Burn for Me Page 5

“There is no need to be dramatic.”

“I won’t do it.” I couldn’t. It was impossible.

Montgomery clicked a couple of keys and turned his computer monitor toward me. A document with a section highlighted in yellow filled the screen.

“This is your contract. The highlighted section states that turning down an assignment from MII constitutes a breach of contract, with the payment due in full.”

I clenched my teeth.

“Can you pay the balance of the loan in full?”

I wished I could reach across the table and strangle him.

“Ms. Baylor.” He spoke slowly, as if I were hard of hearing. “Can you pay the balance in full?”

I unlocked my jaws. “No.”

Montgomery spread his arms. “Let me be perfectly clear: you do this or we will take your business.”

“You’re not giving me a choice.”

“Of course you have a choice. You can take the assignment or vacate your premises.”

We’d lose everything. The warehouse was owned by the business. The cars were owned by the business. We’d be homeless. “We’ve always been on time with payments. We never caused you any trouble.” I pulled my wallet out of my purse, slid out the picture of my family, and put it on the desk. It was taken a couple of months ago, and all of us barely crowded into the shot. “I’m all they have. Our father is dead, our mother is disabled. If something happens to me, they have no means of support.”

He glanced at it. A shadow of something crossed his face, then it went blank again. “I require an answer, Ms. Baylor.”

Maybe I could just half-ass it. It went against the grain, but I had to do what I could to survive. “What if the cops catch him first?”

“Your business is forfeit. You have to bring him in, alive and before the authorities get their hands on him.”

Damn it. “What happens if I die?”

Augustine raised his hand, moving the text up on his screen. “You’re the licensed investigator in the firm. When we purchased the firm, we invested in your ability to earn. Without you, we have no interest in your enterprise. Under the terms of your contract, your assets will be written off as a loss. We’ll confiscate any cash and liquid assets, those would be stocks, money market instruments, and so on that the business holds, and write off the loan.”

“What about the agency’s name?”

He shrugged. “I’m sure we can come to an agreement.”

I was carrying a million dollars in personal insurance. I paid for it out of my own paycheck, because I was paranoid that if something happened to me, the family would end up destitute. Short term, I was worth more dead than alive. With a million dollars, Bern could stay in school, nobody would be evicted, and if they were, there was enough money to keep the family afloat. Mom could buy out the name and hire an investigator.

“Yes or no?” Augustine asked.

On one end of the seesaw my family, on the other, possibly my life.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re a terrible person.”

“I’ll just have to live with myself.”

“Yes, you will. Write an addendum to the contract that in the event of my death, my family can buy out the agency’s name for a dollar, and I will go after Pierce.”

“A dollar?”

“If I die, my family gets the firm back. Take it or leave it.”

“Very well.” Montgomery’s fingers flew over the keyboard. A piece of paper slid out of the printer. I read it, signed on the line, and watched him write his name in an elegant cursive.

Montgomery tapped his tablet. “I’ve emailed Pierce’s background file to you. Once again: you must apprehend Adam Pierce before the police take him into custody or your loan is forfeit.”

I got up and walked, leaving the picture of the family on his desk. He should have to look at it. My hands shook. I wanted to turn around, march back, and punch him.

I kept walking until I was out of the building. Outside the wind fanned me, pulling at my clothes. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed Bern.

“Drop whatever you’re doing. I need everything on Adam Pierce.”

“We’re going after Pierce? Are you serious?”

“Look in our inbox.”

“Holy shit.”

“I need his lineage, his full background, his criminal record, who he went to school with—everything. Every scrap of information you can find. The more we know the better.”

“Do you want me to tell Aunt Pen?”

Oh, Mom would just love this development. “No. I’ll do it. Call Mateus for me.”

When I said that all of our part-time employees were children, I didn’t lie. But occasionally, when we needed muscle, we hired free agents on a one-job basis. I had a feeling none of them would touch any job involving Pierce with a ten-foot pole, but it was worth a try.

“How much should I offer?” Bern said into my ear.

“Ten grand.” It was about three times what we normally offered. It was also the entirety of our rainy day fund. We could take a loan if we had to.

“We can’t pay that much.”

“We can if we apprehend Pierce. Tell him payment on delivery.”

The phone clicked as Bern put me on hold. I walked to my car.

Where the hell would I even start?

Another click. “He laughed.”

In his place I’d laugh too. “Try the Cowboy.”

Click. Click. “No. And that’s a quote.”

“Asli? Bump it up to fifteen.” Asli was expensive as hell, but she was worth every penny, and I haven’t known her to back down.

I reached my Mazda and leaned against the grill.

“She says she’s busy with something else.”

Argh. These were my top three. Why did I have this vision of all of our freelancers running away from us like a pack of scared rabbits? “Okay. Start running the background on Pierce, please.”

I hung up. The panic that first welled inside me in Augustine’s office crested and drowned me. I let it pull me under.

If we failed, MII would call in the loan and take everything. We would literally walk out of our home with nothing but a black plastic bag filled with clothes and whatever toiletries each of us could carry. Grandma would have no place to run her business. I would have no business at all. I could start over, but it would take time and money. I built on the name and foundation that my parents had created. Personal referrals accounted for 90 percent of our jobs. We would be on the street, all seven of us. We would lose our health insurance. We would still have our other debts. Our savings might put a roof over our heads and food in our mouths for a month or two, but then what?

Bern would drop out. There was no way he wouldn’t. He would drop out and take any job he could get, whatever would buy us another week in a cheap motel or another meal. I saw his future, and it was going up in flames.

And my sisters . . . We’d just gotten back to normal after the chaos of dad’s illness. We’d just stabilized. The therapy worked, everyone was back on track, and the kids finally had some routine. If this happened . . . It felt like someone had taken an ice-cold knife and stabbed it into my stomach to gut me.

No. This wouldn’t be happening. They would not do this to my family. They would not take everything I’d worked so hard to build. No. Just no.

I breathed in and out, exhaling anger.

Think. It’s a skiptrace. I had done skiptraces. This wasn’t my first rodeo.

Private investigators tended to specialize. Some developed financial profiles and dealt with asset searches. Some took surveillance cases. Others performed background checks. We did a little bit of everything, and I had done my fair share of skiptracing. This was just another skiptrace. Except if I found him, he would sear the flesh off my bones. And the family might still end up on the street, when MII took our house. At least they would get the business name back.

This probably wasn’t the most productive line of thinking.

This mess, as my father used to say, was way above my pay grade. I wasn’t even sure where to start. I could go to First National and look at the burned-out wreck. I had handled exactly four arson cases before, all in connection with insurance, and I knew the scene really wouldn’t tell me anything. I didn’t need to determine if Pierce committed the arson. I just had to find him.

Pierce had killed a cop and hurt his family. Right now every cop in the Houston metro area was champing at the bit, hoping to put a bullet in Pierce’s handsome head. I bet the cops had a file on Pierce that was a mile thick. That file would be an awesome place to start, except they wouldn’t let me look at it. First, I was a civilian, and second, I was in competition with the cops. In the crime novels, a PI is either an ex-cop or has some cop buddies who owed him a favor and who happily provided him with the department’s files, while carrying on about how it could cost them their job. I had no cop buddies. I tried to avoid them as much as possible. My dad had been friendly with a couple of people, but both of them worked in the Financial Crime Unit, not in Homicide. Besides, right now nobody except Montgomery, me, and Bern knew that I was looking for Pierce. If I put myself on the cop radar, they would start paying attention to what I was doing, which would make finding Pierce harder.

Around me downtown Houston hummed with life. The skyscrapers, some glass and steel, some towering monoliths of stone, rose around me. The cobalt building of MII loomed to the left, looking even more like a shark fin. I could almost imagine the pavement cracking, breaking open in huge slabs, and a colossal shark head bristling with razor-sharp glass teeth emerging to swallow me whole. In front of me, traffic inched up the busy street. A red Maserati convertible pulled out of traffic and drove down the Metrorail tracks toward the hospital. The driver, a young guy in a black T-shirt, was putting on cologne. Dumbass.

Above him a large flat-screen billboard mounted on the wall of a stone tower flashed with advertisements. A news segment came on, and an image of a woman in a business suit filled the screen. She was in her late thirties, athletic, attractive, with medium brown skin and a dark wealth of curly hair, currently pulled back from her face into a knot. Everyone in Houston knew her name. Lenora Jordan, Harris County District Attorney. When I was fourteen years old, she walked into the street to face George Kolter. She was fresh out of law school and he was a seasoned fulgurkinetic Prime. He could shoot lightning from fifty feet away, he stood accused of child molestation, and he had decided at the last moment that he wasn’t going to trial. Lenora Jordan walked down the courthouse steps, like a gunfighter from the Old West, summoned chains from thin air, and bound George Kolter to the pavement. The whole thing had been recorded and played by every news outlet. It was epic. Every girl in my grade wanted to be Lenora when she grew up. She was incorruptible, powerful, and smart, she had no fear, and she didn’t take shit from anyone. I had no doubt that if Pierce was apprehended and received his day in court, she would destroy him while making sure that his constitutional rights were perfectly preserved.

I wasn’t Lenora Jordan, no matter how much I wanted to be. If I did run into Pierce by some chance, I couldn’t dramatically bind him. I couldn’t make him do anything against his will either. I would have to somehow convince him that it was in his best interests to come with me.

I pulled my phone out, downloaded the background file on Pierce, and opened it. Most people accumulated identifiers: DOB, SSN, last known address, driver’s license number, place of employment, all the things that tied them down and made them relatively easy to track. About 75 percent of the time, their idea of being off the grid meant hiding out at their cousin’s house. And 90 percent of the time, their mother, no matter what she claimed, could get hold of them within minutes.

Pierce’s file provided me with a date of birth, place of birth, Social Security number, parents’ names and address, and his education. Elementary school, middle school, high school, Stanford University, bachelor of arcane science in materials science and engineering, minor in philosophy, 3.9 GPA. Applied and was accepted into a graduate program for a master’s of materials science and engineering, dropped out two months into it. Current residence: unknown. Current job: none. Awesome.

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