Stone was happy with my references and we met again for signing on the dotted line. But a detail had to be addressed:
"There's one little problem," I said. "I don't want to be killed."
Mason looked startled. "Why would you be? I just want specific evidence that Loretta is involved with criminal types and/or is heavily into drugs herself, and then it's over."
He made it sound so simple.
"I can either work out an intervention -- maybe you could help me with that . . . get her away from Carlos . . . or . . ." he shrugged, "I can give up and cut her loose. Tell the boys and get them started on a life . . . without her." His voice dropped increasingly. No wonder, I thought. This was a very tough deal, watching your family unravel. He went on:
"I guess my mother can somehow fill in for her."
He looked away, thinking unhappy thoughts. Then: "You don't have to go after the Colombians. No citizen's arrest or anything."
"Well . . ." I couldn't think fast enough. Was this safe? If they caught me looking through a keyhole would they open fire with AK-47s and drill me through the door?
"Well . . . " I said again, competitive juices starting to stir, macho courage flowing in my veins, the scent of money in the air. The old dog's ears perked up.
"OK, but I have to keep my distance. You know how drug dealers are. They kill the pets and children while you watch, and then they kill you. They're barbaric. Humanoids. Have you told anyone that you were thinking about hiring me?"
He hesitated. "Uh . . . No." More hesitation.
"Oh I may have mentioned your name to Loretta, or maybe she got it on a telephone notepad, but, ah . . ."
"Wha-a-at?" SHIT! The queasy feeling again. I didn't want to appear cowardly, but I needed to take a few deep breaths, so I did.
"No problem!" Mason said emphatically. "As I said, you don't have to bust them. Don't even have to get too close. She doesn't know what you look like."
We both gazed off into the distance. Hell, I thought, go for it. Might be exciting. I was getting proud of my innate toughness. Whatever it was. Stubbornness. Thrill-seeking. Simple-mindedness.
Back to business: "I don't know how to estimate the cost. Depends. I keep a record of my time, and it comes out to about $40 an hour, plus expenses. It adds up. I need a retainer up front. You know, bullet-proof vest and so on." Attempt at humor, but he didn't notice.
"Is $1,000 OK?" It was very OK, and we shook hands. I said I'd send him a simple contract to sign. I couldn't resist asking: "So . . . what kind of business are you in?"
Stone said he inherited money and stocks from his New York dad ("Quite a lot, actually," he chuckled) and had done very well in Santa Barbara real estate, the soaring cost of which had been the main cocktail party conversation until recently. "I own nine houses and an apartment building on the Northside. So my job is monitoring my investments. I studied business at Yale." He shrugged. He shrugged a lot, his way of saying, "What you are probably thinking is probably the case, but I'm too modest to talk about it."
Nine houses. Wow. Plus an apartment building. Nice to be rich. BIG bucks. Plus cash investments. And I was going to be paid nicely. So everybody was profiting. Suddenly I felt a surge of emotional loyalty toward Capitalism.
I said I needed to know more about Loretta, and I wanted to get a photo of her, so Stone suggested we go "up" to his place, gesturing toward the mountains. So he lived "up" behind the small business intersection known informally as The Village. The higher on the hill, the higher on the hog.
We went to our cars and as usual in Montecito, I was aware that my gray Toyota Tercel was a kind of ugly duckling in a gaggle of BMWs, Mercedes and Jaguars. One Hummer was parked in the corner of the lot, looking like a Bradley Armored Personnel Vehicle. Perfect for getting the kid safely to Montecito's ivy-covered nursery school.
I followed Stone's Lexus into darkest Montecito and parked in the gravel half-circle in front of the house while he opened the automatic double garage door and parked in the right half of the garage. Loretta must have been out in a second car, the shameless hussy. Probably a BMW coupe.
It was a lovely place -- a wide property framed by huge sandstone boulders that were probably dug out of the building site, and of course oaks. Ferns, moss, fuchsias, begonias, impatiens beds blooming vigorously in splashes of color here and there. The house, a severely modern-styled, single-story creation, cubist in design, squatted against the slowly rising hill, screened by trees on the right, a stone wall on the left. The mountains were out of sight behind the trees.
Its walls were finished with wet plaster and left the color of cement. Interesting. I followed Stone in, oohed and ahhed over the tile floors, the hardwood rails, the clerestory windows letting in lots of light . . . Wow. A futuristic church. I admired the swimming pool and boulder-strewn backyard, and thought many of the plantings, and certainly the large ceanothus bushes circling the yard, were native, giving the flagstone-surrounded, kidney-shaped pool the look of a mountain pond. Can money buy happiness? Hell yes.
Stone brought me a couple of snapshots of Loretta the Lusty. Well . . . Exactly as I had guessed: a beautiful blonde. Arm candy. A little thin for my taste. But . . . the more I looked into her face the more glamorous she became. A touch of old actress Veronica Lake -- maybe a cross between Veronica Lake and Nicole Kidman.
She had wonderful, piercing eyes. She looked intelligent and I was getting interested myself. Why would a dish like this get hooked on drugs? But then, why would anyone? Why couldn't they just drink beer like normal people?
I asked if she had any career, or . . . what?
"No," Stone said. "Just a fun gal. At one time."
"OK," I said. "I'll get to work. Call me when she goes out. I'll follow her and we can take it from there." This was beginning to seem like old hat. Put a tail on the broad, that sorta thing.
"Fair enough." We shook hands and I drove back to the real world, the case in my pocket, along with a check. The Case of the Drugged-Out Housewife.
I liked Mason Stone. I got a good vibe. He was worth investigating for.
Eager to get started, I woke up well before dawn the next day and headed for the harbor. That's when I saw the suspicious sailboat offload bags of what I suspected was illegal drugs.
Then I had spent the day at the beach with my girlfriend Margie, getting scolded for putting my life in danger. That night, there was an ominous message on my answering machine about a phone call I was supposed to wait around for. I'm still waiting. Probably a random crank call, or a practical joke.
But this evening, my TV film du soir was a dog and I was about to fall asleep in the chair when the phone rang. Almost 10 p.m.
The same growling voice I'd heard on my answering machine, said, lowly and slowly:
"Keep the fuck away from that woman, or else. You've been warned."
Before I could say "Oh yeah?" - Click.
A call like that kinda gets your heart to ticking faster. No point in doing a reverse trace on it. No doubt it was from a phone booth, where miscreants and deviates like to call from.
I sat and waited for my pulse to slow down and tried to think of what to do next.