Monday, May 30, 2016

The Invisible Club, Part Two

“I want you to make me invisible,” I told Danny.
            Rachel punched my arm.
            Danny had bandages on his head and two IVs in his arms, along with a blood pressure cuff and a clip on his finger to measure his temperature. We could view all his vital signs on a monitor next to the bed, except none of us could decipher the numbers and acronyms. But the nurse had told him he’d probably be released him in a few hours.
            At least the hospital room had a view of the lake. The rising sun was closew to blinding us. I lowered the shade.
            Danny sighed and stirred the pudding cup on his tray. “Yuck.”
            “I’m sorry about this.” I’d slept about two hours after making sure Danny was safe at the hospital. Now I was angry, and high on caffeine and a sugar doughnut. “But they came after you right after I started asking questions at RoundTen. If I could get in there and listen—”
            “You can spook someone into confessing with your mysterious laugh?” Rachel smirked.
            “Yeah, that sounds pretty stupid,” Danny said. “Not you, Rachel! I just mean, isn’t that a little obvious? Right after you ask some questions?”
            He had a point. “It could be a coincidence. Or it could mean the killer’s not a criminal mastermind. Lots of people commit crimes out of panic. They don’t plan, they don’t think things through, they just keep trying to cover it up.” That’s what I was hoping, anyway.
            “Okay.” Danny reached under his hospital gown. “Here it is.”
            He pulled the chain around his neck and lifted it up. “Here’s how it works.”
            He closed his hand around the ring. And disappeared.
            “Whoa!” Rachel jumped back. The bed looked empty, but we could still see the depression in the sheets.
            Then Danny was back, a big grin on his face. “That’s how it works. You can’t just put it on your finger, you have to hold it tight.” He held it out to me. “You try it.”
            I took the ring. “Okay. Here I—”           
            The hospital room was suddenly dark. I could still see Danny and Rachel, but only through a deep fog. The sun through the window seemed shrouded with gray clouds, even though a moment ago it was searing our eyes.
            “Tom?” Rachel stomped a foot on the floor. “Stop playing around.”
            I opened my fist. “So, was I invisible?”
            “Don’t do that again!” Rachel glared at me. “At least not while I’m around.”
            “Here’s the thing.” Danny hit a switch to raise the bed more. “Holding onto that thing is hard. You let go of it for a second, and everyone can see you. After a while, your hand starts to shake. So don’t let go of it.”
            I slung the chain around my neck. “Thank you.”
            “And don’t lose it!” He pointed a finger at my chest. “I’ve got a thing next week, and if I’m not there, I owe somebody a six-pack.”
            I grabbed my jacket. “I’ll take good care of it.”

I didn’t know what I was looking for. The only lead I had was Blake Griffin. Something about him seemed—off. But I was on your basic fishing expedition.
            The elevator was empty, which made getting invisible easy. Getting inside the RoundTen suite was tougher. I had to wait for someone to open the office door, and then slide through quickly before it closed. I’d actually practiced at home before driving downtown.
            Simone was whispering on the phone. “Yeah, it’s crazy around here. There were cops in here this morning. Wait, hang on . . .” She hit a button. “Hello, RoundTen, how may I help you?”
            My arm already ached as I headed around her desk and down the hall. I wondered how long I could hold onto Danny’s ring, and started looking for places to hide if I needed to let go.
            I found the sales department, an open area of cubicles full of busy salespeople, male and female, whispering on the phone or pounding at their computers. No chitchat, no computer solitaire or Facebook checks—the atmosphere felt tense as death row.
            A door in back had Blake Griffin’s name. Unfortunately for me, it was closed. Even more unfortunately, it stayed closed for 15 minutes.
            Finally it opened, and a young woman trudged out. She had short blond hair, a tight blue blouse, and an irritated frown on her lips. “Okay, Blake. Got it.”
            “Good, Tina,” Griffin said from inside the office. Was she a saleswoman who wasn’t hitting quota, or an IT worker come to fix his computer? Whatever. She left the door half open, just wide enough for me to jostle it a few inches and slip through. Griffin didn’t seem to notice.
            A big window with closed blinds looked down on his black desk, which didn’t look like he was a member of the clean-desk club: It was messy with sales reports, pens, three half-filled cups of coffee, sales brochures, and software magazines.
            Griffin was listening to phone messages while scrolling through his email. I tried to read subject lines as fast as I could while he deleted spam. “Hicks Proposal,” “Renwick counter-offer,” “Weekly Sales report,” etc., etc. Nothing titled “Invisibility secrets” or “I know why you killed Jim Carr.”
            A Hispanic man stuck his head through the door. “Hey, Blake, I’m out to meet with Leone. Back in two hours.”
            “Okay.” Griffin didn’t look up. “Close the door, will you?”
            Oh, hell.
            The salesman shut the door, and I was trapped.
            I moved away from the desk and found a bare spot of wall to lean against. My wrist was already trembling from the strain of keeping my fist tight.
            Griffin turned back to his email. He opened the one with a NO SUBJECT subject line:
Garry Angelos is ready to file unless we give him something. What do you want to do? —Ross
            The return email address was rossw@JRTech.
            JRTech. I remembered after a minute. JRTech was the company where one of RoundTen’s programmers had gone two months before, according to Kemp. And also the company Jim Carr wanted to talk about before the baseball bat rose up hit him on the skull. “File” probably meant “lawsuit.” About what?
            Griffin thought for a moment. Then he typed:

Delay until I can get some money together. —BG

            The door opened suddenly. Without a knock, so I didn’t have time to get into position to escape. Jessica Finlay walked in. I guess the CEO didn’t need to knock.
            Griffin stood up fast. “Jessica. What—”
            “Did you sign off on this?” She held out a sheet of paper. I saw the word INVOICE printed across the top.
            He glanced. “Yeah. It comes out of our training budget.”
            “It’s almost all of your budget. Cancel it.” She dropped it on Griffin’s desk. “From now on, anything over $1,000 needs prior approval from me. Or Jeff.”
            Griffin didn’t want to give up easily, though. “If I’m not in charge of my own budget, what am I in charge of?”
            She crossed her arms. “Sales. I just looked at the latest figures. Even if Jim was still—around, we’ll be down eight percent for the quarter.”
            “JRTech is all over us! And morale is down, between Jim and Phil and—”
            “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Finlay stared at him. “Do these training courses you want to spend so much money on come with a list of excuses? Bring your numbers up, and then we’ll talk about training.”           
            I made my way close to the door, waiting for her to leave. Griffin sat down behind his desk. “All right.” His face was red. “I’ll get it done.”
            “Good.” Finlay yanked the door open.
            As much as I wanted to get out of there, I forced myself to wait. I wanted to see how Griffin reacted to his boss’s displeasure.
            He sighed, then opened a drawer and pulled out a pint bottle of whiskey. 11:30 in the morning. He took a long drink, capped the bottle and put it away.            
            “Goddamn it,” he whispered.
            Another knock on the door. “What?” Griffin shouted.
            Tina again. “What did Finlay want?”
            “Don’t worry about it.” He pushed his chair back and rubbed his eyes. “Did the cops talk to you?”
            “Yeah. They don’t know anything.
            “Good.” He sighed again. “Do you still have the thing?”
            “Yeah.” She cocked her head, worried. “Do you want it back? I want—”
            “No.” He turned his chair away from her. “Just don’t do anything . . . stupid.”
            “You need to relax.” Tina smiled. “Everyone’s out to lunch. Do you—”
            “Not now!” He yanked the drawer open again. “Just—go sell something, all right?”
            She winked. “Whatever Blakey wants.”
            I managed to dart through the door behind her. My free hand brushed her butt, and she swung around as the door closed. Not suspicious. More . . . eager? I held my breath and edged away from her as the door closed. After a moment she shrugged and made her way to a desk, where she sat down and picked up her phone.
             I thought about listening in on her calls, but I was afraid she’d only be cold-calling prospects for the next half hour. My arm was shaking and my fingers felt numb as ice, and I wasn’t sure I could hold onto the ring much longer.
            So I ran back up the hall. I’d spotted a dark room halfway to the reception area, and the door was still open. I ducked inside, knelt on the floor next to a humming computer, and opened my hand.
            My arm was shaking. Danny had warned me, but I hadn’t realized how hard clenching the ring for more than a few minutes would be. I tried not to gasp with relief.           
            So of course, right then the lights came on. I grabbed the ring again and scuttled out of the way, hoping the woman who came in to check something on one of the servers hadn’t seen me.
            At least she kept the door open. I slipped out and made my way down the hall.

Down in my Honda I relaxed my arm for a few minutes, and then called Marmont to report.
            “So I think Griffin is hiding a potential lawsuit,” I told her. “And he’s embezzling money. And Carr worked for him. That’s got to put him in play for Carr’s murder.”
            Her sigh sounded like every single one of my editors when I was a reporter. “It’s a start. I suppose. We need something rock solid before I can talk to the police about an invisible killer.”
            And like all—okay, most—of those editors, she was right. “I’ll keep digging.”

When I regained full use of my arm, I checked out JRTech’s website back at my apartment. I found a phone number and an email address for rossw: He was Ross Winters, VP of Human Resources. I thought about calling him about the lawsuit right away, but that might spook Carr.
            I also found contact information for Kacey Shields, the RoundTen sales associate who’d gone to JRTech. Her I called—but the receptionist who picked up told me she was no longer with the company.
            Interesting. I looked her up on the Internet and found a phone number. She answered on the third ring. “Hello?”
            “Kacey Shields? My name is Tom Jurgen. I’m working for Philip Kemp, of RoundTen, where you were once employed? I wondered if I could ask you—”
            “Oh, god, no.” She sounded tense. “I can’t talk about that. Who are you?”
            “Thomas Jurgen. I’m a private investigator. It’s about Jim Carr’s murder.”
            “Oh.” Surprised. She’d been expecting questions about something else “I don’t know anything about that.”
            “You worked for Blake Griffin, right?” Maybe the name would spark a reaction.
            “Yeah, but I don’t . . .” Shields hesitated. “I can’t tell you anything. Please don’t call me again.” She hung up.
            Huh. People who don’t want to talk always make me suspicious.
I spent part of the afternoon running internet searches on every name I had. Not just Google—PIs have access to specialized databases that search engines don’t. I found out that Blake Griffin had been fired from three other companies before RoundTen, and disputed at least one termination in a lawsuit that got settled out of court. Jessica Finlay had launched two other startups and declared bankruptcy once.
            Jim Carr had been named in a lawsuit against a previous employer accused of fraud—again, settled out of court. Tina? I didn’t know her last name. Kacey Shields had no criminal or civil record, although she had lots of student debt. Phil Kemp—yeah, I should have checked him out earlier—had two speeding tickets on his record, and he’d skipped jury duty once and paid a fine.
            Ross Winter of JRTech had once been arrested on a drunk and disorderly charge. JRTech’s CEO had been busted for marijuana in college.
            By this point I was just yanking the slot machine, hoping for triple cherries, or whatever paid off in Vegas. I was tempted to check out my own name, but I didn’t want to think about what I’d find.
            The rest of the afternoon and early evening went to other cases—phone calls, more internet searches, and two hours of surveillance that didn’t prove my client’s wife was cheating on him unless he thought her boyfriend worked in a shoe store. By ten o’clock I was too tired to fix anything more than a sandwich for dinner. Rachel was out at her book club. I watched the news and a few minutes of the talk shows, and went to bed.             
            But yeah, I walked around my apartment waving my arms to make sure no invisible intruders were lurking in plain sight. Can’t be too careful.

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