MICHAEL ARRIVED at the downtown police station, early next morning prepared to endure the inevitable teasing about his involvement in yesterday's fire. He handled the situation with a grin but personally didn't find it one bit funny. This wasn't going to help the situation with the review board either. At this stage, they were looking for even the slightest dirt, so they were sure to hear about his latest fling with trouble.
Finally, Michael made it to the lab, where he'd dropped off the figurine last night. The room looked empty. The lights were on, but he knew it to be a ruse, just a means of keeping those less persistent at bay. He walked past the deserted desk to a corner where he found Lloyd Adkins, oblivious to everything, staring at a computer screen.
"Do we have a clear print?"
The chair squeaked, Lloyd bounced and swiveled. "Blast it, Michael! How many times have I told you to make noise when come up behind me?" Lloyd glared at him through special twenty-four-inch focus for viewing computer screens surrounded by heavy black frames. "I could have had a heart attack. Then where would you be?"
"You're only thirty-three, just like me," Michael reminded him. Lloyd, five inches shorter, skinny as a nail, looked to be about sixteen.
Lloyd pushed his glasses onto his thin nose. "You were the one who insisted on meeting at seven in the morning and you are a half hour late."
"It was for your protection," Michael replied.
"Don't remind me." Lloyd picked up a plastic straw and chewed the end. "I don't like it, Michael. Why can't this wait until it goes through channels?"
Michael snagged a rolling chair with his foot and sat down with a sigh. "Come on, Lloyd. The department is understaffed and overworked. It takes weeks to get things through channels. And I don't have that kind of time, not when it concerns my grandmother."
"She's the only reason I'm doing this, and don't you forget it, buddy."
He and Michael had known each other since high school but friendship only goes so far when it concerns one's job. By helping someone on suspension, Lloyd was taking chances with his spotless record. But he was well aware Michael had nowhere else to turn.
"Did you manage to get a copy of the police report on the fire?" Michael asked.
"Yeah. Here." Lloyd handed him the file. "Now, try and keep quiet until I finish this."
While Lloyd worked, Michael read. There were no surprises in the report. The few details were those that he and Rebecca had provided. But he hadn't expected much. It was too soon.
The fire investigator would sift through the rubble and do tests of his own, then they'd have something to go on. No matter how those tests came out, there were no guarantees they'd be able to prove arson or attempted murder. Most of the time, evidence melted down in a fire as intense as that one had been. Michael was sure that had been the plan from the start.
"I have a clear print," Lloyd muttered. "Male. I'll run it through the computers and try to find a match."
"Can you get me access to that duffel bag I pulled out of the building?" Michael asked.
Lloyd ran his fingers through his short black, hair, making it stick out and giving him the appearance of an irritated porcupine.
"I found a photograph of Grandmother's figurine in it," Michael told him, changing the facts a bit to suit his purpose. "But I didn't have time to go through the whole thing before the fire broke out."
"What do you think is in there? Her microwave?" Lloyd asked his hand already on the phone.
Michael stretched out his long legs. "I won't know until I go through it, now will I?"
"You're cruisin' for trouble, buddy."
He kept quiet as Lloyd arranged for him to go through the bag. So maybe he hadn't told the whole truth. Clues to finding the figurine were only part of the reason he was here. The anonymous caller yesterday had alluded to another robbery he'd worked on years ago, one that still haunted Michael. He wasn't ready to discuss that with anyone, not even his best friend.
"You've got clearance."
Michael rose. "Great. Thanks for your help."
"Don't forget, I expect my payment the next time I see you."
"She made a new batch yesterday. I'll snag a few for you," Michael said.
"Hey," Lloyd waited until he turned to and looked back. "If you value your job, try to stay out of trouble."
"I promise," Michael said, grinning. "Don't I always?"
The warning rang in his ears as Michael left the room. It was good advice and he wanted to do just that, but, he had the uneasy feeling someone was going to make that a hard promise to keep.
* * *
ACROSS TOWN, Rebecca sprinted down the hallway to the offices of the investigation and claims division of Ohio Southern Insurance Co., among the better paying of her current clients. She'd been up till 4:00 a.m. finishing the report in her hand, but she was going to deliver it on time, as scheduled. Or she wouldn't be picking up a check today.
In her haste, she rounded the corner at a run and was thus going too fast to miss the slender woman backing out of the office in front of her. Things seemed to shift into slow motion, like a wreck she could see coming but could do nothing to avoid.
"Watch it!" Rebecca cried. The woman looked up as Rebecca ran into her at full speed. She wrapped her arms around the woman, dropping her report and struggled to keep them both upright. "I'm so sorry, I was going too fast!
"No, it was my fault, I wasn't looking," the other said, straightening her bright blue suit. Then she took a good look at the apologetic woman beside her.
"Rebecca! I should have known. Who else but Late Rebecca would be running down a hallway on reporting day?"
"People with important things to do, that's who," Rebecca countered.
"Oh? Coming back to work here?" Nancy teased.
"Do I look dead, Nancy?"
She laughed. "Far from it. But Tom's right, you're going to be late for your own funeral."
"Geez, he told me that every single day for the year he was my boss," Rebecca muttered.
"Because you were never on time a single day." Nancy grinned. "And you were always fast with a quip. He hated that too. Still does, I guess that's just because he can never come up with a response."
"He hates everything." Rebecca smirked.
She bent down and picked up her report from the floor, then flew into claims processing, the section where she and Nancy had both started work with this company years ago.
"What are you doing now?" Nancy asked from the doorway.
Rebecca stuck the top sheet of her report into the time clock they used when processing incoming claims and held it up for Nancy to see. Stamped in bright red ink were the date and time, showing that she was one minute early.
"Misuse of company equipment," Nancy said, smiling faintly. "Tom isn't going to like that."
Rebecca smiled in triumph. "I know."
Tom Smith, her former boss, was now a vice president. His constant harping over minutia had been one of the reasons Rebecca left Ohio Southern to work on her own. It was a move she didn't regret. Now she set her own hours, even if they did often run till four in the morning.
"Now then," Rebecca said as she turned from the time clock and joined Nancy at the door. "Please tell me you have some coffee ready in your office." Sleep eluded her last night; maybe caffeine would help.
"Always," Nancy assured her. "This way."
They walked side by side down yet another hallway in the maze. This wasn't Rebecca's favorite insurance company to work for, but in the beginning of her free-lance career, Nancy had always managed to get work sent her way when she was most desperate. These days she was in a position to be more choosy, but whenever Nancy called, she still felt a loyalty to take the job. And Ohio Southern always paid promptly, if she got the reports in under the deadline.
The open office door had a nice little sign on it that said Nancy Richardson. They went in, and Rebecca dropped the clipped manila file folder on top of Nancy's desk, then helped herself to a cup of coffee.
"Just let me buzz Tom. He's already called about this report," Nancy said, sitting down behind her desk.
Rebecca rolled her eyes, but let a little smile creep out. "If you must."
Nancy grinned and picked up the phone. Rebecca always admired her friend's smooth professional manner and ability to put up with jerks like Tom. She had to admit that she admired her short, bouncy, brown hair, highlighted with blond streaks, too. Damn, I wish I could look that good.
"He's on his way," Nancy announced arching her brow.
"Lovely!" Rebecca patted her hair. "I can't wait."
"Shhh," Nancy giggled and pressed another button on her phone. "I need to be serious." She held up the manila folder with a bill clipped to it.
The firm authority in Nancy's voice was a stark contrast to the giggly mood both had when they worked together a few years before. Now she actually had people who answered to her.
When she'd first started her free-lance business, Nancy had to stand up to Tom and others to get her assignments through channels. That took guts, which Rebecca had no idea her friend possessed.
Rebecca had been glad for the work, and it did wonders for Nancy's career, as well. It had been the start of her slowly gaining confidence. Until it had finally skyrocketed in every way except where her ex-husband was concerned. He was a loser. And Rebecca had tried to tell her friend years before. That didn't work, of course. It remained a sore point between them, one that wasn't going to disappear soon enough as far as Rebecca was concerned.
"Your check will be ready by the time you walk into accounting," Nancy told her.
"So that's the way it is, eh?" Rebecca jumped up. "'Well, thanks for the coffee, good to see you, too. I like your new haircut. Have a nice day." She turned to go.
"Wait a minute. Sit down, you clown," Nancy ordered with a smile. "I really miss working with you. You always make me laugh and forget my problems."
Rebecca sat back down. "Ditto. You're the only thing about this place that I miss."
"You were right all those times you told me he was a louse."
"Meaning you didn't get the child support payment again this month."
"No, but you know how it is, sometimes I get it sometimes I don't." Nancy smiled timidly. "I'm luckier than a lot of women, at least he does pay on time, once in a while."
Rebecca leaned forward, her irritation showing. "You are supposed to get paid every time! Nancy, I know how much you make. You need that money for your kids. Your ex-husband is loaded! Turn him in, let someone else deal with the creep."
"I can't do that."
Every time Rebecca thought about what Nancy's ex-husband had done, her blood pressure hit the boil-over point. If you'd tell the authorities that he's threatened you and kids, they can do something about it."
"Oh, sure. Like they did the last time?" Nancy asked, voice filled with bitterness. "They did such a good job of protecting me that I ended up in the hospital."
Her words stung like salt in an open wound, rubbed by guilt. Rebecca had been the one to encourage Nancy to go through with the divorce and she still felt partly responsible for what happened.
A warrant ordering Nancy's husband to keep away from her hadn't mattered to him. He'd found her and beat her. But Rebecca wasn't about to take all the blame. Nancy had only made matters worse by refusing to file charges against him.
The system only worked if the victim cooperated. Still, how do you tell a good friend, one who had been through hell, that she had been partly to blame?
"It's the same as before, Nancy. Press charges."
"I couldn't take that chance then, and I can't now. Nancy looked at Rebecca, her eyes pleading for understanding. "You know he's threatened my babies if I ever press charges, and he'd make sure I never saw them again. I couldn't live with that, but I can get by without the money.
Rebecca wanted to help Nancy now, just as Nancy had helped her through some rough times, but she knew this was something Nancy had to do on her own. Things could go wrong. People like her ex-husband slipped through the cracks. And if the system did fail, Nancy was the one who would suffer the consequences.
It bothered Rebecca to see her friend so upset and she knew just how to make Nancy smile again. "How are the kids doing in school?"
Nancy launched into an update on her two children that lasted until Tom Smith entered the office. Tom always looked the same; short brown hair, dull suit, white shirt, nondescript tie, classic wingtip shoes. Good old Tom, ultra-conservative to the very end.
"Where's the report?"
"Such fine manners," Rebecca commented. She leaned forward and picked up the report, tossing it to him as he stood in the doorway. He caught it against his chest With a displeased look that made Rebecca smile.
He frowned as he studied her billing on top but let it pass without comment. When he saw the first page he glared at Rebecca and held it up for her to see, his thumb near the time and date stamped in red on the report.
"Was this really necessary?"
"With you, yes. I want a check today." According to their agreement, if Rebecca was late with a report she had to wait thirty days for payment. "Do you want a rundown or not?"
"Make it brief."
"The man suing Ohio Southern has sued and collected from four other, smaller insurance companies. Each time the accidents were similar in nature, as were the medical reports. You'll find two different aliases."
His frown deepened as he flipped through the pages. "He did it under different names?"
"Yup, but he used the same social security number." Rebecca couldn't resist the chance to taunt him. "The first thing your people should have checked was the computer network that doctors report their claims to. It was all there if you knew what to look for."
"Yes, well, all that matters is that I've got the son of a...'
Tom trailed off as both women glared at him. He backed out of the room. "I have to get this to the company lawyers."
"Good work, job well done," Rebecca announced in a deep, gruff voice that made Nancy giggle. "Geez, has he ever said 'Thank you' to anyone?"
"Not that I've heard," Nancy said. "Except himself."
"And to think, you actually went out with him once," Rebecca teased.
Nancy's face turned pink. "I did not!"
"Don't try to bluff me. I have a great memory. You went out with both Tom and Roger Drexel not long after your divorce went through."
"All right, so I went out with them. I must have been more desperate than I remembered." She sighed deeply. "I'm not the only one who would rather forget, though. Tom acts like we never did go out to dinner that one time when he was separated from his wife," Nancy said. "And Roger doesn't count. He doesn't even work here anymore."
Rebecca stood up. "Lucky for you North Central made him an offer. Lucky for me, too. He's another vice president I'm glad to see gone. Figures those two would be good friends. Must be the type." She glanced at her watch. "It's been fun, but I really do have to get going."
The phone on Nancy's desk rang and she picked it up, asking the person on the line to hold for a moment. "Are coming to the baby shower for Karen on Thursday?"
Rebecca's mouth dropped open. "Oh, no! I forgot to pick up the present we ordered for her! Do you think they're still holding it for us?"
"No. You'll just have to go shopping for another one," Nancy teased, knowing Rebecca hated to shop. A look of horror her face and Nancy waited a full ten seconds while Rebecca stammered excuses before finally relenting. "Relax, I knew that you'd forget. So, I picked it up last week."
"Thank goodness." Rebecca, too relieved to be miffed, accepted the teasing with a smile. Shopping and dental appointments were about equal on her list of fun things to do. Besides, too much was going on right now to waste time. "I'll pick you up Thursday evening," Rebecca offered in appeasement. Nancy hated to drive at night.
"That'd be great. Just don't forget me, too," Nancy warned.