Hope and Phil snuggled against each other on the couch. MacGyver glowed on the television screen and sound from the show was clearly audible.
“Can you believe that Mr. T? Who writes this stuff?” Hope asked. She’d used the name of a character from The A-Team to see if Phil was watching with her or thinking without her.
“I think they use those new word-processing machines I’ve heard about.”
“That does it,” Hope said. Now she knew he was thinking not watching. She stormed over to the TV and pressed the OFF button much harder than necessary. She turned and faced the couch.
“You have no active cases, Detective Mamba,” she reminded him. “I know that because I know all about your cases. Your last case ended as a smashing success. Even you have to admit that. So, what’s going on? And, do not give me some lame brush off.”
You asked for it. “Do you remember several weeks ago when you asked if I wanted to share what was on my mind with you?”
Hope stared at Phil. Where is he headed with that?
“Yes,” she decided. “Yes, I do. You said it wasn’t the right time or something like that.”
She attempted a curtsey and settled for a bow.
He smiled and said, “I love you.”
“No brush-offs,” she reminded him.
“I don’t think ‘I love you’ is a brush-off, but . . .”
“You know what I mean,” she said after an exasperated sigh.
“Come back to the couch,” he directed and patted the still warm cushion beside him. “Now is the right time.”
Hope hurried back and sat down on the couch. But, she did not snuggle up to Phil. Instead she slid all the way to the arm of the couch furthest from her husband, rotated her clearly pregnant body, and curled her legs beneath her before she spoke.
“Okay.” He half rotated his body to face her.
“You know those little steel balls in my head?”
She nodded. She’d lost count of how many times she’d heard him explain how his detective brain worked when he was trying to sort out facts from fiction and fit all the facts into a cohesive solution.
“Well, there are two questions I can’t answer about this whole case. I’m talking Anderson Pharmaceuticals, ex-Sergeant Edwards, ex-Chief Rogers, the attempted hits on Flatly, us, and Mike—all that.”
“Should I be writing this down? Will there be a test?”
“Ha, ha. Okay, I’ll get to the point.” He cleared his throat in a theatrical manner before he continued.
“I remember thinking something wasn’t right after I gave Mulligan the list of names. Anderson used a phrase that implied the police had that list. I remember thinking, ‘How does Anderson know about this list?’ It was one of those ‘I’ll get to it later’ things that I never got to because of all the other stuff that went on.”
“I’ll keep track. Steel ball number one: Anderson knows about the list,” Hope said. “Do you think he knew about the fifth page, too?”
“I don’t know. That doesn’t matter either way. If he knew about any of it, the question ‘How?’ is still unanswered.”
A vacant look filled Phil’s eyes. He stared off into the distance.
“What’s the second question?” Hope asked in a quiet voice. It was rare to see her husband like this. The unanswered questions were really bothering him.
“Oh. Sorry. Reed was a bum and an addict. Question two: How’d he get enough money to rent the places he did, entertain like he did, and generally spend money like it was water and not spend it all on drugs and booze? That question just came to me this morning. I don’t know how I missed it.”
“Mike Mulligan. Franklin Stallings. Flatly Broke. Me and Jimmy,” Hope offered.
“I don’t follow.”
“Those friends, your family, and Lizbeth Stallings were in jeopardy, or the hospital, for all or part of this case. Personally, I’m glad I’m married to a man who cares more about his friends than he does a bunch of imaginary steel balls theoretically rolling around in his hypothetical brain.”
Finished with her soliloquy, she scooted over to Phil’s side. Putting her arms around his neck, she kissed him passionately. Phil responded in kind.
* * *
The morning after his rolling balls conversation with Hope, Mamba called Anderson Pharmaceuticals from his office. The call had nothing do with the question he’d posed during that steel ball conversation. He wanted the man to know he’d be receiving a final statement in a matter of a day or two.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mamba, but Mr. Anderson had to leave on an emergency. He left a message on my office answering machine last night.” Anderson’s executive secretary explained why her boss couldn’t take the PI’s call.
“I see. Did he leave a number where I can reach him?”
“I’m sorry, no. Did he give you his home number?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Well, I know he was happy with your work and was anxious to get the account closed. I’ll give you his home number. If he complains about my giving it out—”
“Tell him I forced it out of you,” Phil offered.
The secretary laughed.
Over the next week, Mamba called Anderson’s home number daily. For the first five days, he was forced to leave a message. By day number six, the answering machine was full.
He went to Anderson’s home. Five newspapers littered the driveway. The mailbox was stuffed and shedding junk mail. More than one potted plant on the front porch needed watering.
This is weird. Something’s going on. Something Anderson doesn’t want anyone to know about.
He walked around the side of the house. As he was opening the gate, a voice called to him from the driveway.
“Señor Arcenas, usted es un hombre difícil de encontrar!”
Mamba turned toward the speaker. Who is Arcenas? And why am I being asked something in Spanish about a difficult man at William Anderson’s home?
“I’m afraid you have the wrong house,” he said as he made eye contact with a pair of Hispanic males. “This is the Anderson’s home.”
“Lo siento. I mean, I’m sorry,” one man said. The voice was the one who’d called to Mamba by mistake.
“No problem. I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”
“You haven’t. It’s the first time we’ve been to, uh, here. We thought this was where a, como se dice, amigo?”
“Friend,” the second man offered.
“Of course. We thought that this is where a friend of ours lives.”
“Well, I hope you didn’t come too far. The Andersons’ have been called away on an emergency. I’m private security,” Mamba said as he flashed his license. “I check on the house a couple of times a day.”
At the term “security,” both men shifted nervously. Mamba made a mental note.
“We’ve got to be going now,” the spokesman for the pair said. “Thanks for the information.” The two men returned to a Chevrolet parked against the curb.
Mamba memorized the license plate and climbed into his car. Now I’m certain Anderson’s up to something that he doesn’t want anyone to know about—and maybe has been for some time. He’d give the station a call from the first phone booth he came to.
* * *
Mamba’s brain still needed to place the last steel ball in the clown’s nose. He’d been thinking about the odd meeting with two men who appeared to be Mexican Nationals at William Anderson’s home. What was Anderson up to that brought people looking for a man named Guillermo Arcenas to a house in suburban Manzanita?
The ball rolled tantalizingly close to the hole, but was not anxious to settle into the depression. He stretched his arms hoping that would increase blood flow to his tired brain. I’m beat. This is fatigue more than insight. If I could only get my finger—
He sat up with a start. Hope breathed out a low groan of unconscious irritation at being pulled from her sleep by his sudden movement. He slipped out of bed so not to disturb her more than he had.
He tiptoed downstairs and into the den. After seating himself at the desk, he armed himself with paper and pencil. He began to list all the oddities in his investigation of the burglaries at Anderson Pharmaceuticals. He was on number nine when it hit him.
Fingerprints! Actually the lack of fingerprints, any fingerprints. Anderson Pharmaceuticals’ crime scene was devoid of all fingerprints, including those of current employees.
Anderson said it was because the warehouse workers wore gloves, which is possible, Mamba mentally mused. Now I know why Reed was as easy to turn as he was. He was on Anderson’s payroll.
The last steel ball dropped home.
* * *
She saw an empty table in the corner and moved towards it as fast as she could through the crowded food court. Pleased with the successful attainment of her objective, she placed the Macy’s bag she carried on the table.
“Could you watch this for me?” she asked an elderly couple at the table next to hers. “I’d like to get a coffee and croissant.”
“Of course, dearie,” the woman replied. A smile lit up her face at the opportunity to be useful. “You’d be surprised how many people just ignore old folks like us.”
“Now, Diane, don’t grouse about your pet peeves to this nice lady,” the man at the table said.
“It’s not grousing when it’s the truth!”
She smiled at the banter. I hope that when I’m old, I’ll be old and feisty like this woman.
“Thank you. Can I get you something?”
The couple looked at one another with nervous glances.
Oh, I’ve embarrassed them she thought. Say something to fix this.
“You know, for helping me,” she added.
The couple relaxed.
“Well, we both like apple fritters,” the man said.
“But, we usually split one,” the elderly woman added before she slapped her husband on the arm for his audacious behavior.
“Okay then. I’m getting coffee, a croissant, and an apple fritter.”
There were smiles all around at her summation. She bought two fritters so the spunky, elderly woman and her husband wouldn’t have to share.
After assuring the woman that she could afford the additional pastry, she sat chatting with the couple until they’d finished the fritters.
The elderly woman got up first. She went to the wall behind the table and retrieved an aluminum walker. Back at the table, she held the walker in position while her husband labored to pull himself up from his chair.
“Don’t rush, Bernard. It’s not like we’re in a big hurry,” the woman admonished.
“I don’t need advice on how to get up from a chair, Bernice.”
She watched the couple navigate through the crowd until they turned in the main corridor of the mall.
“You’ve been to Macy’s.”
The voice startled her. She looked up. A well-dressed Latina stood holding a stuffed Tasmanian Devil plush-toy.
“I have,” she replied. She pointed at Taz and asked, “Looney Tunes store?”
“Yes. Mind if I join you?” The new arrival inquired.
“Guillermo Arcenas?” she asked.
“Sí. Petula Jacobs?” The new arrival replied.
“I am. Sit down.”
With the formalities out of the way, Petula and Arcenas’s representative made short work of the meeting. When the representative left, Taz remained behind. It was custom-made, complete with five hundred fifty-dollar bills and one passport in the name of Ilsa Jurgenson in place of the usual stuffing material.
Petula shoved Taz into her Macy’s bag and left the mall. She drove to an address she’d paid a forger to obtain. She was assured that her photo would be attached to the bogus passport with accuracy and efficiency.
“If the jacket is real, no one will ever know the passport’s a fake,” was how the phone conversation ended.
Petula opened the door to suite 7B and stepped inside.
* * *
Ilsa Jurgenson’s passport was never recorded at any of the thousands of any US Customs checkpoint around the world.
Petula Jacobs never spent a dime of the thirty-five thousand dollars deposited in her account by wire transfer.
A Taz plush-toy with no stuffing was found by a homeless child beside a dumpster in the back of suite 7B.