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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 4

THE KILLER WHO called himself No Prisoners drove an Enterprise rent-a-car toward a set of automatic doors in the City of Commerce in southeast Los Angeles. He pressed an app on his iPhone and the doors began to rise, revealing a large, high-ceilinged, cement-floored work space that had once housed a diesel truck repair shop, with three additional roll-up doors at the far end.

He took the place in at a glance: two white delivery vans, six cots, a makeshift kitchen, four metal folding tables pushed together to create one large surface covered with computer equipment, and several tool and die machines, including a lathe, a grinder, and a welding torch with two tanks of acetylene.

Five ruggedly built men turned from their work to watch him pull in out of the rain, park, get out, and draw the two Glocks from the pouch of his Lakers hoodie. None of the men looked remotely concerned. Not even a blink.

The killer expected no less of them.

“How’d it go, Mr. Cobb?” called one of the men, late twenties, with a gymnast’s muscles and the attitude of an alley dog that has fought for every scrap life has grudgingly yielded to him.

“Outstanding, as expected, Mr. Nickerson,” the killer replied before setting the guns in front of a bald, lean Latino man who sported tattoos of the Grim Reaper on both bulging biceps. They were new tattoos, livid. “Break these down, Mr. Hernandez.”

“Straightaway,” Hernandez said, accepting the pistols. He laid them on a heavy-duty folding table set up as a gunsmith’s bench. A sniper’s rifle sat in a vise awaiting adjustment.

A slighter man, early thirties, with a bleached goat’s beard, got up from behind a row of iPads, all cabled to a large server beneath the tables. “Did the rain screw up the feed?”

Cobb removed the sunglasses. “You tell me, Mr. Watson.”

Watson took the sunglasses from Cobb, cracked open a hidden compartment in the frame, removed a tiny SIM card. While he fitted the card into a reader attached to one of the iPads, Cobb tugged off the baggy sweatshirt, revealing a ripped, muscular physique beneath a black Under Armour shirt. He reached beneath the collar of the shirt. An edge came up. He pulled.

The beard, the latex, the blond wig, the entire No Prisoners disguise came off, revealing a man in his late thirties, with a gaunt, weathered face that time and misfortune had chiseled into something remarkable. Scars ran like strands in a spider’s web out from the round of his left jawline toward a cauliflower ear barely hidden by iron-gray hair.

It was the kind of face people never forgot.

Cobb knew that about himself, and he’d suffered for it in the past. He wasn’t going to make that mistake twice. He laid out the pieces of the disguise on a third folding table before looking to a wiry African-American man holding another iPad connected to a set of earphones hung around his neck.

“Where are we, Mr. Johnson?” Cobb asked.

Johnson stabbed a finger at the iPad. “From the traffic we’ve been monitoring, L.A. sheriff ’s got their big guns on the beach.”

“Better than we hoped for,” Cobb remarked before glancing to the fifth man, the largest of them all, curly red hair, ice-blue eyes, and a rust-colored, out-of-control beard that made him look like some crazed Viking. “Mr. Kelleher?”

Kelleher nodded. “Associated Press brief ran fifteen minutes ago, four dead males on Malibu Beach shot gangland style and set afire.” He looked up. Puzzled. “That wasn’t the plan, Mr. Cobb.”

Cobb regarded him evenly. “Burning them amplifies things, moves events along quicker, Mr. Kelleher. Other coverage?”

Kelleher took that in stride, said, “All-news radio picked up the AP story.”

“Outstanding,” Cobb said. “Start the social media component.”

The big man nodded and went to sit next to Watson, who stroked his goat’s beard and looked at Cobb, smiling. “You caught just about everything. I edited it down to the pertinent sequence. Got sporty there, didn’t it?”

Watson was by far the smartest man in the room, a genius as far as Cobb was concerned. He’d never known anyone like Watson: a man who could handle tasks of extreme physical endurance while digesting vast amounts of data and information at a baffling rate. When Watson worked with computers, it was like he was attached to them, his own brain melding with the processors, able to analyze, compute, and code with the same mind-boggling speed.

“Let me see,” Cobb said, moved behind Watson. So did the other men.

Watson gave his iPad a command and the slayings from Cobb’s perspective played out on the screen. Hernandez chuckled when Grinder, the barrel-chested surfer, pleaded for his life.

“It’s like he’s saying ‘Don’t Tase me, bro,’” Hernandez said.

The others weren’t listening. They were engrossed in the blinding-quick move Cobb had used to avoid being tackled by the final man to die.

“Damn brilliant, Mr. Cobb,” said Nickerson. “You lost none of it.”

Johnson scowled. “I still say you should have sent one of us. We’re expendable.”

Cobb stiffened, felt angry. “No one here is expendable. Ever. Besides, why would I ask you to do something I wouldn’t do myself?”

“You wouldn’t,” Kelleher said admiringly. “First in.”

“Last out,” Cobb said. “We are in this together.”

Watson said, “Upload to YouTube now, Mr. Cobb?”

Cobb shook his head. “Let’s wait, let them make the connection to the letter before we hit them with total shock and awe.”

Copyright © 2014 by James Patterson

Read by Jay Snyder

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