I left Walt’s. The mention of Leonard Hirschbeck had taken my mind off Ray and onto Brad Higgins’s problems. Kozmik Games was a short trip down Kenilworth Avenue to a small outcropping of mid-rise office buildings just past Greenbelt Park—an anomalous national park and camping area amid suburban development. The buildings had a slightly worn air, like the post-WWII single-family homes in the neighborhood. The small brick houses, once the stronghold of white, working-class folk, had changed hands over the past thirty years to include a broader cross-section of ethnicities.
Kozmik had offices on the third and fourth floors. I took the elevator to four where the company logo covered the opposite wall—”Kozmik Games” in cartoonish yellow letters against a blue oval background dotted with small yellow stars and planets. The hallway ran almost the length of the building, ending in perpendicular hallways on each side, like a big capital “I.” Turning left, I headed toward the accounting offices.
I stepped inside a large room and strolled to the end of an aisle bisecting rows of bland gray cubicles. To my right were two private offices, their doors closed. A Led Zeppelin poster caught my eye.
The room was hushed but for the clicking of keyboards.
I peered into the first cube, where a lanky fellow was entering numbers onto a spreadsheet. I stole past him and proceeded to the workspace at the far end. A nameplate on the divider read “Bradley Higgins.”
Brad had an L-shaped desk tucked into the cubicle. His chair faced away from the entrance, providing visitors a stellar view of his back. I recalled the story of Wild Bill Hickok, shot from behind while playing poker with his back to the door. A file cabinet obscured my view of the monitor. From this vantage point, no mortal could have read the code Brad used to create the account.
I crossed to the desk and sat down. Craning my head, I examined the ceiling and its juncture with the wall behind me. No evidence of a security camera. Too bad. It might have revealed the identity of whoever planted the money. Of course, someone in the company would have gained that information too.
I turned on Brad’s computer. It beeped, and the monitor sprang to life with a soft click and a hiss. A message on a blue screen asked me to enter my user name and password. I put in the information Brad had given me and got an error message. Damn! Someone had changed it. Of course. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t double check his email messages for evidence to support what he’d told us.
“Can I help you?” The lanky fellow peered at me.
I got up and extended my hand. “I’m Sam McRae. I’m a lawyer, representing Brad Higgins.”
“Jon Fielding.” He gave my hand a half-hearted squeeze. His gaze drifted to a spot over my shoulder, then returned to me. “Technically,” he said, lowering his voice. “I’m not supposed to talk to anyone about Brad.”
“Then I won’t ask about him. Can you tell me if this office has security cameras in it?”
Fielding shook his head. “Not that I know of. Why?”
“Just curious.” It was possible there were cameras the employees didn’t know about and possible they’d recorded something the company hadn’t told us about. Possibilities I’d have to explore with Hirschbeck.
Fielding looked over my shoulder again. “I don’t think you should be on his computer, either.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, keeping my voice low to match his. “I can’t get in anyway.”
I stole a glance back at the monitor and noticed the screen saver had already kicked in. A multicolored, amorphous shape undulated against a black background. Looking at that for ten minutes would have driven me mad.
“I just wanted to check for anything that would support his story,” I told Fielding. “Nothing cloak-and-dagger.”
“Well, if you need a character witness for him, I’ll be one.” He glanced around.
“You don’t believe he did it?”
“I don’t believe it, no.” He paused and looked down. “I . . . can’t really say more.”
“That’s all right. I don’t want you to get into trouble over this.”
“Excuse me, ma’am.” A female voice piped up behind Brad. It belonged to a short woman, her dark eyes fixing me with a stare both curious and hostile. She had a round face, olive complexion and short dark-brown hair, shellacked into a spiky punk do. A faux ruby nose ring gleamed under the fluorescents.
“Who are you?” she asked.
I introduced myself again and explained why I was there.
“You shouldn’t be here.” She flashed a look at Fielding. I didn’t catch his reaction, but her full lips pursed in a way that told me she didn’t like it. “We’ve been instructed by our general counsel not to talk about this with anyone. You should take any questions to him. His name is Leonard Hirschbeck.”
“I know who he is. And you are?”
“Ana Lopez. I’ve taken Brad’s position.”
“You’re filling in for Brad,” Fielding said. “Temporarily.”
“Yeah? We’ll see how temporary it is.” She crossed her arms and stared me down once more. “I think you should leave now.”
“Ana, lighten up,” Fielding said.
“Don’t tell me to lighten up! I’m doing what I’ve been told. And you’d do the same, in my place. Not that you’d know anything about that.”
Heads poked up over the cubicle tops and disappeared quickly. It reminded me of Whack-A-Mole.
“You seem pretty convinced of his guilt,” I said.
“Well, look at the facts. The account was set up a month after Brad started. Only he had control over its creation and maintenance. Then they found all that money in his file cabinet. Coincidence?”
“If they thought Brad was guilty, why didn’t they fire him?” I asked.
Ana re-pursed her lips and said, “You need to speak to Mr. Hirschbeck.” Her look told me that any further inquiry would be at my own risk.
“Okay, okay,” I said, raising my hands. “I’m outta here.” I glanced at Fielding, whose lips curled in a grimace. He shrugged and gave me a what can I do? look.
I left the room, but waited outside the door. There was a brief back-and-forth I couldn’t make out between Fielding and Lopez, then silence. When I was pretty sure the coast was clear, I snuck back in and handed Fielding one of my cards.
“Call me,” I mouthed. He nodded and stuck the card in his shirt pocket.
I scampered out, knowing where two employees on the accounting staff stood.
At the opposite end of the long hall was Big Wig Central, where Brad said the president had his corner office and his veeps huddled around him for warmth. I could put my tail between my legs and slink off or I could try talking to Sondra Jones in Cooper’s stead. So talk to her, I thought. What’s the worst that could happen? She’ll tell me to leave her alone and talk to Hirschbeck. Or not. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I walked into an anteroom large enough for ten desks. I counted four. One, with a monitor and a phone that resembled the console of the Starship Enterprise, faced the door. The rest were perpendicular to the wall and near three office doors. A long black vinyl sofa with gleaming chrome legs filled the opposite wall. Magazines covered a faux-wood coffee table. Freestanding cabinets and shelving completed the decor.
At a far desk, a twenty-something woman with carrot-colored hair and a black micro-miniskirt chatted with a light-skinned black woman.
“Could you believe when he shot her? I couldn’t believe that,” the black woman said.
“Yeah, that shocked the hell out of me.”
I hoped they were talking about a movie or a TV show. I looked around, saw Sondra Jones’s name on a door and headed for it.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed the black woman gesture my way. Red rushed over to intercept me, tugging at the skirt hem which barely concealed her underwear preference. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Sondra Jones,” I said, attempting an authoritative voice.
“Do you have an appointment?” Red went to the front desk and checked a calendar.
“No. But this is very important. I’m investigating the situation involving Bradley Higgins.” Okay, I’d left a few details out, but I wasn’t lying.
Her eyes widened. “Then she’ll want to talk to you. Can I have your name, please?”
“One moment.” She picked up the phone and I heard a faint ring coming from Jones’s office. She relayed the information to Jones then put her hand over the phone. “Are you with the police?” I shook my head. She told Jones, said “Okay,” then hung up.
“She’ll be out in just a moment,” she said, in a solemn voice.
“Thanks.” While inspecting a poster of an old pinball game over the sofa, I heard the door open and turned to see one of the tallest, thinnest women I’d ever laid eyes on. She wore a black suit and a pair of black spike-heeled pumps. Her raven hair, cut in an expensive careless shag, framed a pale face, pointed chin, cat-like green eyes and bright red lips.
“Come in and have a seat, Ms. McRae,” she said, with a lightness in her tone that contrasted with her appearance. She followed me into the office and closed the door before shaking my hand. “Sondra Jones. Since you’re not with the police, may I assume you’re a private investigator?”
“No. Actually, I’m an attorney representing Bradley Higgins.”
“I see.” She stiffened slightly. “Just a moment.” She picked up her phone and punched four buttons. “Len,” she said. “There’s a lawyer here about the Higgins matter. I need you to come to my office. Now.” So much for catching her off-guard.
“Our general counsel is coming,” she said, as she hung up. “He insists on being present at any meetings we have with lawyers.”
“I understand. While we’re waiting, I was wondering if your offices have hidden security cameras.”
Jones kept silent.
“Seen any good movies lately?” I asked.
Jones simply folded her hands. It appeared that even the most mundane chatter had to be monitored by Hirschbeck now. The silence stretched into an interminable five minutes before someone knocked.
The door opened and Leonard Hirschbeck came in. He was only a couple of inches taller than my own five foot eight. He’d put on weight since I’d dated him in law school, and his curly brown hair was receding. From the look on his face, I knew he was as happy to see me as I was to see him.
Jones and I got up. “This is Leonard Hirschbeck, general counsel for Kozmik Games. Len, this is—”
“Sam McRae,” he said.
Jones’s cat eyes registered surprise. “You’ve met?”
“It’s been a while,” I said. But not nearly long enough. “I’m here to talk about Bradley Higgins.”
“I thought Walt Shapiro was his attorney.”
“I’m assisting Walt.”
“How nice for you. Did you make an appointment?”
“No, I was in the neighborhood—” Again, it was the truth.
“Sure you were. You have nerve, you know, coming in here and questioning a company employee without going through me.”
“I wasn’t aware I needed your permission.”
“Maybe you should reread the Code of Ethics. You can get in trouble for contacting clients who have legal counsel. Surely you know that.”
Bullshit. And who are you to be preaching about ethics?
“Now, Len, you know that rule applies only to cases in litigation,” I said, with syrupy politeness. “And, with all due respect, I had no idea Ms. Jones was authorized to speak for the company. That’s part of the rule, too, you know.”
Hirschbeck’s eyes narrowed.
“You didn’t know?” I gaped in mock surprise. “Maybe you should reread the Code of Ethics.”
“What the hell do you want?”
“I was just asking Ms. Jones about the security system in your offices. I’m wondering if you have security cameras set up. If so, they might reveal the person who placed the money in Brad’s file cabinet.”
“If we did, you can be sure we would have thought to check them by now.”
“So, yes or no. Do you have them?”
“No, we do not. No hidden cameras. No secret microphones.” He rolled his eyes.
“Then why did you decide to search his cubicle?”
“Our employees don’t have a complete expectation of privacy in their work areas. We can search them whenever we want, for whatever reason. You should know that.” Hirschbeck snarled. “This is a private business. When it comes to employee matters, we have a lot of latitude—including searching offices, desks, and what-have-you. And firing people.”
“Brad claims he actually raised concerns with his former boss about the phony vendor account. Do you have anything to prove otherwise?”
Jones started to open her mouth, but Hirschbeck cut in, like a trial lawyer registering an objection before the witness could answer. “We’ll have an independent auditor conduct a full investigation of this matter, but our decision to search Mr. Higgins’s cubicle was based on reasonable conclusions drawn from the evidence we had at the time.”
“What about his boss, Darrell Cooper? Why did you fire him?”
“Who says we did?”
“Well, he left rather quickly. Did you fire him?
“I’m not going to comment on that.”
“Did he leave on his own?”
“No comment. That has nothing to do with your client’s situation.”
“How do you know that? In fact, if Cooper was responsible for overseeing these accounts, why aren’t you investigating him, too?”
Hirschbeck glowered at me. “As I said, we are in the process of hiring an independent auditor. When the audit is complete, we will be happy to share the results, to the extent they are not otherwise privileged.”
I felt sure that Hirschbeck would be very busy coming up with privileges to assert. “I’m assuming that you’ll also have a computer forensics expert make sure no one hacked into the accounts payable system.”
Hirschbeck looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues. “You must be joking.”
“Not at all,” I said. “It’s possible someone did just that.”
“And we have to cough up the money for an expert, based on a mere possibility? I think not. It’s not up to us to prove our system hasn’t been tampered with.”
“Cooper worked in accounting. Perhaps he found a way to do it.”
“I told you, I have nothing further to say about him.”
“Is there some reason why you’re so reluctant to discuss Cooper—and why he left? Or the reasons you decided to search Brad’s workspace?” I leaned in for emphasis. “Is it because you have so very little?”
His face reddened. “We have more than you know,” he blustered. “A certain individual has shared information—on a confidential basis. The person prefers to remain anonymous, due to fear of retaliation by your client.”
So someone spoke out against Brad. I had to wonder if it was Attitudinal Ana. “Brad Higgins wouldn’t hurt a fly. And he has the right to confront his accusers. I’d like to talk to this person. You can be there, if you wish. Just an informal discussion. Off the record.” Not that there was any record to be on, at this point.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” Hirschbeck bared his teeth in a fake smile. “Suffice it to say, we are confident that our actions, so far, are legally justifiable.”
“It won’t suffice at all. For all I know, you have nothing. Your source may be biased. Maybe has an ax to grind. Or something to hide. My client says he’s innocent. You’ve placed him under a microscope and put his livelihood and career at risk. It had better be based on more than accusations by an anonymous witness and evidence planted in his office.”
“Planted?” Hirschbeck turned beet red. “I’ll sue you for slander.”
“I didn’t say you did it. Is there a reason for you to take that remark so personally?”
We faced each other down, like gunfighters. I averted my eyes and glanced at Jones, to keep from laughing out loud at Hirschbeck’s mask of righteous indignation. Jones stood there, blinking, her gaze flitting back and forth between us.
The phone rang. Jones picked it up. “Yes,” she said, in a dull voice. “Okay.” When she hung up, she said, “My three-thirty is here.”
“That’s all right,” Hirschbeck said. His vocal chords sounded tight as bridge cables. “Ms. McRae was just leaving.”
I turned to Jones. “It was nice meeting you,” I said. “Maybe sometime we’ll be allowed to have an actual conversation.” I walked out with as much dignity as I could muster. Hirschbeck trailed behind. The two women sat hunched over their desks in the anteroom, making a show of not watching us leave. Jones’s “three-thirty,” some guy dressed like an insurance salesman, was too engrossed in reading outdated celebrity news to spare us a glance.
Hirschbeck followed me to the elevator. I wanted to tell him to fuck off. “It would make everything a lot easier if we cooperated with each other,” I said.
“You’ll get what you’re due in time,” he growled.
“Len-ny,” I said, in a mock pleading tone. He hated being called that. “Why are you doing this? Is it really to protect a confidential source? Or are you still angry, after all these years, that I broke it off with you?”
The elevator arrived. I got on, half expecting Hirschbeck to follow. Instead he snorted, “Don’t flatter yourself. You’re not that hot.”
“In that case, I can’t wait to learn what you’re hiding,” I shot back as the doors closed.
As promised, there’s the next chapter in my second book in this series. And I’ve come up with an interesting idea. I may start running the occasional giveaway contest, using questions like The Doctor Who teaser I posted. Wouldn’t that be fun?
In the meantime, I’ve been working on a list of dystonia-related resources for my new website. So … I’m going to show you what I’ve got so far. I’m trying to make this list as awesome as possible, so here you go.
Dystonia and Neurological Resources
Neurological Books and Resources
Mind & Life Institute
Brain Science Podcast
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley
The American Stroke Association
The National Stroke Foundation blog (Australia)
Just so you know, I’m trying to support groups that keep overhead and admin costs to a minimum. And I can’t list each and every group out there, because there are so many.
So far, so good. I guess.
And here are some links of possible interest:
Stop, Jon, stop, you’re hurting America. Boo hoo …
So … this is it …
Here’s some awesome shit I pinned.
And, finally, these awesome things from Nik Nak’s Old Peculiar.
“As long as there is imagination left in the world, Disneyland will never be complete.”
– Walt Disney
Not to be confused with …
UPDATE: Happy 100th birthday, Rosa Parks.
UPDATE 2: While I was doing the teaser tonight, Paul mentioned an article of possible interest about computer viruses.
Although I wish the Internet were the perfect place for the giant party I always wanted, unfortunately it isn’t. So we must remain en guarde!
Heigh ho, heigh ho …