Welcome back and welcome readers in Latvia.
FYI: This installment is about twice that of the first three.
Happy Sunday reading . . .
Charlie’s car was in the driveway when Natalie arrived home. Gathering her belongings, Natalie reached under her seat for the HC file, and she then thought better of it. Charlie had too much going on at work to hear about this. Plus, Natalie wanted a chance to figure out for herself what the box of files were. She realized that it wouldn’t be until he went golfing the next day that she’d have the chance to investigate the file.
When Charlie left with his clubs to meet up with some other prosecutors for a half-round of golf, Natalie was sitting sipping coffee on the front porch in her bathrobe. She waved him goodbye allowing the anticipation she had been feeling since she woke up begin to bubble up to the surface. The moment Charlie was out of sight, she ran to her car to get the file.
HC file in hand, she retreated indoors. She found the notations in Daniel’s familiar writing:
07 March 10: As per Annabella Suarez, HC and TC fighting (verbal), marriage not good, grandchildren present in home but not aware of fight. Suarez not sure what the fight was about.
16 April 10: A. Suarez seen leaving HC’s house three days ago. No report made.
23 April 10: Spoke to A. Suarez at gas station. Reiterated terms of agreement/reminded her of her obligation.
06 May 10: As per A. Suarez, sex paraphernalia found in nightstand. Not sure if it’s HC’s or TC’s. A. Suarez directed to figure out whose nightstand.
22 May 10: As per A. Suarez, nightstand is HC’s. A. Suarez directed to provide details of the paraphernalia.
15 June 10: As per A. Suarez, “Swing this Way” magazines (7) in nightstand.
15 June 10: As per internet, “Swing this Way” is the leading publication for married couples looking to “expand their horizons with liked-minded couples.”
The notes ended there. One sheet of paper indicating, in Natalie’s mind, nothing more than HC possessing some light nighttime, adult reading. Written in block letters on a label affixed to the inside of the manila file was HC’s full name: Henry Cushing. She knew him. He was the pastor of the Deerhurst Baptist Church.
Natalie first met Pastor Cushing at a Council on Churches meeting, years ago, when she was assigned to work as the liaison officer to the senior citizens in Fleet. Though Fleet was without a Baptist church of its own, it had plenty of Baptists. In a coordinated effort to ensure that people knew of the resources available to combat elder abuse, Natalie reached out to the local faith community. In remembering back—from where she sat on her couch under a blanket her mother crocheted—she recalled that Henry had married his college sweetheart and they had raised three children who remained local enough to bring the grandchildren for regular visits.
Henry was a bit of a silver fox but believing him as one who participated in an underground wife-swapping club, which is what the HC file seemed to suggest, seemed over the top. So far as she could tell by reputation, Henry was well regarded by both his flock and by those who knew him outside of the church.
Natalie read over the page again. The reason behind keeping such a narrative eluded her. Why would Fleet’s chief of police have this? To what end? Bribery? Quid pro quo negotiations? A side hobby? As if the Fleet police had nothing better to do. Though Natalie wanted to get dressed to head right over to the pastor’s house, she decided to wait.
The next morning, as Natalie sat in the second to last pew listening to Henry’s fire and brimstone sermon, she remembered why she slept in on Sundays. To each his own, she kept reminding herself during the hour-long service. In the receiving line, Natalie reintroduced herself.
“Oh, Natalie Martin, yes. I remember you. Are you still on the police force?” he asked. His cowl was a purple velvet and black satin number; it looked like it belonged on a lounge room singer.
“I am. I’d like to speak with you this morning,” she said, “if you have a few minutes.”
“Sure. I’ll come find you during coffee hour.”
“I would rather speak to you alone, Pastor Cushing.”
Henry’s expression turned from friendly to concerned compassion.
“I’m going to finish here and then take a quick spin through the coffee hour. How about you head down to my office? It’s right down that hall. Go ahead and wait for me there.”
“Thank you,” she said. “No rush.”
Natalie walked through the vestry’s double doors wedged open by rubber doorstoppers. She was struck by how very loud everyone was in the vestry. She postulated that if you make people sit still for over an hour and then pump them with coffee and pound cake, the volume goes right up.
Though she knew no one was in his office, she knocked out of polite habit. The wood paneled room smelled of leather-bound books and faint pipe smoke. If he were a pipe smoker, you wouldn’t guess it by the fresh scent of aftershave and pearly white teeth, she thought.
Henry’s desk was a heavy dark-stained oak littered with silver-framed photos of his family. Natalie liked the one of the black Labrador retriever emerging from a pond with a stick draped in weeds. Had she gone to vet school, which had been her dream until the sixth grade, she wouldn’t be sitting here shifting uncomfortably.
Natalie heard Henry’s voice before she saw him: “As I was coming down the hall, I was trying to remember when we worked on the anti-elder abuse project together.” Henry rounded the desk. He sat in a matching cloth-upholstered wing back chair.
“It was a long time ago. Ten years or so,” she said.
“I recall you got engaged during that time. To a lawyer?”
“Good memory, Pastor Cushing— ”
“Please, call me Henry.”
“Good memory, Henry.”
“Well?” he asked.
“Did you marry him?” he asked.
Natalie looked down at her naked left hand. She took her wedding band off at night after hearing a story about a woman who had lost all circulation, and eventually the digit itself, due to overnight swelling. Natalie was determined, regardless of the potentiality of the story being nothing more than urban myth, to never wake up to only nine fingers.
“Oh, I did,” she confirmed. Raising her hand and pointing with the other, she added, “I didn’t put my ring on this morning.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“Um, oh no,” Natalie said with a gentle laugh, “I’m happily married. This isn’t at all about me. I’m here for you.”
Henry looked taken aback by her statement.
“For me? How do you mean?” He then held up his hand to her and said, “Let me guess. The police are trying to coordinate another elder program. It has been ten years. We’re probably all due for a reeducation.”
“No. It’s not work related,” she said and then, realizing her answer was inaccurate, added, “It’s sort of work related. I don’t know exactly how to say it. I need to show you something.” Natalie pulled the file out of an oversized handbag she’d gotten years ago and found at the back of her closet.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the file.
“It’s something I found. It’s about you.”
Natalie handed the plain manila folder to him. Henry sat back in his chair and opened it. She watched him read the entries. He had no reaction, complete stoicism. He closed the file and looked up. Natalie tried to mirror his expression, tried not to ask any questions with her eyes.
“Annabella was our housekeeper,” he began.
While that was one of the questions she had for him, it wasn’t the first. He was clearly leading with the low-hanging fruit. She’d go with that.
“She’s not working for you anymore?”
“No. She was sent back to Brazil. She was here illegally.”
“Right before Christmas, 2010. I remember because she was deeply disappointed to be missing her first American Christmas.”
“So, she’d only been here a short while?” Natalie asked.
“Yes. She got here in January or February if I remember correctly.”
Natalie’s wheels were turning: Annabella arrives in Fleet, runs into the FPD, in exchange for their not reporting her to immigration, she would provide them an insider’s view of Henry’s home. FPD got all the information they could squeeze out of her and then dropped the dime.
He said, “You said you found this. Where?”
“I would rather not go into details. It’s better I don’t.”
Henry let out a long sigh. “So, why are you here?”
“I’m here in the hopes of making this right. I’m not going to ask whether the information is true or false because, frankly, I don’t care. What I do care about is that this file exists and its contents are what I would consider—what I think most people would consider—private.”
“You’re giving it to me?”
“I can’t do that,” she said plaintively.
“Because it is one of many files, and I don’t know how they are catalogued or recorded. I haven’t had the chance to investigate thoroughly just yet. But I think it’s safe to presume that there is a ledger or index or something that reflects what files are kept and on whom.”
“So, what then?” he challenged. “What’s the point of showing this to me? To put me on notice?”
“Yes and no. I’m showing you so you know what they know and to make you an offer.”
“First off, who is ‘they’?” he asked in a less confrontational tone.
“I don’t know. Yet.”
“All right. Well then, what’s the offer?”
“I’m going to leave this with you so you can create a new file with new content, content that you create. I think it’s best that you use the same format and the same ink.” Natalie reached into her bag. She pulled out a blue ballpoint pen. “To the best of your ability, you need to replicate the handwriting of the person who wrote these notes.” She handed the pen across the desk. “It should look as close to the original as possible so that someone familiar with the original writer’s handwriting would not question that the file’s contents had been changed.”
Henry nodded. “How long do I have to do this?”
“I have to replace it among the others before anyone notices it’s missing. I’ll be back at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.” Natalie nodded encouragement and turned to leave. “See you bright and early, Henry.”
Natalie felt lighter leaving the church although she left behind only the file and one blue pen. Her entire body felt charged. The strength in her legs carried her confidently back to her car. After shifting through to fourth gear, she reached for the rearview. Angling it toward herself and lifting her hips by planting her left foot against the firewall, Natalie checked herself out and noticed that she appeared different. Perhaps it was an air of sophistication—or was it cunning?—in her new role as a modern-day Robin Hood. She had a flash of a vision of her swooping in on scores of people with their files in her hand offering to save them from rumor and conjecture. She laughed out loud when the picture in her mind included a wind-blown cape.
It was a short drive from the church in Deerhurst to her home in Ledbury. Charlie would be home, and she didn’t want to draw suspicion. There was a glint in her eyes that she was not sure she would be able to extinguish before pulling into their driveway. She took a deep breath and told her reflection, “You did the right thing. Now snap out of it, and remember it’s a plain old, regular Sunday.”
Natalie hardly slept. Her head was full of thoughts. She questioned whether Henry would be able to replicate Daniel’s handwriting, whether he told his wife, whether she, herself, would tell Charlie. At 4:30, she gave up on trying to get some more sleep and got out of bed.
Coffee in hand, she clicked on her laptop to catch up on the happenings of the world. As she read the news, a pop-up ad for Staples obscured the screen. She was about to X-out of the ad when the featured product stopped her: a handheld battery-operated portable shredder. She opened the ad to full screen. After some research, she confirmed it was in stock at the local Staples and that they opened at 7:00.
Natalie dressed for work and left Charlie a note. She opted not to put her departure time of 5:15 on it. He wouldn’t find it until he got up an hour later. It simply said:
Good morning, Sweetheart,
I decided to go in early today to catch up on some things.
I hope you have a great day.
See you later,
Natalie stopped by the Apple Mart for a coffee. Not only was she an ardent supporter of local business but also the offerings at the Apple Mart were tastier than what was otherwise available in town.
“Good morning, Geoffrey,” she said over the jingle of the bell hanging from a string off of the door.
“It’s now Detective Sergeant Martin,” she informed him. “How have you been?”
“Great, thanks. You?”
“I, too, am doing great.”
“Up early,” he said.
“I couldn’t sleep. Too much on my mind.”
“You got a tough case? Closing in on the bad guys?” he said, winking.
“Something like that,” she said, moving toward the area were the various coffee flavors and strengths were on display in tall thermoses.
“How’s your dad? I don’t see him here anymore.”
“Truth be told?” she asked as she lifted a cup from an inverted stack.
Natalie turned her back and gestured to the ten-by-ten open area that lay between the front door and the coffee station. A half a dozen mismatched, low bar stools sat, waiting for occupiers, against the low wall under the plate glass of the store front.
She explained, “Ever since you brought in those stools and set up the coffee section like this, he’s been reluctant to come in and ‘run the gauntlet’ through the group of regulars who spend their mornings here. You know, my dad’s been in Ledbury for 30 years and, somehow, he’s still considered a ‘newcomer.’ It seems unless you can trace your lineage back to the Mayflower or you’re connected to one of the power brokers here, Ledbury’s a bit of a closed club.”
Geoffrey nodded, but said nothing.
Natalie added, “Plus, from what I’ve heard from my runs through the ‘gauntlet,’ the men who hold their morning meetings here are discussion topics that hold no interest for my dad. Frankly, he’s better off brewing his coffee at home anyhow. Now that they’re both retired, they are trying to be more careful about money. You know how that is.”
Natalie spun of her heels, poured a large dark roast, wondered whether she’d said too much, and pressed the lid on.
“Sure do, Detective Sergeant. I’d like to retire myself someday.” Geoffrey said with a sigh and added, “I’m sorry to lose him as a customer.”
“Don’t take it personally. He’s just getting crotchety with age. For that matter, it looks like the Apple Mart Coffee Club is good for business. I’ve noticed on some mornings that the lot is pretty full.”
“Yeah, it’s been good. Pretty much the same crew every day,” he said. Natalie could see Geoffrey forming a thought. He added, “For that matter, it’s pretty much the same conversation every day.”
Natalie rounded the counter to the register and paid.
“Small towns are like that. Have you ever heard that Eleanor Roosevelt quote?” she asked. Geoffrey knitted his brow. She said, “It goes something like ‘great minds talk about ideas; average minds talk about events; small minds talk about other people.’ I’ll reserve judgment on the kind of minds that come here.” Natalie smiled.
Geoffrey nodded again, in the same way, and said, “Always a pleasure to see you. Give your dad my best.”
The clock on the dash read 5:38. She was only a 15-minute drive from her brand-new shredder with over an hour to kill.
Natalie wasn’t a breakfast eater: exclusively black coffee. Around noon, she would have either a salad or a smoothie. She was careful about what she ate and rarely did it to excess. The infrequent order of Alfredo at Giovanni’s was her weakness, and she paid for her lack of willpower and convenient memory lapses on how the decadent pasta dish made her feel the next day. Invariably, Natalie would regret her menu choice the next morning when she caught a side view of her bloated middle. Every time, Charlie would assure her she looked the same: no difference at all, he’d assert. Natalie would often question his need to get his eyeglass prescription checked and then thank him for his intentional misperception. Natalie knew Charlie liked Giovanni’s for the food and the post-dinner sex; she suspected that Charlie really liked the way it made Natalie look the next morning: with a soft swell and fullness in her lower abdomen. She was painfully aware of the fact that next year would mark their ten-year anniversary. Just the two of them.
Sipping her coffee out of the small opening, Natalie made her way over to the office-supply store. She would sit in the parking lot and use her down hour to continue to brainstorm about her newest case. Unlike the reopened ones that she worked on and delegated to Ronald and Joe, Natalie had no other detective to bounce ideas off of relative to this mystery she was trying to solve. She was on her own.
Sitting in the lot, several rows from the front door, Natalie began taking bulleted notes:
* File box: sturdy, stained, prob. old: How long has it been around?
* First seen (by NM) @ FPD on 6/23.
* Was it @ FPD prior to seeing it on 6/23? (Not seen when Daniel was chief.)
* Est. # of files 35-40; Some thin. Several looked to be up to an inch thick.
* HC file, 2010 dates, only DC’s writing: A side hobby of DC while chief?
* Other files: Some old/some newer judging by quick appraisal.
* What’s DC have against HC? Cop v. Pastor (funny comic book title)
Natalie had digressed a bit with her last note since she had run out of ideas. After writing down what she was sure would make Marvel a million dollars, she whiled away the last half hour of her wait picturing colorful frames of “Cop vs. Pastor. The Continuing Adventures of the Man in Blue versus the Man of the Cloth.”
When the store manager unlocked the front door, Natalie was standing outside.
“Good morning. Welcome to Staples.”
“Good morning,” she replied.
Natalie stepped in and around the manager who was fussing with the motion sensor optic for the automatic door. Inside and out of nowhere, she was confronted with a semi-cheerful: “Can I help you find something?”
Natalie turned to find a young woman girl who was clearly not yet fully awake. She was holding a very large coffee which Natalie imagined had plenty left.
Natalie said, “Yes, I checked online to make sure you had an item in stock. And I hope the computer was right. I’m looking for a handheld, battery-operated shredder.”
“We’ve got those,” she said, turning left and heading down an aisle.
Natalie followed behind and glanced up at the signs hanging from the hangar-like open ceiling. The sales associate took a few swigs off her coffee on the way to the back corner of the store where other office supplies that operated on batteries were shelved.
“Right here,” she said as she put her coffee down on a high shelf and pulled two boxes out. “We have a battery-only model for $19.99 and one that’s both battery and USB for $29.99. The USB gives you the option of plugging it into a wall converter or into a USB on a computer.”
Natalie looked at the two choices that were unenthusiastically displayed in front of her and asked, “If that one attaches to a computer, does it scan the paper before shredding it?”
The woman asked flatly, “Why would you save a copy of something you want shredded?”
Natalie nodded her assent to the rhetorical question because she didn’t have the interest in making the point that the girl’s conclusion was naïve: paper is insecure and bulky; electronic files could be digitally stored and encrypted. Natalie momentarily considered whether the files in the box were also saved electronically but quickly dismissed the idea knowing what little she did about computer forensics from listening to Charlie discuss his cases where he assured her that “data is never lost” which led her to conclude that paper trails were safer since those could be set aflame.
“I guess you’ve got a point,” she said.
“For an extra ten bucks you get more features,” she said, lifting the USB-enabled one a few inches higher than the entry model.
“In addition to the USB power option?” Natalie asked.
“Yeah, it says here that the USB one has both strip and cross-cut options.” Natalie knew her face showed her lack of familiarity with shredder terms. The explanation was expanded: “The strip cut is less secure; the cross-cut is thief-proof. One blade horizontal; the other vertical. The result: confetti.”
“And I can switch between the two?”
“Yes, right here with the strip/cross-cut switch.”
Natalie was no techno-whiz, but that much she could have figured out without the explanation.
“All right, sold. I’ll take the USB one.”
The girl reshelved the other shredder, plucked her coffee up, and—without invitation to Natalie to follow—stared toward the front of the cavernous store. Halfway to the registers, the woman pointed out that the USB model came with its own USB cord. She added that the page capacity was up to six at a time; and it took thirty seconds to cross-cut an 8½-by-11 sheet. Although Natalie couldn’t be sure, she was confident that the girl was merely reading the features of the model off the side of the box. As they got the counter, Natalie was thinking of the one sheet of paper—skillfully copied by Henry—that she would be shredding in an hour.
From her place behind the counter, she asked, “Cash or charge?”
“Would you like to become part of the rewards club?”
“Not today. Thanks. Oh, I need batteries, too.”
The woman glanced at the box, stepped away briefly, and returned with a four-pack of double A’s.
“This is enough to get you started. Unless you want more.”
“No, thanks. That’s good.”
“Cash or charge?”
“Would you like to become part of the rewards club?”
Natalie laughed. “Seriously? You just asked that.”
She leaned forward and said in a whisper as she glanced furtively over her shoulder, “We have to ask with every purchase.”
“No, not today. Again.”
“Do you want another bag?”
“No, they’ll fit fine in this one.” She held up the bag, and the young woman dropped in the batteries.
As the double sliding automatic doors closed behind her, Natalie felt good about being able to permanently destroy Henry’s file and that she would be doing so right in front of Henry’s eyes. Back in the car, Natalie loaded the batteries and tested the shredder. After confirming it was in working order, she dropped it into her big orange bag.
Henry was waiting for her outside of the big white church at eight.
“I didn’t want you to try the sanctuary door, find it locked, and go away,” he said. “Come in over here.” He pointed to a side door which lacked the ornate carvings of the one she passed through the morning before.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“I practiced a lot. I think I did well.”
Natalie followed him down two halls to his office.
“Let me see,” she said.
Henry handed her the file which now contained two sheets of paper. She assessed his work comparing the two sheets of paper side by side. He had done well. It was a near match, even on a not-so-quick glance. She read what he had decided upon:
07 March 10: As per Annabella Suarez, HC and TC talking (verbal), marriage excellent, grandchildren present in home and enjoying cookies. Suarez not sure what type they were.
16 April 10: A. Suarez seen leaving HC’s house three days ago. Nothing to report.
23 April 10: Spoke to A. Suarez at gas station. Reiterated terms of the agreement and reminded her of obligation.
06 May 10: As per A. Suarez, Bible paraphernalia found in nightstand. Not sure if it’s HC’s or TC’s. A. Suarez directed to figure out whose nightstand.
22 May 10: As per A. Suarez, nightstand is HC’s. A. Suarez directed to provide details of the paraphernalia.
15 June 10: As per A. Suarez, “Live His Way” magazines (7) in nightstand.
15 June 10: As per internet, “Live His Way” is the leading publication for Christian couples looking to “expand their horizons with liked-minded couples.”
Natalie laughed to herself. She hadn’t expected such creativity.
She said, “This certainly is a departure from the original,” she said. “You did a great job. It looks nearly indistinguishable.”
Henry asked, “Now what?”
“Now I take this back to where I found it, and we say good-bye to this one. Do you have a trash bin?”
Henry reached under his desk. He handed Natalie a small leather-like trash bin. It was clean and empty. Natalie reached into her bag. She pulled out the virgin shredder.
“I’ll hold it. You do the honors.” She aligned the shredder over the bin and switched it on. Henry fed the page into the shredder. Pieces of paper, each one in the shape of tiny diamond, sprinkled into the bin.
Henry’s shoulders, which had been up around his ears from the time Natalie first spotted him, had dropped down to a normal latitude. He smiled gently and asked, “Why did you do this for me?”
“It seemed the decent thing to do,” she answered.
“When you first came in, I thought you were going to use this against me. You know, blackmail me.”
Natalie shook her head in disbelief. “That’s a terrible thing to think about an officer of the law.”
“True, but seeing as though I don’t know how this file came to exist in the first place, it’s a conclusion I’m comfortable making because it’s clear to me that you found the file at the station.”
Natalie decided not to confirm his deduction. Instead, she extended her hand which he shook. Without further words, she tucked the recreated file into her bag along with the shredder and stepped into the summer morning heat.
The sounds and smells of bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee filled the house. As Arnold turned the sizzling bacon with a fork, hot grease droplets pinned the back of his hand. Arnold pushed the eggs around in the pan with the edge of his fork in figure eights, thinking about farmers. First, he wondered if when pigs smelled bacon on the hands and breaths of their farmers, they knew what was coming. Then, he thought about the farmer’s daughter coming from the barn, pails of milk swinging in time with her loosely-bound breasts. Instead of muting the first thought and expanding on the second, Arnold alternated between the two.
Heading to work with a full belly, Arnold could tell the day was going to be hot. He appreciated not having to be in and out of a cruiser all day. Some cops could do it; he couldn’t now even if he tried. It had been tough enough, especially in his last year as sergeant. In some ways, the promotion to second in command, where he would sit behind a desk, saved his life.
The AC in the Crown Vic had reached full capacity right as Arnold pulled into his spot with the sign that read, “Space Reserved for Chief.” The exhilaration he felt seeing that placard had yet to dim. Making his way into the building, he thought about how hot the car would be in eight hours. He’d probably have to ride home with all four windows down, something he hated for all the attention he believed it brought.
Arnold arrived at his office promptly at nine. Natalie must have gotten in before him: the promised green file was waiting for his review.
“Morning, Chief,” Betty called through his open door as she arrived in his wake.
Arnold watched as she unloaded herself. Betty placed her coffee, which was in a travel mug with pictures of her grandchildren on the side, on her desk. He hated how people who managed to copulate and make mini versions of themselves humble bragged with personalized merchandizing. Even worse was when they did so a generation removed. Betty placed her quilted lunch bag down. The two plastic grocery bags she had, heavy with contents, went under her desk. Her purse, which had been caught in the crook of her left elbow, was freed and hooked onto the back of her chair. Betty caught him looking at her as she turned to go put her lunch in the refrigerator in the other room.
“Good morning, Betty.”
“Good weekend?” she asked.
He asked, “You’re getting in now, right?”
Arnold watched Betty contemplate her possible responses. The two of them had been navigating their new professional relationship for the last four months, and he had noticed that she would frequently pause before answering his inquiries. In the four years that Arnold held the lieutenant’s post, Arnold would overhear Betty griping to Daniel about Arnold’s incompetence and her level of impatience with him. Daniel would usually placate her by appealing to her sense of pity when it came to dealing with, as Daniel said, “not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” Arnold would listen from the other side of his closed office door to the two commiserating over his mistakes. Arnold never led on to either of them that he knew of their tête-à-têtes and tended to feel more hurt than angry that they would discuss him so close to where they could be overheard.
That morning, Arnold stood tall as he waited for his secretary to run through the possible ways she could reply to his very simple question. Betty’s eyes were narrow, and she was biting the inside of her cheek. He imagined Betty could answer him defensively: “That’s right, Chief. It’s nine-o-one. I’m getting in now, a full sixty seconds late.” She could reply with sarcasm: “No, Chief, I like to haul these bags around for the first thirty minutes of my shift for exercise.”
Thankfully, for Arnold was not in the mood to explain—once again—that he was in charge, she replied with a simple, “Yes.”
“You didn’t see Natalie come in and put that green file on my desk, did you?”
Watching her run the possible responses again, Arnold was pleased she opted for brevity.
“All right. I have some work to do. I’d like you to hold my calls,” he said immediately regretting the opening he had given her.
“Are you expecting many calls this morning?” she said with a tone of fake awe.
“Just hold them,” he said. Arnold closed his door firmly, though not quite a slam.
Not only was slamming rude, as he’d been taught as a child, but also Arnold didn’t want to Betty to think she could get under his skin. I’m in charge, not her, he thought.
Arnold was looking forward to the week ahead now that his “little employee-relations problem,” the term so endearingly-coined by Tommy, was cleared up. It had been a month filled with anxiety and stress that Arnold guessed netted him another fifteen pounds. Admittedly, the heavier he became, the less he could appreciate the change in his appearance. However, there was something about the feel of the skin that stretched and rolled between the half circle of his chin and the top of his sternum that indicated his insecurities of the past month were well fed. But now with that all behind him, Arnold could relax a little, perhaps shed a few of those pounds that crept on.
A dozen years ago, Arnold had made an effort to make a significant change in his health. With the privacy afforded to him by shopping for self-help and diet books online, Arnold established for himself a veritable library on weight loss and self-esteem enhancement. Although Arnold’s motivation had waned a bit by the time the boxes arrived, he put forth his best effort and managed to lose some weight. For the first time that he could remember, Arnold’s knees were only causing him intermittent pain.
Much to Arnold’s disappointment, his relieved joints were no match for the isolation and seasonal depression that took hold of Arnold that winter. Concerned that a request from his doctor for an anti-depressant might result in a demotion, from being then a sergeant and back to patrol was not something Arnold was willing to risk. Resigning himself to the need to seek comfort through his mouth, one snowy evening, he dropped the three dozen books into the after-hours donation bin at the library and stopped at an out-of-town gas station for three bags of salty snacks, a two-liter bottle of orange soda, and four quarts of nearly expired ice cream. He ignored the thin layer of freezer burn and soothed the salt sting with the syrupy drink. Knowing what he did now—thanks to the amount of recent reading he had done—he figured he consumed close to seven thousand calories. Having learned that there are thirty-five hundred calories in a pound, Arnold assessed his binge as a “two-pounder.”
Lying in bed sensing the pressure on his diaphragm from the bulk of the food he had just put down, Arnold considered the indulgence worth it. He’d worked incredibly hard for those last three weeks to only have lost eight measly pounds. The self-defeating piece of him relished the self-sabotage.
Even though he had just gotten rid of the books which had failed to bring him redemption, he was grateful for the one quote that remained in his mind’s eye, culled from the preface of one of the weight loss books: “The time must be right for your success.” Quelling the nausea that was crashing in, wave after wave, as he tried to fall asleep, Arnold told himself that it simply had not been “right time.” But in the spirit of optimism, Arnold had kept a skeptical lookout for the arrival of the real “right time” over the last dozen years to motivate him to try again. Lately, part of him was beginning to think that the right time was presently going to make an appearance. Arnold was beginning to think that he might, yet again, attempt to make a change, especially now that he was chief.
Settling down at his desk with nothing on his “to do” list and with no compulsion to check his email, he bent over and lifted the box that he’d considered perusing over the weekend. Hoisting it onto the surface of his desk, he was ready to give the box his full attention and a thorough inspection.
Starting off, Arnold noticed a list taped on the underside of the lid. He concluded that it was a ledger of sorts: each line listed two initials and a date. The first entry read: “GT: August 9, 1980.” Arnold pulled the first file out of the box. It was the “GT” file with the first entry dated August 9, 1980. He glanced back at the ledger to cross check it against the second file. Same pattern. When Arnold confirmed that the third file followed suit, he properly deduced that all of the files corresponded to the ledger.
Arnold wanted to get a flavor for the files. Glancing over the first three, he believed that he could safely conclude that the records were kept by whomever was in charge during his tenure as chief and that the records concerned people in Fleet with some modicum of influence. GT owned the largest farm in town; OM was on the school committee; and, PL was Fleet’s Eagle Scout Master.
Wheeling his chair over to his computer, Arnold booted it up to go online to conduct some preliminary research on these three.
Garrett Tidwell was the subject of several reports, from 1992 and 1993, in both the Fleet and regional newspapers. He had come to find himself in a battle against local and state officials for the ownership of the land where he ran a dairy farm. While he gained some support from the national farm bureau, he ultimately lost 35 acres of his family’s land. The papers told of improperly drawn property lines and poorly recorded deeds. Paired with a change in a Fleet zoning bylaw, the land’s designation ended up being reclassified from exclusively agriculture—it had been in the Tidwell family since the 1850’s—to mixed-use commercial.
When developers swooped in to capitalize on the change, Garrett had few resources to mount a viable legal challenge. He seemed to have lost the land not on merit but on lacking funds to litigate. The national bureau could be of only so much help. In the end, lip service about support for local farmers lost out to the backing of entrepreneurs and commercial developers. The prime agricultural soils were paved over and an ugly and underused strip mall became Garrett’s next-door neighbor.
Olympia Marchand was elected to the Fleet School Committee in 2008. She had won a tough election against a popular incumbent. Olympia’s success at the ballot box was credited to her no-nonsense, take-charge approach to the challenges that she had faced as a parent to her school-aged child. Her second daughter, Lily, was born in 2002 with genetic birth defects. Olympia had taken the school district to task over its reluctance to provide Lily an education within the district. As Olympia and her husband, Russ, had had no experience with special education matters with their first daughter, Alissa—fourteen years Lily’s senior—fighting for their Lily’s right to an education was new territory for them. The newspaper photograph of Olympia, sandwiched between Russ and their attorney, showed a fierce determination in Olympia’s face. The headline read “Mother’s Claim of Discrimination going to State’s Highest Court.” Her win there was the bellwether for Olympia’s election. She had been, now twice, reelected.
The search on Peter Levitt did not reveal anything of note in the local news stream. There were only a few snapshots of him, standing with soon-to-be-inducted Eagle Scouts, in front of their completed scout projects. One showed steps constructed into the side of a small slope leading to a municipal soccer field; another pictured a teen standing in front of a repaired stone wall which ran along a popular hiking trail. Peter’s bio on the Boy Scouts of America website described him earning accolades for his contributions to both the local and national scouting movements despite his busy schedule as a high school science teacher and track coach. A quick search on the state’s registry of deeds indicated that Peter individually owned his home in Fleet. Arnold guessed him to be a peer bachelor.
Arnold had a sense for these three people based on what he discovered online. They seemed like good people to him. X-ing out of his desktop, causing the “Protect and Serve” screensaver to start floating on the screen, Arnold scooted back to where the three files waited his perusal. He slowly and carefully read each one over. Each told a contrasting story from the public one, though there were similar topical themes. It took him close to an hour to review the extracted files.
Arnold leaned back and volleyed his conclusions back and forth in his mind, from one vacuous side to the other. Unsure of what his next move was, he called Daniel.
“Chief, it’s me, Arnold.”
“Good morning, Arnold. I’m not chief any longer,” Daniel said. “Of all people, you should know that.”
Arnold didn’t care to get into a syntactical skirmish with Daniel knowing he’d lose handily. Instead, he asked, “Are you around today?”
“I’m retired. I’m around every day.”
“I’d like to talk to you about something. Could you stop by the station?” Arnold said.
“You know, Arnold, when I left there, I told myself I’d never go back. I’m going to have to say ‘no’ to coming in. If you need something, we could meet up,” Daniel offered.
Arnold didn’t relish the idea of going out in the mid-July heat, but he had little choice. He asked, “Where and when?”
“I’ll be at the diner on Elm around eleven.”
“Um, I don’t know about there. It might be too public,” Arnold said.
“At that time of day, it’s me, my newspaper, and Phyllis filling my coffee mug.”
Arnold pictured the interior of the diner. He thought about the booths, and he hoped he would be able to fit. The diner was close enough to the station that the air conditioning wouldn’t have time to cool the inside of the Crown Vic: he’d have a good sweat going by the time he found his cool, thin predecessor reading the sports page. With Daniel’s assent already spoken, he didn’t want to risk an attempted renegotiation.
“All right, I’ll see you there in a little while, Chief.” Arnold hung up before Daniel could correct him.
Arnold heard a muffled conversation outside his closed office door. It was Betty speaking to another woman: likely Natalie. Arnold quickly put the three files into his briefcase, placed the lid back on the box, and returned it to its place under his desk.
The shave-and-a-haircut knock confirmed for Arnold that the woman was, in fact, his always-cheerful detective sergeant. Arnold wondered how anyone could be that consistently enthusiastic, a bundle of boundless ebullience.
“Yes?” he said.
The tone of her voice and the pace of her step made Arnold think Natalie had been up and at it for hours. She was beaming. For a moment, Arnold wondered if she was pregnant. If she were coming in to announce her need to go on maternity leave, his arrangement with Tommy could be paused, if not cancelled altogether. Not knowing anything about how long women go on maternity leave for or when in their pregnancies they depart, Arnold couldn’t fully predict whether he’d need to lift more OCs from the evidence room.
“Good morning, Arnold. Detective Sergeant Natalie Martin reporting for weekly roll call.”
“Roll call?” Not pregnancy, he thought disappointedly.
“Yeah, I was thinking we should convene at the beginning of each week. You know, get our ducks in a row. I can bring you up to speed on pending investigations, and you can review all the cases we closed the previous week. Did you see I left you that green file from Friday? I told you I’d have it closed soon. It’s done.”
Arnold wondered if she was on a sugar high. How many doughnuts had she consumed that morning? Looking at her trim figure, he dispensed with the notion that doughnuts crossed her lips.
He said, “I found it when I came in. Thank you.”
“And if you recall, you stated on Friday you’d have my raise cleared up by today. I know it’s early but— ”
“It’s all set,” he said, cutting her off before she could endorse going directly to Ellen in personnel.
“Oh. It is? Great. So, I can expect to see it in my next check?”
“And the retro will be in there too?”
Arnold hadn’t thought about that. Tommy had transferred a month’s worth of funds. Arnold knew she was owed more than that.
“I think so.”
“Could you get from a ‘think so’ to a ‘know so’ for me?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’ll look into it later today. I have meetings at eleven and two.”
“Anything good?” she asked.
“Doing the people’s business,” he said somewhat dismissively.
“All right, well then, back to my idea for weekly roll call. I think it would be worthwhile. It would be the perfect way for us both to keep each other informed. Those lines of communication are less likely to get crossed if we’re checking in with each other.”
“Sure, Natalie. Monday mornings?”
“Yes. Let’s say nine-thirty so we can both get settled in a bit.”
“When did you get in this morning?” he asked.
“Let’s see. Eight-thirty-ish.”
“By that time, I’d been up for four hours already.”
“Don’t know. I couldn’t sleep. I got up, went for a run, came home, took a quick shower, read the paper, wrote my grandmothers each a letter, did two loads of laundry, cooked Charlie a delicious breakfast, and then came into work. It’s astounding how much one can get done in the early morning hours.”
Arnold didn’t get that much done in a week, never mind a few hours before a work day.
“Good for you, Natalie,” he said, not realizing her description was fabricated.
“It was good for me. In fact, I might start getting up early every day.” Natalie stood and added, “I’ll be right back with the cases for the week.”
She bounded out of Arnold’s office and returned more quickly than he’d expected with her arms heavy with colorful files. Instead of feeling appreciation for such a productive worker, he was annoyed by the notion that she had run to her desk and back and wasn’t even winded.
Charlie’s desk was buried in files but there was only one which he cared about right now: State v. Brian Nealy. It took a year and the coordination of the two area police departments—along with the Feds—to find Nealy. He was facing charges of aggravated identity theft and access device fraud. Charlie was optimistic that a conspiracy charge would be added, as well. Charlie had hoped to add that charge after the lobby conference with Judge Ashby, as he had expected Nealy’s attorney to give up the names of the others in the hacker ring. But since Nealy wasn’t interested in the reduction of time of his future sentence through a plea by being helpful with names, Charlie would need to find the co-conspirators on his own.
Grabbing the file, Charlie went to find Elaine Weaver, one of the two investigators who worked for the DA’s office. He found her in the makeshift kitchen pouring out freshly brewed coffee.
“Good morning,” Charlie said.
“Nealy?” Elaine asked, dropping in a bagel into the toaster.
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Because that one has been keeping me up at night. It’s been—what?—three weeks since Nealy’s lawyer told you to go pound sand.” Charlie nodded. The smell of the bagel toasting began to fill the small space. She said, “I just confirmed an interview for later today. Maybe I’ll get some information at that. Have you gotten anything on your end since we last conferenced the case?”
“Nope. Nothing,” Charlie said just as the toaster popped the bagel up. He added, “I stand by my assertion that Nealy had help; no way he could’ve done this alone.”
“I agree,” she said. “Even with the deficient security on the businesses’ computer systems, this was no solo job. Plus, when you look at other similar crimes, it’s always a team effort.”
“So, with nothing from Nealy, where do you suggest we look?” Charlie asked.
“Come with me to my office. I’ll show you what I have,” she said, leaving her bagel behind.
The two weaved through the hallways, dodging boxes of closed cases that were stacked in no particular order. When the basement of the courthouse flooded the previous spring, the DA directed “all hands on deck” to get the prosecutors’ closed files out of there. Due to a tight budget and concern over security, the decision was made to store the boxes in the main office, which was located across the street. The DA spun the annoyance of his staff having to step around the boxes, day in and day out, into a visual pat on the back by saying that “getting to see the physical record of hard work was a well-earned reminder of a job well done.” His staff was not so easily swayed. The boxes were an eyesore and they made their workplace smell like mildew.
Elaine sat at her desk, and Charlie pulled up a chair. She opened her investigation file to begin to review her notes.
“Let’s start at the end,” she suggested. “When Nealy was arrested, he was at his basement apartment at 93 Elm Street in Stanfield. He was alone and the arresting officers determined—“by the looks of the contents in the apartment”—that he lived alone. Knowing what we know about these sorts of hacker crimes, my suspicions differed. I went out and spoke to the landlord. She said she was sure that another young man lived with him, though he was not on the lease, and that others stayed there frequently.”
“How was she so sure Nealy had a roommate?” Charlie asked.
“She said her other tenant, the one on the second floor, complained to her on a regular basis about the number of cars in the driveway and the number of people coming and going out of Nealy’s place.”
“Alright. Anything from Stanfield PD?”
“Yes. They said they were called out there by the second-floor guy once because he had gotten into a verbal altercation with Nealy. Sounds like when Nealy heard the 5-O were coming out, he and his pals took off.”
“Nealy had a police scanner?” Charlie asked.
“No, the guy upstairs told Nealy he called the police,” she said. “You know, if people are going to call the police, they should keep their mouths shut and let the police come out. I bet it’s, like, one time out of ten that the person sticks around to chat.”
“No kidding, huh? What else?” Charlie asked.
“So, that’s all they had on Nealy—by name; but I asked them to do an address check. Back in April, the guy upstairs called SPD because of all the cars blocking the driveway. The cops go out. There were no signs posted to say who has which space in the driveway. So, they said they couldn’t do anything about it: landlord issue.”
“No. The junior patrol officer, in his enthusiasm, decided to run the plates of all the vehicles on the premises. All came back as local, except for a 2014 Ford Econoline van. That came back with a Tilton address. Can you guess where in Tilton?” she asked.
Charlie shook his head and raised his eyebrows.
“The airport,” she said. “It was rented out from March 26th to April 19th.”
Charlie recognized the dates and said, “The same date range, give or take, as the thefts.”
“You are correct, Charlie. The manager at Sir Rents-A-Lot specifically remembered two young men coming in and asking for a black van. They requested that the rear seats be removed and paid extra for the labor to take them out.”
“Whose name was on the rental?”
“Don’t know,” she replied. “Sir Rents-A-Lot has a corporate policy to destroy all records on its customers within two weeks of the vehicle’s return.”
“Why?” Charlie asked.
“They said they do that to protect the privacy of their customers. I think they do it to serve a certain demographic.”
“Yep, but that’s a question for another day,” she said. “The description of the two guys wasn’t much help: Caucasian, mid-twenties, jeans, and hoodies.”
“Why the seat removal?”
“Because that’s how they set up their mobile theft unit for the ‘warkitting.’”
“For the what?” Charlie asked, his face showing his ignorance.
Elaine saved him the embarrassment. “As I’m sure you know, Charlie, the term wardriving is use to describe when people go from place to place and tap into open-access Wi-Fi. Wardriving is not illegal despite its nefarious sounding name. You know, it’s like putting down your window to listen to the music coming out of the houses you drive by. Though the music isn’t being played for your benefit, you’re still able to enjoy it. And lots of places offer free Wi-Fi: some as a service, such as the library; others as an inducement to patronize the business, such as Starbucks.”
Charlie nodded. Her explanation triggered his memory of a tediously boring in-service training with far too many technical terms. “Wardriving” must have been one of them.
“A rootkit is a sneaky sort of software. It avoids detection by hiding from those malware programs which were put in place to protect the user’s information. But in order to install a rootkit, the cyber-thief needs a way to get into the targeted system. Usually, this is done by either an attack or by exploiting passwords,” she explained. “If it’s done through password exploitation, it’s bad news for the cyber-victim because it looks as if the wrongdoer is someone allowed access already. That means no one can initially tell that the attack came from the outside or that a rootkit was installed.”
Charlie head was bobbing. This modern method of thieving was slowly coming back to him. He liked the way Elaine was breaking it down for him so he said, “Right, right, then what?”
Elaine rested back in her chair and with a serious tone said, “Then all bets are off. The system doesn’t even realize it’s been invaded. It’s analogous to having HIV but not knowing about it until full-blown AIDS rears its ugly head. With warkitting, the hacker maintains privileged access to the system because the rootkit has rewritten and exploited the existing programs leaving no obvious trail.”
Charlie concluded, “And with this being the first time—I think—that the office has had a chance to prosecute this nefarious, but elegant, crime, I’d like to get it right to set an example for potential future warkitters.” Charlie believed that he had skillfully masked his lapse in memory of how exactly the crime was committed. He added, “So it would be fair to say that Nealy and friend—or perhaps even ‘friends’—used the rented van to set up the mobile theft unit and drove from business to business until they found one that had open-access Wi-Fi and something worth stealing?”
“Yes,” Elaine said. “The only real hurdle would be figuring out the password of the system administrator. But even that’s not so tough. The two businesses that Nealy hit were small, thereby cutting down on the number of potential administrators. He probably figured out who the admin person was by making a quick call to the business and simply asking.”
Elaine flipped several pages and referred to them as she explained: “So in the case of the retirement accounts stolen from Crossfield Automotive, Mary Fleming, the system administrator, told me that she remembers getting a call from a software support company who asked for her email so that they could send her a free offer to upgrade. She didn’t see any risk in giving them her email. Who would? Now, my suspicion is that Nealy probably googled her and found her on Facebook. He was able to find her date of birth and figure out the names of her family members. With very little effort, Nealy could have gotten access to other public and not-so-public records. In our culture’s desire to feel connected to each other, we leave way too much out there on the internet.”
Charlie agreed with Elaine’s generalization on oversharing. As an early user of Facebook, having joined in the summer of 2008, Charlie, himself, posted all sorts of information about his life—both professional and private. After resigning from the capital crime unit the following summer and taking the supervisor’s position within the newly created cybercrime unit, Charlie got off of Facebook based on the strong recommendation of the training staff who taught Charlie and his underlings the ins and outs of cybercrime. He didn’t miss the magnetism of the social media site and would routinely warn others to be careful with what they put out for public consumption.
Elaine was on a roll: “And people are predictable. In some ways, we have to be. Who’s going to remember several ten-digit, mixed-letter, mixed-number passwords when there is no rhyme or reason behind it?
“Did you know something like 30% of people use the letters C-A-S-H as their ATM PIN? It sounds crazy but it is predictable. You’re taking out your card to get cash, why not use C-A-S-H as your PIN? And as we learned, ten-digit passwords invariably have a date in them. A birthday or anniversary. Also, predictable: the letters tend to be the initials or name of someone special. I hate to admit it, but I used to do it, too. Working here changed that.”
Charlie summarized, “So, Mary Fleming left too much out there on the internet, and the black van picked up the Wi-Fi coming out of 1298 Main Street in Stanfield. Nealy and friends installed the rootkit, and no one at Crossfield Automotive knew about the theft until it was too late. Because they stole from the retirement accounts, they avoided detection for three months.”
“Right, if they’d stolen from payroll, they would have been discovered sooner,” Elaine said. “Payroll theft can be lucrative but only in large companies. When a cybercriminal steals from payroll, it’s a one-shot deal. Crossfield is small: 31 employees. Stealing from the retirement accounts meant that Nealy and friends had to wait longer for the payoff but it was a better deal than shooting the whole wad on Crossfield’s relatively small payroll.”
“We need to identify these ‘friends’ of Nealy’s.” he stated.
“I know. I’m going to go at it the old-fashioned way. I’m going to go out and find out who he used to hang out with before becoming a guest of the state. And you should be pleased to hear that I have an appointment to meet his parents later this afternoon.”