Least Wanted — Chapter 18

Sam McRae Mystery #2

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The news of Cooper’s death took the wind out of me. I felt lightheaded. “When was this?” I murmured.

“They found Cooper yesterday,” Kramer said. “The body was a mess. He’d been in the water a week or so, and that’s just the ME’s best guess, according to my sources. He was hit on the head, but the body was so discolored, it was hard to tell whether it happened before or after he died.”

“Any call on whether this was an accident, suicide, or homicide?”

“At this point, it could be any of the above, though suicide by drowning is rare, as you know. No apparent signs of struggle. But with so much time in the water, it’s hard to tell. He could have fallen in the canal and hit his head or he could have been beaned and dumped in the water. They’ll know more after they check his lungs. And no one can say where the body entered the water. They may get a general idea, based on the estimated water flow rate. Pinpointing the exact location is a long shot.”

“You mean he could have been floating downstream a while?”

“From the looks of him, he was submerged most of the time. Given our warm fall weather, it could have taken from a few days to a week for the body to surface. Or so they tell me.”

“And the cops are still investigating?”

“That’s the word. Now, here’s the good news.”

“I could use some good news. What is it?”

“When we spoke, you mentioned finding a key at that rat trap Cooper used as a mail drop. When I found out where Cooper lived, I snooped and found a fireproof box. Guess what? You need a key to open it. Maybe the one you found.”

I sucked in a deep breath. “I take it you found it before the cops got involved.”

“The day before. Talk about good timing. Anyway, I took the box to the office and forced it open. It had loads of goodies in it. I know you’ll want to see and hear it all. I’ll copy everything and send it to you before I turn it over to the cops.”

“Hear? Are there recordings?”

“Yep. You’ll see. A lot of the conversations mean little to me. They may mean something to you. I suspect Cooper was keeping them as insurance. It appears to be damaging information. I’m on a surveillance today, but I’ll copy it tonight and send it to you first thing tomorrow.”

I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. “Thanks, Alex. I appreciate your work on this. I can’t wait to see what you found.” I gave her my address and asked her to overnight the package the minute she could. “Let me know if you learn any more about how Cooper died,” I added, before hanging up.

I checked my files and found the copy of Cooper’s calendar. He’d made the cryptic entry “10 p.m. №17” for last Thursday, two days before I’d tried to find him. Was it an address? An apartment number? It suggested a meeting, perhaps Cooper’s last.

I flipped farther back through the calendar and saw entries for “staff meeting” at regular intervals, a couple of doctor’s appointments and what appeared to be personal information. Things were looking unremarkable until I noticed “6 p.m. №44” written on an April day. What was up with the numbers? I hoped the answer was somewhere in that fireproof box. Cooper couldn’t tell me a thing now.

ϕϕϕ

The next day, Brad Higgins and I sat in Walt’s conference room, while Walt fiddled with his VCR. The machine whirred as he ran our copy of the security tape forward and backward. The lobby camera in the building Kozmik Games called home was positioned at an angle high above and several feet back from the entrance, allowing an unobstructed frontal view of everyone who passed through the door. People zoomed in and out, in a blur. When we got to the segment about an hour and a half before Brad entered the building, Walt hit Forward, and we watched it play at normal speed.

Walt had arranged Brad’s pre-trial release by convincing the judge that Brad was neither a threat to the community nor a flight risk. Walt emphasized that Brad was on administrative leave due to an employment-related situation. He assured the judge that Brad had every reason to stay in the area. The judge accepted the argument and allowed Brad’s release on bail. I wondered how much Walt’s argument had weighed in the judge’s decision. Or had the judge merely acquiesced to the wishes of his frequent drinking buddy. The two were fixtures at a pub near the courthouse.

Brad gazed at the screen, looking dazed and dejected. On the tape, people paraded in and out. He recognized several Kozmik employees leaving between 5:00 and 5:30. The next half hour revealed nothing new.

A little after 6:00 p.m. he said, “Hold it.” Walt hit Pause. Brad sat up straighter and made counterclockwise circles with his hand. “Uncle Walt, run that back, could you?”

Walt did so. A large man backed out of the building.

“That guy,” Brad said, pointing at the screen. “I need to take a closer look.”

Walt ran the tape forward at normal speed until the man’s image filled the frame. He paused it.

Brad’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah. That’s him. I don’t know who he is.”

“You’ve seen him before, though?” Walt asked.

“Yes. At the office.”

“Any idea what he might be doing there?” I asked.

Brad shrugged. “I saw him once or twice in the hall. But I’d never forget that face.”

I took a good look. His mug would leave a lasting impression on the blind. Buzz cut blonde hair covered his block of a head. About six feet tall and bulky, his shoulders extended from Maryland to Ohio. And he wore a menacing look that said Don’t mess with me.

There was something familiar about his looks that I couldn’t put my finger on.

“So just ’cause this guy showed up on a tape doesn’t mean he killed Sondra,” Brad said. “Anybody who worked at Kozmik could be on that tape.”

“True. But most of the employees had left by the time this fellow showed up,” Walt pointed out. “And he isn’t a Kozmik employee, is he?”

“We have a lot of employees.” Brad shook his head and became pensive. “I can’t swear that he isn’t. I only saw him a couple of times. He may have done business with the company.”

Walt laid a comforting hand on Brad’s arm. “It’s a start. We’ll tell the police. Maybe it’ll provide a lead.”

Brad asked if he could go. After he’d left I said, “Given the fact that the weapon was found in Brad’s condo, don’t you think we need something stronger than Brad’s word about this man? Maybe someone can identify him and tell us what he was doing at Kozmik.”

“Good point. Maybe Hirschbeck knows something. In the meantime, I still think it’s a good idea to alert the cops. Don’t you?” Walt nodded as if anticipating my affirmation. “By the way, thank you for not mentioning the need for evidence to back Brad’s story in front of the kid. He’s shaky enough already.”

The kid’s in his mid-twenties, I thought. Old enough to understand we might need more than his word to keep him out of the big house. But he wasn’t my nephew, and Mrs. Higgins wasn’t my sister. And it was Walt’s case. I saw no harm in playing it his way. Up to a point.

Walt knew someone who could produce photos from a single frame and do it stat. Once I had the photos, I’d show them around. “Let’s set up a meet with the detectives and the state’s attorney ASAP.”

“Are you sure we want a big meeting so soon?” I asked. “How about if I call and share this with the detective on the case.”

Walt, who’d been gathering his papers, stopped abruptly. “I want to make sure they don’t blow off this evidence. This character could be a significant lead in the case.”

“Or he could be nothing. It wouldn’t hurt to know more about him. Especially since we’re relying entirely on the word of the accused.”

Walt’s eyes widened. I read fear in his expression. “You think Brad is lying?”

“Walt, you’ve practiced criminal law for — what? — forty years or so? I don’t have to tell you that it doesn’t matter what I think.”

Walt frowned. “You’re right.” He brushed the matter aside with a sweep of his hand. “I’m sorry. This case has me a bit wound up. My sister’s worried sick. Brad’s upset. I think it’s getting to me.”

“No problem,” I said. In his shoes, I imagined I’d feel the same.

ϕϕϕ

After our meeting, I returned to the office. I decided to check on Vince Marzetti up in Frederick before I called Hirschbeck. I looked forward to hearing his reaction when I told him his former boss, Cooper, was dead. He answered on the first ring.

“This is Sam McRae. We spoke outside your house last Saturday.”

“I remember. And I still have nothing to say.”

Before he could hang up, I said, “Darrell Cooper’s dead. Maybe murdered.”

A long pause. “Jesus. No.”

“Yes. That makes two Kozmik Games employees who’ve been killed in the past week or so. One was murdered. The other’s death is highly suspicious. And I think it has something to do with that ITN account you claim to know nothing about.”

“Two people dead?” Vince’s voice was barely a whisper. “Look, I don’t know anything about it, okay?”

“When you worked for Kozmik, do you remember ever seeing a tall, well-built man with blond hair?”

Marzetti fell silent.

“Does he sound familiar?” I said.

“No!” His voice rose. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t call me anymore.” The conversation ended with a loud click.

Well, I’d gotten a reaction — but no information. At least, none that I could use.

I called Hirschbeck. To my astonishment and joy, he answered.

“Len,” I said. “I have reason to believe the ITN account was created shortly before Brad Higgins started working there, not two months afterward, as the computer records say.” I left Jon Fielding, my source, out of it, since Hirschbeck had such a bug up his butt about my talking to Kozmik employees.

Hirschbeck grunted. “Sondra told me one of our employees mentioned a strange account in the system before Higgins came on. I’ve asked the financial auditors to verify the account’s purpose,” he said.

So Hirschbeck already knew but had been playing it close to the vest. How could I blame him? I’d have done the same. “I’m thinking it’s not another account, but the same one. Someone went into the system and changed the dates to set up Brad. The only way to verify it is to hire a computer forensics expert to determine if the computer records were altered and, if possible, by whom.” Faint hope stirred in me that he’d see the logic in this.

He grunted. “Hiring a computer expert is an expense we hadn’t anticipated. First, we have to justify it with headquarters.”

Damn. More corporate hoops to jump through, I thought. “If the auditors find only one suspicious account — and I think they will — you’ll still face the question of whether that account was created after Brad came on or it’s the same one your employee mentioned, and it was altered to implicate Brad,” I said. “That would be grounds for examining the computers.”

For a long moment, he was silent. “You’re right. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the auditors find. Got any other expensive suggestions?”

“No, but I have a question,” I said. “There’s another potential suspect in Sondra Jones’s murder. Possibly a Kozmik employee or someone who’s done business with the company. Tall, blond, huge — and hard to forget. Does he sound familiar?”

“Not really.”

“He was caught on camera entering and leaving the building on the evening Jones was murdered, about a half-hour before Brad Higgins arrived. You’re sure you’ve never seen someone like that, at a meeting or in the hall?”

“I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean much. We have eighty-five employees. I don’t know every one of them. He could’ve been doing business with any of them.”

I suppressed a sigh. “Do you keep photos of your employees on file?”

“No.” He sounded brusque and defensive. “You could contact Personnel,” he said in a calmer voice. “See if they’ve hired anyone matching that description. Otherwise, you’d probably have to check with each department head. If he’s not an employee, someone may know why he was here.”

I groaned under my breath. Going from department to department would beat interviewing eighty-five employees, but it would eat up the clock — and shoe leather. Seeing no alternative, I said, “I’ll start with Personnel.”

ϕϕϕ

Hirschbeck gave me the number for a woman named Kendall in Personnel. She spoke with a Midwest twang, lots of hard A’s. When I described the hulk, she grew animated.
“Gosh, it’s been quite a while, but I remember. You don’t forget someone that big. And mean looking. I thought he was creepy.”

“You hired him?”

“No, no. He came by, asking for one of our departments. In Personnel, we get a lot of people asking where so-and-so is. You know? I guess ’cause our office says ‘Personnel,’ right on the door. So they figure we know how to find anyone.” She giggled. Didn’t seem that funny. Maybe she’d smoked weed on her last break.

“Did he mention his name?”

“Oh, no. He wasn’t chatty at all. He just asked where he could find . . . . Darn, I can’t remember. I do recall that his request struck me as unusual . . . .”

“Why?”

“Well, other than his lack of social skills, he didn’t seem the type to be interested in . . . . If I could just remember what he was looking for . . . .”

“Accounting?” I asked, trying to prod her memory.

“Um, no, no. That wasn’t it. Marketing? . . . no . . . .”

“Something to do with finances?”

“No, no. Not financial. It was something that didn’t fit his looks, know what I mean? Usually, they’re more . . . nerdy. That’s it! It was . . . game development.”

“Game development?”

“Yes, I remember thinking, he didn’t look like a computer game developer. They’re usually wimpy and wear glasses.” She giggled again.

Game development. And the embezzled money was being used to purchase something on computer discs. Stolen programs for computer games maybe? Another piece of the puzzle fell into place.

ϕϕϕ

After I hung up with Kendall, I finished transcribing notes from our conversation and reviewed what I knew so far. When I got to the conversation with Elva McKutcheon, I slapped my forehead. Could the blond man have been the one looking for Cooper? The one Elva thought was a cop because, in her words, “he carried a piece”?

If Blondie was a hit man, why was he looking for Cooper? Was Cooper his client or his quarry? Did he knock Cooper out and dump him in the canal to make it look accidental?

I got up and began straightening and putting away files. Paperwork often took over my shoebox office. Doing something with my hands helped me clarify my thoughts.

Assuming Cooper was murdered, who would want him dead? Could it have been his partners in crime, if he was in on the embezzlement? Maybe they got greedy and decided to off him. Did Cooper sense this? Did he leave Kozmik knowing they were out to get him?

I stopped to look out the window. Dead leaves gathered at the bases of the street lamps and inside the iron tree guards around Main Street’s Bradford pears.

Had Cooper posed a threat to someone because of Brad’s discovery? When Brad discovered the phony vendor, Cooper might have decided to take the evidence to headquarters, in exchange for cutting a deal for himself. Come clean and avoid prosecution.

It would explain why Cooper had copies of the incriminating papers and why he rented at Elva’s. Too bad it didn’t work. But it didn’t explain the cash in Brad’s file drawer. An embezzler might have set Brad up and then dispatched Blondie to make sure Cooper never talked.

It was obvious that high stakes were involved. A bundle had been stolen to buy discs. People were dying because of what was on those discs. I wished I could ask Cooper about it.

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Debbi Mack

Debbi Mack

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New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.