Michelle's the name, Michelle Hammer. I'm a P.I., a Private Investigator. I used to be a cop until the brass downtown railroaded me off the force; but that's another story. I'll take most types of cases; a lot of them involve finding missing persons, a lot of whom don't like being found. Usually, they're ducking a debt, a wife and kids, a girlfriend or have just plain had enough and want to start over somewhere else. This one was different, really different.
I was sitting at my usual table in McGinty's Pub chowing down on a corned beef on rye with spicy mustard and sipping a cold draft beer when a guy walks in and starts talking to McGinty who's behind the bar like usual. He points at me, the guy turns and heads my way. Since I'm not everybody's favorite person, McGinty reaches under the bar for the sawed off 12 gauge shotgun he keeps there, holding it out of sight and gives me a wink. He's an ex-cop too, retired, and good people.
"Ms. Hammer?" "That's me. What can I do for you?" "My names Murdock, Clint Murdock, I'm trying to find an old Army buddy; we were together in 'Nam." "What you want him for?" "Vets reunion, I've tried the usual ways of finding him, the VA and whatnot, no luck; any info they have is years old." "Sounds interesting, want a beer?" We discussed my fee over a cold one, he gave me what info he had, which wasn't much, and I told him I'd be in touch.
McGinty'd put his piece back under the bar, left Rachel to watch things then ambled over and said "New client?" "Yep, name's Clint Murdock. He's a 'Nam Vet lookin' for an' ol' service buddy named Jerry Andrews. Some sort of a reunion thing." "Jerry Andrews, huh, that name sounds familiar. I've heard it somewhere before. I'll tell ya if I remember. I think it was a case I worked once."
Murdock was right in sayin' his bud would be hard to find. The usual channels told me that Jerry Andrews was ex-Army, 60+ years old, his height, weight, hair and eye color, Cauc, photo of him as a young soldier in boot camp, last known address a jerkwater town in Iowa. I figured he wouldn't be there; he wasn't.
You meet a bunch of people from all walks of life when you're a beat cop for seven years. In that time I had made some friends who had access to information the general public never sees. I checked with them next.
Now we were getting somewhere. Andrews had been jumping around the country like flea on a hot griddle, which pissed the VA off trying to catch up with him and issue benefits. He and Murdock had served together in the same Army unit in 'Nam and were both honorably discharged after getting in a nasty firefight and sent back to the states.
Their platoon was on a mission behind enemy lines when the VC ambushed them. Andrews, Murdock and three other guys managed to escape. The kicker was that the three other guys had died in accidents since their discharges; the first about four years ago, the others since then. This was way too much of a coincidence.
When I stopped in at McGinty's for some lunch, he called me over and said "I remembered where I'd heard of that guy you're looking for." "I'm all ears." "About three years ago, I covered an incident involving a car bomb and it was that Andrews guy that owned the car. He'd gone to eat in one of those restaurants up town and used their valet parking. When he'd called for his car, it blew sky high taking the parking attendant with it.
He clammed up when we interrogated him as to who might have done it and why. When we tried to follow up, he'd skipped town and we never could find him." I told McGinty about the five guys in 'Nam and how three had died in the last four years and it sure wasn't a coincidence. "He was supposed to be number four, Mitchie," he said. "I'm willing to bet either Andrews or Murdock's involved somehow. You better watch it out there." "I wonder. This case is becoming one coincidence after another. Regardless, I'm still on retainer, so I'll continue looking for Andrews, although something's telling me he won't appreciate being found."
After a few more days of no new leads, Lady Luck dealt me a break. I was having Maggie's (that's my 280Z) oil changed at Chuck's Garage and we were shooting the breeze over coffee. Chuck's another retired cop so we sometimes discuss some case I'm working on. When I mentioned the Andrews case Chuck said "I know him." He rummaged in a desk drawer and pulled out a photo of a man in his mid 60's, greying hair, solidly built with a big grin on his face standing next to what appeared to be a 30's model Ford coupe tricked out as a hot rod.
"I met Jerry Andrews at a car show I went to last year in the next state. He was interested in selling that Ford Deuce in the picture and I was interested in buying it. He was running the original flathead V-8 in it which is fairly rare. Most all the ones around have had monster OHV V-8's dropped in 'em.
Anyway, we haggled for a while, agreed on a price and I left to contact my bank to wire me some cash. When I came back, he and the car were gone, poof! I figured him for a nut, but I never forgot that car or him either. I have the address and phone number he gave me if you want it." Did I ever!
The phone number was disconnected, so I checked out the address. It was an apartment house in a city upstate run by a nice old couple who offered me some tea and when I showed them the photo they recognized Jerry right away. He'd lived there for almost two years and helping them with building repairs until one morning he up and disappeared leaving his next month's rent shoved under their door in an envelope. Did they still have the envelope? He went to look, found it in a file and showed it to me.
It was a previously used envelope and had his apartment address on it, but also a return address, a Mrs. Judith Wheeler in a small town north of there.
The woman who answered the door was in her forties wearing sweats and running shoes; her hair pulled back in a bun. She looked to be in her late forties, average looks and figure, but her eyes were red and she looked tired. I told her I was from the VA looking for Jerry since we'd lost track of him and couldn't inform him about his increased benefits. She told me he was in the garage out back working on his car. She let me out the back door and I strolled over to a weathered, two bay garage that looked like a miniature barn. He looked up at me from his workbench when I walked in. Unlike his picture, his hair was gray and his face was fuller, but it was him.
I introduced myself, told him why I was there and did he have a minute to talk. He nodded, wiping his hands on a shop towel. Then he opened a drawer and I was looking down the barrel of an Army .45 automatic.
"If you are who you say you are, let's see some ID and make it snappy." He was jumpy as a cornered rat and he meant business. Since I'd foolishly left my purse in the house I figured I'd better level with him rather than continue the bluff and maybe get myself shot.
"My name's Michelle Hammer, I'm a PI sent to find you by a guy named Clint Murdock. You know him?" He turned pale and his jaw clenched, "Yeah, I know him," he grated, "How much will you take to tell him you never saw me?" "Listen to me, Jerry; you can't buy me off because I'm not telling him. I'm pretty sure he's tried to kill you before and I want no part of that. What's with you two anyway, I thought you were buds in 'Nam?" "We were," he said, lowering the gun. He gestured at a pair of lawn chairs, "Have a seat and I'll tell you all about it." I sat.
"We were looking for a VC ammo dump an informant had told HQ about," he began, a faraway look in his eyes. "A green second looey was leading us who thought he knew more about traveling in country than our NCO's, so we walked right into an ambush.