A little while later, a man knocked loudly on the door before he stuck his head inside. “Anyone in?” he asked.
“Nobody here but us chickens,” I answered.
Faith shot me a dirty look, which I deserved. I shrugged it off. I wasn’t trying to be rude. Sometimes it just came naturally. It was one of the reasons Faith wisely divided our duties. Her background as a reporter gave her a friendly disposition when dealing with clients. She got them to open up through genuine curiosity. I closed them with the cold expertise of a war-hardened ex-cop.
I’m Faith Robner,” she said, getting up and extending her hand. “What can I help you with, Mr. . . . ”
“Palumbo, John Palumbo,” he said. “My friends call me JP.” He reached out and shook Faith’s hand. He had five years on me. Hard years. Craggy face, short hair, gray on the sides, straight posture, crisp dark suit with a wide hand-painted tie decorated with sailboats and palm trees. Ex-Army, I figured. Officer type. The tie didn’t work. He was past the age where he could pull that off.
She pulled him into the client sitting area. We had a small black lacquer coffee table, three chairs, and a bronze art deco lamp. Faith steered Palumbo to the client chair. It was a nicely padded leather armchair designed to put the client at ease. It was also positioned so that he had to turn one way to speak to me and the other to speak to Faith. That made it easier for Faith and me to observe a client and communicate in our own private language of secret glances and subtle hand gestures.
“This is my partner, Jack Waters,” Faith said.
“It’s quite a delicate situation,” he said.
“They always are,” Faith said. It was the standard opening for anyone who visited our agency. No one came to a private investigator because they were proud. They came because they were ashamed, in trouble, or desperate. Maybe all three. But Palumbo’s words didn’t match his demeanor. He didn’t seem like a man who was easily ruffled.
“I run security up at CTS Aerodynamics,” he said. He removed a gold card-case from his inside pocket and handed us each a card.
That got my attention. Half a dozen companies had popped up in the San Moreno valley in recent years, building new planes, engines, radio equipment. And since the war, they were growing at an even faster clip, doing both military and civilian work.
“And is this a professional engagement or something more personal?” I asked. We didn’t take divorce work if we could help it. Our area of expertise was insurance investigation, fraud, arson, and the like. But June had been lean, and I knew that if Faith hadn’t gotten Sanford to pay up, we were mere weeks away from late-night photo sessions at the no-tell motel. I didn’t know if I had it in me to backslide to the minor leagues again.
“Strictly professional. I’m very happily married.” But as he said it, his eyes fell on Faith in a way that suggested otherwise.
“New to the area?” I asked. He turned to me, and Faith gave me a look of relief.
“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “I’ve taken a new role at CTS. A transfer and a promotion. My family will be moving out here in September for the new school year. So right now, I’m living out of a suitcase and flying back to Nevada half the time. We have a facility there, as I’m sure you know. We do a lot of our ground tests on the salt flats. And I’ve got to hire a new man to take over my old post.”
Faith’s expression had hardened. I could see something didn’t sit right with her.
“Mr. Palumbo, what can we do for you?” she asked.
“Straight and to the point,” he said. “I like that in a woman.” Palumbo’s eyes were on her again, so she kept an engaged look on her face. I rolled my eyes for her. Palumbo thought her smile was meant for him and that was fine. She worked it to her advantage. Nothing ruffled Faith when it came to landing a client or working a case.
Palumbo turned to me. “I’m sure you’ve seen the reports in the newspapers. Communist spies out to sabotage our country.”
Faith started to laugh, but she turned it into a cough by the time he turned toward her. “Summer cold,” she said.
I nearly bust a gut at that, so I held my breath tight. Faith liked to joke that the red scare was good for business. It was becoming a national mania.
“It happened in England, too.” Palumbo seemed defensive. “They caught that scientist, Klaus Fuchs,” he said, pronouncing the name like a curse. “You get me?”
“Yeah, worldwide,” I said.
“Exactly. We work on quite a few military contracts at CTS. Top-secret clearance, you know. And I’ve got to ensure that we are one hundred percent secure against any foreign threats.”
“You want us to do background checks?” I asked.
“We do that already. I’m not concerned with employees. It’s outsiders I’m concerned with.”
“What is it you had in mind?” Faith asked.
“I’d like you to conduct a security drill. I want you to attempt to breach our security. Use all the means at your disposal to identify weak spots, so we can fix them.”
“You want us to break into CTS?”
“Exactly.” He smiled steadily at Faith. “But of course, it’s not a break-in. It’s under my authorization. I want you to find the holes in our security and then write it up.”
“Write it up?” I asked.
“Yes, give us a report so we know exactly how we can strengthen our operations.” He paused. I don’t know what reaction he was looking for, but evidently we weren’t living up to his expectations. “You’re an Army man, right?”
I nodded. Had been. Once. Maybe he saw the framed newspaper on the wall. Or maybe he’d read the story years ago and that’s why he called on us.
“So you know what it means to manage a good defense. You’ve got to test it with a strong offense.” His right hand formed a fist and he slapped it into his left hand.
The military had performed these kind of training operations for years. I was wondering why I hadn’t thought of this before. I saw Robner & Waters pulling out of our slump, getting out of arson for good. We’d hire security experts with military training.
“We’ve looked at doing this kind of operation before. But, you know, it takes a lot of manpower. It doesn’t come cheap,” I said.
“I came to Waters & Robner because you’re a vet, someone I can trust.” Faith raised her eyebrow at that. People came to us because a lawyer wanted them out of their office, or they found our ad in the yellow pages.
I quoted him a figure. It was more than twice what we got working insurance cases. Faith’s eyes popped, but Palumbo didn’t flinch. I wished I’d gone higher still. I imagined new offices, with a fancy reception area. Teams of people answering the phones. Reporters calling for interviews.
He reached into his jacket once more and took out a leather checkbook. “I’m willing to pay top dollar for top quality. That’s what CTS deserves. Would it be all right if I give you an advance for seven days?”
I glanced over as he started writing and saw the check had the CTS Aerodynamics logo in red, as well as a seal for the Bank of Nevada. Faith frowned. I hoped I wasn’t drooling.
Palumbo looked up, picking up his pen off the check. I mentally willed him to resume writing. “And Mr. Waters, I’m willing to pay a generous bonus for every vulnerability you can identify. You know how it is. Guards get their training and after a few weeks, they’re reading on the job, skipping their perimeter tours. Our government contracts require that we’re secure, and I want to make sure we’re as locked down as Fort Knox.” Faith gave me a look like she’d found a pair of old gym socks in my desk. Couldn’t she see the goldmine CTS represented? I took in a sharp breath.
“We’re happy to design a custom—“
“Where are you staying, Mr. Palumbo?” Faith interrupted.
“Please, call me JP. I’m staying at the Sundowner on Highway 14.”
“We’d be pleased to work with you.” She stood up and reached out to shake his hand.
I exhaled silently.
We were about to turn it around. A gold mine.
Palumbo stood up, pen and checkbook still in hand, looking a bit confused.
“This is a busy time for us, as you can understand, Mr. Palumbo. We’re working on a similar operation for Hughes. Believe me, we’ve found quite a few irregularities already. You have no idea how sloppy they’ve gotten. We took the guided tour and just wandered off with a camera for an hour without anyone noticing.”
I had no idea what Faith was talking about. Did Hughes even have tours?
“The FBI was very impressed,” she said.
“Oh, yes, standard procedure,” Faith continued. “We’re obligated to share everything we find with the feds. We’ve got to keep the commies at bay, right, Jack?”
Palumbo’s eyes darted from Faith to me and then the door.
“We’re . . . doing our part.” I was improvising now, an actor who’d forgotten his lines.
Palumbo put his checkbook back in his jacket, and it was all I could do not to reach into his coat and yank it out. We needed to hire a whole team and I needed his check.
“So, how’s next week?” Faith gave an eager look. “Shall we stop by your office to make the final arrangements?”
“Ah, no, I’m not quite settled here yet,” he said. “I’m traveling next week.”
“Back to Nevada?” I asked, my eyes pleading.
He nodded. “Yeah, family.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Palumbo, you get back in touch.” Faith patted him on the arm, and he jumped like he was caught in a raid at an after-hours club. He walked out, with my dreams of business expansion trailing after him.
Faith shut the door and leaned back against it.
“Can you believe that guy?” she asked.
“Okay, what just happened?”
“You tell me, partner.”
I thought for a moment. “Well, something wasn’t on the level. The way he scrambled out of here when you mentioned the FBI.”
“That’s one. What else?”
“He’s less married than I am. And the family in Nevada? That seemed fishy.”
“No one stays in Nevada in July if they can help it. And an out of state check on Friday before the Fourth of July? That check would have been bouncing between here and Reno for weeks.”
“Okay, you win. Does Palumbo even work for CTS?”
“There might be a John Palumbo who works there. But it’s not this guy.” She held up his business card. “These are cheap stock. Not the kind an executive gives out. And why would he have cards printed up for the San Moreno office if he hasn’t moved here yet? Oh, and he didn’t even get the name straight. He called us ‘Waters & Robner.’ That guy was nervous.”
“You know, it has a nice ring to it—Waters & Robner.”
She gave me her “don’t even joke” look.
“So, what’s the scam?” I asked.
“I saved you from serving two-to-ten for accessory to breaking into a top-secret military facility.”
“He’s in the trade, and he’s casing CTS. Only he’s looking to hire a stooge for the recon job. Wouldn’t even know they’re doing it. Write it up like it’s an internal report. Then he puts together a crew to do the break-in.”
“What’s he after?”
“Design plans? Equipment? Who knows? I’m sure there’s a black market for everything they’re working on. Industrial espionage. He could turn around and sell it to Boeing.”
“Maybe the Russians.”
“Russians, English, French.” She shrugged. “Every country has an aviation industry, an air force, an intelligence agency. And no one wants to fall behind.”
“And if we were caught?”
She snapped her fingers. “Palumbo’s a ghost, and you’re in San Quentin.”
“And there I was thinking we’d finally have a good July.”
“He gave me the creeps from the start.”
“I figured he hadn’t had lunch and was just hungry.”
“Shut up, Jack.” She leaned into me and wrapped her arms around my waist. “You’re the only one who gets to look at me like that.”
Maybe I was worried for nothing.