Monday, January 11, 2016

The Trouble With Greed - Chapters 4-5


I drove to the gym and put in my time on the treadmill. I hate running, and I’m not good at running, but this fugitive apprehension thing requires a lot of running. More than one of my fugitives had escaped because they could outrun me. So it sort of became an adapt-or-die kind of situation. I’d started a running program.
Sam, my physical therapist and the Ironman triathlon winner, had recommended a program called “Couch to 5K.” I’d been doing it for the last two and a half weeks and could already tell it was working. As an added bonus, my jeans fit better.
After a shower, I headed to Sideline Investigations and Bail Bonds. The thing about the fugitive apprehension business is I don’t make any money unless I bring in FTAs. There is no paid time off, no sick days, no vacation time, no retirement package. I’d been on vacation for a week. My bank account wasn’t empty, but I wanted to get back to work all the same.
Sideline Investigations originally began as a private investigating agency run by former cop Wesley Meeker and former investment banker Mickey Sands. Both men were officially retired for about ten minutes before they were bored to tears. Meeker started snooping into things for friends here and there, just to keep busy. Sands jumped at the opportunity to do something and proposed a joint venture with Meeker, establishing an official PI office.

Both men were exceptionally good at what they did. The office grew quickly, and they had to hire other investigators, first as part time and then full time, to help handle the growing caseload.
Sands was the one to suggest branching out into bail bonds. Meeker objected on principle. It was hard for the lifelong cop to wrap his head around helping criminals get out of jail. Bail bondsmen weren’t as low as lawyers, but they weren’t much better, or so Meeker believed.
Ultimately, Sands spearheads the bail bonds side of the business, while Meeker manages the investigations side. They have two full-time bondsmen, a couple of part-time guys, and a few freelancers, like me, who pick up cases here and there.
A couple of months ago, after I’d completed the weekend fugitive apprehension training course the state offers, I’d taken my certificate and gone around to several of the bail bonds companies in town. Most weren’t willing to take a shot on a girl with no experience and very little training. However, then manager of Sideline, Dean Amerson, had been willing to do so, for reasons that still weren’t clear to me. He’d paired me up with longtime Sideline bounty hunter and old school cop and PI Roger Blucher. Blue, as everyone called him, let me tag along for almost two weeks, passing on to me some of the tricks of the trade, all of which have proved invaluable since.
Sadly, Amerson no longer managed Sideline. He’d fallen head over heels for Ellmann’s sister Natalie, of all people, and had picked up and moved to California, where she lives. Amerson, former Navy S.E.A.L., has incredibly marketable skills. He hadn’t needed his job at Sideline, and had multiple job offers before his plane ever touched down in California. I thought it would be only a short time before it became clear just how badly Sideline needed him.
Amerson and I had become some kind of friends. He’d passed his box of gizmos on to me when he left, saying he hoped they might help me stay out trouble, since he wouldn’t be around to watch my back like Ellmann had asked him to. I’d asked him if that was his way of saying he’d miss me. He hadn’t answered, but I believed it was.
I parked in the main lot and used the front door. There was a back entrance, and after hours that was the only way to access the building, but during business hours, I typically didn’t bother.
As usual, the lobby had people waiting, sipping water and coffee and flipping through magazines. Some looked bored, some looked worried and anxious, and some looked excited. People had all sorts of reasons for seeking the services of a private investigator, and Sideline had someone to help with any kind of case.
I smiled at the receptionist, who was busy with a phone call and working at the computer. She smiled back as I passed, and I made my way to Amerson’s former office, located at the back of the lobby. The door was simply marked office manager; Amerson’s name had never been on it, but it was obvious he was gone.
The large window overlooking the lobby was closed, the blinds drawn. Amerson had always left this window open; he’d wanted to have a visual on the front door and those coming and going. I had not seen the window open once since Amerson had left.
The door was shut, but the light was on inside, so I knew the office was occupied. I knocked sharply and resisted the urge to just walk in.
A very long minute later, just as I was about to knock again, the door finally opened. Amerson’s successor, Cal Stevens, stared out at me.
“Zoe,” he said. I couldn’t help but note his tone wasn’t entirely friendly.
Stevens was just over six feet tall, thin, closer to forty than thirty, and had brown hair. I thought he looked a lot like Jack Lord, right down to the swept-back hairstyle and teeth.
“Cal. Got a minute?”
Stevens glanced back at his desk, as if trying to decide if whatever he’d been working on could wait for my interruption.
“Uh, sure,” he said, finally stepping back. “I didn’t realize you were back in town.”
I hadn’t given Stevens the particulars of my travel itinerary, as he’d requested, because I didn’t think it was any of his business. Technically, I wasn’t an employee; it made no difference to him where I was or when. Stevens hadn’t taken my refusal well. And apparently he was still a little sore about it.
“Got back yesterday,” I said, walking into the office.
Stevens went behind his desk and sat. I took a chair opposite him. He leaned back and folded his hands in his lap, eyeing me across the desk. I draped one leg over the other and returned his stare. For a moment I had the distinct feeling we were playing chicken. Whoever blinked first was the loser.
After only a couple of seconds, the phone rang, abruptly ending our standoff. Stevens reached for it.
“Yeah,” he said by way of greeting. He listened for a beat then said, “Right. I’ll call you later.” He hung up. “So, Zoe, what can I do for you?”
I resisted the urge to smirk. Stevens was a prick. He took pleasure in asserting even small measures of authority and dominance of people, especially the people who worked in or for this office. He knew perfectly well why I would have come to see him, but he wanted to hear me ask.
I’d met Cal Stevens a week before I’d left for vacation. He’d set off about a dozen red flags for me from the start, and I’d taken an instant dislike to him. I’d hoped the stressful events that had occurred just before Amerson’s departure and Stevens’s arrival were coloring my judgment and that a week’s vacation spent on the beach would improve my outlook. Clearly, no such transformation had occurred. If it was possible, I thought I liked Stevens even less now.
“I’m selling Girl Scout cookies. Wondered if you’d buy a box or two.”
Stevens sat forward and laid his clasped hands on the desk.
“You know, Amerson told me about you before he left. He said you were a hell of an investigator, even if your methods are a bit unusual. He said the best thing I could do for both of us would be to more or less stay out of your way and let you do whatever it is you do. He said trying to police you would only give me a headache.”
I couldn’t help but grin. Amerson was a smart guy. I missed him. I knew he was ridiculously happy with Natalie, so I was happy for him. But boy, Natalie’s visit had messed up a lot of things. I really hoped she didn’t visit again any time soon.
“I don’t know what kind of an operation Amerson was running here,” Stevens went on, “but I run a tight ship. I know what all my people are doing, and when they’re doing it. I don’t let them run around causing trouble all over town.”
I suddenly had the impression Stevens had been doing some research into yours truly. The faint beginnings of unease blossomed in the pit of my stomach, and I wondered just how much digging he’d done and what exactly he’d learned. And I couldn’t help but wonder what he planned to do with that information.
I bit back the response that immediately formed on my tongue. I’m not one to tolerate being browbeaten, but I didn’t think this was the time or place for a confrontation. I took a deep breath and spoke with forced patience.
“Have you got any cases, Cal?”
He reached over to one of two upright wire filing racks that now sat on the far corner of the desk and fingered through a thick collection of files. Amerson had always kept his desk neat and tidy. Probably a career in the military had done that to him, and I could only assume he also folded his underwear and matched his socks. Stevens did not labor under any such habits. His desk was a disarray of reports, files, printouts, phone messages, and the newspaper. And I’d never seen so many FTA files pending. Why weren’t these in the hands of the recovery agents? Surely everyone hadn’t been on vacation this week.
He found the file he wanted and handed it to me. I accepted it and opened it.
“This guy’s a murder suspect,” I said, glancing first at the list of charges.
“He’s also FTA.”
What would Wesley Meeker have said if he’d known someone from his agency had bonded out a man charged with murder? That was one charge Sideline bondsmen more or less stayed away from. Even if they hadn’t been officially mandated to do so, they understood well how Meeker would feel about such a thing. The fact that these guys come up for bail at all is a testament to how overcrowded the jail is. 
“I don’t get mixed up with murder suspects.” I put the file back on the desk. “I’ve been pretty clear about that.”
This wasn’t me on a moral high horse. This was simple self-preservation. I make it a practice to keep well away from known murder suspects. I sometimes get mixed up with them unknowingly, but I strive not to walk into those kinds of messes intentionally. And when you deal with murder suspects, that’s all that you get: a mess.
Stevens smirked. “You get a little more than mixed up with murder suspects, don’t you?”
The cold fingers of unease whispered along my spine, and I wondered again just how much Stevens had dug up about my past.
“I learn from past mistakes. What else you got?”
He tapped the file. “As far as you’re concerned, this is the only available case. Once you catch him, I’ll give you your next assignment.”
“One assignment at a time? That’s how you’re doing things?”
That explained the files. And it also spelled bad news for Stevens. I hadn’t been a bounty hunter very long, but I knew the guys around here. No one worked just one case at a time; it wasn’t an efficient use of time. When every FTA found meant money in the bank, it literally paid to be efficient.
“That’s how every skip gets caught,” Stevens said, tapping the top of the desk with his index finger for emphasis, “and no cases fall between the cracks.”
“Amerson used to—”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” he cut in, his tone sharp, “Amerson isn’t here anymore. He chased some skirt to Arizona or something. Thinks he’s in love. I’m running things now. And my way works.”
I stood. Wisdom told me to keep quiet, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t like his tone.
“Oh, we’ve all noticed Amerson isn’t here anymore. How long before Wes and Mickey notice, too?”
I pointed to the enormous collection of files as I turned for the door. He winced slightly, and I knew I’d hit a nerve.
“You’re not worth the trouble, Grey!” he shouted after me, drawing the attention of most the people waiting in the lobby.
I just smiled and kept walking. 


Sideline Investigations and Bail Bonds isn’t the only game in town. Since establishing myself with them and beginning to earn some kind of reputation in the bonds community, I had twice freelanced for other agencies. It also helped that Blue had been willing to vouch for me.
Whether by design or coincidence, a great many of the bail bonds outfits in Fort Collins, Colorado, are located very near the detention center. Sideline included. After exiting the building, I slid my sunglasses on and cut through the parking lot for the sidewalk, angling east.
Front Range Bail Bonds was about three blocks from Sideline, and was one I’d worked with before. They were a smaller agency dealing primarily in lower end bonds. And the husband-wife owners did most of their own recoveries. The wife, Patty, could find anyone, and the husband, Tim, could talk anyone in. They had little use for freelancers. But they were the nearest, so I dropped in.
Patty was at the front desk and smiled when I pushed through the door. She invited me to sit and called Tim out of the file room in the back. We chatted for several minutes before I turned the conversation to business. The long shot proved bust. They didn’t have anything they could give me. After chatting a while longer, I left, and they both promised to keep me in mind if they had anything they couldn’t handle on their own.
My next stop was Skip’s Bail Bonds. I had no idea what Skip’s real name was, or how he’d gotten the nickname Skip, but I’d always enjoyed the irony in him calling his business Skip’s Bail Bonds. Skip worked out of a storefront between a women’s workout club and a Subway. There was always the faint scent of yeast in the air and the distant thump of high-tempo music in the office.
I arrived to find Skip’s daughter-in-law, Jenny, working alone in the office. A radio tuned to a local Top 40 station playing on the front desk almost covered the music from the workout place next door.
“Hey, Zoe. What’s shaking?”
Jenny was a smart, no-nonsense kind of girl, and I’d liked her from the moment I’d met her. She was pretty in a plain, unconventional way, and she carried a concealed gun at all times, which a person either found hot or terrifying. She was working at one of six five-drawer filing cabinets along the back wall.
“Nothing much,” I said. “Wondered if you had any cases I could take.”
“Not at the moment, but I probably will this afternoon.” She slid the last file into place, shut the drawer, and came over to the desk. “I’ve got four guys scheduled for court today. Odds are, at least one will no show. They’re mostly small bonds, though.”
“That’s okay. I just need something.”
“Sure. I’ll call you if anything comes up. Jake’s out of town picking up a guy in Texas, and Skip’s tracking some woman who fled the area. He thinks she’s in Denver, but he’s not positive. They’ll both be back in a few days, at most, but I like to know where my fugitives are as soon as possible. I’ll be happy to have you track them down and bring them in.”
Jake was Jenny’s husband and Skip’s oldest son. I’d met him once and known immediately he was in the right business. He was one scary-looking dude. He was about the size of a Mack truck and wore a lot of black. Probably the guys he went after just wet their pants and fell to their knees with their wrists together. I certainly did not have that effect on my fugitives.
“Sounds great,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Sideline not got enough work for you these days?”
The bonds community was a fairly small one, all things considered. The news of Amerson’s leaving and of Cal Stevens replacing him would have been common knowledge by now. But I didn’t know what else might be going around about Sideline these days. I didn’t want to start any new rumors.
I shrugged my shoulders lightly and said, “I’ve been out of town for a week. I just got back yesterday. They just don’t have anything to pick up right now.”
She raised an eyebrow. “They don’t? I find that hard to believe.”
“Why’s that?”
“My sister, Carrie, you know she works at the courthouse.”
I didn’t know that.
“People fail to appear in court every day,” she went on. “It’s the nature of this business. Anyway, you know she’s dating Felix Allen.”
I didn’t know that either.
But I did know who Felix Allen was. He was one of Sideline’s two full-time recovery agents. He’d been doing the job a while, and he was good at it. And he made good money doing it, because he tracked the high-dollar bonds.
“Felix has had quite a bit to say about that new guy, Cal Stevens.”
“Oh, really?” I said. I tried to keep my tone neutral, noncommittal.
“Oh, yeah, him and all the other guys, apparently. No one’s really happy with Cal’s one-at-a-time policy. At least that’s what Carrie’s been telling me. But I have to wonder, if everyone is just tracking one guy, there must be cases left over that you could take.”
See what I mean about Jenny? Smart. And apparently well informed.
“That’s a good point,” I said lightly. “I’ll have to ask Cal about that when I check in with him again.”
“You know, he’s going to need to be careful.”
Yes, I did know. But I said, “Why’s that?”
“Well, none of those guys have contracts; they’re all freelance. They just stayed with Sideline for all those years because of Dean Amerson. Dean made sure there was enough work for those who wanted it; he got the higher bonds to the guys who’d been there longer. They respected him. They probably have some loyalty to Sideline itself, but with Amerson gone and Stevens’s new policy in place, they won’t have much incentive to stay. And there is plenty of work for skilled guys like that anywhere they want to go.”
Which Mickey Sands and Wesley Meeker had to know, too.
“We’ll have to see how things work out,” I said, moving toward the door. “I think there are more changes to come for Sideline.”
Jenny scoffed. “No doubt.”
“Let me know about those FTAs, okay?”
“Will do. Take it easy.”
I left with Jenny’s thoughts bouncing around my head and wondering how much longer Stevens would last.

Continue reading: Chapters 6-9

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