I caught Alice Fortune, a short, stout woman with caramel skin and close-cropped black hair, in the middle of a class. I peered through the small window in the door. She read, while the kids bent over their desks in classic test-taking posture. When I tapped on the glass, she strode toward the door, her colorful dashiki-style dress swaying over ample hips. “Keep your eyes on your papers,” she ordered before stepping into the hall.
“I’m in the middle of a class,” she said, glancing at my pass. “If you have a problem to discuss—”
“I’m very sorry to interrupt. I have one quick question for you.” I introduced myself and explained what I was doing there. “Is Tina Jackson in school today?”
As I explained my purpose for being there, her expression changed from irritation to deep concern. She paused and took a breath. “Tina hasn’t been in school all week. I’m worried about that child,” she said. “She’s too smart to be involved in this kind of nonsense.
“I’m worried about her, too. Her mother was recently murdered.”
Her hand flew to her chest. She gulped air, her eyes wide. “Lord, no.” She shook her head and murmured, “That’s horrible. Truly horrible. Mind you, I know the woman could rub a person the wrong way. But that’s just tragic. Maybe that’s why she hasn’t been in school. I’m surprised no one told me.”
“Thing is, her mother’s body was discovered only yesterday, but you say Tina’s been out all week? So she was skipping school before her mother died. And I take it you’ve met Shanae Jackson?”
“She came to one parent-teacher meeting. Never saw her at another. Tina said she had to work nights.”
“What did she do to rub you the wrong way?”
“I’m not saying she did. I’m just saying she could. She was the kind to get attention because she complained a lot, you know? Not to speak ill of the dead, but it’s true.” She glanced back into the room to make sure the class was following orders. “I know she got up a full head of steam when she met with Mr. Powell and Mr. Thompson, after Tina got into that fight.”
“Who’s Mr. Thompson?”
“Reggie Thompson is the vice principal. I don’t know if Ms. Jackson was madder at Tina or the school for making her come in. She acted all put out that they wanted her there. I mean, her daughter had been in a fight.” The teacher spoke with a derisive edge that told me exactly how little she thought of Shanae. “Now, I know she probably slept late if she worked nights. Still, you’d think she’d want to be involved in something like that. Then, earlier this week, I heard she came back to see Mr. Thompson about something else. I don’t know what that was about.” She shook her head. “All I know is, Tina’s another example of a good kid going bad. I see it all the time.”
“You seem particularly concerned about her.”
“She’s brilliant, that’s why.” She gave me a hard stare. “She was in my English class last year. The girl could be an honors student, if she just tried.” She emphasized each of the last four words with a force borne of frustration, sadness, and bitterness. “So many of these kids could be more than what they are. All I can do is try to make it interesting for them. They’re the ones who have to do the work. Some of them do, others . . . .” She sighed. “The whole system makes it impossible to really teach them, anyway. This stupid quiz, for instance.” She waved a hand toward the room full of kids. “All I do is teach them how to take tests. Do they learn anything from it? Sure—how to take tests. Some days, I feel like a damned glorified babysitter, you know?”
I shook my head, not knowing what to say. “How do you do it?”
“How do you do this?” I gestured toward the classroom. “Day in and day out.”
She smiled but without mirth. “Well, it’s not for the money and it’s not for respect. So I guess it must be love.”
“That’s something, anyway. To love your work.”
“Fools fall in love, Ms. McRae.”
For the umpteenth time, I tried reaching Tina on her cell phone. I left yet another message. Before leaving the school, I stopped by the office to ask about Rochelle Watson. Trying to get someone to look up her schedule proved futile. Frustrated, I returned to my office. The insurance company had called with a lousy counter-offer on Dancer Daria’s slip-and-fall. The answers to my interrogatories in the messy divorce still hadn’t arrived.
I wrote a polite, but firm letter to Slippery Steve, Esquire. Then I called him, only to be shunted to voice mail, where I left a message that he needed to get those answers to me or he could expect a motion to compel discovery—and soon. “Have a nice weekend!” I snapped before slamming the receiver down. “And you better spend it getting those damned answers together,” I grumbled to myself.
My last business for the day was to call Walt with a report on what I’d learned since our meeting.
“So Marzetti may know something about this ITN account,” Walt said. “Cooper as well. You think Cooper might be behind it? Maybe with some help from someone on the inside, like that Ana Lopez gal?”
“She could have been the one to plant the money,” I said. “Ana works in the accounting department, so she’s there all the time. And Ana could have gotten hold of Marzetti’s access code and created the account.” I sighed. “This is all speculation, of course. But there’s no doubt that Brad is the only one currently authorized to create the account, and the money was in his file cabinet.”
“But this thing with Marzetti—”
“I know. If Marzetti found a suspicious account similar to the one Brad discovered, it seems likely we’re talking about the same account. Which would mean the account existed before Brad began working there.”
“And Cooper did nothing after Marzetti told him about it? More than a little suspicious,” Walt growled.
“Which would mean Cooper was involved too. Or . . . .”
I shook my head. “I’m going to sound like a conspiracy theorist. What if Cooper raised the issue, but someone higher up chose to ignore it?”
“Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. Unless someone in upper management is part of the embezzlement scheme.”
“If that were true, they could have set Brad up to take the heat off themselves.”
“We’re doing a lot of speculating here,” I said. “We need to get some facts.”
“We also need to keep after them about that audit.” Walt’s tone was brusque. “Plus, from what you’re telling me, we need to get a computer forensics specialist in there to examine the system. We need to do it fast, before . . . .” He paused. “I don’t know what, but we need to do it fast. You’re making me paranoid.”
“Since nobody’s sued or prosecuted anyone yet, we can’t even get a court order to examine the system,” I said. “All we can do is pressure the company to do the right thing and try to find out what we can, however we can. Have you tried talking to Hirschbeck about this? Maybe he’ll be more receptive to you than me.”
“I gave Hirschbeck a buzz earlier today,” Walt said. “He tells me Jones is arranging the audit as fast as she can. As for the computer forensics, he’s balking. In any case, it all has to go through headquarters in Philly, but the audit’s supposed to be in the works.”
“Right. And the check is in the mail.”
“I hear you. Thing that worries me is, if this does go higher than Cooper, maybe whoever it is will pull strings to make sure Brad stays on the hook for it.” He paused. “If Hirschbeck’s doing his job, he should eventually learn the truth, but you know how corporate counsel are sometimes. He may be lazy or turning a blind eye to his client’s shenanigans. He might even be involved. You know this guy. Do you trust him?”
“Not entirely,” I said. “We do have a history. I dated him while we were in law school. It ended … badly.”
“He dumped you?”
“No!” I blurted the word louder than intended. “I dumped him, after finding out that he snuck into our evidence professor’s office and stole a copy of the final exam. While looking for notes from another class, I found it in his papers after we took the exam. When I confronted him about it, he acted like there was something wrong with me.” The memory made me nauseated. “No, I don’t trust him.”
“Well, that’s not a ringing endorsement, is it?” Walt said. “I take it your history hasn’t made dealing with him any easier?”
“I guess he’s pissed about how it ended. I knew I could never respect the man again. So I broke it off. I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me. Which is a hell of a thing, considering I did nothing wrong. I never ratted him out. You’d think that would be worth something to him. Jerk.”
“Male pride,” Walt said. “You took the high road, and he resented your implication that he wasn’t good enough for you.”
“Well, he wasn’t.”
“I can be the contact, if you’d prefer.”
“No, Walt,” I assured him. “I’ve dealt with difficult people before. It’s part of what we do. I can handle this.”
“I know you can. But if you keep hitting a brick wall with this clown …”
I smiled. “I’ll let you know.”
“Good. So what’s our next move, kiddo?”
“Stay on Hirschbeck about that audit, I guess, and push for them to check the computer system. Find out what Marzetti and Cooper know about this.” I paused to think of more options, but little came to mind. “I could try to get Marzetti to go back to Kozmik and tell them about the account he saw in the system.”
“Didn’t Jon Fielding mention it to someone?” Walt asked.
“Yes, but that was second-hand knowledge. He didn’t know all the details. If I could get Marzetti himself there, he could tell them what he found, which might move things along. Assuming he can remember. It’s been more than a year.”
“If push comes to shove,” Walt said, “I say we go right to headquarters. They’ll put the pressure on, if Hirschbeck continues to stonewall us.”
Assuming there aren’t accomplices at that level, I thought. Now I was getting paranoid.
“Speaking of Philadelphia, I was thinking of taking a trip this weekend.”
“Up to Philly, with a short detour to Frederick. A nice little road trip.”
“Sounds like fun,” Walt said.
“I haven’t seen the Liberty Bell since I was in high school. And I could go for a Philly cheesesteak. The real thing.”
“I’ve never seen the Liberty Bell,” Walt said. “You’ll have to tell me all about it when you get back.”
“Enjoy your cheesesteak. Don’t forget the Bromo.”
Well, another Monday, another chapter. We’ll see how many I feel like posting, okay?
If you haven’t read the first six, here you go: Least Wanted, Chapters 1-6 Click there and you can open it in Word.
And in other news, I’m really thrilled to read that Mr. Teachbad is writing a book for the right reasons.
Since Paul posts such awesome music on his blog, it’s occurred to me that I could also post my favorite tunes, as well. In the blogging spirit and all that.
So … here’s one of my old favorites. The Gogos, Our Lips are Sealed.
Finally, here’s a quotation for you.
“Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
– Steve Jobs
UPDATE: That’s right, subscribers
, those few of you who actually exist. I’ve changed how I format my updates. Isn’t that awesome?
I thought I’d share some awesome links I found while I was scanning the news and doing my job today.
Also, thank you, Guy Kawasaki for your advice about my Amazon Author Central profile, which I’ve updated.
Just click on the link for Least Wanted, then click on my name and you’ll see this photo and my new bio!
“Most of the time, I’m here in Michigan and I’m taking out the garbage every Monday.”
– Bob Seger
And I choose the video New Order Blue Monday!
Oh, yeah … here’s something from the funnies that really
seems appropriate made me wonder why laugh!
I’ve changed my author profile on Amazon UK, too.
And, of course, Kobo is awesome! So …