“It’s one of those things you think will never happen to you,” I said. “I still can’t believe it. I’m just glad they caught the problem. Do you know how long it would’ve taken to clear my credit?”
“Mmm-mmm,” Jamila murmured, about the best she could manage with a spicy meatball hors d’oeuvre in her mouth.
I had a ginger ale in one hand and a small plate loaded with shrimp and little quiches in the other. This left me with no hands to eat either the shrimp or the quiches. I set my drink on a handy table, hoping that none of the waiters patrolling the banquet room would scoop it up when I wasn’t looking.
Close to a hundred people had shown for the mixer, which surprised the hell out of me. The bar association doesn’t usually schedule events during the summer. The theory, I guess, is that most people take summer vacations. It was a sad commentary on our profession that we were there.
“So I’m finally checking my credit history,” I said. “They say you should do it every year. I’ve always found a reason to put it off until now. Hopefully, the jerk hasn’t applied for ten more credit cards with my information.”
“I almost didn’t come. I don’t want to see any of these people. Present company excepted, of course.”
Jamila gestured with her Diet Coke. “Roger’s trashed.” She referred to the partner she worked for at Haskins & O’Connell, one of the biggest firms in the county.
I looked across the room at Roger. He was smiling, talking amiably to some guy in a nine-hundred-dollar suit, and looking as dull as ever. “How the hell can you tell?”
“Cause he keeps licking his lips.” Jamila straightened and did another quick survey of the room. “You see any judges? There are supposed to be some judges at this damn thing.”
“I don’t know. I just came for the free food.”
Jamila smiled and continued to look around. As usual, she was dressed to the nines. Her dusky brown complexion was a perfect complement to her tan suit, and she’d applied her makeup with surgical precision. She aspired to partnership at H&O and, eventually, a judgeship with the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. Maybe even the federal court in Greenbelt.
In P.G. County, a Washington, D.C., suburban area with a majority black population, her appointment to such a position was a distinct possibility if she kept her nose clean and went to the right parties. Jamila had been a good friend of mine since law school, but with any luck, nobody would hold that against her.
“I’m sorry about your problem,” she said. “Can you believe, the same thing happened to one of my clients? Only no one caught it, and he’s in the hole twenty thousand dollars.”
“He was supposed to close on some property next month. Now the lender’s trying to back out. We’re hoping to fix things before the closing date, but you know what our chances are of doing that?”
“We may have to put off the closing,” Jamila said. “Or even cancel it. All because of some little shit who … I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go on about my problems. We were talking about you.”
“It’s OK.” I reached for my drink, but it had been spirited away. “What gets me is, I’m so careful. I tear up my junk mail. I never give out my social security number to strangers. I rarely buy anything on the Internet. But that’s not enough anymore.”
Jamila said something about recent criminal laws against identify theft that got drowned out by guffaws.
“Don’t you have to find people before you can prosecute them?” I asked, raising my voice above the din.
“That’s what I’m saying. We had to hire a private investigator. Reed Duvall. Ever hear of him?”
I shook my head. “Most of my clients can’t afford me, let alone a detective.”
“He’s supposed to be good. A little unconventional, but they say he gets the job done.”
“I wonder if he could find my missing client.”
“The police are looking for this woman I represented in a domestic violence hearing. We were going to go back to court to enforce the order. Now, her ex is dead and the police can’t find her.”
“Oh.” She raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, it’s innocent until proven guilty, remember?”
“That’s what they say.”
I filled Jamila in on what the cops told me, leaving Melanie’s name out of it.
“The FBI,” she said. “Shit.”
“The whole thing looks weird as hell, no question. Thing is, I have no duty to do anything. I don’t have to find her.”
“If she shows up, tell her to go to the cops,” Jamila said.
“Sure. But I keep wondering what the Mob has to do with this. And how is my client involved? If I don’t act, is she going to end up being another story on the eleven o’clock news?”
Jamila’s glance darted toward the door. “Judge Ridgway just came in. We should say hello.”
She shot me a look. “You’ve got to learn to work these people, sweetie.”
I sighed. “I know. It’s such a friggin’ drag.”
“And another thing. You can’t take responsibility for everything that happens to a client and stay sane in this business.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I knew it all too well. Still, I was concerned about Melanie. For one thing, I simply couldn’t picture her as a killer.
φ φ φ
I don’t like domestic violence cases, but for Melanie I made an exception. Maybe it helped that, like me, she was 36 and single. She was tall and slender with brown hair cut in a short bob. Her intelligence and forthrightness impressed me. She had an air of quiet resolve — no hysterics, no second-guessing about whether she was doing the right thing. She had everything you look for in a client — a rational and cooperative attitude plus the ability to pay. Not that the case brought in much money, but it never hurts when a client can pay.
Getting the order hadn’t been difficult. Tom had been drunk and abusive. When he’d hit Melanie, there’d been a minor scuffle. She’d called the police, and they’d arrested Tom.
Afterward, he’d moved in with a friend in Laurel. Things were fine for a while, then the phone calls started. He started coming by her apartment.
She refused to talk to him. She hoped he would give up, but he wouldn’t.
“I want him to leave me alone,” she said, staring out my office window at the brick storefronts of Laurel’s historic Main Street. She seemed anxious the last time I saw her. I tried to be reassuring. Unfortunately, getting the orders in these cases is one thing and getting the abusers to comply is something else.
φ φ φ
Later that afternoon, I tried to reach Melanie at home, without success. I didn’t have a cell phone number, so I tried First Bank of Laurel, where she worked as an assistant manager. Melanie wasn’t there. I asked for Donna Thurman, her boss. I had done some work for Donna before, and she’d given Melanie my name.
Donna came on the line. “Yes?” she said, her vocal chords sounding as taut as piano wires.
“Donna, it’s Sam McRae. Do you have a minute to talk?”
She sounded busy, so I got to the point. “Have you seen Melanie lately?”
I thought I heard her gasp at the other end. Maybe it was just the phone line.
“Sam,” she said, “I’m … I’m in the middle of something. Can we meet at your office later?”
Around four thirty, Donna came by. Somewhere in her sixties, she was a petite, silver-haired wonder with skin tanned to a carcinogenic brown from frequent sailing trips on the Chesapeake with her husband. Donna was the kind of person who, rather than soften with age, grew more angular. Instead of slowing down, she seemed to be picking up speed, as if her life were a game of Beat the Clock.
She wore a short-sleeved yellow suit and, normally, would have looked terrific. However, when she came into the office, I could tell something was wrong. I’d never seen her so subdued and drawn. I wondered if she was sick.
“Thank heavens it’s Friday,” she said, collapsing into a chair with a muted grunt. “Sam, I’m so worried about Melanie. She hasn’t been at work all week. She hasn’t called. It’s not like her. I even thought about filing a missing person’s report. Then the police came.”
“I guess you don’t have any idea where she might be.”
She shook her head.
“When was the last time you saw her?” I asked.
“Last Friday, at work.”
“Did you talk to her over the weekend?”
“It’s frustrating, but there’s not much we can do at this point. I hope she shows up.”
Donna hunched forward, her expression suggesting there was more on her mind. “That FBI agent. He said something about the Mob being involved. The whole thing is so bizarre — and scary. I’ve been trying to figure how to tell her parents.”
“I’ve known them for years. They moved to Arizona a while ago, but I keep in touch with them. I remember when Melanie was born.”
“Could Melanie have gone there due to a family emergency?”
“I suppose it’s possible,” she said, “but Melanie hasn’t spoken to her parents in years. Besides, I think I would have heard about it.”
“What about brothers and sisters?”
“Melanie’s an only child.”
I shrugged. “Maybe she decided to take a vacation or something.”
“She wouldn’t do that without telling us.”
“Well, you know her better than I do. I didn’t realize you were so close.”
“I helped her get this job.” Donna looked sheepish. “To be honest, it’s a little embarrassing for me at work, what with her disappearing like this.”
“I take it Melanie never mentioned any of the stuff the police asked about?”
“Did she ever talk about Tom?”
“Not much, though I could tell they were having problems. You know, how it is. Sometimes, you can just tell. Now and then, she’d mention his drinking and his building debt. Tell you the truth,” she said, arching a knowing eyebrow, “I wasn’t all that surprised. The better I got to know him, the more I realized he was all surface, all charm.”
I let her vent for a bit about Tom. She hadn’t approved of his moving in with Melanie, and the fact that it hadn’t worked out didn’t help matters. I still wasn’t sure why she’d wanted to meet me, but Donna was a good client — a friend — so I let her take her time getting to the real reason for her visit.
Donna shifted restlessly. “I’d like to ask a favor.”
“I ran by Melanie’s apartment yesterday. Her car was there, but she didn’t answer my knock. After what the police said, I started wondering … what if she couldn’t get to the door? What if she was passed out … or worse?”
I’d also wondered if Melanie might be dead, but I hadn’t wanted to bring it up. “I guess we can’t rule that out, but don’t jump to conclusions. It’s possible she wasn’t home.”
“But what about her car?”
“She could have taken a cab or a bus.”
“Maybe she saw me through the peephole and didn’t answer the door.”
“Why would she do that?”
She hesitated. “Probably ashamed to talk to me. Since things fell apart with Tom … well, we haven’t spoken to each other much.” She paused, then asked, “Could you run by her place and check on her? It’s not far from here.”
I nodded. “Sure. I don’t know if I’ll have any more luck, but at least I can say I tried.”
“I appreciate that, Sam.” Donna smiled, looking abashed. “I guess I must seem like a silly old woman. I know she’s grown and able to take care of herself. Maybe it’s because I never had kids of my own. She’s all alone, and I do almost consider her like a daughter.”
“Don’t worry about it. She’s probably fine.” I hoped I was right.
φ φ φ
After work, I stopped at my place to feed Oscar, my fifteen-pound, black and white cat, and grabbed something to eat. Dinner was two pieces of toast with peanut butter and salad-in-a-bag. I’m not much of a cook, and it hardly seems worth it to dirty dishes just to feed myself. I finished the meal with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream straight from the carton. I rinsed the silverware and the plate and headed for Melanie’s place.
My ’67 Mustang sputtered on the first turn of the ignition key and the second, then finally roared to life. It was an old relic, painted a Welch’s grape purple and in need of a tune-up and a patch job on the muffler, which made noises that attracted curious glances from five hundred yards. It could probably have used a trip through the car wash, too. But it ran — noise, dirt, and all.
Melanie lived in the Whiskey Bottom neighborhood of North Laurel, a collection of très suburban brick townhouses and apartments just across the county line. Maybe there’d been a lot of moonshining in that area at one time because the booze theme could be found on most of the street signs, which had names like Moonshine Hollow, Bourbon Street, Brandy Lane, and Barrelhouse Road.
I found a space near the attractive three-story apartment building swathed in greenery and accented with beds of bright red begonias. Donna said Melanie had a red Geo with a crystal hanging from the rearview mirror. It was still there. The heat of the day radiated from the blacktop as I crossed the lot. The air was heavy with humidity, but four young teens — two girls and two boys — were outside, engaged in a bit of friendly competition, shooting hoops at a freestanding basket. Watching them made me sweat.
Melanie had mail in her box. Not a lot, but maybe a couple of days’ worth. The building had an open foyer, and her apartment was one of four located on the second floor.
I climbed the steps. No newspaper lay on the mat before her door. I heard a TV set, but couldn’t tell from where. I knocked and waited, then knocked again. No one answered.
Just for kicks, I checked under the mat for a spare key and found one. What a lousy place for it. There aren’t many options for apartment dwellers, but I wouldn’t put my key under the mat.
I picked it up, feeling a little odd about walking into someone’s apartment uninvited. But Melanie would thank me later if she was in there, dying on the floor. I used the key in the deadbolt, which unlocked with no problem. It also fit the knob. Turning it, I stepped inside.
The door opened into a combined living room/dining area. Closed curtains made the place gloomy. Even so, I could see a chair turned onto its side and things strewn over the floor. Someone had ransacked the place.
Debbi Mack is author of the New York Times bestselling mystery novel Identity Crisis. The book is part of the four-book series. Debbi has also written a young adult novel, Invisible Me, and a thriller, The Planck Factor.
Debbi has also published a short story anthology called Five Uneasy Pieces, which includes the Derringer-nominated short story “The Right to Remain Silent”.