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Part Two of Four:
The Case of the Snuffed-out Snoop
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The silence was broken moments later when
Mrs. Wilson excused herself from the group to visit the ladies room before dinner, accompanied by Misti. In the back of the group, Marcus whispered furiously to Lista. “The plan was for you to make friends with them, not piss them off. What was that all about?”
“You brought me here because I know how to play people, right? Trust me to do it. She is a very successful woman in a field dominated by men, and she’s crushing them. Do you really think she’s going to act like Mrs. Wilson? Or Misti? If anything she’s going to act more like you. She’ll come in and assert herself right off. See who stands up to her and who doesn’t. If I’m right, the only person not on my side about that little speech is you. If a man would have told her off like that, she’d go ballistic, but a woman who did it she may see as a kindred spirit. She knows I’m not ashamed of who or what I am, and that I’m not afraid of the power she possesses. I figure she’ll test me a few more times. If she comes at me hard, I’ll take her down again. That should bring her back for a third. I’ll let her win that one. If she just pops off something subtle, I’ll ignore it and let her think she’s too sophisticated for me. Either way, she’ll end the night on top, but should have a bit of respect for me, even if she won’t show it. As for everyone else in the room, I’ll bet they’ve been waiting years for someone to do something like that to her. They probably won’t ever mention it, but they should all be more open with me now.”
“So you’re saying that was planned?”
“Sort of. If I were really as upset as I wanted to sound, I’d have done something sort of permanent and mostly illegal. I kind of have a temper.” With that, she shrugged and entered the dining room.
The table was set for eight, with the women on the right,
backs to the door. The men were on the left each facing their
companion, with Mr. Hastings and Ms. Forsythe at the end furthest from the
kitchen. The hall clock chimed 6 just as
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m certainly intrigued by this meeting. The four of you, all leaders in some way, in your area called to an isolated house under mysterious circumstances without so much as a word from the host. I can’t wait to find out what this is all about.”
“That’s assuming I can tell you, dear.”
“Oh hush. You didn’t even want to come in the first place.” She turned to the rest of the table. “I practically had to extort him into coming.”
“That’s true enough. I’m still sure this is a waste of time. The elections are a few weeks away, and here we sit. For what?”
“Well”, began Mr. Abernathy. “He’s called a top political figure, a leading publisher, a real estate tycoon, and a computer giant together in a secluded location for something he’s not willing to discuss in any way other than face to face. If it’s a business deal, why would the Senator be here? If it’s an attempt to manipulate the laws to get a leg up, why invite any member of the press? Blackmail maybe? Anyone have any skeletons lurking about?”
“If you consider blackmail an option then you must have something in your past to be concerned about.”
“True, Senator, I do. Several things really. They are all very minor, when viewed in context, but out of context, they could be pretty damaging.”
“Like what?” prompted Lista.
“Well, like my entire empire is founded on garbage. Literally. Back when I started, computers were still new. Terribly weak by today’s standards, and outrageously expensive. Technology was growing so fast that if you had a 9,000 dollar computer that broke a year later, you could get something twice as good for the same money it would take to fix the slow one. A lot of businesses just threw their old ones out. I’d make the rounds of the good dumpsters, find the computers and rebuild a new machine out of whatever working parts I managed to get. I’d sell them as refurbished, which technically, they were. It’s just that part of that process involved cleaning out the spiders and coffee grounds from most of them.”
Lista scoffed, “Pfft, that’s weak. How about you Senator? I figure you must be around 50.”
“That’s what I meant by ‘around’. So you would have been born in 1953, got out of High school in ‘71? Lotta drugs and meaningless sex about then. Streaking was big, too. How about it? Ever spend time with an underage girl in a pot induced haze?”
Mrs. Wilson was obviously affronted, but the Senator gave Lista a knowing look, then with a slight chuckle said, “Well, heh, I was asked about drug use years ago, and I admitted to it. It was ’71 you practically had to be able to roll a joint to graduate. The underage girl thing is new though. But yeah, I guess if we were both 17, then sure. A couple. But like you said, it was the way the culture was at the time. Nothing I’d volunteer, but it would be worse to try to hide it.”
“And that’s why you’ll be a great president one day, dear. Integrity.”
“That’s two, Marcus? Sordid past?”
“I don’t tell my secrets.”
“How about long forgotten stuff that’s a matter of public record then?” Lista was trying to convey to him just how important it was the he share something, just to get the rest talking as well.
He thought for a moment, then seemed to give in. “I have a juvenile criminal record. Technically it’s sealed, but that wouldn’t really last if anyone wanted to dig. I got caught breaking into a church.”
“There are better places to steal from, you know”, said Abernathy.
“It wasn’t to steal anything. It was to make a sketch of the ceiling. It was a church that didn’t allow non-members into the main buildings, but I really wanted a look at the architecture. My motives were pretty innocent, but they got me for aggravated burglary. I had a pocket knife to jimmy the lock. It counted as a weapon. I got probation until I turned 18.”
Lista stared at them all. “Okay, one last hope. Ms. Forsythe, I hope you can provide a scandal here. Assuming we’re still on speaking terms that is.”
“My dear, you remind me so much of myself when I was your age. No wonder so many people hated me. Yes, I too have a minor secret from my youth. The first title of editor I ever held was one I slept to the top to get. No one would give me a chance, so I manipulated my way there. Once I took over, subscription tripled, and no one ever questioned how I got the job. Most just assumed the top boss saw something in me and ran with it. If I’d failed, I’m sure things would have turned out much different for both of us.”
“If that’s the raciest stuff you guys can come up, I really don’t think it’s going to be blackmail.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Wilson as she checked her watch. “It’s almost 6:15. Honey, I need my pills out of my bag. Would you be a dear?”
The Senator gave her a slight look and then excused himself to go back to the bedroom. He returned a few minutes later, apologizing for not being able to find them. As the clock struck , Mrs. Wilson excused her self from the table to find them. Once she had cleared the room, the Senator spoke, to no one in particular. “She never forgets to take them, but damned if she can’t seem to remember to carry them around with her. I’d like to find a stylish little locket or bracelet that holds a day’s worth of pills to give her.”
Everyone laughed a bit, though some of it seemed a bit forced. A few moments later, she returned. “I assume he spoke ill of me while I was out?”
“Nonsense, dear. I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Ahh, that explains the integrity. You’re much too bad at telling lies to get away with one. Oh, the soup arrived while I was out.”
“Yes,” said Misty, “but I’m afraid it doesn’t agree with me. Something about the smell of beef broth. If you all will excuse me, I need to step out for some air.” And with that, she excused her self and disappeared from view.
“So,” said Mrs. Forsythe, “Would that mean there is a little Abernathy on the way then?”
“I wouldn’t think so,” said Mr. Abernathy. If there is, she hasn’t mentioned it to me yet. It is strange though. She’s not usually bothered by smells all that much.”
“Would you like to go check on her?”
“No. She’d be really mad if I did that. If she’s feeling sick, she likes to be alone.”
Marcus spoke next. “Mr. Hastings. Do you have any idea why we might be here?”
“No, sir. None, sir.”
“I take it you’re a military man. British Army?”
“Yes, sir. Major in the Royal Army. Retired.”
“Retired pretty young, didn’t you?”
“Not really, sir. I have some ideas that did not sit well with those above me and it was made quite clear that my current rank of major would be the highest I could ever expect to reach”
“Wow, what did you say to make them that angry?” asked Lista.
“I don’t that see that that is any of your concern, miss, and I’ll not discuss it further.”
Misti peeked in the door, “Is the soup gone yet? It’s getting dark out now and the house is sort of creepy.”
“Not yet, but mostly. We just trying to dig up some history on the major here,” said Lista. That didn’t go so well. How about you Mrs. Wilson? Care to spill your guts to strangers?”
“I really don’t have much to tell. I went to a private school, then an all girl college. By the time I got out of school, I had a good idea of where I wanted my future to take me, and I’ve been on track since.”
“Kinda dull. No sneaking out after hours? Sneaking boys into the room at 2 in the morning? Nothing?”
“Oh no. There was plenty of that. I just don’t really think that any of it was that unusual. How about we turn this around? What about you, Lisa.”
“Wow, it’s about time. I’ve been waiting to talk about myself all night. Where to start? First memory?” There was something odd in her tone. “Let’s see. My first memory was about 9 months ago. I woke up in a seedy motel room. Pretty sure I hadn’t been alone, but there was no sign of the guy. Or girl. Or group. Or… whatever. Since I had no idea who I really was, I went to the police with everything I had. They couldn’t find anything on me, so I had my name changed to Lisa Monet, like the painter. It’s sort of a joke, ‘cause my life is like a Monet painting. From across the room, it looks pretty good, but when you get close and take a good look, it really doesn’t look like anything. I got a job pretty easy because it turns out, I’m a fast enough talker to land some decent accounts for our little firm. Advertising, not law. I’m also incredibly good at just making up a load of crap off the top of my head, kind of like now, and that helps in advertising too. Over to you, Misti.” She beamed a smile around the table stopping on the younger woman.
“Well, I… Umm.”
“If you will all excuse me, that chime a moment ago was the
one, which means it’s in
“So, dish,” prompted Lista.
“Well, since you all have already. I didn’t have a fancy childhood or anything, but it was okay. By the time I went to college I had a pretty good grasp on how the world worked. You had to take what you want because no one will just give it to you. I got a job working as a booth girl at trade shows, you know standing around in a little bathing suit trying to attract a crowd to a booth selling snow blowers, or air conditioners, or like my last show, computers. That was how I met Ronny. I saw him there, thought he was sort of cute and introduced myself. I thought he was just a tech. I had no idea he was the owner and a multi-billionaire. That part was just gravy. I’m not really proud of that part of my life, but it’s hardly worth blackmail.”
The remainder of the meal followed along similar lines with Lista engaging the table about one subject or another. It was clear that whatever tension there may have been between Ms. Forsythe and she had been forgotten. The only further interruptions to come before desert were Ms. Forsythe stepping out for an after dinner cigarette just about , and Marcus getting an urgent text message and having to return the call. He had been gone only a few minutes when Mr. Hastings got up to “patrol the grounds” for the first time anyone had been aware. Marcus was back a good 10 minutes before Mr. Hastings returned at .
Desert was a large section of yellow cake with a lightly orange flavored frosting. The only person that didn’t seem to want it was Mr. Hastings. Misti later confided to Lista that she assumed the reason he didn’t want any was that he’d never get all the frosting out of his giant moustache.
At a , Ms. Forsythe stepped out for another cigarette before the meeting. She returned with Mr. Devon, the host.
“So glad you could all make it. I’ve got some information that you will all be interested in, but it’s something I needed to show you all in person. Unfortunately, it’s kind of sensitive, so only Senator Wilson, Mr. Abernathy, Mr. Gauthier, and Ms. Forsythe will be allowed in my office. The rest of you can return to the sitting room. It will take an hour an a half, maybe two, to go over everything. At any rate, it’s not quite eight now, so we’ll be all wrapped up by ten.”
Lista, and the two wives followed
“Well, ladies. My figure be damned, I’m going for more cake. Care to join me?” When neither Lista nor Misti agreed, Mrs. Wilson, shrugged and left the room, only to pop back in a moment later and ask Misti to pass her the small handbag she had set on the chair. “Wouldn’t do to forget my pills again,” she said, and vanished again.
“What do you make of her?” asked Misti, once Mrs. Wilson was out of earshot.
“Nice enough I guess, but a bit off. I mean, I thought I offended her earlier when I hinted at topless sunbathing, but then she seemed quite up front about boys sneaking into her school dorm. Maybe it was because I said I preferred summer to October. Either way, it was strange.”
“Well, she seems okay to me. Her husband seems to have a stick up is butt though.”
“As far as I know, I’ve never really talked to a politician before. He actually seems more approachable than I would have thought.”
“Oh, hey. Was that stuff about waking up in a motel room with amnesia the truth?”
“A lady never tells. And I’m trying to live by the example they set.” She gave a little wink.
Just then, the lights in the room went out and an instant later, a shrill scream echoed throughout the house. On little more than instinct, Lista raced from the sitting room toward the kitchen, which was the only logical place for the scream to have come. As she crossed the foyer she could hear the men (in her mind that included Ms. Forsythe) calling out as they ran down the darkened stairs.
“Deanna?” yelled the Senator.
“Watch the landing there, it curves.”
“Lisa? Which way?”
“Kitchen! I’m with Misti, it wasn’t us.”
The group entered the kitchen to find Mrs. Wilson standing before the window with a look of fear frozen on her face. “A man. Two--two men. Looking in the window. They were dressed all in black. I—I saw them when the lights went out.”
Mr. Hastings called out orders from the doorway. “Gauthier, you’re with me, ‘round the right side. Wilson, Abernathy, round the left. The women can wait in the sitting room for us to check it out.
“I’m not going to be leaving my wife. Rushing around in the dark looking for people that may well mean me harm is not something I intend to do.”
Lista spoke up, “I’ll go with Abernathy.”
“I’m not going out there. I need to find Misti.”
“She was right behind me when we came out of the sitting room, she probably went back there.”
“Okay then, Gauthier, let’s go, unless you’d like to stay inside as well?”
“Not me, let’s go.”
The two men hurried out the door followed closely by Lista. Ms. Forsythe used her lighter to guide the others back to the sitting room, which was empty. Misti appeared moments later. “Is everything okay? I heard the scream then I heard everyone running for the kitchen so I thought it might be better to grab a flashlight than to get in the way. There was a rechargeable one in the bathroom, but it doesn’t work.”
Outside, Lista and the two men were examining everything they could see. It wasn’t much, but there didn’t seem to be anyone hiding nearby. The power lines to the house seemed to be okay as well. The faint hum of the camouflaged transformer box said the wires to it were still live. After searching the grounds for a few minutes, the three returned to the house to check on the others and report that they found nothing.
Once back inside, they all compared notes by the light from the fireplace.
“We didn’t find anything out there, but it sounds like there’s still power coming into the house. Is everyone here?”
“Not all of us, Mr. Hastings,” answered the Senator.
“We are once again without a host. Also,
“Begging your pardon sir, but I am present.”
“Where is Mr. Devon?” asked Marcus.
“I would assume he’s in the study. When the lights go out, he prefers to wait where he is rather than wander about in the dark. I was about to go report my findings to him.”
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