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Private L.A.

Private Jack Morgan investigates the disappearance of the biggest superstar couple in Hollywood.

Thom and Jennifer Harlow are the perfect couple, with three perfect children. They maybe two of the biggest mega movie stars in the world, but they're also great parents, philanthropists and just all-around good people.

When they disappear without a word from their ranch, facts are hard to find. They live behind such a high wall of security and image control that even world-renowned Private Investigator Jack Morgan can't get to the truth. But as Jack keeps probing, secrets sprout thick and fast--and the world's golden couple may emerge as hiding behind a world of desperation and deception that the wildest reality show couldn't begin to unveil. Murder is only the opening scene.

Prologue | NO PRISONERS

One

IT WAS NEARING midnight that late-October evening on a dark stretch of beach in Malibu. Five men, lifelong surfers, lost souls, sat around a fire blazing in a portable steel pit set into the sand.

The multimillion-dollar homes up on the fragile cliffs showed no lights save security bulbs. Waves crashed in the blackness beyond the firelight. The wind was picking up, temperature dropping. A storm built offshore.

Facing the fire, four of them with their backs to surfboards stuck in the sand, the men sipped Coronas, passed and sucked on a spliff of Humboldt County’s finest.

“Bomber weed, N.P.,” choked Wilson, who’d done two tours in Iraq and had come home at twenty-six incapable of love and responsibility, good only for getting high, riding big waves, and thinking profound thoughts. “With that hit I most assuredly have achieved total clarity of mind. I can see it all, dog. The whole cosmic thing.”

Sitting in the sand across the fire from Wilson, hands stuffed in the pouch pocket of his red L.A. Lakers hoodie, N.P. wore reflector sunglasses despite the late hour. He smiled at Wilson from behind his glasses and scruffy beard, his nostrils flaring, his longish, straw-blond hair fluttering in the wind.

“I second that emotion, Wilson,” N.P. said, and flicked the underside of his cap so it made a snapping sound. His voice was hoarse and hinted at a southern accent.

“Wish I coulda scored weed that righteous in the go-go days before the crash,” said Sandy dreamily as he passed along the joint. “I would have seen all, slayed the markets, and lived a life of wine, women, song, and that beautiful herb you so graciously brought into our lives, N.P.”

Sandy had lost it all in the Great Recession: Brentwood house, trophy wife, big job running money. These days he tended day bar at the Malibu Beach Inn.

“Those days are frickin’ long gone,” said Grinder, barrel-chested, dark tan, dreads. “Like ancient history, bro. No amount of pissin’ and moanin’ ’bout it gonna bring back your stack of Benny Franklins, or my board shop.”

Hunter, the fourth surfer, was stubble haired and swarthy. He scowled, hit the spliff, said, “Ass-backward wrong as usual, Grinder. You wanna bring back that stack a Benjamins, Sandy?”

Sandy stared into the fire. “Who doesn’t?”

Hunter nodded toward N.P. before handing him the roach. “Like Wilson was saying, N.P., this weed brings perfect vision.”

N.P. smiled again, took the roach and ate it, said, “What do you see?”

Hunter said, “Okay, so like we rise up and storm Congress, take ’em all hostage, and hole up in there, you know, the House chamber. We do it the night of the State of the Union Address so they’re all in there to begin with, president, generals, frickin’ Supreme Court too. Then we make the whole sorry bunch of ’em hit this weed hard enough and long enough they start talking to each other. Getting stuff done. Tending to business ’stead of bitchin’ and cryin’ and blamin’ about who spent the biggest stack and for what.”

“Speaker of the House hitting it?” Wilson said, laughed.

Grinder chuckled, “Yeah, on the bong with that sourpuss senator’s always trying to shove his morals up your ass. That man would be in touch with his inner freak straight up then.”

“Not a bad idea,” Sandy said, brightening a bit. “A stoned Congress just might get the country going again.”

“See there, total clarity,” Wilson said, pointing at N.P. before getting a puzzled expression on his face. “Hey, dog, where you come from, anyway?”

N.P. had showed up about an hour ago, said he’d take a beer or two if they wanted to partake of the best in the state, Cannabis Cup winner for sure.

Smiling now, N.P. turned his sunglasses at Wilson, said, “I walked down here from the Malibu Shores Sober Living facility.”

They all looked at him a long moment and then started to laugh so hard they cried. “Frickin’ sober living!” Wilson chortled. “Oh, dog, you got your priorities straight.”

Joining in their laughter, N.P. glanced around beyond and behind the fire, saw that the beach remained deserted, and still no lights in the houses above. He took his chance.

He got to his feet. His new friends were still howling.

Nice guys. Harmless, actually.

But N.P. felt not a lick of pity for them.

Copyright © 2014 by James Patterson

Read by Jay Snyder

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