Least Wanted — Chapter 25

Sam McRae Mystery #2

That night, I crashed like Sleeping Beauty on sedatives. Someone must have been watching over me. The adjoining room remained empty, and I awoke to my alarm instead of a slamming door.

I took a quick shower, cut short by my cell phone ringing. I couldn’t get to it in time and toweled off before retrieving the message from Leonard Hirschbeck. “Please give me a call.”

I combed my hair, put on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, dabbed makeup on my bruise (a lovely mottled brown), and then called Tina’s guidance counselor, Frank Powell. He was in the weeds — work had backed up and he had a full day of meetings. But he promised to be available at four.

Then I called Hirschbeck. Sounding resigned, he said, “The company approved the audit the day after we spoke. We paid extra for the auditors to work through the weekend.”

“Considering someone’s life is at stake, that seems fair,” I said.

He ignored my sarcasm. “It looks like your client may be in the clear, if an expert can verify that the account information was altered. There was only one suspicious account. Which means someone deleted the account Marzetti found, or there was only one all along and someone tinkered with it to implicate Brad.”

“I think that someone could be Max Fullbright, Chip Saltzman or Mike LaRue.”

A moment of silence passed. Not surprising. I’d pulled those names out like rabbits from a hat. “Why?” he said.

“I have evidence that they’re involved in the embezzlement. And a lot of other things the cops will want to follow up on. It seems they were using the money to develop a little project on the side.” I summarized what I’d learned from Narsh, my surveillance of the two Kozmik employees, the DVD, and the contents of Cooper’s lock box.

“Sweet Jesus,” Hirschbeck said. He sounded appropriately shocked, as if discovering that his mother had been raped. “That’s unbelievable.”

“Since Saltzman is a programmer and appears to have had his boss’s blessing, I suggest focusing on his computer. He may have used it to access the accounting files. And possibly to work on their after-hours project. If the lead pans out, you’ll save a little time and money.”

“Thanks,” he said. He sounded dazed. “I want you to know that I meant it when I said I’m not the same person you knew in law school. I’m . . . sorry if we got off to a shitty start on this.”

“You were trying to protect your client,” I said, not wanting to rub it in or say “I told you so.”

“I can’t believe that about Fullbright.” After a moment of silence, he added, “It’s hard to know sometimes. Impossible, really. What people in your organization have been doing. You can’t always know everything . . . .”

In other words, all clients lie. Ain’t it the truth, I thought.

* * * * *

No sooner had I closed the phone than it rang again. To my surprise, it was Marzetti.

“I need to talk to you.” His voice was an anxious whine. “Can you meet me in Ellicott City in an hour?”

“I don’t know, Vince. I’m very busy.” I didn’t need anything from him, and his previous stonewalling and hostility hadn’t endeared him to me. Let him rot, I thought.

“I’ll pay you for your time,” he blurted. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

“Ookay,” I said grudgingly. “Give me two hours. There’s a matter I have to take care of first.”

* * * * *

I called Walt with the good news about the audit and that Brad was probably in the clear. He sounded tired, but relieved. I promised to visit him soon. In record time I packed my bag, grabbed my suit, checked out, and drove to Staples. The clerk copied everything, digitized the photos and put it all on a disc. Ah, the wonders of technology.

At Starbucks, I got online and e-mailed the audio file and photos to Detective Willard, explaining how I got them and what I thought they signified. I asked him to send copies to Detective Harris for her file on Shanae’s murder.

With that out of the way, I drove north to meet Marzetti in Ellicott City, a historic small town whose Main Street curves up a steep hill, the road lined with rocky protrusions reminiscent of western Pennsylvania. By the time I parked, I was twenty minutes late. I raced to the coffee shop, arriving breathless. Marzetti was hunched over a small table in the corner. When he saw me, he jumped to his feet and nearly knocked over the table. He was jittery and without the bravado of our earlier meeting. We shook hands and I ordered coffee at the counter.

He started spouting before I sat down. “I know nothing about that account, okay? It showed up in the system, and I had no idea how. That’s all I told Cooper. He was supposed to handle it from there.”

I nodded and let him talk. Maybe I could learn more.

“A few months after I left the company, something odd happened. Cooper asked to meet me for a drink. I was surprised to hear from him. His call came out of the blue. He said he had a business proposition for me.”

He leaned forward and raked his hair back with clawed fingers. “He brought someone with him.” He stared at me, his eyes wide. “A huge blond man. Looked like a wrestler or a football player.”

“What happened? What did he say?”

“The business proposition was a crock. He had no intention of proposing anything. He asked if I remembered the odd account I’d found before I left Kozmik. I said, yeah, I remembered. Cooper gripped my arm. It made me nervous. He told me to never mention that account to anyone, ever.”

“Did he threaten you?”

“Not really. He seemed scared. And the whole time, the blond man sat like a statue, listening and staring at me. Like he was memorizing my features. Now and then, Cooper would pause or stumble over a word, and the guy gave him a look . . . .” Marzetti trembled. “A look that would freeze water.”

I nodded. “Go on.”

“Anyway, the last time you called me, you mentioned a large, blond man. I could never forget that guy. He freaked me out. Like when you came by my house asking all those questions. I’m sorry about that.”

“No harm done,” I said. “What changed your mind about talking to me?”

“On Friday, someone called me and said he was doing an audit for Kozmik Games. He wanted to know if I’d reported a suspicious account in the system. I said I didn’t know what he was talking about. But now I’m worried.” Our eyes met. He looked like a drowning man grasping for a lifeline. “Am I doing something illegal by not cooperating with the audit? Could I get into trouble?”

“I don’t know. Your cooperation may not be necessary. Without going into details, I’ll tell you this. It looks like they’re going to check the system for tampering. So unless there’s something about the account you’re not telling . . . .”

“No. Like I said, one day it was there, and I had no idea how it got there. I told Cooper. When I asked him about it later, he seemed pissed off. He said, ‘I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.’ He was a moody guy. I didn’t give it much thought until later when he told me to keep quiet.” He glanced at his watch. “I should get back to work. So, you think I’m okay, not saying anything?”

I shrugged, unsure how to answer. “Why don’t you let it be for now? If someone calls, you might want to share what little you know. If only to keep from looking like you’re obstructing the investigation.”

“Thank you, Ms. McRae,” he said. When he reached for his wallet, I told him to put it away. I already had two clients involved in this mess. That was enough. He smiled and thanked me, and then he left.

I returned to my car and headed south toward the hospital in Laurel. I owed Walt a visit before dropping my stuff at home and going to the office. Cooper may have been paid early on not to blow the whistle and then intimidated into keeping mum when Diesel entered the picture after money went toward creating the child porn game. As an accountant, Cooper added nothing to the scheme. His only value was in keeping quiet. Why didn’t they kill him? Maybe because the computer nerds and their boss weren’t killers; Diesel was. Perhaps Cooper gathered the evidence against the embezzlers and Diesel, so he’d have something to trade if the people he was protecting turned against him.

The unanswered question was how Diesel and Greg Beaufort had hooked up with Fullbright and the geeks from Kozmik. Was it through Tina’s father, Rodney Fisher? Was he the middleman?

Heading down Route 29, my cell phone jangled. It had rung more in the last week than in the previous year. I pulled over to answer it. “I have good news and bad news,” Little D said.

I sighed. “Bad news first, please.”

“Tina’s alibi, Beaufort? He ain’t talkin’ no more.”

“What’s his problem?”

“His problem is he’s dead. He hanged himself at home last night.”

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Debbi Mack

Debbi Mack

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