Million Dollars Ransom-2006/07
In 2006, I took a class at the University of Oregon that changed my life. I needed an English elective so I signed up for ENG 399 American Detective Fiction. I read two dozen great detective pulps from the first half of the 20th century. Authors like Hammett, Chandler and McDonald introduced me to the Hardboiled Detective. Below is my weak attempt to emulate their old pulp style. My detective is Stan Lane, a burned out forty-something crime solver who encounters an old college friend. The friend is lawyer who needs help solving his daughters kidnapping. I’ve included only a few small sections of the story just to give you a taste. This is not a finished, edited or revised work, so keep that in mind. Hope you enjoy. The last line of this selection is my dedication to the three authors mentioned earlier.
I sat in the driveway of an extravagantly large mansion outside an iron gate that signaled no guests. It was the kind of gate that lets you out if you’re in, but won’t let you in if you’re out. There’s a lot of that going around in the south hills these days. The house was four stories high with a sort of faux European look to it. I had spent enough time in Italy and France to know that this place was taking its best shot at looking authentic. Its only problem was that the rich American inside had obviously never set foot on European soil.The attic windows were all stained glass with no particular design. They had all the colors of the rainbow in triangular cuts scattered arbitrarily in the windows’ small vertically rectangular frames, not really meant for looking out of, just a sort of break before reaching the red, clay-tiled roof. The rest of the windows looked as though they belonged in an early American colonial home. They were all modern weather proof sliders, but they had that multi-sectioned wood appeal to them. The doors of the mansion were a dark wood, from what I could tell, with an intricate design of wood carvings covering the superficies.
It was getting close to midnight and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept. I got called out here to cover for my office partner, Aidan Testanero, who felt it was more important to tale a smooth, long-legged blonde down to the forty-eighth block of Aster Street in Springfield than do his own recon. He claimed it was something about another meth lab in the Springfield underworld. What a joke. There’s nothing down there but a half dozen townhouse projects too old and too dilapidated to be of any use to anybody. This particular housing project was that of a bored retired high school track coach who made his wealth in real estate development in the early nineties. Jenna Village was just another rundown holdup for tweakers and dealers, a place to hide from the good cops. It’s also where lazy, bad cops go for a little of the easy action to meet monthly quotas on drug trafficking.
I used to live in Jenna Village when it was relatively new. In fact, I used to work there as one of the maintenance crew. I was in college and needed a job. My brother got the job as head manager the year before and offered me a maintenance position when I decided to go to the University of Oregon. Those places were nice on the surface, but I found out that they were cheaply made, kind of like a manufactured home. The investors cut every possible corner in order to minimize expenses on the twenty-million dollar project. The appliances were all bottom-of-the-line models ordered from a large warehouse company that specialized in storing cheap products for projects just like Jenna Village. The paint on the inside walls was a flat, off-white paint that did nothing for the place except give it the deceiving look of an apartment that was well built. The owner and his investors sold the place for a two-hundred percent profit, eight years after the final phase of construction was finished, to a large real estate company in Idaho, and they just let the whole thing go to hell along with the rest of the neighborhood.
In the mean time, there I sat waiting in the south hills for a whole lot of nothing to happen. Some woman is pretty sure her old man is cheating on her with his secretary, so I get to wait and see if she’s right. It’s a gamble for her, but for me, I get $500 a day plus expenses regardless, so I’m a winner anyway this thing turns out. There’s a chance that sooner or later they might come out of that place and give me something to report, but given the party’s guest list: a whole lot of city council people, doped up lawyers, and drunken politicians; my night seemed more for the cops than for a burned out private eye.
I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew there was someone rapping his knuckles on the glass of my Chevy. I shook my bleary head and stowed my flask of down comforter expecting to see a uniform. Instead I saw a black tuxedo looming over my door. On the finger mated to the knuckle that woke me I noticed a familiar piece of jewelry, a class ring for the University of Oregon law school. class of 2008. I’d known Lyman Sherwood since his first year of Law school at Oregon. I was an English major finishing up my undistinguished undergraduate degree while he was the overachiever shooting for the real money. He was one of the only lawyers I had ever trusted farther than I could throw him. Lyman was with some big-to-do law firm in Portland. He had always loved Oregon. I guess his parents used to bring him here on vacation when he was a kid. Maybe it was the closeness of the ocean that appealed to him, but I really don’t know.
Before the electric hum of the window could stop I heard my friend’s familiar voice, “you dead or just drunk in there?” I could tell in his voice he would rather be with my corpse in a 2000 Impala than in the ritziest Eugene mansion with the company in its current state.
“I wish I was both.” I responded as I realized I was neither. I held that damn flask of Jack without taking a single drink. That’s my drinking problem. I haven’t gotten really good and drunk in years.
Lyman leaned into my window and said: “Well, Judge Reynolds just decked Steven Wrathman.” Wrathman was a short, fat, greasy little attorney from LA. The local legal scene called him Wrathmaniac because he’s notorious for breaking the law while trying to uphold his clients’ sins. Lyman told me he was the left over residue of a slime filled cesspool that’s been leaking into Oregon since the Second World War. It seems that the more Mexico pushes its way into California the more we get stuck with the crap the spills over our wooded southern border. “I’m sure the EPD will be here soon. I think I saw a trashed Mrs. Reynolds heading for the phone; she must not know about the little hash party in the third floor study”.
I reached for a cigarette but found none. Lyman chuckled at my displeasure. He was a straight arrow, never smoked, and never drank. I don’t think I’d ever heard him curse once in our twenty year friendship. I guess I did enough of all that for at least two people. Lyman only came to these things in order to represent his firm, or the Oregon Alumni, or some stupid thing. “You still get a kick out of watching these idiots make fools of themselves?” I asked amused already by the thought of the oldest judge in the county laying out the slimiest troll this side of a Tolkien novel.
“It has its moments I guess” he responded with a tiredness that reaffirmed him as the only person with any integrity in his godforsaken profession. “You okay to drive home?” he asked.
“Apparently I just took a twenty minute power nap. I’m good for another twenty-four hours as long as I’ve got a full tank, a full belly, a loaded gun, and some liquid warmth.”
“Speaking of a full belly; forget home; you want some breakfast, my treat?” I’ve never refused a free meal in my life and at one in the morning I wasn’t about to start.
“I’ll drive,” I said as I manually unlocked the passenger side door whose electric lock died ten years ago. “You mind if we go downtown” I said. “I hate this part of Eugene; too many familiar faces.”
“How about Todd’s Place?”
“Sounds aces to me.”I said with a sardonic grin. I put the old car in drive and flattened the accelerator. As we careened down the hills back into the valley I saw the familiar red and blue glow of the EPD’s patrol cars coming up the hill toward us. I was grateful that I didn’t have to stay there for the questions.
The Eugene streets seemed to be driving me. That’s how it always feels anymore. I’d hit these potholed lanes too many times in my life to call them friends. They felt like prison guards keeping me in bounds, not letting me escape my purgatorial sentence. Eugene smelled old at night. I don’t remember how it smelled in ’04 when I first came here. All I remember is the reek of that foul Springfield paper mill. That’s when I realized that Lane County is one of those places you don’t go on vacation. It used to be a great place to raise a family and get away from the big, big world. Now, twenty-one years later, I’m an old man and the smell is getting worse.
“What were you doing there, anyway?” Lyman asked.
“Supposed cheating husband” I said. Lyman just sort of laughed as if to comment on the pathetic worries of the rich. I couldn’t help but reply. “Yeah, but its five-hundred bucks a day plus expenses. Is it wrong to charge a broad when you fall asleep on the job?”
“Ah, I’m sure she has plenty of money to go around. If she doesn’t now, she will after the divorce.” I looked at Lyman with a chuckling grin, he just stared straight ahead, pleased with his humor.
“Well, I think I’ll spare her the expenses since you’re buying breakfast.” I pulled onto 7th headed back toward downtown Eugene.
I parked as close to the front door of Todd’s Place as possible and got out. My legs almost didn’t want to work so I used the car as a crutch. Lyman opened the glass door to the restaurant and we were seated. These places always smell like fifty-year-old cigarette smoke. I guess it’s part of the charm of a place that never closes for cleaning or renovation. Lyman ordered some viciously spicy omelet. He’s always been a nut for spicy foods. I’m not nearly man enough to eat with him. I just ordered a breakfast sampler and got four sausage links instead of the two bacon two sausage. I’d always appreciated Lyman’s willingness to eat on my level considering his upbringing and current taste in fine foods. Any man who can put away a nasty, grease-pit omelet at 1:00 AM is welcome at my table anytime.
“Did you catch the game last weekend?” Lyman asked while adding a liberal amount of hot sauce to his omelet. He was referring to the University of Oregon Ducks football game. It seems that lately every time I see him, the only thing we really have to talk about is football.
“I caught a little of it on the Radio.”
“Well, that QB seems to be the real thing this year”. He spoke as if trying to convince his eggs. There was a long pause as we both ate. Lyman was my best friend, but when it came to quality conversation, there just wasn’t much to talk about. I suppose it’s because I really don’t care much about his elitist lifestyle and he couldn’t really relate to what I had chosen to do with my life. I always knew he had sort of pitied me for the choices I’d made after college, but that never seemed to bother me.
After breakfast I took him back to the Eugene mansion to pick up his car. The ride was consumed by Lyman’s one-sided discussion of some of the cases he’s been working on; a lot of big names with big money. I had become a good listener over the years, but lately I couldn’t care less about the conversation.
“Give me a call sometime and we’ll do something” Lyman said as he negotiated the lock on my decrepit old car.
“I’ll see what I can do”, I said with a grin as I shook his hand. He opened the door and stepped out. “You driving back tonight” I asked.
He leaned his head back in the door and said: “No, I have a room at the Marriott on 6th, but I’m leaving early, ‘round seven. My firm has a day in court. We’re trying to nail a small-time pharmaceutical company on a type of tax fraud and I have to represent our team at noon.”
“Tax fraud?” I said with some amusement. “Committing the oldest sins in the newest ways, eh?” He stood and stepped away from the door. He smiled and pressed the fob to his brand new ’2026, high performance, $500,000 BMW sedan. It had something like 600 horse power. Ridiculous.
“You have no idea, my friend” he said as amber taillights flashed
in the distance near the house. “Well, I’ll be seeing you, Stan,” he
said as he firmly closed the passenger door. My headlights glowed bright
on his black tux as he walked around the iron gate. He didn’t look back,
just pressed on toward his car with perfect posture.
I was sitting at my desk at 9:30 pm on a Friday getting ready to leave for the weekend when my cell phone started buzzing in my right pants pocket. I set my phone to silence earlier that evening so I could catch a few winks on the sofa opposite my desk. I reached into my pocket and withdrew the small flashing device. I rolled it over in my palm and saw on the display that it was my answering service. I flipped the phone open and spoke into the mouthpiece: “Lane.” My voice was hoarse and gravelly. I heard a familiar female voice on the other end: “Hi, Mister Lane, I have a mister Sherwood on the other line. He says he needs to talk to you about something, urgently. He says you know him.”
“Yeah, Kimberly put ‘im through.” I waited for the click of the lines switching, then said: “Lyman, what’s up, another fist fight at the Supreme co…”
“Stan, I need your help. He cut me off. “It’s Emily, She’s been kidnapped. I really screwed up, man. I can’t go to the cops; they’ll kill her if I do.”
“Slow it down. What are you talking about? Where are you?”
“A rest stop north of Eugene. Monica got a message from someone that they had kidnapped Emily. I was supposed to meet them here with a million dollars and trade for Emily, but I… I made a mistake. I gave them a wad of newspaper wrapped in a hundred. They’re going to kill her.”
I sighed away from the receiver of the phone. “Just sit tight I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” I slapped my phone shut and grabbed my khaki rain coat. The rest stop he was talking about was about 10 miles north of Eugene on Interstate-5.
I arrived at 9:59 pm and drove around the back of the rest stop where the big rigs park. I saw Lyman sitting on the ground next to his car. He was nursing the side of his face with a wet t-shirt. I didn’t see any blood, but he wasn’t untouched. His right eye looked a little swollen. I pulled in behind him and got out, my car still running, headlights trained on the blue and white propeller logo of his BMW. He shot to his feet and was to my car before I had reached the front fender. “Okay, now what’s going on?” He turned slowly and sat on the front of my car still pressing the wet shirt to his eye as he hung his head.
“I don’t know who they are, but they want a million dollars if I ever want to see Emily again.” Emily was his second child. A 20 year old girl born shortly after Lyman finished his second year of law school. I hadn’t really known the girl except when she was a baby. His oldest son, Spencer, was killed in a bus accident in Honduras or some other forsaken third-world country about three years ago. He was working on his doctorate at the time. I had only heard about his death through a mass email that Lyman had sent around to friends some three months after the funeral.
“You said you couldn’t call the cops, why?”
“Because I need this thing to stay quiet. If I go to the cops…” He trailed off not sure how to finish that sentence. “They’ll kill her.”
“How do you know?” I asked. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a mini-digital recorder. This particular device was one of those digital recorders used to replace mini-cassettes and mini-discs. I still don’t trust them. I go with the old mini-disc myself. They’re practically antiques, but they work and you don’t accidentally erase their memory.
“Listen”, he said as he pushed the glowing blue button on the function panel. I placed the small ear piece in and listened. A low electronically disguised voice spoke steadily.
“We have your pretty little girl. If you ever want to see her again, you’ll bring half a million dollars in cash to the rest stop just north of Eugene this Friday at 9:00 PM. Park in the back. Come alone and tell no one. If you go to the cops we’ll kill her.” The message ended with a digital click. I was suppressing a laugh as the device shut itself off.
“Monica said this was the message she heard on Emmy’s voice mail message. I called it with my phone and recorded the message onto this.” He took the device from my hands and put it in his pocket. “Somehow they were able to access her individualized voice mail messages.” He was referring to the way in which a person can have personalized voice mail messages depending on the phone number calling the phone. “They got her password out of her or something I guess.”
“These guys might be amateurs” I said. I didn’t tell him, but the reason I had to suppress a laugh was that that message was so clichéd that I’m sure I’d read it word for word in some classic pulps from a hundred years ago. “So you came out here with a wad of newspaper and they knocked you around?”
“Well, they never looked at the money. I thought Emmy was in the car, but I guess she wasn’t because they said they wouldn’t return her until they had counted it. I told them that wasn’t their deal and that I wanted my daughter back now. They told me I’d have to wait so I lunged for the one with the envelope and another one hit me across the face. I hit the ground and saw them get back in their car and tear out of here.”
“Did you see any faces?”
“No they were all wearing hooded sweatshirts, ski masks, and sunglasses. I did get a plate number though 673 BDC, that should help, don’t you think?”
“Maybe. It sounds like an old plate number. Go to the cops, Lyman. They’re not going to kill her. They’re probably just a bunch of punks looking to take advantage of a high profile attorney. I’ll do what I can, but I think you should call the state troopers in on this one.”
“Damn it, Stan, please don’t do this to me. You have to help me. Don’t ask why. I’ll pay you double your measly rate; just…can you just track down my daughter and get her back?”
“Why?” I could tell by his face that my reaction was too incredulous of his situation.
“C’mon Stan, just do this.” His voice sounded more unsettled than I’d ever heard it. This is one of the most confident men in the world, a powerhouse among west coast litigators, a stalwart icon of authority, and the gutsiest golfer I’d ever known. This man never flinched, but now he seemed eager, maybe scared. This worried me. It wasn’t frightening, but I knew something had him on his heels.
Lyman looked toward the highway and focused on the brawny flow of traffic that mostly consisted of semi trucks, faceless and looming as they passed in their endless thoroughfare of service to commercialism. He blinked before dropping his gaze to the ground. He wasn’t going to tell me. “I think Monica might know more about this than I do. She was the one that got the message.” His voice was low. His tone was inconsolable as he looked at me with a sad glare and parted his lips as if to speak more but changed his mind and returned his glance to the dark asphalt under our feet.
“Is she at home? We can just go to Portland tonight and talk to her.”
“She left me, Stan. She said it was the pain of never seeing me and that we’d grown too far apart. And with Spencer gone and Emmy leaving for college next year, there just didn’t seem to be anything else for her. I can’t say it didn’t hurt to hear it, but I’m never around. What could I possibly do for her now? It’s too late for anything. She said she wanted a divorce, so…”
“When did all this happen?” My face contorted in amused disbelief. Mr. Perfect’s life had a few kinks after all.
“The divorce was over two months ago. We split it all down the middle. She bought a condo in Lake Oswego where she lives with Emmy.”
I lifted my head and put my hands in my pockets looking for a cigarette. “I’ll start with Monica” I said as I looked into the trees that surrounded the rest stop. Lyman swung around. He didn’t seem to know what to say. For the first time in his life he didn’t have words. “You’ll pay my standard $500 a day plus expenses. I think you should go to the cops, but there’s still something you’re not telling me about that and that pisses me off, but it’s your business. I’m doing this professionally, no friend’s benefits. I need a retainer of five grand up front; I’ll take a personal check. I’ll find out everything I can about your girl.”
“Thank you”. The relief in his voice was a little unsettling. “Monica’s in Utah right now staying with her folks. She said she needed to get away.”
“I’ll fly out as soon as I can.” The words were barely out of my mouth when Lyman cut in.
“Great! I’ll drive you to Portland tonight. Is that okay?” The cheer in his voice was still unsettling to me. Perhaps it was the idea that Lyman finally felt in control of things again. Whatever it was, I was headed to Salt Lake on the red-eye whether I liked it or not.
We left my car locked at the rest area and headed up the interstate in Lyman’s four-wheeled homage to foreign automotive extravagance. We arrived at the terminal in about ninety minutes, not too shabby for a four door. Before I got out of the car he pulled out his phone and speed-dialed a number. He grabbed my elbow as a gesture not to leave yet. I saw him press a few buttons in response to an automated phone system then he spoke: “Yeah, hi this is Lyman Sherwood; I need to authorize use for a Stan Lane. He’s going to have my card in Utah this weekend.” He spoke with more authority than I’d heard in the last two hours. His voice came again: “yeah, hold on.” He tilted the glowing three-inch screen toward himself and tapped a couple of times then signed his name directly onto the screen with a stylus he drew from the back of the phone. He tapped once more to send it. He then tapped a few more times and handed the phone and pen to me. “They need your signature to authorize use of my credit card for as long as you’re working for me.” I’d done this same thing for a couple of other clients in the past few years. It was pretty convenient technology for a private eye, I never had to go back and ask for more money for expenses. I signed my name and handed it back to Lyman. He tapped the send button and spoke into the mouth piece again: “They’re on their way” he said to the voice on the other end. “Thank you very much… you too, bye”. He pushed the red button on his phone and reached for his wallet. From one of the leather flaps he withdrew a silver colored credit card. He handed it to me and thanked me again for doing this.
“Find out whatever you can about this without making too much noise. I just need this to stay quiet.” I frowned with disapproval but agreed to follow his wishes. I shut the car door and heard the tires squeal as Lyman pealed out into three lanes of airport traffic.
With Lyman’s credit card in hand I watched him speed away. I walked up to the Delta counter and asked for a nonstop to Salt Lake. The girl behind the counter wore a gray suit that looked like it was trying to be a throw-back to the nineteen sixties. She was a cute redhead, about twenty five, maybe twenty six years old. She smiled at me with perfectly straight, brilliantly white teeth and said: “I’ll see what I can do mister…”
“Lane”, I finished.
“Okay, Mister Lane, It looks like I won’t have anything for you until 8:00 am. I’m sorry. Will that be okay, I can check the private jets to see if they’re taking on any passengers?” Her tone was so sincerely apologetic that I eased her mind and said I’d just take the 8:00 am.
I found the all-night lounge and pulled up to the bar. The barman threw his white towel over his shoulder and asked for my order. I thought about it for a second and said “Just a water”. I didn’t feel too much like drinking at one in the morning. I was a little bit hungry though. “Whacha got for food at this time of night” I asked trying to sound friendly.
“Just what’s in the cold case, my friend. We close up the kitchen at midnight on Fridays.” He seemed a nice enough guy so I ordered an egg salad sandwich and a bag of chips to go with my midnight ice water. I cozied up to my delectable spread and glanced around for visual entertainment. The TV above the bar was replaying the 11 o’clock local news in subtitles. The anchor was moving her lips with intensity as she laid out her silent drama before me. The screen flashed up pictures of men in expensive business suits. Moments later I saw what looked like a lawyer or a politician in a nice dark suit and dark tie speaking into some microphones on the steps of the federal courthouse in Eugene. To my surprise I saw Lyman standing behind him. I didn’t read the captions; it was all a bunch legal mess that didn’t concern me; something about corporate tax fraud.
Bored with the TV I reached into my coat pocket to see if I had anything in there for reading. My fingers found the tiny pages of a pocket Shakespeare I remember putting there about a week ago; I pulled it out and read the title: Hamlet. It’s a sort of romantic idea, but I guess you could say Hamlet was a detective being commissioned by his father to solve a murder. I’ve read this book probably twenty times in the last twenty years. I really need to get something new for these pockets. I decided to not read it again and see about some shuteye on a terminal bench. I sat down on the hard black vinyl seat, pulled the collar of my jacket around my neck and wished I had a hat to cover my face. The last thing I heard as I drifted into sleep was an echoing woman’s voice over the airport’s public address system: “Captain Sam Archer, please report to gate F. This is the last call for Continental Flight 183 for San Francisco.”