Chapter Two: Putting the Word Out

I'll summarize the rest of our conversation. A lot of what Susan Storm told me about her brother never made a lick of difference in finding him, anyway.

Johnny had been an Air Force pilot, once upon a time, but hadn't stuck with it. He loved motorcycle stunt riding, and she thought he was extremely good—I allowed for sisterly bias there—but he had never gone professional. He liked hanging out at nightclubs and practicing lines on attractive women. He was childishly impulsive sometimes, and a shameless practical joker. He tended to get reckless when he was infatuated with something or someone, but those infatuations never seemed to last (except where flight and motorbikes were concerned).

She swore he had no criminal record beyond the inevitable speeding tickets and similar chicken feed. Then she solemnly assured me that it was very rare for Johnny to set a building on fire, and it was always an honest-to-goodness accident, so no charges were ever filed. She sounded sincere. I bit my tongue before Stop making excuses for him could slip out. After all, she was paying me for a search; not for psychotherapy. I guess soft-hearted ladies are always ready to give their brothers the full benefit of the doubt. (I ought to know; I have two sisters of my own!)

She didn't know of any friends or relatives he might be staying with, or even in contact with, here in the Bay Area.

Finally we exchanged phone numbers and she left. Then I got to work.

Once upon a time, a PI might've run all over town and personally showed a snapshot to every bartender he could find if he wanted to crack this sort of case.

Time marches on. I put the photo of the wayward brother in the scanner and created a digital copy. Then I sent it to everyone I know in the Bay Area who is willing to read my emails without sharing them with the cops or the press. Sometimes one of those people even responds. Sometimes the response is actually helpful. Sometimes another person wants the rest of our informal network to keep eyes and ears open for someone or something. Anyway, it saves a lot of shoe leather.

My message just said this was a young man whose family was a bit worried about him. No names, of course—Ms. Storm wouldn't like it, and besides, if her brother hadn't used his credit card for a week, it was likely he wasn't using his right name.

Once I had sent the email, I had to find a way to kill time. Sitting in my office waiting for someone to reply was not what I could call "working hard and earning money." I decided to take a long, late lunch break. From two to four o'clock, I was out of the office. While I was out, I used some of Susan Storm's money to pay off my late fees at the video store and the public library. I also stopped at the bank to deposit a lot of it and trade the last couple of hundreds for tens and twenties.

When I came back to the office, three answers had piled up in the old Inbox. One was hopeless—"I think I saw his picture in a biker magazine last month, or was it the month before?"—and the second was a bit fresher, but still not likely to lead me to Johnny Storm's current location. "Looks like a fellow I saw in a hardware store on Hyde Street, six days ago."

Gaby Marmont provided the freshest information. And I knew she had a good eye for faces. She thought she had seen him in the House of Soul club the night before, around ten o'clock. Said she particularly noticed him because he looked a heckuva lot like Johnny Storm. I didn't tell her she was right on the money, but it made me wonder how she knew. Had the client's brother once worked as an underwear model or something like that?

No law required a handsome young sprout to visit the same watering hole two nights running, but it was a starting point.

Gaby thought he'd been there around ten? All right, I'd be there at eight thirty and keep my eyes peeled. The client wanted no publicity, and I wasn't on close terms with any of the regular staff there, so I'd wait a couple of hours before I tried showing his photo to anyone. With a little luck, I'd spot him on my own—

The phone in my pocket rang. I pulled it out and thumbed the proper button. It was my new client, asking if there were any leads. It had only been a few hours since she left the office—I guessed she was more impatient than she'd seemed at first.

I figured it was good to have something meatier to tell her than just inquiries are progressing. "I have a friend who thinks she saw that face in a local nightclub yesterday. It's a thin straw to clutch at, but I'm planning to be there tonight and see if he comes back. If he doesn't, I'll show the snapshot to somebody and see what develops."

"Excellent!" she said. "I'll come with you!"

I blinked. My clients usually have enough sense to let me handle all the monotonous details and just report the occasional results to them later. "Look, Ms. Storm, I'm starting to feel sorry I even mentioned the nightclub to you."

"Why?" she demanded.

So I told her. "Because I'm afraid you're getting your hopes up over nothing. If you tag along tonight and sit there waiting and waiting and he doesn't show—or maybe the guy from yesterday night does show, but you take one look and realize it ain't your brother—you'll be disappointed. Human nature being what it is, you'll probably blame me for making you waste a few hours. I'm used to getting disappointed most of the time, and that's one reason clients hire guys like me—so they don't have to get bored out of their gourds chasing false leads. They just reap the benefits of the occasional lead that actually pans out!"

I swear I heard a soft chuckle before she said, "Blunt, aren't you?"

"A pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Ms. Storm. I'd rather explain it to you now than try to get you to listen after you'd already been stewing for a few hours because you kept expecting your dear brother to walk in any minute and he kept not showing up."

"Understood," she said calmly. "So you've warned me, loud and clear: There's no guarantee that Johnny will set foot in that club tonight . . . nor any other night, for that matter! In fact, most of what you do often turns out in hindsight to have been a regrettable waste of time. I understood every word. I even believed all of it. Now that we've cleared the air on that subject, I reiterate: I'll be with you at the club tonight, just in case!"