Authors: Lois Winston
“That’s what I’m afraid of. Sidney’s murder could wind up killing my business.”
“How much do you know about the guy?” asked Myra.
“Only what he put down on his Relatively Speaking application.”
“Do you do background checks of your clients?” asked Natalie.
The thought had never occurred to me. “No. Why?”
“Because as Gregory House was so fond of saying, ‘Everyone lies.’ For your own safety you should be checking out these guys before you start escorting them around, Gracie. What if some of them are up to no good? You could wind up either the victim of a crime or an accessory to a crime.”
“Spoken like Natalie Davenport, master suspense author. These are sweet retired gentlemen I escort to senior citizens gatherings.”
“I think Natalie is right,” said Myra. “Look at all the creeps hanging out on Facebook and preying on young kids. We should at least Google this guy to make sure he was who he said he was.”
“What’s the point?” I asked. “He’s dead. The victim of some random act of violence. Even though the killer didn’t get Sid’s wallet, it was still probably a hold-up gone bad.”
“Then let’s confirm your sweet old geezer was who he said he was,” said Myra. “If we discover nothing odd, at least you’ll have some peace of mind.”
She made sense. We grabbed our coffee cups and traipsed upstairs to the office I shared with Blake. First I had to clear away the maze of index cards and sticky notes covering my desk. Before our trip to the Moose Lodge yesterday, I’d spent most of the day working out my hero’s and heroine’s internal and external goals, motivations, and conflicts.
After studying extensive how-to books, I’d learned there was more to creating a romance—comedic or otherwise—than just penning a steamy sex scene. Characters need to want something. They need a good reason for wanting that something. And they need something or someone to keep them from achieving that something. All this GMC, as it’s known in the publishing world, is why I still hadn’t finished my book. Besides stellar writing, I needed a hero and heroine with damn good GMC to make them stand out from all the other heroes and heroines being written by other romance author wannabes.
Once I’d transferred my jigsaw puzzle of notes to Blake’s desk, I settled into my chair and typed Sidney’s name into a Google search. Myra and Natalie hovered behind me, reading over my shoulders. A few clicks later we discovered Sidney had lied. Big time. And about everything.
“Uh-oh,” said Myra as the three of us scanned the screen. According to the obituary that came up in my search, Sidney Mandelbaum had died of kidney failure two weeks prior to our first meeting.
“Crap!” I hate when I’m wrong and others are right. I grabbed the phone and dialed the Cedars of Lebanon Retirement Community where my Sid had said he lived and where the other Sid had died. The receptionist confirmed they had had only one Sidney Mandelbaum in residence, the one who’d died over three months ago.
“So who was your Sid, and why did he lie to you?” asked Natalie.
Damned if I knew. I glanced at the wall-mounted clock. The last of Blake’s students, dutifully chastised and assigned another essay, should have skulked out of his classroom by now. The phone still in my hand, I pushed the speed dial for his cell.
He answered with a question. “Staying out of trouble, Gracie?”
“Of course not.”
Blake sighed. “I didn’t think so. What’s up?”
“When the police found Sid’s wallet, did you notice any ID?”
“I saw his driver’s license.”
“Was it Sid’s picture?”
“Of course. Why?”
I told him what the girls and I had discovered. “Our Sid stole that Sid’s identity.”
“And made himself a fake ID? The plot thickens. Did you call the cop who gave you her card? What was her name? Lopez? Gomez?”
“Menendez. My next call.”
“Good. After you call her, go back on the Internet and verify the identities of all your other clients. No telling how many Sids you’ve got.”
“You sound like Natalie. Sid’s an anomaly.”
“Natalie’s right, and so am I.”
“Come on, Blake. You think there’s some sinister plot afoot involving senior citizens stealing the identities of dead men? And somehow they’ve gotten me mixed up in their nefarious scheme?” I laughed. “You’ve been living with me too long. Your usually logical brain has veered off into creative right-brained territory. All my other clients are normal elderly gentlemen. The only thing wrong with them is that they’re lonely and want to find some female companionship.”
“You have empirical evidence to back up that claim, sweetheart?”
“I have something better.”
“And what’s that?”
“Which served you so well with Sidney Mandelbaum.”
Okay, so maybe my gut wasn’t infallible, but it rarely failed me. “I’ll admit I was blinded by Mandelbaum Moolah. All my other clients are on fixed incomes. Sid had an endless supply of money.”
Most of my clients hire me for one or two events. They meet a few women and let nature take its course. Sid had booked a standing weekly sojourn into Little Old Lady Land.
Which begged two questions: Where did he get all those Franklins he spent so freely? And should I turn my romantic comedy into a romantic suspense or romantic mystery?
I posed the second question to Myra and Natalie.
“Maybe you should scrap your current work, start taking notes, and write a true crime book,” suggested Myra.
“No, she’s better off making stuff up,” said Natalie. “For one thing, no one in law enforcement is going to share any details of an ongoing investigation with her.”
“She’s right,” I said as I hunted around the office for Detective Menendez’s business card. “I’m not a reporter. Anyway, it’s more fun making things up.”
“So play around with it for a few days,” suggested Myra. “Bring what you come up with to Saturday’s meeting.”
Natalie shook her head. “I think you need to finish what you started, Gracie. You don’t want to become one of those writers who jumps from one project to the next, never completing a manuscript. You’ll never get published.”
“You’re right,” I said as I continued to rifle through papers on my desk. “Besides, I can’t leave Thea and Luke suspended in fiction purgatory. I brought them to life; I owe them a happily ever after.”
“What are you looking for now?” asked Myra.
“The detective’s card. I can’t remember where I put it.” I headed into the bedroom to check the purse I’d brought with me last night. The girls followed me.
“Are you sure you kept it?” asked Myra when a search through my Carla Mancini tan python-embossed leather hobo bag proved fruitless.
“I don’t remember tossing it.”
She and Natalie helped me search the rest of the bedroom. Natalie even got down on her hands and knees and checked under the bed. Going above and beyond friendship, Myra rooted through the wastebaskets in the bedroom and bathroom. Finding nothing, we headed downstairs and searched through the coupons, take-out menus, and repairmen business cards jammed into one of the kitchen drawers.
“What were you wearing last night?” asked Natalie.
“Nothing with pockets but—” I raced back upstairs, Myra and Natalie close behind. Opening Blake’s closet, I searched for the blazer he’d draped over my shoulders last night. Sure enough, when I stuck my hand in the jacket’s pockets, I found Detective Menendez’s card in one of them.
By this point we’d wasted over an hour and a half without reading a single page of anyone’s manuscript. Myra announced she had to leave for a doctor’s appointment, and Natalie had a client meeting in half an hour. They both headed out while I placed my call to Detective Loretta Menendez.
When the doorbell rang twenty minutes later, I expected to find Detective Menendez standing on my front porch. Instead, I opened the door to find two men in black. Mirrored sunglasses. Conservative suits. White shirts. Red and black striped tie on one, red and navy striped tie on the other. Short cropped hair. Grim expressions.
The black stripe spoke first. “Mrs. Elliot?”
He flipped open a leather wallet he held in his hand and flashed a badge and ID. “I’m agent Remick,” he said, snapping the case closed. “This is agent Craft.” Navy stripe flipped open his leather case. Another badge and ID.
My gaze shifted back and forth between them. “FBI?”
“That’s right, ma’am,” said Craft. “We’d like to ask you a few questions about Sidney Mandelbaum.”
“I’m expecting Detective Menendez.”
The two feds shot a quick glance at each other. “Menendez?” asked Remick.
“She’s off the case,” said Craft.
“May we come in, ma’am?”
Did I have any choice? What were the laws regarding FBI showing up at your door? If I refused, would I be arrested under the Patriot Act? Maybe Sid was involved in some terrorist plot and using me as his cover.
Laugh all you want, but who would suspect a Jewish septuagenarian terrorist operating in Union County, New Jersey? What a perfect cover. Maybe Sid passed along secret government information to little old lady spies during our weekly trips to those senior socials.
Which made me an accessory to a crime. Not to mention a traitor. And if I remembered correctly from U.S. History back in high school, the penalty for that was death.
All I wanted to do was write romance novels. All of a sudden I’m seeing myself blindfolded in front of a firing squad. Blake was not going to be happy.
Hoping I’d gain brownie points and a presidential pardon by cooperating, I opened the door wider, ushered the two men inside, and led them to the living room. “Excuse the mess,” I said, gathering up several overstuffed white plastic Target bags I’d dumped on the sofa the previous day in my rush to get to the bathroom.
After birthing twins and the onset of menopause, my bladder was showing signs of age. Apparently, so was my memory because I’d totally forgotten about the bags laden with Tide, Bounty, Charmin, Pepto-Bismol, and a package of sixty-watt light bulbs. Good thing I’d been to Target and not ShopRite. Otherwise I might have congealed, melted ice cream all over my Ethan Allen sofa.
I dumped the bags on the floor next to the piano. “Have a seat, gentlemen.”
They remained standing, their massive presence seeming to take up half my living room. “We understand you have some information you were going to turn over to Detective Menendez,” said Remick.
“Some files?” added Craft, as if he thought he needed to nudge my brain.
“Sure. I’ll get them for you.” I grabbed the shopping bags and headed into the kitchen. Dropping the sacks on the counter, I jogged up the back stairs to the office and grabbed Sid’s file.
When I turned around to head back downstairs, I slammed smack into Remick’s chest. “Jeez, you...you scared the c...crap out of me!” I sucked in the air he’d knocked from my lungs.
The man must be part cat. I never heard him climb the stairs or walk down the hall. And we have hardwood floors. No plush carpet to cushion the sounds of hundred-year-old wood creaking under the weight of a two-hundred pound man. No wonder they call them spooks. Or is that the CIA?
Remick didn’t bother to apologize, only offered me an icy stare as he took the folder from my hand. “Is this all?” he asked.
I nodded. “Sid’s application and a list of the women he met through Relatively Speaking. That’s all I have in the way of paperwork on him. So who was he, really?”
Remick opened the file. Somehow he managed to peruse the contents while keeping one eye on me. “What do you mean?”
I told him about my Google search. “He wasn’t Sidney Mandelbaum, was he? And why is the FBI investigating his murder? Was Sid a terrorist?”
Remick raised an eyebrow. His mouth quirked into what I supposed came as close to a smile as he ever got, even if it looked more like a sneer. He snorted. “You’ve got some imagination, lady. Maybe you should write a book.”
Right. Why did I get the feeling Remick knew more about me than I knew about him? Although I was thinking of turning my romantic comedy into a romantic suspense or romantic mystery, I hadn’t yet begun to do any online research that might send up red flags on Carnivore or Echelon, but I had recently joined an online mystery/suspense writing loop that discussed all sorts of criminal activities. Did the FBI routinely lurk on Yahoo groups?
At least Remick had allayed my fears of Sid being a terrorist. Figuring I no longer had to worry about a treason charge, I removed the imaginary blindfold from my eyes and scattered the firing squad from my brain. So why else would the FBI be involved in Sid’s murder? “Was Sid in Witness Protection?” I asked.
Remick’s mouth flattened into a straight, tight line. His eyes narrowed. “I’m not at liberty to discuss the case,” he said.
Bingo! Maybe I should forget about introducing seniors and turn Relatively Speaking into a detective agency. I fought to suppress a smile but failed miserably. I’d make a lousy actress. Or FBI agent.
Remick glared at me. “We’ll be on our way now.”