The Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series
Murder is a Family Business, Book One, Chapter 1 Excerpt
The Not-So-Perfect Storm
“God, surveillance sucks,” I griped aloud to a seagull languishing on a nearby, worm-eaten post, he being my only companion for the past few hours. He cocked his head and stared at me. I cocked my head and stared at him. It might have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but a nearby car backfired, and he took off in a huff. Watching him climb, graceful and white against the gray sky, I let out a deep sigh, feeling enormously sorry for myself. I eyeballed the dilapidated warehouse across the parking lot hanging onto the edge of the pier for any signs of life. I didn’t find any.
I knew I was in trouble earlier when I discovered this was the only vantage point from which I could stay hidden and still see the “perpetrator’s place of entrance,” as I once heard on Law and Order. That meant I couldn’t stay in my nice warm car listening to a Fats Waller tribute on the radio but had to be out in the elements, hunkered down next to a useless seawall.
For three lousy hours, rambunctious waves from the San Francisco Bay made a break for freedom over this wall and won. Salty foam and spray pummeled my face, mixed with mascara, and stung my eyes like nobody’s business. Then the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped faster than the Dow Jones on a bad day.
Speeding up Highway 101 toward Fisherman’s Wharf, I’d heard on the car radio that a storm was moving in. When I arrived, I got to experience it first hand. Yes, it was just winter and me on the San Francisco Bay. Even Jonathan Livingston Seagull had taken a powder.
I concentrated on one of two warehouses, mirrors of each other, sitting at either side of a square parking lot containing about twenty cars and trucks. “Dios mio, do something,” I muttered to the building, which housed the man who had caused me to age about twenty years in one afternoon.
I struggled to stay in a crouched position, gave up and sat down, thinking about the man I’d been following. I was sure he was a lot more comfortable than I, and I resented him for it. Two seconds later, I realized the cement was wet, as well as cold. Cursing my stupidity, I jumped up and stretched my cramped legs while trying to keep an eye on the door he had entered, lo those many hours before. With me being the only one on the job, I couldn’t keep an eye on the cargo bay on the other side of the warehouse, but I felt pretty safe about it being a non-exit. Without a boat or a ship tied there, it emptied into the briny bay. The perp, thankfully, didn’t look like much of a swimmer, even on a nice day.
I tried to focus my mind on Mr. Portor Wyler, said perpetrator, and the singular reason for all my misery. I kept coming back to this burning question:
Why the hell is a Palo Alto real estate mogul driving 42-miles roundtrip two to three times a week to a beat-up, San Francisco warehouse on the waterfront?
After that, I had an even better one:
What the hell am I doing here? Oh, yeah. Thanks, Mom.
My name is Liana Alvarez. It’s Lee to my friends, but never to my mother. I am a thirty-four year old half-Latina and half-WASP PI. The latter, aforesaid relatives, drip with blue blood and blue chips and have been Bay Area fixtures for generations. Regarding the kindred Mexican half of me, they either immigrated to the good old US of A or still live in Vera Cruz, where they fish the sea. How my mother and father ever got together is something I’ve been meaning to ask Cupid for some time.
However, I digress. Back to Portor Wyler or, rather, his wife, Yvette Wyler. It was because of her I was in possession of a cold, wet butt, although I’m not supposed to use language like that because Mom would be scandalized. She has this idea she raised me to be a lady and swears her big mistake was letting me read Dashiell Hammett when I was an impressionable thirteen year old.
My mother is Lila Hamilton Alvarez, of the blue blood part of the family, and CEO of Discretionary Inquiries, Inc. She’s my boss. Yvette Wyler has been a friend of my mother’s since Hector was a pup, so when Mrs. Wyler came crying to her, Mom thought we should be the ones to find out what was going on. That didn’t seem like a good enough reason for me to be where I was, assigned to a job so distasteful no self-respecting gumshoe I hung out with would touch it, but there you have it. Leave it to my mother to lay a guilt trip on me at one of my more vulnerable times. I don’t know who I was more annoyed with, Mom or me.
Furthermore, I had no idea what my intelligent, savvy, and glamorous mother had in common with this former school buddy, who had the personality of ragweed and a face reminiscent of a Shar-Pei dog I knew once. Whenever I brought the subject up to Mom, I got claptrap about “loyalty” and “friends being friends.” So naturally, my reaction to the woman made me aware of possible character flaws on my part. I mean, here Mrs. Wyler was, one of my mother’s life-long chums, and I was just waiting for her to bark.
But the long and short of it was pals they were. Discretionary Inquiries, Inc. was on the job, and I was currently freezing my aforementioned butt off because of it; thank you so much.
Computer espionage in Silicon Valley is D.I.’s milieu, if you’ll pardon my French. The Who, What, Where, When, and How of computer thievery is our livelihood. To elucidate, high tech companies don’t appreciate staff making off with new hardware or software ideas, potentially worth millions of dollars, either to sell to the highest bidder or to use as bribery for a better, high-powered job with the competition. If you haven’t heard about any of this, it’s because this kind of pilfering keeps a pretty low profile in Silicon Valley. Upper management of most companies feel it’s important not to give investors the shakes nor the techies any ideas. Ideas, however, are what techies are all about, and it’s a rare day when somebody isn’t stealing something from someone and using it for a six-figured trip to the bank, whether upper management likes it or not.
Until the recent change in copyright law, each individual company dealt with the problem by filing civil lawsuits against suspected counterfeiters. It was a long and arduous process often resulting in nothing more than a slap on the wrist for the guilty parties. Now that there are federal statutes with teeth, which include prison sentences, these companies are anxious to see the guilty parties pay to the fullest extent of the law. It’s at this point that Discretionary Inquiries, Inc. is brought into the act.
D.I. is the Rolls Royce of high-tech investigation, if I must say so myself, with a success rate of over 94 percent. To say business at D.I. is brisk is an understatement. D.I. often turns away work. For me, it’s exciting and challenging; I love working with the FBI’s counter-intelligence division, the IRS, the U.S. Customs Service, and the “hi-tech units” of police departments.
My particular specialty is being a ferret, and I hope I’m not being too technical here. I sniff out means and opportunity after the fact until I have enough evidence that will stand up in court. Yes, I am a perfumed ferret, resplendent in Charles Jordan heels, Bulgari jewelry, and Versace dresses. I sit in cushioned office chairs and have high-powered lunches drilling stricken staff members who “can’t believe what happened,” until I enlighten them as to how it can and did. Then everybody’s happy, and I receive a nice, fat bonus when the job is done. Sometimes I’m allowed to throw a bone to the local newspapers or one of the television stations, depending on how spiteful the wounded company wants to be, so everyone loves me. And, it is my dream job.
This was my nightmare. I closed my eyes and willed it all to go away. It didn’t. Just then, the sky darkened, and a gust of wind whipped up at least half the water contained in the Bay. This water joined forces with a maverick wave with a nasty disposition and impeccable timing. They both came at me like a blast from a fireman’s hose. I lost my balance, and found myself flat on my back in a very unladylike position, as my mother would say.
I gurgled and spit out about a half-gallon of salt water hoping the Bay was as clean as the mayor boasted. My hair was plastered to my scalp and face in long, wet, strands that went nicely with the quivering blue lips and streaked mascara. I got to my feet and tried to zip up my black leather jacket. The teeth caught in the fabric of my sweater and refused to budge despite any amount of coercion from numb fingers. My wool slacks clung to my legs and lost whatever shape they previously had. To finish it off, my new suede boots bled their color in puddles around my feet.
“Well, at least it isn’t raining yet,” I said aloud, trying to remember what I’d learned about positive thinking the previous month. I had attended a three-day seminar at the Malaysian Institute of Advanced Studies in “Self-Excellence and Positive Thinking” sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. I’m not sure what I got out of it, other than great food, but the Institute has a rather unique approach to carrying out daily tasks with “dedication and integrity,” as stated in their brochures. This approach is being written up on about a billion dollars worth of software right here in Silicon Valley. D.I. is their very own personal firewall against thievery, so I wanted to give these Malaysian theories a chance.
I saw the lights go out from under the door of the warehouse and wondered if it was a power outage, or was Wyler preparing to leave? Whatever, my body tensed with renewed alertness or as much alertness as I could renew. At that moment, of course, a bolt of lightning struck. Its point zero was so close by my soggy hair stood on end, and my nose twitched from the electrical charge. The flash of light illuminated everything, including the white-capped waves of the Bay hurtling in my direction. The lightning was followed by a clap of thunder, which sounded like a herd of longhorns stampeding over a tin bridge.
As if that wasn’t enough, the walkway I stood on began to quiver, and I knew it was going to do something Really Big at any moment. That’s when the heavens opened up. Sheets of rain, driven by the wind, hammered at my skin, and I could barely open my eyes.
“That’s it! Stick a fork in me, I’m done,” I yelled to the world at large. I reached inside my drenched shoulder bag for my cellphone and prayed it would work. It had been acting up lately, like everything else in my life, but I hit speed dial and ran to a nearby Plexiglas phone booth. The booth no longer contained a phone, only sodden newspapers littering the floor. Fighting the assaulting rain, I pushed the door closed and heard someone pick up on the first ring. Things were looking up. My cell phone was working.
“This is Lila,” said a well-modulated voice.
My mother annoys me when she is well modulated, but now that she sounded dry on top of it, I found it maddening.
“It’s me, and I feel like Noah without the ark. Get the dove ready. Find me an olive branch. The rains have come, and I am gone.”
“Yes, dear. Ha ha. Now what is the matter?”
“What isn’t the matter?” I wailed, forgetting I was annoyed with her. “I’m cold; I’m soaked through, and I was almost hit by a bolt of lightning.”
“Where are you, Liana? Try to be more succinct.”
“Where am I?” I was so stunned by the question that I took a deep breath and decided not to have a tantrum. Lowering my voice several octaves, I enunciated each word. “I am where I have been for three miserable, boring, useless hours, in accordance with your wishes. Succinctly, I’m in a phone booth catty-corner to the warehouse. The lights went out maybe thirty seconds ago just as a storm hit full force. It’s raining too hard to see anything more than a foot away. I’m drenched; I’m tired, and I’m freezing.” The octaves began to climb again because while I was wiping the water from my face, I poked a finger in my right eye. “Son of a bitch!”
“Watch your language,” Lila rebuked, ever the lady. “And don’t be petulant, Liana. It doesn’t become you. So, what you are saying is, you don’t know whether or not Wyler is still inside the warehouse,” she said, getting to the issue at hand.
“Exactamente. What I do I know, is it’s a monsoon out here, and I’m going to catch pneumonia if I stay out in it much longer.”
“Oh, stop being so dramatic, Liana. It’s just a little water,” the woman who gave birth to me chided. So much for mother love. “It’s too bad you’ve lost him so late in the proceedings, though. We were doing so well,” she added.
I loved the way she included herself in all of this. “Well, don’t tell me you want me to go into the warehouse and look for him,” I said, with an edge to my voice. An involuntary shiver ran through me, as I felt a movement of the wet papers at my feet. This wind even comes through Plexiglas, I thought.
“Absolutely not! We agreed to follow him from a safe distance, not to make contact. If we lost him, we lost him. Go on home.”
“Oh.” I felt the air go out of my balloon of martyrdom. “Sorry about this,” I added. This may have been my third tedious day following a man who made Danny DeVito look tall, dark and handsome, but I was a professional and trained to do the job. Although, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what that job was. His wife thought he was cheating on her. Okay, that’s understandable given who she was, but once she caught him in flagrante delecto, what then? California has a no-fault divorce law with a fifty-fifty property split, pants up or pants down.
As far as I could see, this wasn’t quite the same scenario as demanding the return of stolen property, intellectual or otherwise. I mean, what was he going to “return” here? If Wyler dropped his drawers elsewhere, literally, could he just return his private parts, figuratively, to the little wifey with a vow to never do it again?
When I thought about it that way, I guess you could make a case for it. However, if Lila considered a philandering husband in the same category as computer espionage, and if D.I. was heading in that direction, I was going to get out of the business and become a nun.
“It can’t be helped,” Lila replied, interrupting my mental wanderings.
“What can’t be helped?” I said, still lost in my own thoughts.
“Pay attention, Liana. I’m telling you to go home. Make sure you log all the information you’ve got on the computer when you get to the office in the morning.” She added, “We’ll go over it tomorrow with Richard. By the way, have you been able to come up with the owner of the warehouse?”
“You mean in my spare time?” I retorted. “No, I’ve done some digging, but I can’t find a company name yet. I think we’re going to have to bring in the Big Guns.”
“Hmmm, strange,” Lila pondered. “By ‘big guns,’ as you‘ve put it, I assume you mean Richard.” Mom has an irritating way of underlining certain words of a sentence with her voice. I don’t mean to complain, but it can be almost as exasperating as her modulations. And then there’s her overall aversion to the use of slang words, which is too bad, because I use them all the time. Dad’s side of the family.
Aside from Dashiell Hammett, my formative years were influenced by any 1940s movie on television I watched. That was whenever I wasn’t being thrown outside to play. When I was ten years old, much to my mother’s dismay, I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Sugarpuss O’Shea in the movie Ball of Fire. I imitated “jive talk” every waking moment until I got hustled off to a craft summer camp. The camp may have curtailed my jiving, but to this day, Miss Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses, along with Selma Hayek, who I just loved in Frida.
Mom continued her train of thought about the warehouse, oblivious to my inner musings.
“At first, I didn’t think it was important enough to tie up Richard’s time, but now I’m curious as to why something as simple as finding out the ownership of a building should be so difficult. Maybe we’ll ask his department to see what they can discover tomorrow. We’ll talk later. Go home.”
With that, she hung up without even so much as telling me to drink some hot tea when I got there or to be careful driving in this weather. It was at times like these I wondered if Mom and Medea had maternal similarities I didn’t care to think about.
I threw the phone in my bag and leaned against the Plexiglas, reluctant to go out again into the storm. All of a sudden, I felt movement again at my feet and looked down. Under the papers was a small lump, a moving one! I drew my breath in, as I opened the door to the phone booth. Water rat! There was a rat in this phone booth with me! I stepped out in the rain backward, keeping my eyes on the mass of papers. Then I thought I heard a plaintive cry. I leaned my head back into the booth ignoring the rain beating down on my back like small pebbles.
“Kitty?” I said. “Kitty, kitty, kitty?”
A meow sounded again. I pulled the wet papers from on top of the lump to reveal a small, orange and white kitten, drenched to the skin. It turned amber eyes up to me and let out a silent meow as it cowered in the corner.
“Oh, my God! Look at you.” Reaching out a hand, I picked up the trembling creature. “What a little thing. And so wet. Come here.” Like an idiot, I looked around for the owner until I caught myself. I tried to unzip my jacket to slip the kitten inside but the teeth still wouldn’t release one of my best cashmere sweaters. The jacket’s pockets were huge, so I wound up sort of stuffing the kitten inside, as gently as possible, of course. It turned itself around and stuck its head out with a puzzled stare.
“Well, I can’t just leave you, and it’s pouring out there. So you stay inside until we get to my car.” With that pronouncement, I pushed its small head back inside the dry pocket and left my hand inside for protection and company. The kitten moved around a little and then settled down, leaning against my open palm.
Half walking, half jogging to my car in the torrential downpour, I glanced back in the direction of the warehouse and began to play the “on the other hand” game with myself.
On one hand, Wyler has to be in the warehouse. But it looks dark and deserted. Did he somehow get by me? No, no, he can’t have!
On the other hand, when I was lying flat on my back swallowing half the Bay, maybe he did. Stranger things have happened.
Oh, come on, I other-handed myself again. I had the only entrance and exit under constant surveillance for the last three agonizing hours, and I was only indisposed for less than a minute. How likely is it he got away? He must be there. On the other hand, and now I was up to four hands, why aren’t the lights on if he is?
This might not look so good on my resume. Uh-oh! I should check for his car. If I let him get by me, Lila will never…wait a minute!
I began to see a silver lining in all those damp clouds.
If Portor did get by me, Lila will never let me live it down. Following this line of logic, she would probably never, ever ask me to do something like this again.
I continued this new train of thought sloshing through puddles up to my ankles and almost broke out in a dance like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.
The movements of the kitten in my jacket distracted me, and I wondered what I was going to do with it when I got back to the car.
Well, I reminded myself, I couldn’t just leave it back there to drown.
That settled, I removed the keys from my bag, pressed the beeper to unlock the doors and slipped into its dry, comparative warmth.
This classic ‘57 Chevy convertible was my pride and joy, the last extravagant gift from my father shortly before his death. It contained a rebuilt engine, in addition to all the latest gewgaws offered in newer automobiles. Dad had outbid everyone at a vintage car auction for this stellar rarity still wearing the original white and turquoise paint job. He gave it to me for my thirty-first birthday, a reward for surviving a rotten marriage and a bitter divorce. I never knew what the price tag was, but the insurance premiums alone are enough to keep me working until I’m around ninety-seven.
The kitten stopped moving, and I panicked.
This is all I need, I shuddered, a deceased kitten in my jacket to complete an already ghastly day.
However, it rubbed up against my hand, and I could feel the fleece lining had dried it off. Then it popped its head out to stare at me with that “now-you’ve-gone-and-done-it-so-I’m-your-responsibility” look. It was a little unsettling.
“Well, I see you’re okay, little guy, but what am I going to do with you?” I challenged, trying not to look it in the eye. Seized with an idea, I thought of my friend who was a vet and would probably take the kitten in, warm-hearted chump that she was. I checked the time. Six-thirty. She would still be at the clinic. “Let’s take you to see your new mommy,” I cooed. I started the car and drove down the Embarcadero now black, wet and abandoned in the storm. I felt as if I were in a film noir; there didn’t seem to be a soul out besides this wet feline and me.
After the earthquake of ‘89, nearly everyone in San Francisco had prayed the freeway would come down, and the beauty of the bay would be revealed again. When the cement structure was razed, it revitalized a previously neglected area of the city, and man oh, man, do I wish I had been an investor in some of that waterfront property. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be in this area: living, working, shopping, walking, jogging, or running along the Bay, all the while talking or texting on cellphones. That was the latest form of multi-tasking.
The amazing part was they were willing to pay through the nose for the privilege of being crowded into this strip of territory along with a never-ending stream of tourists. Even with the foggy summers, it’s probably worth more per square inch than any other place in the states.
I only drove for a couple of blocks when I began to have the gnawing feeling I had some unfinished business. I decided to check and see if Wyler’s car was still around or if he had given me the slip. Ever since I started trailing him, I’d noticed he’d always left the car about three blocks away from the warehouse on a side street instead of parking right in front of it. That, in itself, I found very suspicious. He didn’t strike me as a man who was into exercise for exercise’s sake.
Turning on my brights, I hung a U-turn and drove back to where he parked earlier. I spotted the lone black Mercedes, a solitary car on the block. Noting the time, I hesitated to drive away. Something told me I should return to the warehouse and search for him even if Lila had given me direct orders not to make contact. I turned off the motor shivering in my wet clothes and listened to the sound of the rain drumming on the roof of my car, while I chewed at my lower lip for a time.
Oh, well, I thought as I started the engine, this won’t be the first time I haven’t paid any attention to what Lila said. Or the last, either.
I turned the car around and drove back to the warehouse. At this point, I didn’t care if I blew my cover or not. I needed to know.
As far as I could see, which wasn’t much, the parking lot was deserted. The lot was around one hundred and twenty feet deep stopping at the thick and ineffectual four-foot high cement wall on the Bay. A narrow walkway leading to piers directly behind each warehouse ran alongside the cement wall. Amber-colored, low-watt lampposts lit the air above the walkway between the two warehouses and the parking lot and served more as symbols than actual illumination. About five feet inside the perimeter, telephone poles lay on their sides to keep vehicles from hitting the warehouses or the seawall.
Given my vision was nada even with the headlights on, I relied on my memory and hoped nothing had changed within the last half hour. I aimed the car towards what I calculated was the warehouse door and waited for the feel of the wheels hitting the pole. When I felt the resistance, I stopped the car, turned off the engine, but left the lights on.
Pulling some Kleenex and a headscarf out of the glove compartment, I wiped my face with the former and tied the latter over my head to contain my dripping curls. Underneath the passenger’s seat, I found a flashlight, small but powerful, and a not too dirty hand towel. With all this movement, the kitten began to wiggle inside the jacket. I hauled the critter out and wrapped it in the towel. All the while, I spoke in what I hoped was a good version of the reassuring tone of voice was used on The Crocodile Hunter the one time I had watched it in mute horror. Of course, this wasn’t a crocodile, but the same theory should apply.
“You stay here for just a couple of minutes, little guy. I’ll be right back.” I placed the mummy-wrapped cat on the seat, opened the door and slid back out into the downpour. I aimed the flashlight at what I hoped was the entrance to the warehouse and was rewarded by the glint of the metal door. I ran to it, found the handle and pulled with all my might. Major locked. Rivulets of water streamed down my face, as I searched for another way to get into the building.
A far off flash of lightning struck, and out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something on the ground in the walkway near the water’s edge. It was hard to tell by the three-watt bulb of the lamppost, so I trotted towards it, aiming the flashlight ahead of me. The closer I got, the faster I ran, because it looked like a shoe, toe pointing upwards.
Breathing hard, I rounded the corner to see what connected to the shoe. It was Portor Wyler. He lay flat on his back, arms opened wide, unseeing eyes staring up into the falling rain. The front of his once white shirt had turned a pinkish hue, blood diluted by the downpour. Three small reddish holes formed a “v” in the center of his chest.
I know I screamed, but a clap of thunder must have drowned me out. I felt the shriek reverberate inside me but never heard it. I also must have been backing up, because I tripped over one of those damned horizontal telephone poles and fell backward, flinging the flashlight up in the air. It landed near my head with a sobering, clunking sound. I retrieved it, got up, and leaned against the building fighting for control.
When I could move, I stumbled back to the car and grabbed my cellphone off the front seat. The first two times I punched in 911, nothing happened. After banging the phone against the steering wheel, I finally got a connection. My teeth chattered from shock, cold, and fear, but I gave a lucid enough report to the dispatcher before the phone went dead again, as dead as Portor Wyler. Frustrated, I threw it into the back seat as hard as I could. I turned back to face a kitten that had managed to get out of his shroud in my absence and was staring up at me, wide-eyed. I reached a shaking hand out, and it rubbed its body against my fingers. This small bit of friendship overwhelmed me, and I bit back tears.
I couldn’t get the picture of Portor Wyler’s face out of my mind. His mouth had been frozen open in an “oh,” as if he’d been as surprised as me that he was dead. Funny what you notice when you see death for the first time.