten-year-old daughter is missing.
Private Eye Dan Reno begins investigating, but nothing about the case makes sense. Was there gold at the house or wasn’t there? Was Melanie’s husband hiding something? And what happened to Melanie’s daughter?
To complicate things, the case leads to Las Vegas, where Reno’s loose-cannon friend, Cody Gibbons, is trying to repair his relationship with his college-aged daughter, an intern with Las Vegas P.D.
When clues implicate Russian mobsters and a mysterious African illegal, Reno tries to stay in the shadows, but once the criminals feel the noose tightening, they raise the stakes to a deadly level.
The sparring partner Rex had chosen for me was about my weight, but the similarities ended there. At six-five or so, he had me by three inches, and he was still in his twenties. A large tattoo of an eagle covered his chest, and his hair was buzz-cut except for long blue strands behind his ears. There was a wild, hostile gleam in his eyes, and I almost reminded him we were supposed to go at three-quarters speed and no full blows to the head. But I figured he knew that and would abide by it.
It didn’t take long for him to prove me wrong. He had a reach advantage, which made him difficult to box unless I moved in close. That’s what I did after taking a couple of stiff jabs. I landed two good shots to his ribs, hoping to send a subtle message. I saw him wince, but I guess I just made him mad, because when I backed away, he came at me with a shoulder high roundhouse kick. His heel clipped my head when I ducked, and I leapt forward with a straight kick to his thigh. It was a solid, painful shot, and his mouth turned ugly, his brow creased over his dark eyes.
I danced back and held out my hands in a placating gesture and said, “Easy, now.”
For a moment, I glimpsed Rex standing outside the ring with his arms crossed, a smile on his face. Then, the young man with the eagle tattoo came at me hard. He backed me into the ropes with three left jabs, then jumped up and threw a leaping tiger kick at my head. This type of kick has no place in training rounds; it’s meant to be a knockout blow.
I dropped under the kick and lifted him by the waist and slammed him to the mat. He tried to knee me in the balls as he went down, and then, he wrapped his arms around my neck. But before he could lock his grip, I came down with an elbow, flush into his mouth. I felt one of his front teeth buckle beneath his mouth guard, and his eyes went dull. I almost struck him again before realizing he was out cold.
I stood and glared at Rex, who smiled and shrugged. “Nice work,” he said.
I took out my mouth piece and tossed it away. “You could have at least warned me,” I said.
“Naw. You reacted just fine.”
I shook my head and climbed out of the ring. “Hey, someone had to teach him a lesson,” he said. “See you next week?”
I left Rex’s Gym and drove my truck down old 395, heading out of Carson City and toward the Highway 50 junction. I was still annoyed with Rex, whose cavalier attitude made me wonder if he’d been hit too many times in the head. But it was my choice to spar at his gym, and I’d been doing so weekly for over a year. If I didn’t dig his mojo, I could choose another way to spend my Wednesdays.
I passed a liquor store, and my foot moved to my brake pedal before I reminded myself to drive on. It was week four of my sobriety, and I’d promised myself thirty dry days. I’d make it, but I was starting to question my original rationale. Good for my health, I’d figured, good for my relationship with my live-in girlfriend, and a good test for my willpower. But I felt more tense and irritable than ever, and I doubted it was helping either my health or my relationship. As for my willpower, I’d see it through, but not happily.
I made do with bottled water as I drove down the high desert highway. The tumbleweeds dotted the flats, and distant hills were coated in snow. It was a sunny afternoon, the sky a cold, cloudless blue. I passed the last casino before the junction, then turned onto 50, heading west over Spooner Pass. The road had been plowed in the morning, but there were still icy sections near the summit.
As I drove, I tried to dismantle the growing sense of discord in my gut. What reason did I have to feel at odds with the world? Why let an altercation with a misguided cage fighter ruin my day? He ignored the rules and learned a painful lesson. Maybe he’d be better off for it.
By the time I reached the summit, the morning sparring session had faded from my thoughts, but my discontent hadn’t. I sighed and conceded my angst was probably due to my sobriety. I recalled golfer John Daly’s infamous quote, ‘Quitting drinking has ruined my life.’ I laughed dryly. Maybe a few belts of good whiskey would cure my funk. But at some level in my subconscious, I sensed something different eating at me.
When I dropped off the grade and turned south along Lake Tahoe, it was three o’clock. I drove along and contemplated what I’d do with the rest of my day. My girlfriend, Candi, would be at work until five, grading art projects at the community college. There was nothing that needed to be done around the house I could think of. I’d had plenty of time to fix things up, since I hadn’t worked for six weeks. That wasn’t by choice; as a licensed private investigator living in a relatively small town, my jobs tended to be sporadic. My work schedule during the four years I’d lived in South Lake Tahoe was typically punctuated by stretches of inactivity. If it lasted too long, I’d have to start visiting attorneys, business card in hand and a smile on my face.
I drove past the casinos at the state line and crossed into California. Snow was piled in four-foot walls along the roadside. A shopping development that had sat unfinished since the 2008 recession had recently been completed, and tourists were walking in and out of the new shops and restaurants. A gust of wind blew ice pellets across my hood as I passed the town’s upscale resort lodge and the gondola that took skiers and snowboarders up the mountain. My digital temp gauge read twenty-eight degrees.
When I got home, I parked in my garage and went into the small bedroom that served as my office. I sat at my metal army surplus desk and checked my e-mail. I deleted the spam, which was all I’d received. After poking at my phone and seeing no text or voicemail messages, I wandered out to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, but I wasn’t hungry. I went and stared blankly out the large picture window overlooking the wide meadow behind my backyard. A mile out, the 10,000-foot snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada were etched against the sky.
Back at my desk and idly searching the internet, I considered driving out to Zeke’s Pit, the BBQ restaurant where I had a twenty-grand stake. The investment hid the cash from the IRS, and owner Zak Pappas paid me back $100 each month. I allowed him that payment plan because he was still deep in the hole for an inpatient rehab stint after nearly blowing out his circuits on top shelf booze and Colombian cocaine.
“Screw it,” I said. There was no reason to go to Zeke’s, other than I was bored shitless, and Zeke’s had a great bar. I checked my watch, then with a sigh, I opened my contact list and began calling the list of local attorneys I’d compiled. If I stuck with it, I’d find a job, maybe a divorce case or two.
Ten calls later, I gave up, promising myself I’d hit the road tomorrow and do it in person, drum up some business. But as soon as I set down my cell, it rang, displaying a number I didn’t recognize. Hopefully, one of the attorneys calling me back.
“Investigations, Dan Reno,” I said in my best professional voice.
“Hello, my name’s Walter McDermott.”
“What can I do for you, Mr. McDermott?”
“I’m calling because of a situation we have, and, well, it’s pretty serious.”
The voice was subdued, uncertain, and a bit sad, and definitely didn’t belong to an attorney. As for the age of the caller, I couldn’t guess.
“Are you interested in hiring an investigator, Mr. McDermott?”
“I think so, yes. That is, if you think you can help us.”
“That would depend. Can you describe your situation?”
“The situation?” he asked, as if the mere mention of it startled him. “I think it’d be best if we met in person. It’s somewhat complicated.”
“I see. Are you in the Lake Tahoe area?”
“Well, yes, we are. West side of the lake, in Tahoma. We have a place here.”
“If you like I can be there in thirty minutes.”
“Oh my, that’s quick. Can you hold for a moment?” I heard a murmured discussion, then he came back on the line and said, “Yes, we’d like to do this right away. Here’s the address.”
I threw on fresh clothes and decided to wear a sports coat under my thick winter jacket. Something in the man’s voice suggested he was from a genteel class, and I’ve learned I have better success with people when my dress mirrors theirs. Most private eyes I know don’t bother with this sort of thing, but for me, it’s become a habit, dating back to the days when I was desperate for a paycheck.
There was still plenty of daylight, and I drove patiently through the half dozen lights in town and turned right at the intersection known as ‘The Y.’ From there, I followed 89 up a series of hairpins above Emerald Bay, until the two-lane highway straightened along Lake Tahoe’s west shore. The road rose and fell through the pines, and I steered through the sweeping turns with a sense of purpose. Maybe that’s what my problem was, I decided; you don’t work for long enough, you lose your sense of purpose. It’s like sitting and looking out a window, watching life pass you by.
Satisfied with this revelation and the prospect of a new case, I pulled into the parking lot of a lakeside residential complex. It was across the street from the single ski resort on the west side of the lake. I got out of my truck and zipped my coat. The units were single story condos, sectioned by walkways cleared of snow. My search for number 310 took me down a curved path shadowed by white fir and ponderosa pines.
I found 310 and knocked on the door. It was an end unit, right on the beach. The lake water lapped at the snow-covered sand about fifty feet from where I stood.
The door opened, and the man standing there said, “Hello, Dan Reno?” He looked at me through spectacles, and the thick lenses made his eyes look unnaturally large.
“It’s Reno,” I said, “like Jay Leno.”
“Ah, I see,” he replied, nodding thoughtfully. “I’m Walter.” I shook his soft hand. “Please, come in.”
I followed him into the condo. He wore brown corduroy pants and a gray cardigan sweater over a plaid shirt. His shoes were suede slip-ons clearly not designed for winter duty.
Sitting on a chair in the family room was a woman about his age, around sixty. She sat rigidly and appraised me with sharp blue eyes. Her hair was gray and tied in a bun, and she had a prominent chin. After a moment, she stood.
“My name is Lillian McDermott,” she said. “This is my husband, Walter.” Her posture was erect, and she stared straight into my eyes. “We are considering hiring a private investigator, and we’d like to interview you.”
“Oh?” I said, eyebrows raised. I was usually the one doing the interviewing, and I wasn’t accustomed to being on the other side of the equation. I was also surprised at her tone. She sounded stern, almost authoritarian, as if she might rap my knuckles with a ruler if I answered incorrectly. I tried to keep my expression neutral and said, “Okay, fine.”
“This way,” she said, pointing to the table and chairs in the adjoining kitchen. We sat across from each other. Walter stood to her side, blinking and running his hand over his wavy gray-brown hair.
“Take a seat, dear,” his wife said. He lowered himself into the chair beside her.
“I’m going to describe our situation to you, Mr. Reno,” Lillian McDermott said. “It’s rather difficult, and frankly, I don’t know if you can do anything to help. It’s a ghastly, sordid state of affairs, and the police seem to have exhausted their ability.”
“Were you a teacher, Mrs. McDermott?” I asked.
She looked surprised for a moment, then her eyes narrowed. “How would you know that?”
I shrugged. “Just a guess.”
“We both forged our careers in academia,” Walter said. “Lillian is a retired English professor. I teach biology at San Jose State University.”
“That’s where I went to school,” I said. “Sociology major.”
Walter began saying something, but his wife interrupted him. “I doubt your education is applicable here,” she said. “You do come recommended, however, so please allow me to continue.”
I nodded. I’d ask her about the recommendation later.
“Six weeks ago, intruders broke into our daughter’s home. They severely beat her, killed her husband, and either killed or kidnapped our granddaughter. The police have been unable to find the killers, or even hypothesize a motivation. They also have no clues as to the whereabouts of my granddaughter, nor do they know if she is still alive.”
I waited for her to continue. The wrinkles around her mouth deepened as she stared at her large hands, which were folded tightly on the table. After a long pause, she said, “You may ask questions now.”
I paused, considering where to start. Then, I said, “Was the husband involved in criminal activity?”
“No,” she said.
“Not that we know of,” Walter added.
“Was this a robbery? Was anything stolen?”
“The house was ransacked, but not much was taken.”
“Do you know what they were looking for?”
“Yes,” she said. “Gold.”
“Gold? Did your daughter and her husband keep large amounts of gold at home?”
This time, Walter answered. “We don’t know, but possibly, yes. You see, Jeffrey was convinced the economy was bound to collapse, and soon. He believed that not only was the U.S. government wholly corrupt, but also that Keynesian economic policy is not a sustainable model and inevitably would cause a depression so severe, that anarchy would occur, and America would become a lawless wasteland.”
“Sounds a little extreme,” I said.
“We’re not here to debate that,” Lillian said. “We’re here to determine if you can help us.”
“Right. Where is your daughter now?”
“We can make her available, but only if we decide to hire you.”
I looked at the McDermotts. Walter looked like he’d never swung a pickaxe or pounded a nail in his life, while I would have bet that Lillian, despite her erudite diction, had a hardscrabble background. Regardless, her curt tone was starting to grate on me.
“Why would they bother kidnapping your granddaughter if robbery was the motive?” I asked.
“If we knew that,” Lillian said, “I doubt we’d be talking to you now.”
“Why did they kill your daughter’s husband, but not her?”
She shook her head, and I caught an exacerbated smirk on her face, as if my question was either inappropriate or stupid. “I have no idea,” she said. “If I was the killer, I’m sure I’d know.”
I looked at my watch.
“I’m sorry, do you have to be somewhere?” she asked.
“Not really. I’m just wondering how much longer this interview, as you call it, will last.”
“I’ll let you know.”
“Wrong. We’re done.” I stood. “Here’s my card. Feel free to call if there’s anything else you’d like to chat about. I charge a hundred per hour for phone consultations.” I began toward the front door.
“Now, hold on,” Walter sputtered.
“Mr. Reno,” she said, and despite myself, I stopped. “I’d like to hear how you would proceed.”
“I’ll make this brief, because I don’t want to waste my time, or yours,” I said, looking down at her. “I’d start with learning as much about your daughter and her husband as I can. Whoever intended to rob them probably knew them, or at least knew they had something specific worth stealing. I’d visit the crime scene, interview possible witnesses, see what the police will share, and go from there.”
“That doesn’t sound very scientific,” she said.
“Go hire a scientist, if that’s what you want,” I replied, and walked out the front door. I was halfway to my truck, before I heard Walter huffing behind me. “I’m sorry, there, hold on, please, just allow me a moment.”
He had lost his breath during the short trot to catch up with me. “Bear with me, please.” He bent at the waist and put his hands on his knees and gulped air until he straightened and said, “It’s my heart, you know.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I think so. I’m just not a young man anymore.” He smiled bravely, then said, “I want to apologize for Lillian. This situation has been incredibly hard on her. And on me too. But she’s handling it differently than I am. She’s become, well, more difficult. Please understand.”
“What is it you want from me, Walter?”
“Come back and finish with Lillian. She’ll be cordial, I assure you.”
I sighed and looked past him at the darkening skies above the lake. The temperature had dropped, and it was no more than twenty degrees outside. Walter wrapped his arms around himself and stepped in place, like a child who needed to urinate.
“All right,” I said. I wanted the job, and in the back of my mind I was already chiding myself for my impatience. Sure, the woman was caustic, but I could typically handle much more than she’d doled out.
We walked quickly back to the condo and went inside. Lillian was waiting in her seat at the kitchen table. She looked at me, her jaw clenched and her lips parted, showing a chipped front tooth.
“I’m told you’ve killed many men,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me. The crimes against my family were committed by parties I wouldn’t consider human. I need to hire someone who is ready, willing, and able to deal with their kind. That’s why I called you.”
“Do you intend to hire me, or not?”
“I have just one more question, Mr. Reno. Can you find who murdered my son-in-law, and find my granddaughter?”
I looked down and considered the different ways I might answer that. Then, I met her stare and said, “No problemo.”
Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1960, Dave Stanton moved to Northern California in 1961. He attended San Jose State University and received a BA in journalism in 1983. Over the years, he worked as a bartender, newspaper advertising salesman, furniture mover, debt collector, and technology salesman. He has two children, Austin and Haley, and lives with his wife, Heidi, in San Jose, California.
Stanton is the author of six novels, all featuring private investigator Dan Reno and his ex-cop buddy, Cody Gibbons.