I ascended steep stairs with Elva McKutcheon huffing ahead of me. The wallpaper was a faded rose print, but the place reeked of stale cigarette smoke and grease—hardly roses.
Elva opened the door and swept an arm, as if to say “Behold.” I entered. The room was neat, furnished with utility in mind: a single bed, an old chest of drawers, a dresser with a microwave, hot plate and TV on it, a dorm-size fridge, and a small suitcase, open on the floor. I peered in. A jumble of men’s underwear and socks. All the comforts of home.
In the bathroom, I found a clean sink, razor, miniature can of shaving cream and a bar of soap. I checked the cabinet. Half a bottle of Aqua Velva.
I started pulling out chest drawers, one at a time. Cooper hadn’t bothered to unpack. In the third drawer, I found a file. I picked it up and rifled through it: copies of invoices from ITN Consulting. Interesting. Also, an envelope. Inside was a small, unmarked key. I wondered what it might open.
I tried the next drawer down. Empty. Elva shifted back and forth as she watched me. I felt her eyes follow my every move.
“Look,” she said. “I know you said you wasn’t a cop, but what’s this about?”
“What do you care? You’ve been paid.”
“Yeah, well, it’s still my house. Lemme see some ID.”
I smiled at her sudden interest in my identity and pulled out my courthouse badge. “There. Feel better?”
“Maryland State Bar Association,” she read aloud. “You’re a lawyer.”
“No flies on you.”
She scowled. She couldn’t take it quite as well as she could dish it out. “You representing his ex-wife, right? The one he was bitching about owing child support to?”
“Sure you are,” she said. “Else why’d you be going through his things? You’re looking for money, right?”
I didn’t know what I was looking for. I’d have been happy to find money, though I doubted Cooper would keep it in such an unsecured place. Clearly, the House of McKutcheon offered something less than Fort Knox protection. A bank book or account statements would have been helpful. Not for the reasons Elva had in mind, but to show that Cooper was an embezzler. Assuming I could link them to the fake vendor account.
“You said you last saw Cooper two days ago?” I asked.
“Two or three days. He’d been in and out anyway.”
“Does he ever sleep over?”
“Don’t ask me. If he does, he’s quiet as a mouse. I never hear the faucet run or the toilet flush. Bed’s always made. By the time I’m up, he’s gone. He’ll pick up his mail, spend time in his room now and then. I can hear him when he’s here, making phone calls and stuff. But I think he’s been steering clear o’ here, ever since I told him about the big blond cop.”
I turned to the dresser. One drawer held an appointment book. I flipped to the current month and started checking dates. The notation “10 p.m. No. 17” was written in pencil for the day before yesterday. Otherwise, the past two weeks were blank.
I kept up my search, Elva breathing heavily behind me, but found nothing of consequence.
“Ms. McKutcheon, I’m going to copy these,” I said, holding up the file and address book, “and return them later today.”
“Whatever you say, Miss Lawyer Lady. But ’tween you and me, your client is wasting her money.”
Elva snorted and looked at me as if I were a few cans short of a six-pack. “Let’s face it. A guy livin’ in a place like this obviously got no money. So how you ’spect him to pay any child support?”
“I don’t,” I said, hefting the file. Her face screwed up in a quizzical look, to which I said, “Thanks for your help. I’ll see myself out.”
She followed me to the top of the steps. “Blood from a turnip, Miss Lawyer,” she called down. “You can’t get it.”
The white guy who’d come to see Cooper wasn’t a cop. A cop would have flashed a badge and identified himself. Maybe he was a private eye, hired by Cooper’s ex to find him and serve him papers for back child support. Or Cooper could have quit Kozmik to impoverish himself—an attempt to avoid his support obligations and a bad move that would earn no sympathy from a judge. Perhaps Cooper had rented this dump as a mail drop instead of a box to throw people off his trail. Pretending to live there, while hiding somewhere else. But hiding from whom? His ex-wife? Someone at Kozmik? And why would he hide? If I could figure out who he was hiding from, maybe the why would follow.
In a better neighborhood, I found a cheesesteak and a Kinko’s, in that order. I copied Cooper’s entire calendar and the papers in the file, since answers might be buried anywhere in them. Another receipt for my taxes.
I toyed with the notion of having the key duplicated, but it was a plain key and I had no idea what it unlocked. What would be the point? I thought about keeping it and using it as leverage to get Cooper to talk to me. Tempting as that option was, it bordered on blackmail or behavior “unbecoming of an attorney.” I cursed my ethical diligence and replaced the key in the envelope.
I returned to Elva’s. She watched me put everything back where I’d found it. No sign of Cooper or anyone else since I’d seen her. I took a chance and left my card, offering yet another twenty for her discretion (to the extent it could be bought) and information on any new developments where Cooper was concerned.
With that, I headed back toward I-95 and home, hitting an ATM on the way. This had turned into an expensive trip.
At home, I fed Oscar, my 15-pound black-and-white feline companion, then decided to check my office voice mail. Maybe Fielding had thought of another important point, Marzetti had changed his mind about talking to me, or Elva had called with news worthy of all those twenties I paid her. The lone message was from William Jackson.
“Ms. McRae.” The words came out jagged and anguished. “Please call me as soon as possible. They’ve arrested Tina. They think . . . they think she killed her own mother. It’s crazy, but they do.” There was a long pause, but for his ragged breathing. “Please call me when you get this. She needs your help.”
Hello! For those who are just joining in, here are the first eight chapters.
Given that it’s the week before St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve decided I’m going to do a promotional giveaway on Smashwords until Sunday, March 17. I’m giving free copies of LEAST WANTED. Just use the coupon code KY37W at checkout.
Also, the winner of the teaser contest was Donna. Paul tried to play, but I had to disqualify him, of course. No players outside the U.S., remember? Sorry, but I can’t make exceptions for friends.
Anyway, Donna … as the one and only player, you win by default, anyhow. So, just please send me your address by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll send you your book.
Thank you! More to come …
Finally, here’s a quotation and song, since I love music and used to be a musician back in the day before I got dystonia.
“My ideas come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”
– Anais Nin
Read Full Post »