Tough Crowd


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Tough Crowd: An HW Grady PI Story

by Jim Sells


I entered the fellowship hall of the church. I guess it was the first time that I had been in church since I was kid.  It was a large hall to go with a large church. There were voices at the other end of the room so I headed that way as my eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight.

I smelled breakfast, but I was here on business. I’m an Atlanta PI named HW Grady. I’d been a soldier and than a cop. I’d done the PI thing for a couple of years. I had a one-man agency and made out okay. I got to pick and choose my cases for the most part.

Once in a while I would use some part time help. Enough referrals came my way to pay my rent and keep the utilities on. This case had been a referral by a cop buddy who was a member of this church.

There were four men and two women seated at one table. One man rose and extended his hand.

“Reverend Right,” he said by way of introduction.

I acknowledged the introduction. He was the one who had called me.

I found myself hustled into a chair and plate of Southern breakfast food and steaming coffee placed before me. I grew up in the country. I knew better than decline their hospitality.

I listened to introductions as I shoveled in forkfuls of scrambled eggs and sopped up sausage gravy with a homemade biscuit. I washed down the last bite with strong coffee. Now I seemed bettered prepared for a nap than an investigation. Oh well.

“I gave you the framework of why we need your services when we spoke on the phone,” said Right.

Now he filled in the details. The Reverend and the church executive board had hired an associate pastor named Tom Drone, with all the right credentials as a counselor. Drone had made the availability of his counseling services known through bulletin boards, the church newsletter and word of mouth.

It didn’t take long for Drone to acquire a number of clients in both group and individual sessions. He was a good listener – maybe too good. Right passed a group photo to of a church activity. Circled in a group of five was a smiling, round-faced man of about forty. He made no attempt to conceal his thinning hair and looked trustworthy as trustworthy could be.

Right told me a few months after he began, Drone disappeared. Several church members checked at the Drone's apartment and found that he had given notice. There was no alarm sounded since it appeared that Drone had disappeared of his own free will.

Then a couple of weeks later, the phone calls began. Only members who had attended private therapy sessions were contacted. The group agreed that it sounded like Drone, but couldn’t be certain. What they were all certain of was that they had been threatened with exposure of their deep dark secrets if they didn’t mail money orders to a certain PO Box.

Several went to Reverend Right and admitted the secrets. Right contacted my church member, cop buddy. The cop advised private help since police involvement could mean public exposure.

I learned through questioning that Drone fancied himself an artist. He even taught an art class at the church. Comments by the members indicated that they didn't share Drone's opinion of his artist ability. Drone had also expressed an almost obsessive interest in an obscure local artist named Mickelson. As luck would have it, I knew Mickelson. My career had brought me into contact with all kinds of people.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked as I sipped coffee.

“Couldn’t you find him and threaten him?” said once male octogenarian a fringe of white hair.

“No, he could still go public,” said a heavy-set woman of fifty or so.

“Why not kill him? I don’t want details of my sex life getting out.” said a little blue-haired lady who should have been home baking cookies for her great-grandchildren.

I don’t which was more disturbing – the thought of murder or the thought of these less-than-beautiful people engaged in acts of carnal knowledge.

“And I suppose chop up the body and discard the identifiable parts,” I suggested.

“Now you’re talking,” said the blue-haired killer by proxy.

As Rodney Dangerfield used to say “tough crowd”.

“I don’t do that kind of work,” I said.

“But I bet you know someone who does,” said the heavy-set woman – apparently warming to the discussion.

“I do,” I agreed. “But I won’t put you touch with them. Besides you don’t want to be a party to such actions. It has hidden costs on your soul. I'm not getting involved in a murder-for-hire beef.”

I was beginning to see how this crowd had gotten themselves in such a mess.

“Look. Even if you eliminated the man, you don’t know if he left evidence of the blackmail material that could be released,” I explained.

“Oh, you like he left it with a friend who will turn it over to the police,” said the octogenarian

I agreed, not pointing out that this could more easily be accomplished with a computer than a friend.

“So, what do we do?” asked Right.

“We have to take some action that will make him want to see Atlanta in his rear view mirror.”

“What would that be?” asked Right.

“Well, like the old saying goes ‘You can’t cheat an honest man’.  We just need to let him think he’s cheated someone too dangerous to cheat.”

I was beginning to form a vague plan. Drone could be five thousand miles away and still be making threatening calls. On the other hand, people tend to follow patterns. Greater Atlanta is over five and a half million people – not a bad place to get lost in if need be.

I pulled out my cell and dialed Mickelson's work number. He agreed to meet with me. I told the tough crowd that I had a plan. Then I explained my retainer. I get a week's non-refundable retainer up front. If I solve the case in less than a week, I'm ahead. If it takes more than a week, I get another week the same way. They asked how much.

“That's way too much,” said the woman who wanted a killer-for-hire.

“The police won't cost you anything. You pay for them with your taxes, but it's you people who are afraid off publicity.”

They asked me if they could write checks equaling the total amount. I agreed and slipped the picture with Drone into my pocket. Five minutes later, I was on the way to my to the bank with five checks in my pocket. After depositing half the money and pocketing the rest, I made another phone call – to a colleague in anther branch of my business. He agreed to meet me at Mickelson's shop.

We arrived there at the same time. The shop was a tee shirt printing business. Mickelson owned it so he could afford to pursue his artistic endeavors.

“So what do you want me for?” asked Manuel.

I gave him a brief summary of the meeting and told him that I needed someone to be blackmailed. Manuel fit the bill. He wouldn't care about his reputation if anything went wrong and he was the kid of professional leg breaker who could terrify Drone when the time was right. Until then, Manuel could pass for a business type.

We walked in Mickelson's shop. I gave him the skinny on what was going on.

“Wow, I've got an obsessive fan. I'm moving up in the world,” exclaimed Mickelson.

Mickelson said stuff like that.  

I told him that wanted him set up a show and I'd foot the bill. I hope we would draw Drone out of hiding. If not, then we'd be out a little money – the blackmail victims', not mine. Did I mention that I charge expenses – rental cars, plane tickets, bribes?

We secured the services of small exhibition hall. Thanks to the speed of the Internet including a local paper online, word of the show spread quickly.

Two days later we assembled to set the trap for Mickelson. Time passed slowly with nothing more than a couple of curious lookers. Then he arrived. Despite an effort to change his hair color and to grow a mustache, Drone was readily recognizable. He entered and looked like kid turned loose in a candy store. He bounced from one painting to another.

Manuel parked himself in front of one picture and pretended to be engrossed. I don’t know how much he knew about art. I know nada. Drone engaged him conversation. Drone did most of the conversing. Manuel grunted every now and then. I watched from a discreet position. Drone gave Manuel a business card before moving to the next painting. There were plenty to look at. I don’t know if Mickelson was unsuccessful from lack of talent or if painted too many pictures to create a demand.

Finally he bounced over to Mickelson. There was prolonged discussion before he gave Mickelson a card and left. I wasn’t crazy about letting him out of sight, but unless I was going to kill him like the church lady wanted, I had to bait the hook and give him a little line. 

I huddled with Mickelson and Manuel. The cards they had received were for a Tim Drake, professional counselor. Drone / Drake had wanted to purchase ten of Mickelson’s paintings. Mickelson had quoted an exorbitant price. I wasn’t sure if he was going along with our con or he thought they were with that much. I think I saw another reason he wasn’t a success artist. Drone / Drake told Mickelson he would need a few days to gather together that much money.

I sat in my office the next day and listened while Manuel called and scheduled an appointment with Drone for that afternoon. Drone must have a bad itch for Mickelson’s paintings, because he scheduled an appointment with Manuel two hours later.

That gave me just enough time to set a wire up on Manuel. We headed over to a buddy who had an electronic store. It didn’t take long. Soon Manuel was wired for sound. I could receive up to one hundred yards if there was nothing of sufficient mass or density to block the signals. I assured my electronics buddy  I’d bring it back in good condition. 

We headed over to Drone’s office. It was in a little professional complex that was three-quarters unoccupied. That wasn’t unusual in the economy, but this one looked even more run down than most.  Disrepair hadn’t reached the point of weeds in the parking lot or blistered paint on the office doors, but it was headed that way.

I parked out of direct vision from Drone’s office. Manuel climbed out of the passenger seat. He gave me a radio check as he walked across the lot. The reception was clear. I waited.

I heard Manuel enter the office and was greeted immediately by Drone – a good sign to anyone experienced in a con. The mark was anxious which broke down natural inhibitions.

After an exchange of pleasantries, I heard Drone lead Manuel into an inner office. Manuel asked if anything he told Drone was confidential. Drone assured him that it was. Then Manuel began spinning a tail of depravity that would make a hooker blush.

My plan was to let Manuel give Drone his cover story and a way to contact him. We would observe the office after that and tail him home. If Drone were true to form, then he would call Manuel and start the blackmail. Manuel could visit him and convince him of the error of his ways. It wasn’t terribly clever nor 100% foolproof, but should do the trick since Drone had given no indication of playing hardball.

The problem of working with amateurs is that sometimes they’re unpredictable. A professional criminal will usually act in a predictable manner. With my years as a cop and a PI, I guess I had gotten a little arrogant. I hadn’t spotted the beat up sedan that had tailed me from my house. They did a good enough job that they went undetected to Drone’s office.

The slightly stooped figure in a all weather coat and rain hat crossing the parking lot only caught my attention because the clothing was all wrong for a mild, sunny day. By the time I realized that they were headed toward Drone’s door, I had a hundred yard to cross and no way to alert Manuel.

I could hear the muffled sound of the outer office door opening and closing over my audio as I raced my car across the parking lot. A sense of the surreal enveloped me as I heard the voice of the church lady who had wanted to hire me to kill Drone. I heard triumph in her voice Drone pleaded for his life. I jumped out and ran in as my ear was assaulted with a gun blast.

By the time I made it in, she was facing Manuel with the gun – an ancient hog leg that had probably belonged to one of her ancestors. I had my .45 in  hand and we had a stalemate. Drone lay in the floor with red stain spreading across his chest.

The stalemate was broken by the sound of the hammer being pulled back on Manuel’s automatic. The woman looked back-and-forth at our guns. Then she smiled before putting the barrel of her gun to her temple and pulling the trigger. I won’t burden you with the gruesome details. A headshot is never a pleasant thing. I dialed 911.

Four or five hours later we were released – after good ass chewing by the detectives. That was nothing new for me. Since neither of us had fired a shot, we were guilty of no more than bad judgment. I took Manuel back to my office. I handed him a wad of cash.

The next day, I dialed my cop buddy from the church and met him for lunch. I gave him a C note for the referral. After he left, I lingered over a beer. I thought about Drone and the church lady lying dead. I guess there should have been some guilt. I don't do much that makes me worry about my rep. I don't confide in too many people so this whole blackmail thing is out of my scope. I drained my beer and headed out. I had some money in the bank and had survived another journey into the dark side of human nature without a scratch. Life is good.