Chapter Three of ‘Least Wanted’

(Sam McRae Mystery #2)

I spent a leisurely hour or so in court, watching skittish defendants run through countless guilty plea litanies. Waiting for my client’s case to be called gave him plenty of time to learn his lines. He pled to reckless endangerment after being charged with assault. He had drug-related priors too. The assistant state’s attorney must have felt generous when we worked out the deal, because he sought only probation before judgment and community service. When did prosecutors start being so nice?

Faint anxiety distracted me. I wondered if my erstwhile affair with one of the State’s Attorney’s most senior prosecutors had leaked out. Could it be that other ASAs were treating me with kid gloves because of that? Didn’t seem likely.

My decision to break off the affair with the very-married Ray Mardovich hadn’t been easy. And I felt wary whenever I went to court. I’d catch myself looking for Ray and hoping I wouldn’t see him (while part of me still hoped I would).

My client went through the guilty plea motions with admirable poise. As I gathered my things and turned to leave, I thought I saw the ASA wink at me as the bailiff called the next case. Could have been my imagination or something in his eye. Paranoid thoughts of my relationship with Ray leaking out plagued me again. If there had been a leak, I hoped the prosecutor wasn’t hoping for an encore. Good plea bargains in exchange for good head? What a comforting thought.

If this prosecutor was seeking anything more than professional courtesy, he was wasting his time. My episode with Ray had taught me not to shit where you eat.

As I weaved my way through the courthouse crowd — the usual downtrodden lot in shiny, off-the-rack suits reserved for weddings and funerals — I saw ASA Kaitlyn Farrell approaching, balancing a stack of files. Kait’s one of the good ones — always deals fair and square — and a great source of inside information. I flagged her down and drew her aside for some quick face time.

“Sam!” she said. “You’re not here to see me, are you?”

“Naw. Nothing in your league. A juvenile matter and an assault.” Kait’s forte was major weapons charges. In Prince George’s County, enough gun and drug cases rolled through the system to support a whole unit. “But I’m heading out to meet Walt Shapiro on an interesting case.”

Her eyes widened behind the black rectangular frames that complemented her dark brown hair. “Do tell. What kind of case are you handling with the Grand Master of PG County criminal lawyers? Anything where I might be on the other side?”

“Doubtful. It’s an embezzlement case.”

“White collar crime? My, my — we’re moving up in the world, aren’t we?” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Even Walt doesn’t do a whole lot of those.”

“Consider the market. Most of the criminal work around here is in drugs and violent crime.” PG County had a drug trafficking and murder rate to rival its neighbor, Washington, DC. “I think Walt stumbled onto this one because it involves his nephew, Bradley Higgins.”

“Really? What’s he like?”

“All right, I guess. One of these young guys who’s into computer games, so he works for a computer gaming company. He works in accounting, has big ideas about going into business for himself someday. He’s okay, if you go for boyish blonds with too much family money and too little sense.”

Kait laughed, then looked thoughtful. “Embezzlement . . . not my bailiwick. But don’t kid yourself. Our Economic Crimes Unit has plenty of cases. Mortgage fraud is rampant in this county. I’m not sure which of their attorneys would handle embezzlement, though.”

“Hold your horses. The company hasn’t even pressed charges yet. All they have on him is a phony vendor account they claim he created in order to steal from the company. Since he’s the only one authorized to create these accounts, naturally, he came under suspicion first.”

“Sounds logical.”

“Yes, but . . . ” I held up a finger for emphasis, “he was the one who reported the irregularity that led to the investigation of the account.”

“So why would they suspect him?”

“He reported it to his former supervisor but never put anything in writing. He thinks the supervisor took credit for finding the problem, since it was his job to spot these things. Anyway, the supervisor quit or was fired — it’s not clear which — and no one knows where he’s gone. Or at least no one’s telling.”

“So all you have is his word about reporting the problem. And he could be lying to the company and you.”

“Anything’s possible,” I said. “But I believe him. Besides, if the case against him is so clear cut, why didn’t they fire him instead of putting him on administrative leave pending an audit? Obviously, they need more evidence before they can take legal action.”

I’d left out a few details. Sure, Brad’s old supervisor, a fellow named Darrell Cooper, could have taken credit for finding the phony account. Cooper, perhaps too conveniently, wasn’t around to confirm or deny it. The corporate headquarters had quickly sent a woman named Sondra Jones to take Cooper’s place. And what about the $5,000 they found hidden in Brad’s file cabinet? Not a smart place to hide stolen money, but who said criminals were always smart?

Kait shifted the files to her other arm. “Sounds like a live one. But wait’ll you hear this!” She leaned in with a conspiratorial air. “Mardovich and his wife have split.”

My jaw dropped. For a moment, I couldn’t think of a word to say. “Really?” I murmured.

Kait nodded, looking coy. “You know why, don’t you?”

I felt my heart skip a beat and feared I might break out in a sweat. Please don’t tell me Helen found out about us. And the whole State’s Attorney’s Office knows.

Kait smiled. “You remember Amy Hinson, right? Or was she after your time?”
It took me a few seconds to absorb her words. “Amy Hinson,” I repeated. “The paralegal?” Amy.

“Right. Tell me you’re not surprised?” She shot me a knowing look over her glasses. “She’s young, she’s cute, and she’s smart. And she’s been assisting him on a lot of cases.”

“Of course.”

“They’ve been seeing each other for over a year.”

My mouth opened, but I couldn’t speak. I’d only broken up with Ray a few months ago.

Kaitlyn nodded. “Got it straight from Amy. Technically, she’s young enough to be his daughter. I mean if he, like, had a kid in high school.”

“Over a year, huh?”

“Says Amy.”

“Well . . . .” I couldn’t think of a thing to add. My cheeks burned.

“I’d love to chat more, but I gotta scoot and get ready for the mid-morning docket. Good luck,” she called over her shoulder, as she plunged back into the throng.

I forced a smile and waved, but my mind was reeling with the thoughts of Ray’s incredible duplicity. Fearing that I might confront him — or kill him, I stomped out of the courthouse. Staying couldn’t lead anywhere good.

* * * * *

I left Upper Marlboro and took back roads, foot heavy on the pedal, to get to Walt’s office in Greenbelt. My plan was to run by Kozmik Games, the computer gaming company Brad worked for, and check his computer. Perhaps I’d find support for his claims of innocence. Since Brad’s office was right down the road from Walt’s, I decided to stop at Walt’s office first. What I had to say was better discussed in person. Besides, seeing Walt might take my mind off the news about that fucking jerk, Ray.

It was a sunny October day, and I had the top down on my purple ’67 Mustang so I could savor the last of the mild weather before November’s chill moved in. I glanced around at the unobstructed view of trees, their yellow and orange leaves splashed across a royal blue sky. The day’s beauty seemed to mock me. Damn Ray! I refused to fall apart and pushed aside my anger, hurt, and jealousy for the time being.

I made my way to Kenilworth Avenue, proceeding to where it narrows abruptly from six-lane highway to two-lane country road. I turned left onto a street flanked by office parks. Another turn and I pulled into the lot. The place was a three-minute drive from the Greenbelt Metro station and a stone’s throw from the federal courthouse, a gleaming granite and glass building. Though a decade had passed, Walt still called it the “new” federal courthouse. For him, the Maryland federal district court would always be the one up in Baltimore.

I parked outside the building where Walt rented his small, top-floor suite. After bestowing an admiring glance on the “Darth Vader buildings” across the street — two matching mid-rise cubes of bluish-black glass — I headed inside.
A quick elevator ride later, I strolled through reception, past the empty desk and the glassed-in conference room, to Walt’s office. I could hear him talking. His door was open, so I wandered in. He gave me a quick wave and gestured to a leather chair while he continued his conversation. I pointed toward the kitchen and mouthed, “Coffee,” and he nodded. I took my time. Knowing Walt’s phone habits, there was no need to rush.

During those few minutes while I waited for him, I did some deep breathing exercises. In. Out. In. Out. I visualized punching Ray in the face (or better yet, kicking him in the balls). Keep breathing, I told myself. In. Out. In. Out. I kept it up until I nearly hyperventilated.

I retrieved a ceramic beer stein from the cabinet and filled it up. After a few minutes, I heard Walt say, “All right. Great talking to you. Bye!” The phone clicked into its cradle, and Walt groaned. “Man, I need more coffee. Sorry to keep you waiting. I haven’t spoken to Jake in a coon’s age.” He wandered into the kitchen with his favorite mug — Illegitimi Non Carborundum imprinted on it — in one hand, a file in the other. He set the mug on the counter and poured coffee to the rim.

“No biggie,” I said. Based on Walt’s track record, the wait had amounted to a millisecond. “I see Laverne is off today.”

“That girl! Always sick. She’s lucky I keep her on.” Walt’s eyes were gleaming slits on each side of his slightly bulbous nose. A smile stretched across his rubbery face. “Laverne” was his nonexistent receptionist. The reception desk was a prop, for the most part, except when Walt hired a temp. Otherwise, “Laverne” was the butt of our running jokes about her taking too much leave or too many trips to the bathroom.

“So,” he said. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

“I was in the neighborhood on my way to Kozmik and hoped to get a few minutes of your time. I want to talk about Brad’s case.”

“Really?” He glanced at his watch. “Brad’ll be here in a few minutes if you want to talk to him, too. We’re having lunch.”

“Actually, I just wanted to talk to you.” Trying to appear casual, I took a long sip of coffee and considered my next words carefully. “You’re pretty fond of Brad, aren’t you?”

“Fond? He’s the closest thing I have to a son.” He averted his eyes before adding, “At least, now . . . .”

I felt a flush of shame for bringing it up. Walt’s divorce was decades ago. It had been so bitter, his own son had refused to speak to him since. I’d never asked the details. It was ancient history and none of my business.

“Let me be blunt. Do you think it’s possible that he’s lying to us?”

His eyebrows gnarled in concern. “Hell, it’s possible that all our clients are lying to us,” he said, in a tone that suggested the obviousness of that proposition. He glanced sidelong at me as he sipped his coffee. “Why?” he asked.

“Well, I was just thinking, Brad does have a bit of a history.”

Walt shot me a look. “That’s putting it rather delicately, isn’t it?”

“I can be less delicate, if you prefer. He’s had legal problems before.”

“Frat house high jinks.” He pulled a sour face. “Frankly, I think my sister spoiled the boy.” He shook his finger at me. “But I don’t think Brad’s a criminal.”

“When we spoke, he struck me as defensive and a bit argumentative.”

Walt waved a hand. “The boy was just nervous and tired of answering questions.”

“Sure,” I said. I wasn’t buying it. “We’d better hope the audit clears him. If Kozmik presses charges, Brad won’t respond well to a cop’s third degree. He could barely stand the first degree.”

“I know, I know.” Walt held up a placating hand. “When someone checks the computer system there, I hope it shows that a hacker created that account.”

“Yes,” I said. “I hope so. I also hope the company agrees to do it, and whatever they find clears Brad. I intend to run a background check on Brad when I do one on his old boss, Darrell Cooper, and the guy who previously held Brad’s job. Vince whats-his-name.”

“Vince Marzetti.”

“Right. You would do that with any other client.”

I turned from Walt. Brad stood at the kitchen door. Tall and hunched the way tall people often are, he was in his mid-twenties. His face was boyish, with soft, delicate features and sandy-blond hair. Brad’s glance drifted my way, his gray eyes guarded and his mouth set in a sullen line. I wondered how much he’d heard of our conversation.

“Hi, Uncle Walt,” he said.

“Brad, my boy!” Brad managed a slight smile as Walt turned to greet him, setting his cup down to shake Brad’s hand and give him a one-armed embrace. “You remember Sam?”

Brad nodded. He looked about as enthused as he had at our initial meeting. “Hi,” he said.

“I should be going,” I said, delaying a moment to wash my mug.

A look of relief washed across Walt’s features. “Good luck with your visit. I assume you’ll be talking to your friend while you’re there?”

“Friend?” I drew a blank then recovered. “You mean their general counsel, Leonard Hirschbeck?” I snorted. “I know the man, but we’re hardly friends.”

I finished rinsing my mug and placed it on the drying rack. “Take it easy, Walt. Nice to see you again Brad.”

Brad grunted. I guess I’d left him speechless with awe.

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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.