Show Her The Money
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Ed gave me a funny look and I held my breath. He had to believe me. If he didn’t, how could I hire him to represent me, to help me get through the next hearing?
“If you’d realized the hidden debt was there in years past, would you still have gone to the SEC?”
“Yes,” I answered without hesitating. “It all would have come out eventually because Marvel didn’t have the income they needed to pay off the loans, but I hoped I could get things straightened out before they had to declare bankruptcy. I hoped I could keep the stock from losing all of its value.”
“Even if it meant putting yourself on the line?”
“Even then, but I didn’t realize my position until I went to the SEC and they started asking a lot of questions. I was scared to death, and figured my only hope was to find something that proved the deal was between Lowell and the CFO and CEO at Marvel, which would go a long way toward proving me and the others who worked on the audit had no clue about the debt.”
“The memos,” Mom said, her dark eyes wide.
“As it turned out, there were memos, but for all I knew, it could have been on the back of a cocktail napkin. I went to the office late one night, got in with a key card I swiped and hit pay dirt. I called the SEC the following morning and set up an appointment to deliver one of the disk copies a couple of days later. They asked if I was willing to testify in front of the finance committee and I said I’d have to consult an attorney. I hired Mr. Dryer, and he set up a deal that I’d have immunity from any prosecution, if it came to that, in exchange for my testimony. When the disks were ripped off, I didn’t want to admit it, thinking I might still be able to get my hands on the Mister Bob copy.”
“Do you think they offered the deal because of the memos?”
“Mr. Dryer said so. He says if I don’t get the last disk, they’ll withdraw immunity and I can be prosecuted along with Lowell and the other principals at the firm.”
“Santorelli made it sound like they can’t prosecute anyone without the memos,” Mom said, her face pale. “If you don’t turn them over, they can’t prosecute you, so why does it matter? You don’t need immunity.”
I hadn’t counted on Mom being so difficult. “I lucked out when I found those memos, and I’m sure they’ve been destroyed by now, but there may be other letters, or e-mails or something they can use to bring charges against the firm. It may even become obvious that the firm signed off on fraudulent financial statements. I have no idea, Mom.”
“You can’t be prosecuted if you’re innocent!”
“I’m afraid she can,” Ed said in a deep, calm voice. “Guilt by association. She might not be found guilty, but she can certainly be prosecuted.”
Mom rubbed her hand across her forehead. “What a nightmare.” She looked at Ed and said, “And as if it’s not bad enough, she’s got some maniac after her.”
“Maniac?” He turned a questioning look toward me.
I explained about the loft, the car and the missing copies of the disk, but before I could finish, Mom went off about the Dog Doo Stalker.
I ate my fajitas and didn’t add anything.I didn’t need to.
“…and after she went to the SEC, he started calling in the middle of the night, threatening to kill her if she gives the disk to the finance committee. I told her, she should get rid of the disk, but she insists…”
I tuned her out by wondering if Ed was married, or had a girlfriend. I wasn’t interested in starting a relationship or anything like that, but I’d been alone a long time, and something about Ed really punched my buttons.
When Mom was on the verge of foaming at the mouth about the danger I was in, Ed held up his hand and stopped her. Turning to look at me, he asked, “Do you have any clue who he is?”
I slanted a “duh” look at him. “Because of me, at least fifteen men are about to lose their jobs, and some of them may be starting new careers making license plates in the joint.”
“You think one of the Marvel executives, or a partner at your firm may be behind all this?”
I shrugged. “Stands to reason, doesn’t it? They have the most to lose.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’ll represent you, Pink, but you have to agree not to talk to anyone at Marvel. They have a branch office here in Midland, so you’re likely to run into some of the employees. And do not tell anyone where Mister Bob is right now. After what I discovered during the lawsuit against Marvel, I don’t trust any of them. This is the big leagues. The dog shit dude is a nuisance, but these guys mean business. One wrong move, one small leak of information, one hint that all you’ve got can be taken, and you could be playing a harp.”
He managed to scare me spitless. I shot a look at Mom and felt an enormous guilt trip for freaking her out so badly. Her food forgotten, she sat back in her chair and stared a hole through me, a couple of fat tears rolling down her pretty cheeks. “Jesus, Mom, don’t cry.”
“How can I help it? This is like getting mixed up with the mob.”
Ed took a drink of his tea and set the glass down carefully. “Worse. This is worse. At least with the Mafia, you know who the bad guys are.”
Early the next morning, I stopped by the donut shop on the way downtown to buy a couple dozen for the office. In spite of their outward friendliness the day before, after the smoke bomb, I was afraid they all either hated my guts, or were scared to death to be anywhere close to me. So I thought maybe donuts would make everyone happy. Hell, I wasn’t above buying friends.
With that in mind, I pulled into the parking lot next to the Donut King and went inside, my mouth immediately watering from the yeasty scent. As I stood at the case, deciding which round pieces of fried dough I should get, I heard a man behind me say, “Glory be, look who it is! Pink, is that you?”
I turned and smiled, and even though I remembered Ed’s warning about not talking to any of the employees, there was no way I could turn away from one of the nicest guys at Marvel. “Roy! How are you?”
“Never better.” We shook hands. “I came from Dallas to Marvel’s Midland office for my monthly meeting, and I had to stop off at the Donut King. Really love their donuts.”
Making myself not look down at the evidence of his love affair with the Donut King, I simply said, “Who doesn’t?”
Roy chuckled, then slowly sobered. “You know, Pink, we’re all rooting for you at Marvel. Took a lot of guts to do what you did, and even though it’ll shake things up at the company, it’s a good thing. I think the only ones who’re upset with you are the execs, and the way I see it, they were about due for a comeuppance.”
“Thanks, Roy.” I smiled again, and wanted to throw my arms around him, I was so grateful for any morsel of support. Roy Kipper had always been amiable, and a big help to me and the staff during the audits. He managed the revenue distribution division at Marvel’s head office in Dallas. “Can I buy you lunch today? It’d be like old times.”
Reaching up, he smoothed back the patches of hair growing on either side of his otherwise bald head. “No can do, but thanks for the offer. We’re having a big powwow about maybe closing the Midland office, and since I’m gonna have to be the bad guy, I need to stick around.”
My spirits sank again and I nodded my understanding. “I’m sorry, Roy.”
“Hey, that’s the way it goes. I’m not an executive, but I’m upper management, and a year from retiring, so bein’ the bad guy sort of fell on me. Hate to do it, but the company needs to tighten its belt if we’ve got a prayer of stayin’ up.” He smiled at me and patted my shoulder. “Good to see you, Pink.”
I watched him leave and it was another five minutes before I could order my donuts because I was so choked up. It made me furious, Lowell and the Marvel brass’s greed and complete disregard for anyone else. People would lose their jobs, and investors would lose their savings. It all made me sick, and I felt guilty because I was the one who started the fall of their house of cards.
By the time I got to the office, it was about eight-twenty. I came in balancing the boxes of donuts and a few of my desk things and said hello to Tiffany. Her pretty blue eyes widened like she was afraid and I thought, geez, they’re only donuts. “You want a donut?”
“Goodness, no,” she said, “I never eat donuts.”
Of course she didn’t eat donuts. She was skin and bones. I turned and headed toward the break room, where I left the donuts, then went to get started on the Shankses’ project.
Within an hour, I had several things figured out, but most of it only led to a longer laundry list of questions. For one thing, there were quite a few checks to a company called Birds in Flight. Sixth sense told me there was something behind those checks, that they had something to do with Bert’s shady dealings. The endorsements on the back were no help, simply a stamped For Deposit Only, followed by an account number. The Birds in Flight bank was in Miami, which I thought was peculiar. I couldn’t think of any oil-related companies based in Miami.
With my methodical approach to the project, I came up with ten different ways to prove Bert Shanks was cheating his cousin. Problem was, all but one of them required information I didn’t have and wasn’t likely to get, because it was all information Bert would have. Even if Bert wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, I didn’t think he’d hand over information that would prove he was a crook.
So I’d have to go with the tenth plan, which involved staking out the pipe yard and waiting to see who bought the new pipe from Bert. The buyer wouldn’t hire a trucking company to drive out and pick up a load of what amounted to black market pipe, so chances were good they used their own vehicle to transport the pipe. Once I had a license plate number, I would go from there. If I was really squirrelly, the truck might have a company name painted on it.
I decided to go check out Shanks Resources’ equipment yard, but on the way out of the office, I thought I’d snag one of the donuts I’d yet to eat. As I walked toward the break room, I passed Tiffany and noticed what looked suspiciously like cinnamon sugar stuck to her lip gloss. I was polite and pretended not to notice. Then I got in the break room and saw both boxes of donuts were empty and wished I’d said something to her like, “When you said you never eat donuts, you meant before ten, didn’t you? Once ten o’clock rolls around, it’s a free-for-all, right?” I was so hungry, even Mom’s raspberry infused sawdust diet bars started to look tasty. Resigned to my fate, I grabbed one and left the office.
I drove out the Rankin highway, to the south side of Midland, where a lot of oil companies have yards. Most of them are several acres of scrubby land, enclosed by metal fences, and at any one time, there might be a couple of pumpjacks, a few tanks, extra pipe or wellhead equipment scattered around, looking rusty and old. When a well depletes and stops producing economically, it has to be plugged, but all the equipment is saved for whenever a new well is drilled and proven to be productive. Or the old equipment is sold off. Either way, it ends up in somebody’s yard until it’s needed again.
The Shankses’ yard was farther out, actually outside of the city limits, away from the highway by a couple of miles. It was the perfect setup for a cheating partner. I drove around, looking for a spot to park when it was dark, where I could see what was going on, but no one could see me. I was glad the Mercedes was black and that it was an SUV, although it groaned a lot when I ran over a stump, and I had the sneaking suspicion it wasn’t really made for off-road. But how could I have known I’d need an off-road vehicle when I bought it a year ago? The farthest off-road I ever got was the parking lot at Northpark Mall.
I found a good spot behind a cluster of mesquites and made a mental map so I’d know how to get there in the dark, without headlights. Driving back around, I cruised through the Shankses’ yard, scoping out their equipment, particularly the pipe. There were several strings of brand-new pipe, already strapped and ready for delivery to a rig.
From the bills of lading, I knew the pipe had been delivered the day before yesterday, so it was a good bet Bert would be selling it off soon. If I was lucky, that very night.
After congratulating myself for being so clever about the whole thing, I headed off to look for an apartment. I knew Mom would go ballistic and tell me it was too dangerous, not to mention I was silly to pay rent when I could live with her for free. But I had to have some space, sans Mom.
I saw five apartments before I found one, and it wasn’t anything to write home about, but it would do. On the second floor, it was a one-bedroom, furnished with cheesy, cheap furniture, including a scratchy couch with wooden arms supported by half wagon wheels. The grounds were well tended, and although there was no pool, there was a small duck pond, complete with a cutesy sign that said Duck Xing. I never did see any ducks.
After signing a six-month lease, I paid the deposit, then went to get my hair cut. I headed for Mabel’s House of Beauty to see if anyone could squeeze me in.
Mabel’s is one of those old-time beauty parlors, housed in a tired shopping center storefront, with avocado-green linoleum floors and faded photographs of the nineteen-sixty-five Junior League Charity Ball marching around the walls. Every picture features some of Midland’s leading ladies in their glory days, all with Mabel’s House of Beauty bouffant hair-dos, thick eyeliner and elbow-length evening gloves.
When I stepped inside, I was greeted by the whirs of multiple hair dryers, female chatter, a ringing telephone and Buck Owens on the stereo. It was like stepping back in time. I’m pretty sure I was the only woman under fifty.
The receptionist, a short, stout woman with a name tag that read Bessie, smiled warmly. “Can I help you, hon?”
“I don’t have an appointment, but I need to get my hair cut.”
Bessie nodded enthusiastically. “We’ve got a new gal, Dot, and she just happens to be free right now.”
I followed Bessie to the back of the shop, toward Dot’s station. Dot was maybe the skinniest woman I’d ever met, with a deep smoker’s voice and coal-black hair, the kind of dyed black that looks blue in fluorescent lighting. We chatted a bit while she washed my hair, and I discovered Dot was from Big Spring, that her husband died and left her no money, so she had to go back to work, and even though she was “right mad at him” at first, now she figured he’d done her a favor because she’d made so many new friends at Mabel’s.
While she snipped my hair, she rambled on about her grandkids and her Buick and George W. and the best recipe for King Ranch chicken. I didn’t pay close attention, but I was listening, sort of zoning out with the buzz of the sounds in the shop and Dot’s smoky voice.
I guess that’s why I started so violently when someone shouted, “Lord a Mercy! It’s pink!”
“Sugar, you shouldn’t jump like that,” Dot said from behind me. “I cut a bit too much when you moved.”
Her words didn’t fully register, I was so fascinated with the scene unfolding two stations away. The woman I’d thought yelled my name was actually talking about her hair, a big, fluffy mass of cotton-candy pink. She was righteously pissed off.
“Goodness,” Dot said, “looks like Miz Colder’s on a tear again. Reckon she’d learn her lesson after last time.”
Dot leaned close and whispered, “She’s a stubborn old thing and insists on picking out her own color, even though she don’t know nothin’ about it. Last time, her hair was blue as the sky, and I’m not lyin’. She got mad and swore she wouldn’t come back, but there she is.”
Mrs. Colder was ancient. At least a thousand years old, with serious wrinkles and a hunchback. Dressed in a colorful silk blouse and red knit pants, she stood behind the operator chair, her spidery hands clutching the grips of her walker, her sharp, blue eyes staring at the mirror and her thin lips pressed into a straight line. “I want my money back!” she yelled, making me start again. Amazing that such a small person could pack so much punch into a shout.
Her hairdresser, a harried woman who didn’t look much younger than her client, murmured something I couldn’t hear, which appeared to send Mrs. Colder over the edge.
“Been comin’ here for nigh on forty years, paid Mabel scads of money, and this is the thanks I get!”
She had a big, black leather bag, big enough to carry a month’s supply of Depends. Or a 747. It was huge, and bulky. With an incredible show of strength, despite her thin, scrawny appearance, she hauled the bag up and rested it on her walker. Reaching inside, she thrashed about for a bit, then withdrew a cell phone. “I’m callin’ my lawyer, you hear?”
“Miz Colder,” her hairdresser said in a firm voice, “we can’t give your money back because you haven’t paid yet!”
Ignoring her, Mrs. Colder made her call.
The entire shop had gone quiet, even the ladies under the hair dryers switching them off so they could hear what was going on. The only sounds were Buck Owens’ twangy tune and Mrs. Colder’s intermittent shouts.
We were all so focused on the old lady, I never noticed the presence of a sinister figure until something dark caught the corner of my eye and I glanced in the mirror. In the place where Dot was supposed to be stood a man in a black jump-suit with a ski mask over his face. Before I could do anything, like run, or scream, he clamped one hand over my mouth, grabbed me with his other arm and hauled me out of the chair. Looking wildly about for help, I saw that Dot had moved close to Mrs. Colder, and the rest of the shop was focused toward the front. No one was looking, no one knew I was being abducted in broad daylight!
I was so frightened, I guess my body went on autopilot, and without consciously thinking about it, I kicked out and my toe connected with Dot’s little cart. It crashed to the floor, scattering rollers and hair pins and cans of Aquanet.
Everyone turned toward me, including Mrs. Colder. “Let her go,” she shouted, still holding the phone.
The man only held me tighter, squeezing the wind out of me, causing sparkles in my vision, forcing me to stop kicking and squirming. If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget just how Mrs. Colder looked as she reached into her black hole of a bag and pulled out a small, silver gun. An old lady with a walker and a pistol. Jesus, that blew my mind.
“Let her go, swine, or I’m gonna blow a hole in you!”
I don’t think the guy believed her. He never slowed down.
He should have believed her. She fired the gun and the small fax machine on the counter at the back of the shop exploded into a thousand flying pieces. I heard him mumble, “Holy shit!” But still, he kept going.
While I watched in horrified fascination, Mrs. Colder aimed the gun right at the man, which meant the gun was pointed directly at me. Jesus God, I was going to die! An old lady with pink hair and a shaky hand was about to end my life, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
She fired again and I flinched, then hit the floor when the man dropped me. Had she shot him? Was he dead? A little dazed, I glanced behind me and all I saw was the exit door as it closed. The man was gone.
Drawing in a deep breath, I noticed three drops of blood on the avocado linoleum. Wide-eyed, I turned my head and looked at Mrs. Colder. “You shot him!”
“’Course I did, but he’ll live ’cause I only nicked him. Been shootin’ since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Reckon I could pick the wings off a fly at fifty feet, if I was of a mind to.” She shuffled over with her walker and looked down at me from piercing blue eyes. “You okay, little missy?”
I was scared and shaky and completely freaked out, but I’d get over it. Offering the old lady as much of a smile as I could muster, I nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.”
She was about to say something, but before she could speak, I heard Ed’s voice. “What the hell’s going on here?”
“Ed?” I peeked around Mrs. Colder’s red pants and saw him rushing toward us. He was dressed in another pair of faded jeans and a black T-shirt that was exactly like the red one. He looked like a guy who rode a Harley and had sex with girls with gigantic breasts. Ed looked mighty fine. He didn’t look anything like a lawyer.
“You know Ed?” Mrs. Colder shouted.
I decided she had a speech problem and that’s why she spoke with intermittent shouts. “He’s my attorney.”
She slapped the handle of the walker. “Mine, too!”
“I was in the car when Mrs. Colder called, and heard everything, but I had no idea what was going on.” Ed bent to lift me to my feet and held on to me when I swayed. “What happened?”
Before I could say anything, Mrs. Colder gave him the blow-by-blow, her voice rising and falling with her odd, shouting cadence. I noticed the rest of the shop was staring, eyes wide, mouths hanging open in stupefied shock. No doubt, Mrs. Colder’s showdown with the bad guy was destined to become a legend at Mabel’s House of Beauty.
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