Least Wanted — Chapter Eight

Sam McRae Mystery #2

Saturday morning was a good time to travel up I-270 to Frederick. The few cars on the road were probably leaf peepers heading to Western Maryland, avoiding a longer trip to Skyline Drive in Virginia. Any weekday morning, this stretch of road would’ve been jammed owing to area commuters living farther and farther from downtown D.C. With all the businesses springing up along the “I-270 Corridor,” I’d heard that traffic was as bad heading out as in. Once again, I gave thanks for my two-block commute.

Marzetti lived in a new development just outside Frederick’s historic district, cul-de-sacs with look-alike two-story houses. The term “suburban palatial” came to mind. Marzetti’s house sported a brick facade with yellow siding and bright white trim.

The man who answered the doorbell appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties, with a shock of red hair and sleepy brown eyes. He wore gray sweats and a faded blue T-shirt.

“Mr. Marzetti, I’m Sam McRae. I’m an attorney working for Brad Higgins. He took over your position when you left Kozmik Games.”

“Right. So what’s this about?”

“I’d like to ask a few questions.”

A slim, dark-haired woman in jeans and an oversized top wandered over and placed a protective hand on Marzetti’s arm. She gave me a curious look.

“What’s up?”

“Just something about my old job.” He removed her hand and stepped outside. “This won’t take long, honey,” he called over his shoulder before shutting the door.

With a hand on my back, he drew me away from the house. So much for a tour of Marzetti’s mini-manse. Maybe another time.

I stopped before we reached the curb. “Right before you left Kozmik, I understand you found a suspicious account in the accounts payable system. Was the vendor ITN Consultants?”

His brow furrowed. “I don’t remember.”

“Which don’t you remember? Finding a suspicious account or the vendor’s name?” I caught a glimpse of Marzetti’s wife peeking from behind a curtain.

“Neither one.”

“So you never spoke to your old boss, Darrell Cooper, about a suspicious vendor account?”

“I don’t know. It’s been a year since I worked at Kozmik. I can’t remember everything I did while I was there. Why?”

I ignored the question. “I’m assuming that if you’d found a suspicious account, you would remember, wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t my job to look for them. I just set up the accounts and paid the vendors. Darrell Cooper was supposed to keep an eye out for any problems.”

“What problems in particular?”

Marzetti shrugged. “Excessive costs, lack of information on who ordered from the vendor, what they ordered. That kind of thing.”

“So your job was confined to paying the bills?”

He nodded so vigorously I thought he’d get whiplash. “Right. You might want to ask Cooper about this suspicious account.”

He turned toward the house. “But someone told me you had mentioned a suspicious account appearing in the system before you left,” I said.

His eyes flashed anger. “Who told you that? Whoever did is a liar.”

“How would you know? You said you couldn’t remember.”

He stopped short, wearing a deer-in-the-headlights expression. “You . . . you’re trying to trick me. Put words in my mouth.”

“No. I just want to verify that there was an account for ITN Consultants in the system before Brad came onboard. Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”

“Look, just leave me alone, okay? I don’t know anything about any fake vendor,” he snarled.

“I didn’t say it was a fake vendor.” I enunciated each word with care. “I said it was a suspicious account. Now, why don’t you tell me what you know about this?”

Marzetti’s eyes darted around. “Look,” he said. “I don’t remember an account — suspicious or phony or whatever you want to call it — and I don’t know anything about this ITC or whatever they’re called. And as for Kozmik, I’m through with that place. So you can quit wasting your time and mine.”
He did an about-face and stomped toward Marzetti Manor.

* * * * *

As I drove up I-95 to Philadelphia, I pondered Marzetti’s reaction. Maybe, like Brad, he had stumbled across something he wasn’t supposed to find. Odd that Marzetti, like Cooper, had left so quickly and so soon after discovering the problem. Had he planned on leaving or did finding the account have something to do with it? Perhaps someone — Cooper? — had warned him not to tell anyone about the account. Cooper could have found a way to hack into the system and create the account. And, maybe, after Brad raised the alarm again, Cooper cut bait and ran, taking most of the money and leaving some of it behind to implicate Brad.

An interesting theory, but that’s all it was. I needed hard proof.

It took me less than two hours to reach Cooper’s place, a dilapidated row house in a shabby North Philly neighborhood. One of several identical iterations squeezed together. The building looked tired, as if the only reason it stood was the support from its twin brothers to either side.

I parked in an alley littered with old syringes, spent condoms and broken glass. As I climbed the stoop, I had to wonder: What’s a former corporate middle-manager doing in a shithole like this?

I rang the bell. While waiting, I had time to consider if Duvall had led me to the wrong Darrell Cooper. Duvall had said this was a forwarding address. Maybe he was just having his mail sent here and living somewhere else. Then why not get a post office box?

I knocked and waited some more, thinking of cheesesteaks. I hoped I could get one far from this god-forsaken neighborhood. The door opened a crack.

A pale-faced woman with shar-pei wrinkles stuck her snout under the chain. The odor of cigarettes and B.O. drifted out. “Whatcha selling?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I’m looking for Darrell Cooper.”

“Really? Well, ain’t he the popular one?”

“Does he live here?”

“Depends on what you call ‘living.’ He keeps his shit here and stops in from time to time.”

“When did he move in?”

“Couple weeks ago.” Right around the time he quit Kozmik, so it probably was the right Darrell Cooper.

“And someone else has come to see him?”

“Who wants to know?” She brought a hand up and poked a smoldering cigarette between her lips. “You a cop?”

“No. But I need to talk to him.”

“Well, he ain’t here right now.” Her cigarette bobbed as she spoke. “Fact, I ain’t seen him for two, three days maybe.”

“So who else was here to see him? And when?”

She lifted her hand and rubbed her fingers together. “Fork it over,” she said.

I gave her a twenty, wondering if it was enough. It seemed to please her. She took the cigarette in her stubby fingers and a cloud of smoke drifted from her mouth. She smiled, revealing a missing molar on the upper left.

“A big, bulky guy in a fancy suit come ’round. Had light-blond, buzz cut hair. He acted like a cop and I could tell he carried a piece.” She patted the area just below her shoulder.

“A gun?”

“Naw, a piece of cake. Yeah, a gun. Whatta ya think?”

I soldiered on with the questioning, despite the odd feeling that I was starring in the Philadelphia version of The Wire, as written by Damon Runyon. “When was this again?”

“About three days ago, I guess.”

“That was the last time you saw Cooper, right?”

“Right. Cooper didn’t seem too happy to hear about the guy.”

“Not happy how?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. Not terribly upset or nothin’. Just not happy.”

“You said he was popular. Anyone else been looking for him?”

She nodded. “Yup.”

Impatient with her monosyllabic responses, I struggled to maintain my cool.
“And who was that?”

She lifted her hand and did another finger rub. I pulled out another twenty. This was adding up. I wondered how I’d describe it in my expense account. Research? Worked for me.

“Two times, a tall, skinny nigger come by looking for him. Yesterday and the day before. He was in a uniform, so the first time, I opened up. Thought he was UPS or sumthin’, but I shoulda know’d it wasn’t, cuz the uniform color weren’t right. He was in blue, not brown.”

“Like a blue jumpsuit?”

“Yeah, like that.”

“Can you describe him?”

“Looked like a nigger. Just like any other.”

“Long hair? Short? Light skin? Dark?” I tried to prod her to describe him in greater detail than just the N-word. It may have been too much for this woman. “Anything you remember?”

“I don’t know. Brown skin. Dark eyes. Short hair.” She ran through the description in a sing-song. “Just another — ”

“Old? Young?” I said, before she could spit the word out again.

“Not old, not young. You can never tell with them people.”

“Any distinguishing marks? A scar? A tattoo?”

She shook her head. “Nothing on his face but a damn smile. Least ’til I tole’ him Mr. Cooper weren’t here. I couldn’t tell you about any tattoos. His arms and legs was all covered up.” She sucked on the cigarette.

“How about the other guy? The big blond one. Is there anything special you can remember about him?”

“Naw, just what I tell you.”

“Did either of these guys give a name?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Did either of them tell you anything about why they wanted to talk to Cooper?”

“Naw, and I weren’t about to ask the big cop no questions. I just told him Cooper weren’t here and the guy left.” She snorted in a wet, throat-clearing way that made me wince. “Goodbye and good riddance to him.”

“What about the black man?”

“He just said he needed to talk to Darrell Cooper. I said he wasn’t in. He asked when was I expecting him back. I said I didn’t expect anything because it wasn’t my job to keep track of my tenant’s comings and goings. I told him he’d have to try again another time and he go off, all in a huff. He come back again the next day, only I didn’t open up this time.” The crow’s feet around her eye scrunched as she winked at me.

“So do you know where Cooper is?”

“No clue. Like I said, not my job to keep track of his comings and goings. I’m assuming he’ll be back, though.”

“Why’s that?”

“All his shit’s still here, that’s why. He don’t pay me for next month and it’s still here, out on the street it goes.”

“Ms . . . I never got your name.”

“McKutcheon. Elva McKutcheon.”

“Could I take a quick look in his room?”

She smiled. I had my wallet open before she could lift her hand.

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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.