“Barbara, I need your help,” my best friend said. She was perched on a stool in the window of our favorite coffee shop, a chocolate cupcake in one hand and a latte steaming gently in front of her. “I’m scared of Jake. I want him out.”
“What?” When she’d suggested coffee, I hadn’t expected this. “Jake-your-tenant? That Jake?”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I wish I was.”
Jake Scott has been living in Andrea Fisher’s basement suite since before she bought her turn-of-the-century house. In fact, it was the ‘mortgage helper’ suite complete with long-term tenant that convinced the bank to lend her the ridiculous amount of money she needed to buy the place. She’d never so much as complained about Jake before, and now she was scared of him?
“So what’s changed?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. Jake’s always been pretty laid back, but lately he gets mad at the least little thing. And not just garden-variety pissed. This is major blowup angry. I don’t even recognize the old Jake in this new version.”
“You know the renovations I’m doing?”
I nodded. I’ve heard about little else for months now. Good thing I don’t have to live with it, that’s all I can say.
“Well, yesterday Jake started swearing at the carpet layer. Said he was making too much noise. Barbara, this was this middle of the day. It’s not like they’re working late or starting early or anything.”
How to phrase this diplomatically? Not that diplomacy has ever been my strong suit. “I can see where living with someone else’s renovations could be annoying…”
“We’re not talking annoyed. We’re talking making physical threats. That carpet layer is a big guy, but he refused to leave my place while Jake was anywhere around.”
“Maybe he was using it as an excuse to spend more time with you.” It was possible. Andrea is a vibrant blue-eyed blonde who’s been garnering male attention all her life. To her credit, she mostly ignores her effect on men.
“He’s gay, Barbara.’
I couldn’t resist. “Jake is?”
“Very funny. The carpet layer. And you’re not taking me seriously here.”
“Just trying to lighten things up.” But it was hard to take her complaint too seriously. For one thing, she and Jake have always got along just fine. And the man just doesn’t have that threatening aura. He’s attractive in that slightly shaggy but rugged way most women find appealing and most men can’t understand. And he’s fit enough, but not that tall. Nope, not scary.
Andrea didn’t smile, and she’d abandoned the cupcake, which meant I’d better start taking her seriously. It takes a lot to get between Andrea and her cupcakes. She allots herself two a week, and she seriously enjoys them.
“Barbara, he’s gone from making suggestions about the yard to yelling at anyone who tries to set foot on the property. He got into an argument with some poor soul doing a survey on parking bylaws who made the mistake of coming up on the porch. Jake got so loud and threatening I had to call the police.”
As Andrea’s voice rose, I half expected the caffeinated buzz around us to fall silent, but everyone was too involved in their own mid-morning gossip to care. “What did they do?”
“Warned him to clean up his act. But they told me there wasn’t much else they could do.” She gave a tiny shrug. “It’s made him worse. He’s always swearing at something, usually me.”
“Has he done anything physical?”
OK, that was good. “So maybe he’ll settle down once the reno’s finished.”
She didn’t look convinced.
“There’s more,” she said, her voice not quite steady.
Over Andrea’s shoulder, the kaleidoscope of color and style that confirm Robson’s status as Vancouver’s trendiest street whirled by unaffected. A shaft of sunlight highlighted her taut features. I’ve drawn my best friend so often, I know every line and hollow of her expressive face, and I’d never seen her look so strained. She was scared. Really scared.
“Jake lived in LA before he moved here,” Andrea said. “He came home one afternoon… Barbara, his apartment was broken into and his girlfriend murdered. He says it was random, and that he moved north to get away from the memories and the violence, but I’m starting to wonder. At very least he’s got reason to be paranoid. And with that rash of gang shootings and the way he’s been acting …” her voice trailed off.
Metro Vancouver’s gangs have been growing and diversifying over the last ten years or so, mostly driven by drug money; pot, crack cocaine and crystal meth being the front runners. Not too long ago gang wars created a rash of targeted hits, taking our murder statistics into the double digits. The violence that underlies any port city seemed to be moving from back alleys and the drug-ridden Downtown East Side to everyone’s neighborhood. Suddenly drive-by shootings were taking place in parking lots outside bowling alleys and mom n’ pop groceries as well as outside the homes of known gang members in upscale suburban neighborhoods. Like Andrea’s.
And Jake lived in her basement suite. I wasn’t liking any of this.
“Jake’s got a new tattoo,” Andrea said. “And I’m pretty sure he has a gun. I’m afraid he’ll use it.”
I hoped she was over-reacting. But if she wasn’t? “You’re thinking he might be associated with a gang?”
She shrugged one shoulder, then nodded.
The possibility fried my brain cells into something resembling curry. “You really think he could be that dangerous.”
I tried for rational. “Because he’s swearing more? He could just be losing it with all the renovations.”
“This feels worse, Barbara. And he’s getting worse.”
OK, then. “Where’s the tattoo?”
She glanced at me, turned over her napkin and held out her hand. I reached into my purse, handed her the soft ‘HHH’ pencil I always carry. She drew a wobbly blotch that looked something like a dagger with a rose twined around it, a drop of blood falling from the tip. I watched the lines form, feeling none of the amusement her drawings usually spark.
“It’s done entirely in black, except for the blood,” she said, handing it to me. “And Barb? He’s just got a new bike, too. A big one.”
I’d forgotten he rode a motorcycle. “Doesn’t mean he’s in a gang.”
“It means he could be.”
“Then evict him, so you don’t have to deal with this. It sounds like you have enough issues. Have you talked to a lawyer?”
“Yes, I talked to Claire.”
I’ve worked with Claire Chan in the past, and she’s good. I breathed a sigh of relief. “OK, then. What did Claire say?”
“She said I might have enough evidence to get him evicted.”
“Well, that sounds…”
“But that I’d have to file an application, and it would probably take a couple of weeks for an appointment. It could take months to get him out. And it can get really messy if the tenant doesn’t want to leave.”
She met my eyes. “Jake isn’t going to want to leave, Barb. And with his moods lately… I’m afraid of what he might do.”
I could understand that. “Can’t the police help?”
Andrea got an odd expression on her face and shook her head. I was going to ask her about it, but her next words drove the thought out of my mind.
“Barb, I want to hire you to get that gun away from Jake, get him out of my place,” Andrea said. “Whatever it takes.”
My response was automatic. “Andrea, I’m a PI, not a police detective. I’m the one who spends her life following suspected insurance defrauders and wandering husbands. I can find out if he has a gun registered. I can talk to the police about your concerns. But there isn’t much more I can do.”
Especially not if he really was involved with a gang.
She wasn’t listening. “I need your help, Barb. I don’t know where else to turn.”
Well, that was it, of course. I was hired. And completely out of my depth.
* * *
Half an hour later I was sitting in my cramped office staring at the sketch Andrea had drawn, questioning my own sanity. I’m a PI, Barbara O’Grady by name. As I’d tried to tell Andrea, I excel at stakeouts, at tracking down missing relatives and checking out deadbeat dads and potential boyfriends. Potentially homicidal gang members, not so much.
Still, here I was. Taking a deep breath, I fired up Google.
Twenty-three searches and forty-seven web pages later I sat back, relieved. It always amazes me what you can find online, even if some of it is suspect. I’d found a database some enterprising citizen had started of local gang members – anyone who’d been arrested or profiled in the papers, which included a number of gang tattoos.
I’d peered closely at each and every one of those photos. And I’d found no imagery combining roses, daggers and blood drops. Jakes’ tattoo didn’t seem related to the Hells Angels or any of their alleged puppet clubs, and the Red Scorpions, UN and Independent Soldiers gangs mostly used initials, sometimes combined with images. I picked up the phone.
“Trusted Temps, Andrea Fisher speaking.”
“Andrea, it’s me. Jake’s tattoo. Did it have any writing or initials on it?”
She didn’t hesitate. “No. Nothing like that.”
“Yes. Is it important?”
“I think so.” I thought for a moment. “I read somewhere that the new digital SLR cameras can use non-digital lenses. Have you still got your old long-range lenses?”
“Have you ever known me to throw anything out?”
She had a point. Organize and label it, yes. Throw it out, no. “Think you can use the old lenses and your fancy new camera to get a photo of that tattoo? Without him noticing you?”
She was silent for a moment. “I think so. I’ve got some lenses that will give me a real close-up. And any time it’s sunny, Jake’s out working on that bike. I should be able to get something.”
“OK, but be careful.” As if I had to tell her that. “Email it to me as soon as you have it, OK?”
“Will do. Barb?” She hesitated. “Any news on whether Jake has a gun?” The words came too fast, nearly running together.
“No, nothing yet.”
“You’ll call me?”
I hung up, considered the ridiculously bad drawing in front of me. If Andrea had captured something even vaguely resembling the real tattoo, the likelihood that Jake belonged to a gang seemed pretty slim. And the man sold insurance, for heaven’s sake.
I blew out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Probably there was no gang connection. Probably. But he didn’t exactly sound stable, and if it turned out he had a gun? Not good. How do I get myself into these things, anyway?
Guns and Barbara O’Grady are a bad combination. Plus there’s that working for friends thing. Yet here I was. Not just working for my best friend, but taking on a case that starts with the premise that someone might be armed and dangerous.
The last time I’d gotten too close to a gunman, I found myself staring down the barrel of a loaded pistol into the cold eyes of a man who’d already murdered three people, a man who had nothing to lose. I still relive that moment; the utter disbelief that it’s really happening mixed with the awful realization of what it means to be mortal.
Once the shock of that moment—not to mention being shot—wore off, I started questioning whether I was really cut out to be a PI. I might have eaten a lot of beans in my painting days, but at least no-one was trying to kill me. While my arm healed, I took some time off and traveled, toyed with the idea of getting a good bean cookbook. In the end I came back, but I’ve been very careful to take only routine cases, cases where I wasn’t going to get shot at. Until now.
Still, there was no way I could have said no to Andrea. And there was no proof Jake actually had a gun. Maybe all the renovations were getting to Andrea too, and she was getting paranoid. That didn’t sound like my level-headed friend, though. And she’d asked for my help.
Resigning myself to the inevitable, I started with a call to my buddy Jerry Hawald. Now that he’s risen to the rank of detective, Jerry isn’t usually too pleased to hear from me when I’m working on a case. But maybe he’d have some good news for me on Jake’s possible gun.
“You’ve reached the voicemail of …”
“Never fails,” I muttered, stabbing the pound key. I used to hate answering machines, but voicemail makes me crazy, because people don’t even have to listen to your message before deleting it. “Jerry, it’s Barbara. I need to talk to you urgently. Call me.”
I’d barely hung up when the phone rang. I glanced at the number, but it was blocked. Not Jerry. Now what?
“O’Grady Investigations. Barbara O’Grady speaking.”
“Ms. O’Grady? I’d like to hire you,” a voice I didn’t recognize said in a hoarse half-whisper.
My favorite words. But what was with the voice? “And your name?”
“No names. I just want you to find some information for me.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t accept a case from an anonymous client.”
“You’ll be well paid.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Check your mailbox,” he said, and hung up.
“Stupid caller.” He didn’t deserve it, but I was too intrigued to ignore the call.
My overactive curiosity keeps getting me in trouble. Probably why I became a PI, come to think of it.
I headed down the echoing stairwell to the lobby. I’m doing pretty well as an investigator, but not well enough to afford a flashy office in a new building, or one on the west side of downtown. Still, my building has character, which is a nice way of saying it’s old. It was built in 1907, which makes it a heritage building in this town. Vancouver doesn’t have a lot of what any eastern city would consider history.
The lobby retains some flavor of the building’s former elegance with marble floors and much scuffed panelled walls. The mailboxes are the old fashioned scrolled kind, with the contents partially visible even before the box is opened. There was a sealed 9” x 12” manila envelope in my box. No postmark, so it had been hand delivered.
Swearing under my breath, I checked the lock on the mailbox. There was no obvious sign of tampering, but these mailboxes are original to the building, which means that they look great, but aren’t all that secure. The building is locked at night, but during the day people come and go. My caller must have been watching the lobby and seized his opportunity.
“Amateur hour! I do not need this,” I muttered to myself, and took the stairs two at a time all the way to the seventh floor landing.