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I took my copy of David's papers home with me to see if I could make sense of his coded notes. Mrs. Tomasello had left a chicken pot pie and a tomato and onion salad for my dinner. I zapped the pie, grabbed a cold Becks and sat at the kitchen table scanning pages from David's binder while I ate.
The coded entries intrigued me. Flipping through the copies I found only six pages that contained the margin notes. Maybe they meant nothing, but, if so, why had David felt it necessary to create a code? Was he concerned that somebody would see his notebook, or was there a more sinister reason? Each notation consisted of two letters followed by sets of one or two numbers separated by slashes or dashes. The notations were also of different lengths. I grabbed a pencil and paper and copied the sets of numbers and letters. Being a word game nut it struck me that maybe all David did was substitute letters for numbers and vice-versa, about as simplistic as a code could be. It was certainly the easiest way to start; so I made a list of the alphabet and wrote a number next to each letter. The first entry was on the page containing financial data for the ranch Walter had acquired in Montana back in 1972. The hand-written entry read "GB-13/19-20-9-5-2-18-9-19/3/13-19". Using substitution I translated this into "72-M/STIEBRIS/C/MS". The two numbers were obviously the year, and I knew Stiebris was the victim. The first "M" could be the location; Montana, but I didn't know what the "C/MS" stood for. Regardless, David's entries appeared to be so simple it made me wonder why he thought it necessary to be cryptic. Using the same method I converted the other five notations. In each case the translation identified the year, the location and the last name of the person who died or disappeared. Checking these against the notes given to me by Trimble I knew the notations covered all of the deaths and disappearances except Davids. The only puzzle were those last three letters. In the notations for the first four events, in '72, '77, '81 and '83, the last letter was "C". In the last two; '90 and '91, the last letter was "U", but all ended with "MS". Maybe everything but the last letters was meaningless and the code was David's way of creating a smoke screen. I decided to consult my old dog-eared dictionary to see if any words beginning with "C" and "U" jumped out at me.
I was on the third page of "C's" when my phone rang. "Hey little brother," I heard Ben say, "I just had a call from Sam Abromowitz and he gave me some bad news...really bad news - Moussa Muzzadin is on the loose!"
"How? What the hell happened?" I felt a chill run down my spine.
"All Sam told me was that Muzzadin and Salemi were being taken to the county jail when an accomplice forced the sheriff's van off the road and disabled it. The accomplice freed Muzzadin but left Salemi behind. Both took off in the accomplice's car and disappeared."
"Ben, I don't like this one bit. That bastard still wants David's attache case and I don't think we'll see the last of him until he gets it, or gets caught trying. He's a fanatic, and he knows I have the case. He's also hurt and by now is probably desperate. I'm particularly concerned about Suzy and Julia. I'm sure he knows where they live, and I hope I'm wrong, but he may try using them as leverage to get to me. We've got to get both of them away from here, and quickly. It has to be tonight. Maybe there's someplace better, but the first two places that come to mind are Abigail's in Boston or your place in the Poconos. Your place is closer and that's a plus because we can get them out of here in the next hour or so. I'll get Joe Mancuso to drive them up there, maybe stay with them ?til this mess gets cleared up. What do you think?"
"Well, Abigail's is out; she and the kids are still on vacation on the Cape, so my place is the best choice, at least for now. But why Mancuso? I think you should go with them, get away from here for a few days. You're the one he's really after because, as you just said, he knows you have the attache case. "
"No, Ben. Between London and Muzzadin I have a ton of work backed up at the office. On top of that I'm still planning to go to Tampa."
"Well, I think you're stupid for assuming a lot of unnecessary risk, but I'm not going to waste time arguing. Get it set up with Joe and Suzanne and I'll bring the keys to the cabin to your place. I'm coming over anyway. No way are you staying alone until this animal is caught. I hope I'm wrong, but you probably haven't seen the last of Muzzadin. I'll leave here as soon as I make one more phone call."
"Ben, I don't need a baby sitter. Drop off the keys and then go home, I don't want you involved in this. I've got a good alarm system, and if all else fails, I've got my trusty baseball bat. I'm as safe here as anywhere. So please listen..."
"No, Cole!" Ben interrupted. "How are you going to stop him if he comes armed? Besides, two pairs of eyes and ears are better than one. I'm staying, period!"
When Ben hung up I called Joe Mancuso. Without going into any detail I told him I needed him to take a business trip, a trip that might last a week, so pack accordingly. When I told him he had to leave tonight, and to stop by my place as soon as possible, he wanted to know why it couldn't wait until tomorrow. I told him I'd explain the urgency when he got to my place. He didn't sound too pleased, and if I was in his place I wouldn't be either, but said he'd come right over.
I then called Suzy and told her what had happened and what I wanted her to do. She balked at leaving me; said she'd bring Julia and stay at my place. When I told her it was all set up with Ben and Joe Mancuso and that it was the best way to protect Julia she finally agreed. She said they'd be ready to leave within the hour.
While I waited for Ben and Joe to arrive I went through the house and checked windows and doors. Everything seemed secure. I also got my Louisville Slugger out of the closet.
A few minutes later Ben arrived with the keys. He also had an overnight bag and his cellular phone. Twenty minutes later Joe arrived. He was obviously upset at being pulled away from his family on such short notice. "Geez, Cole, if you'd told me about this at the office I could have made plans to be away. My wife is pissed at both of us. On top of that I'm about half way through the take-off for that medical complex and the bid is due in ten days."
"Joe, I apologize for the inconvenience, but I only found out about this problem less than an hour ago." I then explained exactly what had happened and what I wanted him to do. His anger turned immediately to concern. "I'll have Nancy call your wife in the morning and explain everything. We just can't tell her where you are. This may be over in two or three days, but if it isn't resolved in a week I'll have to make other plans."
"Cole, before I pick up Suzanne, if it's all right with you, I'll swing past the office and get the plans and the stuff I need for the estimate. I can work on it at the cabin and probably finish it by the time we come home. I'd rather not have anybody else work on it - it's a very complicated job and it's too easy to miss something important. Besides, I hate other people screwing with my work."
"That's fine with me, Joe," smiling at his dedication to his work. He is one in a million. "But two things to keep in mind: first, I don't care how you do it but make sure you're not being followed when you leave Suzy's for the Poconos. Start out by taking a few back roads and make sure nobody is on your tail. Second, don't let Suzy or Julia out of your sight. When they're outside the car or the cabin I want you on them like white on rice. And another thing - don't let either of them con you into doing anything different."
"I understand, and I'll be careful. But...ah...what do we use for money?"
"I've got two hundred in cash for you. That should cover you for a few days. Use your company credit cards whenever you can. I'll wire you more cash if you need it. Oh, by the way, there's a phone in the cabin and I'd like you to call me at the office every day around three. And don't be reluctant to call the local cops if you think something is wrong. Anything you want to add, Ben?"
"Only directions on how to find the cabin. I've drawn a map to show you how to get to the cabin from the turnpike extension. It's about nine miles from the main road and it's pretty secluded. The nearest neighbor is about a quarter mile away, and the closest town is about a mile. The cabin is built on the side of a hill and there's a garage under the cabin. This time of year there won't be many people, so I think you should keep your car in the garage, out of sight. All the utilities are on and there is enough food in the freezer and pantry to last for two or three days. Any questions?"
"No," Joe said. "I know what you want me to do. And don't worry Cole, I'll take good care of Suzanne and Julia."
"I know you will. One final thing before you leave - you should get to the cabin before midnight, so call me here as soon as you arrive. I'd like to know that you're safely there."
"O.K. And I'll be careful not to be followed."
Joe called a few minutes before midnight and said everything had gone smoothly. He was sure nobody had followed them. I thanked him and asked to speak with Suzy. I told her I missed her already and blew her a goodnight kiss. It was a relief to know the three of them were safe.
Ben and I had been sitting at my kitchen table drinking coffee awaiting Joe's call. When I hung up Ben said he was too nervous to sleep and thought he'd spend the night in the living room in my recliner.
"Ben, that's crazy, have a little faith in my alarm system. I'm turning out the lights and going to bed. You have the guest room."
"Well, I'm not sitting here in the dark, so I guess I'll go too. But I doubt if I'll sleep much."
I turned out the lights and we went upstairs. I checked the alarm keypad in my bedroom to make sure the first floor and outdoor motion sensors were on. I don't know if I'm just a stupid optimist or have nerves in all the wrong places, but I was asleep within two minutes of my head hitting the pillow.
I awoke to a loud noise, followed by another. They sounded like gunshots and seemed to come from the front yard. The glowing green numbers on my clock radio said two-twenty. I flew out of bed and looked out my front window. The outdoor floodlights were on and I caught a glimpse of someone running toward the side yard. He was big guy and I didn't recognize him. It wasn't Muzzadin! I threw on some clothes and ran to the back of the house. Before I could open the blind there were three more gunshots. I heard floorboards squeak and when I turned around Ben was standing in the open doorway, looking confused and half asleep. He started to say something as I ran past him and headed downstairs. Half-way down I heard approaching sirens; thank God, somebody had called the cops. Then my alarm horn started blaring; stupid me had tripped it when I came downstairs, so I disarmed it at the front door keypad. I had no idea what was going on, but as I stood inside my locked front door, peering through the small window, a police cruiser with rack lights flashing pulled into my driveway. Then a second cruiser pulled in at the curb. I knew the fast response had nothing to do with my alarm. There were cops all over the place!
I unlocked the front door and stepped out on the porch. Lights were coming on all over the neighborhood. "Please stay inside sir," one of the cops yelled to me. "We'll be in to talk with you as soon as we know everything is secure." Before I could move two unmarked cars pulled nose-in at the curb.
I went back inside in time to meet Ben coming down the stairs, a questioning look on his face. "What happened...is it Muzzadin?"
"I don't know for sure, but I haven't seen this many cops in one place since my last visit to Dunkin Donuts."
I went to the back of the house and looked out the kitchen window. Flashlight beams were bouncing off trees and shrubs. A body was laying on the ground, face down, the upper torso in one of my flower beds. Cops were also in my neighbors' back yards. I figured this was going to take a while so I made a fresh pot of coffee.
Ben and I were on our second cup when somebody knocked on my back door. It was the big guy I had seen running through my side yard. "Sir, I'm Detective Sergeant Fleisher. I was assigned stakeout duty here - I've been here since early last evening. My chief told me part of the story about the perp who escaped from custody yesterday, and how he was after you. I saw his mug shot at the station yesterday, but it was a poor picture. I think he's the corpse in your back yard, but I can't be sure. I understand you've seen the perp up close. It will save us some time if you could confirm his I.D. Do you mind?"
"No, I'll take a look, but before I do I'd appreciate some information. I didn't ask for protection; how come the stakeout? And what led to all the shooting?"
"I don't know who ordered the stakeout, and I'm not permitted to talk about the shooting. You'll have to talk to my chief about both."
I followed Fleisher outside, with Ben right on my heels. My backyard was full of cops, stomping through my garden and shrubs and in and out of my neighbor's yards. Light were everywhere. One guy in plain clothes was taking flash pictures of everything. A body bag was spread on the ground next to the corpse. When they rolled the body on to the black plastic I saw the face. It was Muzzadin, without a doubt. I could never forget that face. He still had wrist and ankle cuffs in place, but the chains had been cut.
Less than an hour later most of the mob scene had dispersed and, with the exception of the crime scene tape, my backyard was back to normal. Ben and I were back at my kitchen table drinking coffee with Sam Abromowitz and Detective Fleisher. It turned out that Sam was the ?chief' Fleisher had referred to earlier. I asked him what had happened.
"Fleisher and I have to get back to the station to write this up," Sam said. "Even though it was a justifiable police shooting there will be an internal investigation and a ton of paperwork. We don't normally discuss an event like this with anybody until the investigation is completed," Sam added, "but under the circumstances we'll try to explain what happened. Just understand that what we say is off the record. After Ben called earlier this evening to ask for police surveillance I assigned Jerry Fleisher to stakeout duty. Jerry, go ahead an explain what happened."
"Sure thing. I was parked across the street, about two doors down, when a car with its lights off pulled in front of your house. The perp got out and started toward your front door. I radioed for backup and got out of my car and that's when all hell broke loose. Your floodlights came on, and he turned around and headed back to his car. I yelled to him to stop. Instead, he pulled a gun and fired at me. He must have realized that he couldn't get back to his car, so he took off toward the back of your house. He fired at me a second time and I fired back, but missed. My second and third shots brought him down. I believe you know the rest of it."
"I do." I said. "And thanks for everything you did - including you Ben. But why didn't you tell me you had called the police?"
"Because, knowing you, little brother, you'd have called and canceled the surveillance," Ben replied, a look of smug satisfaction on his face. "You don't like taking advice from your older, smarter brother. Considerably smarter, I might add," he said, breaking into a big grin.
"This time, maybe," I said, trying my damndest to keep a straight face. "But you can't always be wrong, Ben. I think the score is now something like Cole ten and Ben one."
Sam Abromowitz downed the rest of his coffee, pushed his chair back and said they had to leave. He added that somebody would be back after daylight to again check the scene. He'd be in touch if anything new developed.
After they left I locked the doors and went through the house turning out lights. Ben and I then went back to bed. I don't know if Ben slept, but I didn't. I was really wired; a combination of too much coffee and too much adrenaline. I watched the street light pattern on my bedroom ceiling for what seemed like hours, then saw it fade as the sun came up. The thought that kept revolving in my mind was Muzzadin. How and where did he fit in the puzzle? Was he responsible for all the disappearances and killings...or just David's death? And why kill David? Was Muzzadin involved with Tampa? I finally gave up and took a shower.
Ben decided to follow me to the office in his car. We each wanted to talk to Alex Trimble and it was already after noon in London. Ben had sent Trimble an agreement that would absolve us of any liability, but Trimble hadn't responded. I wanted to find out if Trimble had ever heard of Mousa Muzzadin or Bahram Salemi, and also how he was making out with the liquidation effort.
I caught Trimble just as he was leaving for lunch, but not before the officious Miss Nickleby tried to impress me with her overblown importance as Trimble's first line of defense; his protector. She informed me that he was not accepting any outside calls today. "After all," she said, in a condescending tone, "he's a very busy man and, besides, he's about to leave for a very important business luncheon. I suggest you either leave a message or call back tomorrow."
"I have no intention of calling back, Miss Nickleby. I'm calling from the United States. What I have to say to him may well influence the future of your bank. Timing is of the essence," I didn't lie, but I sure bent the hell out of the truth. "If you want to accept responsibility for that then so be it."
"Oh, dear," she whispered. "Just a moment." After less than a minute Trimble came on the line.
"Alex, this is Cole McQuade. My brother Ben is here with me on the speaker phone. He wants to talk about the agreement he sent you, but first I want to tell you that two men who apparently were responsible for David's death have been apprehended. One is dead and the other is in custody. There may be one other involved as well, but he's still on the loose. The two we know about are foreign nationals, an Iranian and a Turk, both in this country illegally. I need to know if you have any knowledge of either one."
I then described both Muzzadin and Salemi. Trimble said he had no knowledge of either and couldn't recall seeing anybody in David's company that matched the physical descriptions I had given him, or even being in the bank. "The majority of our customers are business and professional people from the surrounding neighborhood, and they're well known to our staff. I'm sure two characters such as you described would have drawn the attention of our guards, and I would have heard about it. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful."
He wanted to know how Muzzadin and Salemi had been caught and how Muzzadin had been killed. I told him, without going into much detail. He then had questions about how the two were implicated in David's death, which I also answered as briefly as possible. I looked across my desk at Ben who kept pointing to his watch. I told Trimble that Ben wanted to talk to him but, before I put Ben on, I wanted to know how the liquidation effort was proceeding. He said he was pleasantly surprised because it was proceeding very smoothly. He expected everything to be concluded by the end of next week.
Ben jumped in at this point and asked Trimble about the agreement. Trimble said he had no problem with it, but it was currently being reviewed by the bank's solicitor. He expected to have the solicitor's comments within a day or two and would call Ben as soon as the document was returned to him. Ben said he would have to review any requested changes in wording with the solicitor, but wanted the document finalized and signed within the week. Trimble said he would contact his solicitor and have him call Ben direct.
As soon as we ended the call to Trimble I punched in the number for Ben's cabin in the Poconos. Joe answered on the second ring. I explained what had happened during the night and told him that everybody could come home, the danger was past. He said that was great news because they were so worried about me that none of them had slept very well. Suzy was cooking breakfast for the three of them and they could leave for home as soon as they ate. I asked him to put Suzy on the phone. Before she came on the line I could hear Joe's muffled voice on their end. "Cole," Suzy said, her voice quivering. "Joe just told me that Muzzadin is dead - and you're O.K., thank God. I've been so worried about you I couldn't sleep at all last night. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Absolutely, Suzy, I'm fine. Take your time coming home and when you get here I'll explain what happened. The mystery surrounding this crazy situation hasn't changed, but at least we don't have to contend with Muzzadin any longer. We'll discuss it further when you get home. Have a safe trip."
Suzy, Julia and Joe arrived at the office a little after two that afternoon. After I gave them a quick rundown on what had happened to Muzzadin they announced that they were going home for a shower and some sleep. They all looked a bit bedraggled. Joe and Julia left my office but Suzy hesitated, and I knew she was upset. I got up and moved from behind my desk as she closed the office door and came to me, tears glistening in her eyes. She put her arms around me and her head on my chest, quietly sobbing. "Cole, I imagined all kinds of crazy things happening to you last night and I didn't sleep a wink...please hold me...I'm so tired. I apologize for blubbering but I guess the anxiety of the past few weeks has finally caught up with me."
I put my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. "You have nothing to apologize for and every right to be frazzled. Our lives have been turned upside down by things we have no control over. It's also been damn frustrating - all I've been able to do up till now is wait for something to happen, and then react - almost like Pavlov's dog; ring the bell and watch Cole jump. I hate that. Since David's death I feel like I've been sleepwalking through a bad dream, and then the reality of it hits me...and it's damn scary."
She tipped her head back and kissed me and I felt the warm wetness of her tears. "Don't misunderstand, Cole, I believe you've handled things the only way you could...you've tried to protect all of us. And even though I've panicked at some of the things you've done, it was only because I didn't want anything to happen to you...I need you and I want you in my life. After our time together in London I realized how important you are to me, but I wanted to sort things out, to be sure of my feelings. I have, and in case you haven't guessed by now, I want you to know...that I'm deeply in love with you."
"Suzy, nothing could make me happier than sharing the rest of my life with you. Like I told you in London, I think I've been in love with you since the first time I saw you."
"I know I could spend the rest of my life right here in your arms," she said. "I have a great idea," she said, a grin returning to her face. "We're entitled to some fun, so why not come for dinner tonight, and then stay with me - I'll even serve you breakfast in bed."
"Sounds great, but what about Julia?"
"Julia knows how I feel about you, she and I had a long talk when we came home from London. You already know she's crazy about you, and after I told her how I feel about you she hasn't stopped talking about it - or teasing me by asking me when you and I are going to start ?Phase Two', as she puts it. I haven't seen her so happy in years, she's like a five-year old on Christmas Eve. So don't worry about Julia, she's thrilled about everything, and I know she'll understand if you spend the night."
"O.K., sounds great to me," I said. "It'll feel good to totally relax for a change. What time do you want me for dinner? And I'll bring the wine."
"Come over around seven. Oh, one other thing before I leave, and I hate to spoil the mood by bringing this up again, but now that Muzzadin is dead can't you end your involvement? Just walk away from the whole mess by telling Alex Trimble to do his own investigating - if it's really necessary to do more, and I'm not sure it is. Then we can concentrate on getting our lives and our business back to normal."
"Believe me Suzy, nothing would please me more than to walk away, but my gut reaction is that Muzzadin was only part of the problem. I hope the threat to us is over, but I'd never forgive myself if I ignore my hunch and something happens to any of the people I love. I'm convinced that Muzzadin wasn't involved in this from the beginning. There's no record of him being in this country before 1989 and, even if he was, I doubt if he was in it alone. If he wasn't, are we still in danger? I don't know. And then there's the Tampa organization. Trimble thinks they're innocent bystanders, but they've been involved in this as long as his bank. It's possible they've been pulling the strings since day one. All I know is that I won't be comfortable until I know where they fit in the overall scheme. Do you understand why I'm concerned?"
Suzy stiffened and pulled away from me. She was frowning again. "I hear what you're saying and I don't know if you're right or wrong, but I thought that was the reason Ben is working on the agreement with Trimble; to absolve us of all legal responsibility and sever our ties with Trimble's bank. Won't that protect us and relieve your concern?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Until recently I never considered our past involvement with Trimble's bank as significant. I thought we were simply a consultant providing a relatively minor professional service. Whether I was just naïve, or plain stupid, I did seriously underestimate our role. Our recent involvement with David's death and Muzzadin may have been pure coincidence, but, like it or not, we've been attached at the hip to Trimble's bank for more than three decades - up to our eyeballs in their client's operation. Worst case, that's the way I think Trimble's client views us. So I just don't know if Ben's agreement will serve to erase our names from somebody's hit list, if such a list exists."
"Are you saying that you have to go to Tampa? I just don't know what that's going to accomplish."
"It may not resolve anything, but I've got to see their operation first-hand and talk to their people, particularly this Maria Sippano that Trimble mentioned. Beyond that I'll let my instincts take over. My first impressions are usually pretty accurate."
"How long will you be gone?"
"Probably just overnight. But I'm not going anywhere for a few days. I've got to spend at least two days here in the office catching up on work."
Suzy was still frowning when she left my office. She said she still wasn't totally convinced about the necessity of going to Tampa, but, regardless, the subject of Trimble's bank and Tampa would be off limits tonight - tonight was to be a fun night.
"We can discuss Tampa tomorrow," she said.
And I knew we would.
After the staff left for the day I was working my way through the pile on my desk when Ben called to tell me that his FBI contact, Brian Hamilton had just called him back. "As I suspected, Cole, I felt I was hearing a Bureau sound bite. When I spoke to him earlier I asked him to check with their field office to see if they were involved in the investigation into David's death. He just told me that officially their agency is not involved, however, ?other federal agencies are' . I asked him who. He said he couldn't tell me, but did say that the case has ?international scope' . When I asked what that meant he said he couldn't elaborate.
"We know that Muzzadin and Salemi were fugitives since 1989, and these ?other federal agencies' have to be either the CIA or Immigration, maybe both. But, little brother, that raises some questions; were they following Muzzadin and his friends before David was killed? If not, how did they get involved so quickly in Atlantic City? And if they were, why didn't they nail Muzzadin before David was killed? I asked these questions of Hamilton and he claimed he had no further information."
"Hold it, Ben! Regardless of what Hamilton said, indirectly he answered my question. If any federal agency is involved in this, either before or after the fact, they had to be behind the Atlantic City police gag order. That's why Ronko suddenly refused to talk to me. Dammit, this presents all kinds of interesting possibilities. Were they after Muzzadin simply because he was an illegal alien, or for bigger and better reasons? It would also be interesting to know if any agency has talked to Sam Abromowitz. Since Muzzadin was killed by the local police, maybe the feds have contacted Sam's department."
"That's a good point," Ben said. "I'll give Sam a call."
For the next hour or so I sat at my desk trying to work, but had little success; I couldn't concentrate. A little voice in my head kept asking the same questions: why were the feds involved?...why didn't they stop Muzzadin?...was David more than an innocent victim? The pile of work in front of me didn't get any smaller, and when I realized I had reviewed the same piece of paper three times I knew it was time to pack it in.
I stopped home, showered and grabbed my personal gear. On my way to Suzys I picked up a bottle of Valpolicello and a bouquet of daisies. I knew she liked both. Julia greeted me at the door with a big hug and kiss.
"Cole, you shouldn't have, wine and flowers for little ole' me. How sweet!" She gave me the usual high-five, low-five and a shot to my shoulder; I gave her the expected tweak on her nose, and we both laughed.
"Here, young lady, put these in water and stay away from the wine," I said with a chuckle. "Remember your age; you're still a little girl."
"I beg your pardon," she said, pushing her lower lip out in a fake scowl. "I'll have you know that I am considered a young woman. Older men grovel at my feet. Besides, I'm not little, I'm almost as tall as my mother. So there!"
I couldn't disagree. She was anything but a little girl. I grabbed her by the back of the neck and steered her into the living room. "Nah," I said. "You're still a kid, but call me in five or six years. Then we'll see. In the meantime, let's go find out what your mom is feeding us for dinner."
Dinner was great. We started out with martinis. I had trained Suzy well; she had the glasses and gin in the freezer. McQuaid's perfect martini requires that you pour a little vermouth in a frosted glass, swirl it once or twice and then empty it in the sink. Fill the glass with gin, top it with a plump stuffed olive, then sit back and enjoy. As she usually does, Julia complained because she was given the option of soda or tomato juice. She had tomato juice with horseradish.
Dinner started with a delicious Caesar salad, followed by capellini pasta with Suzy's famous sauce; fresh shrimp sautéed in olive oil, with green onions, red and green peppers, garlic, and just enough finely diced jalopeno pepper to let you know it was there. The red wine and warm Italian bread provided a perfect accompaniment. Suzy offset the peppery sauce with an icy lime sherbet for desert.
"Suzy, that was absolutely perfect. Maybe I'll fire Mrs. Tomasello and hire you as my cook."
Suzy laughed. "Play your cards right big guy and you can have us both."
Julia blushed and looked from me to Suzy. "I think it's time for me to find something to do upstairs," she said as she pushed back her chair.
I looked at her with as blank an expression as I could muster and said, "Not so fast, young lady. You're just trying to avoid washing the dishes."
"Nice try, Cole, but we've got an automatic dishwasher for that job. I am glad to hear I matured during dinner though; when you got here I was a little girl, now you refer to me as a ?young lady'. Besides, you don't want me hanging around, I know you want to be alone with my poor defenseless mother."
With that she gave me a shot to my shoulder, laughed, and ran toward the stairs. She can pack a wallop. "Glad to see my strategy worked," I yelled after her, laughing. I looked at Suzy who also thought it was funny. "I hope you're more defenseless than she is," I said, rubbing my shoulder.
"I don't know, Cole, I guess you'll have to wait and see."
After we cleaned up the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher we took our coffee on the sunporch. Dusk was quickly settling into night, and night sounds were carried through the open windows on a gentle breeze. I pulled Suzy close to me on the glider and we sat in the dark sipping our coffee. Neither of us said a word for a long time. "If I didn't enjoy your company as much as I do, this could put me in the land of nod very quickly," I finally mumbled, "particularly after everything we've been through lately."
"I agree," she chuckled, "but don't you dare insult my libido by falling asleep." With this, she got up and put our empty cups on the table and then sat across my lap. Her hands began kneading my neck and shoulders. She then gently touched the side of my face with her fingertips and kissed me on the mouth, the tip of her tongue exploring. "I'm glad to see your face has healed nicely," she said. "The only thing left is a little discoloration under your eye."
"I seem to remember agreeing not to discuss any of the unpleasantness," I countered. "But since you have, maybe you'd like to kiss it and make it better, then we can start over." When she did, I put my arms around her, kissed her, and began massaging her back and neck. She seemed to melt in my arms.
"Oh, Cole," she sighed. "I'll give you an hour to cut that out...it feels so good...I could stay like this forever."
Five minutes was about all we enjoyed before we heard Julia come down stairs. She asked Suzy if she could go to a late movie with Becky and then spend the night at Becky's house. "Besides, you guys don't need me hanging around, unless you want a chaperone." she added with a laugh.
Suzy's response was somewhat equivocal. I knew she'd prefer us to be alone, but her motherly instincts wouldn't let go. "I don't know if that's a good idea. After all the trouble of the past few days I'll worry about you. Who will you be with, and how will you get to and from the movie?"
"Mom, what's to worry about? It'll just be Becky and me. And her dad is dropping us off at the movie and will pick us up later. Besides, I knew you'd let me go, so they're on their way here now to get me. I'm all ready to go."
"You assume too much, young lady," Suzy said. "You may go, but I want you to call me when you get home from the movie. Understood? And no gossiping about Cole being here, either."
"Absolutely...mums the word. Whoops, I think they're here, so I gotta run...love you guys." She kissed each of us on the forehead and flew out the door.
"You were trying your damndest to be stern," I said to Suzy. "But I don't think you convinced anybody - certainly not me."
"It's all your fault," she responded as she chuckled and again buried her head in my chest. "You've turned a good mother into a fallen woman and totally destroyed her ability to discipline."
For the next hour we sat quietly, Suzy snuggled against my chest, the sweet scent of her hair filling my nostrils. Thoughts of how she felt about me succeeded in pushing all of the recent turmoil from my mind, and I suddenly realized that I had never been more contented and happy. Part of that contentment was that I was totally sure of how I felt about Suzy. I had had a few relationships in the past, mostly in college, but I had never felt this way about any other woman. All the green lights were flashing: Suzy was a fantastic business partner; she was a special friend; she was beautiful and sexy; she loved me; and I was madly in love with her. What more could a guy ask for? I turned her face toward mine and told her so.
In less than two minutes we had locked the doors, turned out the lights and found ourselves in a triple-x rated scenario in the upstairs shower, together, and then on the bed, and then on the bedroom carpet, and finally, back in the shower. I don't remember thinking much about it in the past, but I know now that mutual love is not only special, it's a helluva lot of fun.
Suzy kept her word. I awoke to a fabulous aroma and had just started out of bed when she walked into the bedroom carrying a tray of pancakes, bacon and coffee. We were both starving and everything was delicious. As we ate more or less in silence, Tampa and all the nasty business we were involved in began to creep back into my consciousness. I didn't want to break the spell by mentioning Tampa, even though I knew Suzy would - sooner or later. To make matters worse, I wouldn't admit it to her, but I was beginning to question my decision to visit Tampa. Was I overestimating the risk of doing nothing? Would Tampa turn out to be an exercise in futility, a waste of time and money, and do nothing but stir up more trouble? And if I did find a lead, was I willing to follow it to a conclusion? How would it all end? Just a string of questions and potential danger that I might be subjecting everybody to while I was running around looking for answers. But then, as it often does when I'm wrestling with a problem, my mind did a one-eighty flip and the face of Muzzadin flashed in my head, reminding me that the killings had started long before he appeared on the scene. So, where was the logic or common denominator behind all of the earlier events and David's death? Were they connected by nothing more than coincidence? Maybe the killer or killers were still out there. More questions. And thinking again about David and the brutal way he died made me angry. I knew I would never be satisfied until I had answers. Maybe I wouldn't find any, but I had to go to Tampa.
As we were finishing our second cup of coffee Suzy reached over and took my empty hand in hers. "A penny for your thoughts. You haven't said a word in ten minutes."
I tried to force the unpleasantness from my mind with a big grin. "I was just thinking what a lucky guy I am. Last night and this morning have been the best times of my life. I guess that's another way of saying I'm hopelessly in love with you."
"Cole, nothing could make me happier than to hear you say that. Until we went to England together I never realized just how empty my existence had been after Walter's death. I love you deeply. And knowing you love me is all I need to make my life complete."
When I arrived at the office an hour later I found Nancy sitting at my desk sorting through the mess I had left the night before.
"Good morning," she said in her usual pleasant tone. I'm sure Nancy has bad days like the rest of us, but you could never tell by her calm expression and pleasant voice.
"Good morning," I replied. "Are you looking for something specific or just clearing a path through the debris?"
"Actually, a little of both. Joe is looking for the list of sub-contractors for the medical complex bid and said he put it in your in-basket yesterday. He was in here earlier but couldn't find it. I offered to look because he's panicking - it's the only copy and he's afraid it's lost. I was trying to organize some of this clutter while I looked, but was just about to give up when you walked in. I don't think I've ever seen your desk this messy."
"Guilty as charged," I said. "But I hope you didn't throw anything away. Most of the papers on the desk are originals from David's attaché case. That stack in front of you are pages from his binder. I have a copy of everything at home that I play around with when I have time. I now know what part of his code means, but the rest still baffles me. And I still don't understand why he felt it necessary to use a code in the first place. When I left for dinner at Suzies yesterday I was more than a little frustrated, so I left everything where you see it and walked out. Oh, by the way, the list Joe is looking for is under my appointment book. You can give it to him and tell him I added a few names that he should invite to bid. I'll take care of the rest of the mess, as you call it, as soon as you get me coffee."
She took Joe's list and left to get the coffee. I looked again at the scribbled notes I had made yesterday. Without attempting to straighten anything, I opened the dictionary to where I had given up looking for significant words beginning with the letter "C". I didn't get far when Nancy returned with my coffee.
"Nancy, before you leave give me the first three words starting with the letter ?C' that pop into your head. And no cheating," I quipped. "You can't look in the dictionary like I did."
"Like duh, you hadda use a dictionary, gee boss, wow! Before I'm accused of doing it try ? cheating' , and then there's ? cash, clothes and cars' . And then ? clients, cookies, chocolate, cake . . ."
"Stop right there! Other than your favorite things in life I think you've hit on something. ?Client' , damn it fits! If David suspected his client was involved in some way in the earlier deaths he simply noted that with the letter ?C'. Thank you Nancy Todd!"
"You're quite welcome, boss," she said with an ear-to-ear grin. "You realize of course that in less than five minutes the entire office staff is going to know that I solved your puzzle. And you, the office cryptogram and crossword guru. Shame!"
"O.K. smarty, you got lucky. But let's see how you do with these other letters. Start with the letter ?U' and then try the combination of ?MS'"
Nancy had started for the door, but she stopped and turned, still grinning. "I don't know about the ?MS'", she said. "I'd have to think about it for a minute or two, but the ?U' should be easy. How about ?unlisted', or better yet ?unknown'?"
"Yeah, Nancy, I think ?unknown' could be right. I don't know where I left my brains, but you're on a roll. Let's hear your ideas on ?MS' - they appear at the end of the listing for the death of Durwood in'90 and Byrnes in '91. Those listings also contain a ?U' that we now agree means ?unknown'. I would assume that ?MS' stands for two words. I don't think it's a place because the state where each death occurred is already identified in the preceding group of numbers and letters."
"They could very well be somebody's initials," Nancy said. "Is there anybody involved in this who has those initials?"
I grabbed the notes I had written yesterday and scanned through the names. "There are a couple of possibilities," I mumbled, still scanning the pages. "I think you're right again, Nancy. Just for starters we have Muzzadin and Salemi -?MS', and then there's Maria Sippano - another ?MS'."
"Who is Maria Sippano?" Nancy asked.
"She's one of the major players in Tampa. According to Alex Trimble she's also the one David had some sort of relationship with. I don't know if it was romantic or purely business. I don't even know if it's true. But if David's notes are accurate, the mysterious ?MS' was connected in some way with the deaths of Durwood and Byrnes. I still don't know what this all means, or why David was being so cryptic, but at least we have some idea of what he was trying to say, thanks to you."
Nancy was still grinning when she reached the door and turned to look at me. "Don't worry, Cole, I'll go easy on you when I tell everybody about this. Just remember, the next time you have trouble with a crossword clue, I'm as near as your telephone."
I threw a pencil at her, but missed.
This latest information still left all the important questions unanswered. But with Muzzadin dead and Salemi in jail, if we were right there was only one ?MS' left to consider. So I knew I had to go to Tampa and talk with Maria Sippano.
Suzy walked in as I was putting David's papers back in their folders. When I explained what Nancy and I had just found Suzy really surprised me by agreeing that I had to talk with Maria Sippano.
"I still doubt that anything good will come from this, even after you explained your reasoning to me last night," Suzy said.
"Thinking about what you told me of your conversations with Alex Trimble, the people who died all were tied in some way to David's client. And I doubt if any of them had any forewarning of what was coming. They were blindsided; we at least have knowledge of what happened in the past and can try to protect ourselves. Although I'm not completely sure against what. But you've convinced me that we can't risk doing nothing because, as you said, we can't spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders. If I were to talk you out of pursuing this and something happened to one of us I'd never forgive myself. All I ask is that you be careful. O.K.?"
"I will, Suzy. If the killing is over I want to be sure it's over permanently. I want all our lives back to normal."
I spent the rest of Tuesday and all of Wednesday finishing a couple of bid packages with Joe and disposing of a multitude of office details that I had ignored far too long. I also wrestled with the question of whether I should go to Tampa unannounced - just walk in off the street, or call and let them know I was coming. I opted for the latter. I didn't want to get there and be told that Maria was on vacation or out of town on business. It also crossed my mind that if we were interpreting David's notes correctly, and he had in fact tied Maria to at least two of the murders, she could be damned dangerous. She might even have ordered David's killing. I'd have to be very careful.
I had no trouble getting through to her on the phone and found her very easy to talk with. I introduced myself and told her I was coming to Tampa to talk with her, or someone in her office, to wrap up some unfinished details on two projects David and I had been working on prior to his death. It wasn't a complete lie. She said David had spoken of me many times and yes, she was the person I should talk with because she handled all of David's transactions personally. I told her I was catching the early flight out of Philly on Thursday and would see her before noon. She agreed to join me for lunch.
Originally published: Wednesday, March 21, 2007; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019