Excerpt from Chapter One:
Randolph M. Sykes’ vista took in the shipyards in Richmond and San Francisco where he got his start as a Kaiser subcontractor at the beginning of the war. It swept all the way down to the Regal Automobile Works in East Oakland, a Sykes plant that originally punched body panels for Jeeps and half-tracks, but was retooled to manufacture the Regal Sedan, a limited edition four-door in the same price range as a high-end Cadillac.
While I had been busy in the Corps, killing Japs in the Pacific, the millionaire had been making a fortune using cheap materials, cut-rate labor and carbon-copy floor plans to manufacture war materiel. When the fighting ended, he used the same technique to build inexpensive housing that ex-soldiers like me could buy through the G.I. Bill. The tracts of two-bedroom Sykes Dwellings were easy to spot: they had been built so close together they barely had yards.
I lit a Lucky Strike and smoked it while examining Sykes' own spread. It was mostly concrete and rebar, and it seemed to crawl nearly a half block down one of the steepest slopes in the Oakland Hills. The millionaire might be short-changing vets, but he obviously hadn’t cut any corners on his place: it had cost several million to construct and the Office of Price Administration's restrictions on building materials hadn't affected it. The Tribune said he’d finished the place about three weeks after VJ day, at a time when lesser folks were having difficulty just getting their leaky roofs repaired.
The front half that looked out past the Golden Gate had so many huge windows that it seemed to be walled with glass. From one of them, Sykes could look out on roughly 137 square blocks of residential real estate he had picked up for a song during the war and developed into single-family homes custom-made for sale under the terms of Harry Colmery’s Serviceman’s Readjustment Act. Vets like me were raising families in Sykes Dwellings from El Cerrito to San Leandro, and the man’s real estate holdings alone had made him one of the richest people on the West Coast.
I finished the Lucky, field-stripped it and dropped the shredded butt into the cuff of my trousers. I liked the millionaire’s view but sightseeing wasn’t what had brought me from my office in downtown Oakland: I was there to see Mr. Sykes about a job.
My knock on the front door seemed to disappear someplace inside the building’s vast interior. A minute passed, then another. Finally I heard the mechanical rasp of the latch inside and the low squeal of hinges as the door swung slowly open, just wide enough to allow someone to look out.
“Can I help you?” said the fellow standing behind it, blinking at me as his eyes adjusted to the glare of the sun.
He was big enough to fill most of the doorway and his muscles made big, hard-looking lumps under the fabric of his tropical weight suit. The ridge of his brow line overhung his dark brown eyes and his slight accent went with his pencil-thin John Gilbert mustache and the black hair slicked back from his face.
I handed him one of my business cards and he held it gingerly in fingers as stubby as sausages, looking at it as if a dog had deposited it on the front steps. It took him so long to absorb it that I was tempted to save him the trouble by quoting it from memory:
Michael L. Lynch
California Licensed Investigator
Employment background checks * missing persons * divorce investigations
References available from law enforcement agencies and attorneys
At the bottom was the address and telephone number of my office in downtown Oakland.
He took his time reading it. As a trained investigator, I deduced he was well-educated because he hardly moved his lips. When he finished, he studied me almost as carefully as the card.
“You are Mr. Lynch, I take it,” he said, his tone making it into a question.
I nodded. “That's who looks out of the mirror when I shave in the morning,” I replied. “I’m here to see Mr. Sykes.”
When he didn’t immediately respond, I added, “he sent for me.”
Those were apparently the magic words.“Please wait,” he said. “I'll tell him you have arrived.”