The Ghost of Ransom Creek

A Quiet Drink

While Amanda was having her fortune told in the library, Lee tracked Romano down. He had holed up in the sun room with a bottle of scotch he had swiped from the Ransoms’ liquor cabinet. Lee borrowed a second glass for himself and poured three fingers of iced tea into it from a carafe left in the dining room. There wasn’t much ice left in it, but that was okay. It would still give the impression that he wanted to give.

He didn’t want to get drunk, but it was important for him to be drinking something. If he sat down in front of Romano without a drink in his hands while Romano was drinking, it would be an interrogation instead of a friendly conversation, and that was the last thing Lee wanted. Romano wouldn’t open up to him if it looked like their conversation was in any way official. The tea would look enough like an alcoholic drink as long as Romano didn’t look at it too closely or try to smell it.

The sun room was now anything but sunny. It was pitch black outside, and the large windows now acted like mirrors, reflecting the dim light from the lantern-shaped lamps in the corners of the room and the unhappy man who was drinking alone there.

“I don’t feel like talking to anybody right now,” Romano said as soon as he saw Lee. He turned his head to the windows, even though he couldn’t see anything there except for his own reflection.

“That’s okay,” Lee said, taking a small sip of his tea. He flopped into a chair near Romano. “I was just looking for somewhere quiet myself. The others are having their fortunes told for Halloween. Silly, huh?”

Romano took a swig of scotch and didn’t say anything. Lee drank a little more of his tea and studied his reflection in the glass. It wasn’t a particularly good one because the glass was a little warped. It was important not to rush this. Romano would just get up and storm off if he pushed. Lee counted the glass panes in the windows and waited to see if Romano would start talking.

Romano didn’t. He just stared into his glass of scotch for awhile. At least he was nursing his drinks. He wouldn’t be likely to say much of anything that would make sense if he was drunk. A quick glance at the bottle of scotch showed that it was nearly full. He hadn’t had much yet.

Lee studied Romano, starting with his reflection in the windows. The man was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, his legs back against the chair, a tense stance. He needed to do something to loosen him up a little.

As Romano finished his drink and started pouring himself another, Lee said, “You know what I think? I think it’s really about romance.”

“Huh?” Romano looked at the bottle, justifiably confused. Lee had hoped that this odd comment would get his attention.

“This fortune telling stuff. I think it’s about romance. Love and sex.” He added the last part to be especially attention-grabbing.

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, whenever I’ve heard women talk about the stars and astrology and fortune telling and stuff, it’s usually about their love lives. They’re trying to predict when they’re going to meet Mr. Right or at least Mr. Alright-for-now.” He mentally thanked Francine for all the astrological commentary and advice he’d half-tuned out over the years.

“I guess so. I don’t believe in that stuff.” It wasn’t much, but at least Romano was talking.

“Me neither. But Mrs. Nicholson’s a widow, right?” Lee said. “She’s probably lonely and thinking about a second marriage and wondering what’s in the cards. Literally.”

Romano actually chuckled at that. “Nice lady, but seems a little old to be thinking about romance.”

“Does love know any age?”

“No. Sex might.”

“How do you know?”

Romano gave him a cock-eyed grin and said, “If you’re thinking of making a play for Mrs. Nicholson, you don’t have to worry about any competition from me.”

Lee laughed. “No, I’m not thinking of that, but there are other possibilities, aren’t there?”

“That partner of yours? I wouldn’t blame you there.” Romano’s grin got bigger. The scotch he’d had so far was starting to loosen him up and make him bold. That was good, but Lee wanted to steer the conversation away from Amanda.

“She’s pretty,” Lee said, careful to keep his voice neutral, “but she’s not the only one.”

“Oh?”

“Cynthia Ransom’s spoken for, but Francine’s available. I think that’s why Worth’s joining in the fortune telling game.”

“Trying to see what’s in the cards with her, huh?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”

“I wouldn’t blame him.”

They both took long sips of their drinks. Lee finished off his iced tea, and Romano offered to pour him another drink. In the interest of establishing good will, Lee accepted some scotch from him.

“Think he’s got a chance with her?” Romano was starting to get conversational. Good.

“Who knows? I’ve given up trying to figure out what Francine’s type is. But, I think that she’s hoping to find a wealthy prince someday.”

“Money isn’t everything,” Romano said philosophically. “It can buy you a lot of things, but not the really important things.”

“What’s really important?” Lee asked. This was heading in a good direction.

“Friendship, loyalty. A sense of purpose, honor. Love. I guess you can buy sex, but that would be illegal and nowhere near as good.”

“I won’t ask how you know that,” Lee said.

Romano just laughed.

Lee liked the way Romano was talking. A man who valued friendship, honor, and loyalty over money wasn’t likely to sell out. Assuming that Romano was being honest about that, of course.

“Then there’s Annette. Actually, I’m not sure if she’s with the fortune telling group,” Lee said. “I didn’t see her downstairs when they were getting together.”

Romano shook his head. “She wouldn’t be. She doesn’t believe in that kind of stuff.”

“What about love?” Lee asked. “Does she believe in that?” Romano might or might not know that Lee was aware of their past relationship, but Lee wanted to see how much Romano would confide in him.

“She doesn’t believe in that much, either,” Romano said sadly. “I think she wants it, but she doesn’t know what to do with it when she has it. She’s only comfortable in situations when she’s in charge, dealing with hard facts, not feelings. Love doesn’t work like that. She doesn’t know how to really open up to people.”

Romano seemed to be opening up just fine with a couple of drinks in him.

Since talking about women was working, Lee said, “What about Georgia? She seems pretty sweet. Do you suppose she’s looking for love?”

“No!” The strength of Romano’s reaction surprised him.

“So she’s already taken?” Lee asked tentatively.

“You could say that.” Romano was trying to keep his voice neutral, but the scotch allowed a trace of emotion to creep in, and his hand went reflexively to the chain around his neck.

Lee could have prodded further, but he decided that it would be better not to. There were other things he wanted to talk to Romano about, and besides, office romances weren’t a safe subject for him. So, he just said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Good,” Romano said. He was still fiddling with the chain around his neck, pulling the medallion on it free from his shirt. It was round and gold, and it glinted even in the in the dim light.

“Interesting necklace,” Lee said. “What’s on it?”

“It’s a religious medal, St. Michael.”

“Your namesake?” Lee guessed.

“No. A friend gave it to me. For protection.” Romano tucked the medallion back into his shirt.

Lee ignored the identity of the giver. It wasn’t his business. It was time to test the waters on more difficult topics.

“I suppose it worked,” Lee ventured. “You did survive your last mission when you could have been killed.”

Romano’s face twisted angrily. “I thought you were going to pump me for information about that.”

“No,” Lee lied. “I genuinely think that you were lucky. I know that you might not feel lucky, but you were. Losing a partner hurts, but there’s someone out there who cares about you and would feel exactly the same if they’d lost you.”

Romano put a hand to his chest, where the necklace lay, and took a swig of his scotch.

“I don’t know who betrayed us, but I’d kill that person if I knew.”

“I know,” Lee said. “I killed the person who shot my partner.”

“Your partner?”

“My partner before Amanda.”

“Oh.”

“He died saving my life. I didn’t think I could work with another partner again until I met Amanda.”

Romano smiled again, but not as broadly as before. “I told you I wouldn’t blame you . . .”

“It’s not like that,” Lee lied again.

“Sure, it isn’t.”

Lee steered the conversation back to Chris Bennett. “You and Bennett were close?”

“We didn’t know each other for long, but I liked him,” Romano said.

“Some friendships don’t last long enough.”

“No, they don’t.”

Lee let Romano take another sip of his scotch.

Then, Romano surprised him by volunteering, “I really don’t know why I survived.”

“Every survivor feels that way,” Lee said. “You always wonder, ‘Why was it someone else and not me?’”

“I’m not talking about survivor’s guilt. I totally get that. What I mean is I really don’t see why they didn’t kill me. They could have. They totally could have! The guy who was searching me hated me. I could see it in his eyes. Then, he just hit me. The next thing I knew, I woke up, and Chris was dead. If they shot him, why didn’t they just shoot me? It doesn’t really make sense.”

“I don’t know,” Lee said. That was the truth. But, was Romano telling the truth?

“I know, you’re probably wondering if they spared me because I helped them, right?”

“No, I don’t think that.” Lee wasn’t sure what to think.

“I think that’s what the others think. But, I’m still sticking to my story. All I know is that the guy opened my jacket to search me, and then he yelled, ‘You!’ and hit me.”

“Wait, what?”

“He yelled, ‘You!’ and hit me,” Romano repeated.

“I don’t remember that part being in your report.”

Romano frowned. “I was sure I said that he yelled at me before he hit me. Maybe I didn’t say exactly what he yelled. Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. You also just said that he opened your jacket to search you. Did he actually search you, or did he just open your jacket?”

Romano frowned. “I . . . I think he searched me. It all happened so fast. Then, he hit me on head and knocked me unconscious. My thoughts were pretty muddled when I came to.”

“So you might not remember exactly what happened, whether he searched you or not? Or what he yelled?”

“The yell was the last clear thing I remember before I woke up. It’s funny, but I remember that I woke up thinking, ‘You what?’ I mean, I thought maybe he was starting to insult me, call me something like ‘You bastard.’ But, he didn’t finish it. Or maybe he did, but I didn’t hear the end because I was knocked out. Weird, huh? But, I have to admit, I wasn’t thinking clearly then. And I swear, there was nothing in my pockets, absolutely nothing! I checked before we got there, just to be sure. It wouldn’t have mattered if they’d searched me or not because there was nothing to find.”

Lee was staring at Romano, trying to think like the smugglers were. They were seeing the man not much differently than he was. By the time he and his partner had walked into the warehouse, the smugglers had known that both of them were plants. There was no need to search them for ID to prove it. A part of Lee’s mind had been wondering, why bother to search them at all? What had they been looking for? Weapons? They had come unarmed, and the smugglers might have even known that at the beginning. Assuming that there was nothing for them to find in his pockets, there was something important about his appearance, something that they had been looking for.

“Romano, who gave you that medallion?”

“A friend.”

“I need to know who. It’s important.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Well, then I don’t need to tell you!” Romano snapped.

A sudden movement caught Lee’s eye. He saw it in the glass, but it came from the direction of the door. Someone had been standing there, listening. Someone who moved when Romano raised his voice. Lee whirled around, but the other person was gone.

“What?” Romano asked.

“I thought I saw someone.”

They both got up and looked down the hallway.

“I don’t see anyone,” Romano said.

“I think she left.”

“She?”

“I didn’t get a good look at her, but I think it was a woman.”
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