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Betrayal in Blue

By C. R. Downing All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Mystery

Untitled chapter

Chapter 25

The weather in Manzanita was hot and dry four days after Phil Mamba flew to Chicago. A high-pressure air mass sitting over Nevada blasted a desiccating Santa Ana wind down on the city and surrounding area. Many people who were calm by nature were wound tighter than that rotating atmospheric phenomenon. Hope Mamba was one of those people. The evaporation of her composure resulted from listening to William Anderson’s complaints about her husband’s service, not the Santa Ana winds.

I’ll tell you what you can do with your money. If you don’t think that Phil’s just as anxious to find the thief as you are, well, you’ve got no idea whom you’ve hired!

“I understand, Mr. Anderson,” she said. “But Mr. Mamba is not available for a phone conversation at this time.”

“That’s unacceptable,” Anderson intoned. “I am paying for his services. My payment of money is a tacit agreement that I have the right of access to his results and other aspects of the case he is working on for me.”

I’d like to give you some tacit slaps to the side of your smug tacit head.

“Mr. Mamba has completed all agreed upon services and provided all reports as outlined in your contract.” If you’d like, I can stuff a copy somewhere for you!

“I can see that furthering this conversation will accomplish nothing more. I expect to hear from my employee before the end of business Friday of this week.”

Hope hung up the phone with a trembling hand. She hated being angry. But she hated Phil being gone, too. Between single parenting for the second time in a month and manning the fort in the office, she was at the end of her rope. Philip Richmond Mamba, you need to get home and rescue this damsel soon, because her distress is escalating. She booted up the office computer.

* * *

“Did that sound convincing?” Guillermo Arcenas asked his secretary after he’d finished his conversation with Hope Mamba.

“Perhaps a bit testy.”

“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind next time.” He returned to his paperwork sporting a Cheshire grin. I’ve confirmed Anderson’s alignment with those bent on enforcing the law.

* * *

After visiting the restroom for what seemed like the tenth time in the four hours she’d been working, Hope returned to her work. She took another sip from the glass of water on her desk—knowing it would send her back to the restroom. But she needed the fluid to suppress the nausea, which she blamed on dehydration from the 5% humidity.

She slid a floppy disk into the slot in her computer and began typing a summary of the conversation with Anderson. Phil could read it when he got back and decide whether to include it in the man’s file.

* * *

Stallings and his wife took a day on a lake near Tifton to decompress. The following morning, Mamba and a relaxed Stallings made the six-hour drive to St. Louis, Missouri. In a diametrically opposed weather pattern to Manzanita’s, it was muggy with thundershowers in St. Louis.

After spending the night in a motel, Mamba and Stallings sat in the air-conditioned office of Lieutenant Oliver Kraft. The three men were discussing the discrepancy in Stallings file.

The discussion began in a spirit of cool congeniality. As more words were tossed about and more ideas expressed, the mood soured. It now was neither cool nor congenial.

“I tell you that this is not the same. This letter of recommendation is different from the one I read in your file in Mulligan’s office,” Mamba told Stallings as the thumbed through the St. Louis Police Department’s copy of Stallings personnel file.

“What about it, Lieutenant?” Stallings asked. That sounded like an accusation. “I’m sorry. I just want to know what’s been going on.”

“That’s what I typed. That’s what I copied. That’s what I sent to your new superiors out on the coast,” was the terse reply.

“The change must have been made in our house,” Mamba offered. This is going nowhere. Kraft is unapproachable like Stallings predicted.

Even if the Lieutenant was a tool, there was no obvious reason for him to make changes to the letter in Stallings’ file. The original, here in Saint Louis, and the copy back in the Department personnel file, both communicated the same tone.

The discussion, now more overlapping monologs than dialog, resumed.

As he watched Stallings continue to stress and Kraft continue to minimize, Mamba dropped out of conversational mode and into his mental problem-clarifyication mode. The little steel balls began to roll.

There are maybe three reasons for this minor forgery. The forged letter could have just been a practice run for whoever the forger was. If this forgery went undetected, it would build confidence for other attempts. But there’s no evidence of that. Second, maybe some of the altered wording was essential to make another part of the file, which had also been forged, believable. But, there’s no evidence of that, either. Finally, the forged letter could have been inserted into Stallings’ file just to set him up, if, or when, it became necessary to have a patsy. Reason number three is beginning to look more and more like the real reason.

One of the little steel balls balanced on the edge of a hole in the clown’s face. Mamba smiled inwardly and resumed his contribution to the discussion.

“Unfortunately, Frank, that doesn’t get you off the hook. Internal Affairs will contend that you had access to the file.”

“What?” Kraft asked.

“What is it that doesn’t get me off the hook?” Stallings asked a more specific question.

Uh, oh. Sounds like my comment was out of context.

“I was thinking back to the idea of changes to your file being made in Manzanita, not elsewhere,” Mamba said.

“But, what about the threats? This has to have something to do with the threats and accusations I’ve been getting.”

The face of Mike Mulligan flashed through Mamba’s mind. It came unbidden and kept reappearing in spite of his attempts to erase it. “Harassment from a superior” was Stallings’ claim. He considered Mulligan his friend. But, how well did he know the man who replaced him as homicide lieutenant?

“Do you have any record of those threats?” Mamba asked.

“You know I don’t or I’d have gone to IAD myself!”

“Time out,” Kraft said, stopping the escalating exchange between the two Californians. “I want my office back. You need to take this elsewhere.”

Two pairs of eyes locked. Two heads nodded agreement.

Stallings said, “We get it, Lieutenant.”

Twenty seconds later, Lieutenant Oliver Kraft sat alone in his office.

Stallings and Mamba traveled in relative silence until they found a place for lunch. After their food arrived, they began to review the meeting with Lieutenant Kraft.

“The part of your file that was changed was Kraft’s commentary on your reprimand while you were in Illiana,” Mamba began. “As changed, there’s no mention of any reprimand of any kind in your records. Does that sound like something he would agree to?”

“My heavens, no! That’s about the most opposite of an action by Kraft that I can imagine. Why?”

The PI took a bite of his hamburger and chewed slowly. Stallings took the hint and did the same. There was no reason to ruin this lunch. After another bite was swallowed, Mamba spoke again.

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Good thoughts, I hope.”

“I think so. I’m leaning toward the idea that the change to your file happened somewhere between St. Louis and Manzanita.”

“What’s your rationale?”

“More gut feeling that rational thinking. The department leak is sending information to names on our list. At least some of those people named must have out-of-state connections.”

“Right! The drugs have to come from somewhere,” Stallings said. “So, it could be— No, it’s reasonable to assume that someone outside California wanted me to be culpable for the leak. My culpability shifts the focus of the investigation away from the real crooks.”

“Crooks? Really, Stallings?”

“Just shut up, Gumshoe. I’m agreeing with you. Enjoy the moment.”

Both men laughed. There was no more discussion on that topic on the entire ride back to Ohio.

* * *

The evening of the day Mamba and Stallings returned from St. Louis was spent reviewing and planning. Breakfast the following morning, Mamba’s seventh day in the Midwest, was homemade biscuits and gravy. The PI helped dry the dishes and headed to Chicago for his return flight. The Sergeant promised to follow with Lizbeth within a week.

Forty-five minutes into the drive, Mamba began to wish he’d just driven down to Cincinnati and changed his flight at the airport there. Spending the extra money would have been worth not having to drive across parts of Ohio, Indiana, and the congested northeast corner of Illinois to get to O’Hare Field. Seven hours after pulling away from the Hopkins’ driveway, he was still wishing.

He followed farm vehicles and stopped at the only stoplight in so many little towns he’d quit counting. The odyssey continued when he arrived in Chicago at the start of the afternoon commute. He was frazzled by the time he returned his rental car.

His most germane observation of the journey: It’s weird, but I don’t remember my drive in the other direction being as exasperating as this one.

His non-stop ORD to LAX flight landed ahead of schedule, just in time to catch the tail end of the Los Angeles commute. He arrived home feeling harried, harassed, and haggard. He comforted himself: at least, I’m not Hope-less!

After spending some time with a very sleepy son, he and Hope talked. But, she fell asleep as he was explaining the next move he and Stallings agreed on, which wasn’t like her. Single parenting must be exhausting. He got out of bed and checked on Jimmy. After a quick inspection for locked doors, he turned out the lights and climbed back into bed.

The next morning, Phil fixed breakfast for the family. Jimmy was ecstatic over his Mickey Mouse pancakes. The stack of buttermilk flapjacks he offered did not excite Hope. Instead, she opted for a poached egg and some juice.

His commute to the Northeastern Division station was ordinary. For that, he was grateful. To be driving on his home turf with drivers who understood his techniques and strategies because they were also their techniques and strategies was a welcome change. He walked into the station with great expectations.

“Hey, Eddie,” Mamba greeted Sergeant Edwards as he entered the Records and Copies office, his decision on the best place to resume his search for the truth.

“How’re you doing, Mister Mamba?” Eddie responded with minimal enthusiasm. He was engaged in copying a massive report that the Captain wanted thirty minutes after handing it off, and the clock was ticking. He trusted no subordinate with the task. He hoped it wouldn’t take long.

“Fine. Just fine.” He called me Mister. Must be under some serious stress. This won’t help that. “Could I get look at a file?”

“You got authorization?”

“I’m involved in an active investigation. I’m helping out with Sergeant Stallings missing and all.” Mamba played his only card. Just say, yes.

After a beat, during which Edwards glanced at his wristwatch, he said, “That’s good enough for me. Officer Cowan will get whatever you need.”

Mamba went back to the counter outside the actual copy room. He told Cowan that Edwards approved his request and asked for Mulligan’s personnel file.

Sergeant Edwards placed another page on the glass surface of the copy machine and closed the top.

Mamba spent an hour with Mulligan’s file.

* * *

Hope Mamba sat at her desk in the office of Mamba Investigations. Phil, while back in town, hadn’t yet come in. She was alone. With little to occupy her morning, she allowed herself to daydream.

She was envisioning her husband gallivanting about on a quest to right the world’s wrongs when the door to the office opened.

“Telegram for Ms. Stapleton,” the deliveryman announced.

“I’m sorry, but—” Stapleton? Oh, my! “Never mind, I’ll sign for it,” Hope said.

The deliveryman raised the clasp on his clipboard, pulled out an envelope, and handed it to Hope.

“Sign here, please.”

She complied.

The deliveryman turned to go.

“Wait!” Hope called. “Hold on just a minute, please.” She pulled out the bottom drawer on her desk and removed her purse. After scrabbling through the purse’s contents, she was rewarded with her wallet.

“Here.” She handed the man two one-dollar bills. “And, thank you.”

“My pleasure.” He deftly folded his tip money with one hand. “And, thank you.”

Once the man was gone, Hope opened the envelope and read the telegram.

FR: State Licensing Agency

TO: Ms. Stapleton

RE: Phone conversation w/ Illiana P.D.

Heard of your success <STOP> Congratulations <STOP> Need information on details of conversation <STOP> Licensee complains of “evil look” given by IPD staff <STOP>

Expect contact by licensee soon re this incident <STOP>

Love <STOP> PRM <STOP>

“Hoisted on my own petard,” she said aloud to the empty office. She replaced the telegraph in its envelope and slid it into her purse, smiling all the way. I’ll have to thank that PRM in person. Tonight. When it’s just the two of us.

* * *

The Stallings arrived in Manzanita as scheduled. Frank called Mamba from Reno. Mamba drove Hope’s car to a parking garage and parked it on the agreed-upon level before the Sergeant’s after-dark arrival. When the Stallings arrived at the garage, they arranged for long-term parking, not uncommon for those taking a shuttle to LAX.

Franklin retrieved the key from a magnetic key box under the driver’s front fender. After moving their luggage into the trunk of Hope’s car, he climbed into the backseat and hunkered down out of sight. Lizbeth drove to Mamba’s home. She parked the car in the garage. Only someone looking for something out of the ordinary would have noticed that neither Mamba was the driver.

“Hope, this is Lizbeth and Franklin Stallings,” Mamba said by way of introduction when the couple were safely inside Mamba’s closed-up garage.

“I’m so glad you agreed to stay with us,” Hope said. “I cannot imagine what you’ve been going through.”

“Be glad of that,” Lizbeth said. “I wouldn’t wish what we’ve been going through on anyone.”

I feel terrible, Hope berated herself for focusing on her cancer and ignoring her husband’s situation. She’s got to be one of the strongest women I’ve ever met.

“Let’s go inside. You’ll be in our guest bedroom upstairs. It has a three-quarter bath of its own, so that will help with privacy,” Hope explained as she directed the couple through the door from the garage into the front entryway.

I wonder how much she knows about my condition, Lizbeth thought as the word privacy registered in her brain. I wouldn’t want to share my bathroom with a toilet-hugging chemo-brain either. Regardless of the reason, I’m glad for the separate bathroom.

* * *

Mamba arrived at Memorial General Hospital at the time visiting hours began. It was over a week since he’d seen Flatly. He missed spending time with the man.

“Dancer, where you been?” Flatly called from his hospital bed. “Cue Ball—” He stopped. A look of panic flickered across his features. “I mean, Officer Martinez, said you was outta town. He says I can’t call him Cue Ball on account he’s not doing that—” He leaned in Mamba’s direction and whispered, “He says he’s not doing undercover no more. He says it’s too confusing.”

“I think I know what Martinez means. Undercover is dangerous work. As to where I was, it was just business. I’m back now. Got another book for me to record?”

The boxer dropped his eyes, diverting his gaze from anywhere close to Mamba.

“It okay for you not to read no more books for me?” Flatly asked.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Something’s happened. He ate those tapes up when he got them from me before I left.

“Y’see, Officer M—that’s what he lets me call him—and Nurse Erin read so much more excitin’ than you.” The words poured out of Flatly with no offense intended. He was just explaining things as he saw them. “And with the two of them, it’s jes’ like a old radio show. Nurse Erin reads the girl parts and Officer M most of the rest. Nurse Reilly, she reads really good, if you followin’ me.”

Oh, my gosh! Those two are running a soft porn concession.

“Can I still visit you?” he asked. On the one hand, he was glad to be relieved of the responsibility of reading the sex novels. He’d felt like a pervert as he read some of the passages onto the tape. On the other hand, now he felt like a veteran ballplayer who had just been benched and replaced by a rookie.

“’Course you can. I still don’t get many, y’know—viz’ters.”

“Hang in there,” Mamba admonished. “I’m sure more will come by before you leave.” Even if I have to roust them or bribe them to do it.

“I’ll be hangin’ with one hand all the way.” He raised a single clenched fist.

In a classic Flatly-ish maneuver, an instant later he changed the subject. “The doctor says it’s lookin’ better ‘bout keepin’ my arm.”

Mamba thought it was too bad Flatly wasn’t that quick with misdirection in the ring. He was sure he’d have never lost a fight if he’d had moves like that.

“That’s good to hear!”

“I get to start some ther’py or sump’n day after t’morrow.”

“You do exactly what they tell you to do. You hear me?”

“I hear!” was his immediate response. “I will. Eggs-aklee. I promise!”

Mamba nodded and shifted the conversation to the local sports scene.

* * *

After he left the hospital, Mamba headed for his office. He wasn’t looking forward to whatever backlog he’d find, but he didn’t want it backed up any further. Hope wasn’t at her desk when he entered. He considered tapping the bellhop bell on her desk. She’d put it there with a sign.

That’s when he heard the fan in the restroom.

No way I’m ringing that, he decided and went straight to his office. Minutes later he heard his wife open and close a drawer in her desk. By that time, he’d seen the memo she’d written about Anderson’s hijinks.

“Hope,” he called. “I need you to take a memo.”

“And, if I don’t want to take a memo, then what?” As her voice trailed, her face appeared in the doorway to his office.

She looks pale. After making the observation, he decided to wait and see if she mentioned anything about how she was feeling. He answered her question.

“Then, I’ll type it, and it will take you twice as long to fix as it would have to do it yourself the first time.”

“Don’t worry. I brought my steno book. But, don’t go too fast, I think I might have eaten something that didn’t agree with my stomach.”

I was right, he thought without any sense of accomplishment. He hated to see her feeling less than one hundred percent. He waited until she settled herself and looked over at him.

“To: William Anderson. From: me. Regarding: Status of your case.”

“Can I edit this if your version doesn’t represent the position of the entire Mamba Investigations staff? I really want to let this man know he’s being a big jerk.”

“Only if I get to read the final version before you send it.”

“Party pooper. Go on.”

“I have been away from my office working an angle on a case that appears linked to ours. Rest assured that any information gathered during the investigation of that case will have no impact on the hours billed to your case, regardless of the amount of cross-over between said cases. Sincerely, etc.”

“Sometimes you amaze me,” she said.

“Only sometimes?”

“Ha. Ha. I mean you told him to back off and made it seem like it was your fault there was a problem. How do you do those kinds of things over and over again?”

“Clean living.”

Hope rolled her eyes and stood to her feet.

“Since you’re not going to take me seriously—”

“Oh, I did,” he said as he interrupted her. “You didn’t let me finish.”

Hope gestured for him to continue.

“I was going to say, clean living and a world-class secretary.”

“Not bad. Except the term secretary.” She turned to leave, stopped, and turned back around. “What are you doing for lunch today? I need to eat something I can keep down.”

He pretended to check his desk calendar before he answered.

“It appears I’m free.”

“Well, I’m expensive. I’ll be ready for you to take me out for a classy luncheon in about ten minutes.”

They lunched at Martin’s on Main, one of the restaurants the Mambas liked to visit for a modestly upscale lunch. The place decreased the portions and the price of five of their most popular items between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

The food was good, as always. The conversation between the couple started splendidly. But, soon after ingesting her tomato bisque, his wife excused herself and returned to their table with the same pallor he’d observed in the office. She was minimally responsive through the rest of his meal.

Hope ended up taking over ninety percent of her entrée home in a box directly from the restaurant. Phil decided to worry about how to get her car back to their house later.

“I hope you’re not coming down with a bug,” he said as he walked her to the door. He’d called the babysitter from Martin’s and extended Jimmy’s stay for an extra three hours to give Hope time to rest.

“What’s wrong?” Lizbeth Stallings asked as Hope entered the living room with an unsteady gait.

No one in the MPD, or anywhere else in Manzanita, knew that Sergeant Stallings and his wife were staying with the Mambas. Even Mamba’s neighbors thought they were friends of Hope’s from her college days. It was important to have Stallings nearby, so the live-in arrangement was a chance that had to be taken. Mamba hoped it didn’t blow up in his face.

”I think I might be coming down with something,” Hope mumbled.

Phil grabbed her as her legs turned to rubber. Together with Stallings, they got Hope upstairs. Once in the master bedroom, Lizbeth took charge.

“The last thing this woman needs now is a pair of men in this room. Go to your smoking room or wherever men go now and do whatever men do. Leave the two of us alone!”

She shooed them out the door and pulled it closed.

She helped Hope out of her work clothes and into a pair of pajamas. Then, Lizbeth supported her hostess as she settled into bed by helping her scoot up so she could lean against the headboard.

“Thank you for doing this. I know you don’t feel well at all yourself.”

“My chemo’s not ’til tomorrow. I’m great today, which is more than I can say for you.” Lizbeth took a hard look at Hope. “You actually look marginally better than you did downstairs. How do you feel?”

“Marginally better,” Hope said through a weak smile.

Lizbeth laughed.

“I see you brought food home,” Lizbeth said. “How much lunch did you manage to get down?”

“Tomato soup. But, that all ended up in the sewer lines, if you know what I mean?”

“Oh, I know. And, that’s more than I need to know.”

“Sorry. It just kind of came out of my mouth.”

For only a second, Lizbeth looked puzzled, then she laughed so hard that she had to sit down. She took a seat next to Hope who found her new friend’s laughter contagious. Both women’s cheeks were wet with tears before the laughing stopped.

“That was a classic use of language,” Lizbeth said.

“What it is, is a result from living with Phil too long.”

“I hear you. You should see some of the stuff my husband thinks is art.” She grimaced at the visual in her mind.

“I’d like you to do something for me,” Hope said.

“I’ll do whatever I can.”

“I can’t believe you’re going to have your treatment Monday here in town. Not with the police still searching for Franklin.”

“All my treatments are down in a research hospital in Simi Valley. I’ve not seen a local doctor about any of my cancer issues since I was referred to the Simi Valley facility.”

“Oh, good.” Hope slapped her hand to her mouth. “That was just insensitive. I am so sorry!”

“Never apologize for being normal around a cancer patient. I get way too much abnormality from my family as it is. What do you want me to do?”

“Really, it’s two things.”

“Okaaay.” What’s going on?

“First, I want you to finish my lunch. Today, or at least before Monday. Actually, anytime before your treatment when you won’t want to eat,” Hope said.

Lizbeth nodded her assent.

“Second, I want you to pick up something for me from the hospital pharmacy when you’re there.”

* * *

While the wives talked of their topics, Mamba and Stallings conversation took a far different tack.

“There are some serious discrepancies in Mulligan’s file,” Mamba told Stallings after they settled in the downstairs den. “They can’t all be coincidences. I don’t like it.”

“This’s gotta be tough for you,” Stallings said. “You two are good friends, aren’t you?”

“We were partners when he first came on the force.”

Stallings needed no other explanation. To police officers, the concept of partner was self-explanatory. Your partner was more than your friend. He was a spouse, a mother, a sibling, a protector, and a confidant. When your partner got hurt, you bled.

“What do you know about Mulligan the man?” Stallings asked.

“He was military. He talked about Vietnam a few times. I know his family a little. I wasn’t married when we were partners, so I kind of felt like an intrusion into his home life. He’s a Lieutenant because I quit the force—” Realizing that sounded awfully self-serving, he added, “But, he was on track for that anyway. Not right then, but eventually.” I don’t know another thing about Mike that’s not related to police work. That’s pathetic.

“Not much, is it?”

Stallings shook his head.

“I’m going to Washington, DC.”

“What? Why?” Stallings asked.

“The FBI keeps tabs on any confidential police file transported.” Knowing that was an inadequate reason Mamba added, “And, I want to check with the Defense Department about Mulligan’s military career.”

“You can’t do that over the phone?”

“Not like needs to be done. I have to see what the pages look like. I bought my ticket over the phone earlier today. I leave about noon on Monday.”

“Ahh. Got it,” Stallings commended when he realized that a visual comparison might be the only way to know if something in the file had been changed. “Want me to drive you to LAX?”

“I can’t let you do that.”

“We need a car. Lizbeth’s got a chemo treatment in Simi Valley Monday afternoon.”

“You might be able to make it to LAX and back,” Mamba mused. “Okay. But you meet Hope and Lizbeth on Hwy 1. call Hope when you get about twenty miles out. Hope will hand Lizbeth off to you and return home. Her car needs to be here in the afternoon like it always is. And you can’t risk being recognized in town. We’ll leave early so no one will care who’s with me. But you won’t get back until its full daylight. We don’t want even a hint of your presence getting to MPD. That’s why the rendezvous on Hwy 1.”

* * *

Anthony Garmel was finishing breakfast in his Chicago home. He liked breakfast. Sausage patties, eggs over hard, and crisp, buttered toast with homemade jam was his preference. Any preference of his was a mandate to his staff, so he was served that breakfast every day.

He patted the corners of his mouth with the linen napkin that had rested on his lap during his meal. With now clean fingers, he checked his calendar. When he read the first item on the day’s agenda, he frowned.

This is dragging on far too long. He barked an order.

“Bring me a phone!”

He hadn’t bothered to check if anyone was in earshot. He knew there was.

As the phone was placed on the table next to his left hand, another personal preference that was always accommodated, he slid his Wedgwood china plate toward the middle of the table at which he sat. A figure dressed in waiter’s garb, swept in and out, taking the offending dirty plate and silverware with it.

“Get me Brewster,” he barked into the phone handset. With those words, all semblance of sophistication evaporated from the scene. It was now time for business.

“He’s not up yet. Do you know what time it is?”

“Do you know who this is?”

“No, and I don’t give a baboon’s butt who this is. If you think I’m waking Brewster, well, that’s not gonna happen!”

“Considering this is Anthony Garmel, I suggest you think about another part of an animal’s anatomy for any comparisons.”

“Mr. Garmel?” The question was gulped out by Rick Elkhart, Brewster’s now terrified second in command. “I didn’t know, sir. I’ll get Mr. Brewster immediately.”

The sound of a telephone handset contacting a solid surface reached Garmel’s ear.

“You bet you will,” Garmel growled knowing full well his comment wouldn’t be heard. This guy’s got some stones. He heard several seconds of loud profanity in the background. More quickly than he thought it might take, a scraping sound informed him of Brewster’s arrival.

“Mr. Garmel, this is Brewster. I want to apologize for my associate.”

“Not necessary. I want his name.”

There was the tiniest sound of a gasp from Brewster. Perfect, Garmel thought. Now I’ve got his full attention. The sound of a throat being cleared replaced the gasp.

“His name is Elkhart. Rick Elkhart. But, sir, he was acting on my orders.”

“Shut up and listen, Brewster!”

“Of course, sir.”

“The situation between you and the police has gone on far too long. You need to make a statement. And, you need to do it now.”

“I understand, Mr. Garmel. I have been working on it.”

“What you have been doing is neither successful nor sufficient. Up your game. I’m tired of having to dial new phone numbers when I want to reach you.”

“I will do my best, sir.” I’ve done all I could to keep one phone number to forward calls from. When I find out who dropped the ball on getting that number to Garmel there will be another open slot in my crew.

“If you haven’t been doing your best already, we have a bigger problem than I thought we had.”

“Sir, I didn’t mean, sir . . .” Brewster babbled like a child in trouble. Get a grip. For the love of God, you sound like a drug user, not a drug supplier. “Would the elimination of a high-level police officer directly involved in the, um, in the disruption of our services be sufficient?”

“I would accept that. See that it happens by the end of this week. Is that clear enough for you, or do I need to use small words and draw pictures for you to understand?”

You SOB. I’m working my butt off trying to keep your organization afloat in the middle of some over-zealous cop’s idea of what it takes to get promoted, and you treat me like an imbecile?

It took considerable self-control, but Sid Brewster reined in his true feelings. He was not a stupid man.

“Consider it done.”

Garmel hung up. Brewster fumed.

After fuming for almost two hours, he made a decision.

“Get me Rogers!”

“Chief Rogers’ office,” Petula Jacobs said as she answered her boss’s phone.

“My boss needs to speak with Chief Rogers,” Rick Elkhart said.

“What is the nature of his business?” This is a call I listen in on.

“Tell him that my boss is calling on behalf of Anthony Garmel.”

That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Something serious is brewing.

“Please hold.” She pushed the HOLD button and the FORWARD CALL button in quick succession. But she did not hang up her handset.

After one ring, Rogers picked up.

“Rogers here.”

“This is Brewster.”

“What in God’s name are you doing calling me and calling me on my work line? Are you crazy?”

“Mr. Garmel directed you to derail the investigation into our local business operations,” Brewster said, ignoring Rogers’ series of irrelevant questions.

So, this is a quick and dirty call. He gets my best non-answer.

“It’s not as easy as you make it sound. The Chief of Police cannot say, ‘Let’s just let this one slide.’ There are checks and balances to be maintained.”

“Less checking and balancing is what I’m expecting. So is Garmel. And soon!”

I’m sure you are. I hope you didn’t mention Garmel’s name to Jacobs was the thought Rogers left hanging after the click that introduced the dial tone.

Petula held her breath as she waited for Rogers to hang up. When he did, she replaced her handset.

I thought videotapes of our escapades were good insurance. I just added a high-value rider to my policy under the name of Anthony Garmel.

* * *

As far as Hope and Lizbeth knew, both husbands were still ruminating and pontificating in the den/study downstairs. After Hope’s nausea passed, the pair of wives moved from the master bedroom into the guest room the Stallings were occupying. They spent time exploring of one another’s likes, dislikes, peeves, preferences, and nail salons.

During the conversation, Lizbeth removed her head-kerchief, her name for the bandana she wore when she was certain she’d be around no strangers. The mood was one of trust.

There’s not going to be a better time to start this conversation than now, Hope thought and then dived in.

“You had an Afro hair style when we met. Now that you’ve taken off your, um, I don’t know what to call your headpiece.” Hope’s grand plan to attack the issue straight on had been stalled by her lack of vocabulary.

“Wow. You need to signal before you make a turn that sharp,” Lizbeth said. Hope blushed. Lizbeth reached over and touched gently squeezed her new friend’s hand.

“Don’t beat yourself up. I need to talk about this more than I do. At least that’s what the hospital oncology advocate says.” Lizbeth picked up her head covering and folded, then unfolded it as she continued.

“You can see I’m bald as a billiard ball. When my hair fell out, I tried going places with nothing on my head. You know, to kind of make it seem that things were still normal.”

“Oh, I get it. The day after a new hairstyle is trauma enough for me. I can’t imagine what bald would be like.”

“I don’t imagine anymore. I know what people think when they see a tall, bald black woman. So, I got an Afro wig for outside. I wear one of these when I’m inside. I call them head-kerchiefs.” She ran her hand over her hairless pate.

Hope started to compliment her name for the bandana. She stopped herself when it appeared that Lizbeth’s focus was no longer on her head kerchief.

A memory from two days after one of her worst chemotherapy sessions exploded in Lizbeth’s brain. As she looked down, she saw herself shivering under three blankets in her bedroom in the house they had abandoned.

The flashback roused a shiver in sympathy to her remembered icy-cold pain. She’d tried to talk, to make the recalled scene go back where it had been hiding.

“I’m praying so hard this—”

The obstinate memory swept all her conscious control away. She plunged into another uninvited recollection.

But then my eyes opened wide. I slapped one hand over my mouth, threw the covers off with the other hand, and staggered into the bathroom. I know Franklin heard the sounds of the vomiting over the next several minutes, but he never let on. I washed my hands and face, and then I gargled to get the taste and smell out of my mouth.

Lizbeth lapsed into silence. Hope made a decision.

“Well, I don’t know how you do it. I’ve heard just enough about how you suffer after those horrible cancer treatments to mean that.”

“Now that, that is part of this that I could completely do without!” Lizbeth mumbled. Her mind was still dealing with the flashback. She hadn’t heard Hope’s comment.

“Do without what? When?” Hope asked. She looks frightened. What if it’s something I said?

“Intense cold, nausea, and vomiting after the chemo.” She recounted the flashback including only the highlights, or more accurately, the lowlights. When she finished, Hope’s alarm and concern were evident.

Oh, Hope. It’s not always that bad. I have good days, too.

“I apologize,” Lizbeth added. “I get flashbacks after some treatments. This one’s probably because I missed a treatment while we were in Ohio, and I’ve got another treatment on Monday. My reactions have been getting worse. They tell me it’s something to do with my resistance declining. My doctor explained that the chemo kills good cells along with the cancerous ones.”

The women sat in silent contemplation.

“How many more treatments do you have?”

“One more in this round. Then, they’ll do some tests. They tell me radiation might be the next step.”

“Radiation? Why that sounds horrible!”

“That’s what I thought. But I’ve learned that radiation means they think the chemotherapy did its job. It’s supposed to be a good thing.” Lizbeth had been staring off into space as she spoke. Now, she turned to look Hope straight in the eye.

“Problem is, I don’t want the radiation.”

“Why not? It can’t be worse than what you just described.”

Lizbeth stared at the floor. I need to tell someone besides Frank how I feel and why. This couple is taking a risk on us. I’m going to take a risk on Hope. She raised her head and whispered.

“I want to have children.”

“I, um . . .” Hope tried with all her might, but she could think of no appropriate response.

“Radiation of the ovaries, where my stupid cancer decided to live, will kill my eggs, or damage the chromosomes inside them. I won’t bring a child into this world knowing it might be damaged because of a choice I made, a choice that might not even help my condition.”

I can’t even begin to understand what you’re going through, Lizbeth is what Hope wanted to say, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. A ripple of nausea signaled that it was time end the conversation.

“Well, it sounds awful, and I need to get some sleep,” was Hope’s final comment. She pursed her lips and swallowed hard, fighting against the gag reflex. That was so trite. She must hate me!

“I don’t know how to thank you for doing this,” Lizbeth choked out as she fought back tears.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Hope turned away and left. The last thing Lizbeth needed to see was her tears.

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