Nationally, torches --- professional arsonists --- cost the insurance companies untold millions of dollars each year, and not by stealing calendars. I will heave no great sobs of pity for the insurance companies, as I consider them to be burdensome pests. Nonetheless, my friend and coworker Frankie was having a fun time of trying to collect on his burned-out Ferrari Tesstarossa. Someone set fire to it in his driveway.
The fire and police reports both said arson was the cause. Frankie didn't argue that. His insurance company did want to argue that, claiming (get this) negligence on Frankie's part. In what way Frankie was negligent went unsaid. Because Frankie negligently bashed in a window, poured lighter fluid all over the interior, then lit a match. All this while he was several miles away, having dinner with his wife and young daughter. Insurance logic.
The main question with the family was who ordered the job done. Who actually did it was almost immaterial. The assumption that a professional torch handled burning Frankie's car was treated as a given. The family had some ideas, though.
My boss, Angel, called me in a jovial mood. It was the same good humor he had when he wanted me to pick up forty pounds of cocaine from the airport and deliver it to a sketchy neighborhood. "Lenny, how are you? I have a new assignment for you. This may take a couple days, so Frankie will be down at Inana."
"Shoot," I told him.
"I have the names of three torches who operate out of the San Fernando area. I want you to interview them to determine if any of them did the job on Frankie's Ferrari. No real confrontation needed, just you asking that simple question of them. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, I get it, but why me? This is private investigator stuff you want me to do."
"Because you are a member of the family, you're bright, and your appearance will throw them off. They'll remember you, and we want that. Seeing you coming down the street towards them should set off alarm bells."
"You want me to get heavy with these clowns? I thought you had professionals to handle that kind of action."
"No, not at all. Like I said, you simply ask them about burning a Ferrari. They'll probably tell you to fuck off, so be persistent. But no conflict. No shoving people in your trunk and threatening them. Capiche?"
The longer I was a member of the family, the more I remembered my capo, Angel, was a Los Angeles native.... The land where you tell people to fuck off by saying "trust me" to them. If Angel said something was simple, shit would hit the fan five minutes in. And there's not a damn thing I can do about it. The family, in the guise of Angel, gives me assignments, I carry them out.
It made me miss being a speed dealer on some days. Tweakers are predictable.
The first name was Harry Franks, employed at a gaming shop in Northridge. It was the sort of place that hosts marathon, 72 hour Dungeons and Dragons tournaments. He was easy to find: he was the only one past puberty and in a clean shirt.
"Harry! Harry!" I called to him, jogging up to him in an aisle. Since he'd never seen me before, he had a slightly suspicious smile on his face.
"May I help you?"
"Yeah, listen, I need to know if you had anything to do with torching a Ferrari Tesstarossa up the hill in Encino. Just a yes or no thing, really. Did you?"
His eyes hooded over. "Torching a Ferrari? You lost me."
I kept my car salesman smile on. "Aw, c'mon Harry, I know you burn things for money, and I just am trying to find out if you did this particular job.... And who paid for it."
"Come here." He led me up to the front counter, away from the paying customers.
"Look asshole, I don't know who you are, but I haven't had a job in six months. That street trash from South-Central LA is getting all the work. They'll do a building for $500 and make a mess of it. Fuck off, leave me alone."
I gave him a pitying glance as I put my hand on the door. "Six months? You'll get rusty. Try some freelance work."
"Get out, smartass."
"Just thought I'd ask. Thank you for your time." I headed back to the Acura.
I sought out my next interviewee at a paint store in Sherman Oaks. His name was Richard Olson, and turned out to be my age.
I coaxed him out into the parking lot and offered him a cigarette. "I don't smoke," came the nervous reply.
"No, but you do burn things, and that's what I'm concerned with. See, a few weeks ago a Ferrari was torched in Encino, and I want to know if you're the one that did it. Really, it's not too complicated of a question."
"Are you a cop?" he asked.
"Do I look like a cop?" I replied.
"You look like one of our spray paint customers."
"Just answer my question. Did you torch a Ferrari?"
He held out his hands. "I shouldn't be saying this, but.... I don't do cars. That's kid stuff. I will put down any building you point at, and leave no markers for the arson squad to find. I'm a pro. Screw burning cars."
"It's nice you take pride in your work," I told him.
"I'm good," he said with pride.
I'm sure he was.
Number three was a Mr. Ivan Stefanich, employed at a gay bar in Reseda called the Round Up. He was their afternoon and happy hour bartender. My main concern was how much I'd stick out. The gay scene in the San Fernando Valley couldn't possibly be very big, so I'd be spotted as a stranger by the regulars immediately. This could either mean free drinks or too many people remembering that punk rock asshole who gave Ivan a hard time.
I walked in around 4:15, too early for happy hour, which was fine. The place was mostly empty. I ordered a Johnnie Walker on ice, like always, and said to the bartender, "So, you're Ivan, right?"
"Yeah, that's me."
"Hey Ivan, I need to know if you set fire to a Ferrari Tesstarossa in Encino about three weeks ago. No pressure, just a yes or no. Oh, and if you did, who paid you to do it?"
He stared at me coldly for several moments, then turned his back to me and began washing glasses that were already clean. I stood there with my foot on the railing waiting for a response. People wait for stupid things sometimes.
I called, "Ivan, it's a simple question. Yes or no?"
He turned to me and said, "Yes." Okay, now we're getting somewhere.
"Who paid for it, Ivan?"
"I don't know."
"Oh please. Even if you got cash you at least got a first name, and remember what they look like. Help me out here."
He had a button under that sink. It was a panic alarm that went off in some back room. A solid object pressed itself into my ribs and a voice said in my ear, "This is a gun. You're going to turn around and head for the bathrooms. I'll tell you where to turn."
Me and my unseen accoster marched down past the men's room and into a small office. Once there, the man with the gun told me to lean forward against the desk. Okay, I'm good at following directions. Then the world went black with a thud.
I woke up in a parking lot, leaned against a dumpster. My head throbbed. The first thing I did was check my shoulder holster to make sure my highly illegal Beretta was still there. It was. I still had my wallet and keys. The headache I had was just a souvenir. I'd been brained with a bat or piece of 2x4.
Naturallly, I went right back in the bar.
"Ivan! Ivan!" I called. "I've really got a headache right now, and I'd like a Johnnie Walker please. Oh, and who paid you to torch that Ferrari?"
He poured me my drink and said, "You don't learn, do you?"
I gave him a thousand-watt smile and said, "No, see, it's like this. I'm the guy who is asking you in a polite and friendly manner. You don't want to meet the people who will ask you in a hostile manner. Trust me on this. Please Ivan, for your own sake, come across with the fucking name."
He sighed and pulled out his wallet. Dug through it briefly. Pulled out a business card and dropped it in front of me.
The business card was for Heretic Productions, our old friend Todd's company.
I gulped my drink, thanked Ivan, and got the hell out of there.
I rolled down Sherman Way for a distance, and pulled into a gas station to use their pay phone. Angel answered on the third ring.
"I got good news, Angel. I get to sleep in my own bed tonight. I have some answers for you."
"Wonderful Lenny. Tell me."
"The torch was the bartender, Ivan Stefanich. And you'll love this: the man paying the bill was none other than our old friend Todd."
Angel paused. Then he said, "Lenny, this is not good. You're telling me that fucking pest is back? And we have to deal with him again?"
"All I know is what I've been told. I asked Ivan who paid for the job, and he gave me a Heretic Productions business card with Todd's name on it. If he's lying, he's doing a good job of it, since Todd doesn't like us. Shit, I'm the one who crippled him in his right shoulder, I'm amazed he's never come after me."
"I know, and it concerns me. Look, you're still in the Valley, right? Just swing by here."
"Yes sir. I'll see you in a few minutes."
I doubled back to De Soto Avenue, then ran along Ventura Boulevard and cut up the hill past the country clubs to Angel's house. He greeted me in the driveway, a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth. We did the usual Italian man-hug thing and went inside.
The good host that he is, there were two lines of cocaine sitting on the coffee table in the living room. I ignored them for the time being. Angel said, "Can I get you a drink? Johnnie Walker Red, right?"
"Sure, what the hell," I replied. "It'll be the third one of the day for me, and you know how unusual that is. No big deal, I had a good lunch."
Angel went and retrieved two drinks. Then he came and joined me on the sofa, pulling a gold-plated coke straw out of his jacket pocket as he sat down. "Please, enjoy. I did one up when I set those out so I'm feeling fine."
I bent down and snorted up one of the lines. The icicle rats ran into my sinuses, and down the back of my throat. "Thank you, Angel. Hopefully it'll help with my headache." I explained how I got brained at the bar.
Angel frowned. "This is not good," he said. "We should send a crew in to clear the place out. Nobody does that to a member of the family."
I pleaded, "Don't worry about it. I'm not. It was strictly business for them. That dude Ivan had me pegged as a pest and a troublemaker --- and I was --- so they disposed of me in a manner which indicated they'd done before. I guarantee there have been plenty of obnoxious drunks who ended up next to that dumpster too. My feelings aren't hurt."
Angel smiled. "All right, Lenny. Given that it's a gay bar, people might get the wrong idea if we trashed the place. Speaking of trash, we must discuss Todd."
"Okay. Todd Agnew, age 34, native of the San Fernando Valley. Enjoys cocaine just a little too much. Runs --- more like walks --- a pornographic video studio called Heretic Productions, knocking out VHS tapes which are sold in liquor stores, not adult outlets. Tends to carry multiple guns on his person. Single. Possibly crippled in his right shoulder due to an injury sustained at the hands of one Lenny Schneider. Generally considered an unmitigated prick. Those are the high spots."
"You left out that he screams like a girl when hurt," I said. "So now what? Send Paul up to wherever he lives and have him take care of things? Sue him for the cost of the Ferrari? Put flaming dog shit on his front porch?"
"We have to find him first. He's probably still somewhere in the Chatsworth area, but he moved out of both his apartment and studio. That's your current assignment, Lenny. Find Todd."
"And at this point I'll say that we're definitely into private investigator territory. I don't know shit about tracking people down. What am I supposed to do, spend my days cruising around the Valley looking for his Lexus? And when I do find him, then what? I have a hunch he'll remember me, and not be amused by my presence."
Angel smiled and stretched. "You're smart, you'll figure out some way of locating him. And do not contact him. You're right, he'll remember you, and probably pull one of his guns. Speaking of which...."
I held my jacket open and jerked a thumb at the butt of my Beretta. "Yeah, my little probation violation is still on my person. Bekka hates that I carry it, and I'm none too happy about it myself. I go straight to jail if a cop finds it on me, you know that, right?"
"And just like the last time you went to jail, I'd have you out in a few hours. Do not worry about the details of carrying your gun, just remember your boss is happier knowing you have it on you. Understood?"
"Yeah, I get it. Heh, it freaks my parents right the hell out."
"They do not understand the need to protect ones self?"
"Naw, they really don't get it. Listen Angel, is Frankie going to take over Inana while I play gumshoe? I want to show him a couple details on the Macintosh that I changed around if he is."
Angel reached for the coke straw, then knelt down on the floor to do up his line. "I will have him at the mansion at ten tomorrow morning. You'll be able to get at least a half day's work in to finding Todd."
We stood and shook hands. I said, "I'll be back in the Valley tomorrow, and I'll keep you posted as to how things are going. Fair enough?"
"Talk you you later, Lenny. You have a good night." I went out the door and got the Acura in motion.