This story is by Kelly Hansen and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I put the windows down and the radio up. I lit a smoke and headed for the highway. Nothing but open road would settle my nerves and cool my anger. This weekend was supposed to have been all mine—a road trip up the coast—and I had been anticipating the freedom. Instead, I’d spent the last 36 hours on the job. Working a case I didn’t want. The more I discovered, the more pissed off I got.
Friday. 4:37 pm.
My to-do list was done, my desk neat and ready for Tuesday morning, and my packed bag waited in the car. I glanced at the clock: twenty-three minutes till freedom. Everything was perfect.
“Jackie, can I see you for a minute?” the boss called from her doorway. I had no premonition. Unlike a movie, there was no deep eerie bass to indicate the shit was about to hit the fan.
“Sure, Molly, be right there,” I said. I grabbed my pen and pad, ready to start next week’s to-do list. No iPads and styluses for me. It is so much more satisfying to scratch a long line through a finished job than to click a little box.
Molly was a great boss. She encouraged her staff to think for themselves, to try new methods, and to work independently. Yes, we all were under the umbrella of Queen City Investigations, but we handled our own cases and clients, rarely pressured to make bank. This hands-off system worked—the firm was highly successful.
“I hope you can fill the next twenty-one minutes, Molls. I was looking for something I could start and finish before I left today. Maybe this will be it.”
“I’m afraid not, Jackie. I’ve got a project for you. It will take you more than twenty minutes, and, no,” reading my face, “it can’t wait ‘til you get back Tuesday. Have a seat.”
Oh shit, I thought, it must be bad.
“Jackie, Phyllis Colter was in an accident this afternoon. Her daughter says Phyllis is in a coma—not on life support—but showing no signs of coming around.”
“Oh, man. I don’t know her that well, but I’m so sorry,” I said.
I know I had a blank look on my face. Phyllis didn’t work in the same area as me. We didn’t have any common clients or cases. What did this have to do with me?
“I need you to keep this in confidence, Jackie, but I’m not sure everything Phyllis was doing has been on the up and up. I need you to audit her cases and clients. I need this done now.” I was surprised to hear Molly use the word “need” so many times.
“Wait, Molly. You want me to investigate one of us? On my long weekend?”
“Yes, I need you to put your trip on hold. I need this done now,” she repeated, “before anyone has a chance to cover or clean-up for her.”
“You make it sound like she had an accomplice,” I laughed.
My laugh was cut short by the pained look on Molly’s face.
Molly was confident she had selected the right investigator for this job. Jackie had a reputation as a loner. Her unmanicured nails and worn high-tops pegged her as an outcast among the tailored skirts and blazers preferred by most of the team. Many of Molly’s investigators dressed like female Joe Fridays, having come to her by way of law enforcement.
Jackie had come to her by way of the front door. She had walked into the lobby one afternoon, three years ago, and asked to speak to “the chick in charge.” The receptionist had been appalled, but Molly had agreed to see Jackie, based on her brashness alone. Jackie sauntered in, dropped into the visitor’s chair, and announced, “You want to hire me before your competition does.”
“And why is that?” Molly asked, failing to keep the smile out of her voice.
“Well,” Jackie started, and proceeded to give the owner of Queen City Investigations a detailed report of Molly’s own family history, personal and business finances, and romantic liaisons, some of which Molly herself had forgotten. She had hired Jackie on the spot and had never regretted her decision. Jackie did not fit in with the rest of the staff, but she frequently outperformed them.
The threat posed by Phyllis’s potential corruption was severe enough that Molly wanted her best investigator on the case.
She lifted a document and a single key from the desk. She hoped she was wrong, suspected she was not, and was determined to find out the truth.
“This spreadsheet has the user ID and password for every member of the staff. This key opens every door in the building. I do not want to influence or bias your investigation, so I will not tell you what I suspect. You have full authority and discretion. I hope it will be sooner, but I need an answer by Monday morning.”
Saturday, 10:22 am
Twelve hours of looking at files and reading reports and I was stumped. Molly was suspicious. She was nobody’s fool, so there was something I was missing. I re-opened the client invoices. Still no red flags. I decided I needed to take a different tack.
I filtered and sorted the invoices by frequency and dollar amount. Three clients stood out—outliers. I printed the information for those clients, grabbed my bag, and headed out. I didn’t want to leave phone records, in case Molly’s accomplice theory was true. For the same reason, I set a couple minor Nancy Drew-ish and major CSI-type traps before I left.
The first name on the list wasn’t at home. “He had a ten o’clock tee time,” said the snoot answering the door, pronouncing every letter in o’clock like a Hooked on Phonics recording. Wallace Thurgood had racked up a ginormous bill with Phyllis, and I wanted to know why. But, not being a big fan of golf, I moved on.
Elizabeth Ahrens was home and willing to talk with me. Her invoices had stuck out as being incredibly small. She explained that she had hired Phyllis to run “background checks on home care nurses for my mother, then Momma died anyway, so there—” I cut her off and asked for copies of the invoices. After a long story about her momma, I finally got them. And, well, shit—there was a problem.
Jade Overby, the last on my short list, talked a lot less, but when I saw her bills, I sped to the golf course. If Jade had been overcharged that much, how much had Phyllis bilked out of Mr. Thurgood?
I met Wallace at the thirteenth hole, told him Phyllis had been in an accident and I was following up on some of her cases. He described the work he had been having her do: complete investigations into each of the five (five?!) women that Wallace was considering marrying. I thanked him for his time, told him we’d be in touch, and left. His bills were legit.
I knew I had a lead, but my brain was mush. I headed home and crashed for a few hours.
Sunday, 6:49 am
When I got to the office, I found that my traps had been tripped. Someone had been here. Because I am a wiz at this detectiving stuff and had sanitized the workspace, I was able to grab a set of prints from Phyllis’s desktop. I ran them through the employee files and –zilch. Her accomplice wasn’t one of us. I checked the files on her computer, compared them to the copy I had made, thought about the differences, re-checked my notes. “Booyah!” Then, somberly, “damn.”
I had to tell Molly. But first, I had to calm down a little.
I put the windows down and the radio up. I was pissed off.
Pissed because, while I knew the what, when, and how, I didn’t know the who or why. I didn’t know what it would take to find out, but we would.
I glanced in the rearview. A blue sedan had been back there since I left the firm. I wasn’t so sure it was a coincidence.
Sunday, 5:30 pm
Molly paced her spartan apartment. Where was Jackie?
She had suspected that Phyllis had been manipulating invoices; she contemplated Jackie’s terse message. “Bad news,” she’d said, “She’s ripping you off—clients, too. Big time. There’s more. It’s not good. Tell ya when I see ya.”
That was hours ago.
She was anxious. She replayed Jackie’s message. Molly heard the strain in Jackie’s voice but thought there was a touch of fear, too. She fretted, wondered if there was danger in Jackie’s discovery. What had she found? Why wasn’t she here yet?
She dialed. “The customer you are trying to reach…”