Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter Nine)

I dropped Trey off at the place he was calling home and then I headed over to my office. I needed to check on a couple of things and then I was going back to that house tonight to snoop around. The first place I was going to check was in Mrs. Clos’s office. I had a feeling something there might lead me closer to the truth about this case. It was only around eleven-thirty so I had plenty of time to do my research. I had left a copy of the contract at the office, so I grabbed it and headed back towards my apartment.

When I got there, I turned on the laptop and waited for my background check site to come up. When it came up, I typed in Donella Clos and hit the search button. Within a few moments, some names came up on the screen. I looked for one that seemed to be close to her age. There was one that was seventy-three years old, another that was fifty-two and another that was ninety years old. I figured that my Mrs. Clos would be younger than ninety, but it was a toss-up between the other two. I checked the seventy-three year old first. She was listed as living at the same address as Santac, Ltd. That was too easy. Just for fun, I checked the fifty-two year old’s record. She was also listed as living at the same address as Santac, Ltd. That was odd. Maybe they had the wrong information in there.

I switched back and forth between the two records and compared the information. Everything was exactly the same except for the year of birth. This made me wonder so I checked the ninety year old Donella Clos. I could not believe that I was seeing this. Her record was exactly the same as the other two except for the age. This made no sense. I scrolled through each record until I found the name of the spouse. It was listed as Sam T. Clos. Sam T. Clos? This was ridiculous.

None of the Donella Clos’s listed had ever filed for bankruptcy and none of them were listed as employed. Santac, Ltd. was not listed anywhere except as their home address. None of them had ever worked anywhere and there were no children listed on any of the records. So much for thinking that these three could be mother, daughter, and grandmother. I had thought maybe there could be some logical explanation for the three Donella Clos’s and that the spouse listing had been a typo, but I was wrong.

Sam T. Clos wasn’t listed in any database that I could get into so I pushed my chair away from the desk and closed the laptop. I checked my watch. It was about twelve-fifteen. It was still way too early to go snooping around. I was getting impatient and I didn’t think I could wait the whole day to go back to Santac. This was frustrating. The only thing I could do was to wait and possibly get some lunch.

As I sat there looking around my apartment, I glanced across the room at my pitiful, little Christmas tree. I made the effort each year, but there was never anything under it for me or anyone else. I guessed I could go shopping and maybe find a nice gift for Trey. After all, we had been kind of close over the last couple of weeks. Okay, we’d been really close. That had to at least merit a shirt or something.

I grabbed my bag and headed out to my parking lot. I figured I’d go out to the mall and get one of those Philly Steak sandwiches and then look around for something suitable for Trey. The sandwich shop was literally right inside the door of the mall, so I stepped up to the counter and asked for a deluxe combo meal. I gave the lady behind the counter ten bucks and she gave me back a quarter. This sandwich had better be damned good for nine dollars. I sat down at one of the small tables in the restaurant and unwrapped my sandwich. It was smothered with onions and green peppers and smelled just about as good as it looked. What a good idea this had been, I thought.

For a few moments, I sat there enjoying my lunch and when I was finished, I carried my tray to the trash can, emptied it and then set the tray back on the counter. There appeared to be no other appropriate place to put it, so I left. I looked around the mall and tried to think of what to get for Trey without appearing too involved with the idea of us together. I didn’t want him to think I was entertaining thoughts of a relationship. What we had was stressful enough.

I walked through the mall until I finally came to a specialty shop that seemed to fit Trey’s personality. There were all kinds of funny T-Shirts and hats to look at, so I spent some time reading them. I had at least four more hours to kill, so I took my time. After I had read every shirt and hat in the place, I settled on the shirt with the Callahan logo from the movie, Tommy Boy on it. We had watched the movie about a million times together and I knew he would appreciate the reference.
I picked up another shirt for myself. I just liked the whole “More Cowbell” thing and thought it appropriate for the week I was having.

Once I had purchased the shirts, I remembered that Mrs. Shuble was still down the hall from me in the apartment building and that I should probably try to find something for her while I was shopping. I stopped at a shop that looked like it was made for old ladies. There were a bunch of frilly things and porcelain teapots sitting around. Everything looked like something you would see at your grandmother’s house. I found a nice porcelain clock that I thought would be great for her and then I hesitated. If I were really old, would a clock be a constant reminder that my time was limited? I put the clock back and opted for a collectible plate decorated with pretty roses. She liked roses, but she had often complained that she couldn’t keep the real ones alive long enough. This would do.

By the time I finished shopping, I was about a hundred dollars lighter and two hours closer to being able to spy on Santac. I took my stuff back to my apartment and went ahead and wrapped everything with the wrapping paper I’d purchased. This killed another hour. Finally, I decided that now had to be good enough. I put the wrapped items under the tree, including the shirt I had wrapped up for myself. I figured I might as well have something under there. I grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator and headed back out the door.

While driving over to Santac, I got a call from Trey on my cell phone. He asked what I was doing and I told him I was just following up on some things. I didn’t want to tell him where I was. He didn’t need to come back to Santac with me. The reindeer had freaked him out earlier, so I didn’t see the point in subjecting him to further weirdness. I approached the front lot of Santac with caution. No one was there, or at least, it looked deserted. I pulled around to the back of the house and stopped short when I saw a big, red Suburban parked at the door of the warehouse. I put my Jeep in reverse and backed up so that I couldn’t be seen. I quietly got out of the Jeep and crept over to the side of the house to get a closer look.

There, across the lot, was a man in a Santa suit loading items into the Suburban. He brought bag after bag out to the vehicle just as he had done in my dreams the last couple of nights. After a few moments, he disappeared inside the warehouse and I thought it would be a good time to sneak over there and see what he was loading into the vehicle. I hurried across the yard, wishing all the while that it was just two hours later so that I’d at least be hidden by darkness. Not that the light from the Christmas display wouldn’t give me away. Just as I was getting ready to look inside the bags, I heard the door of the warehouse open. I ducked back behind the side of the Suburban. I hoped I was hidden from view as I watched the Santa approach with another bag in his hands.

Just a couple more to go…come back later for more!

Until next time…

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Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter Eight)

Trey and I talked about the possibilities for a while and I decided that I needed to give Mrs. Clos a call first thing in the morning. We went through our usual tug-of-war over my unwillingness to sleep with him and finally, Trey settled for a kiss and a blanket for the couch. I had to give him an “A” for effort.

I didn’t sleep well at all. I kept dreaming about the house and the animals outside. Again, I saw the red Suburban and the man in the Santa suit. When my alarm clock finally woke me at seven-thirty, I sat up and shook my head to make sure that I was really awake. Before I even got out of bed, I picked up the phone and dialed Mrs. Clos’s number. I listened as the phone just rang and rang. No answering machine picked up. I hung up the phone and sat down at my kitchen table. I was stuck, I was cranky, and on top of everything else, I was hungry.

I trotted down the hall to the bathroom and noticed that Trey was still asleep on the couch. Quietly, I shut the door and went about my business. I was trying to decide how I was going to approach Mrs. Clos with my findings. After talking with Trey last night, I was fairly convinced that none of Santac’s employees were stealing from the company. I was even more convinced that Mrs. Clos might, in fact, be up to something. Thinking back to her visit to my office and the bruises she’d had on her face, I wondered if they might have been related to what was happening with the missing consoles. It didn’t make sense, but stranger things had happened.

I got into the shower, ever watchful of the bathroom door. It didn’t lock and I really didn’t want to be ambushed by Trey in the midst of my lather-rinse-repeat cycle. I didn’t think he would come in if he heard the shower running, but you never know about him. Sometimes, he catches me off guard. When I finished showering, I grabbed my towel and dried off and then wrapped the towel around me to go back to my bedroom. When I opened the door, Trey was sitting up on the couch. He turned and smiled at me, no doubt getting ready to say something stupid about the towel.

“Good morning,” I said.

“It’d be a better morning if you’d drop your towel,” he said, chuckling. See, I told you he couldn’t resist saying something stupid.

I smirked at him and then headed back down the hall to my room to get dressed. “I’m going out to get something to eat,” I yelled back to him, “wanna go?”

“Sure,” he said. I heard him walk across the living room and go into the bathroom. A few moments later, I heard the door open as the toilet was finishing a flush. The next thing I knew, Trey was standing in my doorway. I was still in my towel trying to find something comfortable to wear.

“Hey,” I said, “I’m trying to get dressed, here.”

“I know,” he said, “I almost missed it.” He moved closer to me and put his arms around me. Looking down at me, he brushed his lips over mine. He tasted like my toothpaste.

“Trey, I can’t,” I said.

He kissed me again. Obviously he hadn’t comprehended my previous statement. This time, his kiss was a little longer and just a little bit more involved.

“I can’t do this,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

This is where I made my mistake. I thought to myself as he was kissing me, “Why not, indeed?” The next thing I knew, the towel had hit the floor and I wasn’t thinking so much about breakfast anymore.

A half an hour later, I was headed back to the shower. This time, Trey promised that he would leave me alone so that we could get dressed and go get some breakfast. Times like these made me wonder why the two of us hadn’t stayed together. Though I knew the answer, I always came back to the fact that we had such good chemistry and the sex was just so good between us that it didn’t make sense to be with anyone else. I really didn’t need this confusion right now, but here it was again.

I got out of the shower and finished getting myself ready to go. When we were both ready to face the public, we went out to the Jeep and I drove us toward the IHOP.

We went in, sat down and ordered our coffee.

“So, are you going out to that place, today?” he asked when the coffee had arrived.

I emptied a couple of packets of sugar into my cup and stirred it, “You mean, Santac?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said, “Wherever you’ve been working?”

“I think so,” I said, “I can’t get her on the phone and to tell you the truth, I want to wrap this up.”

“I could go with you,” he said, “I don’t have anything planned today.”

Trey never had anything planned. He just kind of showed up here and there, waiting to make something happen. “I guess you could go,” I said.

We talked as we ate our breakfast and when we were finished, we paid the check and headed out to Santac. When we arrived, I saw that there were no lights on in the building and there were no cars in the parking lot. I told Trey to stay in the Jeep and I went inside to see what was going on.

No one was in the main lobby, so I headed towards Mrs. Clos’s office. She was sitting behind her desk with her hands behind her tiny head. She looked so tired that I almost hated to disturb her. I knocked softly on the door.

“Hello,” she said when she saw me there. “How are you today?”

Her voice was shaky and she seemed distraught.

“Hi, is something the matter?” I asked.

“Oh, well, yes,” she said, “one of our stockers has passed away. He was sick in the hospital and he died in the middle of the night last night.”

“You’re not talking about Tony Albertson, are you?” I asked.

She nodded, “That’s the one.” She sighed deeply and then said, “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you that he couldn’t have been involved with the thefts, either. I’ve been so flustered by all of this that it completely slipped my mind that he’d been sick.”

“That’s alright,” I said, “No problem. I just came by to see if you had a moment to talk.”

“Well, yes, I guess I do,” she said, “We shut down today out of respect for Tony. What is it that you need?”

“I wanted to let you know that I have talked with all of the employees and none of them seem to be the type that would steal from you,” I told her. I swallowed hard before launching into my next statement, “I was wondering if you might have been somehow…mistaken about what was going on?”

She looked down at her desk and tapped a white, gloved finger on her blotter. “Mistaken?” she asked, “How so?”

“Well, what I mean to say is, that…well, are you sure someone is stealing from you?” I said. That came out about as smooth as a gravel road.

“Of course, I’m sure,” she said, “Why else would I pay someone to come in here and look around?” Her tone was even and she didn’t seem angry. She seemed genuinely confused.

“Maybe I’m not being very clear,” I said, “Okay; could there be some other reason why the consoles are coming up missing?”

She still didn’t seem to know what I was getting at. “Not that I’m aware of, dear.”

“Okay, well, I don’t know how much more I can do on this case,” I said, “I could come back later and see if I notice anything strange, but for now, I’ll take a break.”

“Makes sense to me,” she said, “We’ll be open again tomorrow.”

I offered my sympathy for Mr. Albertson and we said our goodbyes. When I got back into the Jeep, Trey was sitting there staring in the direction of the warehouse.

“What’s up?” I asked him.

“I saw something weird over there while you were inside,” he said, “We ought to take a look.”

“When you say weird, what do you mean?” I asked, realizing that weird was fairly normal in this place.

“Well, I don’t really want to say this, but I guess I have to,” he said, “I think I saw a reindeer running around over by that building.”

“A reindeer?” I asked, “Over there?” I pointed to the warehouse.

“Yep,” he said. “It was very strange.”

“I’m sure,” I said. We both got out of the Jeep and headed over to the building to see if we could find the animal. I looked down as we approached the warehouse and sure enough, there were some kind of hoof prints or something like that in the mud.
I wasn’t sure why there was mud in this part of the yard, but I assumed there was a good reason.

“See,” Trey said, pointing to the ground. “This is where I saw it.”

I didn’t know what to make of this. There wasn’t an animal in sight and I knew what the warehouse looked like inside. It wasn’t a place where a reindeer could roam about freely without doing a lot of damage to the décor.

“I don’t see where it could be,” I told Trey. “The warehouse is full of stuff and I know it could not possibly fit in there.”

We went back to the Jeep and that’s when I remembered the kennels that were on the other side of the house. I punched Trey in the shoulder and told him to follow me.
I headed across the parking lot and towards a row of short buildings that lined the opposite side of the yard. We walked up to them and I could hear something rustling around inside. I peeked through a crack in the building and saw a huge, hairy beast that I couldn’t readily identify. I asked Trey to take a look. He did so and then looked at me, “That’s what I saw!”

“That’s a reindeer?” I asked.

“Yep, that’s a reindeer,” he said.

“What the hell does a company like this need with reindeer?” I said.

Trey shrugged. I needed to think about this. We decided to head back to the Jeep and get the hell out of this place. I wanted to do some background checking on Mrs. Clos and her husband. That was the one thing I hadn’t done and now, I was sure that it should have been the first thing on my list.

I’ll post more later today!

Until next times…

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Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter Five)

I left Santac, still a little confused about the whole operation but slightly more enlightened than I had been before I went. My first inclination was to think that the thief had to be someone other than Violet Tooney. She seemed way too mild-mannered to steal from anyone. That and she didn’t have two nickels to rub together. If she were making any money off of these consoles, she would be able to take more trips or at least take the one trip she usually planned on each year. I’d been wrong before, many times as a matter of fact, but I had a hunch that Violet wasn’t the bad guy in this case.

I didn’t have a good reason to stop in at the office today and I was in the mood for a burger so I drove through the In-N-Out Burger and picked up a couple of sandwiches on my way back to the apartment. I planned to do background checks on all five workers when I got home. This would at least give me some insight into the type of people I’d be running into later.

With sandwiches in hand, I trotted up the steps to my apartment and let myself in. I set the bag down on the counter and went over to my desk to turn on the laptop. As I waited for it to boot up, I went back over to the counter and pulled one of the sandwiches out of the bag. It was a double cheeseburger and it smelled damned good. I grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator and took the can and the sandwich back to the desk. I pulled the list of Santac employees names out of my pocket. As I unwrapped my sandwich with my left hand, I clicked on the icon for background checks with my right hand. I’m a multi-tasker. While the page loaded, I took a couple of bites of my sandwich and then opened my Coke and took a sip.

The page loaded and I quickly entered the names into the search engine. Violet Tooney brought no hits. She had no phone number listed and there was nothing substantial coming up under her name. I tried Jordan Sinclair next. I wasn’t sure if Jordan was a man or a woman, so I looked at both names to see if anything connected. There was a male, age 39 who lived in Crystal Ridge just a couple of apartment buildings away from mine. He had no criminal record, but he had recently filed bankruptcy. There was no employer listed, so I couldn’t be sure if this was the right person.

I tried the female Jordan Sinclair. She was 36 years old and lived just outside of Crystal Ridge in a town called Berger. Again, she had no criminal record and no employer was listed. She hadn’t filed for bankruptcy and there was no other information about her that seemed to matter. She was married to a man named Roger, but he also had no criminal record. Feeling deflated, I finished my burger and sat there thinking for a moment.

After crumpling up the burger wrapper, I tossed it into the wastebasket. I typed in Monte Bergman’s name and waited for the information to come up on the screen. When it did, I had to smile to myself. My third shift worker was a convicted felon. He had no known address and he, too had recently filed bankruptcy. His employer wasn’t listed, but I figured there weren’t many people around here named Monte Bergman so he had to be the right one.

I tried Dirk Morris and Tony Albertson but came up with little to nothing on both. Bergman seemed like the best candidate for my culprit, so I decided that I had seen enough for the day. It was coming up on six o’clock and I was tired. I closed the laptop and headed to the couch with my Coke. I’d save the other sandwich for later. Right now, all I wanted was a nap. I stretched out on the couch and stared at my ceiling. Boredom usually makes me so tired that I can fall asleep standing up if I so choose. Today, with the exception of the déjà vu stuff had been outstandingly boring so it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. As I drifted off, I began to dream again. I pretty much picked up where last night’s dream had left off. This time, I was at the house in the snowy field again. I was standing outside watching the man in the SUV. I could make out now that the SUV was in fact, a red suburban. I chalked this up to my subconscious filling in the blanks with what I’d seen earlier.

I saw the man in the Santa costume again and this time, he had a bag full of something that he was putting in the back of the SUV. The last time, it had been boxes. In the distance, I could see the animals running around again. I still couldn’t figure out what kind of animals they were. I looked in the window of the house again and saw several people standing around an oven. After a few moments, a bunch of cookies started rolling out on a conveyor belt. That was odd. The conveyor belt hadn’t been there last time, either. I watched for a few moments and then someone came up behind me. When I turned around, I was standing next to Trey. He put his finger to his lips telling me to stay quiet and then he kissed me. It was one of those long, slow dream kisses that you don’t want to wake up from.

Unfortunately, this was about the time that I was awakened by a knock at the door.

“Shit!” I said as I sat up. I looked at the clock. It was almost ten. I needed to get up and get moving if I was going to get to Santac on time to meet with the workers before they left for the day. I jumped up and ran over to the door to see who was knocking. I looked through the peephole and saw no one. Again, weird shit.

I hurried into the bathroom to straighten myself up and then grabbed my bag on my way out the door. I got into my Jeep and headed out toward Santac again. In spite of catching about ten red lights, I made it there in less than fifteen minutes. I got out and walked up to the front door this time. I opened the door and went inside. No one was there to greet me, so I made my way through the house until I reached the workshop. There were two people working; one was at the Move ‘N Shaker station and the other was hovering around it with a cart waiting to pick up any finished consoles. I headed over to the table where a woman was putting together consoles. She was working hard to get the pieces to fit together, but she was obviously struggling. As I approached, she put one finished console up on the corner of her table for the young man with the cart. He snatched it up and quietly rolled it over to the conveyor belt. She picked up some more parts and started trying to put together her next console.

“Hello, are you Jordan Sinclair?” I asked her.

“Yes, I’m Jordan,” she said, shakily. “What’s wrong? Who are you?”

I put my hands up in front of me, “Oh, no, nothing is wrong. Didn’t Mrs. Clos tell you? I’m here to talk with you about the Move ‘N Shaker,” I said.

“Mrs. Clos?” she asked, “No, she didn’t say anything about anyone talking to me.”

“Well, she must have forgotten,” I said, “I’m Jenny Herman, I’m working on some market research for Santac and I just need to talk with you for a few minutes about the Move ‘N Shaker.”

“What about it?” she asked, sneering.

“I just need to know a little bit about what your experience has been working on the Move ‘N Shaker?” I said, “That’s all.”

“My experience has been that it sucks,” she said, “I can never get the damned things to go together right.”

“Really?” I asked, “It looks like you’re doing fine with it.”

“Well, after a bunch of messing around with it, I eventually get it together,” she said. She looked tired and unhappy.

“So, it’s not been a good experience for you, I take it,” I said.

“No, it hasn’t Sherlock,” she said, “it’s a job, but it drives me up the wall.”

Sherlock, I thought. If she only knew.

“Okay, well, I really don’t need much more than that from you,” I said and I started to walk away. She reached out and grabbed my arm to keep me from leaving.

“You’re not going to tell Mrs. Clos what I said are you?” she asked. She had this desperate look on her face and for a moment, I almost felt sorry for her.

Come back a little later today for Chapter Six!

Until next time…

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Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter Four)

I studied the paper for a moment and then folded it and slipped it in my pocket. “So, there’s no problem if I come in and talk to each of them during their shifts?”

She brought her hand to her chin as she thought for a moment. “I don’t see any problem, but what reason can we give them?”

We both sat for a few minutes trying to come up with a ruse. “I’ve got it!” she said, nearly jumping out of her seat. “You can say you’re coming in to talk to them about their experience making the product, like it’s part of our new marketing campaign or something. How would that be?”

It made sense, so we decided that I would talk with the lady who worked first shift before I left this morning. Though I hadn’t seen any workers other than those gathered in the kitchen area, she assured me that they were all present. I would come back at around ten this evening to catch the second shift worker and then just wait around for third shift to come in. We got up from the table and she walked me back to the “workshop” as she called it. This time, instead of ten empty stations, there were at least twenty people bustling about. At each station there was someone who was putting something together. There were four people roaming around with carts, picking up completed items and then there were several people huddled in the middle of the room throwing papers about and speaking loudly amongst themselves. I wondered where all of them had been when we were in here earlier. This place was just bizarre.

Mrs. Clos approached the Move ‘N Shaker station and introduced me to a skinny woman in a green velvet smock. “Violet, this is Ms. Herman,” she said, “She needs to talk to you about your experience making the Move ‘N Shakers. She’s going to be helping us with our marketing.” She winked at Violet and patted her on the back before pushing me forward and walking away. I extended my hand to the lady.

“Hi, my name is Jenny Herman,” I said, thankful to have remembered who I was today, “I’m doing some market research for the company and I wanted to take a few minutes of your time to ask you about the Move ‘N Shakers. Is now a good time?”

The lady pursed her lips, but did not stop assembling her pieces to shake my hand. Instead, she nodded and finally broke into a smile before saying, “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“Your name is Violet Tooney?” I asked.

She nodded again, still putting together one piece with another. I watched her, mesmerized by her efficiency. She didn’t fumble around with the pieces; she simply picked them up from the bins and put them exactly where they went. I admired people who could do things like this. I wasn’t the least bit handy.

“Can you tell me a little bit about the product and your experience making the Move ‘N Shakers?” I asked, thinking this sounded like the right thing to say.

To my surprise, Violet started talking up a storm. She told me all about the different pieces she was working with and how each one worked with another. Today, she was working on the consoles, but that could change from day to day. Some days, she worked on controllers. Some days, she worked on both. She had worked here for several years and had just been moved to the Move ‘N Shaker line about two years ago. This hadn’t been a popular item until earlier this year, so she hadn’t had so much to do until this Christmas season. Before, she had been able to work on both controllers and consoles at the same time. She told me that she enjoyed putting the machines together because there weren’t very many pieces and they usually all fit together without any problem.

“It’s a good job and I’m lucky to be here,” she said, “so many people out there right now don’t have anything.”

I nodded to show that I was listening. “I know, it’s rough.”

“My sister just lost her job and she’s got three babies to take care of,” she said, shaking her head. “I give her any extra money I make with my overtime.”
That was interesting. A sister that needed money might be willing to sell off some stolen consoles if things got bad enough.

“Does your sister live here in Nevada?” I asked, hoping she would think I was making conversation and not fishing for information.

“No, she lives in Baltimore,” she said. “We hardly see each other because we can’t afford airfare. We just talk on the phone a lot and I used to try to get out there at least once a year. The problem is that I don’t have a lot of vacation time and if I take off, I lose money, too. I haven’t been able to make the trip for two years now.”

“You don’t get vacation time?” I asked.

“Oh, I do, but I used a lot of it when I fell last January,” she said, “I was laid up for about three months with a busted knee.” She stopped working long enough to point to her left knee by way of explanation.

I nodded again. We talked for a few more minutes and then I told her that I thought I had enough information. She smiled politely and told me to come back if I thought of anything else. “You can pretty much find me here all of the time.” She stopped assembling again long enough to reach out and shake my hand. Then she smoothed the sides of her graying hair back away from her face and set back to work. I walked away feeling not one way or the other about her. She didn’t seem like the type of person who would be running a scam. I took the paper out of my pocket and unfolded it. Jordan Sinclair and Monte Bergman were the other two assembly workers I needed to see. Dirk Morris and Tony Albertson were the two stockers. I hadn’t seen Dirk when I was talking to Violet, but he’d probably be there later when I go back to talk to second shift. I couldn’t wait.

Come back tomorrow for more of the story…

Until next time…

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Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter Three)

This is what woke me from my slumber: The smell of cookies baking. I heard a knock at my door and sat up with a jolt. I shook my head and then looked across the room at my clock. It was midnight. Who the hell would be at my door at midnight and why did I smell cookies?

I got up and walked over to my door to look out the peephole. Rolling my eyes, I unlocked the door and opened it.

“Can I help you?” I said crossly.

“Hey, babe,” it was my friend, Trey. Well, to be exact, he was my ex-boyfriend from a while back.

“Trey, what are you doing here at this hour?” I asked, “Don’t you know that normal people sleep at night?” I had a lot of nerve putting myself in the same category as normal people.

He must have thought the same thing. “Who’s normal?” he said, “I hadn’t talked to you and I wanted to see what you were up to.”

“You’ve heard of the phone?” I asked.

“Aw, now, let me in,” he said, moving past me and walking into my kitchen.

“Come on in,” I said.

“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” he said, looking around my apartment.

“You’re just weird, you know that?” I said.

“You never know,” he said. Then he grabbed me and planted a kiss on my cheek.

Instead of letting go of me, he attempted to pull me in closer for a real kiss but I put a hand up to stop him.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“What?” he said, “I can’t get a kiss from my favorite girl?”

“Oh, now I’m your favorite,” I said, “What happened to your girlfriend from the other day, what was her name, Tina?”

“Oh, that,” he said, “That’s over.”

I marveled at how quickly Trey jumped in and out of relationships. I had to admit, it almost made me jealous. I fancied myself somewhat of a contender in the area of romantic conquests, but he made me look like an amateur. The sad thing was that if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with the thought of cookies, I might have kissed him back.

“What happened there?” I asked.

He shrugged, “Nothing, really, she just wasn’t you.” He grinned and I had to smile at him, the big dummy. He was so damned good-looking.

“Hey, do you smell cookies?” I asked him.

“Well, yeah, I thought, and I don’t know why, but I thought you might have been making them,” he said.

“What would ever make you think that?” I asked. “I was just having a really weird dream about cookies and then you knocked at the door.”

“Was it a kinky cookie dream?” he said, still grinning.

For this, I slapped the top of his head. “No, ass,” I said. “I was actually dreaming that I was watching someone make a bunch of cookies. It was really stupid.”

“You probably just dreamed that because someone on this floor is making cookies somewhere,” he said, “too bad you’re not friends with your neighbors or you could get in on the cookie action.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, “Whatever.”

We both sat down on the couch and Trey flipped through my channels. He stopped at an episode of the Rockford Files and we watched for a while without saying much. I only had to slap his hand away from my knee three times while we sat there together. After that, I got up to go to bed.

“Need some company?” he asked.

“Nope, need a blanket?” I replied.

“Yep,” he said.

It was difficult to leave him on the couch, but I knew that we couldn’t keep having these little interludes if I was ever going to move on. We could be friends, but that was going to have to be it. Besides, I wasn’t going to make things that easy for him.

When I woke up the next morning, Trey had folded his blanket and left a note on my kitchen table. “Missed you out here last night, see you tonight.” Evidently, I’d see him later. I took a shower, got dressed and then grabbed the stuff from my desk that I’d put together for my fake presentation to Santac. I found a manila folder in my desk drawer and stuffed all of it inside to keep it from getting wrinkled. When I had finished my morning routine, I grabbed my purse and the folder and headed to the car. I was off to Santac for my meeting with Mrs. Clos.

When I got to the address that she had given me, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Instead of a manufacturing plant, as I had expected it to be, I drove up to a large house that was situated in the middle of a large lot. The building was surrounded on all sides by parking lots, but there wasn’t a car in sight. I checked my watch to make sure I hadn’t arrived too early. It was about 10:15 a.m., yet no one appeared to be here. I drove around to the back of the house and there, I saw a large, red Suburban parked at the rear of the house. There was also a row of what appeared to be large dog kennels lining one side of a fenced area along the back. This was just creepy. It was almost exactly the same as what I had seen in my dream last night. Except for the fact that there was no snow and that I hadn’t actually seen any animals.

I parked the Jeep and got out to look around. I quietly walked across the parking lot and took a peek inside one of the windows of the house. Another feeling of weirdness crept over me as I looked inside. There were about fifteen people inside, standing around a table and they appeared to be decorating cookies. “Wow!” I heard myself say. “What is up with all of the cookies?”

I heard a door open and I quickly jumped away from the window so that I looked less like I was spying and more like I was trying to find a way inside.

“Can I help you, Miss?” a woman asked. She was about four feet tall and she was wearing a bright, red velvet dress that was trimmed with fake white fur. This was suspicious.

“I’m here to meet with Mrs. Clos,” I said, digging in the manila folder to retrieve a card.

As I handed her the card, she looked at it carefully. “Do you have an appointment, Miss Herman?”

“Yes, she’s expecting me,” I said, crossing my fingers behind me.

“Right this way,” she said, leading me into the house.

Christmas music was playing softly from somewhere. The same music I’d heard in my dream last night. I wanted to turn around and run back to the Jeep to get the hell out of this place, but I remained calm. Maybe I was just extremely intuitive, though that wasn’t something I’d been plagued by in the past. The woman disappeared into another room and when she came back, Mrs. Clos appeared behind her. She smiled at me and then walked over and extended her hand.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Herman,” she said, “We can talk in here.” She pointed to a room off of the kitchen in the opposite direction of where she had just been. She didn’t say anything else until we were both sitting at the table together. She looked over at me and asked, “Would you like some hot chocolate, dear?”

“You do remember talking to me yesterday, right?” I asked.

“Oh, of course,” she said, “Will you need to look at our inventory today?” She winked.

I tried to think of why I would need to do that. I guessed that it might be helpful to get an idea of what kinds of products we would be pretending to promote. “Sure,” I said, “I guess that’s a good place to start.”

We didn’t get any hot chocolate. Instead, she led me out to another room in the house where I could see about a hundred different stations had been set up in a large open space. There were about ten tables set up and behind each of them were stackable crates full of parts and pieces that I guessed were used to make whatever it was that Santac manufactured. Mrs. Clos showed me the first station and indicated that this one was where dolls were made. She pointed to the other side of the room where a large conveyor belt had been set up. “One of our stockers comes around and collects the things that have been made at each station and puts them on the belt so that they can be sent down to be packaged,” she explained.

I nodded. “Okay,” I said, “What is your most popular product?” I was hoping she knew that I was asking about the product that had been coming up missing.

She walked a couple of stations down to a larger station that had a variety of parts stacked along the wall behind it. The parts included all kinds of cogs and wheels and other things that I didn’t quite recognize. “What is this?” I asked.

“This is our most popular product, the Move ‘N Shaker,” she said proudly.

“What’s a Move ‘N Shaker?” I asked. I admit, I have little to no knowledge of what kids are into these days.

“It’s a video game that kids can play by using special virtual controllers,” she said, “it’s like they’re in the game.”

“Oh, really,” I said, still trying to figure out why this would be so great.

“Come with me,” she said. We walked out of the room and she took me into a smaller room where a large screen television had been set up. In front of it, there was a console that had all kinds of wires hooked to it. She flipped the television set on and then reached for a headset that was lying on top of the console. She put the headset on and then hit the switch on the console. The screen lit up and the television showed what appeared to be a large field covered with snow. This just kept getting more and more strange. She pulled another item from below the console and I could see that she now had a set of handlebars in front of her. They were tethered to the console and there were all kinds of different buttons on them.

“Watch,” she said. I watched as the front end of a vehicle appeared on the screen.

It was a snowmobile, but I was looking at it as though I was sitting on the thing. Mrs. Clos pushed some buttons on the handlebars and the snowmobile started moving across the screen. It was pretty cool actually. She “rode” the snowmobile around for a while and pointed out the changes in scenery. This was the Move ‘N Shaker. It was a virtual reality game console and evidently, it was the hot ticket this year.

She started putting things away and we headed out of the room and back towards where we had started out. When she had closed the door, I waited until we had gotten settled back in at the table to ask her any questions about the game. “So, about how many of these things can you make in a day?” I asked.

“We are supposed to produce at least three hundred each day here at this location,” she said, “but our inventory has been coming in at about two hundred and sixty every day.”

“Are you sure that three hundred are being made each day? I noticed that you don’t have any cameras up or at least none that I can see,” I said.

“Oh, we’re sure,” she said, “There are enough parts for three hundred consoles given to that workstation every day. Each shift is to make one hundred consoles during their eight hours here.”

“Is anybody lagging behind or are all three shifts pretty much doing the same number?” I asked.

“First and third are doing fine, it’s the second shift that seems to be having trouble,” she said. “But I hate to think that she’s doing anything wrong, she’s been with us for years.” She went on to explain that the assemblers work in tandem with the stockers to move the merchandise from the assembly line to the warehouse.

“I’m going to need the names of all of the workers associated with that station, can you get me that?” I asked.

She nodded and took a pad and pencil from her apron. That was odd; I hadn’t noticed she was wearing an apron before. In any case, she wrote down five names and beside those, she wrote down which shift they worked. She handed me the slip of paper and said, “There are only two stockers who work twelve hours a day. Like I said, I don’t think it’s either of the two ladies who are working assembly. It’s the other three I’m suspicious of.”

Come back later today for another chapter of this story…

Until next time…

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Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter Two)

I collected my mail when I got to my apartment building and was surprised to see only a couple of bills in the pile. The rest were flyers and advertisements for products or services for which I had no use. I removed the two bills from the stack and chucked the rest in the trash can as soon as I got in the door. It was about three p.m. and somehow, I’d forgotten to eat lunch. The meeting with Nellie had left me feeling unsettled and I hadn’t even thought about food until I reached my apartment. I was starving so as soon as I got in the door, I checked the refrigerator to see if anything had miraculously appeared in there since this morning when there was nothing to eat for breakfast.

Sadly, there was only about a half gallon of orange juice, two slices of American cheese, one pickle and what was left of a deluxe pizza that I had ordered three nights ago. Anyone who knows me knows that I have practically no culinary talents. There was really nothing I could do with two pieces of cheese and a pickle that would make me less hungry, so I picked up the phone and dialed Paco’s. My old favorite, Micelli’s had gone out of business a couple of weeks ago and Paco’s had opened in their old location. I hadn’t tried their pizza yet, so I decided on a large Italian sub. Since orange juice didn’t go so well with Italian food, I also ordered a six pack of Coke. That accomplished, I plopped down on my couch with the two bills in my hand. Reluctantly, I opened the first one and pulled out its contents.

It was the bill for my renter’s insurance and it looked like the premium had actually gone down from last month. At least that was something good. The next bill wasn’t quite so wonderful. Last month I had to have some dental work done after an altercation with a rather surly individual I’d encountered as part of a case I was working. Some words were exchanged and before I knew what was happening, a couple of fists were flying. One of those fists had connected with my jaw and knocked out one of my teeth. In short, I still owed about $475 for the time I’d spent in the dentist’s chair. I tossed the bills aside and got up to go to the bathroom. I went down the hall and did what I needed to do. By the time I made my way back to my living room area, there was a knock at the door. Thank God, I thought. I took a twenty from my pocket and opened the door. I handed the money to the delivery boy and took the bag and the six pack.

I was so frigging hungry. The sandwich smelled heavenly, if that’s possible. I unwrapped it and took a bite. This was just what I needed. I opened one of the cans of Coke and put the rest of the six-pack in the refrigerator, still holding the sub in one hand. I wasn’t about to put this sandwich down. Once I had settled down, I realized that my attachment to the sandwich was worrisome. I really needed to find a hobby. It’s a sad thing when the most exciting event of the day is unwrapping an eight inch sub. Though it might have been more sad if it had only been the six inch.

After I had finished the sub, I opened up my laptop to do some research. If I was going to play the role of a salesperson, I needed to come up with something clever to “sell.” It’s not like you can go into a business and say, “Hi, I’m a salesperson, please let me come in and look around.” After about an hour, I stumbled upon an idea that I thought might work. I couldn’t find much in the way of products, but I figured that any business needs decent advertising. Since I hadn’t been very effective in marketing my own services, I wasn’t sure how I was going to come across in a sales presentation but hey, who really cares? All I needed was a business card and maybe a flyer or two and I could at least look like I knew what I was doing.

Though I’m not highly computer savvy, I opened up my Word program and started working on a template for a business card. I had recently taken one of those free classes at my local library where they taught me how to do some basic stuff with Word. I had liked the class so much that I had gone out and bought myself a couple of tutorial programs that I worked on in my spare time. After selecting a business card template from the menu, I filled in a fake name for myself, Jenny Herman. It was the first thing that came to me that didn’t sound like something out of a cheap movie. From there, I added the fake P.O. Box number that I use for all of my undercover endeavors. After that, I decided that my “company” really needed a name. Like I said, I’m not terribly good at this marketing stuff. I sat back in my chair for a moment and looked at the ceiling. Often, ideas came to me when I stared at the ceiling. I’m not sure what’s up there, but it usually sparks some creativity. As I studied the grid of the suspended ceiling tiles, the name came to me. I typed in “Criss-Cross Advertising Solutions.” After that, I pulled a graphic into the document to spiff it up a bit. I was pretty impressed with myself. Just a month ago, I couldn’t have figured this shit out and now here I was making fake stuff like a pro. Cool.

I pulled out a sheet of business card paper that I had purchased for making my own cards and stuck it into my printer. I hit the print button and within five minutes, I had my very own set of cards for Criss-Cross Advertising. Now, all I had to do was come up with some pricing and services. To do this, I just looked online for some advertising companies and copied from them. Most of them offered the same types of things, but I stuck with the ones that looked like things I understood. Pricing was a little more difficult. For that, I had to make a couple of phone calls.

“Hello,” I said as the receptionist for AAA Advertising picked up the phone.
“Can I help you?” she asked in a polished, professional tone.
“Yes, I am looking for a company that can do an advertising campaign for my business,” I said, not really knowing what to ask for. “What kinds of services do you offer?”

She ran down a list of things and then said that she could connect me to a Marketing Specialist. Before I could object, she had put me on hold and transferred me over to Ted in Marketing.

“This is Ted, what can I do for you?” he said cheerily.
“I’m looking to do some advertising for my business, can you tell me how much an advertising campaign might cost?” I asked. That sounded really stupid.
“Were you looking for print, direct mail, tv, radio?” he asked and then added, “Or maybe online?”
“Well, I don’t really know, what do you think works best?” I asked. I hoped he would be able to explain some of this stuff to me so that I could just repeat it all when asked later.
“What type of business do you have?” he asked.
“I make and sell stuff, all kinds of things like toys, knick-knacks, you know,” I said, remembering Donella Clos’s words.
“Okay, well, then you’re probably going to want a mix of all of these to reach the largest possible audience,” he said, “Where is your business located?”
“Here in Crystal Ridge,” I said.
“What kind of advertising do you use currently?” he asked.
“Currently?” I said, “Well, I really don’t have anything right now.”
“How long have you been in business?” he asked.

I didn’t know the answer to that one, “Five years,” I blurted out.
“You’ve managed to stay in business for five years with no advertising,” he asked, incredulous.
“Well, yeah, I mean, there’s word-of-mouth I guess,” I said, cringing.
“Sounds like you’re going to need a lot of help,” he said. I could hear him smiling like an idiot on the other end of the line. He was no doubt thinking that he had caught a live one with me. “Can we meet to discuss some of your options?”
I hesitated, “Well, right now, I’m really just calling around to get some idea of what an ad campaign would cost. Can’t you give me a ballpark figure over the phone?”
“It’d be better if we could talk in person,” he said, “But, I guess the type of campaign I’m thinking of might run you around $15,000.”

I nearly fell off my chair, “$15,000?” I said, “What would I be getting for that?”
“Well, of course there’s brand development and some really great market research that we could gather for you to help you target your customers more effectively…” he went on and on after this and I could feel my eyes glaze over. Finally, he finished up by saying, “I have some time available today if you’re free.”
“Uh, well, I’m going to need to get back to you on this,” I said, “I didn’t really plan to spend so much.”
“We can work with you on payments,” he said, “our goal is to get you results.”
We went back and forth a little before I was finally able to get him to hang up the phone. I had jotted some of what he said down as he spoke so that I could capture some of the key phrases. I looked at my paper; market research, brand promotion, print, direct mail…none of these meant anything to me. Maybe that’s why my P.I. business never really took off.

I spent a little more time putting together some materials for my performance and then picked the phone up to call Mrs. Clos. No one answered, so I left a message telling her that a “representative” from Criss-Cross advertising would be stopping by tomorrow morning to talk with her about her recent inquiry. I hoped she would recognize my voice and that I wouldn’t take her by surprise when I showed up there.

Party animal that I am, I curled up on my couch at around 9 p.m. and fell asleep. I had strange dreams as I tossed and turned on the small sofa. Why I didn’t just get up and go to bed is beyond me. I just felt restless and I couldn’t get my mind off of how weird this little old lady had been. My dreams took me out into a snowy field where I saw a Santa Claus-like figure loading boxes into the back of an SUV. There were reindeer, I think, or maybe they were some other kind of animal. I’m not good with nature, so they could have been horses for all I know. Through the whole thing, I heard Christmas music playing in the background but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I floated through the field until I came to a house that was decorated up with all kinds of lights and other holiday junk in the yard. I walked up to the window and I could see my new client inside. She was baking cookies, but not just one tray of them. There were literally thousands of cookies coming out of the oven. I could actually smell them baking.

Come back tomorrow for Chapter Three!

Until next time…

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Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter One)

I don’t ask for much. In fact, I don’t ask for anything at all. The Christmas season is always a little stressful for me, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not the shopping, hell, I don’t really shop. I just send everyone gift cards and let them figure it out. It’s not the parties…I don’t really go to those. Since I work for myself, there really isn’t much need for a company sponsored event. It’s not the jolly bell-ringers that stand outside of the grocery store begging for your spare change. They don’t really bother me because I usually just ignore them. No, for me, the stress comes from an entirely other place. For me, the stress hits me at about the time when everyone else is starting to feel relief. It hits me as I’m putting away my little, fake Christmas tree and trying to figure out why I bothered to set the damned thing up in the first place. It’s not like I have people over anymore. The people I used to spend Christmas with are either dead or out of my life for some other permanent reason. This year, I needed to keep busy. If I didn’t, it might give me too much time to think about why I don’t have a best friend to share the holidays with. It might be too much of a reminder that forty is right around the corner and I’m just now starting to grow up. I’ll have to put that conversation on hold for a bit, though. Don’t want to spill the beans.
I’m sitting in my office, looking at the ceiling as I do on many occasions. It hasn’t changed. It’s nothing fascinating, but it’s a hell of a lot better than looking at the pile of bills on my desk and comparing it to the ever-withering balance in my checkbook. My phone started ringing and I nearly fell out of my swivel chair. I had been deep into my “meditation” and the sudden shrillness of the phone’s ringer had startled me. I sat up and collected myself before reaching across the desk to answer.
“Shively,” I said.
“What are your hours today, ma’am?” a voice asked.
My hours are pretty much what I make them, I thought, but in an effort to sound halfway professional, I said, “9 to 4, what can I help you with?”
“I’m just down the street, I’d really like to speak to you in person if you don’t mind,” the voice said. I couldn’t really tell if this was a man or a woman. The voice was low and gravelly, but it could have been either had they smoked enough cigarettes in their day. They were definitely over forty. That I could tell. I’m not sure how, but I could tell.
Inwardly, I groaned. I really hated having people come into the office. I had only invested in the space to keep people from coming to my apartment. I wasn’t much of a hostess and truthfully, I preferred meeting my clients in public places. It was just one of those things. One less place they could track me down should they decide they want to shoot or otherwise injure me. “I guess that would be alright. I’m here for at least another hour,” I said reluctantly.
“Thank you very much, I’ll be around in a few minutes,” the voice said and they hung up.
“Okay,” I said to the dial tone.
I hung up and waited for the inevitable knock at the door. This visitor would be here whether I was ready or not. I sat back and put my hands behind my head. I really didn’t know how to prepare, so I figured I’d just sit for a moment and look stupid. It’s one of my strengths.
Fifteen minutes passed before I heard the knocking. I must have drifted off for a moment, because again, I was nearly startled out of my seat. I stood up, collected myself and walked the five steps across the office to my door. When I opened it, I didn’t see anyone. I stepped back and started to close the door when a tiny, old woman exclaimed, “Hey, wait a minute!”
I looked down and was shocked to see a woman, not more than three feet tall, standing in my doorway looking up at me. She was dressed in some kind of velvety, red wrap that made her look like a fancy bag lady. She was disheveled and her face sported a fresh bruise the size of a walnut just under her left cheekbone. Someone had roughed up this poor little, old lady. This immediately pissed me off.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “what happened to you?”
“Can I come in, please?” she said huffily. This woman was not happy. She pushed her way past me before I could invite her in and then plopped down in the small wooden chair beside my desk. She fussed and fidgeted around for several moments apparently trying to arrange her wrap so that it wasn’t bunching up underneath her. I could understand that, I hate bunching.
“Can I ask what happened to your cheek?” I asked her.
She ignored me, so I gave her a few minutes to get situated and then I walked back over to my own chair and sat down. I thought about offering her something to drink, but then decided to wait and see if she answered my question. She looked up then and eyed me suspiciously, as though I was the one who was forgetting something.
“Aren’t you going to offer me something to drink?” she asked, twisting her face up as she spoke.
This is why you should always trust your first instinct about a situation. “I’m sorry, would you like something to drink? I have coffee and bottled water. I might have a Coke in there.” I pointed to my mini-fridge as though it held the answers to the questions of the universe.
“No, thank you,” she replied curtly. Well, now, why the hell would you ask if you didn’t want anything? Any sympathy I had felt for this woman was quickly dissipating.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me, what happened to your face there?” I asked her again.
She looked up at the ceiling and then around at my office. It wasn’t very impressive, so I braced myself for an unsolicited critique. “You should really get some plants in here, dear,” she said, “this place is so dreary.”
“Okay, yes, I know that, but what I don’t know is why you are here,” I said, getting impatient, “I hate to seem pushy, but you’re avoiding my question.” I’m not inclined to ignore signs of abuse, especially when little, old ladies are involved.
“Well, if you must know, I fell down the other day and one of my animals kicked me in the face,” she said testily, “not that it’s any of your business.”
“Your animals?” I said.
“Yes, my animals,” she said, not offering any additional information about the nature of the beast who had kicked her.
I was sure she was lying, but I decided not to press the issue. “Okay, then, what can I do for you, Ms.?”
“The name is Nellie, and I have a problem with my…employees,” she said, “I think someone has been stealing from us.”
This seemed straightforward enough. “What kind of business do you have?” I asked.
She hesitated for a moment and then put a finger up as she nodded her answer, “Manufacturing and distribution of toys, knick-knacks and other stuff, mostly.”
“Mostly? What else is there?” I asked.
“Well, it’s really hard to describe, but the part I’m most worried about has to do with our inventory,” she said.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked, never failing to hear that stupid song in my head as I said the words.
“I think it’s been a few months,” she said, “I wanted to be sure, so I waited before coming to you.”
“And what makes you sure?” I asked.
“Well, I started marking some of the items so that I could track which ones went missing,” she said, clearly impressed with her own ingenuity, “and for the last two weeks, there have been huge gaps in the merchandise that should be on the shelves.”
“Okay, then,” I said, “I guess I can look into this for you. What is the name of your business?” I pulled out a contract and prepared to write down the particulars.
“It’s Santac, Limited,” she said, finally smiling. Her spirits seemed to be lifting somewhat, but for no reason I could ascertain.
“Santac is spelled…?” I asked, writing down what I thought it should look like.
“S-a-n-t-a-c, limited,” she said.
“And are you’re the owner of the business?” I asked.
“Yes, part-owner, my husband and I own it together,” she said.
“Is he aware that you’ve contacted me?” I asked.
“Oh, heavens no,” she said nervously, “he wouldn’t understand all of this.”
I sat back for a moment to consider whether or not I should proceed. I didn’t like to handle family business cases where everyone wasn’t aware of what was going on. It made for a messier than normal investigation.
“Is he likely to give me any trouble if he sees me around your place?” I asked.
“Oh, no, he wouldn’t do that,” she said.
“Are you sure, because I don’t want to be hassled while I’m trying to do my job,” I said.
I hated giving the old lady a hard time, even if she had been a little rude. But, what I hated more was being bothered by people when I was trying to check shit out.
“He won’t even know you’re around, dear,” she said, “he’s usually not in the office.”
I nodded and we continued filling out the contract. I explained my fees and she pulled a checkbook out of somewhere within her frock. She wrote me a check for $1,000 and handed it across the desk. I folded it and slipped it into my jacket pocket so that I could take it to the bank later. We talked about some possible scenarios for my checking out her warehouse and decided that I should come through as some kind of salesperson. I didn’t much care for the idea, but I figured it wouldn’t matter much what I was as long as I got a look at some of her employees. She had it narrowed down to three of her stockers. She couldn’t figure out which one was stealing, but she knew that it was one of the three. She wanted me to come in and look around as though I were assessing their needs for some kind of product that I sell. I hate using my imagination to this extent.
Before she left, she reached out to shake my hand. When her hand touched mine, I was surprised by its warmth. This crotchety gal seemed like the type whose hands would be cold and bony, but hers was warm and soft. I suddenly felt like I was standing there with an old friend. There was something strange about her. I wasn’t prone to being naïve, but she reminded me of someone.
“Nah,” I said to myself, shaking my head. I reached into my pocket to take out the check she had written. The name on the check said, Donella Clos. Not even close, I thought. It was a completely different spelling. Anyway, I didn’t believe in stuff like that and if she was someone magical, why didn’t she smell like cookies. Wasn’t that the deal, all those elves and shit smelled like cookies or sugarplums or something Christmasy. “I must be losing my mind,” I said to no one in particular.
I got out a deposit slip and one of those envelopes for the ATM machine and started to fill it all out. I’d drop this in the bank on my way home. There was really no need to sit here in the office all day. I had an answering machine and it actually worked, so I left.

Come back tomorrow for Chapter Two!

Until next time…

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The Final Mini-Mystery…

Here is week #5’s installment. Good luck!

Out of Focus
By Rebecca Benston

Grace Martin was a photographer. She was twenty-three, single and desperate. She had been struggling to make ends meet by working two part-time jobs and taking on assorted freelance projects. One of her part-time jobs was as a waitress for a local family eatery called Mack’s. She had been there since high school and was getting tired of the same old routine and had actually given her two weeks notice three times in the last two years in hopes of getting away from the place.

Her other part-time job was as a babysitter for a woman who had a part-time secretarial position for a local tax attorney. Her name was Marguerite Halford. She had two small children, Hattie and Sam. They were three and four, respectively. One evening when Grace was preparing to leave, Marguerite asked her a strange question.

“You’re a photographer, right?” she had asked.

“Sure, did you need some pictures taken of the kids?” Grace had asked, hoping for another project.

“Well, not exactly,” she said, “It’s kind of complicated. Can you hang on for a second while I make sure the kids are still down for their naps? I don’t want to talk about it in front of them.”

Grace nodded, “Sure, I guess so.” She was puzzled. What kind of craziness was she about to hear? Marguerite had already shuffled out of the room to check on the kids and when she came back in, she was carrying what appeared to be women’s underwear.
Grace’s brow furrowed as she looked at Marguerite’s hands. “What’s that?” she asked.

“This is why I need pictures,” she said nervously.

“I’m sorry; I don’t understand what you need…” Grace said, “You need pictures of underwear?”

The color rose in Marguerite’s face and she said, “Oh, no, no, not the underwear. It’s not mine. That’s the problem. I found them here and I’m worried…” She took a deep breath before she continued, “…I’m worried that Ted is having an affair.”

Grace’s hand flew to her mouth involuntarily. She had been working for Marguerite and her husband Ted for the past three years and this was a little awkward to hear. “Oh, I see,” she said.

“Yes, and I was wondering if you had any experience in taking pictures without someone knowing you’re taking pictures,” Marguerite said. “I need to know who she is.”
“Well, I-I don’t know, I usually don’t do distance shots,” Grace started to say. She looked at Marguerite, whose face was flushed and filled with tension. “I mean, I’m not sure I could get a good enough shot with the equipment I’ve got.”

“I’ll buy you what you need,” Marguerite said, “I need these pictures so that I can go to an attorney. Would you be able to set up somewhere nearby and possibly catch something this weekend?”

“Geez, I guess, I mean, where?” Grace said.

Marguerite had obviously been planning, she answered, “I thought you might be able to set up in the building across the street. I know a lady who lives over there.”

The two of them talked about how Grace could get a shot of Ted this weekend. Marguerite was going to visit her mother with the kids this weekend and Ted would be alone at the apartment. Grace could use Marguerite’s friend Tess’s apartment to set up her camera equipment. It was directly across the street and should be ideal for the kind of shots that Grace would need. Tess was out of town and Marguerite was actually feeding her pets and taking her mail in for her every day, so she had a key to her apartment. This is what had given her the idea in the first place. Marguerite told Grace to go out and get the equipment she needed to take the pictures and to put it on her credit card. She told

Grace that she would pay her $1,000 for pictures that showed anyone other than Ted or family members entering the apartment. It should be easy enough as long as Ted didn’t decide to take his escapades on the road instead of bringing his lover to their home.

Grace left Marguerite’s apartment feeling low. Although she should have been happy, she felt bad that Ted was deceiving Marguerite. She felt especially bad for the kids. She wasn’t sure if she was doing the right thing by trying to help, but she really needed the cash. She reasoned that it would serve a good purpose if Ted really was cheating on Marguerite. If he wasn’t, then she could help put Marguerite’s mind at ease by reporting that she hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. Maybe the underwear had been a gift he had bought for her. She hadn’t asked Marguerite where she’d found them. Maybe Ted had just hidden them until he could wrap them up for Valentine’s Day. These thoughts kept her up all night and when the alarm clock finally went off at 7 a.m. the next morning, she felt as though she hadn’t slept at all. Her mind was so cluttered and she had to go to work at Mack’s at 9.

She decided to go to work, stop off at the camera store for a telephoto lens for her camera after she finished her shift at 2 p.m. and then head over to Tess’s apartment to set up for that night. It was Friday and Marguerite had told her that she and the kids would be heading for her mothers by 1 o’clock. Grace didn’t want the kids to see her going into the apartment building, so it was good that they would be gone by the time she got there. Ted worked until around 5 or so and would probably get home by 6. She didn’t want to run into him, either. Although it was only five hours, her shift at Mack’s went very slowly. She had only six tables during the whole lunch rush and managed to pick up a useless $12 in tips. She left the restaurant at 2 and headed over to the camera equipment store to look for what she needed.

When she talked to the clerk, she asked which lens would work better for long distance shots. She knew, but she needed to talk to someone to take her mind off of what she was preparing to do. The clerk tried to sell her some outrageous piece and she quickly told him she only had half of what that lens cost to spend. He changed his tune and gave her the right lens and she also purchased a tripod and some extra film. She left the store, satisfied with her purchases. These would come in handy after this project. She might even be able to start doing more landscape work. This made the idea of taking pictures of a cheating husband slightly more palatable to Grace.

Grace drove over to the apartment building across from Marguerite’s, stopping to get a sandwich on the way. She was relieved to find a parking spot in the lot behind the building. She hadn’t wanted to park on the next block and carry all of her equipment down the street. Within fifteen minutes, she had let herself into the apartment and set up the camera. The window in front of the apartment had a direct line of sight to Ted and Marguerite’s front door. The apartment building they lived in was more like a condo. Each unit had a door in the front, so there was no question that visitors going in that door would be there for Ted. Once the camera was ready, she took a couple of test shots and then decided to sit down and eat. She looked around the apartment she was in and saw several pictures on the fireplace mantel. They were photos of a Border collie decorated with the usual, cheesy bandana around its neck. These appeared to be the only photographs in the apartment and none of them included a human being. There were no dog bowls around, so Grace assumed that the dog had either passed on or that it was someone else’s pet.

As she studied the room, Grace noticed that there was little in the way of clutter. The apartment was tidy and Tess had decorated it very tastefully. There were contemporary white couches arranged around a plain black table. A clear vase with two white roses sat in the middle of the table. The flowers hadn’t wilted, so they must have been recent purchases. This made the hair on the back of Grace’s neck stand on end. What if Tess wasn’t out of town? What if Marguerite had the dates wrong? If Tess came home, how could she explain what she was doing in her apartment with a camera aimed across the street? She didn’t know the woman and she was pretty sure that Marguerite hadn’t told her what she was up to.

She hurried through her sandwich and threw away her trash. Now that she had herself sufficiently worried, she wasn’t sure if she should just pack up and tell Marguerite no one had visited Ted or not. It wasn’t quite five o’clock and she really didn’t want to stay in the apartment very much longer. She looked out the window and to her surprise, saw that Ted’s car was already in the driveway across the street. She hadn’t seen him pull up because she had been in the kitchen eating her dinner. As she watched the street, another car pulled up to the curb in front of the condo. She watched in amazement as a woman got out and walked up to the door. Ted opened the door and the woman stepped inside. All this time, Grace had been watching but hadn’t thought to snap a picture. She smacked herself in the forehead and decided to go ahead and take a few pictures of the car. Now she would have to wait until the woman came out to get a shot of her.

While she was standing there looking out the window, someone knocked on the apartment door. She froze. She couldn’t answer the door so she just stood there and waited for whoever it was to give up and go away. They knocked a few more time and after about five minutes, they must have left. Grace tiptoed over to the door and looked through the peephole. No one was in the hall. She took a deep breath and opened the door. A package had been left in front of the door. She picked it up and took it inside the apartment, forgetting to lock the door behind her. Seconds after she had put the package down on the counter, someone burst through the door and grabbed her from behind. She struggled, but the assailant had her in a choke hold with one hand over her mouth. Moments later, Grace lay on the floor of the kitchen in a pool of blood. She had been stabbed to death and the package she had brought in from the hallway was beside her, unopened and soaked in Grace’s blood.
A neighbor had seen someone run down the hallway from Tess’s apartment. She had called the police because she knew that Tess wasn’t home, but saw that her door was wide open. When the police arrived, they found Grace in the apartment and they assumed that she was Tess. Later, upon closer investigation they discovered that Tess was, in fact, out of town and that the person who had been killed did not live in the building. Grace had no identification with her other than Marguerite’s credit card. She had left her purse in the trunk of her car because she’d had so much to carry with the camera equipment. Mistakenly, after checking the name on the card with their database, the police had gone across the street to see if Marguerite was home or if it was her on the kitchen floor of Tess’s apartment. Ted had told them that Marguerite was visiting her mother out of town. The police had asked Ted if he could come over and help them identify the body at Tess’s apartment.

He had gone without hesitation because he knew Tess and he also knew that she’d had some trouble with an abusive ex-boyfriend in the past. He had been meeting with a client at the condo and he left her there to read over the contracts he’d prepared for the sale of her boat. He was a boat salesman. When he got to the apartment and saw Grace there, he told the police that this was their babysitter. He was puzzled as to why she was here and he noticed that there was a camera set up at the window. The police asked if the camera was Tess’s and Ted had told them it was probably Grace’s. He told them that she was a photographer, but he wasn’t sure why she would be over here with the camera. He didn’t think she even knew Tess. The police took the camera as evidence and later found that there were pictures of the car in front of Ted’s condo. They also bagged the gift that was beside Grace’s body as part of their investigation.

Okay, folks! It’s all up to you! Can you guess what happened to Grace? Who is responsible for this? What is going on? Send in your guess by Friday, February 8th for your shot at the $20 gift card and an entry into the Grand Prize Drawing! I’ll be giving more details about the prize package later in the week!

Good luck to you!

No Winner?

BB’s Mini-Mystery #4 must have been tough. No one sent in a correct guess. So, I’ve decided to add the $10 gift card for this week to next week’s prize package which means that Mini-Mystery #5 will be for a $20 gift card! I’ll also be drawing for the Mini-Mystery Grand Prize next week after I announce the winner for #5! For now, here’s the solution to Mini-Mystery #4:

The solution:

Erika looked past the barrel of the gun and saw Dr. Reed standing on the other end of it. He said nothing as he fired and then walked quickly away from the scene. He had been Mrs. Holtz’s doctor and just two week’s ago, Mr. Holtz had told him that his neighbor had recommended (which Erika hadn’t) that they try a certain medication. He had mentioned Erika by name and so, the doctor figured she made a point of telling older patients that they needed to pressure their doctors into dealing with drug reps. When he had received the call from Erika about his other patient (the old lady in the elevator), he decided he had to do something.

He was angry at her for meddling in his patient affairs. She had no right to pressure him into giving his patients free drugs that might not even help their conditions. He’d always had a negative attitude towards pharmaceutical companies because he felt like they were part of the problem with the health insurance industry. The whole mess cut into his bottom line and he was sick of it. He had been able to stall the investigation by blocking the security cameras in the lobby until he could take care of his problem. The police had discovered his fingerprints on the camera lens and arrested him just three days later.

You just never know.

I hope you’ll stop by on Monday to see what Mini-Mystery #5 brings. Remember, the stakes are higher with a $20 gift card on the line. I’ll also be drawing the winner of the Grand Prize from all of the entries I receive, not just the winning guesses! Winners will be announced next Saturday!

There’s more to come…