Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
I could hear muffled traffic noise on the street and the normal office sounds outside Trisha Liam’s office door, but no one in the room made a move except for Brandy, who hugged herself and inched toward her mother’s desk.
“So don’t go looking for trouble,” I said. “Above all, no stopping anyone. And if you do spot Arthur, I need time of day.”
“We could take his picture. That would have the date and time,” someone said.
I forgot, I was talking to the plugged-in generation. “If you see him, someone write down details—where you were at the time, where he was, what he was doing. It wouldn’t hurt to write down anything you see that you don’t understand.”
“That’s a lot, I don’t know if I can write that fast,” someone said.
“Shut up, Kit!” That from Fine Stubble.
They started to murmur, and I could tell they were done with me and anxious to get started.
“And stay together,” Trisha Liam said as they filed out.
After Brandy and her friends left, I sat and held my breath while Trisha Liam looked hard at me.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said, crossing her arms. “Because if anything happens to Brandy, you’ll be responsible, and I’ll prove it—don’t think I won’t. I’ll ruin you.”
I almost saw steam rising from her.
“You know how much Brandy’s been through, yet you goaded her.”
I said nothing, jumping when she opened a desk drawer and slammed it, then shook her head. “Sorry. Those kids were going to do what they were going to do.”
She took off her glasses and began cleaning them. “And it might be therapeutic in Brandy’s case. She’s bound and determined she’s not going to let what happened to her happen to Whiskey. I know what she’s thinking.”
I hunched my shoulders. “She’s smart, and she’ll stay close to her friends. No respectable kidnapper would get close to that group.” My heart thumped extra hard as I realized what I’d just said.
As if she read my thoughts, Trisha Liam nodded. “You’re right. Brandy told me she’d left the group that morning and went to get a soda, and that’s when the take happened.”
I could tell by the set of her mouth she was reliving Brandy’s ordeal. “No use going over it again and again. She’s got to have a normal life.” She stared into the room. “What have you found out?”
I tried to look hopeful, hard to do with Trisha Liam, who can see through all of my bluffs. And I owed her—after all she was paying me plenty to find her office manager. My stomach started its sloshing. If anything happened to those kids … I was on thin ice already, not notifying the police about a missing person. But I had some things to do at Liam, Trueblood & Wolsey before I contacted Jane Templeton.
I told Trisha Liam about the state of Whiskey’s apartment, threw in some background information about Lorraine and Robert being Whiskey’s landlords as well as Denny’s parents. But I dwelled on Arthur’s surprise visit, meeting Tommy Marsh, and of course, meeting Maddie.
“So what you have about Whiskey’s disappearance, except for a sinking feeling and this Arthur character, is next to nothing.”
“I know that Whiskey and her daughter spent their usual evening together before Whiskey suddenly left the apartment for whatever reason after tucking Maddie into bed several times—it’s the norm I guess with Maddie. Her flight must have been in the middle of the night because Maddie was sound asleep and didn’t see her mother leaving. At least she doesn’t remember it. Although the kid’s bright and independent—just like Brandy in many ways—I could tell she was shocked when her mother wasn’t there this morning. And now that she hasn’t returned, Maddie’s scared.”
“Of course she is! Her single mom is missing. Imagine how hard that must be, an eight-year-old’s worst nightmare come true.” Trisha Liam rubbed her forehead.
Yes, Brandy’s ordeal had changed Trisha Liam. I shuddered. “Whiskey must have departed in a hurry.” That was about it, I’d told her everything I knew. But to make it sound like more information, I told her about finding Whiskey’s journals. During my monologue, Trisha Liam nodded several times. When I described Maddie, she smiled, I guessed at the memory of her with a much younger Brandy.
“Go on,” she said.
I went over what must have happened this morning in Whiskey’s apartment. “Maddie woke up and couldn’t find her mother. The kid’s smarter than most adults, but I can only imagine her terror when Whiskey wasn’t there. Judging from the appearance of things—unmade bed, messy bathroom, clothes on the floor—it looked like Whiskey had left in a hurry sometime after Maddie went to sleep, which I think was pretty late at night if not early in the morning.”
Trisha Liam asked about Maddie’s temporary care arrangements and I gave her a blow-by-blow account of Maddie’s reactions to the neighbor and to Lorraine, and how much she seemed to like Robert. “But she didn’t seem pleased to see her uncle.”
“As next of kin and Whiskey’s emergency contact, he’d be Maddie’s legal guardian, but who knows how Family Services operates these days.”
I shook my head, not expressing a negative but like a dog shakes water from itself. I told her I wanted to look at Whiskey’s desk and computer.
“Hoping to find Arthur’s last name and address?” she asked.
I nodded, showing her Cookie’s sketch of Arthur.
She examined it and shook her head. “I’ve never seen him, but I really don’t get involved in the staff’s personal affairs.”
“Except you know Maddie.”
“That’s different. Without Whiskey, this place doesn’t run. And Maddie is, well, different. Precocious. Lovable. She has a lot to teach all of us. If she goes into care …” She reached for a handkerchief and twisted it until her hands were red, but the softness around Trisha Liam’s face was becoming. I had a new take on lawyers, at least this one.
“This Arthur fellow, he’s got to be the prime suspect?” she asked.
I shrugged. “The only one right now. Except for …”
Trisha Liam picked up on what I hadn’t said. “You have others?”
“Unless and until Whiskey walks through that door, everyone’s a suspect, including you.”
She waved my words away. “Trite.”
“But true,” I insisted.
“But he’s the main one?”
“At this point, perhaps. But I’ve just begun.”
She shot me a look.
“Arthur’s one of them. The most enigmatic, I’d say.”
“You can’t suspect anyone here?” But before I could reply, something passed through her, an electric shock. She’d answered her own question, I could tell, but she wasn’t naming him. As if I didn’t know—Seymour Wolsey.
But I wasn’t about to single out that greasy walrus. “You’re all suspects,” I repeated.
I let my last remark hang in the air for a while before I told her I also wanted to interview whoever was still in the office before I called the police. “You know what it’s going to be like when you call them?”
She nodded. “Chaos.”
With that I slipped on a pair of latex gloves and began rummaging through Whiskey’s desk. I found lots of manila files with what looked like work-related hard copies, but I also found an address book. I thumbed through it and found “Arthur, BB” and a phone number. When I called it, I got a voice saying the number was no longer in use.
The middle desk drawer held the usual collection—paperclips, rubber bands, folders, a ruler, and a magnifying glass. I thought about the trail mix we leave behind, and not for the first time, decided I ought to do a little cleaning up in my study.
Whiskey must love candy bars because there was a wad of Snickers wrappers stuck in the upper left-hand corner. I admit it, my stomach was beginning to quake and I was looking at my watch, sure signs I knew I was running out of time. Nothing else in the desk except for plastic spoons, napkins, paper plates, a vase, the normal detritus, but not much paper. I guessed most of Liam, Trueblood & Wolsey files were electronic.
Getting into Whiskey’s computer proved a bit trickier. Being a small law office there were several Macs and PCs scattered around. Whiskey chose the former. Luck be a lady, I was fortunate and tripped the logon screen with Maddie123 on the third try.
Once in, I found a messy desktop. I arranged all the files and folders by name, but decided it would take too much time to go traipsing through all the stuff. And time was one thing I didn’t have a lot of. Let Jane Templeton and her merry band sift through the slog.
In her Contacts, though, I hit the jackpot and found over four hundred. I searched for Arthur, found the same discontinued phone number, and a note that asked a question: “Still on Neptune?” I began going through the rest of her contacts, one by one, but decided that would take too much time, so I exported them to a pdf and sent it to Lorraine’s iPad, asking her to sift through them for a list of her friends and any information on Arthur. After I copied the file to my keychain flash drive, I deleted the original pdf from the desktop before looking through her documents for something that might give me more solid background on Whiskey. I didn’t come up with anything. I poked around in Safari, but didn’t have much time, and anyway, it looked like Whiskey Parnell wasn’t a surfer at work.
Rhoda the Receptionist
As I shut down Whiskey’s computer, I saw the woman at the front desk staring at me.
She told me her name was Rhoda and she’d been the receptionist at Liam, Trueblood & Wolsey for several years.
“Be right back,” she said without turning around. “Liam’s daughter was kidnapped last spring. She wasn’t gone long enough if you ask me.” The receptionist’s voice trailed down the hall as I watched her ass cheeks bounce and strain the back of her jeans. “Getting my purse. Time to leave, but I’ll give you a few minutes, although I won’t be paid for it and have lots to do. I barely say two words to Whiskey on any given day. We’re not close, you might say.”
When she returned to the front desk, Rhoda was still talking. “Liam don’t like it when I chew gum so I gotta park it and talk good when customers call or come around. I gotta enunciate—that’s what they call it—like they taught me when she sent me to this place in Midtown to learn how to speak. But it looks like I can talk regular with you.”
Thanks a lot. The receptionist was silent after this brief intro, squinting up at me and cracking her gum.
“I’ve got some questions, but why don’t you talk a little bit while I think of more stuff to ask.”
“Talk about what?”
“Whatever comes into your head.” Two can play the same game.
She nodded as if she understood what was going to happen next. Apropos of nothing, she began. “I got curly black hair. I’m pleasingly plump. That’s what my mom says. I got a guy already. A real go-getter. Aren’t you writing this down?”
I said nothing.
She smiled and smoothed the curls on one side of her face. She had that uneven-sided haircut, like it had been done with a lawnmower. Perhaps Trisha Liam had recommended her stylist. “He wants to sell Liam waste management.”
“The boyfriend I just told you about. Now ain’t that clever? It’s all he talks about, his damn shredding service and waste disposal especially if he’s had a swallow or two of beer. I tell you, he’s a born salesman, thought up a sign over his place on Water Street, ‘We specialize in our work.’ Now I ask you, have you ever? But says he likes his women to fill his hand. That’s where I come in. It was like we was made for each other. ‘Fill my hand. Fill my heart,’ he always says. Oh, he’s a go-getter, all right. One of these days he’s going to sell waste management to the city. Starting out small right now, but he’s gaining connections, that’s what he says.”
“Can you tell me about Whiskey Parnell?”
Her eyes filmed over as she cracked gum while she paused. In her thinking mode, she resembled a dog-eared picture I saw once of a nineteenth-century fortune-teller hunched over her crystal ball.
“A decent sort, not bad, really. Over the hill, I’d say in her late twenties, maybe even thirty.” She chewed and swallowed. “Whiskey tries hard. She has great skills, I tell you, and she isn’t one for ruffling feathers. Keeps herself clean. One thing about me, I keep myself to myself, so there’s nothing she can say to me, I mean, oh, once or twice she saw me on the phone and gave me the look. But I’m an old-timer here, I mean, compared to her. So she kinda tiptoes around me, if you know what I mean. And Liam likes me, which I can sense, you know how it is. Oh, sure, I can see it in your eyes. You’re wondering about me, I can tell. All you dicks are the same. But why would I kidnap her?”
“You think that’s what’s happened to Whiskey?”
She closed her eyes and chewed. “How should I know? But something smells, don’t you think? When I come in, I see her sitting at her desk, day in, day out, rain, shine. The bitch never takes a sick day. All of a sudden she doesn’t show and that creep’s been around lately.”
“Came around this afternoon looking for her. Three sheets and all. Don’t know what she sees in him. You can sense it when you see trouble. And he’s trouble, even my Huey says so, although Huey, he’s not above having a drink with the guy. Says he’s got connections.”
“Who has connections?”
“Don’t mind me, sometimes my mouth goes on. I don’t know what I’m saying, anyways. I wish my guy weren’t so go-gutsy. And he don’t care who he pals around with when it comes to having a beer after work. Says it don’t hurt none.”
“So your guy knows Whiskey’s friend?”
“Not to pal around with, just from the bars.”
She turned silent, which gave me a moment to take down everything she’d said. I should be using a tape recorder, but I think it intimidates some people so it’s better just to let them talk without machines around. And Rhoda’s mouth was like a river with lots of flotsam on the surface—that’s what she was giving me. I knew I shouldn’t have interrupted, so I let the silence linger, hoping she’d continue. But after a minute or two where she primped her curls with ringed fingers and rummaged in her desk for a fresh stick of chewing gum, I asked, “How would you describe him, this guy—wild, all dressed up, smooth?”
“Like he’d swallowed a brewery. You can always tell. I smell it before he comes in the room. I yell out for Whiskey to get him off our backs. I told Huey that guy was trouble and he should stay away. We fought about it, so finally he gave in, said he wouldn’t talk to him no more, even if he saw him at Cody’s. Don’t get me wrong, Huey’s no drinker, not like this guy, just sociable and wanting to get ahead—make connections, that’s what he calls it. But Whiskey, I don’t know why she doesn’t get a court order.”