Home from World Pizza I sat in front of the west-facing window in my upstairs office and looked out at my rancho. Twenty-five acres of hills and valleys. Oaks and sycamores, chaparral and coastal scrub, bold granite outcroppings. Some of the oaks are huge. No neighbors in sight, though there are other homes beyond. The nearest town is Fallbrook. My high ground is held by a large Spanish style adobe-brick hacienda built in 1894. There is a barn, a workshop, various outbuildings, and six small casitas built along the shore of a spring-fed pond. Roughly a century ago it was given the name Rancho de los Robles—Ranch of the Oaks.
I did nothing to earn this generous land grant except marry Justine Ann Timmerman. Rancho de los Robles was our wedding gift from her parents. It had been in the Timmerman family for decades, one of their several holdings in our American West. Justine and I had loved each other fiercely for those few months we were given, and when Justine died in a light plane crash, I tried to give the rancho back to the Timmermans. They said I was family and the place was mine.
And so it is.
The rancho aspires to its early California graciousness but is still in formidable disrepair. It feels interrupted by Justine’s sudden departure. I’m not sure if it’s haunted but I do see her at times—never the whole her, just a movement, a wisp, a presence. I hear her voice occasionally, too: not words, but sounds in her key and timbre, mixed in with the groan of old pipes or wind hissing through the casement windows.
My upstairs office is hushed, and the tall windows are operatically draped. The hardwood floor is bare of the Persian carpets that litter the rest of the house. Justine’s parents traveled to Iran before the fall of the shah, to hand-pick and collect them, circa nineteen seventy-five. The office has rustic, locally crafted furniture that is handsome and not quite comfortable. Modern upgrades include a high speed Ethernet connection—not inexpensive in this sparsely populated part of the grid—a powerful computer assembled for me by a friend, and a wheeled task chair, much like Joan Taucher’s, that I often carom around the room in.
I shoved off the western wall and coasted back to the monitor on the massive oak desk.
Rasha Samara’s Internet existence was sparse but interesting. He had led a partially visible public life but I could find only three photographs of him, no video, and a total of four attributed media quotes that totaled nine sentences.
The Las Vegas Sun article was informative. Rasha was born in Orange to prosperous Saudi immigrants who had settled in Irvine and naturalized. The father was eventually tenured at UC Irvine (molecular biology), the mother at UC Riverside (philosophy). Rashad—which means “integrity,” according to the reporter—had spent his childhood and school years in the U.S., with summers in Riyadh with his extended family. He called himself Rasha rather than the full Rashad. Rasha’s father was interested in golf and horses, and so was his son.
He had graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in botany and a minor in architectural studies, gone on to study sustainable arid soil agriculture and ornamental horticulture at UC Davis. He had moved to Las Vegas at twenty-six to start his own landscape architecture company, TerraNova, with loans from his parents and distant relations in Saudi Arabia.
According to the Sun, TerraNova was now an international company specializing in golf course and public park design, worth an estimated $25 million, privately owned. Much of his business was done in the Emirates, where his fluency in English and Arabic helped.
The picture above the Sun article showed Rasha Samara four years ago, at age thirty-six, attending an Arabian Horse Association competition at the Clark County Fair and Rodeo. With Rasha was his wife, Sally, and their six-year old son, Edward.
Sally was accepting an award for the Samara family’s generous sponsorship of the AHA Western States Youth Programs. She was wheelchair-bound and smiling widely. The Sun article said that Sally and her “reclusive” husband, Rasha, had been honored by the AHA for their “tireless work, enthusiasm and generosity” on behalf of Arabian horses in the USA. In the picture with his wife and son, Rasha looked annoyed. Black-haired, clean-shaven and intense. European-cut suit, white shirt and tie. His son looked very much like him, but with lighter hair. When the Sun reporter asked why he sponsored AHA events, Rasha had told him, “Because I love Arabian horses,” but he was late for a business meeting and had to run. The reporter noted that his phone calls were not returned.
A Sun article dated six months later announced the death of Sally Samara, age thirty-two of Las Vegas, from lung cancer.
All of which meant that Rasha Samara and Roland Ford had some things in common.
Born in California, schooled in California
Close in age—Rasha forty and I’m thirty nine now.
Both widowed in our thirties.
Tight-lipped, prickly and private.We were both prosperous, too, what with Rasha Samara’s twenty-five million dollar TerraNova bringing golf to the planet, and my private investigations.
We were both prosperous, too, what with Rasha Samara’s twenty-five million dollar TerraNova bringing golf to the planet, and my private investigations—half of which involved a missing twenty-two pound cat named Oxley.
The Arabian Horse Association newsletter from October 2016 had by far the longest quotes from Rasha Samara:
Arabian Horse Association: What is it that draws you to the Arabian horse?
Rasha Samara: Stamina and spirit and loyalty.
RS: When Muhammad finished one of his journeys through the desert, he set his horses free so they could race to the oasis for water. The animals were crazed with thirst. As a test he called them back. Only five horses turned and came. Mares. These loyal mares became known as Al Khamsa, which means The Five. Legend has it that they became the founders of the five strains of Arabian, but you know how unreliable legends can be. The horse is the thing. The horse is always the thing.
AHA: How many Arabians do you own?
RS: That’s private information.
AHA: What can the AHA do to increase the popularity of the breed and develop new interest in it?
RS: Well, stage competitions and contests and give big prizes, I guess. I don’t think a breed has to be popular. It has to speak to you, personally. Arabians are proud and intelligent and don’t put up with bad trainers or riders. They’re not for everyone.
Like most PI’s, I subscribe to some large-caliber information-peddling services. They’re all online now. My choices are www.tlo.com., www.tracersinfo.com., and www.ivarduggans.com., though I use others too. These services are expensive and good at what they do. Their best clients are banks, collection agencies, insurance companies and law enforcement, so my sole-proprietorship is very small potatoes to them. But as a licensed PI I get good access so long as I pay good money. And they are fast.
Basically they work the same way. If you’re a small business like me, you pay per transaction. You log on with your user name and password, which gives you access to their databases. You input your subject name—even a partial name, or a phonetically approximated one—will often work just fine. Proprietary algorithms kick in as you stare out the window at a red-shouldered hawk circling in blue sky on a cool December afternoon. As you look at the cattails along one side of a pond and wonder where the blackbirds went. As you wonder what an algorithm actually is. As you think about people you have loved and some of them lost. As you wonder what a single thirty-nine year old male with a degree in history and an honorable discharge from the United States Marines and a one-fight pro boxing career and certification to conduct investigations in the State of California might be better doing with his life.
Ivarduggans.com took thirty minutes to kick back most of the basics—full name, DOB, history of home and business addresses, phone, fax and email, Social Security number, current vehicle registrations, websites, neighbors, roommates, relatives (many), known associates (many), professional licenses, fictitious business names, tax liens, registered watercraft and aircraft (none current) and corporate records for TerraNova since its inception.
Plus, this bonus highlight for Roland Ford, PI:
CRIMINAL RECORDS: Subject arrested for brandishing a weapon (curve-bladed janbiya knife) at UC Irvine Pi Phi sorority party October, 1998. Party goers later blamed misunderstanding between intoxicated fraternity members and subject. No charges filed.
That sent a cool tingle to the scar above my left eye. The scar is Y-shaped and it came from a big right in my first and last pro fight. Saw it coming but didn’t have the legs left to escape. I was outclassed and knew it.
I launched myself back on the task chair, timing my rotation to put me facing the western window again. Looking down I saw the palapa and the pond. On the patio, two of the Irregulars were engaged in table tennis. Burt Short versus the newly arrived Dale Clevenger. Lindsey watching as she leaned against one of the palapa poles, the poster of green-eyed Oxley tacked to the pole just above her shoulder. Grandfather Dick and Grandmother Liz reclining on patio chaise lounges, their backs to the competition, apparently arguing. I wasn’t in the mood to watch Ping Pong.
I pedaled back to the desk and read the CRIMINAL RECORDS entry again. What possible good could come from taking a large knife to a frat party?I pedaled back to the desk and read the CRIMINAL RECORDS entry again. What possible good could come from taking a large knife to a frat party?
Ivarduggans also included three pictures of Rasha—one at his high school commencement in 1995, another riding in an AHA endurance competition in 2002 when he was twenty-four years old, and a casual newspaper portrait taken with newly engaged bride-to-be Sally Meadows. Even as a graduating high schooler, Rasha Samara looked calm, serious and focused. Slender and handsome. In his newspaper engagement photo he wore a mustache and van dyke, neatly trimmed, and his black wavy hair long.
I could hear the Ping Pong ball faintly clicking back and forth outside. Followed by Burt Short’s cackle, then Clevenger’s homey drawl.
I thought of one Hector O. Padilla and the Masjid Al-Rribat Al-Islami on Saranac Street, San Diego, where Padilla had apparently been active lately. I’d been to this mosque several times as part of my rounds as a JTTF foot soldier in back in 2010 and 2011, doing my best to ingratiate myself to people who were suspicious and afraid of me.
Ivarduggans.com gave me a brief profile on Hector O. Padilla, age 28, of La Mesa, which bordered the city of San Diego just a few blocks from Masjif Al-Rribat. Five feet six inches tall, one hundred seventy pounds, single. Padilla was born in the border city of San Ysidro. High school graduate, some community college courses, no degree. Failed physical requirements for U.S. Marines and Army, subsequently employed as a dishwasher, landscape maintenance worker, janitor, door-to-door cutlery salesman and veterinary hospital night shift worker, with Workman’s Comp and State Disability checks helping out in between. Bad back. Currently employed as custodian at First Samaritan Hospital in San Diego. Included was a picture slightly better than the one Taucher had thrown her dart at. Padilla looked unremarkable. I wondered what had led him to Al-Rribat in recent days. Nothing came to mind, except for the idea that Hector O. Padilla had apparently spent much of his life more or less adrift.
The Al-Ribat al-Islami web page contained basic information:
Evening prayers – Maghrib — at 5:08 p.m.
Fellowship Dining 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Qur’an Study 7:00 p.m. to 8 p.m.I wondered what had led him to Al-Rribat in recent days. Nothing came to mind, except for the idea that Hector O. Padilla had apparently spent much of his life more or less adrift.
Visitors, please remove your shoes when entering the prayer hall. Shoes can be worn in offices, the library or the multi-purpose room.
Visitors, please know that in the Islamic tradition, men and women do not shake hands when introduced to each other.
There is a separate prayer hall for women, upstairs. The prayer hall for men is located downstairs.
Visitors, please dress modestly and know that it is respectful for a woman to wear a head scarf although it is not required.
Please keep voices respectful.
Visitors, please check in with front office before entering the center.
We look forward to hosting you and others in a spirit of brotherhood, peace and unity.
I knew, as did most of San Diego, that Al-Rribat al-Islami was a Sunni mosque, notorious as a place of worship for two of the 9/11 hijackers, and for its charming and outspoken one-time Imam, American-born Anwar al-Awlaki. According to Taucher’s FBI, al-Awlaki had covertly encouraged jihad in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks, and had closed-door meetings with the two San Diego hijackers. Sitting in my office here and now—seventeen years after the attacks—I could surmise that al-Awlaki was at the top of Joan’s regret list, right behind the two hijackers themselves, who were actually living with one of her FBI informants. Although these two soon-to-be-hijackers were not on the radar of Taucher and her FBI confederates, the CIA had been watching them closely for months, as they conspired with other suspected al-Qaeda terrorists and received combat training in Yemen. Of course the CIA had failed to share this minor intel with the FBI, and a few weeks later America woke up to what started as a pleasant September morning.
And Al-Awlaki had been right here in the heart of America’s Finest City, quietly encouraging his foreign brothers to bring this country down in flames. Interestingly, the jihadi firebrand had twice been arrested for soliciting prostitutes, and plead guilty the second time. I remember that he left the U.S. in 2002, just after I joined the Marines. He went to England, then two years later to Yemen. There, he became the first American citizen to be officially assassinated by the CIA. A drone strike in September of 2011.
I thought of Lindsey and her Headhunters. We flagged some bad guys. Al-Awlaki? A fat chance and a longshot, but those things occasionally help me make a living. I went to the western window again. Lindsey was no longer watching the Ping Pong battles.
Then footsteps on the stairs and a moment later she was standing in my office doorway, her cell phone in her hand, her face pale. She stepped inside and closed the door.
From SWIFT VENGEANCE. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grand Central Publishing Group. Copyright © 2018 by T. Jefferson Parker.