Read Certified Male Online

Authors: Kristin Hardy

Certified Male (2 page)

Gwen gave herself a moment to steam. “Okay, I'll be right out.” She took Oakes off hold. “Stewart? I've got to run help Joss at the front of the store. Can I call you back?”

“I'll be here.”

Gwen gathered the stamp albums together and slipped them into one of her desk drawers, locking it carefully. Even so, it nagged at her a bit that some one hundred thousand dollars in stamps was protected only by a desk lock that any self-respecting toddler could pick. A hundred grand of the most liquid, easily portable wealth known.

In countries with unstable stock markets—or none at all—stamps provided a relatively safe investment. Gold coins were heavy, they took up space. Mounted properly, a stamp worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars could be slipped into a square of cardboard, tucked into a wallet or the inside pocket of a suit, walked over international borders and converted into cold, hard cash in virtually any major city in the world.

 

S
HE WAS BACK IN HER OFFICE
when four o'clock hit. A muted “hallelujah” from the front, followed by the rattle of the steel security gates, told her that Joss was closing up. It had been a good day, all in all, Gwen thought in satisfaction as she stacked up the stamp albums. She'd logged three quarters of the collection, had set aside the cream for important clients and found stamp dealers only too happy
to take on the rest. They'd make money out of the deal. It was a small triumph for her.

Joss stuck her head into the room. “The front is all locked up, nice and tight.”

Gwen swung back the white board that concealed the wall safe. She inserted her key and spun the dial of the combination lock. “First thing tomorrow I'm firing Jerry,” she told Joss. “Then I'm going to put an ad in the help-wanted section.” The dial moved smoothly under her fingers.

“You can't just fire someone out of the blue, can you?” Joss asked. As the day had gone on, her defense of Jerry had ebbed. “Can't he take it to the employment board? What if something came up?”

“And what, he couldn't even call? Joss, he's been late to one degree or another for seventeen of the twenty days he's worked for us.”

Joss raised her eyebrows. “You kept track?”

“Of course I kept track. I'm an employer, that's what you have to do. If he wants to protest, I can show cause.” Gwen spun the dial to its final position and opened the door.

And stared in alarm.

2

“D
ID YOU OPEN THE SAFE WHILE
I was gone?” Gwen's voice sounded unnaturally loud in her ears.

“No.” Joss crowded up behind her to look at the stack of stamp albums in the safe. “What are you talking about?”

“The books have been moved. I always put them in the same way every time. Joss, you swear you haven't touched anything?”

“Cross my heart.”

Stay calm,
Gwen ordered herself. Maybe she'd been careless the last time she'd unlocked the safe door. Maybe she hadn't put things back the usual way. In her gut, though, she knew.

Someone had been in the safe.

She spilled the albums onto the desk, opened them with shaking fingers. There was no point in bothering with the blue books that held the store inventory or the green book that held some of her own acquisitions. They didn't matter. Not now. She focused solely on the burgundy albums that held her grandfather's collection—the books that held his treasures, his pride and joy, bits of his childhood.

The books that held his retirement.

Holding her breath, she opened one and flipped through to the back, made herself look.

And her mouth went dry as dust. “They're gone.”

“What's gone?”

Gwen battled the wave of nausea that threatened to swamp her. “Grampa's best stamps. The Blue Mauritius. The one-penny Mauritius. The British Guiana one-cent. And maybe more.”
Definitely more,
the voice of certainty whispered to her. She'd seen at least two other blank spots as she'd flipped through.

Gwen squeezed her eyes tight shut and then opened them to stare at the empty squares. Why had her grandfather insisted on keeping his collection close at hand instead of safely in a bank vault? She knew his reasons, knew the joy he got from regularly looking at his holdings, but they didn't outweigh the risk.

And now her worst fears had come to pass.

Joss stared at her. “Those were his big stamps, right? My god, what are we talking about—forty, fifty thousand?”

“Not even close.” Gwen's lips felt stiff and cold. “The last Blue Mauritius auctioned went for nearly a million dollars.”

 

H
ALF AN HOUR LATER
, G
WEN
stretched to ease the iron pincers of tension. She'd gone through every one of the books meticulously, recording what was missing.

It was worse than she'd imagined.

The four most important issues of her grandfather's collection were gone: four nearly unique single stamps and one block of twenty, in aggregate worth some four and a half million dollars. The inventory books were missing another thirty to forty thousand dollars in more common, lower-value issues.

“Grampa has other investments, right? This is just a part of what he's got.” Joss didn't ask but stated it a little desperately, as though saying it would make it so.

Gwen shook her head. “He says he trusts his judgment when it comes to stamps, that he doesn't know anything else as well.”

“This is it? This is all he has for retirement?”

“Had,” Gwen said aridly. “There's maybe a million left at this point.”

Joss spun and reached for the phone. “I'm calling the cops.”

“No!” Gwen's tone of command was so absolute, it stopped her dead. “That's the one thing we absolutely can't do right now.”

“What are you talking about? There's millions of dollars in property missing. We've got to do something.”

“But not that,” Gwen emphasized.

“Why not?” Joss glared at her, inches away.

“All an investment dealer like Grampa has is his reputation. He's still got about twenty-five live accounts right now waiting to be closed out, some of them with millions in holdings. And every one of them has a clause in their contract that if he sells their stamps below current catalog price, he'll have to make up the difference.”

“So?”

“So, if they hear about the theft and decide they don't trust him anymore, they may want out immediately. If he has to sell in a rush instead of at the right time, and if buyers know he's hurting, he'll definitely have to sell below catalog.” Gwen swallowed. “And there goes the other million.”

Gone. All gone. It made her shiver. They were his pride and joy, part of what made the philately business vibrant to him. The loss was unimaginable.

She leafed through one of the store inventory albums, staring at the empty squares. A fifteen-cent stamp showing Columbus's landing, worth maybe three thousand dollars. An 1847 Benjamin Franklin stamp worth six. Why bother, she wondered suddenly. The store inventory stamps were chump change compared to the major issues. Gwen chewed on the inside of her lip. Then again, the important
stamps would be difficult to unload immediately; there would be questions. The inventory stamps would provide a thief with money in the meantime.

A thief who knew how the world of fine collectibles worked.

“Jerry,” Gwen said aloud.

“Jerry?”

“It couldn't have been anybody else. The alarms weren't tampered with, the security company doesn't have any record of the slightest glitch. It had to be him.” Gwen rose to inspect the safe. “Nobody appears to have messed with this, but then I doubt he was an expert safecracker. Somehow I see Jerry as taking an easier route.” She turned to lean against the bookshelf full of reference catalogs. “Tell me he didn't cook up some reason to get you to give him the key and combination.”

Joss's eyes flashed. “Give me a break. I left them right here, safe and sound.”

“Here?” She resisted the urge to rant at Joss's carelessness. “I told you to keep them safe. Where did you put them?”

“In the desk drawer.” Joss raised her chin. “I locked it.”

A lock any self-respecting toddler could break.

“I didn't want to lose them. I figured this would be the only place I'd need them so I might as well leave them close by.” She stared at Gwen. “You don't know it was Jerry.”

It wasn't Jerry Joss was defending, Gwen knew. Joss didn't want to think it was Jerry because she didn't want to think she was at fault for the theft. But she wasn't at fault. Gwen, in the final analysis, had made the decision to hire him. Gwen had been the one in such a hurry to get out of town that she'd left Joss in charge of the store and the safe.

If anyone was at fault, it was she.

The key and combination lay in the paper-clip compart
ment of the drawer, Gwen saw, but it didn't mean a thing if Jerry were as quick as she thought. “Was he ever alone in the shop?”

“Of course not,” Joss snapped. “I was here to open every morning and here to close down and set the alarm at night. Things were always locked up. I checked.”

“Was he ever alone here at all?”

“Never.” Joss paused, then stiffened slightly. “Except…”

“Except when?”

Joss closed her eyes briefly. “Yesterday. Lunch. He offered to buy, but the deli was shorthanded and not delivering. He said he'd pay if I went to get them.” She hesitated. “I was broke.”

“How long were you gone?” It wouldn't have taken much time, Gwen thought, not if he'd been prepared.

Not if he'd known what he was looking for.

“Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty,” Joss told her. “There was a line and they'd missed our order.”

“Convenient.”

“How was I supposed to know?” Joss flared. “We'd hired him. I thought that meant we were supposed to trust him. There's an explanation,” she muttered, grabbing the phone and punching in a number. She waited and an odd look came over her face.

“What?” Gwen asked.

“Jerry's cell phone. It's shut off.” She set down the receiver.

Gwen swallowed. “Why change the number on a cell phone unless you don't want to be found.” On impulse she turned to her keyboard. It took only a minute to send a quick e-mail out to a stamp dealers' loop she belonged to, asking if they'd recently acquired the five-cent Ben Franklin or the Columbian landing stamp. If they popped up somewhere, it might give her an indication of where Jerry was fencing them. It might give her a place to start from.

Mostly it was a way to keep busy. Activity kept her from screaming. She had to get them back, pure and simple.

“That son of a bitch,” Joss muttered suddenly. Taking two steps to a cabinet on the wall, she yanked out her purse. “Give me your car keys.”

“Where are you going?” Gwen demanded, rising.

“To find Jerry.”

 

“I
DON'T THINK THIS IS A GOOD
idea.”

“It's your chance to live on the edge,” Joss snapped, driving so quickly that Gwen's silver Camry bottomed out at the base of the hill.

Gwen winced. “So how do you know where he lives?”

“We went out to see a band while you were gone. He invited me back for a drink.”

Gwen looked at her in horror. “You didn't…”

“Of course not,” Joss told her impatiently, following the streets into the Mission district. “I saw his building and thought I could probably live without seeing the inside.”

Gwen nodded. “I thought you were sure he didn't do it. So why are you flying off the handle?”

“I want to find out.” Joss scanned the street for an opening and started to whip into a space to park.

“Why don't you get out and let me do it?” Gwen couldn't bear Joss's Braille-style approach to parallel parking. Still, even with her experience, it took several tries to get the car in place. “Okay, it's probably smart to see if he's around,” she said aloud as she got out of the car. “If there's a reasonable explanation, maybe we'll find it out and then we'll know to look somewhere else.” Where else, she had no idea, but she knew in her gut that it came down to tracking the stamps stolen from the store inventory.

They stood on cracked sidewalk looking up at a sagging Victorian that had seen better days. “He might have been
a snappy dresser, but he sure lived in a pit,” Gwen commented, studying the peeling gray paint on the shingled building.

“Now you know why I decided not to go in.”

It was a residence hotel, the kind of place that catered to the transient trade. Gwen's stomach began to gnaw on itself. She'd never bothered to check to see how long he'd been living at the address he'd given. Then again, at a place like this, twenty dollars to the front desk clerk would pretty much get the person to say whatever he wanted.

And, with luck, twenty dollars would get them into his room.

It took forty. “Why do you want him?” An unsmiling dark-eyed woman, her hair skinned back from her face, stared at them from behind the desk.

“He's got something of ours,” Gwen told her.

“Yeah, well, he's got something of ours, too,” the woman said sourly. “He skipped on the rent.” She studied the folded twenties Gwen had slipped her and the line between her brows lessened. Abruptly she jerked a thumb at the hall. “I'm cleaning out his room right now. Wait for me at the top of the stairs.”

The dim stairwell held the musty smell of a building that had seen too many anonymous people pass through. The paper on the walls might have been flocked forty or fifty years before. Now it was dingy and scarred. At the end of the hall a parallelogram of light from an open door slanted across a cleaning cart sitting on the bare pine floorboards.

Gwen glanced at Joss. Footsteps sounded on the stairs behind them. “Over here,” the woman said briskly, walking past them toward the open door.

It was less grim than the hallway only because of the weak late-afternoon sunlight that streamed in through the single window onto the dirty beige carpet. What little of it
that wasn't covered by the bed and bureau and uncomfortable-looking chair that constituted the main furnishings, anyway.

“I ask him for his rent and he says tomorrow.” The woman stood nearby. “Always ‘tomorrow' with him.”

Empty drawers gaped open in the scarred bureau. No clothes hung on the open steel rack in the corner that served as a closet. Gwen drifted to the window. She itched to pull out the drawers, look underneath them and on the ends for hidden envelopes, to check under the mattress, but she didn't think the forty dollars would get her that far. Instead she poked her head into the tiny bathroom.

“You have a lot of business?” Joss asked, squinting into the cloudy square of mirror fastened to the wall.

The woman shrugged. “Hey, I'm just the desk clerk. Trust me, if I owned this dump, it would look a lot nicer.”

“No idea where he went?” Gwen asked, walking over to stare out the window across to the neighboring building.

“Nope. We don't exactly get a lot of forwarding addresses around here.” The woman dragged a vacuum cleaner in from the cleaning cart.

“Mind if I look in this?” Gwen asked, gesturing at the trash can.

“As long as you've had your shots.” She jerked her head toward it. “A real pig, this guy. Nothing in the trash can if it could go on the floor.”

Gwen poked gingerly through the refuse. Cigarette cartons, an empty toothbrush wrapper, a screwed-up McDonald's bag that still held the scent of stale grease. Then her eyes widened. In the bottom of the bin were scraps of cardboard, the thin type that came on the back of a pad of paper.

The type that could be used to make a stiff pocket for a stamp.

She pulled some out of the waste bin, staring at Joss. In her eyes Gwen saw knowledge and acceptance.

And a bright flare of anger.

The woman picked up the bin. “Okay, you guys had your chance to look around. I got to get back to work.”

Gwen nodded slowly. “So do we,” she said and turned toward the door. Her foot scuffed against something. An open matchbook. Clement Street Liquors, it said—the business next door to the stamp shop. She leaned down to pick it up.

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