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Rated: 18+ · Chapter · Mystery · #2188176
Meet Oscar Junior

EVEN AFTER THE RAIN stopped, the thick gray clouds continued to hide the late afternoon sun, as Rebecca followed Michael down the tree-lined street leading to her client's home. Her car's bumper was mere inches from his as he turned into a driveway. She parked right behind him, getting out of her car as he did.

         "Do you always drive like that?" Michael asked, slamming his car door. "Tailgating is dangerous."

         Rebecca strolled up to him, smiling as she spoke. "Have one of your buddies write me a ticket if you don't like it."

         "Don't tempt me."

         He looked ready to strangle her and Rebecca chuckled, happy to see that his frustration matched her own. They walked across the small green lawn toward a gingerbread-style brick house with yellow trim.

         The screened-in porch jutted out on the right side and in it a tiny white-haired woman sat on a wooden swing swaying back and forth gently. She waved a greeting, but didn't get up as the two approached.

         Michael held the screen door open. "Don't mention the fire," he murmured as Rebecca passed him.

         "What a pleasant surprise," Sarah Hall said as the pair joined her on the porch. Her thin lips were painted a bright red and curved into a welcoming smile, her twinkling light blue eyes revealing the hint of mischief that was always present. Pale white skin, wrinkled with age, belied her otherwise youthful demeanor. "I didn't know you two were acquainted."

         Rebecca frowned, determined not to be swayed by Sarah's friendliness, but it was hard to stay mad at that sweet old lady and it is hard to turn her down, too. Rebecca knew that she should not have become involved in this to begin with.

         "Did you hire two of us to find your missing statue?" She asked.

         "My heavens, no." Sarah kept swinging, unperturbed by the gentle accusation in Rebecca's tone. "Why would you think that?"

         "Because when I went out to investigate a lead," she replied. "I found this guy already there."

         That was putting it mildly. She had also just narrowly averted being roasted alive with him. But she agreed with Michael; Sarah didn't need to know about the fire.

         Sarah was still smiling. "Well, he does have a habit of turning up where you least expect him.," She said, gazing at the young man reproachfully. "Can't help it, though, I suppose. It's what he's trained for all these years."

         Michael sat down on a bench opposite the swing and crossed his arms over his chest. "And now that I have turned up, you're going to unhire Rebecca, right?"

         "Now, why would I want to do that?"

         Sarah looked baffled and Rebecca glared at Michael. "Yes, why would she do that? Just who are you, anyway?"

         "He's my grandson," Sarah explained. "And much too protective." She looked at Rebecca, who was standing beside the screen door. "If he had a wife and children he wouldn't have so much time to worry about me."

         "Don't change the subject, Grandmother," Michael ordered.

         Rebecca thought his overprotectiveness was warranted and quite touching. At eighty-one, Sarah was a trusting soul, barely five feet tall and rail thin; after a big meal, she might weigh ninety pounds.

         "Michael, you know you can't get involved." Sarah fingered the white lace collar of her pastel floral-print dress. "You're still on suspension."

         Rebecca looked from one to the other. "Suspension?"

         "From the police department," Sarah said.

         "You're a cop?" Rebecca asked, stunned. "Why--"

         "He is a detective," Sarah interrupted, "and a very good one. He's just upset about this suspension. I'm sure that's why he didn't mention what he does for a living."

         "Uh-huh." Rebecca's gaze never left Michael's face. "So, you're a police detective. That explains a lot." But it doesn't explain everything. Not by a long shot. "Why were you suspended?"

         "It's more of an administrative leave. I'll explain later." He returned his full attention to Sarah. "You promised."

         Sarah smiled. "I was coerced, so that doesn't count," she added smugly. "I've been listening to you, Michael, and I've learned a few things."

         "Rebecca is really a researcher," he began, trying to keep his temper low-key, "she works with papers all day. She's not an actual detective. I have nothing else to do right now, so I'll find the figurine myself."

         Sarah leaned over and patted him on the knee. "Michael, I'm old but I'm not senile. You told me all this yesterday don't you remember?"

         "Yesterday!" Rebecca exclaimed. How long had this guy been checking on her? So, that's why he knew about the tickets. At the moment, however, she had a more pressing question. "Does your suspension have anything to do with this case?"

         Michael scowled at her. "No. And I said I'd explain later, so stop pushing."

         His biting tone confirmed his unhappiness with his predicament and that made her even more curious. She had a brand new mystery to solve.

         "Would you like a lemonade?" Sarah asked, popping spryly off the swing. I have some in the fridge."

         They followed her into the house. The large kitchen had a warm cozy feel too it, and like the rest of the house, had little trinkets, keepsakes and memories of a family she'd raised in a home where she'd lived since her marriage, at the end of World War II.

         "Oh, my goodness," Sarah remarked, staring at the rip in Rebecca's sweater. "How did you tear your blouse, dear?"


         "Come with me. I have one of Edward's old shirts in the bedroom. You can wear that while I fix it for you."

         "You don't have to do that," Rebecca protested.

         "Oh, Fiddlesticks!" Sarah took her by the hand and led her down the hallway."

         After a few minutes they returned with Sarah carrying the torn sweater and Rebecca wearing a far-too-large, man's dress shirt.

         "Did you two meet at a barbeque?" Sarah asked, sniffing the sweatshirt.

         "Well, uh..." Rebecca stammered.

         "Yes, we did." Michael interrupted.

         "The way this shirt smells, the burgers must have been terrible," Sarah said. "It smells like the ashes from my mother's cook stove. You kids are too young to remember, but everyone used to have a wood burning cook stove in their kitchen. This smells just like the smoke and ashes from that old thing.

         "Anyway, I'll have this taken care of in a jiffy. Just help yourselves to the lemonade. It's in the big pitcher in the fridge."

         Sarah said nothing more, as she stitched the sweater with heavy, almost matching yarn. Her expression gradually changed and she looked down the hallway toward the bedroom several times. When she finished the sewing, she stood up and handed the sweater to Rebecca without a word, but still staring down the hallway toward the bedroom. Michael quickly picked up on her forced smile.

         "What's going on?" He asked, the shock from Sarah's changed manner showing in his voice. When Sarah looked worried, there had to be something to worry about.

         "It's nothing." She wiped the corners of her mouth but didn't move.

         Rebecca picked up the cut-crystal pitcher and poured lemonade into their glasses.

         "Come on, Grandmother. Something's upset you," Michael pressed on. It's not like you to stand around like a lost dog in a snowstorm. Tell me what's got you spooked."

         Sarah set her glass down, her expression now one of concern. "Someone's been in the house again."

         "What?" Michael touched her bony shoulder gently. "Are you all right? Why didn't you call me! Did you call the police?"

         "I didn't know it until just now when Rebecca and I went into the bedroom. Besides, this is just so strange!" Sarah gestured to them with her hand. "You'd better come see."

         They followed her down the hallway. Sarah opened the bedroom door and stepped back out of the way.

         A carved, four-poster double bed dominated the small room, but it was the lace-covered round table beside the bed that drew their attention. Sarah stepped over to the large statuary lamp on the nightstand and switched it on. The golden light highlighted what lay near the front of its base: a small marble figure of an angel. No stand or base for it to sit on; just a small cupid-like angel, with no bow and arrow.

         Michael stared at it, then at his grandmother, "Where did that come from?"

         "I found it there when we came to get the shirt. But the really strange thing is that it's not mine. It's just like mine, but it's not the same one."

         "I didn't notice that when we came in here!" Rebecca exclaimed.

         "I know, dear. The light on the table was off, but I saw it, and then I stood between you and the table so you wouldn't see it. I didn't want you to think I was some kind of an old fool who sent you looking for something that wasn't lost."

         "I would never have thought that Sarah," said Rebecca, but they all knew better.

         Rebecca walked around the wooden hope chest at the foot of the bed and stopped in front of the table. "Are you sure it isn't yours?"

         "Positive. Marble has little lines in it, and these aren't the same as mine. Besides, I've touched mine every night when I went to bed for over fifty years and I've worn a smooth spot, right on its butt," Sarah assured them. "I know it pretty well after all this time."

         Michael didn't bother trying to refute her point. If she said it wasn't hers, it wasn't. "How did he get in?"

         "Well, I..." Sarah paused and looked away.

         Michael thrust his right hand back through his layer sandy-brown hair, pausing before he spoke. "You left the back door open again. Didn't you?"

         "Don't be cross with me, Michael. I had to leave it open. Felix was outside and wouldn't come back when I called."

         The furrows between his eyebrows deepened. "That's why I installed a cat door for him," he reminded her, his voice kinder but still firm.

         "But, Michael," Sarah protested, "he doesn't like to use it."

         Rebecca smiled at her explanation, but felt the frustration as Michael did. She could see that the cat was like a child to Sarah.

         "Grandmother," Michael shook his head. "It just isn't safe to leave doors unlocked in a city like Cincinnati." He knew he didn't have any hope of convincing Sarah that her own safety was more important than that of her cat.

         Rebecca kneeled down in front of the table to study the little figure at eye level. It was just as Sarah had described; about four inches long, solid marble. The little angel did not stand but laid gracefully on the table, its wings spread and its hands extended, one holding a small torch. How can she be so certain that this is not the same one?

         "Don't touch it," Michael ordered. "There might be fingerprints or something."

         "I know that!" Rebecca responded. "If you really want to make yourself useful, hand me that picture you have in your pocket."

         He smoothed the creases from the photo as he moved around the end of the bed to stand next to her. He stood the picture on the lace table cloth and leaned it against the base of the lamp, then stepped back.

         The photograph exactly matched the present setting, showing the lace-covered round table, the same lamp, and the angel figurine.

         Slender, bony fingers suddenly came between them and snatched up the photo. "This is mine! I've been looking for it to give to a friend. She wants to make a table cloth like this one. I was beginning to think I'd thrown it away by mistake.

         Michael studied the photograph over her narrow shoulder. "Was the picture still here after the statuette disappeared?"

         "Hmm." Sarah pursed her red lips. "I don't know. No, I don't think it was, but I'm not sure."

         "Was it digital? Or, do you have the negative?" Rebecca asked, sitting back on her heels to look up at her.

         "Digital?," Sarah blinked at her blankly for a moment, and then as the question became clear, she nodded eagerly. "I'm sure I have the negative. I always keep things like that." She propped the photograph against the lamp and hurried out of the room.

         "Why do you want the negative?" Michael asked, sitting down on the window ledge behind him.

         "To get an enlargement made," Rebecca looked at the photo, then at the figurine, comparing them. "I don't see any differences between the two, but they could be there."

         "Maybe Grandmother is wrong and this is hers," Michael murmured.

         A soft rain-scented breeze ruffled the sheer curtains over the screened bedroom window, blowing the photo over. "It's possible. But if this one is hers, why would someone go to the trouble of bringing it back?" Rebecca stood up. "If it's a fake, why didn't the robbers just switch them when they stole it the first time? In fact, why steal the thing at all, if it isn't valuable? This just doesn't make sense."

         Sarah came back into the bedroom empty-handed "They must already be in my hope chest."

         "Do you know exactly where your figurine originated Sarah?" Rebecca asked her.

         Her lined face softened with affection as Sarah gazed at the marble figurine. "No, I don't. Edward was in Italy during the war. Later, he was in France and Germany, but he just said he got this in Europe and carried it everywhere he went." Sarah's voice dropped to almost a whisper. "Edward always called it 'The Naked Assed Angel'." A tinge of pink crept over her cheeks.

         "Grandfather never said where he got it?" Michael asked.

         "No, and I never asked." Through the open window, the sound of a dog barking became interspersed with a cat yowling. "Oh, that stupid dog," Sarah muttered. "He won't leave Felix alone." She hurried out of the room calling the cat, her voice a mixture, scolding and affection.

         "There's more to this, I can feel it." Rebecca hoped the excitement didn't show through to Michael. It might make him even more determined to keep her off the case.

         "You're probably right," he agreed. "Whatever there is, we both know that it might be dangerous. You could do a lot worse than leave this to the police. You should probably consider even taking a vacation for a couple of weeks until this is settled."

         "You've go to be kidding. The police are not going to take a sentimental trinket seriously, even if you are a cop. As for taking a vacation, I don't have time. My clients expect action, and if I don't come through for them, someone else will. I can't afford that."

          "This isn't a game. If you're dead, you won't have to worry about making a living."

         "Thank you, Dr. Doom." She didn't like talking about herself in those terms; time to change the subject. "What did your grandfather do for a living after the war."

         She focused her chocolate-brown eyes on his. The determination and stubbornness, staring out from under her wispy brown bangs intending to show him that she wasn't going anywhere.

         "He worked for the University--some kind of representative or something. He traveled overseas to Colleges in other countries a lot. No one ever said much about his work, at least while I was around."

         "Strange. Mysterious behavior must run in the family." Rebecca cocked her head. "Was it really an unsolved case that lured you to that building?"

         "What?" Michael shook his head. "Do you always change subjects so fast?"

         Rebecca tucked a stray hair behind her ear. "Hey, that's not changing the subject, if this case is what brought you there. Now quit stalling and tell me the truth."

         "And bossy to boot," Michael muttered. "Yes, it was an unsolved case. Are you happy now?"

         "Is that case why you're on suspension?"

         "No." His pinched lips were a firm no and Rebecca didn't push. She'd find out soon enough.

         "We were set up today."

         "Brilliant deduction, Sherlock!"

         Rebecca ignored his sarcasm. "But why? I never met you before today. Why you and me?"

         "Good question. When you come up with an answer, let me know. But in the meantime--"

         "I thought about this on the drive here," she interjected. "Our only connection is Sarah and that figurine."

         "No, it's just the only connection we know of . . . at the moment," Michael corrected. "You said your anonymous caller was male?"

         "Yes. At least, I think so. His voice was muffled, like he was trying to disguise it. There was a lot of noise in the background, too. How about the one you got?"

         "What do you think this is an information exchange?"

         "It should be."

         "With you, a little information can be dangerous," he told her sharply. "Like the phone call. You went to that part of town, alone, on a tip like that?"

         His thundering expression was daunting, but Rebecca held her ground. "Just like you."

         "I had a gun, and--

         "And what? You're a man so that makes it okay?"

         He'd touched a sore point, but she knew the chances she'd taken today were both foolish and dangerous.

"First of all, I'm a cop," he went on, "and as you brought it up, yes, it does make a difference that I'm a man. For instance, I doubt anyone would try to rape me."

         His words stunned her into temporary silence. Then, Rebecca found herself wanting to shock him in return.

         "Oh, I don't know about that. You're not bad." A mischievous expression spread across her eyes as she let them wander slowly down the length of him. "Broad chest, lean waist, muscular thighs. I'm sure someone would consider it. If they didn't speak to you first, and find out what a pain in the butt you are."

         "Gimme a break!" He looked away, with a squirm. "Would you be serious."

         She felt a certain satisfaction, as red spread over his face. "Listen, Michael, I understand your point. I'm not stupid, but I did wait till Sunday morning, and I checked the area. It was deserted."

         "You didn't see me."
         "Oh, you think not, huh?" She grinned.

         "Well, you didn't see whoever started the fire." She noted that he backed off from being so flippant, the calm, even voice let his earlier words linger in her mind.

         "I admit I slipped up. But the fact remains the only danger I got into came about because of this missing figurine, not my female presence in a bad neighborhood."

         She could see that her admission had surprised him. Her change of tone and mood had been the right tack. No chance she was backing down.

         "Will you leave this up to me and the police?" he asked.

         "No. Especially not now. I'm not going to hide from this. I want to find out who set us up, just like you do."

         "Will you at least agree to share any information you come up with?" Michael sighed, not quite believing what he had just suggested.

         Rebecca shrugged. "Share? Now, that's the magic word. As long as it works both ways, sure. But, I'm not sharing my fee."

         "Your fee!" His simmering temper was quick to "How much are you charging her, anyway?"

         "That's none of your business!" Rebecca clamped her lips shut, knowing that he had just dragged her onto the defensive. But she couldn't help herself and prattled on.

         "Besides, she insisted on paying me!" Rebecca informed him angrily. "If you want a pair of handmade Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, you'll have to negotiate for yourself."

         She swept out of the bedroom with a pseudo huff
* * *

UNLIKE MICHAEL'S PARENTS, his grandmother had always been there for him, his steadying rock in a very turbulent family life. He intended to protect her as she'd unfailingly protected him, even if it meant making wrong assumptions about this intriguing woman.

         Dolls for payment! Well, why not? She was a very accomplished needlewoman. Michael still had the blanket she had made for him when he was a baby. He remembered her doll collection, though he hadn't seen it for years. She often paid people, who would not accept money, with gifts like those.

         He found Rebecca in the kitchen looking out the window over the sink. Sitting down at the kitchen table he picked up his glass of lemonade.

         "Okay, maybe I stuck my nose where it didn't belong," he admitted.

         Rebecca peered at him over the top of her own glass. "You call that an apology?"

         The back door flew open and a big white cat skittered inside, followed by a scolding Sarah. "Cats! They're worse than grandchildren!" She wiped her hands on dish towel hanging by the sink. "Now, where were we?"

         "The negative?" Rebecca prompted.

         "Oh, yes, I was looking for it when duty called."

         Sarah bustled off again and Michael sat staring at Rebecca. She seemed deep in thought. "I'm almost afraid to ask, but what are you thinking about?"

         "What time does Sarah go to church?"

         "Someone in the family usually picks her up at eleven-forty-five and they almost always have dinner together afterwards. Why?"

         Rebecca mulled that over. "I thought maybe whoever left that picture in that building left the figurine here first, but he wouldn't have had time, would he?" She paused. "Though, afterward he had plenty."

         "You think whoever set us up was also behind the theft and return of the figurine? That's a bit wild . . . roasting her grandson to cover the return of a worthless trinket."

         "I don't have any ideas that make sense," Rebecca conceded. "But you did find Sarah's photograph in that building."

         "Yes. What's your point?"

         Rebecca leaned against the counter. "It's not actually proof, but you have to admit it is a connection, and they were both probably stolen at the same time. But why return the statuette? The motive for most robberies is money, and yet here the robber--"

         "But my figurine isn't worth any money. It's just a keepsake," Sarah reminded her, coming back into the room. "My Edward told me years ago, that there is an original somewhere, and it is quite valuable, but this one was an imitation. What's important was that it was given to me with love."

         Rebecca set her glass down and wiped a damp hand on her jeans before taking the brown strip of negative from Sarah. "I understand that, Sarah. What I'm suggesting is that maybe the robber thought it was valuable."

         Could the figurine have actually been the original? If it was, just where had his grandfather gotten it and how? And why would someone come after it now, over fifty years later?

         Given the little Michael knew about his Grandfather' past job, digging into it could be like opening Pandora's box; there was no telling what might come out. Edward had always been a very private man.

         "My eyes aren't what they used to be," Sarah said, "Did I bring you the right negative?"

         Michael watched as Rebecca held a strip up to the overhead kitchen light.

         Rebecca held the negative gingerly between her thumb and forefinger. "Yes, I think that's the right one. I'll bring it back to you when I'm done."

         Sarah patted her shoulder. "I know you will, Dear."

         Rebecca dropped the negatives into an envelope and then into her purse."Do you have a copy of the insurance report for the robbery?"

         "Oh Yes." Sarah set her glass down on the counter. "I'll get it," she said and headed back to the bedroom.

         Sara had never asked about other stolen items. All she had talked about was her missing angel. It was the only thing that mattered to her.

         "Do you know exactly what was stolen in the robbery?"

         Michael leaned against the doorjamb. "Both televisions, her microwave, a clock radio and the figurine."

         "That's it?"

         "Yep." Michael shrugged, acknowledging her puzzlement. "The robber didn't even look in her dresser drawers where she always has cash, or in Grandfather's old study. There's a valuable coin collection in his desk." Michael held up his hand to avert the question in her eyes. "Before you ask, she won't keep it in a safe-deposit box because grandfather never did."

         Rebecca rubbed her forehead. "What an insurance nightmare. Does this sound like a normal robbery to you?"

         "There's no such thing as a normal robbery. Still, there are some anomalies. It's not unusual to leave a coin collection behind, because they're nuisance to fence, but they sure would have taken cash if they'd found it. It's almost as if they didn't look. Or maybe something or someone disturbed the robber in the act. Certainly, the items they did get are easily pawned."

         "Except for the naked angel," Rebecca murmured and then went back to examining the negative.

         "You really don't need a negative to make an enlargement, anymore," Michael observed.

         "You don't?"

         "Nope. In fact, it's easier to make a digital copy from a regular picture."

         "The guy who does photo work for me says that if you make a blow up, you need the negative, otherwise they get grainy. I better take him the negative."


         "I have a little problem," Sarah announced as she came back into the room holding strips of shredded, wadded paper with parts missing. "Felix just loves to eat paper. He must have liked my insurance report a lot."

         "Who's your insurance company?" Rebecca said smiling.

         Sarah squinted at the shredded paper. "North Central."

         "I know some of the people over there. I've done some work for them. I'll see if I can get you another copy tomorrow."

         "And I'll get you a copy of the robbery report," Michael added with a big sigh.

         "Can you still read the report number?" Rebecca asked. "It should be in the upper right hand corner."

         "No. That part is missing," Sarah said and put the shredded papers in the trash can under the sink. "Thank you both."

         "Was anything else returned today?" Rebecca asked.

         "No, and I really miss my microwave oven."

         "I'll get you a new one tomorrow."

         "No, I don't want you to do that. I want to choose my own. But I would like it, if you would take me to the store, tomorrow."

         A knock on the front door sent Sarah scurrying out of the room.

         "Do you need me to stay?" Rebecca asked. "I have a report due first thing in the morning and it's only half done."

         Michael stood up. "No, but I'll talk to you tomorrow."

         "Sounds like a threat," Rebecca quipped as she went out the back door.

         "Michael, the police are here," Sarah called from the living room.

         "Coming, Grandmother."
* * *

THE SIGHTS AND SMELLS were bad enough, but it was the sounds that got to Oscar Moore, Junior. He could hear the wheezing even before he entered the room of his father, sucking oxygen he needed to survive, if survival was the word for it. As he came in, the nurse standing near the hospital-style bed left the room, closing the door on her way out.

         He stood looking down at the old man, who lay there barely breathing, his eyes closed. Unable to resist the overwhelming urge, Oscar picked up one of the pillows the nurse kept nearby and with a smile creeping over his face took a step closer to the inert patient.

         "That wouldn't be smart, Son. My will still leaves everything to charity. I haven't changed it back to you, yet."

         His smile disappeared. "I just wanted to make you comfortable," young Oscar whined, returning the pillow to the foot of the bed.

         "I'm as comfortable as I'm going to get," the old man rasped. "How did it go?"

         The old man's rheumy eyes opened, pinning his son into one place. The effects of the cancer showed in his hollow face and sagging skin, but it had not dampened his iron will. "Well...speak up!"

         "Not exactly as we'd planned, Daddy."

         The old man glared at him. "You failed! Again!"

         "It'll work out in the end."

         "I want it ended now, do you hear me? Now!"

         The younger man cowered under the sick old man's rage. His fists clenched inside his pants' pockets; his nails digging into his palms. He remembered how, when he was a boy, anger like this was always followed by an unmercifully beating. There would be no beating today, or ever again, but the old man's voice could still sting like the belt.

         Even now, from what would soon be his death bed, the old man had ways of keeping people in line, especially his son.

         "I'll take care of it, Daddy."

         "Did he see you?"

         "No!" he hastened to reassure. "It just didn't go as planned, I said. They didn't see a thing."

         The old man took a deep breath of oxygen, his bloodshot eyes staring blankly at his son. "They?"

         "I meant him!"

         "Bah! You're just like your mother, weak and foolish. You never could do anything right!" The effort left him gasping, his bony fingers scrabbling weakly at the oxygen tubes in his nostrils.

         His son averted his gaze, squirming inside just as he had all his life. "Tomorrow," he promised. "I'll come up with something new by tomorrow."

         "You're the only one I can count on." He paused to take another deep breath. "When this is completed I'll be able to die happy. And everything will be yours," he finished weakly, his eyelids sliding shut.

         "Every father wants to see his son walk in his footsteps," Oscar senior growled, "and by God, you're going to develop enough guts to do it. Or you won't inherit a dime!"

         "Get some sleep, Daddy."

         "Don't tell me what to do!" His eyelids flew open. "And I don't need your mamby-pamby sympathy! What I expect from you is satisfaction or you get nothing, do you understand me? Nothing!"

         "Yes, Daddy. I understand."

         The old man still held the purse strings and there was no way to get them away, not without doing as he asked. He didn't mind killing Fast Eddie's grandson. In fact, it would be fun. He could even parlay it into a double and get his own vengeance on the North bitch, too. It was being ordered to do it that stuck in his craw.

         He left the room as quietly as he'd arrived and held his rage in check, just as he always did when he talked to his father. What he needed was an outlet, and he knew just the person to vent his anger on.

         He drove to a deserted area and parked near a cell tower that didn't connect to his home. Punching in a number he impatiently drummed his finger on the steering wheel while he waited till the man on the other end answered.

         "Is it real?"

         "What?" the sleepy voice asked. "Who is this?"

         "Who? Who the hell do you think it is? Who else even talks to you, you miserable old fool!"

         "Well, I have some friends down at the senior center--"

         "Shut up!" he bellowed. "It wasn't a question, idiot! Now, what did you find out?"

         "Nothing yet," the other man mumbled.

         "Why not?"

         "These things can't be rushed. Authenticating a piece that takes careful--"

         "I don't care what it takes!" he snarled. "I want it done. Or your cute little girlfriend will pay, you hear me old man?"

         Oscar could almost see Melvin Wise cringe. "Please don't hurt her. I'll do whatever you say."

         "You'd better! And don't think you can double-cross me," he paused a full two seconds before he continued. "You won't even live to regret it, neither will she!"
{center * * *
AFTER THE LINE WENT DEAD Melvin put the phone back in its cradle, his hand shaking. What have I gotten myself into? His quick-tempered partner's violent outbursts made it clear enough, the threat was real.

         But it was too late to back out, and he was in too deep. All he could do was follow orders and wish he'd never heard of Oscar Moore.

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