Las Vegas Strip, June 1
JOHN PHILLIPS didn’t jump when the phone cut into his predawn channel surfing. He muted the TV, lifted the receiver on the second ring, and said a crisp, “Yes sir.”
“Go. You know the parameters.”
Phillips dropped the receiver back into the cradle and got off the bed. He yawned, pulled off his briefs, and padded into the bathroom.
He stood before the toilet brushing his teeth and pissing into the center of the bowl. He shook, spat, flushed, and stepped into the shower.
John Phillips grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Mayfield Park. His father had little to do with him past the point of conception. “Dad” worked sixty to eighty hours a week as the CEO of a chemical company, affording John a stay-at-home mom who doted on her only child.
John began walking and talking far earlier than most children. He could read and comprehend newspaper articles at the age of four. His mother enrolled him in a private school for gifted children, where he excelled.
But at the age of fourteen, John turned sullen and contemptuous. He hated his teachers and classes. He hated the neighbor’s yapping, faggy little Pomeranian. The dog disappeared one day. At the age of fourteen, John Phillips hated his parents, people of color, those with disabilities, everyone on welfare, liberals, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and most of all, he hated those Godless sodomites.
At fifteen, Phillips dropped his old friends and made new buddies who taught him how to mug, carjack, burgle, and fence. He learned how to use a gun and how to throw a knife. Phillips found himself mesmerized by the underbelly of the “City of Brotherly Love,” where nothing ever seemed too odd or horrific.
Concerned about her son’s contempt and the new friends he brought home, John’s mother had long talks with him. He didn’t change. His father yelled at him, grounded him, and slapped him around. He didn’t change. Bribery came next; he didn’t change. His mother took him to a noted child psychologist. John enjoyed mind-fucking the shrink, but he didn’t change.
Against his mother’s wishes, John’s father shipped their son off to a military academy. As if a breaker switch had been snapped back on, John returned to being an obedient son and straight-A student. A few months after he turned sixteen, two of the academy’s senior cadets vanished. Rumors about the young men’s same-sex relationship had been circulating across campus. No one ever found the cadets or their bodies. At sixteen, John Phillips knew with absolute certainty that he enjoyed killing men, but only men. He held to his own peculiar honor code—no women or children.
Phillips stepped out of the shower, toweled off, and wiped the mirror. He lathered up, held a straight-edge razor under hot tap water and began to shave the two-day stubble off his ordinary-looking face. Masterful at altering his appearance and blending into any crowd, he was average height, weight, and build. His hazel eyes appeared more gray than green or brown; eyes that stayed cool and intent like those of a cat.
Phillips dressed in jeans, sport shirt, and walking shoes. He pulled a new identification packet from his luggage. After breakfast, he’d drive out of Vegas for the “City of Angels,” or alternatively, the “City of Angles,” since most Angelinos played at least one.
John Phillips wiped down the room.
Monday, June 1, 9:02 A.M.
KIRK MACGREGOR folded the Los Angeles Times, leaned back in his executive chair, and plopped his feet on the edge of his ebony desk. Yesterday’s show of his paintings in oils had every canvas “red-dotted,” and had brought him a rave review from one of the city’s most rabid art critics. It didn’t get much better than that. Life was good.
He swiveled toward the office windows and watched the pedestrians along Sunset Boulevard. Another shiny, blue sky Southern California morning, Kirk was contemplating his next painting in oils when the black Bentley rolled to the curb. A driver-bodyguard with a sidearm clipped on his belt slid from behind the wheel and opened the rear door.
None of the locals paid much attention to the British limo and the armed driver—just Beverly Hills de rigueur. But the tourists slowed and gawked as reclusive ex-rock superstar Austin Hunter, his features obscured by Aviators, and his husband, best-selling author Jase Ruether, stepped onto the sidewalk. Bringing up the rear, Claire Hunter, Austin’s mother, emerged from the Bentley. Longstanding clients of MacGregor Law, Kirk supposed the Hunters had an appointment with Avery.
Kirk’s musings on what might have brought the Hunter clan to the firm were interrupted by his desk phone’s warble. Tony Denero wanted him. Kirk swung his size fifteens to the floor and lifted the receiver.
As inflexible as an IRS agent and gayer than a French polka, legal administrator Tony Denero kept everything running on time for the firm’s seventy-eight partners and 350 associates. Nobody at MacGregor Law knew for certain how to get on Tony’s good side. Everybody knew not to get on his shit list.
Tony cut to the chase. “Your father wants to know if it’s at all possible for you to squeeze him into your packed social calendar for dinner at six this evening.”
Avery should become a travel agent for guilt trips, Kirk thought. “Please tell him I’m available.”
“Will do.” Tony lowered his voice and continued, “The Hunters would like to speak with you. Should I tell them to make an appointment?”
“No, but give me a minute to prepare.”
“Sure thing.” Tony lowered his voice again. “I parked Madam Hunter’s well-heeled ass in the reception suite. That gorgeous Austin Hunter and his to-die-for hubby are admiring your paintings. They are two men I could just steal. Capiche?”
“Capisco. Now, rein it in,” Kirk said with a hint of amusement in his deep voice.
“Handsome, don’t you rush getting ready. I wanna drool over this pair of Ken dolls a teensy bit longer… with the utmost discretion of course.” Tony paused, sighed, then returned. “Oh, and congratulations on that fabulous art review.” Click.
Tall, tanned and broad-shouldered, Kirk MacGregor moved with the liquidity of a professional athlete. He shrugged on his black Armani Collezioni suit coat, shot his cuffs, buttoned his collar, and cinched the Windsor knot just so on his silk tie. Crossing his office, he gathered this morning’s coffee cup, cream-filled donut bag, and June’s edition of Esquire off the Herman Miller Eames sofa and table. A glance at the walls confirmed that the original oil paintings still hung straight. Kirk said under his breath, “Showtime.”
A native Angelino, Kirk MacGregor came into the world with a silver spoon and good looks. His air of easy confidence, ready smile, wavy blond hair, chiseled features, and his perceptive, faintly amused blue-green eyes allured men and women alike. Kirk graduated from USC and Stanford Law before attending what he called “finishing school” at the FBI Academy. After five years with the Bureau, he accepted his father’s offer to become MacGregor Law’s resident detective, handling the corporate security, personal protection, and discreet investigation needs of the firm’s “Platinum Triangle” clients.
Tony knocked once, watched Austin’s and Jase’s backsides, wiggled his eyebrows at Kirk, and closed the door. Following the handshakes, Claire, Austin, and Jase settled into the black leather client chairs angled in front of the desk. Kirk uncapped a Sharpie fine point and pulled an unlined notepad closer. He never wrote anything down during an interview. He never forgot anything either. He just liked to sketch his clients. Essential in his business, Kirk opened with an icebreaker: “Mr. Ruether, I’ve enjoyed all of your novels.”
“It’s Jase, and thank you so much,” he said in a sincere tone. His guileless dark-brown eyes, pleasant smile, and his sandy hair, worn short and neatly combed, made him look like the poster boy for Mormon missionaries, Kirk thought as he sketched Jase.
Kirk smiled at Austin Hunter. “And it’s always a pleasure to listen to you play.”
Austin shrugged, putting a good deal into it, and said in his Southwestern Texas twang, “Thanks, honey, but music ain’t nothin’ but a flow chart of numbers, for fucksakes.” His voice did not turn boastful as he concluded, “And I can work numbers in my head right quick.”
“Is that right,” Kirk said.
“Yup,” Austin said.
Kirk pulled a number out of the air. “What’s the square root of 9263?”
“It’s 96.2444804,” Austin answered without pause.
Damned impressive, Kirk thought after checking his desk calculator’s result. He took a closer look at the guitar legend and began sketching.
Austin Hunter had a good-looking face that revealed a great deal of character, and his indigo-blue eyes reflected a keen intelligence that belied his communication style. Every strand of his dark-brown hair remained in place with a clip costing several hundred dollars. His large hands bore the square-cut nails and rock-hard calluses of a professional guitarist. He wore tailored slacks, a dark-blue blazer, and hand-cobbled loafers—no socks. He sported a Cartier Tank and a platinum band that matched the ring on Jase’s finger. A handsome, sexy, rough-and-tumble genius, Kirk thought. Tony Denero had called it right: Austin was a man he’d love to steal. Needing to “rein it in” himself, Kirk rolled closer to his desk and concealed the lower half of his body under the leg well. He smiled. “What can I do for you?”
Her silver hair softly styled and her makeup discreet, Claire Hunter wore a business ensemble that bore the precise fit and understated elegance of a Savile Row tailor. She spoke in a soft southern inflection that fell pleasantly on the ears. “I could not find Brent last year from December 15 through the twenty-first.” She blinked back the tears in her pale-blue eyes. “I need to know where Brent went and what he did during his final week alive. You see, I believe my son, along with his eleven passengers and crew, was murdered.”
En route to London’s Gatwick Airport last December 21, rock superstar Brent Hunter’s private jet disappeared over the Arctic. Based on the flight plan, Search & Rescue could estimate where the jet went down, but could not pinpoint the crash site; neither random noise nor a legitimate signal was detected from the aircraft’s emergency-locator transmitter. After three days of combing the rugged terrain, all reasonable expectations of finding survivors vanished. The search became a recovery mission, but S&R found neither wreckage, nor debris, nor human evidence. Following an investigation, the Federal Aviation Disaster Agency listed the Odyssey 10 executive jet and the twelve souls onboard as, “Missing.”
Kirk leaned back in his chair. Dozens of conspiracy theories had erupted after Brent Hunter’s violent death. But nothing had been recovered to prove that a crime had been committed. It was widely held that the air disaster resulted from pilot error. End of story. Kirk said in a gentle voice, “Mrs. Hunter, do you know something no one else knows about the crash?”
She shook her head once. “Dig deeply into Brent’s final week of life, and I believe you’ll find the evidence that either proves or refutes my murder theory.”
Turning to Austin and Jase, Kirk stated rather than asked, “You two have no idea where Brent went that week.”
Jase shook his head. “Sorry, no.”
Austin shot Kirk a withering look. “That hound don’t hunt. Woulda said somethin’ right quick if I had a clue, wouldn’t you reckon?”
“I never assume anything.” Kirk paused to allow his statement to register and then asked, “When did you last see or speak with Brent?”
“End of last November. Next thing I heard, his sixty-five million dollar jet dropped out of the sky on its maiden flight.”
Austin’s voice reflected incuriousness slouching toward boredom. But Kirk had been trained to interpret the nonverbal cues of eye contact and body language. He knew Austin was holding something back.
Kirk capped the Sharpie and set it on the notepad. “I’ll need a list of Brent’s friends and music industry colleagues.”
Claire reached into her black leather Gucci shoulder bag and passed a file across the desk.
“Do you happen to have keys to your son’s house and automobiles in there?”
Her left hand reached into the bag and plucked a gold ring with three keys: one to the gate, one to the front door, and one to a Mercedes Benz. She’d attached a tag with the code to the mansion’s security system.
Of course, Kirk considered, Claire Hunter would have it all together. Knowing the needs of her own clients in advance had helped to make her one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country.
Claire asked about fees. Kirk told her. She pulled a checkbook out of her designer bag and began writing. “I’m usually in New York. Please contact my Manhattan office should you need anything else, or you can reach Austin and Jase at their country estate.” She pulled Kirk’s retainer check from the book and handed it to him.
Claire and Jase stood. Kirk stood. Austin rose from his slouch. Following the handshakes, Claire walked out the door with Austin and Jase in tow.
Kirk listened as their footsteps faded down the hallway. Every investigation began with learning as much as possible about the client and his family. And most lawyers kept personal notes on their clients. He’d begin by pulling Avery’s personal file on the Hunters.