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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.

Part One | A VANISHING ACT

Chapter 3

MY CELL RANG when I was just shy of the yellow tape.

It was Carl Mentone. Also known as the Kid, a twenty-something hipster, tech geek, and surveillance specialist I hired last year in one of my smarter moves.

“You here already?” I asked.

“Up on Wilkerson’s terrace,” the Kid replied. “Eagle’s perspective.”

“Shoot what you can in this slop. Record what I’m transmitting.”

“Smooth on both counts, Jacky-boy. I’ve got a lens hood, no need for infrared with the lights, and I’m already getting a feed from your camera to the hard drive.”

“Don’t call me Jacky-boy,” I said, clicked the phone, saw a sheriff ’s deputy coming to the tape, and shifted the pen clipped to my breast pocket. The Kid and I now saw the same things.

“We’re asking people to stay away,” the deputy said.

I showed him my badge. “Jack Morgan. Who’s commanding?”

The deputy got lippy. “You may have clout over at LAPD, but...”

I spotted an old friend moving out from under the tarps, called, “Harry?”

Captain Harry Thomas ran the sheriff ’s homicide unit. I’d known him since I was a young teenager. Sixty-two now, the homicide commander had been a friend of my father’s, back before my dear old dad crossed the line, bilked clients, and ended up dying in prison. There was a time, when the old man was going downhill, and before I joined the marines, when Harry Thomas was one of the few people who seemed to care what happened to me.

Harry’s craggy face broke into a grin when he saw me. “Jack? What the hell brings Private out here in the middle of a storm?”

Ducking the rope past the miffed deputy, I said, “Four dead bodies burning in a fire, and my client owns the house right above us.”

“Public beach,” Harry said, glanced at Wilkerson’s home. “Thin reason to be inside my crime scene, unless your client wants to confess?”

“He’s clean. But now that I’ve had to leave my incredibly lovely date in the lurch and I’m all the way here, I’m curious. Can I take a look?”

Harry hesitated, said, “No funny business, Jack.”

“Me?”

“Uh-huh,” the homicide captain said, not buying it. “Boots and gloves.”

A few moments later, wearing protective blue paper booties and latex gloves, I ducked under the tarp system that had been erected over the crime scene. The space stank of burned flesh.

The victims, four men in après-surf wear, lay facedown in the wet ashes of a fire pit. Forensics techs were documenting the scene. I got out a tissue and pretended to blow my nose before passing it over the camera pen on my lapel to remove any raindrops.

Harry said, “Dog walker found them. Crazy to be out in this storm. Lucky for us, though. We managed to protect it within an hour of when we think the shootings went down. Illegal to have a fire here with or without a portable pit. It was like they were begging for trouble. People are very touchy around here about the rules.”

“C’mon, Harry,” I said. “You think someone double-tapped each of these guys over fire pit rules? This looks professional. A planned hit.”

“Yeah,” he admitted, distaste on his lips. “Looks that way to me too.”

“IDs?”

“All locals. All die-hard surfers. One’s a former investment guy, tends bar now down the highway. Another’s a young vet who came back from Iraq with some issues. The other two: still waiting. They weren’t carrying wallets like the first two.”

“Armed robbery gone bad?”

“If one of them was carrying something valuable enough, I suppose.”

“Or they all shared something in common, a secret, maybe, and this was revenge,” I replied, squatting to look at the sand around the corpses’ feet. “Rain and wind must have hammered this place. No tracks, no drag marks.”

“That’s all she wrote until the lab work tells me more,” the homicide captain said. “But about that, Jack: I won’t be keeping you in the loop.”

In an easy manner, Harry was telling me that, old friend or not, my time was up. I was about to rise from my crouch when I noticed a mustard-yellow card sticking out from beneath the dead bartender’s leg.

Before anyone could tell me not to, I scuttled forward and snatched it up.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” Harry demanded.

Back of the card was empty. I flipped it to face my camera pen, paused, handed it to a scowling Harry Thomas, and saw what was written in eighteen-point letters:

NO PRISONERS

Copyright © 2014 by James Patterson

Read by Jay Snyder

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