Ken James Fiction
Saturday, July 22
Jack spotted Raymond King's house half a minute before the Flashmobile's navigation system told him to turn. It was a three-story stone and glass structure looking down on Loop 360. Rectangular penthouses at the front corners of the roof gave the building a fanciful resemblance to a castle.
He stopped the cherry-red Nismo 370-Z at the heavy steel gate and lowered the driver's side window, letting hot humid air into the car.
The speaker came to life before he could touch the "Call" button. "Can I help you." It was a young man's voice.
"I'm Jack Hammer. I have an appointment with Mr. King." He smiled into the camera mounted over the speaker grill. There was another camera on a stone column beside the gate.
"Of course, Mr. Hammer." The gate rolled out of the way. "Park in front of the house."
The driveway, illuminated by soft lights on low stone pillars, wound up to the big house. It was scenic and followed the terrain, but also made it impossible for a vehicle to build up much speed.
Up close, the house was even more like a castle, gleaming like a jewel in the night. The ground floor was heavy stone, guarded by big round bollards. A wide staircase swept up to elaborately-carved double doors. Jack's trained eyes picked out more security cameras as he got out of the car and climbed the stairs.
The big doors opened before Jack could touch the bell. "Hello, Mr. Hammer." The speaker was a man in his late twenties with a buzz cut and bulldog features. "I'm Chad Ferrell, Mr. King's personal assistant." He was wearing blue jeans, a black tee-shirt, and a tailored sport coat which almost hid the discreet bulge on his right hip.
"This way, please." Chad led Jack through a big dimly-lit room with polished marble floors and severe-looking modernistic furniture. It felt more like a hotel than a home. They took an elevator to the third floor, then climbed a flight of stairs to the south penthouse.
The short hall at the top of the stairs looked like it came from a small office building. One door led to the roof. It was glass, turned into a dark mirror by the night. Chad rapped sharply on the heavy wood door on the opposite side of the hall. Without waiting for a reply, he opened it and gestured for Jack to go in ahead of him.
The big room took up most of the penthouse. Three of the twelve-foot-high walls were bulletproof glass, covered with something that killed the reflections. The car lights below them on Loop 360 looked like glowing beads sliding along a wire.
A giant desk, made from the trunk of an immense tree with a polished green stone top dominated the room. The man rising to his feet and striding toward Jack dominated the desk . . . and everything else in the room. He was in his mid-fifties, tall and ruggedly handsome, with wavy brown hair, streaked with gray, dressed in slacks and a sport shirt with a tiny embroidered crown.
"Mr. Hammer. Thank you for coming." He extended his hand. "I'm Raymond King." Jack shook King's hand. Braced for a bone crusher, he was mildly surprised by its simple confident firmness.
"Well, Mr. King—"
"Just call me 'Ray.' I know it's extremely late, but this is important. At least, Laura thinks it is—"
"There's no 'think' to it!" Jack hadn't noticed the blond woman. She was worth noticing—at least fifteen years younger than Raymond, wearing a spandex body suit that showed off her magnificent gymnast's body. She jumped up from a sofa stretching along the far wall and bustled over to Jack. "Alex would never miss a gig like this, Mr. Hammer. Something's happened to him."
"Call me 'Jack,' please." He gestured to a little cluster of chairs in the middle of the room. "Let's all sit down and you can tell me about Alex."
"Anyone else want a drink." Raymond started for a gleaming chrome and glass bar. Jack shook his head.
Laura just ignored him. "I know my son. His band was playing on Sixth Street last night—"
"Laura, he's just a kid." Raymond sat down beside his wife, holding a half-full tumbler of whisky. "Kids are irresponsible."
"He's twenty-one. A straight-A Business student." Laura glared at Raymond. "And he's the most reliable person in the world." She turned back to Jack. "He loves playing guitar with The Black Dogs. The leader's his best friend. They've known each other since they were nine. Alex would have called Harold if he couldn't make it."
"Does Alex live here?"
"No. He's got a condo near campus. I called the building manager. Alex isn't there."
"Have you tried his friends?"
"Yes, and all the hospitals. He's just disappeared." Laura grabbed Jack's hand. "Please find him."
"Well, I'll look into it. I'll need a lot more—"
"That's fine." Raymond had been silently sipping whisky. "I'll transfer the retainer into your account." He set the glass down and picked up a tablet computer. When he'd finished, he got a thick envelope out of his desk and handed it to Jack. "Here's some expense money—five thousand, in tens and twenties."
"Okay." Jack took it. "Do you want a receipt?"
Raymond shook his head. "There's a credit card in the envelope, too. It won't buy a Gulfstream, but it'll cover anything reasonable."
"All right." Jack put the envelope in the pocket of the sport coat he was wearing over his tank top and jeans and then turned to Laura. "What I was going to say—I need more information about Alex. His friends, hangouts . . . Everything you can tell me."
"Laura can do that better than me," Raymond said. "I still figure he's shacked up with a girl somewhere, spending my money—"
Laura raised her eyebrows. "Your money?"
"Anyway." Raymond ignored Laura's look. "He'll be back in a day or two with a big grin on his face."
"And if he's not?"
"He will be." Raymond took a long sip of whisky. "But that's why we called Jack." He slapped Jack's knee. "Best in the business, Carl says."
"I'll do my best to justify your faith, Ray," Jack said. "Now, I'd like to talk about Alex."
"Come on, Jack." Laura stood up. "Let's go talk somewhere where we won't disturb Raymond." She walked briskly to the door and yanked it open.
Chad was sitting in a chair right outside the door. He jumped to his feet. "Do you need anything, Mrs. King?"
"No. Jack and I are fine." She started down the stairs, then paused. "Raymond probably wants you."
"Uh . . . Okay. I'll go see."
"You do that. Goodnight, Chad." Laura ignored his reply and continued down the stairs.
The third floor was all broad carpeted halls and closed doors. "Big house," Jack said.
"This place is Raymond's shrine to himself. It's like a damn hotel." She walked quickly. Jack figured that was her only speed. "Especially this floor. It's all guest rooms and servant quarters." They took the stairway wrapped around the elevator down to the second floor. It was better. The perfectly decorated rooms looked like people actually lived in them.
They stopped at a door and Laura pressed her palm against a glass plate set in the wall. There was a faint buzz, followed by a soft click. Laura opened the door. "This is my study. We can talk here."
It was a big room at the right front corner of the building. One wall was the same treated bulletproof glass as Raymond's penthouse, looking out over Loop 360 and the Texas Hill Country beyond. Stuffed bookshelves occupied another wall. The remaining walls held oil paintings in the style of old Dutch Masters, illustrating scenes from contemporary Austin. A door in a side wall opened into a luxurious bedroom.
There was a neat little desk in the corner and comfortable furniture was scattered around. Laura pointed to a pair of easy chairs and started for the small bar. "Now, I need a glass of wine. Would you like some."
"Better not. I'm on the job."
"Miles to go before you sleep?"
"Yeah. Something like that." He spotted the single-cup brewer on the bar. "Coffee would be nice." He settled into the chair under the painting of Stevie Ray Vaughn playing for a group of Dutch burghers in Scholtz's beer garden.
"No problem." She started the coffee, then poured a glass of white wine and sank into the chair across the glass-topped coffee table from Jack. "That business with Raymond . . ." She sighed and took a long sip. "It was trying."
"Well, different people have different ways of dealing—"
"Raymond was being his usual overbearing self." Laura looked at her glass, then set it on the coffee table between the chairs. "Dominating the situation. Flaunting his power. Insisting he's right. He cares about himself, not Alex."
The brewer had stopped making its little noises. Jack started to stand up, but Laura said, "I'll get it." She took the heavy china mug out of the brewer. "How do you like it?"
"Just black, please."
"You're disciplined." She handed him the mug. "I like that in a man."
"Part of the job." The coffee was really hot. Jack took a cautious sip. It was dark and rich.
Laura studied him. "It's more than that."
"Isn't Raymond disciplined?"
"He's driven. That's way different."
"How about Alex?"
"He's intense. Disciplined, driven, and relentless. Passionate about doing the right thing."
"Admirable qualities." Jack sipped coffee and thought about his next question. "Do you think he'd disappear, if he thought it was the right thing to do."
"I can't imagine anything that would make him do that. Not now."
She shook her head. "He was terribly miserable in high school. Always fighting with Raymond. But now that he's living in the condo . . ."
"Why was he miserable?"
Laura drank half her wine and then set the glass back down. "Alex is gay."
"And Raymond didn't like that?"
"Raymond's a horrible homophobe. Alex never told him. I think that was a big part of the problem."
"Well, yeah. A father who hates what his son is . . ."
"Raymond didn't want a child. At all. But after he got me pregnant . . . At least, he did the right thing and married me. Daddy may have had something to do with that." She shook her head. "I was eighteen. He was thirty-two. Should have known better than to mess with an older guy."
Laura finished her wine and got up to refill the glass. "More coffee?" Jack shook his head.
She sat back down, silently contemplating the wineglass in her hand. "Not that he was faithful . . ." Laura looked up at Jack. "He was cheating on me even before Alex was born. Still is." She almost said something else, but stopped.
"Do you know the names of the women?"
She made a face like she'd bitten into a lemon. "Some of them. But it's not important."
Well, that subject was closed. "Why do you stay?"
Laura smiled sadly. "I have my reasons." She set the untouched glass down. "But that's not helping find Alex. What do you want to know about him?"
"That's all I know," Laura said. "Do you have any more questions?"
"That covers it, for now." Jack entered a final note and put his phone away. "I may have more questions after I've done some investigating." He stood up. "I'm going to go check his apartment. Most everything else will have to wait until morning."
"That's understandable, I guess." She sighed and sank back in the chair. "I just feel so helpless . . ."
"It's tough, but you're doing the best you can." Jack moved toward the door. Laura started to rise, but he held up his hand. "That's okay. I'll let myself out."
He did a little snooping on the way out, quickly scanning the unlocked rooms with his penlight. In addition to Laura's bedroom and study, the second floor held a library, home theater, and a fully-equipped gym.
There were more doors with palm locks on the far side of the building from Laura's suite. Raymond's quarters. A big master bedroom occupied the space between the two suites. It held a gigantic bed and lush furnishings, but absolutely no personal touches—a demilitarized zone between two hostile camps.
A comparatively modest room on the south side held a bed, student desk, and a small media center. It was obviously Alex's room. Jack spent some time there, but everything personal was gone.
The first floor was pretty standard for a mansion—a ballroom for big events, a drawing room for intimate meetings, a game room, a dining room, an industrial-sized kitchen, and a dressing room for the pool behind the building.
"Mr. Hammer." The whisper floated through the darkness of the entrance hall. "I need to talk to you." An attractive brunette in her mid-twenties, dressed in a revealing nightgown, stepped out of the shadows beside the front door.
"Sure," Jack said. "I like to talk."
"I'm Robin—Robin Tolliver. Laura's . . . uh . . . Mrs. King's personal assistant." She smiled uncertainly. "I heard you and Laura talking . . ."
"From the bedroom."
"All right." Jack kept his expression neutral. "What did you want to tell me?"
"Laura is kind of private but . . . well . . . you need to know. She's divorcing him."
"Laura's divorcing Raymond?"
"That's right. The women were bad enough, but when I caught him with Chad . . ."
"The guy with the gun?"
"He calls himself a 'personal assistant,' but he's really Mr. King's bodyguard."
"You caught them? Doing what?"
"I was getting something out of the secretary's office—that's the little enclosed room at the back of the penthouse—and I heard sounds from Mr. King's office. The door was open and I peeked out. Mr. King had Chad bent over that big desk. Their pants were down. Mr. King was fucking Chad's ass."
"Did they see you?"
"No. I watched for a little bit . . ." Her blush was visible, even in the semi-darkness. ". . . then went to Laura."
"I see. Has she filed on Raymond, yet?"
"She's been taking to a lawyer, but she hasn't told Mr. King."
"Okay. That's useful information. Thanks."
"Please, Jack!" Robin moved into his arms. He held her awkwardly, keenly aware of her lush body and subtle perfume. "Save Alex. You're our only hope."
"I'll do my best." He detached her gently and turned toward the door. "Look, I better go."
She put a hand on her breast, acting like it was unconscious. "Sure. Be careful, Jack."
"Yeah. I'll be all right." He gave her a hard look. "You be careful. I have a bad feeling about this place."
In the Flashmobile, Jack pulled out his phone, started the dark web browser, and sent Prospero a message—"urgent; full research on Alex King, Laura King, Raymond King, Chad Ferrell, Robin Tolliver; house on Loop 360; budget unlimited."
Prospero didn't seem to sleep. Three seconds after Jack hit 'Send,' the reply came back. It was one word—"affirmative." Prospero didn't talk much, either.
Jack didn't know who Prospero was, but he—Jack guessed Prospero was male—was some kind of master hacker who had almost unlimited access to on-line databases. Jack had found him through the friend of a covert ops friend.
He started the engine and drove south on 360, toward MoPac and the University of Texas campus.