I. James Bertolina
From the abandoned subterranean gold mines of Charlotte to the peaks of its highest towers… …
Coming in March 2024!
The case had stunned the city of Charlotte, North Carolina: the body of environmental engineer Palmer Giron was found hanging from a bungee cord in a public park. Then, nothing. No leads and no developments.
Enter elite private investigator Dom Mundy, who takes on the cold case with no idea of the twists and turns the trail will take.
In addition to his usual team—including a former Yakuza named Deuce, a French cat burglar called Franco, and Hector, an ex-gunrunner from Cuba—Dom enlists the help of Angie Crete, a Coast Guard investigator who began a downward spiral when she lost two team members on a failed operation. Not only does Dom think Angie can help him solve the case, but he hopes he can help her decide to put away the vodka and self-loathing in the process.
If you enjoy authors like Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, George V. Higgins, and Joe Lansdale, you’ll love The Skyscraper Killers!
Coming in February 2024!
The Skyscraper Killers
by I. James Bertolina
Dom settled the Porsche next to shoveled mounds of snow in front of his L-shaped building. The Monroe Road property was once a retail center one of the previous owners converted into offices. When they entered the reception area, Winnie looked up from her computer screen. She’d kept her dark-blonde-dyed hair short after the last round of chemo.
Dom introduced Angie.
“Jock’s in,” Winnie said.
“He make any headway with Johannsen?” Dom said.
“He only yelled once.”
“Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Dom gestured down the hall. “Let me show you the place.”
They passed a conference room where a slender older man with tight silver hair stood on a stepladder. He spackled a sheet-rock crack above a window with a rear courtyard view of a tiny house in a snow-veiled stone garden.
“Who’s Jock?” Angie said.
“Among his other duties, my part-time bookkeeper.”
“And Johannsen he yelled at?” she said.
“A Stockholm bank chairman who brought us on to find out who embezzled money from his US branch office. We found out his son, the branch’s manager, financed his mistress with depositors’ money. Now he’s under the impression we should agree to a lower fee because his boy was involved.”
Dom opened a door to an office with a desk telephone, metal file cabinets, a couch, and a bathroom with a shower. “Here’s an office you can use.”
“I prefer my apartment,” she said.
He ignored the apartment reference. “The couch is a pull-out bed. Your neighbors in the next two offices are former Mexican marines who operate a dignitary protection firm.”
“Mexican marines in Charlotte?”
“They like the weather and the airport over New York or Washington.”
“Today’s weather notwithstanding,” she said.
A man with slicked-back silver hair walked up to Winnie’s desk.
“Franco.” Dom called, and motioned for him.
Franco pulled off his leather gloves and came their way, a beige silk scarf tucked around the collar of his camel overcoat.
“My wardrobe isn’t prepared for Siberia,” Franco said.
“I told Franco Paris receives more snow than Charlotte,” Dom said to Angie.
At a few inches over six feet, his urbane comportment went with the distinguished French accent.
“Meet Angie Crete, a Coast Guard investigator who’ll be in the spare office.”
“I will?” Angie said.
“Franco Babineaux, the pleasure’s mine.” He shook her hand with both of his.
“I’m only here on a temporary basis,” she said.
“She’s here to assist me with a job,” Dom said.
“Perhaps, when you have time, you can tell me all about the Coast Guard.” Franco said. “I reside around the corner.”
He withdrew his cell phone, glanced at the screen, and indicated he needed to take the call. He answered in French and went toward his office.
“French film-star looks,” Angie said.
“Franco has a colorful past. An architect by trade, he saved the lives of France’s president and her family while they vacationed in Martinique. He was on the island to lift jewels from the hotel room of a wealthy Lebanese couple two floors below the president’s penthouse suite. Instead of jewels he found military-grade explosives connected to a timer. He cleared the hotel when he pulled the fire alarm. He’s our resident cat burglar with a lucky streak.”
“I can’t wait to hear the lucky part,” she said.
“After his fence turned him in, a grateful president offered him a choice. Prison … or, with his unique skills as an architect and cat burglar, work for her on special assignments from time to time. He’s here on loan to Homeland Security.”
An Asian guy the size of a sumo wrestler filled the exit door when he came in from the rear courtyard.
“Moved in?” Dom said.
“Except for the internet,” he said.
“Deuce, Angie Crete,” Dom said.
The big man gave her a modest head bow. Half of one pinkie finger was gone and tattoos appeared above his plaid shirt collar.
“Deuce has moved into our rear building,” Dom said.
Deuce sauntered into the lobby and out the front door.
“What kind of name is Deuce?” Angie said.
“Takeo Kouda’s his name. We call him Deuce because he’s the size of two people.”
“Those are Yakuza tattoos,” Angie said.
“Like Franco, he caught a break and left Japan after he saved the life of his boss’s daughter and was granted his request to leave.”
“He choose Charlotte for the weather too?” She pulled out and checked one of the desk drawers.
“Went to San Francisco’s Japantown to live with a relative in the bank-security business who I worked a job with a few years ago. She called me to see if I knew of anyone who needed an extra hand.”
“He works for you?”
“I keep him busy.”
“How many employees do you have?”
“Deuce, Jock, Winnie, and Hector, in the conference room on the ladder.”
“He another master criminal too?”
“Hector de Losa from Miami, thanks to the Mariel boatlift. A gunrunner recruited by the Cuba’s DGI, directorate general of intelligence, to run guns back to the island from South Florida. He’s here thanks to a referral from the United States attorney for the southern district of Florida.”
They went back toward Winnie, where Dom opened a door near the reception desk. “Here’s the smaller of our two conference rooms. Feel free to use the computer. Why don’t you pull together a list of Palmer’s clients from the bag? We might have time to visit one or two after your one-thirty appointment.”
He left for Jock’s office before she could protest to tell him she wanted to go back to her apartment.
Ninety minutes later Dom found her in the conference room. An empty to-go box from Winnie’s take-out lunch order and papers from the bag were strewn across the ten-seat table. “You’ve been busy,” he said.
She pointed to numbers she circled with an orange marker on the white board. “Palmer’s financial affairs appear to be in order. He left a thirty-eight-thousand-dollar balance in his business checking account and fifteen grand in his personal checking account. Ninety-two K was the total of his IRAs. His business line of credit was never touched and there was zero to no balance on both his credit cards.”
“Any real estate debt?”
“The Cherry house mortgage balance was two hundred sixteen grand with another forty-two on the home equity line.” She looked at a note. “East Boulevard was four hundred and three thousand. He never missed a payment.”
“Some might consider six hundred thousand enough motivation to keep late office hours,” he said.
She went back to another group of orange-circled numbers. “His one-man environmental business generated, on average, between two and a half to three hundred thousand each of the last three years. Take out Karen’s salary, expenses, and payroll taxes and he made a decent living.”
Dom saw the time. “If we leave now, you’ll be early.”
Green Zone Jack
by I. James Bertolina
United States Embassy
“You’re needed back in the embassy, it’s urgent.”
“Wrong guy,” Payton Ladd said. “I’ve a flight to catch.”
“John Thornton called a few minutes ago to make sure you hadn’t been waved through.”
Payton glanced away from the Marine Embassy Security Guard who leaned down to his driver’s open window. Irritated, he took a deep breath. What now?
Another MSG, on the other side of the embassy’s main gate, circled a Citroen Coupe with a leashed Belgian Malinois security dog.
At the moment, Payton’s only interest was his first run in months along the South Carolina shore in front of his Isle of Palms beach bungalow. After eight months undercover in Egypt and the botched operation that cost his team the lives of two good men with Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service, he was through with the Middle East for what he hoped would be a long time. Before he’d left for the airport forty-five minutes ago, he’d stopped by Regional Security Officer John Thornton’s office. John had assured him he’d be on vacation for the next month and to forget about any Diplomatic Security Service, DSS, business. They’d said their goodbyes and he left.
“Make it quick, Faheem,” Payton said to his Palestinian driver.
Faheem drove the five blocks back to the embassy building and pulled his Volvo behind a line of military vehicles parked around the circular drive.
“Don’t turn it off. I won’t be long,” Payton said.
Urgent or not, he’d make sure John kept it short. His flight left in less than two hours from Queen Alia International Airport, and he planned to be on it.
Payton made his way up to the second-floor DSS offices.
John had his telephone hunched up between his shoulder and his bald head. He waved Payton to the chairs in front of his desk.
Payton sat with his long legs crossed at the ankles. He glanced at his watch. An hour and twenty minutes ’til wheels up.
“King Abdullah will be there and I want Queen Rania seated next to the ambassador’s wife.” John listened, then said, “No, the second table.” He replaced the phone.
“Glad I caught you.”
“Caught me for what?”
“Your time off.”
“Which I plan to enjoy.”
John flipped open a folder, peered over his half-moon glasses, and handed Payton a piece of paper.
Payton saw the memo’s letterhead, “Embassy of the United States of America, Baghdad, Iraq.”
“We have a situation,” John said.
Not my problem, Payton thought.
“I’m not going to miss my flight.”
“Catherine McCabe asked for you.”
Payton readjusted in his chair. He would never have expected to hear her name, especially after the way they’d ended their relationship.
“She’s in Baghdad?”
“Been RSO for several months,” John said.
“I heard she’d taken a position with a corporate security company.”
“Didn’t last. She’s too ambitious to let a challenge the size of Baghdad slip by. Don’t you two have a history?”
“We were together for almost two years in Mexico.”
“One person in a relationship with an embassy security job is hard enough but two?” John shook his head.
“We knew the odds and had a great run of winning hands. Look, you need to find someone else. Remember, for the next month I’m not available.”
“She asked for you because an American’s disappeared outside the Green Zone. Ambassador Rhodes called Director Santiago in DC and requested your immediate transfer to Baghdad.” He pointed with his glasses to the memo. “I received the request a few minutes ago.”
Payton handed it back unread. He stood and walked over to the window.
“They need someone with your special talents. The situation’s a top priority because the person who disappeared is Senator Miles Ater’s nephew. The Senator Miles Ater.”
Payton gazed down at the helicopter on the helipad behind the embassy. He could recommend any number of competent agents in embassies around the globe who’d be able to find a missing person. Why request someone she had a failed relationship with? Though scarred over, his soft spot for her had never disappeared. Catherine was special, someone he once thought he could spend the rest of his life with. Well, until she blindsided him and blew up what they had.
He turned back to John. “You and I both know kidnapping’s a growth industry in the Middle East. Pay the ransom, end of story,” Payton said.
“There hasn’t been a ransom demand and they’re not sure he’s even still alive.”
“If he went outside the Green Zone on his own, the odds are he’s already dead,” Payton said.
“We botched the transition to civilian rule when we let the Shiite-Sunni civil war rage on for so long after we took Saddam out. Now our military’s concerned we only have one more opportunity to stabilize the country. Since Ambassador Rhodes was put in charge, real headway’s been made to bring both sides together.”
“After so many dead, it’s about time.”
“Ater disappeared in part of the city controlled by one of the principal militia leaders involved with the truce talks. There’s no indication he’s involved with Ater’s disappearance, but if he or any of his people are implicated, then the entire negotiation process could be derailed.”
“And the killing starts all over again,” Payton said.
“The military, Ambassador Rhodes, and the White House want him found without delay to minimize any chance the talks could collapse.”
“Then throw several agents already in the embassy on the case. Why me?”
“They don’t want just anybody. They want the top man hunter in the service.”
If it was anyone other than Catherine, he’d push back harder. There’d be no South Carolina beach. He moved away from the window and leaned with both hands on John’s desk. “After I find him, I want an additional two weeks off.”
“I’ll make it another month,” John said.
Payton sat back down. “What do we know?”
“Not much. He disappeared after midnight.”
“Why’s the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s nephew in Iraq?”
“Audit work of some kind.” John folded his hands on his stomach paunch. “Ambassador Rhodes was appalled when he arrived to take over for the Coalition Provincial Authority, CPA, and saw how lousy the situation on the ground was. The military knew they invaded with too few troops, and when the CPA took charge, the manpower fiasco worsened. To fill the void, our military’s gone outsource mad with private contractors.”
“The whole debacle could’ve been prevented,” Payton said.
“Well, now we own it.” His desk telephone started to ring. “Your flight leaves at four.”
Also by I. James Bertolina
Bullets, bombs, and banknotes: The Diplomatic Security Service is anything but another day at the office.
Just back from a deep cover assignment and looking forward to a vacation, DSS special agent Payton Ladd gets an urgent request to lead a manhunt in Baghdad. Civilian auditor Ben Ater, nephew of a powerful senator, has disappeared, and the Resident Security Officer needs Payton to find him.
The fact that the RSO is Payton’s old flame Catherine McCabe makes it hard for him to say no.
Once in Baghdad, Payton retraces Ben’s steps and talks to everyone who knows or claims to know why the young auditor mysteriously left the Green Zone. But the explanation that Ben was dealing drugs still doesn’t explain why he went missing in the Red Zone, a place he had no business—legal or illegal—being.
With the help of embassy guard Marines, a team of special operators, DSS bomb specialists, Bedouin tribesmen, and a homemade drone, Payton uncovers a web of conspiracy that could topple nations.