So how are you going to do it?" the guy asked me.
He paused, glanced around-there was no one else in my office-and muttered, barely audible, the words he didn't want to say aloud. "Kill him. How are you going to kill him?"
"The less you know," I said, "the better. For both of us. You don't have a problem with that, do you?"
He didn't answer me. "It has to look like an accident," he said. "Or a random . . . whatever."
I gave him a long, direct look, blinked once. He'd told me that three times already.
Mort Vallison was sixty, but he looked ten years older. He was a once-handsome man under a lifetime of stress. He had short gray hair, neatly parted, and sincere brown eyes, but they were haunted. Hollow. He wore an expensive-looking navy-blue blazer and pricy shoes. He was not born to wealth, which was probably why he always dressed expensively.
He looked away. Vallison had insisted on coming to my office rather than have me come to his company headquarters. My firm, Heller Associates, is located in an old brick building in Boston's financial district, a renovated nineteenth-century lead-pipe factory with a steampunk look to it: the bare brick walls, the exposed ductwork, the big factory windows. The office used to belong to a dot-com that sailed high and crashed and left behind their Humanscale chairs.
"He's embezzling," he said. "But we haven't been able to catch him at it."
Vallison was the co-owner of a chain of excellent restaurants in Boston and down the East Coast, Neptune Seafood, a Boston institution. He was a wealthy man, with an impressive home in Chestnut Hill. He was convinced that his partner, Herb Martz, was cheating him out of millions of dollars. But he wasn't able to prove it. This on top of animosity that had accrued over the years had driven him to extreme measures. He wanted me to arrange Martz's death, and do it undetectably. He was offering a lot of money for the job.
"I don't need to know," I said. "The less contact we have, the better. And I'm going to need you to pay me in cryptocurrency-bitcoin, Ethereum, or whatever. The last thing we need is a money trail." He didn't seem to understand, so I explained it to him. He was a restaurateur, not a tech guy.
Herb Martz, his partner, kept to a routine. He lived with his wife in a condo in the Four Seasons. He saw a personal trainer three times a week, early in the morning. He went into work at ten, to their offices on the waterfront. He usually had lunch at one of the Neptunes around the city: a hamburger, most of the time. I guess he was tired of seafood.
The next day, late morning, I followed him from the Neptune Seafood at the Prudential Center to a sketchy hotel in Kenmore Square not too far from Fenway Park. I took my gray Toyota Camry. I have two cars; the other one is a truck, a Land Rover Defender in Coniston green. But that's a distinctive-looking vehicle. Whereas the Camry is so anonymous it's nearly invisible in traffic. That's the superpower of an ordinary car.
Martz parked his black Mercedes S-Class in a garage next to the hotel, and I pulled into the garage a few cars behind him. I followed him out of the garage and into the lobby. The guy at the desk asked him if he had luggage, and he said no. He checked into the hotel and checked out half an hour later.
He was, I assumed, seeing a mistress. And given how quick the assignation was, I figured it had been going on for some time. They knew each other, so they could get right down to business. Skip the preliminaries.
I followed him out of the hotel and back to his car. I took the stairs and got there before he did. From a distance, I watched him return to the Mercedes. Then I came around to the passenger's side and got in.
Stunned, he whipped around to look at me. Martz was a rough-looking, pot-bellied guy in his sixties with gin blossoms on his cheeks and tobacco-stained teeth. He wore a blue down vest over his dress shirt. "What the hell?" he said. "Jesus. You scared the shit out of me."
I said nothing. I took out my iPhone and hit play.
So how are you going to do it?
Kill him. How are you going to kill him?
"Motherfucker," Martz said. "Like I told you. He has some bullshit excuse about how-"
"So what do you want to do?" I interrupted. "I'll go through some of our options."
"Did he pay you already?"
"You planning on keeping that payment?"
"Nah, it's forensic evidence. Connects him to the cyber wallet." Everyone thinks cyber currency keeps you anonymous. But there are tricks you have to do to hide your identity, and neither of these guys knew them. "So come on, how do you want to play this?"
Martz was staring off into space, like he was thinking. "How much more would it cost if you finished the job?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I said. "You want to bring in law enforcement, right?"
"Finish the job. As in finish him. Take the bastard out."
I wasn't surprised, frankly, and I played it cool. "That's not on the menu."
"Don't bullshit me," Martz said. "You think I didn't do my due diligence? I know your reputation. You're ex-Special Forces. You've killed guys for a living. You're trained for this."
"Yeah, we were more about winning hearts and minds."
"You've confirmed that I've got a problem. Nice work. Now make my problem go away. I'll pay you another forty thousand. Make it worth your time. Call it a happy ending."
"I think I'll take a pass."
"I'm a paying customer, Heller. You ever hear the expression 'the customer is always right'?"
"Thing is, Herb, you're not the customer."
"The client, then."
"Yeah, you're not the client either."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
I couldn't keep a little grin from my face. I pointed out the window, where six state troopers were surrounding the car, ready to arrest Martz.
"See, you're the target. First rule in my trade: always know who you're working for, and always know the play. Yep, I did my due diligence too. And I found another play."
The car door on the driver's side opened, and one of the troopers said, "Step out of the car, Mr. Martz."
Originally, Herb Martz had come to see me to get proof his partner, Mort Vallison, was trying to kill him. The brake lines on his Mercedes had been cut, he said. He wanted me to get the proof on tape so he could go to the police and get his partner put away.
It took me almost a week to get to Mort, because it had to be done subtly. Eventually I ran into him in Oak Long Bar in the Copley Plaza, where Herb told me he hung out sometimes, managed to bump into him as we both stood at one end of the crowded bar.
Soon we'd struck up a conversation about my military days and how the world would just be better off with some people taken out, wouldn't it? I let him know, as subtly as I could, that once in a while I did favors for friends along those lines. And sure enough, he was intrigued. He asked for my business card.
I gave him one.
A week later, Mort came to my office to discuss business. I assured him the office was a safe place to talk. He wanted me to get rid of his partner. Not that I asked, but he gave a reason that almost held up: his partner was embezzling profits from the company, had been doing so for decades.
You'd be surprised how often I get asked to kill people, to do "hits." I have to explain that it's not in my list of client services. But something about Herb Martz didn't smell right.
So I agreed to take on the job.
Right away I got in touch with my friend Major Liz Rodriguez from the state police's Special Investigations Unit, and she liked my idea of setting up a sting.
My instincts proved correct. It turned out that both Mort and Herb had been illegally diverting cash from Neptune Seafood for years, cheating the government out of tens of millions of dollars in taxes. And both of them were under investigation by the IRS.
Herb was afraid Mort would weaken and rat them out to the IRS, turn state's evidence, expose their long-running scam. Mort was a man who was constantly honored for his philanthropy, and he simply couldn't cope with the disgrace of going to prison. He would try to make a deal.
The two men deserved each other.
Right about now the two of them were probably in separate interview rooms at state police headquarters in Framingham. I was guessing that each of them was trying hard to make a deal.
Neither one of them would escape prison now.
The only downside in this? I wasn't going to get paid.
I didnÕt get to the office until early afternoon. I waved hello to the scowling Mr. Derderian, who was in the doorway of his high-end oriental carpet shop next door. The sign on my second-floor office door reads heller associates-actuarial consulting services, which cuts down on foot traffic. I keep a very low profile. In my line of work, the less my face and name are known, the better.
My receptionist and office manager, Jillian Alperin, was eating a late lunch at her desk. Jillian, covered with tattoos and piercings, had turned out to be quite bright. She was still a little intimidated by me, though, which was fine.
"A couple of messages for you already, Nick," she said after taking a large swallow of her-what was it again?-tempeh.
"In the break room, I think."
Dorothy Duval, my forensic data tech and researcher, was making a fresh pot of coffee, even though that was really Jillian's job. She just liked doing things for herself because she liked them done right.
Dorothy had a style all her own. Her head was close-shaven, and she normally wore very large earrings. But today she was dressed more conservatively than usual, in a black pencil skirt and blue blazer over a white blouse, and normal-size earrings.
She noticed me checking her out and said, "I had a meeting." Her coffee mug was at the ready. It read Jesus Saves, I spend. She was a devoted churchgoer with a sense of humor about the Lord.
"Personal." Then she took a breath. "Well, I'm not going to hide it from you, because I need your help. I was just interviewed this morning by the chairman of the co-op board of a building I want to buy into."
"Co-op board? Isn't that a very New York thing?"
"We've got a few in Boston," she said impatiently. "This one's called the Kenway Tower on Comm. Ave. In Kenmore Square."
"What kind of questions did he ask?"
"That's the thing, Nick. On the phone he was as friendly as can be. Really talkative, about how great the building is, and the neighborhood. He wanted to ask me about the NSA, and I think he really dug all the secrecy, the stuff I couldn't talk about."
Dorothy used to work at the National Security Agency but apparently hadn't been a good personality fit. So she got a job at a private intelligence firm in DC, Stoddard Associates, where I also used to work before I went off on my own. Later I asked her to join me at Heller Associates. My first and most important hire.
She went on. "So I was expecting the third degree when I came in this morning, and instead they could barely get me out of there fast enough. I mean, the dude's face fell when he saw me."
"Uh-oh." The board of a co-op association has the power to determine who gets to buy into the building.
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking too, uh-oh. They didn't know I was black until they met me. Then it was like, 'Later, dude.'"
I thought about mentioning the fact that, with her shaved head and her extreme ear piercings, the hedgerow of silver hoops outlining the curving helix of each ear, she could look a little fierce. But it didn't seem like the right time to say it. And she was making her bow to conventionality by wearing a blue blazer and, I noticed, high-heeled shoes.
She continued. "He said he had some concerns about my income and my credit history."
"Meaning your income's not enough to afford-"
"No, it is enough. I mean, I could always use a raise, to make it easier, but the numbers work, and I've saved up a lot. I've had years of decent, steady income."
"So what was his problem?"
"He said he's worried about you. He said private investigators work close to the bone and often have to lay off their employees. Could you write the board a letter assuring them I've got steady employment for the foreseeable future?"
I shrugged. "Sure. Write it up for me and I'll sign whatever. What's wrong with your credit history?"
"Nothing. I pay on time. I don't know what he's talking about. Anyway, how'd it go today?"
I gave her a quick download on the Neptune Seafood partners, Mort Vallison and Herb Martz, and how the two of them got arrested.
She said, "This Liz Rodriguez from the Staties?"
"That's the one."
"So you won't get paid for any of the work. You're just doing a good deed. Being a good citizen."
"Something like that."
"Maybe this isn't the best time to ask, but . . . are we financially solvent?"
"Sure. As long as I don't need to hire anybody else, we're doing okay." Could we have been doing a little better? Sure. But I still refused to handle things like divorce cases, and maybe it was time to get over that particular exception. Matrimonial jobs could be lucrative, but they always made me feel grubby. I did private intelligence work. That did not include putting a GPS tracker on a straying spouse's car.
I had standards. Or so I told myself.
On the way to my desk, my intercom sounded. "It's Patty Lenehan," Jillian announced over the speaker. "She's calling from a Cape Cod number."
"I'll take it," I said.