So, genius that I am, I decided that I would take a class that was basically an unpaid internship for credit. Yeah, that went well.
It was the first year of my doctorate program in Forensic Psychology and I had an extra time slot to fill. I decided that I would take Law 304: Interactions with the Law. How the class went was I showed up before the semester started and interviewed with the professor. The professor – Dr. Marceau – then corresponded with various agencies in the Ft. Collins vicinity and assigned students to an internship. We would then check in with the good doctor once a week, either by e-mail or appointment and depending on our supervisor’s review, would get credit and potentially a paid position the next semester. Most people said it was pretty much a waste of time, but that it did provide good contacts and count for credit. I had heard that one year, a student spent his entire semester doing nothing but fetching coffee.
I was determined that my semester would be better than that. And Elizabeth Avery Wilde is nothing if not determined.
The semester had just started and I was sitting in Dr. Marceau’s office to be assigned somewhere and get general instructions for the year. Let me just say one thing: Dr. Howard Marceau is a lawyer. His office is decorated like a lawyer – books put exactly in their place, the desk arranged like you would when meeting with a client, an air of power about the place. He dresses like a lawyer, with perfectly tailored three-piece suits and greying hair put precisely into style. And he acts like a lawyer.
I, on the other hand, am nothing like a lawyer. First off, I haven’t studied law. I’ve studied psychology. Top grades, good recommendations, even fifty hours shadowing in a clinic. Now, I am also only twenty-three, and I happen to embrace my youth. I don’t wear power suits or pencil skirts or whatever professional women wear when trying to take over the world. Sure, I’ll wear nice trousers, but they’re usually accompanied by a t-shirt and oversized tweed men’s sports coats, or a tunic shirt and loud jewellery. That day, I wasn’t even wearing trousers. I wore black skinny jeans and a graphic tee from a theatre production I had done back in undergrad. Sure, I wore a blazer over it and had actually bothered to put on nice shoes, but I definitely didn’t look anything like a lawyer. Certainly not with my reddish brown hair pulled up in a tail, due to lack of desire to wash my hair that morning.
Dr. Marceau gave me an appraising look and did something to his face that made it perfectly clear he knew I wasn’t a lawyer. I smiled in return.
“Ms. Wilde,” Dr. Marceau referred to a piece of paper at his elbow.
“That’s me,” I said, doing my best not to put snark into the response. I probably failed.
“You are studying forensic psychology,” Dr. Marceau said. We had covered that information in the interview, so I just nodded. “Indeed. Very well, since you are determined to take this class, and I cannot argue with the recommendations you’ve provided, you have been placed with the -” he consulted the piece of paper again and tightened his mouth. “Fenton and Burnes Investigation Group.”
I nodded and tried to keep a pleasant look on my face. But my brain was thinking, what? I had never heard of the company and I couldn’t tell from Dr. Marceau’s expression whether he thought well of the company or just didn’t like me. Finally, I spoke, “Sorry, who?”
Dr. Marceau looked at the ceiling, likely in a bid to get me out of his office as quickly as possible. He took a deep breath and looked at me. “Fenton and Burnes is the premier investigative group in the region. They have a considerable reputation for computer forensics, and with assisting the government in kidnapping cases, murders and theft.”
Cool, I thought. “Great. Sounds fascinating.”
“I would have preferred to place you in… elsewhere,” Dr. Marceau said. Weren’t profs meant to help a person on their path, encouraging them and jonesing for better positions? He must really have something against psychologists. “But they insisted. So, you will be reporting to them. I trust the schedule you provided at our initial interview is still accurate?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“Very well.” Dr. Marceau handed me a sheaf of papers and I saw my time table on the top sheet. With all the hours Fenton and Burnes was demanding, I would barely have time to finish my other school work, let alone sleep. Oh, well, I had asked for this. “This packet contains your schedule, blank progress reports which you are to fill out – accurately – and get your supervisor to sign weekly, as well as information about what Fenton and Burnes will require of you.”
“Okay,” I flipped through the papers, just to make certain there was nothing I was missing. “Sounds good to me.”
Dr. Marceau took another deep breath and let it out slowly. “Try not to cause trouble,” he said and waved his hand in obvious dismissal. I practically ran out of the room, making sure to keep my smile on and saying thanks and everything. Sheesh, he really didn’t like me. Or maybe he was always like that. It didn’t matter. I had my assignment and I was ready to be out of there.
I looked at the packet of information. I was meant to show up the next morning directly after my first class, bright eyed and bushy tailed. Hey, this office had “insisted” according to Dr. Morose in there, the most cheerful guy I had ever met. Sarcasm aside, that must have meant something. Something I had meant these people wanted me to work with them.
I was far from a qualified psychologist yet and I had practically no – read none – experience with investigating. And supposedly, these people were sort of the elite squad of the investigative world. I mean, they actually consulted with the government. This wasn’t going to be like a television show or a book. This was real.
I glanced at my watch, “Well, crap.” I was minutes away from being late for my seminar on identifying personality types. I shoved the papers into my satchel and practically ran across the campus, shoving poor undergraduate students out of the way as I ran for the Psych buildings. I made it to class, on time but barely.
One of the other students caught my eye as I ran in, wheezing, and he raised his eyebrows in question. I shrugged. We had met, briefly, at orientation the week before. I think his name was Jack something, but it could have been Mac or Zach. Maybe it was Rob. Anyways, he was pretty much the only other student I knew thus far and was actually here for a general adult psychology license, rather than specialising, like me. He seemed okay, apart from that.
“Nice of you to join us, Ms. Wilde,” the professor drawled, looking over me from the rims of her glasses. She was a tiny thing, smaller than me, which is saying something. She didn’t look like she could cause any damage, but once Dr. Blinkman got hold of you, she was fierce. I just grinned and apologised, sliding into one of the empty seats.
“I got caught talking with a professor,” I said, pulling out my notebook and pen.
“Did I ask for an excuse?” Dr. Blinkman said easily. That earned a snicker from a couple of the other students in the class. Most people would have blushed or muttered something, but I don’t tend to be that good with normal social cues.
I just sat up straighter, put a smile on and chirped, “No, ma’am.”
Dr. Blinkman regarded me for a moment and nodded, the corners of her mouth twitching. “I think we’ll get along just fine.”
I relaxed into my seat and the class got started. At least something was working out for me that day.
The next morning after my first class – a class discussing profiling based on textual analysis – I hopped onto the bus and went to the south eastern side of Fort Collins, Colorado. This was, generally speaking, where the technology giants tended to have offices, but there were a number of other businesses. It was on the opposite side of town from the country club, but there was a lot of money in the area.
I hopped off the bus somewhere near the Intel offices and walked about a quarter of a mile to find a small business park type area where the offices of Fenton and Burnes was located. The business park had grass, trees, Canadian geese and all of the average accoutrements. The offices themselves were typical of the area: steel and glass, with a large aluminium sign out front, next to a park bench. So far, so normal.
Actually, the whole thing looked rather drab and boring. I would never have pegged the place as the headquarters for the best investigators in the region. I don’t know what I expected. Better security, maybe. A sort of military-compound vibe. Instead, I just walked right up to the door and opened it, no doorman, no nothing. I even looked around for a camera and found one of those models that looks impressive but isn’t actually connected to anything.
I walked up to the reception desk and was greeted by a very chirpy woman who looked younger than me. She was blonde, bouncy, professionally dressed in a black skirt, white blouse and pink sweater, and grinned like I was the best thing to happen to her all day. With my red-brown hair being in an uncooperative mood that morning, I had put it up in a bun at the base of my neck and hoped for the best. Actually, that pretty much went for the rest of me. I was wearing a pair of black dress leggings in a sort of silkish material that I got for fifteen dollars on Amazon, a blue button-up shirt that I stole from my brother, flats and my leather satchel. By comparison to the cheerful receptionist, I looked like the geeky redshirt about to die. Felt like it, too.
“Hi, I’m Carly! Welcome to Fenton and Burnes Investigation Group. What can I do for you?” She leaned forwards like my answer was paramount to her continuing good mood and I really, really wanted to mimic her tone. It was one of those bad habits of mine, mimicking people. Mostly I did it when they got on my nerves or when it was just a background sort of thing, like watching television featuring a different culture or place. I forced myself not to mimic Carly and smiled. Hesitantly.
“Hi, I’m, er, Liza Wilde. I’m meant to be interning here?” It wasn’t meant to come out as a question, but it did anyways. Great first impression there.
“Right! I’ll just let them know you’re here,” Carly beamed, reaching for the phone. She pushed a button for the intercom and grinned at me as she spoke into it. “Mr. Royceton? Liza Wilde, the new intern, is here.”
I returned Carly’s smile as enthusiastically as I could. In reality, I was seriously considering freaking out. Then, I realised I wasn’t getting paid, so it really wasn’t that big of a deal. By the time this mysterious Mr. Royceton came through the glass doors – I was oddly relieved to note there was a keypad on those – I was perfectly calm.
Mr. Royceton came towards me, hand outstretched and I shook it automatically. “Chris Royceton,” he introduced. I nodded and took in this new person. He was taller than me, which isn’t saying much, pretty well muscled, with one of those faces that tells you either not to mess with him or that he’s quite friendly, depending on the mood. This morning, he was being friendly. He had white-blonde hair that stuck up at odd angles and crystal blue eyes. Piercing. Look right through you sort of eyes. A bit frightening, even.
“Liza Wilde,” I replied to his introduction, pulling my hand away the microsecond politeness allowed. He didn’t scare me, per say, just put me on edge. Then again, most new people put me on edge. I had a hard time figuring out what to say to people, which is part of the reason why I took psychology classes in undergrad. Then, it turned out I actually really liked the subject. I like knowing what makes people tick. “I’m your intern, I guess.”
“You are,” Chris nodded. “Wow, you’re really not what I expected at all.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“I mean, you’re tiny! And you don’t look like a lawyer. We normally get lawyers, or pre-law students. Though, there was that one time we got a chemistry and biology student,” he said, smiling while he studied me. Ookay, I thought. This was a bit unusual. I hoped he wasn’t meant to be my supervisor.
“Uh-huh,” I said, trying to keep my cheerful facade up. Chris led me away from Christy, who was beginning to look increasingly normal, and to the offices proper. If the outside of the building had not quite met expectations, then the interior didn’t even come close. Instead of an open office plan with boards set up, various newspapers and strings and pictures running every which way, a group of people sitting around state-of-the-art tech and the smell of bad coffee, the office had a few cubicles and a few walled off offices. The technology was modern, but it wasn’t anything that the average consumer couldn’t buy. There were a lot of windows and potted plants, lending the space a sort of calming, well-lit air. It was almost zen, frankly. And there was absolutely no smell of stale coffee.
Chris pulled me towards a sort of nook area with a few bistro-style tables and tall chairs spaced around the room. This looked like a break room crossed with a cafe, as there were a few people working on laptops or with notebooks, a counter with tea kettle, coffee maker and a box of pastries, a mini fridge underneath. “Hey, Sam, the intern is here!” Chris said. Everyone in the space turned to look at me.
I gave a half wave. “Hiya,” I said. Most everyone murmured a response and got back to work. One woman, a tall, very pretty black woman with curly hair to her shoulders, walked over to me. She wore jeans and a black tank under a cardigan and her look told me that she would take no nonsense.
“You’re the new intern,” the woman, Sam, gave me a once over and tilted her head. “You don’t look like a lawyer.”
“That’s what I said,” Chris nodded. Sam shot him a look and he coughed behind his hand.
“I’m not,” I replied with a shrug. “I’m getting my doctorate in Forensic Psychology.”
Sam, Chris, and pretty much everyone else in hearing distance stiffened and stared at me with wide eyes. “Forensic Psychology,” Sam said, rolling the words around. I nodded. Sam let out a groan. “No, huh-uh. Ain’t happening.”
“Sorry?” I asked, my cheerful facade vanishing completely and the snark emerging. Sam frowned and fisted her hands on her hips.
“Last time we had a psychologist in the office, things didn’t end well. Burnes promised that we would never do that again,” Sam grumbled, more to Chris than to me.
“I’m a completely different intern,” I said flatly. “You can’t judge me based on -”
“Oh, really?” Sam asked, lifting her chin slightly. “Well, what would you diagnose Chris with, then? What mental disorder does he have? Or me, for that matter?”
“Apart from flouting Grice’s conversational maxim of relevancy, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Chris. Or you,” I said. “I’m not in the habit of ‘diagnosing’ people I’ve just met. Besides, psychologists don’t just ‘diagnose’. We study behaviour and deal with personality types, human thought and the sort.”
“Sure,” Sam said, though she had lessened some of the bite in her tone. “You, what’s your name, you come with me.”
“Liza Wilde,” I said by way of introduction. Sam didn’t respond, just shook her head and stalked out of the nook area. I waved good-bye to Chris and followed after her. We wound through the office until we ended up at the foot of a set of stairs. Sam went up the stairs, taking them two at a time. I, being considerably smaller, took them one at a time at a run. All that time in the gym certainly paid off, I suppose.
We stopped in front of one of two executive-looking offices. These had heavy wooden doors, brass nameplates and frosted windows. The one Sam knocked on said, simply, Chip Burnes. The other read Alice Fenton. Sam didn’t even wait for an answer before she opened the door and pushed inside. I decided that it was probably safer to remain in the doorway, in case a quick escape was required.
“Burnes, you can’t do this to me,” Sam growled, pointing at me. I gave a casual wave to the gruff, older man who looked like he walked straight out of a Marines recruitment catalog, haircut and all. “You promised!”
“Promised what?” Burnes said, his gravelly voice matching his figure exactly.
“The new intern. A forensic psychologist?” Sam practically shouted. Gee, I thought, why don’t you just announce my presence to the entire building. Everyone in the break room already knew, so it didn’t matter that much. Just to me.
Burnes stood from where he sat at his desk and started towards me, glowering. I was tempted to cut my losses and run. It wasn’t too late to ask Dr. Marceau for another assignment, was it? Or perhaps I should drop the whole idea altogether. Yeah, I think there was a class on Neurology that I could take.
“Enough, you two,” a voice behind me snapped. I jumped, turning and pressing my back against the door. I was pretty sure that the newcomer had given me a heart attack, but I would recover eventually. She was another tall person – was everyone taller than me?! – who was all long and slender limbs and savoir faire. Her chestnut brown hair was tied back in a long, skinny tail and she wore black slacks and a white shirt like it was a skill. I gathered that this was the person who belonged to the other office. Alice Fenton.
She smiled at me and pushed gently past, into the office to stand before Burnes. He was still glowering, but he had stopped moving towards me like I was prey. Sam had also stopped glaring openly at me, but she still looked rather upset, her arms folded and posture highly defensive.
“I’m the one who brought on the psychologist,” Alice Fenton said, her voice firm.
Burnes started, “We agreed never to do that aga-”
“Thomas was a damaged personality. A mistake. He had his own problems and tried to cover them up by making everyone else fully aware of their own,” Fenton cut in. She looked at me. “Ms. Wilde here has an excellent resume and none of her recommendations say anything about being malicious. Am I right, Ms. Wilde?”
I blinked, “Malicious? No! Slightly sarcastic, but not malicious.”
“Hmph,” Sam said. I tried to shrink into the floor.
“Having a psychologist around will be a good thing. We need new perspectives. And, Ms. Wilde is only an intern. She is here to learn, as well as to provide insight,” Fenton nodded. She looked at the other two to see if there would be an argument. “Alright, now that we are agreed. Sam, you will be her supervisor. Chris will help monitor her and work with her as projects come up.”
“After what Thomas did to Chris, you want him to work with her?” Sam demanded, pointing at me again. I decided that, since the boss was supporting me, I might as well have my say. I wasn’t some helpless victim that they could walk all over and still expect me to grovel at their feet. I was a capable, intelligent adult.
“Look, I don’t know what happened with this other psychologist, but I’ll do my best to not cause trouble. And if I ever cross the line, you can just tell me,” I said, half-mirroring Sam’s defensive posture. Sam, Fenton and Burnes stared at me, as though they hadn’t expected me to have an opinion in the matter. Fenton broke through the shock first.
“Perfect. See, we can all be reasonable here,” she nodded. “Now, Sam, go and give her a tour. Give her something to do to show her how we do things around here.”
Sam jerked her head in a gesture that could loosely be called a nod. She strode past me out the door and I followed, catching Burnes growling something at Fenton as we left. I didn’t really want to be present for the argument that was likely to ensue.
As I followed Sam through the office, trying to memorise the various rooms and faces that we passed, I thought about asking questions, about her, about Fenton and Burnes, about where the bathrooms were or whether I was going to be issued with a key code to get into the offices, but I decided not to. Sam’s expression told me that if I even breathed too loudly, she would bite my head off.
I kept quiet.
We ended up in a back storage room full of banker’s boxes and filing cabinets. Some of them looked like they were from the seventies. There were folders and papers strewn about. “Sheesh,” I muttered. “What happened to the digital age?”
Sam glared at me. “This is your task for however long it takes to finish it. I don’t care if it takes you until you leave this place for good. You get these papers scanned and then you organise this room and all of the electronic files. Scanner is there,” she jerked her head to a tiny desk with a computer and scanner. Then, without another word, she turned and left me to the papers and the spiders.
“Well,” I said, slipping my satchel off my shoulder and putting it on the chair. “That could have been a whole lot worse. They could all have been lawyers.”
I shook my head and got to work. It was going to be a long semester.
Some many hours, a class and a discussion with my thesis advisor later, I staggered back to my apartment, thoroughly done with the world. I waved to my neighbour across the hall – Steve, who was some sort of scary-looking body builder type, was essentially harmless – and held back the impulse to kick open my door. I slipped inside and was met with a set of needle-sharp claws in my leg.
I yelped and removed the cat from my thigh. “Hi, Roscoe,” I grumbled. My cat was a tiny calico creature with an improbably fluffy coat considering the size of his body. He clambered up to my shoulder and perched there like a bird, rubbing his head against my cheek. “Good to see you too, buddy.”
I lived in a building that was approximately a mile or so from the Colorado State University campus. Given the fact that I was a graduate student with an unpaid internship instead of a job, a tiny monthly stipend from my parents, and whatever money I could make from mining bitcoins while my computer was in idle mode, I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. The building was nice, at least, with a decent set of people. It was relatively new, with concrete, steel and glass visage, all new appliances and a decent set of furniture. And Roscoe.
Technically, I wasn’t allowed to own a cat, but the building owner and manager lived on my floor and came by every now and again. He loved Roscoe. Roscoe tolerated him.
“You would never believe the day I have had,” I told the cat as I sat on my bed and slipped off my shoes. I wanted nothing more than to curl up and fall asleep, but I had two chapters to read. Not to mention I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Ah, I thought while toasting bread for a sandwich, the glamorous life of a college student.
I was almost done with the second chapter and notes when my phone rang. Groaning – who would call at ten o’clock at night when I had only moved to the city two weeks before – I grabbed the phone.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Hey, kiddo, how’s things?” In spite of my exhaustion, I grinned and sat up straighter. Uncle Mickey was something of the black sheep in our family. He had never gone into finance or law like his two brothers and parents, but ended up in Colorado running a rare book store. He was everything his family wasn’t: sarcastic, casual, fun, trouble, up for an adventure. Let’s just say I took after him.
“Uncle Mickey,” I said. “Who else would call me at such an hour?”
“What, you weren’t out, were you? On a school night?” he teased.
“Oh, yes, because I know so many people here,” I rolled my eyes and patted the ever-needy Roscoe on the head.
“You know me, right?” he laughed.
“Yes. I think.”
“Well, I would ask you how the first day of graduate school went, but you sound awful. So I’ll just make you come out to dinner with me tomorrow. You can tell me then,” Uncle Mickey said, his voice brooking no argument.
“What if I had plans? What if I had a date, or a girls’ night?” I challenged.
“You’d skip them. I know a great Italian place. Real food, not any of that crap you college students eat. I’ll see you tomorrow at six. Pick you up from your place, right?” I had barely murmured an agreement when he gave a satisfied noise and hung up the phone. That was Uncle Mickey for you. No extraneous effort, no discussion, no fond farewells. Just the meat of the matter and that was it.
I sighed and tossed my phone across the bed. I finished my work with no more distractions and finally managed to fall asleep.
The next evening, I met Uncle Mickey outside of my apartment. I had gotten home earlier that day and actually felt slightly hospitable towards the world. Uncle Mickey pulled up to the curb and got out of the car, spreading his arms wide. “Wild child,” he bellowed.
Uncle Mickey is a large man. He is approximately 6’2’’ and used to be nothing but muscle. Now, he had a bit of a belly and was still as strong as an ox. He had lost most of his hair, but didn’t look any less intimidating. By comparison, I was tiny and easily got lost in his hugs. I still liked them, though.
“Hiya,” I said, shielding my eyes as I peered up at him. “You got taller.”
“Nah, you just got shorter,” he ruffled my hair and I rolled my eyes. We went to the Italian restaurant Uncle Mickey had been so keen on and I looked around. Fort Collins had almost the most restaurants per capita and yet Uncle Mickey had found almost the perfect hole-in-the wall. Literally.
The room was tiny, sandwiched between two buildings on either side in the space of approximately an alley. The floor was tiled rusty-red and the walls were brick, giving the entire room an air of being warmer than it was. The tables were wood with thick lacquer finishes and three out of four chairs would wobble. It smelled divine.
We were seated by a woman who looked as though she had stepped out of a fantasy Italian kitchen – plump, aproned, dark hair pulled back, beautiful features and dark eyes – and ordered some sort of appetizer I couldn’t pronounce. Uncle Mickey had the wine. I had sparkling water.
“When are you going to start drinking, wild girl?” he asked, tossing his menu aside.
“When I decide that mind-altering substances are less likely to kill me than other things,” I shrugged. “Lots of people don’t drink. And there have been many studies done about the effects of alcohol on -”
“Bah. It makes you feel good. But, you don’t want to drink, you don’t drink,” Uncle Mickey waved his hand dismissively, almost knocking over the full wine glass. He caught it and took a deep sip, appraising me. “So, what do you think of this graduate school thing?”
“I think it’ll do nicely,” I said in the same casual tone. “There are plenty of classes in my field and the professors are interesting. I’m also interning at this investigative agency for credit, so that’s something.”
“Interning? Where?” Uncle Mickey asked.
“Fenton and Burnes Investigation Group,” I answered. I thought I saw a spark in Uncle Mickey’s eyes for a moment, but when I blinked, it was gone. I outlined what had happened my first day and proceeded to talk about the filing I was doing. Uncle Mickey let out a small roar of anger, silencing the other diners in the restaurant quite effectively.
“All that schooling, that skill, and they’ve got you filing decades old papers?!” Uncle Mickey’s outrage was very impressive, but it was pointless.
“I’m a graduate student. That’s pretty much synonymous with free slave labour. And, considering the entire office is pretty much jumping and thinking murderous thoughts every time I sneeze in their direction, filing is a good alternative.”
“I know you, Eliza. You wouldn’t meekly accept anything like that, no matter what people thought of you. And you hate mundane tasks like filing,” Uncle Mickey narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Did they say something? Do something?”
“No,” I waved him off. “Yes, I hate mundane tasks, but this is actually interesting. No one said I couldn’t read what I was scanning. So I get to have an education on how investigations work, going back forty years. And I listen to music. Besides, no one told me how they want the files to be organised.”
This brought on a laugh from my uncle and when he laughed, it usually was louder than his roar. The diners looked in our direction again and one couple waved over a waiter and looked pointedly in our direction. The waiter said something, eyes wide, and shook his head emphatically. Apparently no one wanted to mess with Uncle Mickey. Heh.
“What did you do? Random key words? Picture?” Uncle Mickey asked, grinning.
“Personality type. Of the writer,” I said. “I’m getting all sorts of practise in text-based profiling.”
Uncle Mickey laughed again and wiped at the corners of his eyes. I couldn’t help but chuckle, either. He was absolutely right. I rarely accepted orders without good reason and I hated boring, mindless tasks. That was why my first job had been working as a court runner rather than in retail. My father had been so pleased with that, though my motives for taking the job were somewhat different than what he had hoped.
Uncle Mickey seemed to read my thoughts, because he asked, “Have you talked to your parents yet? Told them about your classes?”
I snorted and shook my head, “Father stopped being interested in my education once I declared my psychology major in undergraduate. He stopped talking to me by choice when I didn’t apply for law school afterwards.”
“Fool,” Uncle Mickey shook his head. I never had learned what made him and the rest of his family go their separate ways, but I knew it had been bad. Bad enough that they only got together at my grandfather’s funeral. I don’t even think they had talked for years. Maybe it was the same thing as with me; he hadn’t gone to law school.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t even have the courtesy of wanting to do psychiatry, with a full medical degree and everything,” I said lightly. It rankled, sure, but after having years of the disapproving tones down the line, a bit of silence was nice. “You should have heard Mother when I said I was coming here, where you are. I didn’t even know she knew how to yell.”
“Ah, well, we’ll look out for each other,” Uncle Mickey clapped my on the shoulder and I staggered, nearly face-planting into my baked ziti. He grimaced apologetically. “Say, you don’t need any money or anything? I don’t imagine my brother would send money to support a cause he didn’t like.”
“I get enough to cover rent, mostly,” I said. “I think Mother makes him. I would get a job, but I have this internship and the only free time I have is the weekends. I have enough in savings to get through the semester, then I can get a paying job.”
“You come work at my bookshop,” Uncle Mickey nodded definitively. “Just on weekends. It’s not exciting, and we don’t get many people, but it’s a good job. Lots of rare books. Interesting ones. Quiet enough that you can get some homework done.”
“Oh, wow, thanks. But I think I can probably -” I started, doing my best not to look awkward while refusing.
“No, no. We’re family. And we look out for each other. Just on the weekends. If it’s too much, we’ll figure something else out.” Uncle Mickey nodded again and dug into his own dinner, effectively ending the argument.
That, as they say, was that.
The next morning after my class, I walked into the building, two cups of coffee in my hand. I stopped by the reception desk and handed one to Carly. “It’s awfully warm in here,” I noted.
Carly rolled her eyes and took a sip of her coffee. “Someone – namely Michelle – broke the air conditioning while trying to upgrade the security system.”
I winced. “Don’t think I’ve met Michelle, yet.”
“She’s the resident electrician tech mechanic or something like that,” Carly said, fanning herself. Despite the heat, she happily drank her coffee. “Frankly, she’s a disaster unless she’s under pressure. Works great when there’s an imminent disaster or deadline, but the rest of the time, she’s hopeless.”
“Sounds like my brother,” I mused. “Hey, think you could buzz me in. I don’t want to bother Chris or Sam if there’s no air conditioning and they’re in a bad mood.”
“Not a problem,” Carly said. She scribbled down a few numbers onto a post-it. “Here’s the code for the pad. I think it’s silly that you haven’t been given it, yet.”
“Ah, well, tis the nature of being an intern,” I shrugged. “Thanks for this.”
“Thanks for the coffee,” Carly toasted me and I bumped my own cup against hers. Then, I took myself to the door and slipped inside the office, feeling smug. I may not have liked Carly that much, but it never hurt to get friendly with the receptionist. Most people underestimated them.
If the lobby had been toasty, the office proper was an oven. All the windows that could be opened were open and I could see that people had broken out their various desk fans. Unfortunately, all that extra electric load and tiny engines running produced a lot of heat. August in Colorado was cooler than say, July, but it was still warm.
I spotted Sam across the office, standing near an open window and scowling. She wore a tank and jeans and was already looking like she would happily exchange them for a swimsuit and pool. Chris was sitting at his desk, as close to his fan as he could get. I hoped the computers still worked; they didn’t tend to do all that well under high-heat circumstances.
I figured that this was probably not the best time to go announcing myself to my supervisor, so I just went to the backroom that had been my home for the last three days and groaned. The office, at least, had windows and fans. This backroom had one ventilation grill situated way above the boxes. It was sweltering in the room. I left the door open in the hopes that some of that heat would move out of the room and pulled off my blazer and t-shirt in favour of my cami, pulling my hair up and back.
It was going to be a long day.
Somewhere after the second hour in that space, my mind began to blur from the heat and the numbness. I had stepped out a few times to get water and cool down. Sam had spotted me the first time I did so and growled, a sound I imagined I could hear across the office. I hastily retreated back to the storage room.
So, being thirsty, hot and tired, I figured that the banging I was hearing in the ceiling was my imagination. At least, I did until a woman’s leg slammed the ventilation grill open and a figure slipped through, balancing on a shelf before clambering down. She was tall and lean – lean enough to fit through the ventilation shafts, I figured. Her blonde hair was short and spiky and covered in dust. As was the rest of her.
“Oh, hey,” she said, brushing herself off. I stared back in response. “Air conditioning still off?”
“Yup,” I said. “Any particular reason why you were crawling through the vents?”
“Right,” she said, holding out her hand. It was smeared with what looked like machine oil. I settled for a nod and a smile. “I’m Michelle. I’ve been trying to fix the stupid thing all day.”
“Ah, the security upgrade,” I said in understanding. Things made sense, now that I knew this woman was Michelle. This whole office seemed to be made up of people whom I would describe as rather eccentric. “I’m Liza. The intern.”
“Wow, really? That’s great!” Michelle enthused. I furrowed my brows.
“Uh-huh. You’re the first to say that. Apparently everyone here hates me because I’m a psychologist,” I said.
Michelle waved her hand dismissively, “Pfft. They’re just scared of what you see. Or what they think you see. Gosh, it’s warm in here. I guess I’d better get back on that air conditioning.”
Without a further word, Michelle strode out of the room, looking as cheerful as the moment she fell in through the ceiling.
My strange day is why, I think, what I saw didn’t register at first. I had gone back to sorting through the files. I was hot, sweaty, tired, thirsty, and anxious to avoid a run-in with Sam, who was looking more and more incensed every time I went out for water. At this point, I was practically watching the clock until I could leave for my afternoon class. I poked through the files half-heartedly, scanning them onto the computer and putting them in a pile for later sorting. Then, I came across one of the earliest files I had thus-far encountered. 1984. New Jersey. The investigating officer was unnamed and there was a whole collection of pictures and names that people couldn’t possibly have been born with.
Then, there was the last picture. It was a big man, bald, with an arrogant sneer on his face, his chin tilted up slightly and every muscle screaming arrogance. I rarely had the urge to diagnose people, and certainly not from a picture, but this man was showing textbook markers for narcissism. I glanced at the name and scoffed, “The Mouse.”
Great, I thought, shoving the file into the to-sort pile. The clock finally moved into the position I needed, so I grabbed my satchel and my discarded t-shirt and blazer and moved as quickly as I could to the door.
“How did you get in this morning?” Sam growled, stepping in front of me as I was inches away from freedom. “I didn’t let you in and Chris didn’t let you in.”
“Magic,” I supplied. Sam growled and scowled deeper, looking like she was inches away from murdering me. Sheesh, she had no sense of humour. “Carly,” I said. “I brought her coffee, we chatted about the air conditioning, she gave me the code to let me in. She’s very friendly.”
Sam narrowed her eyes and jabbed me in the shoulder, “If I ever hear of you manipulating people for your own ends again, you will be out of here faster than you can blink.”
I held up my hands, “I didn’t ‘manipulate’ Carly. I brought her coffee. She mentioned she liked a place right by campus. And, since I didn’t want to bother you with all of the air conditioning problems happening, she gave me the code to let me in.”
Sam merely growled and stalked away, muttering something about surveillance and psychologists and where she could find weapons. I pretended I hadn’t heard that last bit. I left and hoped, beyond hope, that I could just get through the semester in tact. This job was not turning into a cakewalk. I hadn’t expected it to be, had actually hoped it wouldn’t be, since that would be boring. That didn’t mean I wanted to be harangued and watched and held under suspicion the entire semester. Suddenly, sorting through old files was a nice, safe place to stay. Sam scared me. And I hadn’t talked to Chris since we were first introduced; he was actively avoiding me.
I sighed and climbed onto the bus that would take me back to campus. It was going to be a long semester.
Saturday couldn’t come quickly enough for me. I’m the first to admit I’m more of a cynic than an optimist. I usually expect the worst of people and try to be pleasantly surprised when they exceed expectations. I resort to sarcasm and snark in the face of authority and I’m used to dealing with less than ideal situations. But these people were trying even to me.
My classes were more intensive than my undergraduate classes, but I enjoyed them and still managed to get my work done. I had a decent rapport with my profs – excepting Dr. Marceau – and was doing well, all things considered. Except with this stupid internship. I kept thinking I should just pack it in and call it quits, but then my stubborn side kicks in and I keep going. I can’t give these people the satisfaction of seeing me give up in the face of their adversity. So I kept showing up. I kept having friendly conversations with Carly. I kept greeting Chris and Sam with as much cheer as I could. Carly was the only one who seemed even remotely friendly.
So when Friday night came, I happily fell into bed with my bowl of popcorn and a movie, determined to put the stupid investigation group out of my mind. All I had to worry about for the weekend was a chapter or two of reading for school and working at my uncle’s shop. I could think of far worse things than hanging out with Uncle Mickey.
Uncle Mickey’s shop was about a mile from my apartment, and since I had forgotten to buy tea bags at the store the day before, I walked to get my blood flowing. It took me about twenty minutes to get to the shop and when I got closer, I slowed.
The entire street had been blocked off with police cars and yellow crime scene tape. There was an ambulance, fire truck and various other official cars. People were milling about on either side of the street, trying to find out what was going on. I recognised one of them and walked up to him, tapping his shoulder.
“Hey, Zach, what’s going on,” I asked. The student from my class turned and greeted me with a smile and that sort of guy-girl friend hug that normal people do. I patted his shoulder awkwardly.
“I don’t know,” Zach said. “I was coming this was on my morning jog and was stopped by a policeman. Said something about the entire street being closed until further notice. Saw some official government types walking in about ten minutes ago. Suits, ties, sunglasses, the whole deal.”
“It’s August in Colorado. Everyone wears sunglasses,” I said. That thought didn’t stop the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. I moved around the police lines, trying to get a better view of what was going on. Zach followed me, looking just as interested. I peered a little too close to one of the officers and he put out a hand, giving me a look.
“Street’s closed, ma’am,” he said flatly.
“I’m meant to be at my uncle’s book shop,” I explained, as politely as I could. “I’m working there.”
That got a reaction out of the man. His eyes widened, “Your uncle’s shop?”
“Yup. Now if you wouldn’t mind letting me -”
“Hey, Jo!” the officer shouted, cutting me off. I exchanged a look with Zach, who shrugged in confusion. A woman, short, stocky and with an angry expression marring the potential good-looks of her blonde-hair framed face, moved in our direction. She must have been one of the suits that Zach was talking about, because he nudged me and nodded.
“Yeah, what is it?” she asked, looking at the officer over the rims of her sunglasses. “A witness?”
“Nah,” the officer said. He jerked his thumb in my direction. “This one said it’s her uncle’s shop.”
Maybe I was a bit slow, but I finally put two and two together. The officer hadn’t called this Jo over because I was meant to be working on the street, but because I was meant to be working at the shop that was the centre of the crime scene. Which meant…
Zach didn’t notice my knees wobbling until it was too late to keep me from staggering backwards and leaning against a coffee shop. Jo removed her sunglasses and I saw that her blue eyes held a modicum of sympathy. That just pissed me off. I pushed Zach away and straightened, shoving all of those useless emotions I didn’t understand on a normal basis, far, far away.
“Come with me,” Jo said, jerking her head for me to follow her. I slipped under the police tape, Zach pushing to come with me.
“Leave it,” I told him, my voice coming out harsher than I had meant it to. Or perhaps not. I followed Jo, ignoring the looks of surprise and curiosity from the lookie-loos and other official people. The woman led me towards my uncle’s shop and I took in the damage.
Someone had done a number on the door; it hung off its hinges, the window shattered. The display windows on either side were smashed, the paint proclaiming Rare Book Shop now jagged and undecipherable. Inside was even worse. The rare books that had been my uncle’s pride and joy were strewn about, pages bent and spines cracked. The floor was slick with spatters of red. I didn’t process it as blood until a forensics person knelt down and took a swab of the substance.
Jo prevented me from going any farther into the shop. I stood in the threshold, watching people clean up the blood and taking pictures. I could, however, see far enough to note that the door to the back room stood open, a man’s hand stretched out on the floor, reaching for something. This tipped my anger into ice.
I turned to Jo and waited for her to say something. She did, “So, where were you last night at about three?”
“Asleep,” I replied flatly. “No, I can’t get anyone to corroborate that. I live alone in a building that has a metal key and no doorman. And if you are asking whether I had a reason to kill my uncle, I’ll tell you no again. He had just offered me a job.”
“I wasn’t insinuating that you had anything to do with it,” Jo said, equally as flatly. She flicked her eyes over my slight frame and I let out a laugh of derision.
“Yeah, I’m unlikely to be able to take on a guy of his size and do this much damage,” I said.
“Ms…” Jo started, pulling out a notebook and pen.
“Wilde. Elizabeth Avery Wilde, with an -e after the -d. I go by Liza,” I supplied.
“What was your uncle’s name?” Jo asked, looking slightly embarrassed to have to ask. I raised my eyebrows. “He wasn’t found with a wallet and the shop is registered to a Mr. Smith. Probably not his real name.”
“No,” I confirmed. “His name was Michael Wilde. He went by Mickey,” I said. “Look, how long are you going to be here? I’m going to have to board up the shop and figure out what books were damaged or stolen.”
“Mickey Wilde, eh?” Jo said, tapping her pen against her lips. I nodded. She seemed interested in that fact, but I didn’t care. She could go about her merry way, without bothering me. I was going to have to find out who did this on my own. Didn’t even know his name. Hah. “You’re awfully calm about this, Liza.”
“How would you like me to react? I haven’t experienced the murder of a family member before, so I am not sure what the socially acceptable response is,” I growled.
“The socially acceptable response,” Jo echoed, looking closer at me. I said nothing more. “We’ll let you know when you can have access to the shop.”
I folded my arms and stayed where I was, waiting until Jo went away to talk with one of the forensic techs. I watched as the people processed the scene, ignoring every look and comment aimed in my direction. I stayed precisely where I was and I probably got in people’s way. But I didn’t care.
“Hey,” a voice broke through my thoughts. I jumped and let out a violent snarl, turning to face my attacker. Instead, I saw Sam standing there. She was dressed more professionally than I had ever seen her and she actually carried herself with a purpose. Her black hair was tied back in a tight bun and she had her hands stuck in the pockets of her trousers. Chris stood at the corner of the sidewalk, looking around. He also wore slacks and a button-up. He didn’t look like he was thrilled to be there, either.
“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked cooly. Sam’s eyes flashed in surprise and she reached out to put a hand on my shoulder. Something must have told her the gesture would not have been appreciated because she quickly put her hand back in her pocket.
“Heard what happened,” she said. “Burnes gets called on any murder in town, just in case the police need our help. He hates to have these things happen in his town.”
“Yes, and?” I snapped. She was my supervisor and could probably get me kicked out of my internship quicker than I could blink, but it was Saturday. I didn’t report to her on Saturdays.
“And when we showed up, we heard you had a connection with the victim,” Sam replied, equally angry. I just held her gaze, lifting my eyebrows. “Look, we’re just trying to show some support, okay?”
“I see,” I said calmly. “That explains why Chris is standing over there, doing anything but looking in my direction. And why your body posture tells me that you would rather be doing anything but talking to me right now.”
“I hate psychologists,” Sam grumbled, lifting her gaze to the sky.
“Whatever you say,” I said. “Look, the head detective is over there. If you’re so desperate for information, go talk to her.” I pointed towards Jo and Sam took the exit gladly. Chris followed, shooting me a quick, pained glance. Pain for me or about me, I couldn’t tell. I just stayed exactly where I was and watched Sam talk to Jo. They gestured in my direction every now and again. Sam even got in a finger jab to the other woman’s shoulder. Chris put in a word or two and eventually, the private investigators were granted access to the scene.
In detective shows, the crime scene takes only a few minutes to deal with. A few pictures, a bit of gathering obvious evidence, questioning witnesses, done. In reality, it takes hours. There are numerous people parading in and out of the place, examining the body and the scene. People have to scour the area to see if there was something stolen or if a weapon was left behind. In this instance, there were shops on all sides to investigate as well. Security footage had to be gathered and other shop owners to talk with. There were medical examiners to do a preliminary on the body and then cart it away. Pictures are taken and the scene measured. And even after all the official techs are gone, someone has to stay behind and seal up the scene for twenty-four hours. In this case, they had to board over the windows, go through the books, fix the door in place as best they could, make sure the door to the back was sealed and then get all of the copies of the key. I kept mine, neglecting to tell the cops that I had a copy.
In any case, by the time the people were done parading all over my life, I was exhausted. It was probably three in the afternoon and the street was just then being opened to traffic. There were still many bystanders who came to gape at the remains of the scene. I was torn between going back to my apartment to sit with Roscoe and trying to shoo the people away. Sam and Chris were still there, too, edging closer.
“Hey, you okay?” Zach stepped up to me before the other two could intervene. He was still wearing his jogging clothes and it occurred to me that he had probably been there all day. I don’t know why, but he was.
“Relatively speaking,” I said drily.
“Want to go get something to eat?” he asked. In normal circumstances, I might have questioned the choice of words, analysing them until I decided whether or not he was asking me out. At the moment, I didn’t particularly care.
“Not hungry,” I said. True, but after the physical effects of shock wore off, I would probably be starving. “You didn’t have to stick around all day.”
“You looked like you needed it,” he shrugged. “My car’s just around the corner. I can drop you off at your apartment, if you want.”
I considered. Sam and Chris were still hanging around. They would probably ambush me the moment I started walking home. I wanted to put that off as much as I could. But that was illogical and pointless. They would continue to hound me until I gave in and likely all I would gain was a Sunday of quiet. The real question was whether I even had the energy to walk the mile back home. I hadn’t done anything today except stand around and watch people, but I felt drained. My muscles were seconds away from shaking and I was freezing, despite the heat of the day. That would be the shock again.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. Zach nodded and led me away to his car. I was bundled into the passenger seat like a child and I’m fairly certain he didn’t drive more than a mile over the speed limit the entire way back to my apartment. I wondered, between giving him directions, whether he was always that cautious.
“Look, I’m sorry for what happened,” he said once we had pulled up outside my building. “That sucks.”
“Aren’t you supposed to say something along the lines of ‘it’s okay to grieve’, or ‘it’s always difficult to lose a family member’?” I asked. “Being a psychologist and all.”
“I’m not certified yet. And you’re one, too,” Zach pointed out, the corners of his mouth twitching.
“Forensic psychologist,” I corrected. “I don’t do therapy. I profile. I diagnose. I analyse.”
“Right,” Zach replied, nodding. “Okay, now I am going to be a psychologist. If you want to talk about it, just give me a call, okay?” He pulled a business card from the centre console and handed it to me. He would have a card.
“Sure,” I said. I opened the door and walked towards my door.
“Oh, Liza, one more thing,” Zach called, leaning over to look at me from the window. “Who were those people at the scene? The people who looked like they wanted to talk to you? They weren’t with the police, were they?”
“No,” I shook my head. “It’s nothing.” I didn’t give him a chance to push for more information – psychologists are nothing if not pushy – and stalked to my apartment. I saw Steve coming down the hall with his mail and did my best to open my door before he got there. I was too late.
“Liza,” he said, his voice exactly as deep as his imposing size would suggest. “You okay?”
“Peachy,” I muttered under my breath. I doubted I looked it.
“You keep an eye out for trouble, yeah?” Steve said. He fixed me with a look that said he knew more than he was saying. I felt like I had gotten that look a lot that day. “The world is a dangerous place.”
“That’s real helpful,” I snapped and pushed my door open. Steve blinked a little at my tone, but said nothing. He watched me with a serious expression until I closed and locked the door behind me.
For a heartbeat, I had an irrational fear that someone was waiting for me in my apartment. It just felt so empty and bigger than usual. I took a deep gulping breath and felt my heart pounding faster and faster. A moment later, Roscoe came trotting out of my bedroom, meowing and winding around my legs. Roscoe was acting perfectly normally, which meant no one was there. For all that the cat was needy, he was perceptive and intelligent. And he never acted around other people like he did with me.
“Hey, buddy,” I said, my breath slowing. I picked him up and the cat pressed his head against my cheek. I perched him on my shoulder. “Someone killed Uncle Mickey today,” I said. I tilted my head, waiting for my voice to crack or for tears. That would, I presumed, be the usual reaction. Now that I was back in my apartment and safe, the shock was wearing off. That meant that whatever reaction was being held back by my mind would be at the forefront. I felt a little sad, a whole lot angry and there was still a prickling feeling on the back of my neck. But I didn’t feel like I was going to break off into bouts of tears.
Poor Uncle Mickey. The only family I was actually close to and he would even get the satisfaction of having me cry for him. Then, he and I were the strange ones in the family, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised.
I cursed, loud enough to startle Roscoe off my shoulder. I doubted that my family knew. If they did, the police would have called and told them I was present or that they got Mickey’s name from me. I hadn’t talked in them – properly – in what seemed like forever. The last time I had a conversation with my family that lasted more than two minutes was when I told them I was moving to Fort Collins to study. Apparently my father didn’t like the idea of me living in Mickey’s locale.
I pulled out my phone and sank onto the couch. Roscoe mewed and jumped onto my lap, purring and kneading my legs with his claws. It took me another three minutes before I managed to actually dial the number. And when my mother answered after two rings, sounding cheerful as she greeted me, I immediately regretted calling.
“Elizabeth, darling, I didn’t expect you to call,” she enthused. Yes, because the yelling and screaming last time was purely my fault. “Are you giving up on graduate school? It’s only been a week, but I imagine that is plenty of time to make up your mind about something.”
“Mom, can I talk to Dad?” I said. My voice sounded strange, even to me. Like there was some sort of proper lady sitting there, holding all her feelings in, like a lady should.
“Oh, of course! I should have known you would want to discuss this decision with your father,” my mother said. She said something, muffled, that must have called my father to the phone. His condescending tone, so warm and full of self-righteousness, put the iron back into my spine. I loved my parents, but I hated them, too.
“Elizabeth,” he greeted. “Your mother tells me you’re thinking of giving up on this graduate school scheme.”
“I’m not,” I said, hoping that my tone wouldn’t pull us into another argument. “I’m calling for a different reason.”
“I hope you’re not expecting us to send more money your way. You were the one who was so determined to do this on your own, despite our reservations about the possible success that this would bring,” my father said, his confidence gone and replaced with flash temper. I guess that was where I got that from.
“Uncle Mickey was murdered,” I snapped, pressing the bridge of my nose between my fingers. That wasn’t quite how I imagined breaking the news, but my parents don’t bring out the best in me.
There was silence on the other end of the phone and for a moment, I was sure my father had hung up. Then, “M-murdered? Are you… certain?”
“Yes, Dad, I’m certain. I was there this morning when the police were clearing out the broken glass and blood. I’ve spent all day at the shop, trying to get things sorted,” I said, my sarcasm laced with pain. There were the tears, dripping steadily down my face. Not so abnormal, then, I thought with a derisive sniff.
“Elizabeth, I… You’re not hurt, are you?” he asked. I was touched by his genuine concern.
“No,” I said. “But… I don’t know what to do next. About getting his body after the police have finished with it. Or a funeral. Or anything.”
“Ah, yes,” my father sounded hesitant. “I… I’ll send you all the information you will need about dealing with the authorities and setting up a funeral. And I’ll ask around the lawyers in Fort Collins to see if Michael had a will.”
“You’re not coming down?” I asked, somehow unsurprised. “For your own brother’s funeral?”
My father sighed, “Look, Elizabeth, I know how this must seem to you, but Michael and I hadn’t spoken in years. When we were in college, he, well, got into some bad business. It’s haunted him since then and I fear that he brought this on himself.”
“Brought this on himself?!” I snarled into the phone. “You have got to be kidding me. What did Uncle Mickey ever do to anyone? You’re acting like he was some social pariah, not even worth your consideration. Well, I hate to break it to you, but your stupid little feud doesn’t matter. He’s dead. You’re still standing. So don’t bother sending the information. I’ll figure it out myself. Uncle Mickey wouldn’t want you gloating over his grave.”
I hung up the phone with as much force as I could and hurled it across the room. The screen cracked and I probably killed my only line of communication with people, but I couldn’t be bothered. My world was upside-down and I had no way of making it better.
No way except to solve Uncle Mickey’s murder.
I stared at Roscoe, who was looking at me with wide eyes. “Roscoe, we’re going to make things right. We’re going to figure out who did this, if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
“Well, if you’re going to do that, you’re going to need our help.” I whirled around, prepared to fight off the intruder. Sam was standing in the middle of my living room, one hand resting on a cocked hip, looking as smug as if she had personally fired me. Chris was standing just behind her, his hands in his pockets, looking for all the world as if he wanted to be elsewhere. Me? I rushed Sam, baring my teeth in a snarl, aiming straight for her jaw.
Sam jumped back and tried to dodge my second strike to her stomach. This one hit its mark. She doubled over, coughing. “She’s had training,” Sam wheezed. Chris was quick to join the fray, doing his best to grab my arms and keep me from striking at Sam. I retaliated with a few elbow jabs and even he backed up. Problem was, though, despite my training, I rarely fought against two people. In a matter of moments, Sam had knocked my feet out from under me and pinned me to the ground on my stomach.
“Hold still!” she demanded, putting pressure on my shoulder. I growled in response, but did as she asked. “Finally. Sheesh. Where did you learn that style of fighting?”
“There was an MMA-judo dojo near my house. My parents demanded I take up a sport, so I did,” I snarled. “Get off of me!”
“Only if you promise not to attack me or Chris again,” Sam said. I mumbled a promise and Sam got off of me. I sat up and glared at her. Chris, to his credit, was standing a safe distance off. He was smiling.
“How did you get in here?” I asked. “I don’t keep a spare key outside the door.”
“Ah, that was me,” Chris said, raising his hand. “I’m good at breaking into places. It comes from a long history of B&E and a considerable amount of time pickpocketing with a gang of buskers during my school breaks.”
“Uh-huh,” I rubbed my shoulder and frowned. “Well don’t do it again.”
Chris looked slightly hurt at my remark, but I wasn’t really in the mood to make sure everyone was all happy and starry-eyed. Sam rolled her eyes and sat on my couch. “You said something about wanting to solve your uncle’s murder.”
“It was not an invitation,” I snapped.
“Oh, because you have so many resources and options,” Sam said with a half-grin. I glared at her.
“She’s right,” Chris put in. “You are only an intern and a graduate student. You don’t have any connections with the police and couldn’t get them to involve you in the investigation. Nor do you have general access to the servers at Fenton and Burnes. You would have to become quite adept at computer hacking to even make a dent in the investigation and we have much better people who would keep you out.”
“Wow, gee, thanks,” I said. “I love being underestimated.”
“Come on,” Sam said, suddenly looking serious. “We’re offering our services for no charge. We’ll work with you on figuring this out. You would have full access to our resources. We’re your best bet for figuring this out.”
“And why would you even bother to help me?” I countered, pulling Roscoe into my lap and stroking his ear while he fixed Sam in a green-eyed glare. “You hate me.”
“I don’t hate you,” Sam leaned back on the couch and folded her arms.
“Yes, you do,” Chris pointed out. He remained standing, his hands in his pockets.
“No,” Sam said slowly. “I don’t. I hate that you were pushed on me without my input. I hate that you’re a psychologist. It comes from a past issue-”
“With that Timothy fellow,” I said. “I’m aware.”
Sam narrowed her eyes, “How would you know that?”
“You were practically shouting it when you demanded that Burnes fire me,” I replied. “You haven’t answered my question. Why are you doing this?” Nobody said anything for a few moments. Sam and Chris exchanged a glance and I looked between them. Chris was probably an easier target, I decided, so I fixed my attention on him and raised my eyebrows.
“We don’t… we don’t let our people do these things without us.” Chris fidgeted and looked pointedly around my living room.
“Seriously?” I asked in disbelief. “That’s a bit, well, high-handed.”
“It’s our policy,” Sam shrugged. “Bottom line is that when something happens and it involves one of our people – even if we don’t particularly like that person – then we are pretty much obligated to investigate.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. I took a deep breath and sighed, “But I don’t really have much of a choice. Logic tells me that I don’t have the proper resources to figure this out on my own. But I don’t want to involve the entire office, okay?”
“Fine by me,” Sam said. “Some of those people are busybodies.”
“You’re awfully calm considering your uncle was murdered this morning,” Chris said. Even Sam took a breath at the phrase. I confirmed my original thought; Chris had no filters. He just spouted whatever came into my head. It also meant that he was likely to be considerably more honest than the average person. I could see how some people would take advantage of that.
“I’m not very good with emotions and social cues,” I said. “Apparently I focus on pure logic instead of ‘tapping into my emotional centre’.”
“Like Spock!” Chris grinned. I blinked and Sam coughed.
“I suppose,” I said slowly. “Though I prefer calling it an Architect personality type.”
“Whatever, Spock,” Sam said. “Now, we need to get down to business.”
Sam shot a look at Chris, who shuffled his way to the couch and sat beside her. They both looked at me. “We need to know everything about your uncle. Name, birthday, occupations for the last however long you can come up with them, associates, colleagues, anyone who might have wished him ill, everything.”
“Um, I have some of that information,” I said. “But Uncle Mickey was a private guy. He didn’t tell me a whole lot about the people he hung around with. I don’t even know what he did before he got into the rare book business.”
Chris nodded. He didn’t bother writing anything down, like the police officer had, but he stared at me intently. Eidetic memory, perhaps? “Let’s start with the basics. Name, birthday, places of residence that you know about.”
“Alright,” I said. “His name was Michael Deacon Wilde. Went by Mickey. We’re from a seriously strict Irish Roman-Catholic family. Well, used to be Roman-Catholic. My father hasn’t practised for years and I don’t know about my mother. Uncle Mickey was the black sheep of the family.”
“Your father, his brother?” Chris asked. Sam just sat and watched, leaning casually against the arm of the couch. She was, what, the enforcer?
“Yeah. John Joseph Wilde. Uncle Mickey was, uh, three years younger than my father? That would make him, ah, fifty-nine, I think. Yeah, that sounds right,” I nodded. Fifty-nine. To have made it that far, only to be murdered… it made the rage boil up in me again. It was completely illogical, to be so angry. Normal, perhaps, but extremely frustrating. I tried to shove the emotion down, but I fear I started petting Roscoe with a bit more force than was necessary.
“They grew up somewhere on the East Coast,” I said. “I don’t know precisely where. My grandparents died before I was born, so no visits there. And whatever stories I was told didn’t have anything to do with location. Um, not Boston. Or the South. I know that much.”
“That’s fine,” Chris said. He looked at Sam, who finally decided to offer her opinion.
“You know where your uncle lived here?” she said. I nodded. “Great, let’s go have a look.”
“What, now?” I asked. “The police will be crawling all over the place.”
“Not necessarily. And even if they are, you might catch something they would miss.” Sam stood and started for the door. Chris shrugged and followed. Reluctantly, I deposited Roscoe on the floor and followed them. This was starting to feel a bit ridiculous. I had no idea how bad it would get.
Uncle Mickey’s house was in a nice part of town, near a lake. He had trees all around his brick house and a nicely kept lawn. He even had flowers in the planters, though they were wilting in the August heat. With the housing prices being what they were – in a word: nuts – the house was probably worth about a million or so. More than I could cough up in my lifetime, I would bet.
The police, to my surprise, were not there. Sam explained this as being part of their due process. They had to figure things out and send people and worked, generally speaking slowly. We, on the other hand, could work as quickly as possible. As his niece, and the only family he had communication with, my rights to access the house were pretty much without question. Or, that was what the in-house lawyer had said. I hadn’t even known Fenton and Burnes had an in-house lawyer.
“Speaking of lawyers,” I said, fishing the key out from the plastic flamingo in the planter, “what would I have to do to find out about Uncle Mickey’s will? I asked my father, but he was of no help.”
“I imagine they’ll reach out at some point. It’s not like this is a private death,” Sam said, leaning on the porch. Chris nodded.
“There might be a copy inside. Or a number for his lawyer,” Chris put in. I put the key in the lock and opened the door. I didn’t really want to talk to another person about Uncle Mickey’s death, but someone had to find his will. There might be motive there. Some of Uncle Mickey’s books were worth a fair bit.
The house was unlike anything I would have expected of Uncle Mickey. He was a big guy, loud, casual. His house was impeccably decorated, like it came from a catalog and was kept up by a team of cleaners. There were stylish pieces of furniture in the entry way, a couple of tables with candles, even a large vase with an umbrella and walking sticks. There were hardwood floors in every room, different area rugs laid out to match the paint and furniture. Basically, it was posh.
“Well, this is different,” I said. “I haven’t actually been inside his house before. I always had an open invitation and I knew where he kept the key, but we usually met at his bookshop or went out to dinner.”
“Some of these pieces are worth a lot,” Sam said, picking up a light green statue of a Chinese fu dog. “This is real jade.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I didn’t know this.”
“Your family keeps its secrets,” Chris ran his thumb along a row of books, the titles worn with age. They looked like the sort of books a person might keep in a wealthy house to make it look like they read. I pulled one off the shelf and flipped through the pages. Close, tight text that I was pretty sure had never been read. Weird, considering Uncle Mickey’s profession.
“We just don’t talk about personal matters,” I replaced the book. “My father only talks about being a lawyer, my mother about her charity work, my brother hangs on my father’s every word, even though he’s going for a medical degree. Uncle Mickey and I are the ones who don’t talk to the rest of the family.”
“You can deal with that later,” Sam said. “For now, we need to find his personal papers. Any indication that someone might be after him. Before the police get here.”
I led them, by guessing, to Uncle Mickey’s study. It had a few papers strewn about, on the desk and in drawers, but most of them were receipts and tax information for the bookstore and a few bills for the house. No bank statements, no computer, no nothing personal. “Okay, now even I’m suspicious,” I said, flipping through a file of receipts for restaurants he had gone to in the last month. “Uncle Mickey is never this organised at the shop.”
“Too bad we couldn’t get a good look around,” Sam said. “The police were too busy carting papers and books out to let us go anywhere near anything interesting.”
We did a cursory search through the rest of the house, even going so far as to poke through the drawers in his bedroom. The basement had only home gym equipment and a tv. The kitchen, only produce and some ice cream. I walked back through the study again and was about to start pulling those nameless, pointless books off the shelves, a few of them catching my eye, when the doorbell rang. Sam cursed and Chris stiffened.
“I am allowed to be here,” I reminded them, and went to go let the police in before they broke the door down. It would be a pain to replace.
The detective from earlier, Jo, stood there with her hands on her hips. She did not look thrilled to see me. “You should be at home, Ms. Wilde,” she said, casually pushing her way into the house.
“I’m seeing to my uncle’s belongings,” I replied tersely. “Looking for his will or anything of import to send your way.”
“Mhmm. Found anything?” Jo ran her finger over an end table by the stairs, looking surprised at the lack of dust.
“A few tax forms from last year,” I said. “Nothing terribly interesting.”
“I see. Well, I know that this is your uncle, but I’m going to have to ask you to stay out of the way. We wouldn’t want you to be charged with obstructing a police investigation.”
“She hasn’t been,” Chris started. “Ms. Wilde was not explicitly told to stay away from her uncle’s place of residence. As the only family member with whom he has been in contact in the last five years, she has as much right to enter his house as her own. She has received, on numerous accounts, the permission to come and make herself at home. She is also in possession of the spare key. We have not removed anything, nor done any damage to your investigation.”
Jo shook her head, “Man, this is why our department hates dealing with you Fenton and Burnes guys. You get in the way.”
“You know our reputation and success rate,” Chris sniffed disdainfully. “If anything, it is you who get in our way.”
“You’ll be hearing from us,” Sam said, handing a card to Jo before pushing her way out of the house. I pointed in the direction of the kitchen.
“Uncle Mickey left some ice cream in the freezer. Someone has to eat it, and I’m lactose intolerant,” I said. “And if you find anything about a lawyer, please let me know.”
Jo was left gaping after us, looking like she would happily put us all in jail. I shoved my hands in my pockets and hunched my shoulders as I clambered into the car. What with everything that had happened so far, I was beginning to feel the weight of the day. My brief energy spurt that came from anger and investigative fever was wearing off. I vaguely heard Sam and Chris discussing things in the front seat, but I barely paid any attention.
“Hey, kid,” Sam called, her voice breaking into my thoughts. “You okay?”
“Obviously she’s not okay,” Chris snapped. “Her uncle’s been killed, we forced her into accepting our help on the investigation and she probably hasn’t eaten all day.”
Sam looked at me from the rearview mirror and sighed. “Alright, let’s get you something to eat.”
“No,” I said. “Just… take me home, please. I need to get my thoughts in order.”
Chris and Sam exchanged a look and finally, Chris sighed. “You probably know all of that psychological crap about how to make people feel better and whatnot. But, if you need to talk… You know.”
I silently scoffed. He was the second person to say something of that order to me. Did people really think that I needed to talk about this? I didn’t. I needed to turn back time and make it so that it never happened. “Thanks,” I said, though. It wouldn’t do to offend one of the two people who were helping me out at the moment. I didn’t have the resources to go through an investigation on my own. I still had my classes and work to be done. I had a thousand things that needed to be fixed or completed or solved.
They drove me back to my apartment and waited until I was inside before driving away. I considered calling my brother before I realised my phone was still broken. Right. Another thing to put on the list.
“Roscoe,” I called. “I’m home.”
I went to bed that night dreaming of bookcases and offices.
I managed to sleep away most of the shock and exhaustion of the day before and woke with an empty stomach and a great desire for caffeine. I didn’t look at a clock, but it was later than I usually slept. Roscoe informed me of this by jumping onto the counter and yowling loudly until I poured food into his bowl.
“Don’t do that,” I scolded. “We don’t want the neighbours to complain.”
“He’s an illegal cat?” Sam asked, sliding into a chair opposite my own. She dumped a bakery box on the table and I jumped. Chris, surprise surprise, was seconds behind, carrying a drinks carrier with three cups.
“Don’t you people ever knock?” I snapped. Sam plucked one of the cups from the carrier and took a sip. She made a face and pushed the cup to Chris.
“That one has huge amounts of sugar in it,” she complained. “It must be yours.”
Chris nodded and handed Sam the proper cup. I wanted to beat them over the head, but my desire for caffeine and food won out. I snatched the remaining cup and took out a bear claw from the box. “Is there something you needed?” I asked around a mouthful of pastry.
“Well, yes, actually,” Sam said. “The police are quite annoyed with us for being in your uncle’s house before they got there. They think we might have taken some interesting evidence, so we are summoned there at noon. But they also found the lawyer’s number – some collection of business cards – and want to talk to you about something else. Don’t know what. That detective is quite tight lipped.”
“She likely wants to talk to Liza about the will,” Chris said, picking over a bagel. “She sounded quite annoyed at the mention of the lawyer and the will and a legal procedure is one thing that she would not bother discussing with us. Legally speaking, she could get in serious trouble discussing such a thing with anyone other than immediate family or those mentioned in the will.”
“Or it could be interrogating me on Uncle Mickey’s associates,” I grumbled. “Like you two did.”
“Doesn’t matter. I want to run back by the house before we go to the station,” Sam said. “Make sure there isn’t anything we haven’t missed.”
“Actually… can we wait on that?” I asked, sipping at the coffee. It was black coffee with a bit of cream and sugar and it tasted terrible. It did the trick, though. I felt more energy flowing through me and wasn’t inclined to fall back in bed and sulk for the rest of the day. Sam raised her eyebrows in question. “I had an idea and I wouldn’t want to incriminate myself. From what I understand, people tend to look poorly on that.”
“Is this some sort of safe deposit key? Or another property?” Sam asked eagerly. I glared at her over my coffee.
“Working against incrimination, remember?” I growled. Sam just grinned. She really did get on my nerves. “Look, I have to go actually take a shower and look presentable for the police. And I have another two chapters for my Unconscious Mind seminar to read. So I’ll meet you at the station, okay?”
“You – you’re actually going to do homework?” Chris sputtered, staring at me with wide eyes. “But your uncle just died!”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Yes,” I snarled, “I am fully aware. I am not in the habit of letting personal problems interfere with my educational obligations. I am still registered for school. I am still paying my tuition. So I still have to do the work.”
“Shouldn’t you just take a couple of days off, to, you know, get a hold on things? There’s always next semester, if things are, er, bad.” Chris fiddled with his coffee cup.
“Ah, yes, because me not being registered for classes this semester would cancel my internship and therefore void whatever agreement we three have about solving the death of my uncle,” I said. It was meant to be sarcastic, but I don’t think it came across that way. It just came out dark and angry. Sheesh, I used to be snarky. Now I was just cynical.
Chris shrank in his chair and focused on a scratch in the table, running his fingers over the wood. Sam rounded on me with a look that was inches away from murder. “Okay, look. I know you’ve had a rough couple of days, but that is no need to be cruel. We’re helping you. And -”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to insinuate such things.”
“It’s okay,” Chris said softly. I raised my eyebrows and looked at Sam. Was that a sincere apology or was I finally seeing that Chris could lie. Sam nodded slightly and I felt my shoulders relax.
“Look, I’m not usually so… It’s been a difficult day or two,” I said. Chris nodded while Sam glared at me. I finished breakfast quickly and went about getting ready for the day. I’ll be honest and admit that I had a hard time concentrating on discussions of neurobiology and the original theorists of the unconscious mind. My notes were even more cryptic than usual. Still, by the time we left for the police station, I had done everything I meant to. That included writing up a list of every piece of information I had about the case. Admittedly, that wasn’t much.
“Ms. Wilde?” the desk attendant said, giving me a once over. I wasn’t surprised. I wore leggings and a long, loose tank to combat the heat outside. I had my hair up in a messy bun and stood there with my arms crossed, scowling. Chris was also looking less than happy. Sam, on the other hand, had an amused expression on her face that just grew whenever the uniformed officers and plain-clothes detectives looked her way. “Who are you here to see?”
“Detective… uh… Jo something or other. Tall, blonde, never bothered to give me her last name,” I described. The desk sergeant nodded and waved us through.
“Detective Walsh. Jo Walsh. She’s in the office at the end of the hall,” he pointed and I nodded my thank. The three of us walked to the office where Jo Walsh was waiting for us, leaning in her door frame with a flat expression on her face.
“Your presence isn’t required,” she said to Sam. “And unless you happen to be Liza’s lawyer, then you are also not allowed into the interrogation room.”
“Wow, I’m being interrogated now?” I asked sarcastically. “Gee, I thought you had decided I couldn’t possibly have done anything.”
“They’re interrogating you because they don’t have any other leads,” Chris said with his usual tact. I smiled up at him, genuinely pleased at his timing. “They would interview your other family if they had been in communication with your uncle. But they haven’t, and I imagine that they haven’t found anything in his phone records or off his computer.”
“Uncle Mickey didn’t own a computer,” I informed Chris, pointedly ignoring the detective. This was one of those things that I probably shouldn’t have done. After all, we are trained from a young age to respect members of the police. I didn’t discriminate in my sarcasm; I’ve been frequently told that I have authority issues.
“Well, you can tell us all about him,” Jo said. She gestured to an empty room with a table and that stereotypical glass on one side of the room. I flashed her a complacent smile and sauntered into the room. Jo gave a glance to Sam and Chris and followed me into the room, closing the door behind us.
I sat in the chair opposite the window and noted that it wobbled. “Interesting,” I said, wobbling back and forth a couple of times. “Seems you follow that prescribed idea that in order to get more accurate or forthcoming information out of a detainee, you should do your best to make him or her uncomfortable. That is why the temperature is also two degrees warmer in here?”
Jo sat in the other chair and glared at me. “Alright, listen here. You probably think that you can get away with your sarcastic comments and know-it-all attitude that you can talk however you want to whomever you want. Well, in here, I’m in charge, alright? This is a murder investigation, not one of your social debate clubs.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I see,” I said, doing my best to retain a straight face. I leaned forwards, propping my elbows on the table. “I am fully aware of the fact that this is a murder investigation. After all, it was my uncle who was murdered. I am also aware of the fact that your are doing your best to cow me into cooperating with you. However, I have done nothing wrong. I did not murder my uncle. I have not withheld information from the police. I have responded promptly to your summons. If you object to my working with Fenton and Burnes to pursue the investigation, well, you’ll have to take that up with them. Now, you may think I am an arrogant whelp who deserves what I get, but I will tell you that if you even think of insinuating anything or trying to intimidate me further, I will cry ‘lawyer’ faster than you can blink.”
I remained still, a pleasant expression on my face. Jo’s expression, on the other hand, twisted from surprise to annoyance to out-and-out anger. This, my friends, is why you don’t mess with a psychologist. We see everything.
“Of course,” Jo ground out. She leaned back in her chair and took a deep breath. “Might as well get started,” she said. “We found your uncle’s lawyer who had a copy of his will. Didn’t really want to give it to us, but under the circumstances… Did you know that you were Michael Wilde’s sole beneficiary?”
I blinked, “News to me.”
The detective leaned forwards, her eyes flashing with interest. “Did you know that your uncle’s net worth is approximately three point seven million dollars?”
That time, even I took a moment to think. “Uh, what?” I said, trying to wrap my mind around that piece of information. Jo nodded, a strand of hair falling into her eyes. I shook my head, “No, I didn’t know.”
“Mhmm,” Jo said. “Because that is an awful lot of money. And it makes a great motive for murder. You were really interested in your uncle’s will.”
“Because I assume that’s a thing you have to figure out when a person dies,” I replied, doing my best to keep my tone even. “Like planning a funeral and figuring out what to do with a person’s house. Speaking of, when am I going to get Uncle Mickey’s body back? I have to plan his funeral.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Jo growled. I held up my hands and shrugged.
“It was a logical topic change,” I said. “But in response to your insinuation, no I didn’t kill Uncle Mickey for his money. I thought that he was doing only so-so, what with the rare book store not being the most popular place to spend money.”
“So you don’t think that his money came from the book store?” Jo asked, scribbling my answer down in her notebook. I shrugged.
“I don’t know all that much about the industry, but I do know that some of the collectors will spend what I consider obscene amounts of money on things they want. Granted, I’m a broke graduate student,” I said. “For all I know, Uncle Mickey could have owned the lost folio of Shakespeare, or an original copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or a signed Charles Dickens. Who knows what people will pay for that sort of thing?”
Jo grumbled something under her breath, but she didn’t push my non-answer. “So if someone didn’t kill your uncle for his money, then why would they kill him?” she asked. Meaning, if you didn’t kill him, then who did?
“I have no idea,” I said. “Uncle Mickey – no one in our family, really – shares much about our personal lives with the others. I could tell you that he liked a mean dish of lasagna, but I couldn’t tell you if he played a weekly game of poker, or with whom. Just like he wouldn’t be able to tell you about the people in my classes. It’s just the way we are. Any information would be in his records.”
“His records were clean,” Jo admitted. Which meant the police had nothing but the physical evidence. I hoped they had something there, but those results usually took a while.
“Was anything stolen from the shop?” I asked. “Did you check the manifest?”
“We’re still reviewing the data,” Jo snapped. Meaning, no. She fixed me in an angry stare and I sat there, waiting for her next question. It had to be something interesting, since she really had no basis for keeping me there. Or maybe she just wanted to see me squirm after telling her off. “Did you know that Michael Deacon Wilde didn’t exist twenty years ago?”
I laughed, the sound sharp and probably slightly hysteric. It cleared the air and brushed some of the sadness from yesterday’s event off my shoulders. “That’s pretty funny,” I said. “Because I’m quite certain he did. You know, considering he’s about fifty-nine and all.”
“Do try to take this seriously,” Jo said flatly. “Michael Deacon Wilde only came into being about twenty years ago. He has a fairly extensive back story, born in a small town in Vermont with his older brother John Joseph. Average high school student, graduated middle of his class, moved to New York City to start his book store, moved to Fort Collins twenty years ago to open a new branch of the store. But when you pull the details apart, the only real part of that story is the moving to Colorado piece. Actually, your entire family doesn’t seem to exist until twenty years ago.”
“And how did you find this out?” I asked in disbelief. She couldn’t be serious. I was pretty sure I would know if my family were living a lie.
“We have some pretty good computer techs,” Jo smirked. “But turns out that we didn’t need great ones. Twenty years ago, the technology was poor enough that modern machines can tear that information to pieces.”
“Right, so, what, you’re saying that we’re all in the witness protection program or something?” I scoffed. “Or are we part of a criminal family that is on the run from the authorities?”
Jo scowled, clutching her pen in her hand. “I don’t have any more information on the matter. It would help if you started taking this interview seriously.”
“Look, I can’t tell you anything about the whole ‘not existing’ thing. I don’t have information on my uncle’s associates or enemies. I didn’t know anything about the will or Uncle Mickey’s net worth. I really don’t know what else to tell you. Perhaps you should ask my father,” I said. Jo narrowed her eyes but didn’t press the matter. She closed her notebook and stood.
“You are free to go,” she said. “But I would ask that you remain reachable, in case we have more questions.”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “I’m going to have to get a new phone, though, if you want to call. Mine broke.”
Jo opened the door to a waiting Sam and Chris, “Have a good day, Liza.”
“It’s Ms. Wilde,” I said saccharinely. I walked out of the room and shook my head at the two other investigators’ curious looks. We walked out of the police station and were in the car before I relayed the pertinent information.
“So, looks like I’m the beneficiary of Uncle Mickey’s will. Which is a lot of money,” I said.
“How much is a lot?” Chris asked. I told him. “That is a lot. I mean, compared to some other people, like Bill Gates or those Hollywood actors, that’s nothing, but generally speaking, that’s a lot of money. Especially considering you’re only, what, twenty four?”
“Twenty three,” I corrected. “That’s not the most interesting piece.” I told them about my family not existing until twenty years ago. “My father hasn’t told me anything about that, and I’ve never been warned against authorities, so I wouldn’t imagine that I’m on the run from the government.”
“I would agree,” Sam said. “That sounds a lot more like witness protection. Once the trial was up, your family would have kept the assumed names and stayed away from wherever you were living before. Just in case someone was going to come after you.”
“You seem to know a fair bit about that sort of thing,” I said. Sam shrugged, keeping her focus on the road.
“You see a lot of things in this line of work,” she replied. “But if your uncle, or father or whoever, was in witness protection, then it must have been serious to get the entire family new identities.”
I considered the implications. “My guess would be that Uncle Mickey was the one who testified or went into the program or whatever.”
“Why’s that?” Chris asked. Sam and I answered at the same time, and the answer wasn’t terribly reassuring.
“Because he’s dead.”
By the time we reached Uncle Mickey’s house, I was certain that he had been in witness protection. Why else would he live such an inconspicuous life? No computer, no obvious associates, nothing more exciting than working at a rare book shop and a considerable amount of money. I was also pretty sure of another thing, but I wanted to check to make certain.
“If he was in the program,” Chris said as we climbed out of the car, “then that changes things. There must be some record of him. We just need to get in touch with the US Marshals and requisition the records.”
“Yes, because they’ll just hand them over to us,” Sam rolled her eyes. I opened the door and stepped inside, my two talkative shadows following. “Remember what happened last time we got involved with them?”
“That’s because your ex hates you,” Chris pointed out. We took a look at the interior of the house and everyone stopped. “Wow, the police really went at it, didn’t they?”
The entire house, what had been so neat and decorated the day before, was now in pieces. The decorative vases were on the floor. At least one of them had been broken. The drawers for any piece of furniture with drawers were pulled out and the contents strewn everywhere. In the kitchen, the fridge had been emptied and the door left open. The pantry had been sorted through with more vigour than concern for what they were looking for. The papers in the study had been sifted through and the ones that had no bearing on anything were thrown about the room. I gathered from the shocked expressions on Sam and Chris’ faces that this was not the usual procedure for a police search.
“You know, Liza, I think Jo Walsh hates you,” Sam clapped my shoulder. I nodded.
“I got that impression also,” I said. “Come on.” We went straight to the study and the wall of books. Those had also been removed from their shelves and the pages sifted through. At least those were in one piece. The pages were a bit bent, but hadn’t been torn out. There were approximately two books remaining on the shelf and without the rest, the wood looked bare.
I ran my hands over the shelves, pressing my fingers into knots of wood and into corners. Only problem was, I’m short and Uncle Mickey was considerably taller. He wouldn’t have bothered putting a secret catch where it was inconvenient for him to find. “Hey, Chris, would you mind getting the taller shelves? I can’t reach.”
“Sure,” he said. “Do you really think that he would have put a secret room in his house? And behind the bookshelf no less?”
“My uncle had an unusual sense of humour,” I said drily. I hadn’t found anything and Chris wasn’t doing much better. Sam just watched with her hands in her pockets, eyebrows raised incredulously. “Look,” I explained. “Uncle Mickey is – was – a sentimental sort, even if he could hold a grudge for decades. He wouldn’t just throw away all sign of his old life. He would have wanted to remember it. He couldn’t talk to me about it, and he certainly wouldn’t talk to my father about it, but he would have kept it. We just have to find the catch.” I kicked the bottom of the bookshelf and, to the astonishment of everyone in the room, the shelf clicked and moved away from the wall.
“See?” I said with raised eyebrows.
“Maybe you psychologists do know something,” Sam said. She put her hand on her hip, where I noticed a gun for the first time that day, and opened the door carefully. Chris and I stayed back.
Inside was exactly what I had imagined, but scarcely dared hope for. The room was about five feet by eight feet and every inch of it contained paper or pictures or boxes of who knows what. There was a collection of newspaper articles from the eighties and nineties on the wall, detailing a police investigation and journalistic report on the activities of a crime boss and his associates. One of those associates was prominently featured.
“The Mouse?” Sam asked, brushing her fingers over a yellowing article. I felt bells in the back of my head going off. Sam read the article, “Mickey the Mouse, a member of the notorious gang of criminals under the crime boss known as Jimmy Danforth, was arrested on Tuesday after an attack on the Atlantic City docks resulted in the death of three people. There is as yet no information about who these people were or how the Mouse was arrested…”
I opened the lid of a box and found a collection of old photographs, a younger version of my uncle featured prominently. “This is… Uncle Mickey with a whole lot of people that I have never seen before. But it’s definitely not anywhere in Colorado.”
“Guessing by these articles and ledgers,” Chris said, flipping through a leather bound notebook with my uncle’s messy scrawl covering the papers, “I’d say New Jersey.”
“Kid,” Sam said, looking at me, “your uncle was a mobster.”
“As if my family wasn’t trouble enough,” I muttered.
“You expected this?” Sam asked. I shook my head and put the picture back in the box.
“Not in the slightest,” I said. “We should probably go through all of this. Figure out which one of these other people might have wanted Uncle Mickey dead. There’s a lot of information here.”
“Well, let’s pack it up and take it to the office,” Sam sighed. Chris nodded.
“Do we have to?” I asked quietly. “If we take this to the office, then everyone is going to know. Get involved. I’d really rather… Never mind, it’s stupid. You have more resources at the office.”
“It’s too much effort to drive here every day. But you’re right, we don’t want everyone getting involved,” Sam mused. At my questioning look, since her statement seemed to indicate more than just a dislike of having people messing around in my business, she shrugged. “Organised crime is one of those things that gets people all hot and bothered. Besides, now that Detective Walsh knows we’re investigating on more than just a casual level, she may take it upon herself to stop by and see what we’ve discovered.”
“So, what?” I asked, “Are we supposed to rent a storage space? Do all the investigating here? My apartment?”
“The evidence is already here,” Chris said. “Why can’t we just come here?”
“Because it’s across the city from the offices,” Sam said. I pinched my brow.
“Look, how about we just leave everything here. It’s not like people will be surprised that I’m here, since the police trashed the place and it technically belongs to me. Bring whatever computers or supplies you want. I’ll give you the garage code, too, so you can get in while I’m in class and whatnot. For now…” I trailed off. I had no idea where to go next. I was a psychologist. I could easily take the documents and articles and figure out Uncle Mickey’s personality type and potential psychological issues. I could, from an organisational standpoint, go through the documents and figure out chronology or location or names mentioned. I didn’t actually know how to go about figuring out who the heck killed Uncle Mickey.
I imagined, though, that it was related to his career as a criminal.
“Alright,” Sam said. “We’ll go through this stuff quickly. Get an idea of what information is here. This has been a busy day and you have class tomorrow. Besides, I think the weekend has probably been stressful enough. Tomorrow, Chris and I will come up with a plan of action. Acceptable?”
I nodded, “That’ll work. Oh, and before I forget, I need you to sign my supervision report for my prof. If you wouldn’t mind not mentioning the fact that we’re investigating my uncle’s death, I would appreciate that.”
Sam blinked in surprise and Chris laughed as if it were the funniest thing in the world. I just held out my report and a pen and tried not to hate my status as an intern too much.
Now, the average person usually hates Mondays with a fierce passion. The weekends are too short and work – or school – begins again on Monday mornings. Most days, I was an average person. This Monday, I wanted to shrivel up and die rather than face what was likely to be waiting for me.
I dressed in my usual attire and realised only after Roscoe had dug his claws into my leg that I had put everything on inside out. Sighing, I fixed my clothes and fed the cat and really wished that Uncle Mickey weren’t dead. I wanted to call him and complain about everything. But instead, I was investigating his murder and had discovered that he was a former mobster.
Oh, yeah, just an average Monday.
I arrived at my first class of the day and slid into one of the desks, pulling out my notebook and pen. The other students in the class filed in and everything seemed normal. They chatted with the people near them or, like me, remained silent and got out their supplies. I wanted to groan, though, when Zach slipped into the desk next to mine.
“Hey,” he said quietly. I looked at him with my eyebrows raised. “Ah, er… are you doing okay?”
“Comparatively,” I drawled. Zach looked like he wanted to argue. He would have probably gone into detail about the grieving process and how it was perfectly normal to be angry or depressed. He probably then would have offered again to be a shoulder to cry on or someone to talk with. Unfortunately for him, Dr. Blinkman entered the room just then. Her eyes went immediately to me and I suppressed the urge to groan again.
Of course the university would know about it. All of my profs probably knew.
“Ms. Wilde?” Dr. Blinkman said, waving her hand in a gesture that made it perfectly clear I was to come talk with her. The other students quieted down and stared at me. I said nothing, just got up and walked over to the prof. Dr. Blinkman drew me aside and put her hand on my shoulder in a comforting gesture. I raised my eyebrows and looked pointedly at the offending appendage.
“I heard about your uncle,” she murmured, barely loud enough for me to hear, let alone any of the eager eavesdroppers. “I would just like to offer my condolences. And if you need to take some time, we can figure out something for your classwork. I’m happy to talk at any time.”
“Thanks,” I said, and started back to my seat. Dr. Blinkman coughed in her throat and I turned to face her again. “Really, I’m fine. All caught up on work and everything.”
Then, leaving Dr. Blinkman staring after me in shock, I went back to my seat and did my best to ignore Zach. Apparently my performance rattled Dr. Blinkman enough that the lecture she had planned for the day went in fits and spurts. The students tried their best to get engaged, discussing the reading on the Meyers-Briggs Personality test and discussing the various personality types. Everyone had taken the test and talked about how accurate – or not – they thought the test was. I joined in with equal interest, doing my best to ignore the stares from Zach or Blinkman. It was easier by far to look disinterested and discuss the topic as an academic rather than an emotionally affected student.
Finally, the class ended. We were assigned more reading and everyone packed up their bags. I didn’t quite pack my bag quickly enough. Zach waited by my desk when he was done and hovered unnecessarily by my side. “Seriously, are you okay?”
“Fine,” I said. “And, no matter how many times you ask that question, the answer will not change.”
“You’re in denial,” Zach decided. I slipped my satchel over my shoulder.
“No, actually, I’m not,” I said. “Let me lay it out for you: my uncle was murdered by parties unknown early Saturday morning. He is dead, not coming back, etc. I am fully cognizant of this fact. I miss him, but there is nothing I can do. So why bother wasting precious time crying over the matter. It changes nothing.”
“Can you at least promise to call me if you want to talk? Or even go for a bite to eat? I’m here for you,” he said.
“Phone’s broke,” I said. “Haven’t gotten a new one yet. But sure, I’ll call if I need you.”
Then, I slipped into a group of undergraduates and made my way to the stairs before the larger man could follow me. Sometimes being tiny has its advantages. I remembered, belatedly, that I had an appointment with Dr. Marceau regarding the status of my internship. I had to drop off my weekly status form and talk with him about how things were going. Sighing, I trudged down to his basement office and knocked on the door.
“Enter,” his voice called. He was as stoic and seemingly unhappy to see me as before. Dr. Morose seemed to fit him well. “Ah, Ms. Wilde,” he said, gesturing blandly for me to sit in the chair across from his desk.
“Doctor,” I said, just as blandly. No more fake smiles and cheerful reactions, trying to get on his good side. Frankly, I wasn’t certain he had a good side.
“You have my condolences on the loss of your uncle,” he said, the words almost exactly the same as Dr. Blinkman’s. Only, he didn’t offer to be a shoulder to cry on or a person to talk with. He just moved on as if Uncle Mickey’s death were a side note. Frankly, I was pleased for it. “I assume this will not affect your internship with Fenton and Burnes?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Things are just fine, there.”
I handed him my weekly status and he read through it, nodding slightly. “Good. You might have expected more than sorting and scanning old files, but as an intern – and an unpaid one – you will, naturally, be expected to prove yourself before being relegated any major responsibility.”
“Actually, it’s very interesting,” I said, feeling annoyed enough that I wanted to contradict him. He might not have been overly-emotional about my current circumstances, but I wasn’t an idiot, either. “I’ve been sorting the files by personality type.”
Dr. Morose stared at me, finally at a loss for something to say. “I see…” he said slowly. “And you are to continue there, doing the same work, yes?”
“Until I finish,” I chirped. “Actually, I can go and get some work done now, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course,” he said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. I left his office, thinking that we could be very similar people, but that he really had no idea what to do with me. Welcome to the world, I thought.
I took the bus to Uncle Mickey’s house and opened the door to Sam and Chris practically having a shouting match. Sam was waving a piece of paper in front of Chris and he was emphatically shaking his head. “No,” he said, folding his arms. “There’s no way. You know how he is with anything involving organised crime! If we even -”
“Yeah, but you also know that he’s the best. If anyone has any information on the situation, then it would be -”
“Ahem,” I coughed into my fist. Sam whirled on my, hands reaching for her holstered gun. Chris jumped, too, landing in what looked like a defensive judo position. I stood there with my hands on my hips. “So, anyone want to fill me in?”
It took a moment of silence for the two professionals to calm down enough to tell me what was going on. Chris was the first to recover. “Sam wants to tell Burnes about what’s going on,” he snapped. “Which is such a bad idea! I cannot tell you how bad an idea it is. I mean, so what if he worked organised crime before he joined with Fenton, but still. Burnes hates anything to do with organised crime.”
“But he also knows everyone who’s anyone in the world of organised crime,” Sam countered, finally taking her hand off her gun. She glared at Chris and turned back to me. “If we asked him to help sort through the names and people, then we could cut down the amount of work we have to do by a huge amount. I mean, I don’t even know if some of these people are dead or not!”
“You came up with a list of names, then,” I pushed my way into the small hideaway before Chris could jump back in and elevate the argument.
“The names was the easy bit,” Sam scoffed.
“Your uncle was incredibly thorough,” Chris agreed, gesturing to a box of files. I looked at the labels and saw that they were, indeed, names, set up in alphabetical order. I pulled out the file on Jimmy Danforth, supposedly Mickey’s boss back in the day. Contained within was a fuzzy photograph from a newspaper, a handwritten biography and various newspaper clippings detailing the more public side of his work. Mickey had also written out some of the things Danforth did that the newspapers hadn’t known about. There were other miscellaneous piece of information, such as Danforth’s ex-wife had a child named Julia, or that Danforth preferred red licorice as a snack.
“Sheesh,” I said, putting the folder back. “And I thought your filing room was bad. Are all the boxes like this?”
“No,” Chris shook his head, pulling the lid off another box. “Most of these are dealing with shipments of products and financial trails. Some are dossiers on the various people that were under Danforth’s control, especially in the city government. There’s one with a whole collection of plastic bags with dirt and grass and things.”
“A couple of ledgers that it looks like he stole from Danforth,” Sam said, flipping through the pages. “That box there seems to be the only one talking about people your uncle actually had contact with. On the criminal side of things. There are a few references to police men or the US Marshals that took him into custody. Nothing after the arrest, though.”
“Was there even a trial?” I wondered aloud. Obviously Uncle Mickey had gotten off not-guilty if there had been. I wondered if any of these boxes contained information about crimes that he had committed.
“Not for Mickey,” Chris said. He shrugged, “I looked up everything I could on Mickey the Mouse and Jimmy Danforth and all I found were some old reports covering the pre-trial of Jimmy Danforth. Danforth, apparently, didn’t even live to see his trial. He died in prison.”
“Killed?” I asked flatly. I wondered, briefly, if Mickey had figured out some way to get his old-boss-turned-enemy killed while the man was in prison. Perhaps as a way of securing his safety better than the government could. Then again, I and everyone else in my family had been given new identities, so perhaps not.
“Sorry, no,” Sam sighed. “Pneumonia. Danforth was about seventy at this time.”
“So what happened to his empire?” I asked, thumbing through the names to see if there was one that looked at all familiar. None of them did.
“No idea,” Sam said. “Which is why we thought we’d get Burnes involved.”
I pressed the heel of my palms to my eyes and hoped that a better solution would come up. I sighed. “Okay, look, how about I do some research on these people and see what I can come up with?”
“We’ve done research,” Sam pointed out.
“Well, then I’ll do some more. It’s a start, alright? Maybe I can go through some of the old files at the office before… oh,” I leaned against the wall of boxes to support my legs, which had suddenly fallen from beneath me. Chris moved forwards and grabbed my shoulders.
“Liza? You okay?” he asked sharply. I nodded, my tongue seemingly glued to the roof of my mouth.
“Kid, what’s going on?” Sam asked, even her tone sounding concerned. I swallowed, the action making my throat drier.
“Friday,” I wheezed. Coughed. “I was going through files on Friday and came across one of the older ones from the back room. All about a man named ‘The Mouse’.”
The two investigative agents recoiled and stared at me. Chris, surprisingly, was the first to speak. “Are you sure?” he said, sounding a bit squeaky. I nodded.
“I filed it under… I don’t know, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Or maybe Short Fuse,” I shook my head, my hair coming out of its tie and getting in my face. I shrugged again. “I don’t know.”
“Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Short Fuse?” Sam asked.
“My filing system,” I explained. “No one specified how they wanted the folders filed, so I filed them under personality type of the person who wrote them, that sub-organised by date.”
Sam took a deep breath and pressed her lips together, as though she were trying really hard not to say anything. She looked at Chris, who was watching her with wide eyes. Then, she looked at me and pressed her lips tighter together. After probably thirty seconds, she let her breath out in a slow stream. “Come on,” she growled, striding from the hidden room. “We’re going to the office.”
Chris and I followed her, making sure to close the room up before we left. There was no point in leaving it there for any passerby to see through the window. Or, heavens forbid, the police if they decided to return. I leaned over to Chris as we were walking to the car. “What’s up with Sam?” I whispered.
“I think she hates you,” Chris explained, also whispering.
“I don’t think it’s me she hates,” I replied. “It’s what I represent. The whole psychologist thing, right?”
“Well, probably. It’s really not you. It’s…” Chris trailed off. He opened the door and climbed in, sparing me a look before I got in the car as well. “To be fair,” he continued, “I almost forgot, too.”
“For goodness’ sake,” I snapped, clambering into the back of the car. “I’m still technically being trained! I’m not fully qualified yet. You can’t hate me.”
“Oh, yes I can,” Sam grumbled. “Don’t worry, I find you amusing, too.”
“Great,” I rolled my eyes. “I’m comic relief.”
The Fenton & Burnes office was exactly like it had been last I was there, except this time, the air conditioning was working. I greeted Carly as we walked into the building. She beamed back. “Looks like you are moving up in the ranks. Not filing papers anymore, huh? See, I told you it would work out.”
“As always, you were right,” I said. Sam and Chris were waiting for me by the entrance to the office, but I leaned against the desk, determined to ask a few more questions. “Everyone underestimates receptionists.”
Carly rolled her eyes. “Do they ever. But at least I get benefits and decent hours, right?”
“Whereas, I’m an unpaid intern,” I grumbled. “The world is not fair. Hey, I was reading some files the other day and came across some pre-private investigation office files. Can you tell me anything about what Burnes did before starting the firm?”
“Burnes?” Carly asked. She shrugged, “He worked as a cop out in Jersey. Atlantic City, I think. Nothing terribly specialised or interesting, I don’t think. Now, Fenton, on the other hand, well she was a serious badass. Worked with the FBI, did some serious time investigating serious crimes. There was this one time, I heard she got involved in a shoot-out between two gangs. Quit the FBI after that to do the private thing.”
“Jeez, I would too, if I were being shot at. This is a far safer profession,” I said. Carly laughed and nodded.
“Absolutely. And we don’t get robbed nearly as often as banks do.” On that cheerful note, I waved good-bye to her and followed Chris and Sam into the main office.
“What was that about?” Sam asked. I shrugged, jamming my shoulder into the filing room door to get it open.
“Just some background gossip,” I said. “Alright, here are all the files. Now, I only got through about a third of them, so the ones I haven’t touched are on all the shelves except this one by the door. The computer files are going to be easier, though. I’ve scanned and sorted all of those.” I indicated a collection of files and sat down at the computer. Chris went over to the ones I had already sorted and started sifting through the section on Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
“You do know that there are conventional systems for filing things, right? Person, subject, date, etc.?” Chris asked.
“Technically, that is by person. Just personality type, not name,” I said. “Alright, here… the file on ‘The Mouse’.” I pointed to the screen. “Looks like Uncle Mickey, if you took off a few pounds and added a moustache.”
“So what does it say?” Sam leaned over my chair and stared at the screen.
“Um, lots of it has to do with the US Marshals,” I scanned the document. “There’s a whole bit in here on his criminal activities. Connections with Jimmy Danforth, not helpful. Here we go! ‘Mickey the Mouse is likely one of Danforth’s most trusted lieutenants. He seems to have earned Danforth’s trust by tipping off the mobsters when cops got wind of a scheme in one of the casinos in the area to cheat the house, belonging to a rival crew. The Mouse has not been confirmed in any violent activities since teenage years, but there have been rumours of him actively bribing and subduing members of city council and law enforcement. Surprisingly, he seems to be more involved with the business than Danforth’s son, Thomas. Following the Mouse has been surprisingly easy, given his current association with the US Marshals…’ That’s all that’s relevant. There’s a bit here about his not-arrest slash disappearance from the mob world, but that’s about all.”
“So, what, he was a trusted lieutenant,” Sam said, standing straight and folding her arms.
“Above the son, and likely heir apparent, of Danforth’s empire,” Chris pointed out. “Criminal organisations tend to be hereditary. They follow a leader and are handed down to a family member, often a son, due to the high amount of mistrust within such organisations. Unless the son or nephew or whomever tends to be completely incompetent, in which case, a substitute is provided.”
“You sound almost like a psychologist,” I said. “Substitute family members are often huge sources of jealousy for actual family members.”
“This son, then,” Sam nodded, completely ignoring my psychologist comment. “We need to find him.”
“Got it,” I turned to the computer and started a general search for Thomas Danforth, born in New Jersey. I got about a thousand different entries, some of which could have been perfectly relevant, some of which were about kittens. I turned back to Sam, “Okay, no. I’m pretty good with research on mental conditions and personality types and academic papers and what’s the best pizza joint around, but I’m not that good.”
“Right,” Chris said. “We’ll ask George. Thomas Danforth, right? I hate the name Thomas.”
I nodded, knowing better than to say anything. Thomas was the mysterious source of why Sam and Chris both hated the psychologist side of me. I figured it would be safer not to ask. Instead, I asked, “Who’s George?”
“In house IT guy,” Sam said with an affectionate half-smile. “He’s a little crazy, but then, so are most of the people here.”
“George,” Chris clarified, “worked for the NSA at age fifteen, hacking into foreign governments’ computers. He got bored with government regulations and quit two years later, going freelance for a few months until Fenton found him trying to steal her credit card information.”
I didn’t say anything as I was led through the office to a back room that was, surprisingly, cooler than the rest. There were no computer monitors on the wall, no errant programs running on a console off to one side. There was one television in the corner, a video game on pause, a beanbag chair and lap desk in the other corner, occupied by a kid probably eighteen, nineteen years of age, with a single laptop. He looked up from his screen and gave me the sort of once over I usually got from the college freshman. I responded with the look I usually gave, telling him that I was really not interested.
“Who’s the chick?” he asked. I raised my eyebrows farther. Chick? Interesting language choice, given that the word was not used popularly anymore. Hadn’t been for a few years.
“She’s the psychologist,” I said in my best ‘tell me everything’ voice. “You really don’t want to mess with her.”
“Great,” George nodded seriously for a moment then looked at Sam. “Seriously?”
“I know,” Sam shrugged, but I could sense the animosity growing. I chose not to say anything. “Look, we need you to find someone for us.”
“For you,” George slouched deeper into his beanbag. “Hit me.”
“A man named Thomas Danforth. Probably in his fifties. Was based in New Jersey, Atlantic City, thirty or so years ago. Son of Jimmy Danforth, mobster. May be in the same business, may not,” Chris slipped his hands into his pockets. “Try the name in connection with Mickey the Mouse.”
“Seriously?” George asked again, this time incredulous.
“I know,” I said. “Copyright infringement.”
The hacker glared at me and bent his head to his screen, fingers typing and clicking on the trackpad. We looked to be in for a bit of a wait, but neither of my two watchdogs seemed inclined to go anywhere. I leaned against the doorframe and did my best not to seem impatient. I must have failed, because I kept getting funny looks from George.
After about seven minutes or so, he sat up straighter and nodded firmly. “Alright, here’s what I’ve got. Tom Danforth, 54, currently in Atlantic City. Not in the family business, though. He runs an architectural firm that specialises in commercial buildings. The really weird ones, you know? I can get you his phone and address if you want,” George looked hopefully at Sam, who nodded.
“Yeah, text me the information, okay? I’ll be sure to put a call in to Chinese Dragon,” Sam ruffled George’s hair, which he flattened out immediately, scowling. We left him to his video games and dark net surfing.
“Chinese Dragon?” I asked.
“Every time George does a personal favour for anyone in the office, the deal is that someone has to buy him a meal. He’s nineteen. His paycheck runs through his pockets like water,” Chris chuckled.
“I remember being nineteen,” I said, heading back to the filing room. “I don’t remember spending money like water.”
“Yes, well, you’re weird,” Sam snapped. And, we were back to that. Instead of snapping back and getting involved in what would be a pointless argument with someone who was technically my superior, I turned to the shelves of files. It wouldn’t hurt to have the original, so we wouldn’t have to come to the office every time we needed to look at it. I searched for the file while Chris called Tom Danforth.
I had begun to figure out that Sam was the muscle and force in their dynamic, while Chris was more of a people person. My early diagnosis of having no filters was not quite correct, either. He was effusive, not incapable of containing himself. He probably felt things a lot more strongly than most people did, resulting in stronger reactions to the emotions. In any case, he was definitely the person to call a stranger out of the blue and be friendly enough to get them to stay on the line.
“Hello, is this Mr. Tom Danforth?” Chris asked, leaning against the desk with the computer. “My name is Chris Royceton, with Fenton and Burnes Private Investigation… no, I’m not a reporter. I promise. Yes, well, I’m calling about a recent murder that happened in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was related to a man named Mickey… Yeah, that’s him. Did you know him well? Twenty years, right. A previous investigator’s report from that time indicates that he was cutting you off from your father’s empire… Ah. Grudges do last a long time, but… I see. Would you know of anyone else who might have a… Oh, really? Thank you for your time, Mr. Danforth. I appreciate the help. Right, bye.”
I pulled the file from the shelf and turned to Chris. He slipped his phone into his pocket and scratched his head. “He didn’t do it,” Chris explained.
“Are you sure?” Sam demanded.
Chris nodded grimly, “He hated his father. Wanted nothing to do with the empire. The two weren’t on speaking terms at all. Tom even refused to go visit his dying father in prison. He doesn’t know who runs things now, but he doesn’t recall that any of his contemporaries were particularly capable. None of them, at least, was bent on murder when Mickey went to the Marshals. As far as Tom knows, the organisation sort of dissolved after Jimmy went to prison. There were a few people who got picked up by rival crews, but nothing serious.”
“So no more leads,” Sam growled. I shook the file at her.
“Hey, we got this far. Surely one of those people had a reason to go after Uncle Mickey,” I flapped the file under her nose. “We have this information and the information back at the house, we just need to figure out what’s relevant.”
Chris intervened before Sam could round on me and chew me out. “Maybe we should look at a different angle,” he put his hand on Sam’s shoulder, forcing her to pause.
“Oh?” she asked, lip curled.
“We’ve been asking why someone would kill Mickey. We’ve gotten caught up in the discovery that he was a mobster and that his death must have had something to do with his past life. And that may be the case,” Chris put in before either of us could argue otherwise. “But police don’t usually concern themselves with motive. They look at means and opportunity. They look at the evidence.”
“Who could have had the opportunity to kill Uncle Mickey? Or the means to do so? Who else would that be but someone in his past?” I countered. “He didn’t have any enemies here and none of his books were stolen or valuable enough to bother killing for. So it must have been a fellow mobster. But to figure out which one, we have to figure out why. Tom didn’t do it, so someone else must have.”
Sam sighed and shook her head, “The kid does have a point.”
“Thank you,” I grumbled. “Also, we have to figure out who would kill Mickey like they did.”
“The police won’t even tell us how he was killed,” Sam said. I frowned. “No,” she nodded, “really. Chris and I asked at the scene, but all we could get was that it had been violent.”
“Violent,” I said flatly. “Well, that could mean anything? Was it violent anyone could have done it, or violent only one person kills like this sort of thing?”
“That could narrow down the suspect pool.” Chris shrugged and turned pleading eyes on Sam, “We need to get the police report.”
“No. No way!” she snarled. “We don’t need to-”
“We don’t have a choice,” Chris interrupted, sounding just as angry. For him to be so annoyed, this must have been an old argument. “Fenton doesn’t mind us taking on our own assignments every now and again, but she does like to be informed. And the police won’t hand over anything unless she asks and we agree to work with them officially.”
“We have information to barter,” I offered.
“No,” Chris shook his head, still glaring at Sam. “It won’t work. We’ve had too many run ins for a mere trade of information to do us any good.”
“It’s not my fault -” Sam threw up her hands.
“Yes, it is.”
The two fell into silence, both turning to look at me to decide. As if I could mediate on an argument that had been going on since long before I got there. I folded my arms self-consciously. Took a breath and let it out slowly. “Look, I don’t have any experience with whatever politics happen here, but I do know this: my uncle was murdered on Saturday. I really, really want to solve his murder. Does it really matter if we have to kowtow a bit with the police to make that happen?”
Chris looked pointedly at Sam and lifted his chin defiantly. She groaned. “Fine,” she fisted her hands on her hips, “fine. We’ll go to Fenton. Get official help in this investigation. But when this turns sideways, don’t blame me.”
“I never do,” Chris said softly. He looked at me, “I… This might go better if you didn’t come to talk with Fenton with us.”
“She may have argued to keep you here, but the chain of command matters a lot to her. We need to keep any unofficial parties out of this when we bring her in. I promise that we’ll tell you everything we learn, okay?” Chris pleaded. I wanted to complain and whine and demand to be allowed to come with them, but that would have been childish and pointless. I was too rational to do anything other than accept. Besides, I had homework to do and I really, really wanted to go take a hot bath. The last few days were overwhelming, but they were also all that was keeping me going. If I got thrown off the investigation, then I would likely break down into crying and grief for Uncle Mickey. So, just this once, I would step aside in order to be kept in the loop. It seemed counterintuitive, but it was something.
“I take it that you don’t want me going back to Uncle Mickey’s house and doing research on those names,” I said.
“No,” Sam agreed. “We’ll probably head over there with the police. And Fenton, if she insists. You should go back to your apartment. We’ll call you, later.”
“My phone is broken,” I reminded her.
“We’ll drop by later,” Sam amended, sounding put out by it. I really did need to get my phone fixed.
I was dragging my feet by the time I got to the building. It was barely two in the afternoon, but I was exhausted. I shuffled to the elevator and across the hallway, only to be greeted by Steve.
“You look terrible,” he intoned, his voice low and perfectly calm, as if he were making a comment on the weather. I saw that he was just standing in his doorway, hands hanging heavy at his side.
“Thanks, Steve,” I said, false cheer filling my voice. “Because I feel so wonderful. Shouldn’t you be at work or watching television, not waiting around for me?”
Steve shrugged his massive shoulders, “Making sure you’re okay.”
I smiled slightly in response, “Thanks.”
“Some guy got the key to your apartment from the landlord,” Steve informed me, just as calmly as before. “Said he was your father.”
“What?” I yelped. “Way to drop the lead!”
“Want me to check it out with you?” Steve asked, stepping a fraction of an inch outside the doorway. I considered; Uncle Mickey had been recently killed, but then again, why would I be a target? Then again, why would my father come to visit me? I had made it perfectly clear that he didn’t have to bother coming to the funeral. He had made it perfectly clear that he didn’t want to come to the funeral.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “That would be great.”
It felt a whole lot better to have Steve’s imposing bulk at my back as I opened my door. In general, it usually felt a whole lot better to have Steve living across the hall from me. He was never intrusive and didn’t mind if I had no desire to be a friendly neighbour. Mostly, he just asked how I was doing and stepped back inside. It was like having a friendly guard bear living across the hall.
I fitted the key into the door and cursed myself for being foolish enough to hesitate in opening the door. Steve moved imperceptibly closer, giving me enough courage to actually open the door. Everything in the entryway looked as it usually does. I didn’t call for Roscoe, knowing that the cat would find me. I didn’t announce my presence any more than just opening the door and stepping inside. The floors were new enough that they didn’t creak at my step. Steve’s, though, made a distinctive thud.
“Elizabeth? Is that you?” Sure enough, it was my father’s voice that met me. The man himself stepped into view and froze, eyes wide. “Ahm, who is this?”
I folded my arms. “Steve, this is my father. If you happen to be around next time he tries to break into my apartment, please stop him.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed. He didn’t move. My father coughed nervously.
“Elizabeth, we need to talk. How about you come in and sit down?” he gestured towards my living room, a glass of water in his hand.
“You want me to stay?” Steve asked me, completely ignoring my father.
I stayed silent for a few seconds, long enough to make my father quite nervous before I shook my head. “That’s alright,” I said. “Thanks for the assist, though.”
“You need anything, you scream,” Steve nodded his head at me and glared at my father before lumbering back to his own apartment across the way. I stayed in the entryway for a few more seconds before I turned and closed the door behind me. I stepped into my living room and folded my arms again, remaining standing.
“Please, sit down,” my father gestured to the couch. I raised my eyebrows.
“This is my place,” I said. “You don’t get to invite me to sit down in my own apartment. And, for that matter, you sure do have some nerve rummaging through my cabinets to get a glass. Did you look in my bedroom, too? Perhaps dispose of my cat?”
Speaking of, where was Roscoe? I heard a faint mewing from behing my bedroom door and stalked over to let the creature out. “You did dispose of my cat,” I accused, narrowing my eyes. Roscoe took one look at my father and let out a low, warning growl. I picked him up and scratched his ears.
“The creature tried to attack me. You should not keep such dangerous creatures around,” my father sniffed and, ignoring my statements, sat on the couch as though he owned the place.
“Roscoe is a good judge of character,” I supplied. The cat crawled up to my shoulders and sat there, tail twitching against my shoulder blades as sign of his agitation. “What are you doing here?”
“You weren’t answering your phone. Your mother got worried,” my father said.
“My phone is broken. I threw it against the wall after our last conversation.”
“You always were careless with your possessions,” my father raised his eyebrows slightly and took an appraising look around my living room, as though it didn’t quite meet his standards.
“I’m only going to ask one more time before I yell for Steve,” I growled. “What. Are. You. Doing. Here.”
My father shifted on the couch, a silent comment on its quality. “I received a telephone call from a detective with the Fort Collins police. She informed me that she had spoken with you regarding my brother’s death.”
“Interesting that you don’t even bother to give him a name,” I said blandly. “It’s called distancing language and it separates a speaker from its subject.”
“Don’t analyse me, young lady,” my father spat. I said nothing. “The detective was very friendly and helpful. She was concerned for you.”
“Was she?” I scoffed. “Or was she more concerned with the fact that I wasn’t terribly helpful. Or that I’ve involved my bosses in the matter. Or was she just curious about something else?”
My father shifted again, this time the comment had nothing to do with the couch.
I bared my teeth in what could loosely be called a smile. “She asked you about Uncle Mickey’s will, didn’t she? Surprised your brother had such a net worth?”
“I told the detective that there must have been some mistake,” he growled. “My brother was in no way worth that amount of money. And you were not mature enough to manage it. I suggested that she instruct the lawyers to deal with me, but…” he broke off, features twisting in distaste. This time, my smile might even be considered genuine.
“I’m not a minor,” I purred. “I have been financially independent and I don’t live with you. You have no means for calling either Uncle Mickey or myself mentally unfit, so there is absolutely nothing you can do to keep me from my inheritance. Well, well. Who would have thought that the resolute lawyer would have been failed so completely by the law?”
“You are not fit to be in control of such a sum,” my father repeated. “You will squander it within a year, I guarantee you. Drugs, extravagant expenses, it doesn’t matter. One way or another, you will come crawling back to me and beg me to fix all your problems.”
The smile fell from my lips. “Just because I don’t do what you want, don’t expect me to fail,” I stated flatly. “A father is supposed to support his children, no matter the endeavour. You and mother have both tried your very best to get me to fit your idea of a perfect child. Go to law school, be a paralegal, meet the perfect lawyer, marry, have children exactly like you want. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not going to happen. I was perfectly capable of doing well without Uncle Mickey’s inheritance, and now I’m going to do just as well with it. You may be my biological father, but Uncle Mickey was a much better father than you will ever be.”
“You dare-” my father hissed, rising off the couch in one swift move, eyes flashing. I held up my hand and he froze.
“Please don’t try to intimidate me,” I said. “It will only humiliate you further. Now, please leave before I have to yell for Steve.”
I could see his mind whirling, trying to figure out something to say that would put me in my place. He came up with nothing. He put the water glass on the side table and adjusted his tie before walking past me and throwing open the door. If my father expected to make a graceful exit, he was denied. Steve was waiting in the hallway, his posture calm but powerful, watching my door. My father let out a stifled squeak before he composed himself and strode off.
“He cause you any problems?” Steve asked. I shook my head.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” I said. I chuckled, “I should probably get my phone fixed, huh?”
“Good idea,” Steve agreed before slipping back into his apartment and closing the door. Though, not before giving me a rare Steve-smile. I smiled back and retreated into my own apartment.
Roscoe rubbed his head against my cheek as I sank onto my couch. The cat climbed off my shoulders and slithered onto my lap, his claws digging into my legs. I detached him and leaned my head back. This was one of those moments when I really missed my uncle. A wave of loss slammed into me, making it suddenly hard to breathe. I gasped for breath and was frankly astonished when I started crying. Roscoe made a noise and I shoved him away, lying on my side and crying into a throw pillow.
I lay there for the rest of the afternoon. I was unable to move or form coherent thought. I had no desire or ability to do any homework and even simple needs like food fell by the wayside. Eventually, I must have fallen asleep, because I was startled awake by someone knocking on my door.
Sam actually waited for me to answer the door rather than letting herself in. She stood there with a hip cocked, eyebrows raised. “You look terrible.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, standing aside to let them in. Roscoe came running and wound his way around Chris’ legs. Apparently, he didn’t think much of Sam, because he ignored her completely before coming to me for attention.
I lay back down on the couch, my head propped up on the arm and throw pillow. Chris stood awkwardly while Sam pulled a chair from the kitchen into the living room. She sighed and got another one for Chris. I waited until both were seated. “So, what happened?”
Chris winced, “It didn’t… it didn’t go well.”
“Could have been worse, though,” Sam shrugged. “Fenton wasn’t happy when we brought the matter to her attention. She understands about investigating things that happen to the team, but that was about all.”
“She was pacing and ranting,” Chris argued. “She never rants.”
“So she was upset?” Sam shrugged again. “She didn’t fire us. Or you,” Sam hastened to reassure me.
“As I’m not getting paid, that’s a great relief.” I think the sarcasm was lost on them.
“She did demand that we turn over everything we had on the investigation so far,” Chris rubbed his hands together, staring at the floor.
“We expected that,” I pointed out. “Didn’t we?”
“That’s why you stayed here,” Chris agreed.
“Man, was she livid when we showed her the back room in your uncle’s house,” Sam grinned, eyes flashing. She leaned back in the chair. “Wanted to tear apart everything then and there, but we had to get the information to the police. She did go through the papers while we waited for that detective to show up. And she was pissed, too. Practically accused Fenton of keeping things from her, despite their history of cooperation. We got all the blame, naturally.”
“Naturally,” Chris muttered, glaring at her. Roscoe went over to the man and butted his head against Chris’ leg. Roscoe can make anyone feel better.
“Still,” Sam said. “It worked. We got Detective Walsh to agree to share everything with us…”
That caught my attention. Sam never trailed off or paused with uncertainty. Not unless something was seriously wrong. I did try not to profile or psychoanalyse my colleagues, but it was so hard when they made it obvious. “What happened?” I demanded, sitting up.
“Well…” Sam tucked a strand of curly black hair behind her ear, exchanging a glance with Chris. He sighed and stopped petting Roscoe.
“Detecive Walsh agreed to a joint investigation, provided that Alice Fenton runs point on our side of things,” he explained. I waited for the bad news. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, considering that the police apparently hated – or at least severly disliked – Sam and, by association, Chris.
I waited after explaining this to the two investigators. They both looked at each other. Sam coughed quietly. “You can’t be involved,” she muttered, barely intelligible.
“Why not?” I ground out.
“Because we didn’t actually tell Fenton that you were involved. She probably figured it out, though.” Sam looked pointedly at the rug on the floor.
“Then just tell her that I’m helping,” I pointed out. Chris winced again.
“We can’t,” he spread his hands in surrender. “Fenton doesn’t let interns anywhere near investigations.”
“Cardinal rule,” Sam agreed, “Don’t let anyone who is not getting paid anywhere near the investigation. Even if they’re related to the victims.”
Once again, the world fell around my ears. This was the only chance I had to get at Uncle Mickey’s killer. I needed to be involved. I didn’t have the resources to do this on my own. At best, I had a computer, research skills, the guy I sat next to in class and the charm of being young and female. In a situation like this, when I actually needed connections to get anywhere near, say, the autopsy report or the crime scene photos, I was doomed.
I hadn’t even realised I had stood up until I was looming over the seated figures. They actually looked intimidated, despite my size. Well, good. I didn’t do anything to hurt them. Nor did I express the profound depth of my disappointment. I should have known better. These people had hated me from the moment I introduced myself. If not me personally, then what I apparently represented.
“Please,” I said, my voice low. “Get out.”
“Hey, Liza, now wait a minute,” Sam started, rising. I didn’t move and she nearly tripped over the chair to keep from running into me. “We never said we wouldn’t keep you informed, but-”
“Get out,” I repeated.
“You don’t have to be angry,” Chris cut in, for once stepping in front of a shocked Sam, as if to protect her from me. “Fenton is the best thing that could have happened to this investigation. She’s got years of experience and-”
“Get out,” I sad a final time. Chris and Sam exchanged a glance that spoke of years of interactions and investigations. They didn’t include me. I was okay with that. I didn’t move as they went to the door and made their escape. And, to be fair, they did have a point in why they were protesting. It wasn’t as though I had any experience in the field. Having someone who had done this for years was probably beneficial. But I didn’t just want to be informed of things. I had vowed to figure this out.
So, I would. Even if it required a skill set I didn’t have. I was always good at learning on the job. Now, I was going to get some practical experience. And I was going to do it my way.
I got my phone fixed. Well, actually, the guy at the phone store said that the one I had was damaged beyond repair. They could pull out my SIM card and throw it into a new model, but that was about it. At least they managed to save most of my information.
Anyways, after I got my phone fixed, I had to sort through about seventeen different voicemails, that number again in text messages – mostly from Zach – and figure out what happened to all my pictures of Roscoe. One of the messages was from Uncle Mickey’s lawyers, requesting that I stop by their offices as soon as possible.
I called an Uber and went to the offices, my brain still somewhat numb. I was doing my best to figure out how to move forwards with the investigation, but I was stumped. I had no idea what was going on. No, that’s not true. I knew exactly what was going on, I just had no idea how to stop it. That’s one of the problems with being an unqualified, unpaid intern. No one takes you seriously until you’ve set the building on fire.
I wasn’t prepared to go there quite yet.
The law office was one of the nicer ones in town. The building was made of old brick and looked like it had been around for at least a century. The placard next to the name of the offices said as much: Gard, Yates and Rhodes, est. 1902. Inside was even nicer than the outside. There were potted plants that were actually maintained, a collection of leather couches for waiting clients, old wooden desks intermingled with new steel ones that probably cost a fortune, even paintings by people whose names I should probably have known. I never much cared for staring at paintings, though. I was more of a book type of person.
Anyways, the offices frankly reeked of money. I stood out immensely in my favourite pair of black leggings, a long olive-green t-shirt belted at the waist, my satchel over one shoulder. My hair was, as usual, thrown back in a messy pony tail and I was probably sporting several nights’ worth of under-eye bags and shadows. The receptionist merely glanced at me and returned to her typing, unfazed.
“Welcome to Gard, Yates and Rhodes, can I help you?” she asked once she had put the final period on whatever she was doing. She blinked a couple of times and waited expectantly for a response.
“Liza Wilde,” I said. “I received a call from a Mr… Hardesty? This has something to do with my uncle, Mickey Wilde.”
“Ah, yes. Please have a seat, Ms. Wilde,” the receptionist gestured to the leather couches. “Mr. Hardesty will be with you in a moment. Can I offer you something to drink? Tea? Water? Soda?”
“Ah, er, water would be lovely,” I said, silently cursing myself. My habit of mimicking people had dissipated since Uncle Mickey’s death. Dealing with lawyers was a most inconvenient time for it to return. Especially uppity lawyers who could spot a fake a mile away. I mimicked. I didn’t charm.
Thankfully, the receptionist paid me no heed. She merely reached under her desk and pulled out a bottle of water from some mini-fridge. I took the bottle and sat down on the couches, feeling entirely out of place. I really hoped that whatever this was, it wouldn’t take too long.
“Ms. Wilde?” a new voice called. I practically jumped off the couch, the water unopened in my hand. A short, portly man in a three-piece suit was standing at the entrance to a back hallway that probably led to offices or something. He wasn’t nearly as short as I was and he had the sarcastic, one eyebrow raised look down perfectly. I walked over to him, feeling foolish and uncertain as to what to do next. “I am Byron Hardesty, partner here. I’m glad you managed to come in so quickly.”
“Er, what is this about?” I asked, following him back to an office that came straight out of an old English gentleman’s club, like in Sherlock Holmes or something. And not the kind with lewd women. The one where everyone sits around reading newspapers and not talking.
“Your uncle was a client of mine. I was primarily responsible for managing his estate,” Hardesty gestured to a chair and I sat, promptly. Hardesty settled himself in his leather chair behind his desk, the cushions letting out a slight hiss of air. “Now that he is dead, it is also my responsibility to execute his will. In which you are the sole beneficiary of his estate.”
“I was told,” I said, doing my best not to sound posh or uppity. Hardesty’s sarcastic eyebrow raised even higher. “Detective Jo Walsh called me in on Sunday in order to question whether I knew anything about that.”
“My. The police had received the information as a matter of procedure in the murder investigation, but to imagine you a suspect,” Hardesty laughed. He looked at me, taking in my slight stature and obviously underestimating me, like everyone else. I didn’t laugh.
“Yes, quite,” I said once the lawyer had calmed down. He wiped an imaginary tear away from his eye and returned to his previously calm state.
“In any case, I have asked you here to sign the papers that will confirm you as owner of the estate. We like to go over these things with such a large amount of money in question,” Hardesty said. He shoved a pile of papers in my direction, uncapping his pen. “Now, here is a general summary of the estate. One, the house located here in Fort Collins. Two, the house located in Vancouver, Canada – “
“What?” I asked, amazed. I hadn’t even known Uncle Mickey had a second house, let alone in Canada. Then again, I hadn’t known he was a multi-millionaire, either.
“The details of the property are included in the document,” Hardesty said, breaking through my initial shock. I decided that it was probably better just to sit and nod dumbly. I nodded. “The house located in Vancouver, Canada. Three, an investment portfolio totalling, at the time of the accounts being frozen due to Mr. Wilde’s death, three million, seven hundred and sixty seven thousand, two hundred and thirteen dollars and forty five cents. Four, two bank accounts together totalling five hundred and six thousand, eight hundred and twenty four dollars, sixteen cents. Five, a, ah, title to a racehorse known as Thief’s Greed, currently stabled at Green Briar Ranch in Kentucky. Five, the rare book shop and all its associated books and accounts, located in Fort Collins. That’s all that is listed specifically in the will, but if there are any unknown assets that were not listed in the will, there is a stipulation that those belong to you as well. This may include cars, artwork, etcetera.”
“Oh, is that all?” I asked, my voice somewhat squeaky. Hardesty gave me another look. I glanced back down at the contract and he continued, going through the remainder of the estate with a dull voice. He went through the management of the investment portfolio, the keeping up of the Vancouver property, the care of Thief’s Greed and any other details that I might need to know. After about an hour, my mind bogged down with information, I signed the papers that gave me control of a considerable amount of assets and left the office a wealthy woman.
I leaned against the building for a moment, trying to gather my thoughts from the realm of fantasy and stick them back in the realm of reason and reality. I reminded myself that I was often considered hyper-rational. I believed in reason and logical explanations for everything. I was not good with emotions. Which probably explained why I was currently having such a hard time with them just then. I was feeling too much. Sadness over losing Uncle Mickey. Anger over losing Uncle Mickey. Frustration, mostly at Sam and Chris. Anger, also at Sam and Chris. Fear over not knowing what to do next. Confusion over my new assets. Hunger – that wasn’t an emotion.
I sighed, relieved. I could deal with hunger. I shifted my satchel over my shoulder and started walking, figuring I would find the nearest restaurant that wasn’t a McDonalds or similar and have a nice meal. After I was nourished, I would be able to think rationally again. Sitting in the quiet and thinking usually put everything back in its proper place in my mind.
“Liza.” My arm was snatched out of nowhere and if I hadn’t had enough training to be able to identify what was happening to me quickly, I would have put my attacker on the ground in bloody pieces. I saw it was Zach and instead, I just put him on the ground on his bum.
“Don’t do that!” I snapped.
“What, come and say hello?” Zach slowly got to his feet, making it seem worse than it was.
“No, sneak up on me. Grab my arm,” I thwacked him on the shoulder and he pulled away, rubbing the offending limb. “I could seriously hurt you!”
“I noticed,” Zach said. “Look, I’m sorry, I was just trying to get your attention. You seemed pretty, well… you know, this morning.”
“Unstable?” I asked drily, folding my arms. Zach nodded, still rubbing his shoulder. “Yeah, well, I’m not as unstable as you think I am. Just-”
“Not all that good with emotions,” Zach supplied, jumping back again before I could his his other shoulder.
“I have a perfectly good solution for emotions,” I grumbled, starting to walk down the street again. “I just ignore them.”
“Oh, yes, because that always ends up well,” Zach rolled his eyes.
“I ignore them until I have the opportunity to sit and figure out what to do with them,” I continued, ignoring the interruption. “How did you find me, anyways? Are you stalking me?”
“What? No!” Zach insisted, eyes wide. “I just happened to be passing by on my way from work.”
“…What work?” I asked suspiciously.
“Court runner,” he said dully. “Not terribly exciting, but it pays the bills.”
“Ah, right… So, was there something in particular you wanted? Or were you just trying to offer your shoulder to cry on, again?” I kept walking, dismissing the first restaurant as too busy. The one across the street was a Thai place, but I wasn’t in the mood for Thai food. I wanted something greasy and with no chopsticks. It was easier to think with a fork in hand as opposed to tiny pieces of wood.
“I know you seem to think that talking to someone is a cliche, which is ironic given that you’re studying psychology,” Zach said. “But I am actually a firm believer that talking to someone about your problems opens up new understanding.”
“Hmm,” I considered. “Really? Alright, fine. I’ll talk. You’ll tell me what you think. We’ll go from there.” I stopped in front of a tavern-bar-thing and jerked my thumb at the restaurant. “I’ll even let you buy me dinner.”
Zach brightened visibly. “Really? Great. I promise I won’t ask you any cliche questions or force you to sit on a couch and tell me about your childhood.” We walked inside and were directed to a table.
“My childhood might, in this case, actually be relevant,” I said. Zach blinked. I ordered a milkshake and we got right down to business. I don’t think Zach knew what hit him.
“Okay, let me get this right,” Zach pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. “You inherited a small fortune – and a racehorse – from your formerly mobster uncle who was in the witness protection program?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the general gist,” I said.
“Right,” Zach continued. “And then you started investigating the murder with your bosses, only you got thrown off the case by their boss because you’re an intern?”
“That and I’m pretty sure the lead detective in the police doesn’t like me,” I added. “Hm. Now that I think about it, a good number of people on this case don’t like me.”
“Uh-huh. You do know that this sounds insane, right?” Zach raised his eyebrows at me. I pointed at him with a french fry.
“It is not my fault that things happened this way. I am an innocent bystander in all of this. All I want to do is solve Uncle Mickey’s murder and get on with my PhD. Okay?” I growled.
“I believe you,” Zach held up his hands. I grumbled and ate the french fry. Then, because the food was gone and I had no idea what to do next, I slumped in my chair, only refraining from putting my head on the table because I didn’t know when it was last disinfected.
“I need to find out what happened to Uncle Mickey,” I said. “But I can’t do anything without the police report. I don’t even know how he died. I have no crime scene photos. I have no information on any potential suspects. Even the files that Uncle Mickey had at his house – and the one I found at the Fenton & Burnes office – they’re all lost to me.”
“Can’t you get them back?” Zach asked. “Work with, what’s their names, Sam and Chuck -”
“Right, Chris. Can’t you just work with them on the sly? I mean, from what you said, they sound as though they actually want to help you out.”
“But they’re also loyal enough to their boss that they wouldn’t go against her direct orders. Which are not to let me be involved,” I pointed out.
“Are you sure? If you asked them. Maybe begged them?” Zach pressed. I shook my head, finishing off the last of my water. With the usual ESP that wait staff shows, our waiter came by and filled the glass, ice splashing a few drops onto the table.
“I am studying to be a forensic psychologist. I have a Bachelor’s degree in psychology. I’ve done some online summer classes in profiling,” I said. “They won’t break that loyalty without good cause and a whole heap of evidence.”
“Is there any way that I can help?” Zach asked. I shrugged, that feeling of helplessness settling on me. It was the one that usually came when there was no logical course of action for me to follow, when all the answers led nowhere and the resources I had previously known had run dry. Basically, it felt like what happened when I ran out of money and had no job. But worse.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Not unless you know of some way to get the police report to me without getting in the way of Detective Walsh, Fenton, Sam or Chris.”
“I’m not helping you break into the police station,” Zach said flatly. I shook my head.
“No, that would get you arrested. And me,” I said. “I don’t know, maybe I should just give up. Leave this investigating to the professionals and hope they don’t mess it up. It just feels like I’d be letting Uncle Mickey down.”
“Letting down your former mobster of an Uncle,” Zach pointed out. I scowled.
“He stopped being a mobster twenty years ago. Plenty of time for reform. Besides, when I knew him, he was a good guy,” I drew on the side of my glass with a finger. “Maybe he was a bit more secretive than most, but he was a good guy.”
“Okay, let’s just table that for now,” Zach held up his hands. The waitress took this as a sign to bring the check. She hovered around until Zach put his card in the black folder, then vanished. Zach rubbed his forehead. “Couldn’t you just put in a request for the police file under the Freedom of Information act? We can look up the rules, but I’m pretty sure they have to make provisions for that, right? There might even be an online form.”
I sat up straight, “Zach, you’re a genius!”
“The Freedom of Information act is nothing new,” he said, “but I’m glad I could help.”
“No, no, not that. That would take months, even if they decided to grant my request. No, what I’m thinking is computers.”
“Computers?” Zach winced as the waitress returned, her falsely cheerful smile slightly suspicious. He signed the receipt and slipped his card in his wallet, waiting until the waitress left before talking again. “What are you talking about? They won’t have the information on a website.”
“No, but I’d bet you a nickel that they store copies of their files on the police server,” I grinned. “And I happen to know a computer guy. Well, Sam and Chris introduced me. But since I’m back on file sorting duty at the office, I bet I can ask him for a favour.”
“Doesn’t he hate you?” Zach asked.
“No. Well, yes. Sort of. These people all hate that I’m doing psychology. They had some sort of bad experience with a former employee of Fenton & Burnes who was a psychologist. I don’t know specifics, but he liked to psychoanalyse the employees and make them do what he wanted. Like emotional blackmail, or something.”
“Or something. Great.”
“What matters is that I’m not him. And if I can convince George that I’m not a threat and I have no intention of psychoanalysing him or emotionally blackmailing him or whatever, then I can probably get him to do me a favour.” I was immensely cheered by this prospect. I was back on track and had a definitive plan.
“And if he doesn’t agree to illegally hack into the police servers for you?” Zach stood up. I sighed and followed his lead, the room feeling restricting with the waitress’ hawkish eyes.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” I protested. “Look, I’m the first to admit that I have no idea what I’m doing. But I do know that I owe it to Uncle Mickey to see this through.”
“There’s nothing wrong with familial loyalty,” Zach put on his therapist voice, making me narrow my eyes in response. “But, Liza, you have to realise that there is a point when you’re taking this too far.”
“Have I reached that point, according to your enlightened position?” I asked. Zach shoved his hands into his pockets as we walked down the street and glared at me. Benevolently, but it was still a glare. It was also the most negative emotion I had ever seen him display.
“I don’t know!” he snapped. “This was supposed to be a normal place to go to school. I was supposed to start working on my doctorate and work my way into interning at a practise with the goal of starting my own. One week in and I’m already embroiled in a murder investigation and possibly helping you plan an illegal act. Is life around you always this crazy?”
I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and readjusted my satchel to sit more comfortably on my shoulders. “Not usually. I mean, I’ve had my fair share of troubles. And interesting situations. My undergraduate days were… interesting. This is my first murder investigation, though.”
“And you’re going into forensic psychology, which means you’re likely to be involved in many more.” This was muttered under his breath and I don’t really think that it was meant for me to hear, so I ignored it.
“You’re the one who wanted to me to talk,” I pointed out.
“I know. And I did mean it when I offered to help. I just didn’t think it would involve all of… this,” Zach waved his hand vaguely.
“Look, how about this. I won’t involve you in any capacity except as my ‘therapist’. I’ll talk to you, tell you what’s going on. You keep it confidential, tell me if I’m going crazy. And when you open your own practise, you can say that I was your first client,” I offered. Zach took a deep breath and I could tell that he was thinking seriously about telling me to hoof it. I could also tell that he was a decent guy at heart and there was little he wouldn’t do to help someone. Here was a psychologist who actually cared about getting to the heart of people’s issues. Me? I just liked knowing how and why people’s brains worked the way they did.
“Fine,” Zach said.
“Great. You can start by taking me back to my apartment. I can call a cab, if you’d rather,” I put in hastily.
“No, it’s fine, come on,” Zach waved his hand and I followed him to his car. We drove back to my apartment in silence. He had a good memory, because he never once stopped to ask me where it was. I took note of that and kept silent during the drive. Just like before, he pulled up to the curb and leaned over after I got out of the car. “You want me to come up?” he asked, a thin layer of weariness behind the concern in his voice.
“Nah, it’s okay,” I said. “I’m just going to go do that reading for Professor Blinkman. Call it an early night.”
Zach nodded and, polite as he is, waited until I was inside the door of the building before driving away. I went up to the apartment, feeling really tired, now. It had been a long day and I hadn’t been getting as much sleep as I should have. What I found waiting for me outside the door was about as cheerful as a dead goldfish after a vacation.
Sam and Chris looked contrite, and were standing as casually as could be while still holding their shoulders perfectly tense and shooting worried looks between the two of them. Alice Fenton, her lithe frame practically screaming impatience, stood to one side of my door, casting looks around as if waiting for someone. Waiting for me.
“There you are,” she growled. I raised my eyebrows.
“Here I am,” I said, spreading my arms. “Did we have an appointment?”
“You weren’t here,” Chris said by way of explanation. “We thought you would be here.”
“I was out.”
“Can we come in?” Fenton demanded.
“That depends,” I replied, not moving an inch to open my door.
“On?” the woman said, sounding less and less like the person who argued to keep me on and more and more like someone who was facing an unpleasant aroma.
“What you want.”
“I have a few questions to ask you regarding your uncle,” she snapped. I sighed and waited. “It’s pertinent to the investigation.”
“Alright,” I said, sliding between the three people to open my door. “But I have homework to do still, so you can’t stay too long.”
Maybe it was because I was in a bad mood, or really tired, or just plain done with whatever the world decided to throw at me that day, but I let the three investigators into my apartment and proceeded to ignore them.
I put my satchel at a chair in my kitchen and got out a single mug and tea bag, turning my kettle on. Roscoe came into the kitchen, looking warily at Fenton while winding his way through Chris’ legs. He then came up to me and meowed loudly, so I fed him. All the while, my ‘guests’ said nothing, watching me. Waiting.
Well, I could be stubborn, too. I had plenty of practise playing the silent game with my father, so I continued to make my tea, stirring the tea bag until it was dark enough and throwing the bag into a container so I could save the dregs for my houseplants. Finally, after I started getting out the sponge to clean the counters, Fenton broke the silence.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” she gestured sharply to the kitchen table. I shrugged and wandered over, sitting. “As I said, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your uncle.”
“I’ve already told those two everything I know that could possibly be relevant,” I said, nodding at the obviously uncomfortable Sam and Chris. They exchanged glances and finally, Sam sat next to Fenton, looking like she’d swallowed a lime. Chris sat opposite her, gently moving my satchel out of the way with an apology in his eyes.
“That was before you knew that he was a mobster,” Fenton pointed out. “And I wasn’t asking the questions.”
“They seem quite competent,” I countered. “But even if they did ask the questions before Uncle Mickey’s ‘big secret’ got out, there’s still nothing I could add. I don’t know anything that would connect him to any crimes or people from his old life. I don’t know anyone in his current life who would possibly want to kill him. He didn’t have any enemies, but even if he did, I doubt he would have told me. Our family likes their privacy.”
“He left you all his money,” Fenton leaned on her elbows, looking for all the world like she had stuck gold.
“That doesn’t mean he told me who his enemies were,” I replied easily. “Look, I was three when the whole identity change thing apparently happened. I don’t remember being anyone else. I don’t remember Uncle Mickey caught up in anything untoward. I’m pretty sure I still wanted to be an astronaut-doctor-ninja, so frankly, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on around me.”
“Surely you know something,” Fenton snapped. “I know that you’re holding something back.”
“What could I possibly be hiding?” I raised my hands in surrender. “If I knew something, don’t you think that I would have gone after whoever it was that killed my uncle? Or maybe you think that I did it? Except, well, no, I couldn’t have done because I don’t even know how he died. That and I don’t have the physical strength to do whatever it is that was done. At least, that was what the police decided.”
“I have years of experience,” Fenton seethed, her temper fraying before my very eyes. “I have never let people like you get the better of me. You’re either hiding something or you’re incredibly stupid -”
“Hey,” Chris protested. Quietly. Fenton silenced him with a single look and he flinched. I had only ever seen him flinch at one other thing before: mention of that Thomas guy. It struck me, just then, that Chris, for all his good heart and ability to be friendly with just about anyone, was absolutely terrified of Fenton. Not physically, but of letting her down, or making a mistake. She was In Charge and she wanted her people to know it.
“I never should have let you come intern for us,” Fenton hissed after a moment’s pause. Her eyes flicked up and down my weary frame and she curled her lip in distaste, as if I wasn’t even worth being in the same room as her. This was the person who had fought Burnes – and won – about my coming to work at the office. She had gotten the police, somehow, to do her bidding and now she was sitting in my kitchen, doing her best to get me to do the same.
If only I weren’t me, she might have succeeded.
“All I did was apply,” I said calmly. “You were the one who accepted me. Sam and Chris were the ones who gave me the assignments. They were the ones who stuck me in a back room. I didn’t complain, didn’t demand better work. I just filed.”
“And here we are, stuck in the middle of this… mess,” Fenton snarled, waving her hands to encompass my entire apartment.
“I didn’t choose to have my uncle killed,” I replied, forcing myself to remain calm, though I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders and shake her. Or a nice kick to the stomach. “Sam and Chris were the ones who offered help. And I’m more than grateful for their help.”
“Their help is worth nothing,” Fenton said, shoulders stiffening, “if you don’t tell me what it is you know!”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know,” I said. “But perhaps I could help. I just need a look at the police file. I can tell you the mindset of whoever the killer was. It’s what I’m training for.” My offer was most definitely not a selfless offer of help, though I did believe that I could help. I wanted to know what progress the police had made. I wanted to know how Uncle Mickey was killed. I needed to know everything, if I was to make any more progress. Fenton, though, was doing her level best to stand in my way. Student as I was, with no connections and no support, she was more than likely to succeed.
Fenton curled her lip at me. Then, she turned her back and gestured to Sam and Chris. “Come on. We’re leaving. This foolish girl knows nothing.”
Chris shot me a look and raised his eyebrows. He started to open his mouth to speak, perhaps in my defence, perhaps not. I shook my head and he closed his mouth. Sam just scuffed a shoe on the floor before moving to follow her boss. Fenton didn’t look back. Her two employees did.
I waited until they were gone and stood there for a few minutes afterwards. Roscoe broke me out of my thoughts by crawling up my leg. I detached his claws and put him on my shoulder before heading to do my homework.
Sometime over my third chapter of reading and outlining a paper, I fell asleep.
Tuesday brought its own problems that I didn’t want to deal with. I had, despite being exhausted, slept badly the night before. My mind wouldn’t stop running over information in my head and Roscoe decided that my tossing and turning meant it was time to play. So, as I looked at myself in the mirror, the shadows under my eyes were more pronounced than ever. I reached for the makeup.
My class schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays was pretty light. I had a longer class in the morning and then I was free until two in the afternoon, when I had a seminar to attend. In between, according to the schedule drawn up by Dr. Morose, I should be filing dusty tomes in the Fenton & Burnes offices.
“I really don’t want to go,” I told Roscoe. He ignored me in favour of his food. “I mean, what am I going to accomplish, really? Filing more of their archived cases onto their computer? Some of these things are thirty years old! Why even keep them around, if they predate the office.”
Roscoe, helpful as ever, didn’t respond.
I leaned on the counter and scratched him behind his ear. “Yes, yes, I know it’s an exercise in patience and obedience. I just wish that there was something useful for me to do. Besides I’m pretty sure that they’ll just make me do it over again when they figure out how I’ve filed it. Not everybody recognises personality types or disorders like I do, I guess. Then again, I’m a psychologist, so maybe that’s just par for the course.”
I straightened and stretched. Time to get to class. It was, as I expected, quite difficult to sit still and pretend to pay attention. I listened to the lecture on real-world encounters with different personality disorders – in this case, anxiety – and did my best to take pertinent notes. It was only about halfway through the class that I realised something.
I sat up straight in my chair, with such alacrity that my professor stopped talking and looked at me over her glasses. “Is there something you wanted to ask, Ms… Wilde?” she asked, groping for my name on her seating chart.
I gaped at her for a second, then nodded, “If you had happened to read a text written by someone with anxiety or whatever disorder, and then you encountered that person in real life, would it manifest in the same way, or would there be differences enough not to be sure that this person was the author?”
She blinked for a few moments, parsing my words to make sense of them. “Well, hmm, that depends on a number of factors. I knew this man, once, who suffered from paranoid delusions. But he was so good at hiding his emotions and acting how he expected everyone wanted him to act, that you could hardly tell. When you read his journal, though, every action of every day was dissected and diagnosed and analysed to pieces. Alternately, there was a woman who had OCD and it was immediately apparent in her writing style and conversational style that she suffered from the disorder.”
I nodded and hurriedly scribbled down some information. My prof looked as though she wanted me to ask a follow up question, but I kept my head down. My mind was no longer on the class. I could barely pay attention and I’m sure my notes were a jumbled mess. I had a theory, though. An idea that had probably started to form the night before and persisted through my dreams.
When we were finally released from class, I couldn’t get to the office fast enough. I practically ran from the bus station and pushed through the doors as quickly as I could. Carly lifted her head and grinned at me.
“There you are!” she bubbled. “You are lucky you weren’t here earlier.”
I stopped, still itching to get into the actual office, not stop and talk with Carly. “What happened earlier?”
Carly’s pleasant face lit up as I asked, like she had been waiting all day to tell someone the office news. “When I get here first thing, I usually go around and put everyone’s mail on their desks. Take away things to go out, you know. Well, this morning, I went to take a few letters up to Burnes’ office and it sounded like he was yelling to take down the building. Fenton must have been in there, too, because I head him say something like ‘we built this together, do you know what you’ve done’ or whatever. I’d love to know what it was they were yelling about.”
“So would I,” I nodded in agreement. “Did you hear anything else?”
“Oh, no,” Carly shook her head emphatically. “I didn’t want to get into trouble, and there were other people coming in, so I just went back downstairs and out here. I figure I’ll deliver the mail later. Or tomorrow.”
“I think that sounds like the safest option,” I assured her. Carly nodded and jumped guiltily when the phone rang, like she had been neglecting her duties. She answered the phone and I waved, turning towards the office.
Her news could mean nothing, but I had a feeling it was important.
I slipped into the office and met with a room that was so filled with unspoken words that it was hard to breathe. The employees wandered almost aimlessly around the room, exchanging quick glances and quiet whispers with each other. Those that were sitting at their desks were working without any of the usual energy. They hunched over their computers and did their best not to pay attention to the ones wandering around. I heard one person on the phone, but even that conversation was hushed.
George caught my eye, moving from the cantina to his personal room. I moved towards him. He hurried into his back room and waited until I was inside before closing the door. He paced the small space, avoiding the bean bag chair and the paused video game, his eyes fixed on the floor.
“What’s going on?” I asked, though I thought I knew the answer. “It’s like a funeral out there.”
“Fenton and Burnes went at it this morning,” George said. I nodded, not telling him that I already had the information from Carly. “Apparently, this old mobster – ex-mobster, I don’t know – was killed a week ago. Burnes wanted to know why Fenton didn’t get him involved. This was the same guy you were looking into?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“The copyright infringement name. I remember,” George ran his fingers over his laptop and shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. But Burnes was angry as I’ve ever seen him. Demanding to know why Fenton didn’t hand the case over to him the moment she caught wind of it. Fenton spent a good long time cursing at him and saying that she didn’t need to tell him what she was doing every minute of every day, like a child. It got worse from there.”
“Fenton probably knew about this before Sam and Chris told her, then?” I asked. George shrugged, then nodded.
“Yeah, probably. There’s not much that goes on in this office that Burnes and Fenton don’t know about. I mean, this is an investigative agency. They like to keep tabs on what’s going on, no matter how quiet people are. No secrets here,” George grumbled. “Not anymore.”
“Not anymore?” I perched on the edge of the single table in the room and folded my arms. “What does that mean?”
“Oh, you know, the whole Thomas incident,” George grabbed his laptop and slumped over to the bean bag. He sat there without opening the computer; he just ran his fingers over the top, like I would while petting Roscoe.
“All I know is that everyone hates me because I’m a psychologist and apparently Thomas was one, too,” I said. I shrugged. “No one would tell me anyways.”
“Thomas was… charismatic,” George eyed me, perhaps trying to seek out the same trait in me. I was anything but charismatic. “He could gather everyone’s attention just by walking through the room. He was always social, willing to talk. And he was so easy to talk to. Like he actually cared about what you were thinking and feeling.”
“I take it he didn’t actually care.” I knew people like that. My father was one of them. He could make it seem like you were the centre of his world for exactly as long as you did what he wanted. That was why he was such a good lawyer. That and he really liked to win.
“No,” George confirmed, kicking the floor with his shoe. “He acted like he cared right up until he discovered something secret about you. Something you tried to keep from the rest of the office, or perhaps you didn’t want your parents finding out about. Then, he used that against you. Got you to do his work. Or pass on information about others.”
“Something like that. Only, he still pretended like you were friends. Like he was just looking out for your best interest. Helping you excel in your career because you got extra experience in doing his work. Practising investigative techniques. And each smile would send you crawling to the bathroom to freak out before you could do anything productive.”
George continued to stare at his laptop. He was telling his story in the second person, but I got the feeling that he was talking about himself. And everyone else in the office. It would explain why they all hated me so much. I said nothing, just let him talk.
“It was worse because he was a psychologist. He could tear apart what you said and get at your innermost feelings and thoughts. It was like always being under a microscope. I think we all hated him. But we were all too scared to say anything, even to anyone else, because of what he might do. I don’t even think Burnes or Fenton noticed. They were right in the middle of a trio of drug dealing, person smuggling cases they were helping the government with. I don’t even know if they were in the office more than six or seven times in a six month period.”
“What happened to Thomas?” I asked after George fell silent. He tightened his grip on his laptop and shrugged, a vindictive gleam in his eyes.
“He messed up,” George said vehemently. “He was bad to all of us, but Chris was his favourite target. Probably because Chris doesn’t have a mean or dishonest bone in his body. He’s not autistic, he’s just—”
“Eccentric,” I nodded, smiling. “A teddy bear.”
“A good guy,” George agreed. “Anyways, Thomas started ragging on Chris really hard about something. He wanted in on whatever case Chris was working. I think it was something to do with a wealthy widow, but I don’t know. It could have been anything. Thomas was going to do what he loved to do; swoop in and take all the credit for the case, even though he had nothing to do with it. Only this time, Chris didn’t have the information to give him. Client asked for all the case files to be kept under lock and key in Burnes’ office, so Chris could only get access to them in the mornings. Thomas wanted access at a different time, so he could get on the case. Chris couldn’t do it. It got bad. Thomas basically exploded. Started beating on Chris. Poor man was screaming for help before anyone could get to him. Sam freaked out and attacked Thomas. Chris called Burnes and Burnes called the police. We were lucky they got here so quick or Sam would have gone to prison for manslaughter.”
I winced. “No wonder you all hate me. I do that psychologist stare and you think I’m going to… I wouldn’t, you know.”
“Probably not,” George conceded. “It brings up bad memories, though. Don’t tell anyone that I told you, either. I’m just explaining why the office is the way it is. We don’t really have secrets anymore. If anyone of us had gotten together with anyone else, we could have had Thomas out in an instant.”
“So Sam and Chris helping me out…” I said.
“Was actually pretty quiet until yesterday. I mean, he was murdered on Saturday? Yeah, we wouldn’t have figured it out until yesterday anyways. You get away from the office, you think of anything but work,” George tried to crack a grin, but it turned out more of a grimace.
“Except those who think only of work,” I nodded. “Hey, look, can you do me a favour?”
“That depends,” George said, tightening his grip on his computer. He looked at me suspiciously. “You’re not going to make me keep this from Fenton, are you? Or try to use this against me?”
I shook my head vigorously, “I won’t make you do anything, I swear. I’ll even pay double the usual rate.”
George narrowed his eyes. “Triple. Dinner for the rest of the week.”
“That’s four times, but deal,” I said. “I’m trying to get access to the police record on my uncle’s murder.”
George held up his hands. Had he been standing, he would have backed away from me. As it was, he just looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was. “Look, finding out where a guy lives after thirty years, that’s one thing. Hacking into the police to get access to information, that’s another thing entirely. That’s illegal. I don’t do illegal.”
I ran a hand through my hair, untangling some of the strands. “Right, sorry. I just… I can’t make any progress without that file. And now that Fenton’s running the investigation, she won’t let me anywhere near it.”
“Then my advice is stay away. Fenton is in charge for a reason. The only person who could hold out against her is Burnes. And he’s scary in an entirely different way.”
I shrugged and stuffed my hands into my pockets. “Yeah. Alright. Thanks, George. I’ll still buy you dinner for the story. It explains a lot.”
George watched me as I opened the door and started to slip out, making sure the coast was clear, first. I didn’t think that Fenton would have fired me outright if she saw me, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. She was angry enough. Sam and Chris wouldn’t be much help, either. They would just hem and haw and look guilty as they told me they couldn’t tell me anything.
“Hey,” George said, stopping me before I could make my escape. “What are you going to do now?”
“Go back to the storage room. Spend some quality time with those dusty files,” I said. George’s shoulders slumped and he nodded, more relaxed now that I wasn’t going to go storming off on a rampage.
This time I did slip from the room and leave the young computer genius to his non-illegal activities. I knew that we were far from friends, but we had a tentative truce. That was something.
The storage room was exactly as I had left it: dusty, full of boxes of files. The computer was still on and when I woke it up, my search for the other Thomas was still up. I closed out of the browser with an angry click and then stared at the mouse, completely unsatisfied with that. My mind turned to the idea I had come up with earlier and I found the file that told of Uncle Mickey’s life before he became Michael Deacon Wilde.
The picture was old. Old enough that I only recognised him because I knew it was him. It was like seeing the baby picture of a cousin. You only recognised them because you were told to. The information in the file on his life was equally as alien. I felt as though I were reading a story about someone else. One of those crazy things you read on the news. Astonishing, and only believable because it happened to someone else.
Smuggling. Extortion. Violent Assault. All completely out of character with the man I knew.
Then again, I wasn’t actually interested in the details of Uncle Mickey’s file. I was interested in the author. I flipped through the pages, hoping that the clue would be obvious, but it wasn’t. There was no signature, no case number I could look up. All I knew was that this was a file from the FBI and it was from 1984.
I looked around the storage room. There was no one about. And when I poked my head outside the door, everyone was still doing their very best to keep out of everyone else’s way. I returned to the computer and did a little searching. I came up with a number. The first call led me to the automated line for the FBI. After much fiddling and tapping the 0 key on my phone, I finally got to speak to a person.
“What can I do for you?” the woman snapped. Probably an intern like me, I figured.
“I need to know who was on a case in 1984, out of New Jersey,” I said. “I’m at Fenton & Burnes Investigations and the information is pertinent to a murder we’re working with the Fort Collins police.”
Something I said must have either been right or very wrong, because I was transferred almost immediately. I went through three more people — and about an hour on hold — before I reached the desk of someone who could and was willing to help me. The voice was that of an older woman, probably a secretary.
“1984?” she asked, “Well, now, that’s a long time ago. Pertinent to a modern case?”
“It’s a mob connection,” I supplied. “We think it could involve the same killer.”
“Well, now! Okay, here we go. What’s the case number?” I gave it and she mumbled something to her computer. “The Mickey the Mouse record? Goodness, these people and their nicknames.”
“I know,” I said, “they have no concept of copyright.”
“Mhmm. Okay, the investigating officer looks like it was Alison Fenton. Specialised in organised crime. You need her number?”
“No, thanks,” I said, wondering if the woman realised the connection with the investigation agency. “I can go from here. Thanks so much!”
“You’re welcome. You call back if you need anything, okay?” the woman rang off and I slowly lay my phone down.
Alice Fenton wrote that file on Uncle Mickey. She was the one I had classified under Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And she was the one whose words had been practically exploding with anger when they realised that Uncle Mickey had vanished into thin air, read, the grasp of the US Marshals.
No wonder she wanted me off the case.
“Sam,” I said, holding my phone to my ear. I was outside the office building, standing in a camera blind spot and wondering if anyone could hear me. I really needed this not to get to Fenton before I could do something about it.
“Liza? What is it?” Sam snapped. “I’m a bit busy.”
“I have a lead,” I said. “It’s big.”
“Then tell me what it is,” Sam demanded.
“Not if you’re immediately going to turn around and tell Fenton,” I replied. I looked around and rubbed the back of my neck. I wasn’t often paranoid, but now felt like a really good time to try it. Especially after what George said.
“Why not? She’s leading this investigation,” Sam said. Her voice went quiet for a moment and I caught something like, “It’s Liza” and a man’s voice in the background. Chris was there, too. Good.
“Because this involves her,” I said. “Look, that file that I found in your office, it was written by Fenton. She was the investigating officer back in Uncle Mickey’s mob days. And I know you don’t want to hear this, but psychologically speaking, there’s a whole lot of anger in that file. He slipped through her fingers.”
Sam was silent, long enough for me to wonder if she had hung up on me. Then, “Alright, let’s meet.”
“You won’t tell her?” I asked, realising that I probably should have gotten Sam’s agreement before I told her what I knew.
“Not until there’s good reason,” Sam sighed. “Your apartment?”
“No,” I grumbled. “I’m tired of having you people show up at my apartment. There’s a coffee shop not far from campus. How about there?” Sam agreed and I told her the address before hanging up. I stood next to the building for a few more minutes, running through my options. I checked the time and winced.
I had exactly an hour before my next class started. I still had to get across town and tell Sam and Chris what I knew before then. And I had to figure out what to do about what I knew. Growling in annoyance, I pushed myself off the wall and started for the bus stop. I decided to text Zach on the way, see what he thought of this most recent development. And to assure him that I hadn’t actually done anything illegal regarding the police file.
His response was to ask if I wanted him there when I talked with Sam and Chris. I closed my eyes and shook my head, resting it against the glass of the bus window. He didn’t get it. I wasn’t looking for emotional support while I confronted the people who were supposed to be helping me.
I shoved my phone into my satchel and hopped off the bus at the stop nearest the coffee shop. It was a small, quaint little building that was doing its best to look like an old warehouse while still being modern. The employees were almost exclusively undergraduates from the university and they were friendly enough to occasionally give you an extra dollop of whipped cream on a bad day. Today, though, I needed more than that to get me through.
Sam and Chris arrived shortly after I did. They went through the slow and painful process of getting a drink and then we all sat down at a table like civilised people.
“So what’s this about Fenton?” Chris asked, twisting his iced tea in a circle.
“The file talking about Uncle Mickey’s earlier career,” I said, “was written by Fenton.”
“How do you know?” Sam demanded.
“I called the FBI,” I said flatly. “Look, I know you two have absolutely no faith in psychology and textual analysis for tone and emotional content, but it’s true. That file came off as determined, morally superior and narcissistic. The last few pages, where it describes that Uncle Mickey disappeared, and the hunt to figure out where he went, those are plain pissed. It was as if she was writing a message saying ‘I’m going to hunt you down’.”
“What does that have to do with the current situation?” Sam grumbled. Her grip had tightened around the paper cup of her coffee that I was afraid it would be crushed. Chris reached out and laid a hand across hers. She looked at him and nodded stiffly, but didn’t relax. Were they prejudiced against me, too? Because of what I studied or because of what I was saying against Fenton?
“At the very least, it makes her biased. This is the one that got away,” I spoke to the table to avoid meeting their gazes. “At the worst, she’s directly involved in my uncle’s death.”
“How would she even know that he was here?” Chris asked. “I mean, before. She didn’t know of him before we told her about the investigation.”
I looked at him and let out a deep breath. “Are you sure? Because my application to intern included Uncle Mickey’s name as my emergency contact. And, despite knowing that I was a psychologist and what it would do to you all to have me around, Fenton argued personally for bringing me on.”
Sam sat back in her chair, frowning. “That does present… certain implications.”
“It could be nothing,” Chris argued, looking distressed.
“I don’t know which is true,” I put in. “I’m just saying that it makes her involvement in the investigation curious. Don’t you think we should do a little poking around without her?”
“What did you have in mind?” Sam asked drily. She shoved her coffee away from her without having taken a drink and glared at me. There was almost as much animosity there as there had been when she first discovered that I was a psychologist.
“Just let me have a look at the police file,” I begged. “Let me make up a psychological profile. At least that will cut down on some of the potential suspects. It might even rule Fenton out.”
Chris looked at Sam and she continued to glare at me. He nudged her and she jerked her head towards him. They said something in their exchanged looks. Chris nodded slightly and Sam sighed, unclenching her closed fist.
“Alright,” she said. “We don’t have it on us, but we’ll get it to you. Drop it off at your apartment, okay?”
“Thank you,” I said, standing. I was just about to be late to class. “I promise I’ll let you know the moment I come up with something.”
Sam flicked her eyes away from me. Chris gave a one shouldered shrug by way of apology or explanation. I just nodded and left, taking my untouched drink with me.
Class was agony. As a seminar, I was expected to participate more. We had to discuss our reading and present possible paper topics, giving feedback to the other students. I did my best to pay attention and not fidget, but I fear that all I managed to do was look anxiously at the clock. When we were free to go, I practically ran home.
Roscoe greeted me, but so did a file wrapped in a bubble envelope. I tore it open and, fumbling, looked through the photocopied pages.
The first few pages described the scene, the investigating officers, the time of the incident and what biographical information on the victim they had. Following that was a collection of photos, of the scene and the body. I hadn’t been to the bookshop since Saturday, I realised, looking with distaste at the smears of blood and ruined books, captured forever in pictures. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. I didn’t want to forever be reminded of the place where Uncle Mickey died. I wouldn’t be able to run the shop and letting someone else do it on my behalf was almost as unthink—
I leaned forwards, staring at the picture before me. I flipped to the next one and back. “No,” I breathed. “It can’t be.”
But no matter which way I looked at it, which way I turned the picture, how I closed my eyes or squinted, there was no mistaking it. The dead man in the picture was not Uncle Mickey.
For a moment, my heart stopped beating and I stopped breathing. When spots began to appear before my eyes, I sucked in a deep breath and tried to think. Rationally, if the person in the pictures wasn’t Uncle Mickey, then Uncle Mickey wasn’t dead. If Uncle Mickey wasn’t dead, then he likely killed the person in the pictures. Or saw who did. The real question was: where was Uncle Mickey?
That was as far as my rationality went. I was halfway through filling Roscoe’s food bowl before I realised it was already full. The same went for trying to make a cup of tea or eat something, to calm my nerves. The kettle was impossible to put on the stand easily and there didn’t seem to be any food that I could eat.
I pulled out my phone and searched through my contacts, hoping for an answer there. All I found was his telephone number in my recently called numbers. It had been nearly a week, but it was still there. Without thinking, I called it.
The number rang once: I wondered why I hadn’t yet bothered to disconnect the number.
Twice: Surely the phone company would have figured out by now he was dead.
Thrice: He wasn’t dead, though. Just missing.
“Hello?” the gruff voice that answered the phone made me almost drop the brand new phone.
“Uncle Mickey?” I asked, voice cracking. “You’re not dead.”
“No,” he replied.
“Where are you? I need to see you!” I fumbled my way to the couch and collapsed on the cushions. Roscoe looked at me like I was crazy. For once, I didn’t think I was.
“Answer your door,” was my uncle’s response. At that precise moment, a knock came. I ran to the door and, in melodramatic fashion, threw it open. My uncle was not standing there. Steve was.
“Steve?” I asked, still clutching my phone. My neighbour shrugged his broad shoulders and jerked his head across to his open door.
“Something you might want to see,” he rumbled. I nodded dumbly and followed him across the hall, barely remembering to close my door behind me. Steve waited until I was in his flat before closing his door. The flat was the exact same layout as mine, only opposite, being opposite mine. The furniture was perfectly bland. The walls were the shade of beige that realtors loved and the carpet was equally toneless. It looked nothing like what I would have expected of Steve.
“Hey, kiddo, how’s things?” Uncle Mickey stepped out of the bedroom, hands in his pockets, very much not dead.
I just stood there in the middle of Steve’s living room. After a few moments, I managed to hang up on my phone. I bit my lip. “Things are better, now,” I breathed and launched myself at my uncle.
Massive as he was, the force of my hug threw him staggering backwards. His muscular arms wrapped around my shoulders and for the first time in four days, I felt like everything was going to be alright. I wasn’t alone anymore. This whole stupid investigation could be put to rest. I could go out and have Chinese food with my uncle, again.
Instead of telling him all these things, though, I just sniffed away my tears and said, “A racehorse?”
Uncle Mickey guffawed, throwing his head back even as he released me from his hug and pulled me to Steve’s couch. Belatedly, I looked around for my big neighbour. He was nowhere in sighed. I gathered that he meant to give us privacy. Or that he worked for Uncle Mickey and was now not needed. “Ah, kiddo, I missed you.”
“And I you. But what happened?” I demanded, thinking of the dead man in the pictures on my table. He had been cut multiple times with a knife – defensive – and stabbed once in the heart. It was very precise and very, dare I say, professional.
“Ah, well, I’m sure you’ve figured out most of it,” Uncle Mickey said, scratching the back of his head and grimacing. “About, well, you know.”
“The mob?” I said, raising my eyebrows. “The whole witness protection thing? Oh, yeah, I figured it out.”
“Hmm, well, always knew you were a clever one,” Mickey tried to hide his praise behind a smile and a pat on my shoulder. I folded my arms and raised my eyebrows farther. He coughed uncomfortably.
“Okay, we’ll start with an easy one,” I said. “Who was that man in the bookshop?”
“Him? Old hit man, worked for the Morelli family way back when. Nasty temper on that one,” Uncle Mickey shook his head. “Got the Morellis into a lot more trouble than not. Pushed violence more than Old Man Morelli wanted. Frankly, it was a relief when he got sent to prison.”
“But you didn’t work for the Morellis,” I pointed out. “You were -”
“Danforth’s man,” Mickey nodded. “And still felt relieved when he was sent to prison. Don’t know how he got out. Scared the life out of me when he showed up at the shop.”
“Did he try to kill you?” I pressed, caught between eagerness to have the mysteries of the investigation solved and not really wanting to know.
“Yeah,” Uncle Mickey confirmed. “Said that it wasn’t personal – it never is – but that he was paid good money to do me in. Didn’t say by who. Used to be that you told a man who wanted him dead. Common courtesy and all.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. Uncle Mickey blushed a bit for having revealed such a secret about his life. “So you defended yourself.”
“Well of course I did!” he had the affront to look offended that I would even consider otherwise. That was the Uncle Mickey I knew; I rewarded him with a smile. “Time was I could take on three men and come away with hardly a scratch. This one did for me pretty bad. Got me in the shoulder. I was bleeding pretty bad, so I came here. Steve patched me up.”
“Steve works for you,” I said, though it was fairly obvious now.
“Used to be an Army medic,” Uncle Mickey explained. “Got into a bit of trouble five years back or so. Helped him out. Said I could use a man like him under my employ -”
“Your employ?” I asked skeptically. “You’re not running a mob, are you?”
“In Fort Collins?” Uncle Mickey scoffed. “No. Of course not. I just happen to have a few people working for me who can get information. Information I pass on to the right people. A few words here, a few words there, that sort of thing.”
I sighed and leaned against the back of the couch. “Rare books got boring? Did you decide that being a fixer was more interesting?”
“You’re young,” Uncle Mickey said, looking at me affectionately. “Life seems a whole lot more exciting to you when you’re young. And when I was young, I had a whole lot more excitement than most people ever think of. It’s hard to come away from that.”
I considered and sighed, “Alright. So, what happened next? You left the hit man dead in the shop and came here. Why didn’t you tell anyone that you were alive? Why didn’t you tell me? I live across the hall. I’ve been working almost nonstop for four days trying to figure out who killed you.”
“Frankly, I thought you’d figure it out when you saw the body. And I was unconscious for a good portion of Sunday. Didn’t wake up until evening. By then, it was all over the news that I was dead. I decided that it was probably better that way, for me. Whoever hired the hit man would send another, if it became known that he failed.”
“You could have told me,” I argued.
“They should have asked you to identify me,” Uncle Mickey said instead. “You would have known, then.”
“They figured my reaction outside the shop was enough,” I snapped. “You know, losing the only real family you’ve got.”
“I heard about your father,” Uncle Mickey rubbed a hand down my hair in comfort. I shrugged.
“I’ve had worse. He was mostly angry that you left everything to me,” I shook my head. “Well, now we can tell the world you’re not dead and you can get your estate back. Including the racehorse.”
Uncle Mickey was silent for a minute. He pressed his lips into a thin line and let out a long breath through his nose. “Wild child, I can’t.”
“Can’t what?” I asked suspiciously.
“Can’t tell everyone I’m not dead,” Uncle Mickey said. “Even if whoever initially hired the hitman is no longer interested, it’s pretty well known now who I was. Other people are going to be coming after me. So I’ve got to stay dead. At least, in name. Besides, I’ve always wanted to be a Fitzgerald.”
I blinked away a few tears, thinking that it seemed so unfair to have my uncle back only to have to lose him again. “Where will you go?” I asked.
“Go?” Uncle Mickey looked at me in astonishment. “Who says I have to go anywhere? Fort Collins is a big enough spot for me to live in. I’ll have to move, make sure I don’t go anywhere I was known before, but it won’t be bad.”
This time, I was astonished. “You have got to be kidding,” I said flatly. “You’re planning on keeping the fact that you’re still alive a secret, and you want to live in the same town?”
“Ah, yes, you have a point,” Uncle Mickey said. “So, what, I should move to Hawaii?”
“How about Denver,” I suggested. “It’s big enough that no one will notice you. And it’s close enough to Fort Collins that I can visit.”
“I’ll have to borrow a bit of money to get a place to live,” Uncle Mickey grinned.
“What? It’s your money,” I frowned.
“Not anymore. Liza, kiddo, let me do this for you. I can make more money. This will help you start out. Get away from my brother,” Uncle Mickey said. “You can go wherever you want. Do whatever you want.”
“Maybe I’ll move to Hawaii,” I sniffed, my tears back again.
“Nah,” Uncle Mickey said. “Europe, maybe, but not the tropics.”
“Too many bugs,” I agreed. We had a laugh over that, but even my good spirits at having Uncle Mickey back couldn’t fight the dilemma facing me. “What am I going to tell Sam and Chris? The people I’m working for,” I explained. “Fenton will be furious if I don’t give her something. I promised to have a psychological profile worked up.”
“Fenton. Alison Fenton?” Uncle Mickey frowned, his eyebrows drawing together.
“She goes by Alice now, but yes,” I said. “Actually, she’s about the only suspect we’ve got for your ‘murder’. I figured it was Thomas Danforth, but turns out he hated his father and the mob lifestyle.”
“Good for Tommy,” Uncle Mickey said. “Well, there are a fair amount of people who wouldn’t mind seeing me dead, but I can’t think who would have known where I was.”
“That’s why Fenton’s the only suspect,” I said. My uncle turned to look at me and I flinched. “I put you down as my emergency contact when I applied for the internship. Fenton must have found out; she was the one who argued to get me to work there.”
Uncle Mickey scratched his chin, “I haven’t thought about Fenton in years. Time was, she was the most determined person on the FBI organised crime squad. She worked harder than anyone there. And she didn’t give quarter for anything. That’s why my handlers refused to tell the FBI about me turning state’s witness.”
“Why, because she would want you in jail?” I asked. I’d only had a small amount of contact with Fenton, but every encounter hadn’t been entirely comforting. Her doggedness on that matter wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.
“She would have taken that,” Uncle Mickey confirmed. “She’d rather I were dead.”
“She wouldn’t have killed you, though,” I asked tentatively. Fenton might have been the only suspect, but it didn’t make logical sense. Actually, that wasn’t true. It made perfect logical sense; she was the only one who know of Uncle Mickey’s past life. She was the only one who might have had enough of a grudge against him to want him dead. But she was also a person dedicated to upholding the law – first with the FBI, now with a private investigative agency.
“I don’t know,” Mickey shrugged. “Honestly, I only ever met her face to face once. She really hated Danforth and Morelli and all they stood for. She regarded us lower down types as pure idiots and killing machines.”
“Not the most flattering image, but we didn’t really care what the police thought of us,” Mickey said, giving me enough of a grimace to tell me he regretted some of his earlier life choices. “Heard from my handlers a few months later that she’d left the FBI. Never heard why.”
“It hasn’t shown up in any of my files,” I said. “Then again, I’m not privy to a whole lot of information. Being the intern.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve put out a few feelers in my circle of informants,” Mickey said, stretching out and folding his hands across his broad chest. “Hopefully someone will come up with something. Hiring a hitman isn’t quite as simple as looking in the yellowpages, you know. You have to know people. And an old Morelli enforcer? Not cheap.”
I had forgotten that my uncle’s new choice of career was a fixer. He probably knew more about what was going on in the world than most politicians. “I can ask around at the office to see what got Fenton kicked out of the FBI – presuming she didn’t just quit. Sam and Chris might be suspicious enough of her that they’ll give me something.”
“Be careful, kiddo,” Uncle Mickey said, affording me a rare, affectionate smile.
“Roger wilco,” I said, giving him a mocking salute. Despite my sarcasm, he knew I wouldn’t get into too much trouble.
“Well, I’ll be here if you need me. If you need me for anything public, then call Steve. I still have to lay low for a while.”
I nodded and gave him another hug before I left. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”
“Me, too,” Uncle Mickey grinned.
How not to tell Sam and Chris that my uncle wasn’t actually dead. I mean, they did hand me the police file after I explained the situation to them, but I wasn’t sure that they wouldn’t go crying to Fenton or Burnes or – heaven forbid – the police when I gave them the news. Uncle Mickey was right; he needed to stay dead in the eyes of the world.
“You came up with a profile?” Sam looked weary as she slid into the chair next to me at the restaurant. It was right in the middle of dinner hour and the wait staff was busily engaged elsewhere to bother much with our table. So we could sit an discuss business in peace. Chris absently looked at the menu while Sam just sort of stared at me, eyes tired.
I pushed the police file towards her, “I think it was a professional hit.”
“You what?” Sam asked, sitting bolt upright. Chris leaned forwards.
“Why would you think that? Was there something else in Mickey’s past that would make him vulnerable to such things?” Chris asked, brows furrowing. He started looking around uncomfortably, shifting in his seat. Sam put a hand on his shoulder and he stilled.
“The attack was done at a time when no one else but my uncle would be there,” I started, speaking the words I had rehearsed earlier. “He – its definitely male – came in from the back, but the lock wasn’t forced, suggesting it was picked or unlocked. Uncle Mickey would never have left it unlocked. The attack was pretty violent, but Uncle Mickey was a big guy. He would have fought… Only one stab wound, though. That means the killer was not only incredibly strong, but either very skilled or incredibly lucky. And there were no prints, no evidence but Uncle Mickey’s blood and an unknown type, not in the database. I’d hazard that this man was professional rather than lucky. That’s also why we haven’t found him in the list of suspects. Because someone else got him to do it by proxy.”
I could’t think of anything else to say that would further convince Sam and Chris. Either they believed me, or they didn’t. It wasn’t a great profile, but I was only a student, after all. I don’t know what Sam and Chris would have expected of me. Still, my lie seemed to be believed. It was mostly true, except for the bit that the hitman was the dead one, not Uncle Mickey.
Sam cursed and banged on the table with her fist, making the nearest waiter jump. He brought over a refill on our waters and scurried away, eyeing Sam. “Do you know how hard it is to solve professional hits?”
I winced, “Very?”
“Extremely,” Sam growled.
Chris nodded and took a sip of his water, “Professionals are very good at cleaning up after themselves. They have to be, or they would be caught. Usually, the only way to catch whoever is behind the hitman is to look at people’s finances, but that’s not always viable. Sometimes phone calls or text messages can reveal information about how the hitman was hired, but again, not always. Besides, we actually have to have a suspect in order to inspect their finances and communications. Which, we don’t.”
“Except for Fenton,” I said softly. Chris coughed uncomfortably and looked around, as though he expected her to jump out from the shadows.
“Excuse me?” Sam demanded, leaning forwards and staring at me.
“It’s the only reason you gave me the file,” I said. “But it didn’t actually clear her.”
“Like hell it didn’t—”
“Listen,” I snapped, “I’m just going where the evidence leads. Fenton is the only one who knew about Mickey’s past. She’s the only one who would have been aware of who he was or where he was. It’s also probably no coincidence this happened right after I started interning there. Did you know she got kicked out of the FBI shortly after Uncle Mickey turned state’s evidence?”
It had been a shot in the dark, but Sam curled her lip and looked away. A sure sign of acknowledgement. “That has nothing to do with your uncle.”
“Then what was it about?” I asked. Chris shook his head. “Tell me. If it’s unrelated, then there’s no reason to fear. If it is, in any way, related to Uncle Mickey, we need to tell the police. Have them look into Fenton’s finances and communication.”
“Liza,” Sam warned, growling. “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
“Don’t I?” I was seconds away from losing my temper. I tried to be a rational person, to place logical thought above feeling. But even I had to give in to my feelings every now and again and my temper was the worst of them. It was wearing thin. “You’re forgetting whose uncle died. And whose fault it might be. I’m the one who put his name down on my interning form. If Fenton did figure it out from that, what do you think I’m supposed to do?”
“You can’t think it’s your fault,” Chris reached out and put his hand on mine. I drew it away.
“I don’t,” I snarled. “I think it’s hers. But I want proof before I judge her. If I’m wrong, I’ll apologise personally.” I put my head in my hands, my feelings overwhelming all my rational thought. I just knew that Fenton was behind my uncle’s attack. If she wasn’t, then I was still stuck. Sure, I had Uncle Mickey back, but that didn’t mean anything if I couldn’t see him for fear of someone noticing and trying again. The hitman in the shop might be a warning to others, but someone would try again.
“Look, maybe you should go get some sleep.” Surprisingly, it was Sam who put her hand on my shoulder in comfort. “You look like crap.” Never mind, not surprising.
“What about Fenton?” I asked, looking up at her.
Sam frowned and looked at Chris, perhaps hoping he would have a solution. He just shook his head, eyes wide. “I don’t know,” Sam admitted. “I’ll talk to Burnes. He’ll know what to do.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” I murmured.
“Of course it is,” Sam said. She squeezed my shoulder. “You go home. Get some sleep. Pet your cat. Whatever. I’ll go talk to Burnes and we can meet tomorrow morning at the office.”
“You’ll do it tonight?” I asked, sounding like a child who had been hoping for a promise. I felt like one, too. Perhaps I did need some proper sleep. Tossing and turning every night didn’t count. First over the loss of my uncle, now probably over worry.
“I will,” Sam nodded. Chris gave me a wan smile, apparently not in a talkative mood. That was fine with me. I was pretty certain I was making a fool of myself.
I think I said a proper farewell before I excused myself and somehow managed to get myself home. I also think I might have even managed to brush my teeth and wash my face before falling into bed. I’m pretty sure I didn’t throw the covers over me. I remember Roscoe settling next to my side, purring.
After that, all I remember is being shaken awake by a hand around my neck, wide eyes and bared teeth in my face. “Where is he?!” Fenton snarled.
Naturally, my response to Fenton’s question was something along the lines of, “Grgklfgk gak.” I scrabbled at her wrist for a moment while my brain made the alarming jump from sleeping to wide-awake and fighting. My self-defence training kicked in eventually and I pulled her wrist to one side, opening my airways and throwing Fenton off balance. Thankfully for me — as I was currently gasping for breath — she didn’t attack again. She just stood there, glaring at me, lips curled like a feral dog.
“Where is he?!” she repeated.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded, sitting up and throwing my covers off, just in case she did decide to attack again. I crawled out of bed opposite Fenton and held up my hands defensively. “What are you doing here?”
“I saw the file,” Fenton hissed, taking a step towards me. I backed towards the door to the rest of my flat. “You know! Now tell me where he is!”
I struggled to grasp what she was saying. The file obviously referred to the police file, but what… of course. The hitman. If she had hired him, she would know what he looked like. If she didn’t know what he looked like, she was probably quite foolish and bad at her job. That meant she knew Uncle Mickey wasn’t dead.
“That’s why you’ve been at me since you were called in on the investigation,” I said, straightening in shock. Her earlier rantings, while still filled with narcissism, had nothing to do with me personally, except that I should know where Uncle Mickey was. Of course, now I did know. I wasn’t going to tell her that.
“I have been after people like him my entire life,” Fenton spat, moving closer to me again. “People who manipulate others into doing their dirty work. Who use our system for their own pleasure and benefit. Who spit in the face of the law and claim that they’re ‘organising’ the criminal world, isn’t that better? I get within inches,” she slashed her hand through the air and I jumped, practically tripping over the threshold of my door. “I am within inches of bringing down the entire operation in Atlantic City. All I need is to make one arrest. One simple, quick arrest and everything falls apart. Do you know what happens?”
“I can hazard a guess,” I continued to back up, doing my best not to look away from Fenton as I did so.
“You can, can you? I doubt it. Your stupid, idiotic uncle decides to grow a conscience. He trips right up to the Marshals and says he’ll tell them everything he knows, if only they’ll give him a new life for him and his family. Only, some stupid rat goes and tells everyone. The Marshals were lucky that they caught Danforth. The majority of the Morelli family disappeared. My entire case went down the drain and most of the criminal element was still in place. It was all his fault.”
Do you know, I used to think that ranting villains were cliche. Who in their right mind would possibly stand there and rant about how everything went wrong and about all their evil plans to the person who was supposed to take them down? Well, it turns out that at that precise moment, I really loved ranting villains. It allowed me enough time to get to the kitchen table, where I had left my textbooks, my computer, my notes and, most importantly, my phone.
I grabbed the phone and dialled 911 as fast as my fingers could move, trembling as they were. “Help!” I cried into the phone. “She’s in my apartment and she’s going to kil—”
“Enough of that!” Fenton knocked the phone out of my hand and it fell to the floor, screen shattering and going dark. Fenton managed to get a hand on my shoulder, her nails digging into the skin. This time, though, I was wide awake and not suffering from lack of oxygen. My self-defence training worked just fine.
I fought back, kneeing her right in a major nerve in the thigh. Fenton snarled and released me before she swung. I blocked the blow on my forearm, jarring my bone. Then, I swung back, going for an uppercut that would get me close enough to wrap one arm around her shoulder, the other hand on the back of her neck, forcing her face right into my knee. Twice, three times, I hit, finally feeling the cartilage crack. Fenton roared, her free hand digging into my ribs.
I released her and fell back over a chair, ending up on the ground. Alice Fenton took her chance and surged towards me, kicking me in the ribs, the head, the back. I yelled out in pain and curled into a ball, shielding my vulnerable belly and head with my knees and hands. Eventually, though, the pain started to overwhelm me. I was getting beaten to a pulp and if I couldn’t manage to hold on and keep protecting myself, she was going to do a whole lot of damage.
My head started spinning with black dots, a sure sign that I was about to black out. I gritted my teeth and decided I’d rather keep fighting instead of passing out like that. I uncurled and tried to stagger for her leg, hoping I could claw my way up. I lunged, completely unstable.
There was a crash and a flash of light and suddenly, I was being held up by someone who had no intention of hurting me. I looked up and, through the haziness of my vision, saw Sam standing there, looking stricken. Uncle Mickey was restraining Fenton, holding her arms behind her back. No matter how she struggled, screaming, doing her best to kick or bite Uncle Mickey, she couldn’t reach him.
Burnes was standing next to Chris, the older man’s hand on Chris’ shoulder. Chris looked at Fenton with all the disbelief of a child watching a parent being carted away to prison. His eyes flashed to me for a fraction of a second and then away. I realised what he had done.
“You’re going to be okay,” Sam said firmly, her back to Fenton, Burnes and Chris. “The police and ambulance are on their way. You just keep awake, okay?”
“Sam,” I croaked, my throat raw from yelling.
“I’m here,” Sam said, hoisting me up so I was somewhat supporting my own weight. I clutched her arm tighter. “I’ve got you.”
“You’ll be okay, kiddo,” Uncle Mickey called out to me. He looked concerned, and probably would have come over to help me in an instant, had he not been using his considerable strength to control the madwoman in his grasp. For that was what she was, just then. Mad. All reason had given way to her narcissistic obsession, purging human and rational thoughts from her mind. Finding, killing, the man she blamed for the ruination of her career and, worse, the continuation of the mob in Atlantic City, that was all that mattered to her now. She didn’t care who she killed or hurt in the meantime.
The police arrived some time later, an ambulance soon following. Somehow, I managed to walk out the door, following the sedated and handcuffed Alice Fenton as she was led away. Burnes nodded to me as I left my apartment, Chris still staring anywhere but at me. As I passed, I heard his intake of breath: sharp, hitched. Pained.
“Loyalty is an admirable quality,” I wheezed, my side aching as I said it. Chris turned away, shoulders shaking with effort.
Uncle Mickey and Sam led me down to the ambulance, where I was carted away with an I.V. of fluids and painkillers in my system. I fell asleep before I even reached the hospital.
— One week later —
“You shouldn’t be out here,” Zach said, graciously letting me lean on his arm as I struggled to hold crutches and flowers at the same time.
“I can’t miss this,” I said, gesturing to the hole in the ground with the headstone in place. Zach shifted uncomfortably. As my ‘therapist’, he was resigned to confidentiality. That didn’t mean he wasn’t complaining every step of the way. He knew all about Uncle Mickey not being dead, about what happened with Fenton’s mental breakdown, with Chris betraying me to her because of his sense of loyalty (after Thomas, I wasn’t terribly surprised at Chris’ inability to keep something like this a secret. Not when secrets had gotten him into so much trouble before). What he didn’t like was that I insisted on attending Uncle Mickey’s fake funeral.
The hitman, neverhaving been identified as anyone other than my now-quite-absent uncle, was being buried in Uncle Mickey’s place. I was the first to admit that I felt a little weird about the whole thing. Uncle Mickey had especially requested ‘The Mouse’ to be the only thing on the headstone. Now a man who wasn’t my uncle – whose name I didn’t even know – was being buried there.
The ceremony was short, due to lack of mourners and the impending thunderstorm that hit Colorado in afternoons. I put the flowers on the coffin and hobbled away, brows furrowed and completely at a loss as to what I was meant to feel.
“You have a strange life,” Zach said as he helped me into his car.
“Tell me about it,” I grumbled. “I put the co-founder of an investigative agency away and, instead of being thrown out of the building on my tail, I’m offered a paid internship.”
“That’s your biggest concern at the moment?” Zach demanded, pulling out of the parking lot. Neither of us looked back to the grave of the professional killer.
“Shouldn’t it be? How am I supposed to act around the other employees?”
“What about your uncle currently setting up life as a fixer in Denver? What about your estrangement with your family? What about your dissertation?” Zach turned his head to me while we were at a stop sign. I grinned and shrugged, wincing at the pain in my shoulders as I did so.
“Frankly, I thought it was a great idea,” I said. “A dissertation in forensic psychology, focusing on the mentality of criminals belonging to organised crime syndicates, which examines both hive mentality and a counterculture which thwarts the laws of society. Dr. Blinkman thought it was a great idea.”
“Of course she did,” Zach rolled his eyes. I nodded; it was pretty well acknowledged by this point in the semester that she was mostly crazy. Which was why I picked her as my advisor. She thought my idea for my doctoral thesis was a great idea. I even told her I might have an anonymous source willing to provide interviews. Uncle Mickey had sighed and told me it was better than paying interest on the loan I provided him from my newly inherited riches.
“Actually, I hope to have a normal rest of the semester,” I said. “If I don’t, I’m never going to get my ribs to heal.”
Zach just sighed the sigh of the long suffering and drove me back home.