Michael Just, a former attorney and author of Lies Ltd., writes book-length and short fiction in the genres of literary, mainstream/contemporary, mystery/suspense, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
Mr. Just’s short story anthology, Canyon Calls, was published by Zumaya Publications in 2009. His writing has appeared in The Chicago Sun Times. His short stories have recently been published by The Scarlet Review and 96th of October. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.
I was four years old. My little, nine-week-old, Labradoodle, Otto, whom they got for me as a present for my birthday, ripped up my pillow. I thought it would be funny to let him eat the insides. I didn’t want him to die. Really, I didn’t. I told everyone it was an accident. My first memory. My first lie.
As I grew into a young man, I evolved a rather conventional life. I became an accountant; a CPA as a matter of fact. I bowled on the weeknights and golfed on the weekends. I had two children; a girl, now 11, and a boy, 6. My wife worked part-time as an attorney in a mom ’n pop firm in the suburb in which we lived. My house sat precisely close enough to the train where I could walk or bike it to the station. I had just the right amount of friends (four), and lived just the right distance from my widowed mother and my sister and brother. Not too close. Not too far. My habits all wrapped in abstemiousness. Balance and moderation in all things.
Yet I never grew out of one bad habit: the habit of lying.
“How was your day?” Doris inquired as I stepped in from the rain to the foyer of our sprawling Cape Cod.
“Fine.” I’d lost a huge account.
“Anything out of the ordinary?”
“No.” I’d hid some side income I’d stolen from the receipts of a client, an online ticket brokerage. “Boring boring boring.”
“Boring is good,” Doris remarked as she came in to the foyer and watched me take off my galoshes. “As we get older, boring is what we want.”
I muzzled her on the cheek. She was the one thing I really loved.
“I mean, who wants to be Public Enemy Numero Uno?” she quipped. I didn’t mention that the FBI had begun investigating online ticket brokers since they did business among the various states. A jurisdictional thing.
You want to move money around? Hide it? Keep it from the taxman? Talk to a CPA. I’d slide untaxed money I’d made into the accounts of many different clients in such small amounts that Treasury wouldn’t pay attention. I’d steal money from other clients. Make up yet other clients. Embezzle here. Launder there. How did Doris fucking think we could afford a massive Cape Cod in the most exclusive of North Shore suburbs, and the country club memberships, and the cuatro cars, and the original impressionists glimmering in the Sonneman track lights above our raised-panel wainscoting, and the vacation house in Telluride?
Truth is, I wanted Doris and the kids to have anything and everything they ever wanted. She worked almost fulltime managing the Sharing Committee at church. She had a long list of the sick and the old she visited every week. She drove down into the worst neighborhoods in the city every Friday to drop off donated canned goods and coats and bought books for inner city schools. That lawyering she did was getting orders of protection for DV victims. It was all pro bono, for the good. Doris and the kids remained the only innocents in my life. I wanted to make them happy, and the only way I knew how to do that was by making money.
Truth is, I wanted Doris and the kids to have anything and everything they ever wanted.
I called it taxoffame, the specialty of hiding sizable taxable income from the taxing bodies, be they federal, state, or local in nature. I reported home office expenses for a home office that didn’t exist. I made my cannabis growers and other cash business owners (i.e., ticket brokers) pay me in cash. I created offshore shells and subsidiaries in low to no tax jurisdictions, kept assets in bank accounts and other vehicles in those same offshore havens. I incorporated dummy LLC’s under my own name that declared huge losses to offset any gains in my real businesses. I set up trusts under the names of Doris and the kids to postpone tax payments until my death. I even discovered ways to cheat on my real estate taxes.
And yet, the money wasn’t really the prime motivator. I never felt pressure over that. I did it for the thrill, because my life was boring boring boring.
Lying was like a drug. Could I get away with falsifying my application to Princeton? Yup. Was I able to dissemble my partner into believing that we’d landed a corporate client that I made up out of atmosphere (address, logo, letterhead, and receptionist) just so I could launder additional partnership revenue that I made betting on puts and calls? You betcha. Could I convince Doris that I didn’t have a mistress, a beautiful little Filipina number whom I kept in a sumptuous condo downtown? Yes, I could (and she was the receptionist).
At age 15, I’d taken out my dad’s Olds out for a joyride and crashed it against a snow fence. I confabulated a narrative (I bullshitted) to my father that Louis, a neighbor across the street, stole it for a thrill ride. I despised Louis. He teased me for having one blue eye and one brown. The doctors called it heterochromia iridum. He was the one who gave me the nickname BB: Brown and Blue. Even the police bought my lie. Louis acquired the nickname LL, Louie the Liar, and under the terms of his court diversion settlement, couldn’t acquire his license until he was 21. Hah!
I’d cheated on my CPA exam, a nearly impossible task, by smuggling in my own flatscreen notebook under my shirt, plugging it in to the back of the exam computer, and downloading the correct exam results. It would have been easier to actually take the real test. In fact, I knew the material cold and I could’ve aced it. Yet I considered it a test of my shrewdness to cheat and win. That’s the real art of a tax preparer. At heart, I was a professional gambler. I gambled at seeing whether I could get away with it. And I made millions doing it.
I calculated the odds carefully, so I almost never lost. When I did lose –such as when I bilked the estate of a 90 year-old millionaire client and his children suspected me—the challenge became to escape the noose. And I was a master at cheating the hangman. In that case, I had made up an online identity as a financial advisor. I convinced my client’s children that it was she who’d deprived them of their fortune. It set the feds onto them, and the FBI chased a fictional, female Bahamian con artist for years. I played the part of the overly helpful accountant providing anything the heirs and the FBI needed.
I liked to create zombiecorps – dummies and loan outs and shells – and use unsuspecting strawmen (my mother-in-law, my wife, my neighbor with Alzheimer’s) as the incorporators and shareholders, the officers and directors. I’d used my kids as trustees – the legal title holders – in a scam involving 26 land trusts. I cheated the IRS, the Incredibly Responsive System, out of capital gains taxes once I flipped those empty lots on the South Side.
I calculated the odds carefully, so I almost never lost. When I did lose –such as when I bilked the estate of a 90 year-old millionaire client and his children suspected me—the challenge became to escape the noose.
My problem? I needed greater and greater stakes in order to get the same level of norepinephrine cascading into my arteries. The bets had to get bigger. For my latest scam, I incorporated an online ticket brokerage, Swishtix. I set it up so it could do business in every state where brokering (AKA scalping) was legal.
I created articles of incorporation, a membership agreement, the identities of managing members, shareholders, the works. CPA’s often do this kind of work anyway. I retained a Croatian hacker to make bots out of hundreds of thousands of computers all over America and debit cash from their bank to Swishtix’s bank. I had him create phony invoices for purchases of nonexistent tickets to various events. The bank – People’s Credit Union of the Upper Midwest – was a phony up and down, too. It didn’t exist, not even on paper. But with its made-up cash deposits and a representative sample of my made up invoices, I could draw on federal guarantees from the National Credit Union Administration, guarantees worth millions. By the time Uncle discovered the fraud, the guarantee money had been safely wired to accounts in countries which had no financial ‘extradition’ to the U.S. It was all beyond the subpoena power of the DOJ. The U.S. was losing its dominion over the international financial and banking systems. It was being cut out. America’s loss was my gain.
The key ingenuity to my latest financial engineering fraud? The computers my hacker selected were all from individuals who’d died within the last 30 days. To ensure against fraud, the National Credit Union Administration required the SSN’s of my depositors before it released the federal loans to my fake credit union. No one bothered to check the socials to see that they belonged to the recently deceased. By the time relatives discovered the fraud, which in no way injured the departed since no money was extracted from them, the federal money was disappeared.
But now, it turns out, my $20 million fraud caught the attention of an ambitious FBI Special Agent who suspected Swishtix of links to ‘terroristic financing.’ Still, I wasn’t too worried. Rathel Haines, Fucking Bitch Investigator, was as far from the truth as I usually stayed from it, but for different reasons.
She kept calling, though. I kept ducking. I’d always wiggled out before, but Rathel knew I was dirty. And I knew that she knew. And she knew that I knew that she knew. Poker, which is really the Game of Liars, gets really complicated at this level of the Theory of Mind. Each player’s knowledge of what the other guy knows presents each with certain opportunities, and even more with certain hazards. But Rathel didn’t have proof. She really didn’t know my exact cards.
One morning, as I recall, my assistant finally fucked up and put her call through –
“Mr. Purvis, you are certainly a hard person to get a hold of. I’m Special Agent Haines with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
“And what’s the purpose of your call, Agent Haines?”
“Well, I’ve come across certain organizing documents from a Limited Liability Company that you’ve prepared the paperwork on. It’s from Swishtix, L-T-D.”
“It’s not a car, Agent Haines. It stands for ‘Limited.’” Which I suspected captured her Intelligence Quotient. I always got the dumb ones and I was so thankful for it. Doris was right: there was a God, and God loved me.
“Ohhh, that’s what ‘L-T-D’ after the name of the company stands for. I always wondered about that.”
Are you for friggin’ real? “How can I help you?” I inquired. Kill them with cooperation, and eventually – be they Treasury or Fucking Blind Imbeciles – they will stumble off the trail and onto a fake suspect, one I may have even invented for them.
“Well, Mr., uh, Pelvis it is?” she said, already forgetting my name. “Purvis, I mean. I am, oh, wondering if you can introduce me to Doris Purvis. That any relation by the way?”
“My wife is a relation of mine.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. And a Mr. Salvatore, a Mr. Dominic Salvatore. They appear to be the principals of the company. Do they remain clients of yours?”
It’s not like on TV, where the FBI are geniuses. I mean, they do work for the Employer of Last Resort. “Well, Agent, Mr. Salvatore is a client, yes.”
“Do you do the company’s financial filings with the IRS?”
“If you have the company’s organizing documents, then I imagine you also have their tax returns,” I replied. “You’ll know then that I prepare the company’s K-1, the 1098’s, all of that.”
I heard some papers shuffling on the other end of the line. “Yes, it does seem that you remain involved with the principals,” she said after some delay. She was either real stupid or somewhat smart, either hot or cold to my fraud. At the time, I couldn’t tell which.
“I am wondering then,” she said after more delay, “if, um, you could set up a meeting with these people.”
Uh oh. Maybe somewhat smart.
“Is there a target letter involved, Agent Haines?”
“Well, that’s a lawyer question. My degree’s in accounting.”
It was a lawyer question. A target letter was requested by a defense attorney to find out whether his client was the subject of an investigation. It helped lay the groundwork for invoking the 5th, if that became necessary. “I’ve represented several clients during audits and I’ve worked closely with tax attorneys,” I told her. “I know the Internal Revenue Code.”
“W – well,” she stuttered. “Ms. Purvis and Mr. Salvatore are indeed subjects of an initial inquiry, as is the entity itself, Swishtix, Ltd.”
‘Initial inquiry.’ That probably meant no Grand Jury had been impaneled yet. But I could smell the doodoo start to deepen around me.
“I’ll call you back, Agent,” I said, and hung up the phone. She’d raised.
I learned of her – of Mrs. Zander – wholly by accident, if you believe in accidents. I attended a cocktail party to help my wife raise money for a senate candidate. Man’s name was Dominic Salvatore, a man with whom I’d become acquainted at our country club. A man who knowingly lent his name to my financial fraud involving Swishtix, in exchange for a slice of the profits. A man with jet black hair and clear brown eyes and smooth bronze cheeks. A real looker. A man as conscienceless and cunning as was I. We read each other well, we who remain gloriously unencumbered by either guilt or shame.
“How goes the fundraising?” I asked as I sidled up to him in our Great Room, which bustled with the bluest of the breed in their cocktail chatter.
“I’m the pig on the silver tray, apple in mouth,” he answered.
“So am I,” I admitted. The investigation into Swishtix was ‘evolving,’ to hang some pearls on the pig. Agent Haines and I had already met.
We surveyed the aging blondes with their fresh tucks and suspiciously perky boobs, the occasional dowager catching both of our gazes. We were surveilling our little veldt for the opportunities such gray-rooted, brooch-sporting queens might present. “Thanks for your check, by the way,” he said. “From Swishtix.”
“Tear it up,” I replied.
“Problems in that area?”
“Federal and State. Income tax evasion. Wire fraud. Submitting false sales tax returns to the Department of Revenue.”
“Am I involved?” He smiled and waved at a campaign bundler. They were the most important, I knew. Them and the whales. Probably, he’d bedded her at one time or another.
“I came to deliver the bad news myself. Usually, I just send kisses and money.”
“We need that investigation quashed.”
“Well, can’t help you there, yet. I’m not an elected official.” He pulled a card discretely from his gilded case and handed it to me. It wasn’t one of his own.
“I . . . ” I whiffed the sandalwood. “. . . don’t believe I’ve ever come upon a card like this.” The words were hand-printed, raised calligraphy in jet on manually-cut parchment. I tucked it in the pocket of my silk shirt. “Does she read palms, then?”
“Call that number, Larry. That’s about all I can tell you.” He intercepted a handsome young donor as she crossed into his kill zone. “Get us both out of this mess you made. Excuse me.”
I ran my fingers over the card’s hoary pedigree, the raised embossing. I had nothing to lose. The feds were about to freeze my assets and my lawyer wanted a retainer equal to the value of my equity in my McMansion.
I called her the next day. I found her pleasant over the phone. The timbre of her voice lowered a couple octaves by age. I told her in vague outline of my problem.
“Well yes, I think we should meet then,” she said with an almost imperceptible, genteel drawl. “My address is 9-7-9 Royal Road, in Winchester.”
Winchester. That was a bedroom suburb two removed from my own, along the Shore. We met that following day. Her large black Labradoodle barked deeply at my entry into her spacious, skylighted foyer. I recall the cold and gray wind, buffeting the birdhouses in her big back yard. Beads of rain speckling her picture window.
I thought about it. “Darjeeling, if you’ve got it.”
Mrs. Zander stood all of 5 feet, a lightsome woman with deep folds of skin around her cold, burning blue eyes.
She reached up to a cabinet that seemed too high for her, and opened it with the tip of her finger. Dozens of loose teas in small wooden drawers, each with a male or female name written in black at the front of the wood pen, sat arranged in rows stacked higher than she could ever reach. The last name on the last box on the last row was WALTER (d). I suspected the ‘d’ meant deceased.
A small, sliding library ladder ran the length of a long row of cabinets. It reminded me of the old library cabinets filled with tiny drawers arranged in the Dewey Decimal System. She rolled the ladder over and stepped carefully up. I watched her scoop loose tea from a drawer into a tea ball with a colander spoon stained with tannin.
Then she did something curious: she wrote my name on the little tea drawer where she’d scooped my tea from.
“Why do you do that, with the tea?” I wondered. “Write my name on, I mean.”
“In case you come again, I want to remember what to serve of course.”
She heated water in a shining stainless steel pot where I saw my face distorted back to me, like in a Christmas tree ornament. She poured steaming water into a stainless steel thermal decanter. All of it glinted in the incandescence of the bright can light recessed in the ceiling.
She let it steep, then poured from the decanter into a fine China cup with her exquisitely barked hands. Her hands, bedecked with a diamond ring on one ring finger of the right hand and a polished silver bracelet on the left wrist, were riddled with veins like the long granite island in her kitchen.
She had a long Roman nose, red lips, snowy hair cured in a short perm. She wore round pearl earrings and a matching necklace on the outside of the collared silk blouse that matched a luxuriant, cobalt silk stole. Her short legs stayed hidden beneath a long, long dress to keep her warm in her high-ceilinged kitchen with a spacious breakfast room set off diagonally from the remainder of the house. Out the full length windows, sycamores and locust trees limned her broad, ellipse of a lawn. The bright green of the Bermuda grass, drawn out by the pewter sky, poured down into a small, lazy creek at the far edge of her yard.
“I think we’d be more comfortable in the living room, Mr. Purvis.” She smiled, and the perfect, bright teeth matched her pearls. She seemed as old as the 19th century Persian runner that guided us over the cool, parquet floors, but her teeth seemed her own. Mrs. Zander was an unusual blend of vitality and antiquity.
She escorted me into the high-ceilinged living room. An original oil of a storm-darkened, European forest from another century, painted on wood instead of canvass, hung above the tall fireplace. She waved her hand and bid me to sit on her overstuffed, Art Deco sofa. It seemed like an original. She set the silver tea service down on a serving table that rested between us. She sunk and almost dissolved into a stuffed leather chair opposite me.
“And how may I help you?” she said with a grandmotherly smile.
“I’m under investigation.”
“State or federal?” She sipped.
She smiled, a comforting grandma.
“You’re a CPA?”
I nodded. “I set up a dummy corp, a phony financial institution, then hired a hacker to transfer dead peoples’ money into the depositary. I used that to leverage federal loans. Those I deposited offshore.”
“Complex financial frauds have a way of unraveling, don’t they?”
“They do.” I was taken aback by her worldliness, her insider’s vocabulary.
She nodded and sent me a comforting smile, the way a new therapist might.
“I’ve observed that the greater the number of moving parts to any enterprise,” I said as I sipped the strong, hot flavor of her tea, “the greater the chance that things break down.”
“I see. You became careless, then.”
“I became hubris, then.”
She must’ve been, like, 87 years old. Even older maybe. But a youthful smile shined beneath the scarp-like runnels over her lips.
“Did you bring the gift?” she asked.
“The gift? Oh, yes.” She’d requested that I handwrite my wife a love poem with a sad ending.
“This may seem a bizarre request,” she said with her maternal smile as she accepted it as one might the Declaration of Independence, “but I collect love poems.” She flourished her manicured fingernails, painted the color of her scarf and blouse, to a series of matching, old leather photo albums on a bookshelf behind her. “Ever since my first love. My dear, deceased Walter.”
“Okay,” I said, rolling my eyes inside, but not outside. “Sorry for your loss.” I let the tea cool and had a little more. It was as strong as espresso. I felt the jolt.
She demurred an answer with a soft shrug of those gracile shoulders.
“This is what you will do,” she said. “You will call a woman named Bethilda Meadows who works at the World Courier.”
“The nationally-syndicated columnist?” I made sure.
“None other,” she said as she sipped her tea.
“You know her?”
“You will tell her that a corrupt federal official working for the Department of Justice has solicited a bribe from you, Mr. Purvis.”
“You’re blackmailing her, I assume.”
“The name of this corrupt official is Rathel Haines. You will accuse Agent Haines of threatening you with an asset forfeiture in the event that you do not pay her the sum of . . . How much money do you have remaining in the account for the dummy corporation, Swishtix?”
“Right now? About 395,000.”
“That is the amount then.”
“That’s brazen as hell. How am I going to get away with this?”
“Just leave that to me,” she said as her shimmering black dog waltzed into the living room and set his head in her lap. “Are you aware that this dog does not shed, Mr. Purvis?”
“I wasn’t aware.”
“In the meantime, you will make out a check from your alter ego, Swishtix, for $395,000, payable to Lies, Ltd.”
“That will be my fee, plus a favor to be named later.”
“– A lot of money? For your freedom? Really?”
My mouth hung open, but no words came.
“It serves the purpose of destroying any evidence of your financial fraud. A key element of the crime will be missing. The Government has frozen any assets held by the corporation, have they not?”
“The funds will be unfrozen shortly. Then you will wire the funds from the corporation’s account surreptitiously into my LLC’s account, Mr. Purvis. I will require the name and contact information of the computer hacker whom you retained.”
“Mrs. Zander, you are not what you appear to be.”
“I have never been found out, Mr. Purvis. My track record with my clientele remains unblemished by failure.”
“I see.” My heart raced from the Darjeeling.
Her labradoodle left her side and came up to me. It laid its head on my white corduroy slacks. When it left a few moments later, there wasn’t a hair.
“My dog leaves no trace of itself. No evidence. You and I aim to do the same.”
In about a week, the target letter to Swishtix came. Since I was the registered agent for the LLC, I received all service of process on its behalf. I handed it off to my lawyer.
The week after that, my dear Doris died.
I had one target in my investigation of Doris’s death. I knocked hard, and Mrs. Zander opened the heavy, green enamel door into her foyer.
“You don’t have an appointment, Mr. Purvis.”
“Did you kill my wife!?”
She glanced up and down her driveway to make sure the landscapers trimming her arbor vitas hadn’t overheard. She stepped aside to let me in. She followed me into her living room, walking with a titanium, four-toed cane. I hadn’t noticed that the first time. She sat gracefully down in that stuffed leather chair next to her fireplace. Her silver tea service was on the end table next to her chair. In a deliberate gesture, she lifted her steaming cup to her lips. I slumped down on the couch across from her.
I gulped and shook, my face flushed. “I’ll have to raise two children on my own.”
She sipped and then set her cup down. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Are you really?”
“I’m not certain what you imply.”
“The very two people whom the Government wanted to talk to about my scheme to defraud die a week after a target letter’s issued!? Isn’t that just a little bit coincidental!?”
“You hired me to do a job, and paid me quite a sum for it.”
“I didn’t ask you to murder anybody.”
“Accidents do happen, Mr. Purvis.”
“How’re you going to explain that the only people who could’ve buried me were killed together!?”
“They were both in the same car.” She sipped again. “I was told she was assisting with his primary campaign.”
“At 11 o’clock at night!? How do I explain that to my children? My daughter, she’s old enough to ask questions.”
“Maybe they were having an affair.”
“How fucking dare you! My wife’d never cheat. Doris is the one good thing in my miserable, dirty . . .” My voice trailed off.
“Don’t be so sure about people, Mr. Purvis. Look twice.”
“‘Look twice.’ Really? What the fuck does that mean!?” My voice was already hoarse from crying all night. “Last time I was here, how did you know so much about me? How did you know the name of my LLC, Swishtix? That I was a CPA? That Rathel Haines was an FBI agent. You called her ‘Agent.’ ‘Agent Haines,’ you said, and I never even told you!” I swallowed the pain, the anger knotting up my throat. “How’s this all going to work, from here on out?”
“I have never come to the attention of the authorities,” she assured me in her calm, grandma voice.
“I pay you $400,000 and you kill my wife? You owe me.”
She set her cup down. “You want people not to notice.”
“I promise you, you old fucking, rouged-up crone: people will notice death, especially the death of a senatorial candidate.”
“What we all have in common is that each of us dies.”
I shot up off the couch and leaned over her, pointing. “My wife was a good person. She didn’t deserve to get sucked into this shit. She didn’t even know I forged her name to the incorporation papers!”
Her dog got up, barked. Mrs. Zander waited until I calmed down. I moved away, paced on her rose Persian rug.
“We come to expect to see certain patterns in nature, in others, and in the world,” she explained. “For example, myself.” She set her perfect, polished nails on her breast. “People look my way, at my diminutive stature, at my kind eyes, and I can be trusted. People judge and judge quickly. They form impressions of a something, rather than seeing into the essence of the thing itself. We notice a few features, and we fill in the rest. In reality, we note precious little about the true nature of a thing.”
I wiped the tears from my eyes. Through the blur, I noticed her watching me, her with the matching red fingernails and rose petal silk scarf. Last time they’d matched turquoise.
“Did you notice that tree out there?” she said, pointing out of her giant, spotless picture window toward a shredding piece of bark on a paper birch in her yard. “More than a few of my clients have mistaken a piece of its bark fluttering in the wind for a woodpecker hunting for grubs. They glance, and don’t give it a second thought. That’s what you want them to do: form their conclusions and move on.”
I let the tears flow, conscious of her eyes roving back and forth on me as I paced.
“You and I,” she said as she raised the porcelain cup to her lips again, “we pay much greater scrutiny to the world.” And she sipped her tea. “Would you like a cup?”
I was tired. I’d been up all night with the kids and the police and my inconsolability. “What you’re having,” I sniffled.
She gripped her armrest and made some effort getting up. I wasn’t about to help her. She tottered to a corner cabinet in the dining room, reached in, and retrieved a teacup and saucer. She placed it all by itself on a tea cart. I watched her through the French doors as she rolled the tea cart back over to me, using it kind of like a walker.
“You didn’t have any problem walking last time I was here.”
“Perhaps you didn’t really notice.”
She poured me a steaming cup of the same strong Darjeeling she’d been sipping.
“Explain to me how all this is gonna work. I need to get to the funeral home.”
I waited for the tea to cool down, glowering at her through the steam. She seemed like a witch. That fissured face, filled with grace and kind detachment. She sat down. I felt a little weak. I sat on the couch. The dog sat down.
I took a sip. It was the strongest tea I ever tasted.
“Your problem is already solved. You just fail to recognize it.”
I felt a little woozy. “Yeah? Well what about Rathel Haines from the FBI? You think she’s just gonna walk away?” I rubbed my eyes. They lost focus from all those tears. “She sends out a target letter, and a week later, the subjects of her investigation are dead? You’re naïve.”
“Rathel Haines isn’t with the FBI. She’s my operative. She investigated you at my request, Mr. Purvis.”
“I saw her badge.”
“Did you look closely at it?”
“Yes, I did.”
“They’ve done studies. Most civilians being confronted for questioning experience anxiety. They take no note of details in indicia of office such as badges.”
“What about the target letter to Swishtix?”
“Oh, now Mr. Purvis, letterheads from the Department of Justice can be faked. As an expert forger, I’m surprised you’re so easily taken in.”
“You started this? This whole thing?”
She shook her head.
“Well, who then?”
Mrs. Zander put her knobby, old finger to her lips in a gesture of silence. A feminine voice, eerie and synthetic, startled me as it rained down from above:
“I’ve discovered that my husband is hiding money from me. Not only that. He’s forging my signature on documents. Making me party to a fraud.”
The digital voice piped through the ceiling speakers:
“I want him out of my life, Mrs. Zander.”
What surprised me even more was whose voice it was that poured down on me. It was my wife’s.
“I suggest you retain a divorce lawyer for that, Ms. Purvis,” Mrs. Zander’s recorded voice said through the speakers. “You do understand that my business is prevarication. I manufacture lies for people in need of them.”
I looked in her hand and saw the remote.
“I have been indiscrete,” Doris acknowledged. “I think my husband may know.”
All those nights she worked late.
“With whom, my dear?” Mrs. Zander asked over the speakers as she shone her beatific smile across the room at me now.
“I work on a political campaign. Dominic Salvatore. I believe you know him. He was the one who gave me your name.”
While I made dinner and put the kids to bed.
“And that’s the matter for which you wish me to supply the lie?” Mrs. Zander asked over the speakers.
“No. I plan to leave my husband once the campaign is over,” Doris confessed. “It’s the affair that can’t get out, for obvious reasons. I want to be sure that my husband won’t go to the press should he find out. For the sake of Mr. Salvatore’s reputation.”
“So you want me to –”
“– I just want the problem to go away,” Doris said.
“What about after the election?” Mrs. Zander wondered on the recording.
“After he’s elected, it won’t matter. He plans to leave his wife, too. Timing is everything.”
Mrs. Zander turned off the recording with the remote in a deliberate flick of her thumb that betrayed her inexperience with tech. “Timing is everything,” she said. I gulped the tea, scorched my throat.
“So, she came to you before I did,” I concluded, a little dizzy. “But why would you let me in on that now?”
“Mr. Purvis,” she said. “The name of my business is Lies, Limited, not Lies, Unlimited. I have a strict policy of honesty with my clients, eventually.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I felt the tea cup drop into my lap. The tea cascaded onto the carpet.
“The problem with the ordinary lie is that one always needs another lie to cover up the first.”
“This some kinda pyramid scheme?”
“Yet a good lie leaves no trace of itself. No evidence.”
“Except instead of new money, you need new bodies.”
I stood up to leave, and fell face-first into her wine-bordered Oriental rug. My nose bled. I knew why there was so much red in that carpet.
“In order to effectuate the intentions of my clients, Mr. Purvis, I occasionally need to kill them. In accord with your wife’s wishes, Mr. Salvatore’s reputation shall remain intact. The price was your life.”
“I won’t say anything. I swear.” I grabbed the coffee table and pulled myself up, wobbling.
“The promises of a confidence man aren’t worth very much.”
“I don’t want my kids seeing their mother dragged through the mud. Don’t you see?”
“I could never take the chance you wouldn’t expose me,” she replied. “Don’t you see?”
I stumbled around the coffee table. Someone, just a blur, stood in the doorway.
“You needed him to go away, to conceal your fraud,” Mrs. Zander said.
“I never told you to kill him.”
“You never told me not to.”
“You didn’t need to kill her.”
“Candidate Salvatore came to me because your wife had become a problem. She was in love with him. He worried that after his election, when he didn’t leave his wife as promised, your wife would expose their affair to his family, and to the press.”
“And you don’t need to kill me.” My head pounded.
“Your wife would have wanted it that way.”
My stomach churned. “Doris would never want that.”
“She just wanted her problem to go away. Like they always do.”
The blurry silhouette was Agent Haines.
“No one had to die.”
“To fulfill all my clients’ mutual wishes,” Mrs. Zander explained kindly, “all of you have to.”
I stumbled toward the foyer, but Haines stood in my path. “Poisoning me outs you,” I told Mrs. Zander.
She turned and reached behind her to one of the leather-bound albums on her bookshelf. She pulled it out as I used the coffee table to pull myself up to my knees. The dog waited beside me. She opened the album and retrieved the love poem she made me write to Doris.
“I have found,” she explained with a sad smile, “that unhappy love poetry can almost always be construed as suicidal.”
“But you were drinking the same tea I was,” I said.
“Not from the same cup.”
The story the police would believe? Doris died, and I just couldn’t live without her.
“Angles all meet, spokes in a wheel,” I slurred. “The lies cancel each other out.”
“Those are the best kind.”
I’d finally run into a liar better than I.
With an unhappy look of her own, Rathel Haines drew a spare firearm from an ankle holster. I recognized it as the snub nose I kept in my office downtown. She placed it in my left hand. After all, I was left-handed.
“I fold,” I gasped.
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