by John Shepphird
Art by Tim Foley
My grandfather’s gun betrayed me.
I’d brought the pistol with me—the vintage Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless .32—the same model John Dillinger carried because it’s small enough to conceal. I got off a few shots, but the meek .32 caliber failed to penetrate the Land Rover’s windshield. The truck hit me, broke two ribs, but that was nothing compared to being caught below the SUV’s undercarriage. My jacket snagged in the rear axle and the pavement skinned me alive. I was dragged a half a block before a pothole freed me and the Land Rover sped away.
That’s when I blacked out.
The surgeon used tweezers to pick gravel out of the back of my skull. The doctor said he’d done the procedure before, on a young motorcyclist who didn’t wear a helmet. That patient didn’t survive.
The hospital kept me until they were certain the oozing scab on the back of my head wouldn’t get infected, so I had a lot of time to think about Polina. I tried to save her that night but realize now she didn’t want to be saved.
Detective Nunez of the Torrance Police Department came to my hospital room. He was a wiry guy who reminded me of a bull terrier—stubby hair with a perpetual frown. He asked me about my grandfather’s gun. They’d found it in the gutter. I explained I was a private eye.
“Have a license to carry?” Detective Nunez asked.
“No, and I don’t regularly work with a gun,” I said, “but I had it with me that night.” I explained who Richard Blanton was. “I was tailing him. He must have made me.”
“Realized I was following.”
“Hit-and-run is a serious offense.”
“If I don’t make it out of here it’s going to be murder,” I said, and told him where he could find Blanton, both his office and where he lived.
“So what came first,” the detective asked, “the chicken or the egg?”
“What’s that mean?”
“How do I know he wasn’t defending himself?”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“I’ll look into it,” Nunez said.
I had nothing to hide but felt like I needed a lawyer.
Like a lot of my cases, this one came through Oscar. About a month before we’d met at Gulliver’s in the Marina—his favorite place, I suspect, because the bartenders tend to pour heavy handed. Oscar defends insurance companies against fraud. That’s where I come in—Jack O’Shea, Deception Specialist.
“This case is sensitive,” Oscar explained, sipping his whiskey. “It involves a kid with health issues. If a settlement can’t be reached and it goes to a jury trial . . .” Oscar shook his head, “Let’s just say this could easily get out of hand.”
“Who’s your client?” I asked.
“Southern California Edison.”
“The electric company?”
Oscar nodded. “General counsel brought me in as a consultant.”
“So . . . where’s the fraud?”
“Nobody knows for sure. That’s where you come in.”
“Okay,” I said and waited for him to elaborate.
“It’s complicated. There’s a house in Torrance, built in the sixties,” Oscar reached into his leather satchel for his iPad, “adjacent to a substation.” He powered the tablet, propped it onto the bar, and showed me a photo of the home—a modest, single-story ranch house, nothing extraordinary. Behind it loomed a yard of power transformers. Other angles displayed the proximity to the substation. In the backyard there was a rusty swing set and overgrown weeds.
Oscar continued, “There’s a history of tenants being shocked in this house from touching the showerhead or mailbox. Not life threatening. More like static electricity, an annoyance. The family claims the prolonged exposure to electrical current has something to do with their boy’s neurodegenerative disorder.”
I didn’t know what to say, so asked, “How old is the kid?”
“Alex is fifteen now. He suffers from both mobility and learning issues.” Oscar showed me a photo of the boy in leg braces standing in between parallel bars in a rehabilitation facility.
“So you suspect the electricity had nothing to do with this boy’s condition?”
“I suspect it’s not a real family.” Oscar motioned to the bartender for two more rounds even though my pint of beer was half full. “Mom was a mail-order bride from Ukraine.” He swiped to a photo of an attractive blonde in her early thirties. “Polina Sokolova brought her boy over years ago. The kid’s stepfather—” He found a smiling photo of Richard Blanton. “—is a real estate agent in the South Bay. He’s collected questionable settlements from insurance companies before—slip-and-falls, auto accidents—and he knows how to play the game. Because of his shady background, and a few other things, I suspect this may have been a setup.”
“What other things?”
“Let’s just say he’s litigious. This is an emotional case, and there’s no telling what kind of punitive damages may arise should they win.”
“How long have they been in the house?”
“About four years before they moved out a year ago.”
“Did the kid have medical issues before?” I asked.
“There’s a record from Ukraine that claims he was fine, but the healthcare providers there are unreliable. The public school in Torrance required a physical exam before he was admitted, but that was years ago, a formality more than anything else. He attended for a while before he was pulled out and homeschooled.”
“Does anyone else in the family have health problems?” I asked.
“None claimed . . . yet.”
“So you suspect Richard Blanton bought the house knowing it had a history of electrical issues tied so close to the substation, then found a mail-order bride with a disadvantaged kid and moved in?”
“Something like that.” Oscar swirled his fresh drink with Gulliver’s nautical-themed swivel stick. “He’s hired a law firm that has successfully sued the utility before. They intend to go to trial and play the crippled-kid card. We’re doing everything we can to avoid that. There have been generous offers made, believe me, but they won’t settle. It’s been a crazy dance back and forth, so much so that a paralegal in my office has nicknamed the case Electric Boogaloo.”
“After Breakin’ 2?” I asked.
“The name of the movie, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
Oscar raised an eyebrow.
“It was a sequel to a low-budget breakdancing movie produced by Cannon Films in the eighties.”
“No, Breakin’ 2. A movie, not a TV show.”
“It was shot back when they made Chuck Norris movies. Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, produced by a pair of low-budget Israeli guys, Golan and Globus.”
“How do you know so much about it?” he asked.
I thought of Mona and the night we’d watched the movie together laughing at the crazy eighties hair and fashion. “I had a girlfriend who loved it,” I said. “She found a VHS tape at a garage sale and insisted we watch it,” first smiling at the thought, but then saddened.
He asked, “Mona?”
We sat in uncomfortable silence and I sipped my beer. Oscar knows all about my previous life as a con man—living in the fast lane. Although he’d never met Mona, Oscar read about her in my tell-all confession, the book I’d written. The guilt of Mona’s death is what changed me. I was negligent and the fatal car accident was entirely my fault. She still haunts me to this day. It’s the reason I root out deception now. Call it my redemption.
But this case didn’t sound so black and white. Maybe Southern California Edison was responsible. I vaguely remembered reading about the debate whether living near high-voltage power lines is a health risk. I’m no scientist, so I didn’t know. But private eyes don’t always get to work for the good guys. My job was simply to find the truth.
Oscar said, “Electric Boogaloo is our nickname around the office but I don’t want that to get out, especially to the press. Keep a lid on it, will ya?”
I nodded and said, “Got it.”
Oscar slid me the retainer, his firm’s check visible through the window envelope. “I’ll e-mail you the details. Look into these people. Find me a chink in the armor.”
I returned to my office in Culver City and was greeted by Buttermilk Suzie, the former racing greyhound I’d adopted. She can’t type or answer the phone but she keeps me company. That’s enough. I fed her and filled her water bowl, then sat at my desk to open Oscar’s e-mail.
There were medical documents from the boy’s diagnosis, a list of potential expert witnesses, and a long report by the Safety and Enforcement Division of the California Public Utilities Commission. I could see the stepfather, Richard Blanton, had a real estate office in Redondo Beach.
It came time for Suzie’s walk so I decided to check out the house. A stranger lurking around a suburban home could draw suspicion, but a guy walking a dog totally blends in. I grabbed her leash and we drove out to Torrance, parked a block away, and strolled to the house.
I could see the home had long been abandoned; dead lawn, free newspapers on the driveway tattered and faded by the sun. The substation behind a tall chain-link fence appeared closer than in the photos. I could hear a faint buzzing from the transformers. Suzie sniffed cracks in the concrete.
Since Oscar had mentioned it, I touched the metallic mailbox. There was no static shock. With nothing else to learn we moved on.
Next stop was the rental where the family had moved. The run-down Polynesian-themed apartment complex was crowded among many other two-story rentals. The lava-stone waterfall at the entrance was bone-dry and most of the balconies were stuffed with clutter. I double checked the address and parked in the shade. I pulled a clipboard from the trunk. Carrying a clipboard makes it look like you’re a repairman or delivering something, another way to blend in. I’d only be a few minutes so Suzie would be fine in the car.
I strolled past the entrance and mailboxes cluttered with junk mail. There were takeout menus on the ground and homemade signs for missing cats taped to the wall. I followed the numbers on the doors and found the courtyard apartment on the second floor. As I walked past the front window I could see Alex sitting on the couch playing on an Xbox. A pair of crutches were at his side.
I returned to my car, and the blonde from Oscar’s photo, Polina, parked in the back and climbed out of a Chevy Volt. I thought it ironic that she drove an electric car.
Her hair was tied back and she wore a tennis outfit. I watched as she sipped from a sleek water bottle before she slung her tennis bag over her shoulder and marched inside. Polina reminded me of tennis pros I’d seen on TV, tall and fit, but she also reminded me of Mona. There was something about her. They shared many of the same features.
Next stop was Blanton’s real estate office in the Redondo Beach Riviera—a downtown district with upscale boutiques and restaurants. Suzie and I resumed our dog walking routine and found the storefront for Blanton Realty wedged between an art gallery and a pricey furniture store. I slowed to check the place out, feigned reading the property listings in the window.
Inside there was an attractive brunette behind a desk on the phone. She hadn’t noticed me. I could see from the flyers displayed in the window that the properties listed were well over a million dollars. It felt strange that Richard would work here but then live in either the unkempt ranch house or the run-down apartment I’d just seen. Something felt off.
It appeared Richard wasn’t there, but one of the flyers in the window had details for an open house the next day with his smiling picture on it. I snapped a photo of the address with my phone.
The next afternoon, without Suzie, I drove to Palos Verdes to drop in on the open house. I parked up the street from the sleek and modern two-story home. As I walked up the driveway I could see the property afforded a spectacular ocean view. I noted the black Land Rover parked at the curb.
Inside, Richard Blanton was engaged with a middle-aged couple, prospective buyers, so the brunette I’d seen in the office clicked over in her Christian Louboutin stiletto heels to greet me. She wore a miniskirt, business blazer, and white silk blouse. I forced myself not to eye her shapely tan legs. “Welcome, I’m Laura,” she said, manicured hand out to shake.
I came up with an alias, the first name I could think of, and said, “I’m Bob,” and looked around as if checking out the house. It was obvious the place had been professionally staged with artful furniture and abstract art. Nobody lives like this. This was too perfect, like something out of Architectural Digest. They were selling an illusion.
“I’m a neighbor just taking a look,” I said, thumbing over my shoulder to indicate that I, supposedly, lived near.
“You’re more than welcome,” she said, handing me her business card. “And if you’re ever considering selling . . . ”
“I rent,” I said bluntly.
“You should buy while the interest rates are still low,” she said with a plastic smile, not giving up.
Richard shot me a look. Immediately I didn’t like him—slick and cocky, a d-bag. My gut sensed a self-absorbed air about the guy. Richard was not in a position to peel away from the couple so I thanked Laura and got out of there.
Since the open house was scheduled for a three-hour window, I figured I’d hang back and follow Blanton from there. I positioned my car up the street and at four o’clock sharp Richard and Laura closed up and climbed into his black Land Rover. I followed as they drove down the hill. He stopped abruptly at the corner so I came up right behind them, too close for comfort. They both got out and retrieved a realty sidewalk sign. Neither of them glanced my way. It appeared to be a routine they’d done many times before as she opened the back of the SUV and he folded the signs before tucking them inside. She closed the hatch and there was a brief kiss, a moment of affection. It was clear this realty team was more than just business.
I followed the Land Rover to one of the oceanfront towers on the South Redondo Esplanade, and they pulled into underground parking. Considering Blanton’s office I’d seen yesterday and the high-end realty listing they’d just come from, this pricey residence felt much more appropriate. The electronic gate shut them in, and I got Oscar on the phone to bring him up to speed.
“Richard and Polina are technically still married,” he said. “So either’s current domestic situation shouldn’t matter in court.”
“But aren’t we building a case that this is not a real family?”
“It could have been at one time. What’s at question here is whether SoCal Edison is guilty of reckless disregard for the safety of others.”
“Reckless disregard,” I repeated.
“That’s the legal term, yes. Continue to look into Blanton and check out the Russian wife. Shakedown artists tend to have a lot of angles going on at once, right? You detailed all that in your book.”
I laughed and said, “Maybe she’s just looking for a better life for her kid.”
“That and a monster payday.”
“So cynical,” I teased.
“I call it like I see it.”
I told Oscar I’d get back to him.
I put GPS tracking devices under both the Land Rover and Volt and over the next week split my time following both Richard and Polina. Both had routines. Richard spent most of his time in his office or out with Laura and friends, all well-heeled hipsters.
Meanwhile Polina shuttled Alex to a physical therapy facility in West L.A.
Alex was tall and he’d mastered the use of crutches. The boy wouldn’t allow his mother to help him get around, occasionally bursting out in anger when she tried. I could see he was a handful. Even from a distance his involuntary tremors were apparent. The poor kid had been dealt a tough hand. I felt sorry for him.
While Richard went out almost every night, Polina stayed home. Her one escape was the tennis clubs around the South Bay. It looked like she was in a competitive women’s league of some kind, all experienced players. Even from a distance I could see these women hit the ball really hard and took the game seriously.
Her regular tennis club had a bar and after matches Polina’s routine was generally the same—a glass of white wine, occasionally with teammates but often alone. Part of the clubhouse was being renovated so I used the old clipboard routine to get past the girl at the counter, explaining I was the city building inspector. After she recognized me the first day I had no problem getting past the gate.
One afternoon I sat down two barstools away from Polina as she silently scrolled through her iPhone.
“You’re in a league with Mary, aren’t you?” I said to her, gambling there was someone named Mary in her group, a common name.
“Yes,” she said with a warm smile.
Bingo. “I’ve seen you guys play. You’re good.”
“When I can get my first serve in,” she said.
I introduced myself, using the alias Bob again, and we made small talk. I peppered a few questions like where she was from and how long she’d been in the States. She didn’t admit she was a mail-order bride, but she did open up. Most wouldn’t be so forthcoming, especially with a stranger, but Polina was different. She didn’t say anything about Richard Blanton but did bring up her special-needs son.
“He’s my heart,” she said, touching hers.
With careful diplomacy I dug for more details. She ordered another glass of wine and was brazen enough to ask me how I got the scar on my face—the constant reminder of the crash that killed Mona. It was a subject most people avoided, especially with someone they’d just met. Not her.
“I was driving with reckless disregard for the safety of others,” I said, repeating Oscar’s legal phrase, then regretting it.
“So . . . somebody else was hurt?”
She sensed it was a sensitive subject and consoled me with, “We’ve all made mistakes.”
“And I’m reminded of it every time I look in the mirror.”
She looked at me, her brown eyes empathetic, and said, “It’s the scars we can’t see that are the hardest to heal.”
“Yeah,” I said dryly.
Polina reached out and touched my hand. It was the first time a woman had touched me in a long time. Even though it was just a light squeeze, it made my heart skip. And what she had just said was so true.
I could feel electricity in my veins and thought of Oscar’s crazy nickname for the case. In biology class I’d learned that nerve impulses are actually electric signals that travel up and down the spine. Maybe that’s what I was feeling.
After a while she finished her wine and excused herself. “It was nice meeting you.”
“We’ll see you around,” I said and watched her go.
On the drive home I couldn’t get Polina out of my mind. I reminded myself I was hired to make factual discovery, that’s it. But the next day, tracking her car to the club, I resisted the temptation to go there and pick up where we’d left off.
It appeared there was nothing about Polina to help Oscar’s case so I moved onto Blanton. A background check turned up that he’d had a number of failed businesses. There was one arrest from years ago, a domestic battery charge from an ex-girlfriend. I kept my computer open to his vehicle’s movements and one evening noticed he’d stopped at Polina’s apartment. I drove over.
The Land Rover was parked out front so I stayed clear of the courtyard and went around back. The bedroom window was open and I could hear them arguing but couldn’t make out what they were saying. I heard the front door slam and Richard stormed out of there. But he didn’t take the Land Rover. He sped away in her Chevy Volt instead. The next day I realized why. Polina drove his truck out to the valley to pick up a bulky treadmill—exercise equipment she hauled upstairs and assembled in her apartment. Through the window I could see Alex test it out. In-home therapy, I assumed.
Over the next two weeks I continued to stalk both Richard and Polina, careful not to get too close.
Then fate came into play. . . .
Copyright © 2017. Electric Boogaloo by John Shepphird