We are firmly in quicksand


We are firmly in quicksand

When PI Paul Manning and his son Paulo went to meet a new client on the roof of a parking garage at The Grove in Los Angeles, they had no idea what their detective agency was going to experience in the next few weeks. The client was dead. The FBI was involved, and Paul, his wife and business partner Shirley, and Paulo, along with LAPD Capt. Bill Vose, were headed for a meeting with FBI Special Agent in Charge Sharon Westerly on her turf. This case had “national security” written all over it.

The LA offices of the FBI are in the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, at the 405 Freeway. It’s about as upscale a neighborhood as you will find in our Los Angeles. The steel, glass and concrete structure takes up a city block, and in addition to the Bureau, the State Department and various other agencies, it’s rumored to house the local offices of the CIA. For some strange reason, its name isn’t listed on the directory.
Bill met us at the entrance, and we trooped up to the 22nd floor, and after having IDs checked, we passed through a “mantrap” and were escorted to SAC Westerly’s office.
She stood as we entered and motioned to the chairs in front of her desk. We were the only ones there, so I guess when Westerly had told us that this case was compartmentalized, she wasn’t kidding. Even her staff was being kept in the dark.
Westerly walked around the desk and shook our hands. When she reached Shirley, she said, “Mrs. Manning, very good to meet you.” Something passed between Shirley and Westerly. I would remember that moment in a couple of weeks.
She started the conversation.
“Just so we are all on the same page, let’s review the bidding. Theresa Salim, the woman killed yesterday at The Grove and your potential client, had been on our watch list since she entered the country almost four months ago.
“Ms. Salim led a typical ex-pat life, shopping, going to restaurants, and that was it. She discovered we were tailing her, and we backed off, only tapping her phone. When she set up the meet with you, we followed and lost her, and then she turned up dead in the parking structure at The Grove.”
“OK,” I said, “we are up to date. Just what do you want from us?”
“We want you to continue just as you would normally in such a situation. Investigate it as if it were any other case. But keep us informed of your progress. We can’t be seen as too closely involved. But you can. Your client was shot out from under you, and you have a reputation of not letting these types of situations drop.”
Shirley picked up the dialogue at this point.
“Fine, but you know that we have to have a free hand at this. We need to know what you know, but we can’t have our activities monitored. And don’t try to trick us. We will know it immediately, and most likely, so will any suspects we turn up.
“It’s agreed that if you need help, we will call and you can come running. Until then, we are on our own.”
I had never heard Shirley be so strident, particularly with the feds. Was there something more here that I didn’t know?
SAC Westerly didn’t like being spoken to that way, but she gritted her teeth and nodded. She picked up a file on her desk.
“This is everything we have on Theresa Salim. It’s not much, but we are hearing chatter from Homeland Security and other alphabet agencies that she is somehow connected to Al-Qaeda or some similar terrorist organization.
“I know it seems strange that we are backing off,” Westerly said, “but we can’t let her handlers know that we are involved. With her death, it’s logical that we would drop the case, and reasonable that you would continue.”
“What about me?” Bill Vose spoke for the first time.
“We assumed that the Mannings would keep you involved from the outset, so I felt you might as well be ‘read in’ at this time. If you could give them logistical support, it would be helpful, and reasonable coming from you and not us. We must handle this at arm’s length.”
Westerly stood up, signaling that the meeting was over. We filed out, and were silent until back in the parking lot and in our cars. I started to say something, and Shirley put her hand over my mouth. We drove out of the lot. Bill returned to LAPD headquarters, and we headed for the beach.
We parked below the cliffs in Santa Monica and took a stroll under the Santa Monica pier. Shirley was leading. She stopped, leaned against one of pilings, and said:
“I don’t trust Westerly. They could have bugged our car while we were in her office. We have to be careful. There is an agenda here that we aren’t tracking. This is all too pat. The feds hire us to do an investigation they are tailor-made to lead. Something isn’t right.
“Paulo, contact Wes back at the office and have him sweep the place for bugs, and do it every morning and evening. Have him check all our cars for GPS trackers and bugs, and have him check both our homes, and Grace’s too. If he finds anything, have him note it but leave it in place. See if he can determine its source. Is it FBI, Homeland, CIA or some international terrorist group? From now on, we have discussions about this case only in places we know are not bugged.
“Paul, what’s our next step.”
I wondered when Shirley was going to get around to me. She usually deferred to me when it came to tradecraft. I had been thinking what we should do first.
“Let’s review Westerly’s file, then go talk to the people at Salim’s hotel. Also, check out the car rental agency. They have GPS trackers on their vehicles, and we may be able to find where she went and got herself dead before being driven to The Grove.
“That may be enough to stir the pot to get a reaction from someone.”
Paulo had been on the phone to our tech guru at the office.
“Wes spoke around the subject, but I think he wondered how we knew the place was bugged. He did his normal monthly scan this morning and I think he found bugs in all our offices. He left them in place, but said they were standard FBI issue.”    
“At least Westerly didn’t lie to us and say they were going to leave us alone,” Shirley said. “Let’s go back to the office and give her an earful.”
The crack of a high-powered rifle shot rang out. The bullet slammed into the piling a foot above my head. The three of us hit the sand with weapons drawn. A car screamed out of the parking lot.
“Everyone OK?” I got positive responses from my family.
“Well, we certainly know now where we stand, and it looks like firmly in quicksand.”
To be continued …
Read all of Private Investigator Paul Manning’s adventures –
past and present – online at the Parking Today website
(www.parkingtoday.com), under the “Magazine” tab.

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