Authors: Lee Goldberg
My buddy could have a name like Joe “Hard Drive” Hardigan.
But I didn’t have a buddy like that yet.
I also didn’t have a picture of the license plate. I had a picture of the back tires and a chunk of the car’s bumper.
There was something on the bumper, though, that caught my eye. I looked at it under the magnifying glass. It was a tiny green sticker, a stylish rendering of the letter “S” and a code number underneath: “UC2376.”
It looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place where I’d seen it before. I figured it was a parking permit of some kind, but from where? The UC could stand for the University of California, and could come from any of their campuses statewide, though the guy who beat me up didn’t look like a student to me.
The sticker could also be a parking permit for a factory, an office building, a government office, or even a gated community like the one I guarded. The possibilities were endless.
As I walked outside to my car, it occurred to me again how unusual I thought it was for the blackmailer to be driving a new Ford Focus, a practical economy car. It’s the last car a guy like that would buy.
So I decided to assume that the car wasn’t his.
Which meant it could be stolen, though if you’re gonna steal a car, it would be something nicer than Ford Focus, even if all you were gonna to do with it was take a joyride. There’s no joy in riding in a Ford Focus, believe me.
If I assumed it wasn’t stolen, that he’d borrowed it, then maybe it belonged to his employer. Perhaps the sticker meant it was a fleet car of some kind.
And then it hit me, just as I reached my little Kia Sephia.
It was a rental car.
Right away, I knew my deduction was right. I knew it because it matched the evidence, it was logical, and it fit my astute observations of his character.
And I knew it because the tiny green sticker on his bumper was the same as the one on my car.
The lady behind the counter at the Swift Rent-A-Car office on Ventura Boulevard looked like she’d been manufactured at the same plant where they make stewardesses, bank tellers, telephone operators, and Barbie dolls.
She was blond, blue-eyed, and her body had all the right measurements so she could fit into her pre-tailored, green rent-a-car gal uniform. I was hoping she’d be just as robotic and predictable as her appearance promised.
“May I help you?” she chirped.
I strode up in a new polo shirt and khakis I bought at K-Mart.
“My name is John D. MacDonald, and I’m a best-selling author of mystery novels. I’m doing some research for my next book, and I was hoping you could help me with a technical question about the rental car industry.”
I said it all quickly, in a nervous blurt, just the way I’d memorized it. I also whipped out a new paperback reprint of
Nightmare in Pink
and held it in front of me like an ID.
“What does the D stand for?” she asked.
I wasn’t prepared for improvisation. I’d come up with a very detailed script, and already she was deviating from her part.
“The D,” she repeated. “People don’t usually mention their middle initial unless they are very proud of it.”
“What about Captain James T. Kirk? He tells everybody about his middle initial, even aliens who don’t understand English and certainly don’t give a damn.”
“That’s what his T stands for,” she explained. “Would you like to know what Doctor McCoy’s middle name was?”
“Actually, what I’d like to know is what this means.” I handed her the photo of the blackmailer’s bumper.
“What for?” she asked.
“My hero, Travis McGee, is tossed out of a car. And just before he passes out on the road, he sees that sticker with the logo and number. I was wondering what he could deduce from that clue.”
“He didn’t know the people in the car?”
“No,” I replied testily, “they were thugs.”
“What about the license plate?” she said. “Wouldn’t he look at that, instead of a tiny bumper sticker?”
“There are no plates.”
“Weren’t the thugs worried that by driving around without plates, a cop might pull them over while they’re holding McGee hostage?”
“They are on a rural country road where there are no cops.”
“They didn’t have to drive on other roads first to get to the rural road?”
She shrugged. “I’d rethink the whole situation, if I were you. It doesn’t sound too plausible to me.”
“Could you please just tell me what the numbers on the sticker mean?”
“The first three characters identify the rental location,” she said. “The remaining numbers identify the vehicle.”
“So what, for instance, could you tell me about this car?”
“Whose car is it?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you,” I replied angrily without thinking. An instant later, I realized my mistake and hurried to repair it. “I took this picture of a stranger’s car as research. I’m trying to go through the same steps my hero would.”
“You going to jump out of a car, too?”
“I already have.” I lifted my shirt to show her the bruises and bandaging. “As you can see, I take my research very seriously. I’d really appreciate your help.”
She smiled now, the first genuine smile since I walked in the door.
“The car came from our rental desk at the Universal Sheraton,” she replied. “The UC stands for Universal City.”
There’s no real city there, just the Universal Studios Tour. The blackmailer must have decided to do a little sightseeing while he was here. Since LA has no real sights, you have to go someplace where they manufacture them.
“What can you tell me about who rented the car?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Because you don’t have the information, or because you just don’t want to tell me?”
“Because it’s confidential.”
“So, you have the information.”
“Yes,” she replied.
“So, it would be possible for my hero to get it.”
“I don’t see how,” she said.
“What if, for instance, he seduced the woman behind the counter?”
“You gonna try that as research, too?” she asked.
“Would it work?” I replied.
“No chance in hell, John D.,” she replied.
I smiled. “What if I told you what the D stood for?”
I also wasn’t beyond begging.
“Dann,” she said. “That’s with two Ns.”
“That’s what the D is for,” she said. “He wrote twenty-one Travis McGee novels before his death in 1986. My dad was a big fan, though I never understood that ‘wounded bird’ crap.”
I felt like I’d just been kicked in the ribs again.
“If you knew I wasn’t John D. MacDonald, why did you help me?”
“I wasn’t going to, until you lifted your shirt.”
“Thanks,” I tossed her the book and walked out. I was almost out the door, when I paused for effect, then turned around.
“Horatio,” I said.
“That’s Doctor McCoy’s middle name.”
And with that I smiled and walked out, feeling pretty cool.
I knew watching all that TV would pay off someday. My good mood lasted all the way, until I got to my car.
I still didn’t know who the blackmailer was. All I knew was that he rented his car at the Universal Sheraton. So, I figured, odds were that was where the guy was staying.
But what the hell was I going to do now?
I thought about it a minute. Spenser would walk the parking structure until he found the car, then he’d find a place to hide out and wait. When the blackmailer came for his car, Spenser would beat him up and make him talk.
I was in no condition to do that now.
I was no condition to do that before my beating.
So, I asked myself what Jim Rockford would do.
I stopped by Target before going to the Universal Sheraton and bought a hammer, a gym bag, and a red sweat suit.
I visited a gas station, went into the restroom, and changed into my uniform again; then I put the red sweat suit on over it.
I went back to the car and drove to Universal Studios, not the part in the Valley where they make movies, but the amusement park, hotels, and shopping center above it, on the hills along the Cahuenga Pass.
I was lucky the blackmailer wasn’t staying at Disneyland, or the task ahead of me would have been a lot harder. They’ve got more hotels there, thousands of guests, and tighter security.
I paid seven dollars and fifty cents to park in the tour lot, then walked down the hill and across the street to the Sheraton’s parking structure.
It took me two hours of wandering through the five-story parking structure before I finally found it. The Ford Focus was parked near the stairwell on the third floor. The bumper sticker matched the one in my photo.
I double-checked it against the photo a couple times to make absolutely sure, then I looked around. I didn’t see anyone or any security cameras and I was fairly certain there wasn’t going to be a car alarm in a rented Ford Focus. So I grabbed the hammer from the gym bag on my shoulder, took one more look, and then smashed the passenger’s side window of the car.
I was right, the Ford Focus didn’t have a car alarm. But every other car within twenty yards did, and they were wailing. The alarms echoed off the concrete walls, amplifying the sound a hundred-fold and turning the entire parking structure into a loudspeaker.
After the events of the last two days, I was developing a serious hatred of parking structures.
I quickly reached into the Ford, opened the glove compartment, and grabbed the rental agreement, which was nicely folded inside a pamphlet-sized, Swift Rent-A-Car folder. I shoved the folder and the hammer in my bag and ran for the stairwell.
Running is something you generally want to avoid when you’ve got an unknown number of broken ribs. It is extraordinarily painful. But the alarms panicked me. So did the sight of two security guards in a golf cart speeding down the ramp from the upper floor.
I say they were speeding, because for the last few days I’d been driving a Kia Sephia, and compared to it, a golf cart is a formula one racer.
I’m not much of a runner even without broken ribs, so I knew I couldn’t outrun them. As soon as I got in the stairwell, I peeled off my sweat suit and shoved it in the trash, which left me in my security guard uniform. I stuck the picture and the folder in my shirt and ditched the gym bag, too. Then I ran the rest of the way down the stairs.
The instant I hit the street, I fell to the ground, clutching my sides. It was part of my plan to do that, but my performance was helped greatly by the fact I was in tremendous pain and too dizzy to stand. Not having to actually act when you’re supposed to be acting makes you a lot more convincing.
A few moments later one security guard burst out of the stairwell, and another sped out of the exit ramp in the golf cart. The one from the stairs rushed up to me.
“You looking for a guy in a red sweat suit?” I rasped.
“Yeah, you see him?” the guard asked.
What a stupid question, I thought. That guard would be a sergeant in no time.
“He tackled me like a linebacker and ran into the structure across the street.”
“You gonna be okay?”
I nodded. “Just get the son-of-a-bitch.”
The guard mumbled something into a walkie-talkie, jumped into his buddy’s golf cart, and scooted across the street in hot pursuit.
When I drove down the hill fifteen minutes later, now dressed in my polo shirt and wearing sunglasses, the entrances and exits to the structure across from the hotel were blocked by private security patrol cars.
I smiled to myself and wiped tears from my eyes. The smile was from pride, the tears were from the pain. But it was worth it.
Now I knew who the blackmailer was.
arrived at Denny’s early to prepare my report, calculate my bill, and rehearse my presentation. I was impressed with myself and was pretty sure Mr. Parkus would share my opinion, once he learned the results of my work.
Sure, I’d made a few mistakes along the way, but there’s a learning curve to any new job. The fact was, despite a car accident and a serious beating, I’d still managed to pull off what he’d hired me to do, and then some. And now I felt I was ready to take on the next phase of the operation: uncovering Lauren’s secret and retrieving whatever evidence the blackmailer had.
I told the waitress to start defrosting the steaks. There was going to be some big dining tonight.
Cyril Parkus showed up right on time, wearing jeans and a Ralph Lauren sweatshirt, which I guessed he picked up at the outlet mall for fifty dollars. I thought about telling him he could buy five sweatshirts just like it, only without the horse on the chest, for the same price at the J.C. Penney outlet in Woodland Hills. Then again, I figured the horse was probably worth forty bucks to him, so I kept quiet.
“We’ve got to make this fast, Harvey,” he said as he slid into the booth. “I told Lauren I was going to make a quick run down to the grocery store for a bottle of wine.”
“This won’t take long,” I replied, and laid out in front of him my handwritten report with receipts stapled to it. “Here’s my report, my bill, and my expenses. Don’t bother reading it now, I’ll give you the headlines. Your wife went down to the Santa Monica Pier yesterday morning and paid thirty thousand dollars to this man.”
I dealt the pictures to him like playing cards.
He picked up the best shot of the blackmailer and jerked as if he’d been hit with defibrillator paddles. The blood drained from his face. His eyes widened and he swallowed hard. Parkus did everything except spontaneously combust.
So, I asked, “Do you know the guy?”
“Nope,” he lied.
I decided right then that I had to play poker with this guy some day.
“Maybe this will help,” I said. “His name is Arlo Pelz. Does that mean anything to you?”
“No,” he lied again, staring at the picture.
“He’s staying at the Universal Sheraton, but I don’t know for how long.”
Parkus just nodded and took a drink of my water. “You got anything more?”
Unfortunately, the only information in the rental agreement was the guy’s name, his credit card receipt, and how much he was paying per day for the car. Arlo didn’t pay the extra few bucks for insurance. That was a mistake.