MELVIN WISE moved aside as the nurse rushed into the bedroom. He'd known the Sarge for more than fifty years and the man had been a smoker for every one of them. He was a slow learner, too. He’d smoked right up until the doctor had the oxygen tank sent in. Even then, he didn’t quit until the nurse removed his matches and lighter. The rasping made Melvin's lungs ache just to hear it.
Melvin didn't know why he had stayed in touch with Sarge all these years, except that the Sarge wanted it that way, and he never did anything to get on the wrong side of the man.
There were two sides to the Sarge, that mean, vindictive old son-of-a-bitch who held a grudge forever, and the mean, vindictive old son-of-a-bitch who could slick talk the skin off a grape. The ornate trappings of this mansion displayed the fruits of the latter, a con artist who had cheated everyone he'd ever done business with.
But with Melvin, Sarge never bothered with the smooth-talking version. He just hammered in the bully all the way. Melvin knew Sarge's weakened condition didn't change things a bit. He could call in a favor and have an enemy 'taken care of' anytime. Some of his friends, and especially Oscar Junior, enjoyed inflicting pain, so, Melvin did what he was told, as long as it was nothing violent.
The nurse left the room and Melvin approached the bed. He found it hard to feel sympathy for someone who had done so many bad things to him for so many years. But when he looked at the shriveled body of the man who had once been his friend, he did feel sorry for him. "You okay?"
"Of course I'm not okay, you old fool! I'm dying!" The man sucked a huge draft of oxygen before speaking again. "But before I go, I'm finally going to get even with that double-crossing Fast Eddie. So if you don't get results for me, I'll have somebody else visit the old biddy."
Melvin frowned. "I thought you didn't—
"Not where Fast Eddie is concerned." The cough started again but only for a moment. "I had to obey him in the army, but not anymore. I'm going to even the score before I go. The Sarge's rheumy eyes filled with fury. "You sure nobody followed you?"
"Nobody is going to follow me." Melvin turned away, so the man didn't see his smirk at the paranoia.
"Just make sure no one does. I can die happy if I know my son has wrecked whatever Fast Eddie left behind."
"That's scary, Sarge. Using your son as a threat like that. He's a bad ‘un. He’s liable to kill somebody."
"That's what a threat is, you idiot," Sarge wheezed.
"You send him to scare somebody, they’re likely to end up dead," Melvin repeated. "I don’t want anything like that."
"I got others to take care of things." He glared. "So don't you get the notion of cutting me out."
Melvin shook his head. "I'm not that greedy, Sarge. You know that. I'm not that stupid, either." When it came to money, Sarge saw red, not green. "I'll do whatever you say."
"Good. I need you to visit my lawyer, again. He pulled an oversized envelope from beneath the bed cover "Take this to him, he'll know what to do."
Melvin already knew what was in the envelope. The Sarge, vain about his looks, didn't want people to see him, as he was now, so he was arranging to be cremated, and for a much younger picture of himself to be used at the services.
"And don't open it!"
The clear sealing tape made it appear that he couldn’t. What are we going to do if the figurine is real?" Melvin asked, fingering, the envelope.
"Sell it, you old fool!" He managed a laugh, which started the coughing again. The nurse rushed back into the room.
While she tended the Sarge, Melvin left unnoticed and descended the grand, curving staircase, careful not to end up as the Sarge's wife had. Her death, more than thirty years ago, had been ruled an accident, but Melvin knew better. She had not really tripped and fallen down those stairs. The insurance money had been enough to pay off the mansion. But, Sarge never had enough. Even on his deathbed, he was still trying to accumulate more and to recover the so-called loss he'd suffered from Fast Eddie!
Remorse consumed Melvin as he headed for the bus stop. This whole mess was snowballing but if he wanted anything during the last years of his life, he had to help Sarge finish the job. He didn't see a way to stop it even if he wanted to. It was too late, if he did what Sarge told him, he'd be in the will. If he didn't, Sarge's son got it all.
* * *
THE LIVING ROOM of Ester's second-floor apartment shined with class, in its cream, rose, and teal. A coordinating teal sofa matched the wingback chair where Rebecca sat with her feet perched on the edge of a plush, sculptured area rug.
Rebecca put a manila envelope on the small, highly polished oval table, and accepted a delicate china cup filled with steaming coffee. She waited until Ester sat down before speaking.
"There are only nine folders," Rebecca admitted.
"What happened to the other one?" Ester's eyes flew wide.
Rebecca sipped the black brew, How much could she tell Ester? How much did she know? "I don't know. This morning I found my front door standing open, but nothing was missing. Or so I thought, until now."
Ester folded her hands in her lap, panic in her eyes, but her voice calm.
"Maybe you just misplaced it."
"No, they were all there when I left for work this morning. The missing file is the first one you gave me."
Ester tugged at her right ear. The outside corners of her mouth turning down. "That's the one with the account summaries of missing funds."
"Yes." Rebecca savored the rich coffee before she continued. "It's possible that a friend of mine is playing a joke. But it's also possible someone knows you've discovered the missing fifty thousand."
"No." Ester's face paled. "I've been so careful!"
"I know you have, Ester. So have I." Or at least she thought she had. If only she'd looked the files up. But then again, this looked like someone knew exactly what they were looking for.
"Maybe the computer is rigged to notify him if anyone pulled that file." Ester stood up. "Someone might have overheard us or saw me making copies."
"I doubt it." Rebecca shook her head. "Maybe you should have just told Roger about this and let him handle it."
"Roger? You gotta be kidding," Ester said.
"Whoever took it, may not know what he has, but for your own safety maybe you should stay out of sight for a while. You could take a vacation," That hadn't sounded right for Rebecca when Michael suggested it. "Get out of town for a week or two till this is settled."
Ester bit her lower lip. "I don't have any leave time coming, but I can stay with my parents:" She seemed to brighten at the thought. "I'll tell them my apartment has plumbing problems or something."
"That's an idea." Rebecca stood up "I've got to get going."
"No!" Ester exclaimed, then smiled tentatively at Rebecca's puzzled look. "Good heavens! Sorry, but this has me shook. It's just that... Can you wait while I grab an overnight bag? Then we can go out together."
Rebecca wanted to get to Sarah's, but she had brought this on to Ester, so, she had to take some of the responsibility. "Sure. I've got a call to make, while you pack."
"Hello, Rebecca Dear." Sarah answered on the first ring. "Good grief! I'll never get used to this caller ID thingy. You know who's calling before they even pick up the phone."
"Hi. I was on my way over to see you but I got held up a minute. So I called to see how you were doing."
"I'm fine, Dear. That nice police officer Michael sent over is here."
"I'll be over in a few minutes. See if you can keep him around till I get there. OK? Maybe you can give him some of your sugar cookies."
"Oh, don't you worry about that. We're having coffee and a big plate right now. I'm sure you'll have a chance to meet Tony. He has lots of paperwork to do before he gets off duty." On first name basis, now, huh. Sarah is such a charmer. Rebecca knew the cop would still be there when she arrived.
Ester entered the room carrying a large Suitcase, plus another bulging bag hanging from her shoulder. I'm ready."'
"Oh, where are the new files?" Rebecca asked.
Ester Pointed to a closet near the front door. "They're in my briefcase. But are you sure you want to take them? I mean, they might make you a target again."
"I already am." Rebecca muttered and retrieved the briefcase.
There was something strange going on. Whether the missing file was part of it, Rebecca wanted to find the person behind the embezzlement more than ever. A missing statue, anonymous phone calls, a fire, a spider, the FBI... Were they all connected? And what did Michael Hall have to do with it?
She transferred the two file folders to her own shoulder bag. "Where do you want the ones I brought back?"
"I don't know." Ester was holding her suitcase with both hands, looking at the stack of folders as if they were diseased.
"Well, my track record hasn't been so good, but I could keep them for a while." Rebecca scooped up the stack and slid them into the shoulder bag with the others.
"Good idea." Ester looked relieved.
"Give me your parent's phone number and address, just in case I find out something."
Once outside, Rebecca waited until Ester backed her small car out of a parking space before pulling away.
* * *
The man watching from a car parked beneath a gnarly elm nearby had a real dilemma. Who should he follow? The choice wasn't easy, but he already had a good idea of where Rebecca North was headed. The short-haired woman might provide something new.
He fell in behind Short-hair and kept his distance. As she pulled onto the Interstate, he blended into the traffic, he stayed behind her through the downtown tunnel and past Reds Stadium. The heavy flow of cars allowed him to stay close as she took the lane for the ramp to I-75 and headed north.
After a few minutes, she maneuvered into the exit lane at the Norwood Lateral, and he stayed with her until she turned into a residential section of well kept, look-alike houses.
When she eased to the curb ahead of him, he pulled in behind a car half a block away. There was no one on the streets of the quiet neighborhood as he watched her get her suitcases and enter the house with her own key, more lights came on after she entered.
Engine purring softly, he eased his car up closer to the driveway so he could get a look inside. Two other people were in the formal living room with the short-haired woman.
After double-checking the license plate, he wrote down the address and left. From those two items, he'd find all he needed to know.
He should have known the North woman would find a way to come back and haunt him. But what does this woman have to do with any of it? At least, he hadn't seen anything yet to connect her to Fast Eddie or to that damn figurine.