Chapter Thirty-Two.

“I think I owe you an apology,” Susan began as the

drinks arrived, “an apology and some money.” She took out her checkbook and a fountain pen, then wrote him a check for thirty-one hundred and eighty-one dollars. She blew on her signature to dry the ink then handed it to Jack. “For three days work, your airline tickets, lunch, and an hour of parking.”

“I’m getting a nice little collection of these,” he said suspiciously.

It was 6:00 P.M. and they were seated on the patio of a Newport Beach fish restaraunt named The Cannery. Small boats were tied to the wharf below the sprawling deck.

“That one will clear.”

Jack studied the check skeptically. “How? I thought Herm said you guys were out of money.”

“We’re liquidating some things.”

Earlier he had noticed that her rings and the gold graduation watch were gone. “You sold your watch?”

“We’ve sold a lot of stuff,” she said. “None of it important.”

“I can’t take your graduation watch.”

“Listen, Jack, this money didn’t come from my watch, okay? If it’s easier for you, pretend it’s from Dad’s old clunker station wagon that we also sold. Besides, what does it matter? We’ve got bills, obligations, and we’re meeting them.

“If it hadn’t been for you, Dad and I would probably be dead. In the face of that, I think your thousand-dollar-a-day fee is a remarkable bargain.”

“Viewed in that context, you’re right. Maybe I’m not charging enough,” he smiled down at the check in his hand. “I’ll use you as a reference.”

“Any time.”

The waitress returned and Susan ordered swordfish and a shrimp cocktail. Jack had a steak and mixed green salad. They ordered two more drinks.

Jack’s cell phone rang. He looked at it, hesitating. “I’m beginning to hate this thing. It feels more like a locator device than a phone.”

“It might be Dad. What if he needs us?”

“Yeah.” So he opened it. “Hello.”

“Jack, where the hell you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for three or four hours.” It was his ex-partner, Shane Scully. “You were right. Paul Nichols doesn’t own that spread in Beverly Hills.”

“Not surprising. Who does?”

“The house is owned by an Indian tribe.

“You’re kidding. Which one?”

“They’re called Ten-Eycks.”

“Thank God they’re just Indians,” Jack said softly.

“They have a reservation out by Palm Springs. I punched ’em out on the Internet. They’ve got a Web page: Ten-Eyck-dot-com. You’d love this site… got an Indian sitting on a blanket smoking a peace pipe, Indian prayers, medicine-man poetry. All that’s missing is the price sheet for peyote. It’s a small tribe. Only thirty people in the entire Ten-Eyck nation. The administrator’s a guy named Scott Nichols.”

“Not Paul?”

“It’s Scott. He was voted in as Tribal Administrator a few years back. He took over for the chief, some guy named Russell Ibanazi. There’s a picture of Chief Ibanazi on the site. He’s about thirty and looks like a Calvin Klein model. Since they own that one house on North Cannon Drive, I ran the tribe through the Real Estate Tax Board and found out they own a few other houses in Beverly Hills. Got a pencil?”

Jack pulled one out of his pocket and grabbed a paper cocktail coaster. “Gimme the other address.”

“Aside from the one you gave me at 2352 North Canon, there’s another one at 2443 and a house at 160 Charing Cross Road. Then, there’s a big, three-acre spread at 264 Chalon Road. Altogether, this tribe owns over thirty million worth of prime dirt.”

“Those Palm Springs reservations got valuable,” Jack said. “The property out there’s probably worth a fortune.”

“Only, the Ten-Eycks got boned on that score. I checked around, and their reservation is located way out in the desert, past Indio, near the Mexican border. The property out there isn’t worth much, unless you’re breeding jackrabbits. So, your question is, how do they get to own all of this expensive housing in West L.A.?”

“Thanks, Shane, I owe you, man.” He said good-bye and closed the phone.

“What is it?” Susan asked.

Jack told her what he’d just learned.

After he finished she sat quietly thinking, then asked, “You think they’re using Indian DNA for the gene splicing, using it for the chimp upgrades?”

“I don’t know, but that’s as good a guess as any.”

“Ten-Eyck chimeras. It fits.”

The food came and they ate in silence. After he finished the main course, to get his mind off genetic nightmares, Jack decided to find out more about the beautiful woman sitting opposite him. “Tell me more about the Institute.”

“It’s dedicated to fighting for justice. Everywhere you look you see abuse of power or the ecology. This country fosters the triumph of the almighty dollar over common sense. Dad has dedicated himself to fixing that to leveling the odds.”

Jack already knew that Herman was more than just a conspiracy nut. He was an advocate for lost causes, and, although some of those causes seemed foolish and otherworldly, the longer Jack stayed on the case the more he felt Herman might actually be right this time.

Susan sighed, but then a smile followed and lit the edges of her mouth. “You know, Jack, when I’m not frustrated out of my gourd with Dad’s tactics, I’m so proud to be part of it, I could dance on the table. I feel like there are actually times when Dad, and to a much lesser degree, yours truly, are really making a difference.” She whispered this thought like a treasured secret, then leaned forward and added: “The game is rigged. We’ve faced more government audits than Martha Stewart. But Dad says cowardice can’t be the reason to give up. You can’t let people win by default when they put selfish interests above the greater good. So we just do the best we can. Dad gets up very early every morning, straps on his armor, and grabs his weapon of choice.” She smiled. “Not thongs or nipple clips, but the federal criminal and civil statutes of justice. Then he goes out hunting polluters, constitutional violators, and moral criminals. And, you know what’s amazing? Every so often we win.”

She reached over and took his hand. “I just want you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done, not quitting when my check bounced not just turning around and leaving us.”

His reasons hadn’t been that noble. He started blushing.

“You’re not very good at accepting compliments, are you?”

“Probably because I don’t get that many.”

All of her life Susan had devoted herself to details, had followed her father around, tying up loose ends, trying to make everything come out right. She had learned during her fifteen years as a soldier in Herman Strockmire’s underfinanced Army Against Injustice that, although he was brilliant, dedicated, and heroic, he wasn’t very organized or specific.

He was always about a hundred yards out in front of himself leaving mistakes, unanswered questions, and knotty legal problems in his wake; often going into court unprepared, because there was always too much to do and never enough time. This had produced a string of angry judges and a spate of malpractice suits filed against the Institute by disgruntled former clients who had initially hired Herman because of his passion, but then sued him because of his sloppy tactics. The malpractice suits always followed the same inevitable course: First, clients became frustrated over missed opportunities; then they become angry over courtroom blunders; and, finally, they got enraged as Herman lost and was disciplined by angry jurists. Although they occasionally won striking important blows against their enemies Herman and Susan often fell short. When this happened, Susan was left to pick up the pieces and placate angry clients, trying to head off the malpractice suits with all the beauty and charm she could muster.

Jack was right; she had been Herman’s rear guard and tail gunner for the Institute since graduating from high school. But now Susan was scared. This time Herman had hooked too big a

fish. DARPA was the government Great White, and they were all in a leaking boat, hanging on for dear life, being dragged through heavy seas. The angry shark had just spit the hook and was coming back at them.

As she sat in the restaurant she felt such a sense of gratitude toward the good-looking blonde detective sitting across from her that she reached out and touched his hand. She had written a check that they couldn’t afford, but she reasoned she would much rather pay Jack Wirta than Judge King. For the first time in days she felt the knot in her stomach ease slightly; felt the warmth from the two drinks loosening her up.

She also began to evaluate Jack Wirta as a man.

There was no doubt he was attractive. But as she looked at Jack, she wondered at his awkward embarrassment and self-deprecating humor. It was a quality she loved in a man yet rarely found.

“You said you got shot in the North Hollywood Bank thing?” she said, trying to find out more.

“Yeah. It was spectacular. Charged in… ate the first Para-bellum. Didn’t realize those two assholes were already out front in that white Ford. The other guy, Phillips, damn near ran me over. Whatta mess. I really screwed up.”

“You risked your life.”

“The idea in police work is the bad guy is supposed to be risking his life; the police are supposed to make him bleed. Anyway, after I got shot that was it for me and police work. Now, five years later, I’m finally outta court with the department. Settled for a partial disability pension. My back got redesigned by a Winchester bullet, and here I am, at your service.”

“And you’re addicted to those little pills you take,” she said, surprising him, but before he could say anything, she continued. “I’ve seen my share of addictions. I’ve watched you try to take them when I’m not looking. You’re on about a four-hour cycle.”

“Jesus Christ,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.

“It’s okay, Jack, I understand. You got hooked on pain killers it happens. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, but you need to deal with it.”

“You and Herm got your own little twelve-step program, am I right?” he said, anger replacing embarrassment.

“When you and Dad were taken out to that base at Groom Lake I had lots of time on my hands. I researched the North Hollywood Bank shooting on the Internet. There were news stories about your injury and your lawsuit. I read your doctor’s courtroom statement.”

He looked across the table at her, not sure what to say.

“I don’t fault you for it.” She was still touching his hand. “But don’t you think you should do something about it?”

Jack hated being hooked on the pain pills. He was furious that he had been reduced to buying them from a street dealer, shamed by the fact that he was committing a felony. But some part of him relaxed when she busted him. He felt a flood of relief that somebody else finally knew that she understood and didn’t hate him for it.

“I understand human weakness, Jack. It’s been a big part of my life. I’m scared to death that I’m not up to the tasks Dad and I have chosen. But Dad says weakness is only a problem if you give in to it. My God, look at him… Daddy sure has his share of weaknesses. I’ve struggled to hide them, struggled to put his mistakes right. But I love him because he struggles on despite his defects and defeats. I see those same qualities in you.”

“If you start pitching a bunch of new-age bullshit at me I’m gonna go into the men’s room and blow my head off.” He smiled ruefully. When he looked across the table at her she had real concern in her eyes.

“I think you’re a very special person, Jack, and worth getting to know better. Sound okay?”

“Sure,” he whispered. “Great.”

They walked back toward the boat holding hands. Neither of them wanted this time to end, so instead of going aboard, they went over to the little beach at one end of the trailer park and sat on the sand. As they listened to the sound of the water lapping on the shore the bay was tipped with silver light from a three-quarter moon. Across the harbor, a mile away, old wooden car ferries, with their festive red-and-white hulls and Christmas-tree rail lights, chugged back and forth from Balboa Island to the big up-lit pavilion on the Newport Peninsula. Sailboat stays slapped in the breeze. Hundreds of crickets serenaded them.

Then Jack kissed her.

He didn’t know if she would respond, but he had to find out. She did, putting her arms around his neck and pulling him down onto the sand with her.

They were soon caressing each other Jack determined not to mess this up with some adolescent hormonal overload. He stopped, pulled back, and looked carefully at her.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said softly, then pulled him down again, and they slowly began peeling off each other’s clothes.

He kissed and caressed her, and their passion grew. Jack wanted her more than anything on earth. But, more than the sex, he wanted a woman with whom he could have an honest relationship and a friendship somebody who understood his weaknesses and wasn’t dismayed by them; somebody who saw events for what they were and didn’t try to arrange them to fit some narrow, self-involved definition.

Susan Strockmire was more of a hero than he had ever been… much braver and stronger. She had dedicated her life to supporting her wheezing, lumbering father. She had followed Herman, serving his needs, loving him without question, fixing his mistakes standing in front of him, shielding him, often taking his punishment. For the first time in Jack’s life he needed to give that kind of passionate dedication to someone.

Almost magically, they were entwined and he entered her. They held off for as long as they could, each giving pleasure to the other, exploring their newness. She held him tightly, kissing him, caressing him, taking him deeply inside her, until they both released, lying in the dew-damp sand, reveling in ecstasy.

Afterwards, he felt her hot breath on his ear, felt her tender hands stroking his wounded back, gently touching the welts and scars left by the North Hollywood shootout.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered softly. “We’ll do this together.

A little later they collected their clothes, dressed, and walked back to The Other Woman holding hands as their shadows danced beneath them in the moonlight.

It wasn’t until they turned to go down the gangplank onto the deck that Jack realized something was wrong. At first it was just a tickle in his head.

What is it? What’s wrong with this picture?

Then it hit him.

The Rent-A-Wreck Chrysler was gone.

They ran aboard the boat looking for Herman, throwing open doors, but Herman Strockmire Jr. was nowhere to be found.