By Richard Helms
Featuring Eamon Gold
Gordon Black was a short man with an intimidating stare. His hair and beard were completely white. He liked to accentuate his points by drawing circles in the air with his index fingers.
“We are nothing but organic flotsam, bobbing in the infinite sea of life. Don’t you agree, Mr. Gold?”
“Sure,” I said.
At eighty dollars an hour, plus expenses, I could agree with all sorts of garbage.
“I don’t hear much conviction in your voice,” Gordon Black said.
“Conviction costs extra.”
“A cynic, huh?”
“If I had a nickel for every time someone’s called me that, I wouldn’t need to charge eighty dollars an hour.”
“So you’re like the psychiatrists, who nod and agree with their patients so long as the clock is ticking?”
I made a note on the legal pad I had brought with me to Gordon Black’s office.
Has had experience with psychiatrists.
“I am for hire,” I said. “I don’t do this for fun.”
“How do I know you can help me?”
“Beats me. I don’t know yet what you want me to do.”
He seemed to think for a moment.
“I’ve founded a new religion. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.”
“Sorry. I let my subscription to New Religions Magazine lapse a couple of years ago.”
I smiled back.
We had shared a secret joke.
I could do this all day.
“My philosophy is simple. We are nothing but temporal flesh. There is nothing before us, and nothing after we die. Our entire existence is encompassed by the time between our births and our deaths.”
“My religion doesn’t require a supreme being meting out rewards and punishments to regulate our behavior. What we do with — or to — one another is and should be regulated by the concepts of civility and mutual respect.”
“What’s the payoff?” I asked.
Black rubbed the side of his nose and seemed to take my moral measurements with his onyx-colored eyes.
“The… payoff, as you refer to it, is social order and peace. The reward for being a good person is being a good person. That leads to a sense of peace and contentment, feelings of good will, and behavior regulated by internal values rather than external judgment.”
“And, in the interest of social order, what kind of behavior would you not condone?” I asked.
“Any behavior that is hurtful, damaging, or coerced.”
“So, whatever two or more people want to do together — as long as they agree to it and nobody forces anybody else — you’re fine with that?”
“And,” I said, “This is different from hedonism . . . how?”
“An existential philosophy based on the concept of shifting moral constants and the pursuit of pleasure.”
Black leaned his plush button-and-tuck leather office chair back and surveyed me again. His opinion of me was changing by the moment.
Or maybe I just saw it that way.
“An educated man? In your profession?”
“I’m only a part-time thug. I played college football. One of the few requirements of my scholarship was that I attend classes. A lot of my teammates took this as an opportunity to nap during the day. I decided I might as well pay attention and maybe learn something.”
“There were plenty of opportunities in college to study hedonism.”
“I see,” he said. “Well, there may be more than a little bit of the hedonistic philosophy in my religious manifesto. I also borrowed some parts of Zen Buddhism, the Caballah, and some of the more naturalistic pantheistic traditions.”
I had a feeling that he was playing a tape in his head, and transcribing it for me. I stifled a yawn.
“What about hope?” I said.
“What about it?”
“I’m no expert, but it seems to me that one of the foundations of most religions is the aspect of hope. People adhere to a system of beliefs because it offers them some relief from their personal fears.”
“Fears of what, exactly?” Black asked.
“Well . . . death, mostly. People tend to gravitate toward the promise of salvation. They like to think that there’s something to look forward to beyond the grave. You don’t offer them that.”
“Self-delusion,” he said, making a dismissive circle with his hand. “Fairy tales. Isn’t it better to admit that we are temporal beings, and savor every moment of our brief moment in the sun? Isn’t it better to sample the entire buffet of experience, to delight in the wholeness of life?”
“But with respect,” I said.
“Of course. Pleasure without respect is exploitation. We don’t exploit others.”
I made a couple more notes, and looked back up at him.
“Well, this is fun,” I said. “But how, exactly, can I help you?”
“I’m being defamed,” he said. “People are spreading lies about me.”
“What kind of lies?”
“They’re saying that I engage in pederasty, and drug use, and the vilest things.”
“Who are these people? Do you have some idea of their identities?”
“Oh, you know. The usual voices of the religious establishment. The Christian Right, all the established and entrenched faiths. They attack that which threatens them.”
“That’s a lot of suspects. Could you narrow it down a bit?”
“The loudest of my critics are on the Internet. I have a number of screen names I can give you.”
I stopped writing and thought about it for a second.
“This sounds more like a legal problem. If you think you are being slandered, perhaps you need an attorney, not a private investigator.”
“I can deal with the criticisms from the established religious camps. Now, though, I think I’m being blackmailed.”
He picked up the telephone and dialed three numbers.
“Could you bring in the envelope?” he said, and then hung up the phone. A moment later, a woman walked into the office.
She was tall and redheaded. Her conservative business suit struggled to conceal a very well-tended and genetically prosperous body. I could see the outline of her bra through the sheer white blouse under her tweed jacket. Her eyes were like emeralds.
“This is Emma Rhodden,” Black announced. “If I am the head of my church, Emma is its heart. She is my closest confidant. This is Mr. Gold, Emma. We talked about him earlier.”
She slipped her hand into mine, and squeezed. Her eyes locked onto my eyes.
“Mr. Gold. How nice to meet you. Thank you for helping Gordon and the Church.”
She handed me the envelope, then turned and left the office. She closed the door behind her.
“I bet you just respect the hell out of her,” I said.
“The envelope, Mr. Gold.”
I broke the seal on the manila envelope, and fished inside. It contained a computer printout.
“Emma found that slid under the front door when she came into the office the other day,” he said.
It was a photograph of Black. With or without respect, the act in which he was engaged was illegal in just about every state.
“It’s faked, of course,” he said.
“Very cleverly done, though. The computer programs for manipulating images become more sophisticated every year.”
The attached message was straightforward. Stop spreading your Godless beliefs, or this will be delivered to the authorities.
“I could prove in court that the image was manufactured,” Black said. “But it would be expensive, and once something like this is reported in the papers it hardly ever matters whether you’re later exonerated. People will believe what they will believe. I don’t mind criticism. This, however, begs for intervention. I want you to find the people who sent this threat, and stop them.”
“And you think these people who have attacked you on the Internet are the best candidates?”
“They’re a place to start.”
I considered the implications. Starting out with a list of screen names wasn’t promising. I had dealt with online companies in the past, and had found them to be about as cooperative with their records as Swiss banks. Attaching names to the people who had openly criticized Gordon Black and his new religion would take some doing. I could envision hours and hours of inquiries.
At eighty dollars an hour plus expenses.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll look into it.”
* * * * *
The list Gordon Black had provided wasn’t exactly a smoking gun. The Internet is full to the brim with wacky types who luxuriate in anonymity, and who believe that their firewalls actually shield them from every aspect of the real world.
That kind of presumption just bugs the hell out of me.
On the other hand, these people do know a thing or two about their medium, and one of the Prime Directives of the ether world is that one can expect complete protection of one’s true identity by the ISP.
So, I decided that the only way to catch a little fish was to use a larger phish.
The idea came to me halfway through my second Anchor Porter of the day, as I sat on the deck at my Montara Beach house, resting after working for three straight hours on a copy of a Hauser classical guitar I’d promised to build for a friend in Seattle. I build musical instruments as a hobby. It helps clear my mind, and gives me something to do with my hands when my girlfriend Heidi is at work.
All of the screen names provided by Gordon Black shared a common factor. They all hated Gordon Black. In effect, they had become a sort of loosely-connected club, which practically begged for organization. It also occurred to me that, since they had so openly expressed their opinions with Mr. Black, they might also be open to sharing their thoughts with each other.
I allowed my plan to gestate a bit as I finished the bottle of Anchor, and then I went inside to fire up my computer.
It took me a half hour to compose the phishing letter. In effect, it was a warning about the dangers of Black’s New Existence Revelations Ministries, and an invitation to join an email list so that the recipients could pool their resentment and the power of their voices. When it was finished, I read it over twice and had to admit that it was more than a little convincing. For a couple of moments, I wondered whether I was playing for the right team.
I saved the letter, and then went to a website that hosts mail lists. It took me ten minutes to set up one called ‘Bogus Faiths’. I also toggled the little box that said I had to approve each new member. That way, I could be certain that I wouldn’t be jammed with applicants who might stumble on a link to my private little club. I wanted to concentrate on the names from Black’s list.
Finally, I sent my phishing email to each of the people from the list.
* * * * *
The next morning, I booted my computer and dropped by the mail list site, to see if I’d had any nibbles from my phishing expedition.
I had expected two or three responses right away. There are some people out there who will join a chain gang if they’re properly invited. I found that eight of the nine names on the list Gordon Black had given me had requested to join the list. Apparently, I had underestimated the zeal among my little mob of zealots.
Now, here’s the beautiful part about my plan. In order to join a list with this particular server, you had to become a member. Membership was free, because eventually the server would flood your email in-box with dozens of commercial messages a day.
When you joined the server, you had to provide your name, your address, and other vital demographic data such as your age, income, buying habits, etc. Then, before the server passed along your response to the list owner, they’d vet you by sending an email to you, and you’d have to respond directly before you were approved to play with the rest of the kids.
Finally — and this is the beautiful part I mentioned — the server provided me with all of this information when my little phishies applied to join my list.
Within minutes, I had a printout on my desk which outlined the names, addresses, genders, ages, and buying habits of almost every screen name Black had given me. Only one name on the list — RodOfGod@—.net — had failed to take the bait.
Not too surprisingly, almost all of the people on the list lived in the Bay area. Gordon Black’s church was relatively new, and accordingly small. It was a safe bet that its reputation had not had time to spread near and far. One suspect, a fellow named Hiram Darles, lived in Sacramento. The rest of the addresses were in places like Sausalito, San Jose, Daly City, and in San Francisco proper.
I made a list of the members arranged by farthest distance from the city inward, and decided to visit as many as possible. I doubted that any would admit to sending the picture to Gordon Black, but I’ve also found that most extortionists prefer to operate from behind a screen. Most of them, when exposed, wilt in the light of day, especially if that light comes in the form of a six-foot guy with malice in his eyes.
I decided to skip Hiram Darles for this round. Sacramento was nowhere near the longest distance I’d driven to interview someone, but it would take the better part of a day, and I decided that it made more sense to see as many people in as short a time as possible.
The first person on the list lived in San Jose. Her name was Cynthia Raab. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment over a drugstore. Her bookshelves were lined with every known edition of the Bible, multiple volumes of Concordances and religious commentaries, and several lazy cats. The apartment smelled like urine. She didn’t own a computer — she used the one down at the local library. She thought PhotoShop was a camera store. I scratched her off my list.
The next prospect was much more promising. He was actually a minister in Pacifica. I caught him coming out the front door.
I flashed him my ID, and asked for a few minutes of his time. He was tall, but lean and sort of sickly. His skin was translucent, his eyes watery. I had a hard time imagining him railing from the pulpit. His name was Avery Sipe.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“You’ve been sending threatening emails to Gordon Black,” I said. His mouth started to form an argument, but I wasn’t in the mood to listen. “Don’t bother. I have the evidence.”
“I wouldn’t say they were threatening,” Sipe said.
“We can let the courts deal with that,” I said.
“The . . . the courts?”
I had never seen an adam’s apple bob four full inches before. I was so impressed that I almost forgot what I wanted to say.
“Mr. Black has received threats accompanied by pictures. If you sent them, now would be a good time to tell me. I’m a trained professional. If you lie, I’ll know.”
I gave him my menacing look, the one I save for bill collectors and yappy dogs.
He swallowed twice, shook his head.
“I didn’t do it,” he pleaded.
“No more contact with Black,” I said. “Not a peep. I know who you are, and I can come back when you least expect me. Is there anything you don’t understand about that?”
He shook his head again. I nodded, turned, and walked back to my car. I didn’t look back. It’s bad form to stare when a man soils his pants.
* * * * *
Heidi Fluhr and I were having dinner at my Montara Beach house. I had grilled ribeye steaks and winter vegetables, and we were enjoying it with a bottle of Corona Farms cabernet.
Heidi is an art dealer, a big healthy northern European blonde with prodigious appetites. We had been seeing each other for almost two years. I liked it. She liked it. Beyond that, we weren’t into making plans.
As we ate, told her my plan.
“Devious,” she said.
“Dang. I was shooting for ingenious and elegant.”
“Have you had any responses?”
“I haven’t checked yet.”
“Oooh, let’s go take a look. I love to watch you play detective.”
I allowed Heidi to look over my shoulder as I played with my suspects’ heads. I opened my computer and accessed the email list. As she kneaded my shoulders, I typed the following message:
Has anyone else been hassled by some glandular case in the last day or so? I'd love to know if any of you were accosted by this character, and what he told you. I find it highly suspicious that right after I start this list I get boosted by a private investigator. I'm all for putting a stop to the sacrilege that Gordon Black calls a church, but I sure don't want to get in trouble with the cops. I toggled the SEND key, and sat back to let the issue cook for a while.
“What now?” Heidi asked.
“Good question,” I said. “Sometimes you just have to stir the stew and wait to see what comes to the surface.”
“You’re fucking with their heads, you mean.”
“More or less. I scared a lot of people today. They’re going to want to talk about that with people they think they can trust. If I’m lucky, one of them will slip and tell me what I want to know.”
I was interrupted by a little gong sound, and a small immediate mail dialogue box popped up on my screen.
InHisName: RU online?
“One of my little phishes,” I explained to Heidi. “That was quick.”
I quickly typed a response.
I'm here. InHisName: That guy visited me 2.
“Did he threaten you?” I mouthed as I typed.
InHisName: Told me stop hassling Black. He scared me too. InHisName: How did he find us? Don't know. InHisName: Satan has great powers. Tell me about it. Wish I had some way to get Black to back off. InHisName: What u mean? Something embarrassing or incriminating. InHisName: Me 2. GTG.
The dialogue box disappeared.
“GTG?” Heidi asked.
“Got to go,” I said, translating. “IM-speak. Something the kids came up with.”
“What do you think about this guy?”
“I think that ‘guy’ is a sixty-year-old woman who lives in San Bruno. Her name is Kate, and she’s an ex-hippie who spent most of the 1960s in Haight-Ashbury, grooving with Jerry and the Dead. She’s not the blackmailer.”
“So why did you bait her?”
“That last bit about wanting something to make Black back off? You were trying to get her to admit that she had something on him.”
“I was planting seeds. She’s part of my email list. It might look suspicious if I – as the list owner – came right out and asked if any of the members has a picture of Black with a goat, but if one of the other members brings it up, it won’t look so hinky.”
“And when someone comes forward?”
“Then I have my extortionist. Now, what can we do while we wait?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“We could always canoodle.”
“You expect me to canoodle just because you cooked dinner?”
“Of course not. I expect you to canoodle because I am irresistibly handsome, and because I make your toes curl.”
“And because you’re so devious,” she said.
“Yes,” I added. “Devious helps.”
* * * * *
I spent most of the night monitoring the email list. Nobody else tried to IM me, but the list was busy until after one in the morning. Sometime around midnight, my buddy Kate InHisName uploaded a message to the list.
We should fight fire with fire. Gordon Black and his blasphemers think they can scare us off with threats and intimidation. I'd bet he'd back off in a New York minute if he knew we could threaten him back. Maybe we could hire some kind of private investigator to get some dirt on Black…
I laughed out loud when I read that one. For a second, I considered playing both sides of the street.
Well, maybe it was only half a second. I have scruples, after all.
* * * * *
Heidi got up before I did, dressed, and left for her apartment. I awoke just after nine-thirty. I hit the shower, got dressed and shaved, and settled down in my kitchen for some toaster waffles and a lot of hot coffee.
As I waited for the coffee to brew, I logged on to my laptop and checked the list.
Around two in the morning, one of my phishes had uploaded a message. It was short, sweet, and succinct.
I have something we could use on Black. I have pictures. Bad pictures. I don't want to share them with you, because they are evil, but he sure wouldn't want to see them made public.
I checked the screen name. PiusXIX. I checked it against my list.
Hiram Darles. My guy in Sacramento. The only suspect from Gordon Black’s list whom I hadn’t personally visited yet. That was probably why he was so bold on the list.
I finished my breakfast, loaded his address into my GPS, and climbed into my car to make the trip to the state capitol.
* * * * *
Hiram Darles lived in a small California bungalow in a neighborhood of similar houses constructed in the Roaring Twenties. The yard was well-tended, the flower beds weeded to distraction, and someone had brazed an ornate wrought-iron cross to the screen door on the shady front porch.
From the street, I could see a car parked in the single garage at the back end of the gravel driveway. I hoped that the car belonged to Darles and not his wife.
I banged on the front door and waited. After several seconds, I heard heavy footsteps nearing the door.
I waited as the person inside released three different deadbolt locks. Hiram Darles opened the door. He was about my age, but had allowed himself to go to suet. His most prominent features were cheeks that puffed out like fugu, and his ruddy flopping jowls. His eyes seemed set back in folds of skin. He wore a pair of jeans and a WWJD sweatshirt.
“Hiram Darles?” I said, as he unlatched the screen.
I could see the color drain from his face. His cheeks went from rosy to ashen in seconds.
“Oh, my God, it’s you!” he said.
He tried to slam the door, but I already had my size thirteen wedged in the jamb. I pulled the picture Gordon Black had given me from my back pocket, unfolded it, and held it up to him.
“Look familiar, Hiram?” I asked.
“Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God…” he chanted. “You go away. I didn’t give you permission to come in this house. You’re trespassing.”
“You’re supposedly devout,” I said. “I think you’re supposed to forgive trespasses, aren’t you? Tell me about the picture, Hiram.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Extortion is a crime,” I said. “Right now it’s just you and me talking – just a couple of guys. I have the Sacramento Police on my cell phone speed dial. You decide not to be friendly, and I can have them here in about five minutes. What’s it going to be?”
He glanced back into the house, as if looking for some place to hide. Looking at him, I concluded that it would have to be a really big place. Finally, he stepped out onto the porch, and closed the door behind him.
“You can’t come inside,” he said.
“The hell I can’t,” I told him. “If I want to, I’ll come inside, toss the place, reprogram your VCR, and neuter your cat. Do we understand each other?”
“You are a tool of Satan!” he said, indignantly.
I leaned in very close to his face. His breath smelled like cheese.
I held out the photo again.
“You put this under Gordon Black’s door,” I said. I didn’t phrase it as a question.
He nodded. I could see tears welling at the corners of his eyes.
“Mr. Black is very upset about this,” I said.
“Gordon Black is a demon. He was sent by Satan to lead the unwary astray from the true path. Someone had to stop him.”
“And you decided to be that person.”
“No. I was chosen. I received that picture as an attachment to an email from a fellow believer. He – or she, it’s hard to tell online – said I should give it to Gordon Black as an example of the power of the Lord, and the damnation that awaits Black if he doesn’t repent.”
“Who was the person who sent it to you?”
“I can’t recall. It doesn’t matter. I wrote the demand at the bottom. I delivered the message. I’d do it again.”
I nodded and looked away, out at the street, as I mulled my options.
Being a private cop has advantages and disadvantages. Among the disadvantages is the relative paucity of things you can do to miscreants once you track them down. I could have danced around the porch with Hiram for a couple of rounds, left him bruised and wiser, but all that would have proven was that I was bigger and meaner, and would probably just fuel his righteous anger, and justify future misbehavior.
“Here’s the deal,” I said, as I turned back to him. “You got lazy, and you got caught. Now I know who you are, and I know what you did, and you could go to jail for a long time for it.”
“I just wanted him to stop,” Hiram whined.
“I know. And I don’t care. I work for Gordon Black, and Gordon Black wants this foolishness to end. So, no more messages. Save someone in your own neighborhood. If there are any more threats, I’m coming after you first. Is there anything I’ve said that you don’t understand?”
He shook his head. A weighty tear plopped from his cheek onto the painted deck of the porch.
I folded the picture, stuffed it in my jacket pocket, and left Darles to his own private recriminations.
* * * * *
I met with Gordon Black later that afternoon. I handed him the list of suspects I’d culled from my phishing expedition, and told him that Hiram Darles was the person who had tried to blackmail him. I urged him to go light on Darles who, after all, was only doing what he thought was right, no matter how illegally he went about it.
To his credit, Black accepted the advice.
“You’re probably right,” he said. “And I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t at least try to respect his beliefs.”
“Yes,” I said. “We do want to avoid charges of hypocrisy.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Black asked.
“Nothing. I’ll send you a bill.”
* * * * *
Six months later, I was bucks up. I had been hired by a couple of Silicon Valley geeks to unravel an industrial espionage case, and they had been very grateful for my results. Since I had time to kill and money to blow, I had taken Heidi on an impromptu trip to Lake Tahoe.
We had been back for a couple of days. It was Sunday. We were lounging in Heidi’s Russian Hill apartment. She read the Chronicle local section as I nibbled on some toast, perused the sports pages, and considered hiring a sailboat to play on the bay that afternoon.
“Eamon?” Heidi asked, looking up from the paper.
“What was the name of that guy in Sacramento you nabbed for extortion last Christmas?”
I had to think hard to recall. I don’t store a lot of the perps I run down in long-term memory.
“Darles,” I said, after a moment. “Hymie, Horace, something like that.”
“Yeah, that’s it. What about him?”
She handed me the paper. It was turned to the obits.
“He’s dead,” she said.
I scanned the notice. Age forty-three. I thought he had looked a lot older, actually. Died suddenly. No cause listed. No survivors.
Not a lot to say for a life. Services were that afternoon at a funeral home in Sacramento.
“Probably a heart attack,” I said. “The guy was a walking advertisement for statins. Hand me the funnies?”
“I can’t have the funnies?”
“No, not that. I mean, ‘no, it wasn’t a heart attack.’ Look on page three.”
It took me a moment to find the fifteen-line blurb near the bottom of the page, recounting a hit-and-run two nights before. The details were sketchy, partly because Darles was a nobody, and probably partly because the police didn’t have much to tell the beat reporter who wrote the piece.
“Victim was Hiram Darles, age forty-three,” I read. “Police are looking for a black SUV, make unknown.”
“What do you think?”
“I think the SUV should be easy to find. A guy Darles’ size would put a hefty dent in a Hummer.”
“I mean, do you think it was intentional?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Well, he was an extortionist.”
“Not a very good one. And I put him out of business. Darles was big and slow, and not very bright to boot. He probably just stepped off the wrong curb at the right time, and couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. You want to go sailing this afternoon?”…….
* * * * *
We did go sailing, but as we tacked around on the chop out in the Golden Gate, I couldn’t get my mind off Hiram Darles.
I might not have recalled his name right off the bat, but I hadn’t forgotten the fear in his eyes. Intimidation is one of the tools of my trade, but sometimes it carries a nasty personal freight charge.
When we got back to my house, I booted my computer and checked out the Bogus Faiths email list I had set up to phish for Gordon Black-haters. I hadn’t taken the list down after closing Black’s case, because I wanted to make sure Darles didn’t grow a pair after my visit and decide to tempt fate.
After a month with no posts from him, I had finally lost interest and gone on to other projects. Somehow, though, I had never gotten around to taking down the list.
To my surprise, there were no recent posts on the list. The last one had been about three months earlier, from the nice lady with the cats in San Jose – what was her name? Raab. After that — nothing.
It was possible, of course, that with such a small membership the list had simply petered out. I’d seen it happen before on a couple of guitar-making sites I had joined.
On the other hand, the list had been bustling when I abandoned it. My little group of suspects hadn’t seemed the kind of folk to cut and run on a subject so close to their hearts. These people had been not only devout, but vocal about it. It was more than a little curious that they had gone silent.
I thought about it that evening in the shop I had set up in the living room of my Montara house as I worked on a banjo I’d agreed to build for a friend in Ukiah. Heidi lounged on the sofa in an extra-large Forty-Niners tee shirt and little else, reading a Jonathan Santlofer novel. She liked Santlofer because he was an artist as well as an author, and she had carried one or two of his pieces in her gallery over the years.
“Where are they?” I said, mostly to myself.
“Probably where you last left them,” she said, without looking up.
“I was thinking about my little phishes.”
“The holy rollers you conned on that email list?”
“Yeah. No messages in almost three months. Where did they go?”
“You’re a detective. Why don’t you . . . what’s that thing you do?”
“Look into it?”
“Yeah. You should do that.”
“You know,” I said. “I think I will.”
I put aside the banjo, and booted the computer in the spare bedroom. It took me a moment to access my case records, and to print out the list of suspects I had developed during the Gordon Black case.
I sat on the sofa. Heidi curled up against my side. I picked up the telephone and dialed Kate InHisName in San Bruno.
Annoying three tone signal. An electronic voice advised me that the number was no longer in service.
The old lady with the cats in San Jose — Cynthia Raab — same “no longer in service” message. I could see a free spirit like Kate pulling up stakes, but Raab seemed to have hunkered down for the remainder of her breathing time. On a hunch, I dialed Avery Sipe’s number in Pacifica, just a couple of miles to the north of my Montara house.
Someone picked up the phone on the third ring.
Female voice. Sounded like she was in her late teens or early twenties.
“Could I speak with Mr. Sipe, please?”
“Sure. Hold on.”
I heard her put down the receiver. Moments later, someone picked it up again.
“This is Curtis Sipe,” a man said.
“Excuse me. I was trying to reach Avery Sipe.”
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid that . . . who’s calling please?”
“My name is Eamon Gold.”
“Did you have some business with my father?”
It was time for a little fancy stepping. I didn’t like the way he was referring to Avery in the past tense.
“We met about six months ago. I was just following up on our conversation.”
“I see. I’m very sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Gold, but my father… passed away.”
“My goodness. When?”
“In February. It was very sudden.”
I apologized for bothering him, and racked the receiver.
Heidi had heard enough to distract her from Santlofer.
“Two of them are dead?” she asked.
“Maybe four. I need to do some research.”
Every detective worth his license subscribes to one kind of database or another. Unlike the online search engines, these databases can provide you with information very few people want posted on their websites. With little more than a name, a date of birth, or a Social Security number, I could find out how much money you make, what kind of car you drive, and how much you paid in taxes the last year.
I could also find out whether you were still walking the Earth, or simply permanently inhabiting a hundred square feet of it.
I knew that Darles and Sipe were dead. I pulled up a news story on Sipe whom, it appeared, had fallen from a cliff at the beach in Pacifica in February. No biggie there. The coastline of California is pocked with literally hundreds of dangerous cliffs, and hardly a day goes by that you don’t read about someone falling off of one.
I checked on Cynthia Raab next. Asphyxiated in April when her pilot light went out while she was asleep.
Kate Corrigan, the hippie in San Bruno, had been electrocuted by her hair dryer.
The list went on and on. Every member of my list had died in the six months since I had recruited them. Each death had been an apparent accident.
Sitting next to me at the computer, Heidi shivered.
“Damn, Gold. What’s going on here?”
“I don’t know,” I said, reaching for the telephone. “But I think it’s time I went back to church.”…….
* * * * *
Gordon Black wasted no time escorting me into his office.
“Mr. Gold,” he said, as I sat across the desk from him. “I must say, I didn’t expect to see you again. I trust my check cleared?”
“Yes. This isn’t a collection call.”
I placed a printed summary of the fates of my phishes on his desk, and watched as he read over it.
“Oh, my,” he said, placing the paper down on the desk calendar. “I know how this must look…”
“Of course. I’m an intelligent man. I hired you to find these people and make them stop harassing me. Now they’re all dead. It makes me look . . . well, vengeful.”
“And it makes me look like an accomplice,” I said. “I hope you haven’t compromised me, Gordon.”
“Not at all. I’m shocked at this news.”
“Here’s the deal,” I told him. “Two people had access to this list. Obviously, I did. I gave you a report of my investigation after I shook Hiram Darles’ tree. That report contained the names and addresses of every person I contacted. Now they’re dead. I know I didn’t do it. That leaves you.”
“Not . . . necessarily,” he said. “I discussed this case with several members of my staff — informally, that is — in a meeting several days after you met with Darles.”
“How many members?”
“Three. These are good people, Mr. Gold. They’re my closest advisors — almost apostles, you might say. They revere me.”
“Would they kill for you?”
“Now you’re being melodramatic.
“Give me their names.”
“Is that really necessary?”
“Nine people are dead, Mr. Black. That implies a certain necessity. One accident, I can buy. Two, a coincidence perhaps. Nine seems excessively improbable. Give me the names of the people you told, or I call the cops right now.”
“I don’t think so,” said a woman behind me.
I turned to face Emma Rhodden, the ‘heart’ of Gordon Black’s church. She held a nasty-looking .32 caliber automatic.
“Emma?” Black said. “Put that down.”
“No,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ve already underestimated Mr. Gold one too many times.”
With my back half turned to her, Emma couldn’t see my right hand snake across my belly toward the shoulder holster, where I kept my Browning nine-mike.
Or maybe she could.
“Don’t do that,” she said. “My father taught me how to shoot when I was just a child. I would kill you before you turn halfway around. Pull out your gun, by the handle, with two fingers, and place it on the floor.”
“Rhodden,” I said, as I followed her directions. “RodofGod. You were the name on Black’s list who never joined my email group. You live in Sausalito, don’t you?”
“What are you saying?” Black demanded. “Emma is completely loyal to me.”
“Hiram Darles told me that someone he didn’t know sent the picture he tried to use to blackmail you. Since he admitted sliding it under your door, my job was done. I didn’t bother to find out who actually manufactured the picture. It wasn’t part of the job I agreed to do.”
“You’re so smart, aren’t you?” Emma said.
“Smart enough to know that you gave Darles that picture, Emma. What I can’t quite figure out is why?”
“Neither can I,” Black said. “Why did you do this horrible thing, Emma?”
“There is no such thing as bad publicity, Gordon. A church — any church — runs on money. Money comes from contributions. I figured that if Darles released that picture, we’d get publicity, lots of it. Most people, people who can’t understand what we’re doing, would disregard us as a bunch of kooks and sex addicts. The right people, though, would flock to us in droves. Collections would skyrocket. We’d have the money to grow the way you had always dreamed of growing.”
“I never would have agreed to such a scheme.”
“Why do you think I never told you?” Emma said. “I know how proud you are, Gordon. I knew you’d never give in to Darles’ extortion. I figured that the picture would be distributed, one way or the other.”
“My God,” Black said, shaking his head. “You don’t know what you’ve done. Why kill all those people?”
“Darles again. Somehow, he found his way to me. He was a computer geek. He figured out a way to get my name from the email address. When he found out that I was with the church, he threatened to expose me, beginning with the people he’d gotten to know on Gold’s email list.”
“Did he do it?” Black asked.
“I don’t know. Because of the protocols Gold placed on the list, I couldn’t find out what Darles had told them. So, I had to get rid of each of the people on the list, one by one.”
“It was important to make them look like accidents,” I said, never taking my eyes off Emma’s gun. “Murders make the front page of the newspaper. People who die in accidents barely make the obits.”
“We have to get rid of him, Gordon,” Emma said.
“What on Earth are you talking about?” Black said.
“I’m a liability,” I said. “Emma believes that you’ll forgive her. She’s the heart of your ministry, after all. The head can never separate itself from the heart. I, on the other hand, can ruin everything. Emma expects that you’ll overlook just one more ‘accident’.”
“It’s out of the question,” Black said. “Emma, I love you as much as I’ve loved anyone. What you’ve done, though, is monstrous. You have acted without respect or tolerance for others. I’m afraid I have no alternative other than to excommunicate you from the church. Please put down the gun.”
“What?” she asked. Her face looked puzzled.
“The gun. I must insist that you put it down.”
“I did it all for you!”
“I regret that. I really do. I’ll say it again. You must put the gun down.”
“I . . . I can’t,” she whimpered.
“I imagine that the policeman behind you would demand it,” Gordon said.
She gave him one look of incredulity, for only a second, before the uniformed cop who had crept up behind her leveled his own automatic and barked at her to drop her weapon. Shocked, she let go of the pistol almost instantly. It fell to the floor like a neglected stone.
As soon as she was cuffed, a plainclothes detective entered the room.
“Detective Crymes,” I said, “this is Gordon Black.”
“I wish I could say it’s a pleasure, Mr. Black,” Crymes said.
“Detective Crymes is with the Robbery-Homicide Division, Pacifica Police,” I explained. “Once I figured out that you or one of your people had to have killed my phishes, I contacted him. Avery Sipe, one of Emma’s victims, lived in Pacifica. That made it Detective Crymes’ case.”
I pulled my cell phone from my jacket pocket and held it up.
“Did you hear the entire conversation?” I asked.
“Every word,” Crymes said. “Seems that Ms. Rhodden here has a lot of explaining to do. I’ll still need some information from you, Eamon. Can I reach you at the Montara house?”
“Or at my office in San Francisco.”
“I’ll call you.”
He and the uniformed cop helped Emma to her feet, and escorted her out of the office to the waiting patrol car.
* * * * *
A week or so later, Heidi and I were at the Montara house, preparing to grill Alaskan salmon and silver queen corn. The mail truck drove up and left something in my mailbox.
I retrieved it, and opened the envelope as I walked back to the deck.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“A check,” I said. “From Gordon Black. The note says he wants to reward me for saving his church.”
“Is it a nice check?”
“Very nice. Feel like a trip? Someplace warm, with lots of sand and fruity drinks?”
“I could go someplace warm. I’m still not certain I understand this church of Black’s.”
“Maybe I’m just old and stuffy,” I said, “but it seems more like a cover for Black and his followers to indulge adolescent fantasies.”
“Different strokes for different folks.”
“I do believe that you’ve just quoted the California state motto,” I said.
“How long is it going to take the charcoal to be ready to grill?”
“A half hour or so. Why?”
She grinned at me, her eyes twinkling.
“Thought we might head to the back of the house for a while. Maybe get in a little . . . you know. Worship.”
I took her hand, and led her through the sliding glass doors into the house.
“Let us pray,” I said.
* * * * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (2007)
North Carolina native Richard Helms retired from active practice as a forensic psychologist in 2002 to take a job as a counselor and instructor at a local college. He currently has nine books in print, three of which (Juicy Watusi, Wet Debt, and Cordite Wine) have been nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award. An amateur astronomer, woodworker, gourmet cook, and devoted fan of the Carolina Panthers and Tarheels, Helms is currently at work on a new private eye novel set in Havana during the Cuban Revolution.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Richard Helms.