Last Heartthrob 01

The Gunshots and the Suspect Signal

As Walter Forbes tried to run up the northwest stairwell, the forty-seven-year-old private eye knew he was no longer a defensive lineman for State. His career-ending back injury reminded him. The punishment lay in wait whenever he pushed himself beyond his usual range of movement.

He played through pain on the gridiron when only a game or a season was on the line. Now actual lives were at stake, and he was the only one to blame.

Sheer force of will could no longer spur his hulking frame to perform as it hadn’t in decades. He shifted his body weight to his powerful arms, pulling himself up the stairs, but nothing he could do relieved the fire in his back or the numbness in his legs. He thought he could beat the elevator, which had been on the top floor. Wrong.

He hoped that wasn’t all he got wrong.

When his body gave out on the third floor, he allowed his mind to take stock. It was far more likely that the police were right about the dead woman. They were at the scene: collected the evidence. He worked off instinct. If his instincts were anything close to flawless, none of this mad dash back from the coast would have been necessary. If he were certain, he would have called the police.

Knowing every word a man spoke, every word he wrote, every place he went, every computer application he accessed, every bit of media he consumed, wasn’t the same as knowing what he thought. Technology made being a private eye in a post private world easy: maybe too easy. One had to be careful not to mistake information for knowledge, or knowledge for truth.

Forbes always established parameters with his clients: what they needed to know and what he was willing to disclose. He did that this time. Whatever happened outside the scope of the assignment, and that sure as hell included this intrusion, was none of his business. Perhaps the best thing to do was use the wall for support to get to the elevator, make his way back downstairs, and drive away.

Then he noticed a small number four by the door handle. Had he miscounted the flights of stairs? He pushed the door open, keeping his left shoulder pressed against it to avoid a face plant. When he released the handle, he thudded into the wall of the fourth-floor corridor. Using his left shoulder against the wall to brace himself, he eased forward with his right foot. He pieced together what he would say: maybe something not so far from the truth. The important part would be getting a moment in private.

That’s when he heard the gunshots.

He had solved a case no one had asked him to solve: a case no one wanted him to solve, a case no one knew or cared about. No one would benefit. The cost, so far, was a couple of lives. When that door, the second on the left, opened, maybe it would cost a couple more. Who could say what the murderer would do when he saw Forbes standing there? He took his gun in hand, fixed his eye on the doorway, and waited.

He wondered if another investigator who’d seen what he’d seen and heard what he’d heard could have put the pieces together in time.

PART ONE: VETTING TOM KAHANE

TEN DAYS BEFORE THE GUNSHOTS

Portland, Oregon is a noir kind of city: foggy nights, cloudy days, a city known for rain.

But not in August. In August, it never rains at all. In the evening, neighbors huddle in their beautiful parks to listen to music and watch family-friendly movies projected on inflatable screens. Weekends, there’s always a festival of one ethnicity or another. The natives cherish the outdoor food and camaraderie during the two precious months when the storm clouds relent, and the sun reliably smiles down upon the City of Roses. The beer flows freely. Well, that’s a year-round thing, but it flows a little more freely in August. On this blue-sky afternoon, it was a real stretch to imagine Portland as a place where anything dark or deadly could happen.

Walter Forbes, the private investigator/information security specialist who sat at the sidewalk table outside the RiverRock Brew Pub a couple of blocks from the waterfront, didn’t look as though he’d come from a film noir casting call. He was considerably larger than most actors who’d played Philip Marlowe. His face bore greater resemblance to one of those thugs who beat the crap out of Marlowe, which was slightly amusing to a gentle soul who hadn’t hit anyone since he’d hung up his football cleats. On top of that, the look was all wrong. He was dressed like the bulkiest cyclist racing in the Tour de France.

The client parked a Ferrari about thirty feet from Forbes as the P. I. sipped his house-brewed Kölsh. Philip Sternwood was the public face of the metro’s most prominent group of auto dealerships. The only mystery about him was that from his haircut to his shoes by way of his bespoke tailored Savile Row summer-weight suit, the gentleman in his late forties exhibited not a hint of the stereotypical auto-dealer smarm. In another life, over twenty years ago, he graduated from the Bay Area’s most prestigious school of law.

“Hey, Phil,” said Forbes, giving his hand a cursory wipe with a napkin to remove the sauce from his RiverBottom Wings before extending it.

“Hi, Walter.”

Sternwood pulled up a chair.

“New wheels?” asked Forbes.

“Bought an import dealership in Hillsboro. Have to get acquainted with the product.”

“Tough job.”

Sternwood smiled.

“I’ll stop by and disconnect the tracking software,” Forbes offered.

“No need. I’m just about done with my test drive.”

“What’s the verdict?”

“She’s not a town car, but take her out on the interstate and open her up, she’s pretty sweet.”

“So long as you keep her under the speed limit.”

“That goes without saying.”

“How’s Val?” asked Forbes.

Sternwood hesitated a half second. Forbes noted that he seemed uncertain of his wife’s itinerary. “She’s doing well. Very well. I talked to her last night…wait…night before last. She’s in Washington doing some fund raising for Senator Morton.”

“In Seattle?”

“No, D.C.”

That wasn’t what Forbes wanted to hear. He was biased toward happy marriages like his own.

“And Anton?” Forbes inquired after Sternwood’s nineteen-year-old son.

“Iceland.”

“Iceland? You kiddin’ me?”

Sternwood shrugged. “Her name’s Signe.”

Forbes smiled. “Do you have a picture?”

Sternwood produced one on his smartphone.

“My my my.”

Forbes and his wife Anna purposely hadn’t had children, but he took a certain vicarious joy in the very handsome Anton’s conquests.

Sternwood got down to business. “So there’s this new guy at H-L-S Advertising, Tom Kahane. I’d like you to keep an eye on him.”

The waiter came out to pick up the bill from another customer. Forbes noticed Sternwood looking longingly at his pint and encouraged him to order one. Once he did, Sternwood’s attention turned to Forbes’s wings. Forbes read the self-imposed public figure’s reticence. Anyone on the street could snap a picture of him with barbecue sauce smeared all over his face and post it online.

“Dig in,” urged Forbes.

“Thanks. I’m kind of hungry.” Sternwood gave in and dipped one in the sauce.

Forbes gave him a moment to enjoy the guilty pleasure before asking “Isn’t H-L-S still handling your account?”

“Yes, they are,” said Sternwood. “This isn’t about the Auto Group. Kahane pitched us a fall campaign that we haven’t seen before, and we’re going to try it, but what I have in mind is more about The Company. The folks in Philly have an eye out for a Communications Director, and I’d like to know how he handles himself. You know. Give me a sense of how he manages his time. Your usual who what when where stuff.”

Walter took a bite of a wing to give himself time to process the request. The Company was a private holding company in Philadelphia with increasingly diverse business interests. Sternwood’s in-laws ran it. When Sternwood wasn’t actively acquiring competing dealerships for the Auto Group that bore his name, The Company found other ways to make use of his talents.

“I’m sure I can verify his actual timesheet versus H-L-S billing,” Forbes suggested.

Sternwood winced.

“Or…I could cover the guy twenty-four/seven if you like, but…”

“That might be the way to go on this one,” said Sternwood. “When it comes to The Company, his social life might be just as instructive as his professional. If he checks out, it won’t hurt to have someone I can trust closer to the center of things.”

Forbes didn’t like this part at all. It sounded like a request from a man who was hedging his bets. Was Sternwood positioning himself to stay with The Company in the event his marriage went south? If so, Forbes doubted it would work.

“Well, I can give you a thorough background check, keep things honest as far as your account goes, and try to pin-point any obvious red-flags…”

“That’s all I’m asking for.”

“It won’t come cheap,” advised Forbes, quoting a price he thought would dissuade him.

“That’s fine,” said Sternwood, without hesitation.

This bothered Forbes most of all. The two men had done business for years now. Sternwood was a negotiator. His immediate acceptance of a high ball figure told the P. I. that his client was playing for keeps. For now, he’d take the lawyer at his word. Maybe he really believed in this guy. They both smiled when the waiter returned with Sternwood’s Kölsh, which shimmered in its glass like sunshine. They raised their pints to Tom Kahane who sat in a meeting less than a mile away, completely unaware of his prospective role in The Company or the fattening of Walter Forbes’s wallet.

 

NINE DAYS BEFORE THE GUNSHOTS

Mysteriously enough, the initial report that came back from Forbes’s assistant Jane Greer said that Tom Kahane didn’t have a presence on any of the usual social media platforms. Forbes liked that. After narrowing in on the right internet search terms, she’d found an old news article with Kahane’s picture. The former ad man had appeared at a Northwest Cinematheque fundraising function five years ago. He wrote a movie. There was a second odd photo of Kahane at the event, looking sadly into the eyes of a blonde woman whose face was partially obscured by her hair. Greer included his slim listing in the movie database. Three credits: Hey Now!, a music video; a short, and a feature, both entitled Paging Mr. Kaplan. The report included the usual public record stuff.

Tom Kahane lived in the building that housed a leading outdoor outfitter and The Kearney Lofts. It was a newer multi-story urban glass, steel, and concrete block amid the restaurants, art galleries, bars, and shops that reclaimed and renovated the warehouses and factory buildings of Portland’s past. The ground floor with its street level retailer and steel-mesh-protected parking was strictly utilitarian. Forbes assumed from the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows that the views must be spectacular. It was less than a half mile from H-L-S, so Forbes figured Kahane walked to work. Based on Forbes’s assessment of the building’s blueprint and the location of Kahane’s unit within that blueprint, he correctly guessed the exit he’d use.

It was hard to picture the fresh-faced kid from the news article photo in any film noir. His hair was black like Farley Granger’s, but his features were less pretty: his nose slightly bigger. He wasn’t exactly smiling, but there was mischief in his eyes. He looked vaguely familiar, but Forbes knew it was a feature of middle age that more and more people you saw reminded you of people you knew in the past.

As Forbes sat peering out from his rented van, it took a moment for him to recognize the man in the black trousers and yellow rain jacket who walked southbound toward H-L-S. Now, with his shambling movement, hair gone wild, unshaven face, the thirty-three-year-old looked slightly swarthy. Forbes registered that it was 7:14 A.M. Maybe it had been a late night.

Kahane was listening to something on his smartphone when he decided to shave a few steps off his trip by cutting across the street between a couple of parked SUVs. A cyclist swerved to avoid him, passing close enough to ensnare the headphone cord. Catching the phone before it went crashing to the street and smithereens, the guy on the bike quickly applied his brakes.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine,” replied Kahane, beginning to come down from a momentary adrenaline rush.

“Here’s your phone.”

“Thanks.”

They got out of the street. Kahane still seemed to be slightly out of it.

“You sure you’re okay?”

Kahane was a little slow in processing the question. “Oh, yeah. I’m fine.”

“I didn’t clip you?”

“No.”

“Your pocket okay? I didn’t tear your pocket.”

Kahane examined his pocket. “No. Everything seems fine.”

“You know, just to be safe, could you check it?”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Tom. He seemed eager to get to work.

“Check it as a favor to me? I don’t want to ride around all day feeling guilty.”

Kahane smiled and unlocked his phone engaging its search for the nearest cell phone tower. “Works fine.”

“Phew,” said Walter Forbes, extending his hand. “We good?”

Kahane shook his hand. This was the first time he looked into Forbes’s mirrored shades. “We’re good. Go in peace.”

Kahane continued on at a slightly brisker pace to make up time.

Forbes took a moment to remove his handheld device, slightly bulkier than a smartphone, from his backpack. Step one of his mission was complete. The transmitter in the back of the van picked up all the identifying information he would need to hack Tom Kahane’s smartphone. Now all he needed Kahane to do was take the bait.

 

But Kahane didn’t take the bait. When five-thirty rolled around, Forbes drove the van the half mile from the parking lot of the upscale grocer by H-L-S to the one for the outdoor outfitter in Kahane’s building.

After an enjoyable dinner with Anna and two of her co-workers, Walter checked his handheld, saw Kahane still hadn’t taken the bait, and told Anna, “I’ll take the MAX home with you.”

This caught Anna off guard. “I thought you drove.”

“I did.”

“You don’t have to see me home if you have more to do down here.”

“I don’t have anything more to do. The box in the back of my van does. I’m tired.”

Anna nodded.

They sat together as the MAX rolled across the river and by the twin spire towers of the Convention Center. It all looked lovely in the sunset’s glow.

 

Earlier, Anna’s co-workers had laughed when Forbes explained that an activated cell phone is like a drunk waking up from a three-day bender. It searches for the nearest cell tower to lean against, but sometimes it mistakes another signal for a tower. Sometimes the other signal wants to do things other than simply place a call.

Anna cut him off before he could explain that once that suspect signal acquired a phone’s identifying information, like Tom Kahane’s information, it could be programmed to disguise spy software as an update for one of the apps already installed on the phone. It wasn’t fool proof. Some folks were lazy about app update notices. Some ignored them entirely. Kahane still hadn’t accepted his spy software. Was he lazy, too busy, suspicious?

 

It was late, and the outdoor outfitter parking lot would soon be closing. Forbes thought about going back to rescue his rented van from the outrageous overnight parking fee. Then he remembered the price he’d quoted Sternwood and laughed. Just for kicks, he decided to check his trap again before turning in. Kahane had accepted the update. Forbes would now be able to access everything on his phone. He would be able to access any computer Kahane connected it to. Tomorrow morning, the phone’s proximity to Kahane’s work computer would give him the information he needed to hack that.

The grin wasn’t as big as you’d expect when a private investigator had cracked his case. It was tempered by the realization that the most exciting part of the investigation might well be over. Because Walter was a football fan and left the movies to Anna, he failed to register the suspect signal of Kahane’s brush with Hollywood. In football, there were rules, and the stakes were win or lose. In the movies, there were no rules, and the stakes were often life or death.

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Chapter One Extras

Chapter Two: Out of the Past

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©2014 Bruce Cantwell

The characters and events in this serial are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

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