AN EASY ASSIGNMENT

by marshall vickery

chapter 1

BILL

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you the day that marked the beginning of the Terrible Twenties was when the power went out in their city, or the day someone they knew died in those early plane crashes, or when dad’s pacemaker stopped working for no reason. For me, the end of the innocence came on Tuesday, July 13th—the day before Bastille Day. It was a beautiful day, the kind of day that goes unnoticed, uneventful, and unmemorable, an excellent day.

Workers were putting up the last red, white and blue buntings on Place de la Concorde and it was as hot, still, and humid as Paris can be at that time of year. I hated what the Paris heat was doing to my hair and to my skin pores. The former was getting frizzier and the latter were spawning. I’d been in France for a year, the land that invented makeup and hair gel, and my skin and hair looked worse than they ever did in Nashua.

That Tuesday morning, I’d met Bill Shackelford at the bakery on rue de l’Arquebuse. Ex-Marine, Naval Academy graduate, big guy from my hometown who claimed to have known me in high school. If he was ever at Franklin High, I don’t remember. Talkative, boisterous, critical of everything and especially French things; curious, too, and gossipy. The kind of guy you want to have coffee with when your girlfriends are 4,500 miles away.

Bill had something on his mind. Munching on a flaky croissant and making a mess of his chin, he gave short shrift to my questions about Adriane, his wife, and Fistón, their poodle—topics which ordinarily brought out his best story-telling skills. 

He downed a few more croissants than usual, washing them all down with more coffee that ever and, “Hey, Jill, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said, and after a longish pause, “How’s the world of cybernetics? Anything new in cryptocurrencies?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Why? You interested in buying bitcoins? If that’s the case, I’m learning fast that, if you’re not careful, you can get ripped off very easily.”

“Yeah, I’m aware of that, I’m already invested in them. But do you know that there is more and more cryptocurrencies being traded on the dark web that’s popping up on the internet practically everywhere?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Have you dug up any dark web information on the new dynamic pie, by any chance?” 

“No. A fancy new French dessert?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing. Just something I’m interested in. I was curious if you’d made any progress on your research and come across it, that’s all, because most things on the dark web can be deceptive, you know. Lots of misinformation. I hope you’re not getting in too deep. You shouldn’t take too many chances.”

He was cleaning his lapels rather fastidiously, picking the crumbs up one by one and eating them. I thought he could have saved himself a lot of work by eating the stuff a bit more carefully to begin with, but that’s me.

“What do you mean by ‘too deep’ and what kind of chances? Bill, you’re being a bit dramatic, aren’t you? After all, isn’t it my job as a young, rising tech writer at LYM to fish out information on the topic?” I laughed, but he didn’t.

“It is your job and it’s no problem if you limit yourself to fishing for minnows. You know, light and fluffy, ‘wow look at this new toy’ kinda thing. You just don’t wanna get into those dark waters too deep and get the bigger fish all riled up. There’re sharks down there, and they bite. That’s all I’m saying.”

But it wasn’t all he was saying. He kept on yakking about this and the other bitcoin thing, and who was involved, and his fabulous investments and this thing he kept calling “the dynamic pie” without really telling me what it was. At first, I thought he was being sweet in looking after me that way, then that he was being quite boring, and finally that the conversation needed to be over.

I remember trying to laugh at the end about some lame joke he’d made, and I can’t remember what I said to him that finally shut him up. Perhaps I said something dumb, like, “gotta go deep to catch the fattest fish” or “early bird catches the worm,” and other nonsense like that. It was a really weird conversation.

I wish that I had listened to him more closely.


The online edition of the Tribune de Genève posted the news and Bill’s picture the day after they fished his body out of the Rhône River, near the Quai General-Guisan. They described him as “a Paris-based American consular officer.” Swiss police said that there were no signs of injury on his body and that the death was deemed an accidental drowning. 

That same day, I went to see Adriane Guillou, Bill’s wife, at their apartment on rue de Bagnolet, a stone’s throw from the Père-Lachaise, one of the biggest cemeteries in Paris. I found her all packed up and about to leave town. No trace of the poodle. When she saw me, she started crying so much she stopped every other word to blow her nose, loudly. In between sobs, Adriane told me she was going back home to her village near the Massif Central and that the Shackelfords from Nashua were flying in to get Bill’s stuff. She didn’t seem to see anything odd in the fact that she was leaving a good couple of hours before the Shackelford’s arrival at Orly. For some subconscious reason, I didn’t ask her about that.

I pitied the Shackelfords, so I stuck around Bill’s place and greeted Jim and Milly, two characters straight out of Yankee Magazine. With them was Bill’s brother Petey, the eldest son who—Bill once told me with air quotes— “gladly” stayed behind to work in the body shop and send his younger brother to college. Petey looked like he’d never been “glad” about anything. 

The Shackelfords were nothing if not stoic. Nobody shed a tear or said more than four words. Milly asked me if I was Bill’s girlfriend in exactly four words, as in “Are you Bill’s girlfriend?” I don’t remember how I answered, exactly. It was something I hoped would clearly separate “girl” from “friend” in Milly’s perception of my relationship with her son. Jim and Petey just mumbled. Not a question from anybody about Adriane Guillou. Didn’t they know Bill was married? It wasn’t my place to bring it up, so I didn’t. It was all very odd. And tragic. 


Seventy-two hours after my encounter with the Shackelfords, Bill’s name came up again. I was sitting in that little tearoom twenty feet from Marble Arch with two British tech journos from the Times, working on part two of my exposé on cybercurrencies. The tearoom was more fun than sitting in a dingy conference room on the third floor of LYM’s Fleet Street building. 

“Hey, the City Editor asked me this morning about a chap you should know, Jill,” said Martin, the chattier of the two. “He knew we’d be seeing you today.”

“Oh, yeah? What chap?” I forgot the bite of scone in my mouth and it nearly came out with “chap.” The other guy, Colin, saw it and guffawed—the jerk.

“Shackelford, I believe his name was. American, worked at the US Embassy in Paris, jumped off a bridge in Geneva. Did you know him?”

I swallowed the scone bit and drained the last of my tea. Nothing had come of the investigation by Swiss police. Bill fell into the Rhône River accidentally, they announced, and the toxicology was inconclusive. The Swiss Medical Examiner said Bill had an enlarged heart and stage four cataract in both eyes. I thought Bill’s eyesight was fine up to the day before he “fell” into the Rhône and he’d never told me he had heart issues, but that’s because it’s not what most people want to talk about, and certainly not Bill. Maybe he did fall into the river by accident, maybe not. My life was finally smooth enough that I didn’t feel like playing sleuth. So, I didn’t, even though Mildred’s question and Adriane Guillou’s tears kept tugging at me, as if there was something I should have known about the whole thing. 

I work for a major international news organization, that’s true, but I want my life simple and easy. My beat in New Hampshire used to be lifestyle but there was no money in it, so I got lucky, got hired by LYM and switched to tech. I have only a passing interest in politics, French, British, American or any place. I look at that kind of news with the attention span of a fruit fly. I love reading mysteries—ironic, right? —and occasionally launch into high-adrenaline stuff like Bungee jumping and zip line. You could call me boring and I wouldn’t mind it all because I these days I think of “boring” as somewhat of a compliment.

I wished I’d brushed Martin’s question off with a simple “no”, but curiosity got the best of me. 

“I know… knew Bill Shackelford, yes. Visa office guy, I think, consular affairs and such. Why?”

“It seems like there’s a British connection,” Martin said, between sips of tea. “Scotland Yard’s looking into it and my CE seems to think you’d know stuff about the poor chap. Stuff that over here they ought to know about, so they can ask the other chaps over there about other stuff, and so on and so forth. It’s all mucked up if you ask me. Rory wants to write a piece about it.”

It made me think that Bill was always the more talkative between us and that, in spite of that, I didn’t know very much about him. I’d asked him a few things over the time we’d spent together—at the coffee shop or at the occasional dinner with him and his wife. The stuff I was “in the know” about was his relationship with Adriane (rocky), how they’d met (she cut his hair), whether they were going to a have a child (maybe), their dog who didn’t seem to want to pee outside, or the skin care program she was on that seemed to work so well for her. You know, the important stuff of life. 

I punted. “What sort of stuff am I supposed to know?”

“Rory—that’s our CE—Rory didn’t say,” said Colin. 

Two seconds later Martin leaned in toward me conspiratorially. “If you ask me, it’s about something big… and it has to do with sex and money. Doesn’t everything, though?” and he winked at me. I ignored it.

Bill was involved in… what exactly? I think of myself as life-savvy—the crap that happened to me in life was, let’s say, instructional and I haven’t forgotten any of it—so, I wasn’t surprised that a still-water devil-may-care like Bill could be into far more than met the eye. It happens all the time. You talk to someone, they come across a certain way, you dismiss the little details that didn’t seem to fit, settle on an opinion and don’t change your mind until… well, until something comes out or someone tells you the guy is dead. Bill, huh? Okay, now I was thinking again about the Shackelfords not knowing about Adriane. What was that all about? Nothing I wanted to share with the tea-sipping duo. Colin seemed eager to continue talking about Bill, while Martin had become more interested in ogling me. 

I played dumb and fished for info.

“Wow! Martin! You’re holding on to the juicy stuff, aren’t you?” I half leaned toward him. I wouldn’t have done it unless I wore the right blouse, and I did. “Don’t you wanna share?” The clueless dope giggled as he launched into it.

“Yeah, I do, luv! So… as best as I can tell, Scotland Yard are on the case. Why the Yard, you may ask? I can’t be sure. Rumor has it, Shackelford took the Channel Link to Dover quite a few times before he moved on to the Big Embassy in the Sky. And… he wasn’t alone on those crossings. There was a woman with him—and they say she was a stunner! That’s a scoop in itself because, as I’m sure you know, Shackelford wasn’t exactly a Don Juan type, was he?”

“Is that all they got?” I needed to know more. “So far, nothing to see here. He and a beautiful mistress took the ferry together. Maybe they both liked English food if that’s even possible. And?”

Martin was now fully launched. “Oh, ho! That’s not all, not all at all! Wait till I tell you the rest of it!” He lowered his voice and cast a glance around the tea shop. He was clearly in his element and played it to a T. “The woman in question? Foreign! Disguised, wig-wearing, dark sunglasses, everything! And legs—beautiful, glorious, monumentally perfect legs!” 

He kept on talking and I don’t remember what else he said. I wish now that I hadn’t tuned him out, annoyed as I was at his wayward glances at various parts of me. I might have learned something useful. Sooner.

I thought Martin had a vivid imagination and that he was trying to get into my pants. What he said was gossip, speculation, and hearsay. I didn’t follow up with Rory the CE and Martin got nowhere near my pants. 


ack in Paris, my cell rang with a call from DC, a 202-area code. I didn’t answer the phone unless I knew the number, except when fear of missing out got the best of me. I picked it up, thinking it may be from a colleague I was talking to at CybersecMag. 

“Miss Andrews? Please stay on the line for a call from Mr. Stanwick.”

My heart sank. I don’t know why on God’s good Earth I stayed on the line, but I did.

“Jill? Jill? Is that you?” He sounded frantic, far more than his usual Adderall-fueled hypomania. “Jill, listen, I don’t have much time and the… they’re after me…” He paused, incongruously.

“Okay. Get on with it, Mike! What is it now?” 

I’ been done being nice to him a long while back.

“Listen to me, Jill. Something has come up.”

“Mike! I have no idea how you got my cell number—from Mother, it’s my guess—but I made it clear—” 

“Yes, yes! No, it wasn’t your mother… never mind who it was, listen to me! You’ve got to trust me. You’ve got no choice. You remember that my company does business with the Montaigne Corporation, right?”

Montaigne. That was a name from the most unpleasant past. Mike had “done business” with them, and plenty of it. Especially with Montaigne’s Director of Operations, one Phyllis Moore. The same Phyllis Moore that was now the proud mother of almost two-year-old twin boys, whose father was now on the phone with me.

“And?”

“They’re suing me. They’re alleging that I appropriated their company’s secrets in cahoots with Phyllis when she was their Director of Ops. They claim damages of twenty-two million dollars.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t care about this. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

“Wait! This concerns you, too.”

I should have hung up right there, but he had me hooked.

“It does?! Oh, Christ. How?”

“Well, I know this sounds… oh, never mind how it sounds. They say that you benefited from my alleged appropriations, because—again, this is only what they allege, trust me they’ve got nothing—I used part of that money to pay you the divorce settlement. The FBI is involved, and they want to talk to you. I owe you at least a heads up.”

“The… what? The FBI?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. This thing is… it’s a federal crime if they can prove it. Across state lines, no statute of limitations, intellectual property theft… You know, Montaigne is in… and we are… well, you know where we are.”

I was speechless. The divorce settlement had netted me the un-princely sum of 243,000 dollars. After paying my attorneys the very princely fee of 63k and change, and subtracting my expenses, I’d managed to put about 120k into my money market account. The son of a gun stole twenty-two million! How did that compute? 

My knees buckled and I struggled through one of the worst hot flashes ever.

“Jill… are you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here. Of all the rotten, stinking things you’ve ever done in your sorry life, this tops them all! And I do hope they put you in jail, Mike, and that you rot in there until the end of your miserable days. You’re a liar, a cheat, and apparently also a thief. I hope you and your money burn in hell!” 

Impulsively, I hung up, which, I shouldn’t have. In hindsight, I needed details, I needed to know the exact charges, whether I was named as a conspirator (indicted or unindicted?), the venue of the federal case… Curiosity and impulsivity could be my worst traits, and they battled each other constantly.

I promptly picked up when my cell rang again a couple of hours after Mike’s call, this time with a number from New York City. 

“Ms. Andrews, my name is DeWanda Street and I’m the human resources coordinator at Lumber Yard Media?”

“Yes…”

“This is a courtesy call to give you a heads up on documents you’ll be receiving by courier in the next day or so?”

DeWanda ended her sentences with a question mark, regardless of whether there was a question in them or not—something I found supremely annoying.

“Uh, hu. Thank you. Can I ask what this is about?”

“Yes, ma’am. The documents are in reference to your Notice of Termination under our planned Reduction in Force? You will find in the packet, along with the other documents, a copy of the press release issued by LYM announcing the R-I-F, which went out this morning? We’re asking you to sign the second copy of the N-O-T and return it in the envelope which is included in your packet?”

I had a million questions for DeWanda. I asked the first three and she didn’t know squat, other than what was in the P-R about the R-I-F by L-Y-M that was mentioned in the N-O-T. She kept saying that. I gave up.

I called Louiselle at our Paris office, and she didn’t know about any of it. She put me on hold and called Jean-Claude, our boss, and came back with the news that JC was on vacation in the Camargue and couldn’t be reached by phone as he was, per whoever Louiselle spoke with, “engaged in the fishing of the eels on the Etang de Vaccares.” 

Louiselle was desolée for me and now scared to death about her own job. I managed to feel sorry for her.

On the LYM website, I clicked on “Media Information” and found nothing about a reduction in force. Where was the press release DeWanda was talking about? 

I checked my mailbox downstairs. It was empty. M.me Grenoud waved at me from the conciergerie and smiled. She had no courier envelope for me, either.

I sat on the stairs by the elevator and tried to think this through.

Number one: I was going to federal prison for theft, along with that delightful human being, my ex-husband Mike. Number two: I’d just lost my job and my only source of income, which meant I’d have to ask Mother for help and hear an interminable drip-drip of criticism, the dredging up all my prior missteps, and endless moralizing from her. She’d also bring up my “foolish” marriage to Mike, which infuriated me every time. Number three: somehow, I was tied to Bill Shackelford’s death, at least in the mind of a City Editor in London and perhaps in that of the British, French, and Swiss police. 

If there was a number 4, I couldn’t think that far.


The day after, Mother stopped by for a visit on her way to Nashua. She launched on her usual tirade about how rude the French usually are to the Germans—Mother lives in Berlin—and how the Germans have paid their dues, etc. So, I changed the subject.

“Mother, remember me telling you the other day about that guy Bill from Nashua who committed suicide in Geneva?”

“Hm, vaguely. What did you find out about that horrible thing?”

“When I was in London last, two British journalists I work with asked me if I knew him. Seems like a case has been opened. The City Editor of the Times wants to interview me for an article about it.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing, because I haven’t talked to him. I’m gonna let it lay. Wait! Don’t tell me. I already know what you’re going to say: I should talk to the City Editor, and to Swiss police and to Scotland Yard. Right?”

“That’s what I’d do. I’ve always taught you and your brother to respect the law. Going to the police of whatever country is the right thing to do. What happened to that poor fellow is important, especially if you and he were friends. Washing your hands of the whole thing isn’t what I taught you to do.”

“I didn’t wash my hands of anything! I know nothing! Nothing to tell, nothing to ask, nothing for me to be concerned about. I’m as sorry about Bill’s demise as anybody, but he was a good acquaintance, not a close friend. If I knew him from high school it’s because he told me I did and honestly, to this day, I don’t remember ever speaking to him at Franklin High or even knowing he was there. And, if he was killed, like the two Brits were insinuating, do you want me to be involved in a murder?”

“So, you know nothing that could have helped the police figure out what happened to the poor fellow? Nothing you’ve remembered since?”

“Well, here’s what little I do know. I ran into him on the Place de La Concorde, we had coffee, we talked about nothing, and a few days later he was dead. End of story.”

“Did Bill say anything in particular to you when you saw him?”

“Mom, I don’t know why you find it necessary to play detective with me. I wish you didn’t, but since you’re insisting on it, there’s a couple of things that puzzle me about the whole affair.” I took a long sip of my coffee, as I sorted it out in my mind. “Number one, Bill’s folks didn’t seem to care—or know—that their son was married to a French woman. Number two, Bill’s wife left the apartment two hours before they showed up. Number three, she didn’t say anything about them to me, they didn’t say anything about her to me, and I didn’t say a word to any of them about it. You’re the first person I’ve talked to about Adriane.”

“Hm, pretty name. Did Bill ever mention her… but of course, you knew her well enough to pay her a visit. Was that the first time you’d ever met his parents?”

“Yes, detective.”

“Don’t be smart with me, Jillian. I’m trying to help. Without a doubt, this is the most important detail of the whole story. How can Bill’s parent not to have known… Stranger still, how can this Adriane not have wanted to see them? Even if she hadn’t met them ever before, this was, albeit belatedly, the right opportunity for them to get acquainted.”

“She packed up and left. She seemed appropriately sad. She cried a lot while I was there. She cried so much that she must have said no more than a dozen words to me.”

“In French?”

“No, in English. She spoke it well. She said she and Bill had been married for six and a half years—which I already knew. I remember that because Bill said he was dreading the seventh-year itch, which was coming up.”

“And for six plus years he kept their marriage a secret? I find it hard to believe. It’s more likely that they, parents, and daughter-in-law, hated each other. They had a big falling out and, even when Bill died, they didn’t want to have anything to do with her and vice versa. I’m sure that’s the way it is. It happens in families, a lot.”

Maybe Mother was right. She was a smart woman and she read a lot of mystery novels, like me. She lived in Berlin with Helmut, who used to be Dad’s assistant and driver. Helmut still drove mom around, and she still drove him nuts. She’d become more German than the Germans, even though she was born and raised in Nashua. Dad had been in Berlin with the US Army since 1946. They’d met there, got married and stayed. He died one month after his company was bought up by a multinational. I was six years old and my brother, three. 

“When I heard about Bill it hit me kinda hard. It made me think of Dad,” I said.

“Why? He didn’t kill himself. He died because he couldn’t handle it.”

“Oh, Mother! That’s so unfair!”

“Weakness of character, I say. Companies come and go. He didn’t have to quit living.”

“The doctors…”

“Bah! German doctors! They know nothing.” 

CHAPTER 2

ROBERTO

I bought a couple of hours of Wi-Fi from Air France and checked my webmail. I was three and a half hours out of De Gaulle on the last flight of the day for New York. It would land at Newark because you can’t win them all. 

The messages in my inbox were all appropriately connected to the crap storm that had hit my life. The chatty guy from the Times, Martin, asking me to have dinner with him next time I was in the neighborhood. Mom had arrived in Nashua and needed to talk to me “urgently” about the house. A message from Roberto with two photos of a stage show with one naked guy being danced around by several half naked women with bull horns on their heads. The attachments’ file names, Bangkok-1 and Bangkok-2, told me where Roberto was right now. The message consisted of a “Ciao bella!” and a smiley. A laconic Italian guy, a rarity.

I tried calculating the time difference between halfway across the Atlantic and Thailand, and I gave up.

Roberto picked up on the last ring before voice mail.

“Jill, amore mio! What a pleasant surprise!” Always at his most charming. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

“I’m on an Air France to the States. I’m going to stop first by my publisher in Brooklyn and then go on to my mom’s house in New Hampshire. And I need to lawyer up.”

He heard my story, politely asking a question here and there. 

“I don’t know what I can do for you, Jill. I’m right in the middle of something,” he said.

“Oh, I know, I know. I’m sorry if I’ve bothered you, Roberto. I needed to tell the story to someone who wouldn’t tell me all the places where I went wrong, and I knew you wouldn’t do that.”

“Of course, of course! I’m always here for you if you need to talk.” He sounded like he meant it, but I sensed he was distracted by someone or something else.

“On the other hand,” he said, “why don’t I give you the number of a good friend of mine in Manhattan? She used to work, probably she still does, in intellectual property law at a firm I did business with a while back. You’ll like her, she’s a delightful woman… Brazilian, if I’m not mistaken. You’ll really like her, I’m sure of it.”

Now, here was Roberto at his best. Putting the women in his life in touch with each other—the past, present, and future ones. That’s exactly how I was introduced to him—by one of his ex-girlfriends. Since then, Dawn had become one of my good friends, while Roberto was downgraded in my book to an incurable case of super-charming narcissism. 

I emailed him a thank you note. I didn’t like how needy I must have sounded to him, so I added an embellished story of Bill’s death and how unexpected it was and how stoic the parents were and how I wanted to be like them. 

Two minutes after hitting “send” I tried recalling the email, but you can’t do that sort of stuff. 


I’ve always nursed the prejudice that Brooklyn was the lesser and Manhattan was the better of the two boroughs. Nonetheless, every time I could see both places on the same trip, I always ended up being happier with the way Brooklyn made me feel.

The Brazilian woman in Manhattan turned out to be a pleasant, fifty-plus, bookish, gray-haired expert in two fields I knew nothing about, international patents and intellectual property. Her only concession to hipness were the two tiny butterflies that adorned each side of her reading glasses. Could she be Roberto’s aunt or even his mother? The thought made me feel good. 

She listened patiently to my story and didn’t seem to mind the many sidebars about my failed marriage and my ex-husband’s shenanigans. I stayed calm throughout the first part, which covered college to the second year of marriage. I faltered halfway through the miscarriage and Mike’s first affair. I almost didn’t make it when I got to the part where I am the “stupid cow” who is “boring as hell” while I’m lying to the emergency room doctor about the reason why I’m getting seven stitches on my forehead. Finally, I was done.

“Quite a story,” said Verena Ruiz-Salazar. “Were the assets that constituted the bulk of your divorce settlement acquired during your marriage or did they belong to either one of you prior to your wedding day? I’m not a divorce lawyer, but I know this question would need to be answered in discovery, since it is now alleged that the moneys you received may have been the proceeds of the sale of intellectual property that was obtained illegally by Mr. Stanwick through the intermediation of his accomplice, Ms. Moore. And, if Ms. Moore remained employed at Montaigne throughout the acquisition of those properties, the Feds may have a strong case against both Mr. Stanwick and Ms. Moore—who is now Mrs. Stanwick—as likely co-conspirators.” 

Verena had said all that in one breath, in stark contrast with my halting presentation full of you-knows and sighs, to say nothing of the sobs.

“And… the case against me?” I asked.

“Hard to say at this point. As far as I am concerned, I may be able to assist in the discovery process in order to determine the exact provenance of the funds used by Mr. Stanwick to settle his divorce with you. This could be done equally as well by a forensic accountant for a third of my fee. However, I can move through the process a lot quicker, since I know exactly what to look for in investigating intellectual property misappropriations. Moreover, what Montaigne alleges to be their intellectual property may be nothing of the sort. Third, even if they can prove that it is theirs, it may be equally as challenging for them to prove that your ex-husband income—and therefore yours—is directly tied to the sale or exploitation of those properties.”

I came away from the meeting with Verena encouraged, and pessimistic. My luck was not great with anything tied to my relationship with Mike. I was young when I met him. Twenty, and in fairness, I was only about fifteen or so, with no street smarts other than my mother’s advice to “follow the rules.” At the time, my mother’s voice droned on constantly in my head about this rule, this other rule, and what not. They say parents shouldn’t pave the road in front of their children but teach them how to navigate around obstacles. Mother didn’t buy the workbook. Her parenting style was her way of coping with Dad disappearing so suddenly from our lives. So, Mother wanted to make sure that she and I would get a better deal than he did. The only thing was, she only taught me that one thing, follow the rules. I did, and it got me Mike. The gift that kept on giving.


My trip to Brooklyn was a dud. The renovated ex-sawmill where my now-former employer was headquartered looked like it was doing a land-office business. If the reduction in force at Lumber Yard Media had already taken place, it mustn’t have involved that many employees. If it were happening that day, I’d have expected a gloomier atmosphere. 

The Publisher was out of town. The Managing Director was in a day-long meeting. The Director of HR was teaching a class. I ended up way down the totem pole.

“Hello, Ms. Andrews?” said DeWanda with the flashiest of smiles. “Did you bring the signed paperwork with you?” She grabbed me under the arm and gently led me to her minuscule office and closed the door. She was much younger and much nicer than I expected.

“Honey, I’m so, so sorry? Wasn’t it awful for you to get my phone call? I hate making those calls, you know? How are you holding up?”

I chatted with her for a little while. Her empathy hit the right notes with me, and I got used to the question marks. She didn’t come out and say it, but I got that the R-I-F wasn’t a big deal and they just rotated a few people around, trimmed in a place or two, and granted early retirements. DeWanda wasn’t sure what they would do with the Paris office, if anything. “They haven’t told us anything about that?” she said. I asked her if anyone else would be let go in Europe or anywhere else outside North America, and she hadn’t heard anything about that either. 

I was back in my rental car and driving toward the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway when it dawned on me that, maybe, I was the only employee in Europe that was let go. I almost pulled over to give DeWanda a call and ask her that very question, but I kept on driving, foot on the gas, hands on the wheel. I already knew the answer.

I got a room at the Holiday Inn outside Worcester and I didn’t sleep much. 

The next morning, I tried focusing on the driving and the road in front of me. It didn’t work. My mind kept going back to the coffee shop in Paris—and to the exact moment when my life went to crap—and then to Bill’s apartment and the eerie encounter with Adriane; the tea room in London, the phone calls, Verena’s chiseled words, and DeWanda’s honest pity.

I had the bad habit of assessing any situation, past, present, or future, as a catastrophe. But this time, everything that could go wrong—job, family, love, money—had, in fact, gone kablooey. I still had my health, but for how long? Stress kills, doesn’t it?

Mother’s house was about a mile off the Dunstable’s High Street, just outside the Nashua city limits. Behind it, farther away from the road, was my brother’s farm. Tyler was, in our family, He Who Must Not Be Named. Mother and I seldom discussed him. There were no photos of him on the fireplace’s mantel. She rarely traveled the five dozen steps out of her back door to his farm. Tyler’d been known as “Baby” until he was old enough to reveal his true personality, which was around the age of 9. Dad was proud of his little boy and I’ll be forever grateful that he didn’t live long enough to see who “Baby” would become.

“So, what’s going on?” I asked her, since she now seemed to have forgotten about the “urgent” matter in her email. 

Right then, Tyler’s diesel truck rumbled down his driveway, then on to Mother’s driveway with a scraping of dirt, and it finally screeched its way onto the pavement of the High Street.

She nodded at the noise in reply to my question.

“That boy will be the death of me!” she added.

“What’s going on with him?”

“His farm is about to be repossessed. Today is day ten of the twelve days grace period. The only reason I know it is that the notice was sent to me and I opened it before I gave it to him. He called me every name in the book for that.”

“The ass-wipe! Let him lose the farm and maybe afterward he’ll move to Nebraska or somewhere far and we’ll never hear from him again!”

My brother’s current business enterprise, a goat-raising farm, was the latest of a series of bad choices Tyler’d made since quitting college. Before the goats, he’d been a motivational speaker (seriously!), an industrial supplies salesman, a cell phone repairman, and an online investor (with other people’s money).

“Well, there’s more.” I didn’t like the look on her face. “The reason I got the notice is because I guaranteed Tyler’s most recent bank loan, the one that he used to refinance the mortgage on the farm and to get ‘working capital.’ Apparently, he didn’t use the loan money for that. It’s bewildering to me that he’d do such a dishonest thing. He used the money to invest on the internet and must have lost most of it or even all of it. He sold all the goats to a guy in Exeter, and ‘invested’ that money, too, probably with the same outcome. The only thing he isn’t in danger of losing is the truck because I paid in cash for it. The banker will be coming by in the morning.” 

She went to the kitchen to fix herself more tea.

Perhaps Mother needed me to be supportive and consoling at this point. I wasn’t up to it. My crappy life couldn’t get any worse, but I was wrong. No need to tell Mother about my job or about Mike’s thing. Mom’s smarts didn’t translate into how to deal with Tyler. I decided to lay down for a while.

It was late in the evening by the time I opened my laptop. It belonged to LYM and it was one of the last vestiges of my now crumbling life. Beside my work—three unpublished articles on various aspects of cloud computing, part one of the research piece on cybercurrencies, and the beginning of part two—it had my correspondence, all my passwords and user IDs, and a ton of pictures, both work-related and personal. 

I opened Outlook reluctantly. A trickle of emails began to appear one by one in the inbox window. The trickle exhausted itself after half a dozen messages. Nothing important in the three business-related emails—people who hadn’t yet gotten the news that I was no longer a useful contact. The two personal email were from Verena Ruiz-Salazar and from Dawn. Verena’s email was a formal thank you email, prepackaged and extremely polite, with all the warmth of a steel pipe. Dawn’s message was: “You and I have been down this road before, separately. What do you say that we go down it again, together? Call me!” 

She picked up on the first ring and I told her what happened, making it sound a lot more comical than it was, and she called my bluff.

“Holy Mary!” Her voice was low and concerned. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I guess so. I’ll have to be.” My voice cracked. “How did you know? Your email…”

“Roberto told me. I hadn’t heard from him in… oh, I don’t know, a year? No, maybe not that long. Anyways, he called. He said you were on a flight to the States and that you’d reached out to him with your news.”

“That was nice of him.”

“Yeah, wasn’t it? The man is full of surprises—unfortunately only a small percentage are good ones. This one was the right kind. So, he told me about the job fiasco and the thing with Mike, and Christ Almighty, what a disaster! What are you gonna do with that?”

I told her about Verena, and it occurred to me that I forgot to tell the lawyer one detail that may have been important.

“I forgot something important, though. I was so flustered I couldn’t think straight.” 

“Oh, no! What?”

“When Verena was talking about the timing of the acquisition of our assets, I forgot to tell her that when Mike and I got married I brought into it about 180k of my own money. That may be important, since that is more than what I took with me when I left. I had an IRA and stocks—I never sold or traded any of it during the five years he and I were together.”

“Hm, I haven’t the foggiest—but it makes sense, doesn’t it? You bring with you some dough; you leave with that same dough. Can they still say that you stole it? I wouldn’t think so and you may have a good out. Shouldn’t you email Verena that information?”

“I should, but first I need to get my stuff together and scare up a lawyer who can handle a case like this.”

“Let me help you with that. Let me talk to Bruce and let’s see what he can recommend.” Bruce was Dawn’s ex-husband and he worked at a huge law firm in Boston.

“Are you staying at your mum’s? Do you wanna come here afterward and spend a few days with me?”

That’s when I told her about Tyler.

“Why didn’t you get more details from your mum?” she asked, without sounding judgmental.

“Oh, I don’t know… Too much at once. I guess I wasn’t expecting it. She isn’t going to end up on the street because she can always live in Berlin. I don’t give two craps if Tyler ends up on the street. If push comes to shove, Mother can sell whatever is left—whatever the banks don’t take, that is.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Could be.”

The next morning brought some clarity to the Tyler situation. Mother asked me to sit in on the meeting with a Ms. Laney Pershing of the New Haven National Bank, a small woman in her forties with an anachronistic hairdo and a high-wattage smile. I liked the blouse she was wearing, and, under different circumstances, I’d have asked where she got it. 

Ms. Pershing came swiftly to the point, even before she’d taken the first sip of tea.

“We need to address the situation urgently, Mrs. Andrews” she said to Mother. “Mr. Andrews”—she meant Tyler— “has not made another payment on the refinancing loan after the first two. The current unpaid balance is $1,955,497. We have one and a half days left, Mrs. Andrews, to catch up with the arrears and the accrued interest and penalties, which as of today amount to 477,320 dollars and 22 cents. A check on your account for that amount would clear up this entire matter today, which I’m sure is what you’d want to do.” 

She punctuated the last sentence with a wide smile. She’d had her teeth whitened—must have been done recently—and, in my opinion, they looked unnatural.

“Pardon me for jumping in, Ms. Pershing,” I said, while Mother closed her eyes and leaned her head on to the high back of the Queen Anne chair. “What happens if my mother cannot come up with that amount within the next 48 hours?”

Her lips sealed off the blinding white light of her teeth. “I’m afraid it wouldn’t be good. The appraised value of the farm property was insufficient to provide the collateral for the size loan Mr. Andrews requested and which he was granted. Mrs. Andrews,” she nodded toward mother, who kept her eyes closed, “co-signed on the refinancing loan and put this property,” she pointed at the floor, “up as additional collateral.”

This was astonishing.

“I’m not quick when it comes to adding up figures in my head. Are you saying that you lent my brother…what? Almost two million dollars? And that both his primary residence and my mother’s primary residence were put up as collateral? Why, in goodness’ name would your bank do that? Don’t you have guidelines or something that would prevent making a loan of this size to a screwup like Tyler Andrews and get a poor elderly woman’s house thrown in for good measure?”

“The original loan amount was 2.95 million dollars which—” 

“Oh, come on! Three million?!”

“…which was granted in view of Mrs. Andrews excellent track record with our institution and Mr. Andrews representations as well as his provision of a business plan—”

She went on about all the sound business reasons why the loan was perfectly appropriate, its size entirely justifiable, and its repayment was now required within 36 hours.

After she left, Mother came back to life.

Mother and I, since I was old enough to remember, haven’t consistently liked each other. She didn’t like her husband, either, while I adored my father. The feeling between husband and wife was mutual—I found out later in life how little love there was between them. Dad had kept an occasional journal and Mother never bothered to read it, even after he was dead. She said the choice for her was either burning the little booklet or give it to me, although she couldn’t imagine why I would want it. I could. There was one single entry that had to do with their relationship and the tone of it stuck with me. “My wife has fallen away from the Faith and she has lost the only reason to love me.” Dad also wrote that she would often “go away while remaining perfectly still” and that she would “close her eyes and shut me and our world out of existence.” There must have been a time, early on, when Dad longed for her affection, and perhaps their ways of showing their love were opposites. I’m sure that she never learned his love languages, and he may never have figured out hers. I know this because I’m as affectionate and touchy-feely as Dad was and snuggling up to Mother was, and still is, something that is deeply unsatisfying and not worth trying.

“I didn’t appreciate that reference to the ‘poor elderly woman.’ I am neither poor nor senile,” she scowled.

“Mother, I’m not impressed with your business savvy in this particular case. It seems to me that when it comes to Tyler you take a leave of your senses. You’ve been babying him from day one, on everything down to the nickname. Why was I always Jillian and him always Baby?”

“Oh, please!” she said with a frown. “I’ve always loved the both of you and always will in the same way, no favoritisms. I take pride in that and I won’t let you insinuate anything to the contrary.”

“Okay, let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about the gigantic size of this loan, for which you’ve mortgaged nearly everything you own. What’s the business sense of that? Why was it needed? What did Tyler want with it? Where did the loan money go? Why and when did he stop paying it back? The bank may not know Tyler from Adam and he may have fooled them with a slick business plan, but don’t you know him? You know full well that he’s been screwing his life up since he was twelve years old! What made you think that this time it was going to be any different? What made you take such a huge risk on a guy that you can’t even trust to tell you what time it is while he’s looking at his watch?”

“Are you quite finished? I have a monster headache and I’m going to lay down for a while. You can make yourself lunch. There’s cold cuts and lettuce in the fridge.”

“Okay, I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Before you go, can you at least tell me what you’re going to do about the half a million you owe the bank right now?”

She didn’t know.

I woke Helmut up.

“Hallo! Hallo! Wo ist… Kathryn, iz zat you?”

In his halting English, Helmut filled me in on the financial arrangement between him and my mother. The abridged version of it was that she controlled all the money, both in Germany and in the States. He was given “ein stipendium” for his personal expenses, which in effect was a mere continuation of his salary from when Dad was still alive. In other words, Helmut had few assets of his own and no control or say so on how Mother spent her money. It worked well for them, he said.

“But what is ze reason you call me, schatzi?”

I made something up. It was obvious to me that Helmut was Mother’s ideal companion, someone who didn’t know anything and didn’t ask any questions. I sensed he didn’t know about Tyler’s loan coming due, or about Mother’s “investment” in the goat farm. His ignorance was a blissful state and I envied him.

CHAPTER 3

TYLER

Perhaps our old home in Nashua, in Mother’s mind, had lived out its usefulness. Perhaps she wanted it gone, and Tyler with it, even though she’d never say that out loud. I didn’t buy all this “tough love” that Mother proclaimed for him. Tyler had hacked away at that love for the good part of the last twenty years and there must’ve been precious little left of it now. But how to explain her acquiescence to this crazy financial risk and its inevitable debacle? Unless… I was afraid to contemplate the most logical explanation. It was time to grab my courage with both hands and enter the snake pit, to face its only resident and ask him a few questions.

It was early afternoon and the short New Hampshire summer was dishing out humidity by the barrel full. I walked the three hundred yards from Mother’s house to the farmhouse wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I’d have worn a mask over my face, but I settled for dark glasses and a wide brim hat, and the getup made me feel safer. He was in the back, fiddling with his truck.

“Well, well, well…” he said, without looking at me. “The prodigal daughter comes home to mama. I thought I’d never see the day when she’d leave gay Paree and come back to hang out here with us bumpkins.” He got up and stood facing me, with all the six feet, four inches, and the roughly three hundred pounds of him planted on massive steel-tipped work boots. His handlebar mustache, ponytail and red-white-and-blue bandanna made him look like a character from a second-rate Hell’s Angels biker movie. 

“How’s it hangin’ sis?” he said.

I feared and despised his ways. He’d been arrested for brawling with bar patrons, arrested for DUIs, and arrested and then acquitted of manslaughter only because the prosecutor bungled the case. All of it before he turned eighteen.

I stopped ten paces from him.

“What can I do you for, little lady?” 

He was a brilliant student in Junior High, but his academic successes had lasted only a couple of years. It was enough to show everybody how intelligent he was if he’d only wanted. After high school, he turned to the street and got a ton more smarts from there. The street also revealed his true temperament, which was that of a brawling and boorish guy. The family should have known it and perhaps some counseling and medication could have helped. Mother ignored the whole thing. Like when 13-year-old Tyler stole the neighbor’s little dog and nailed it to a tree by the tail. The dog survived and Tyler got away with it, only because nobody saw him do it and the neighbors didn’t press charges. 

I had no idea what his personality had become as he and I saw each other perhaps once every three years if that. It was safer for me to assume that the man standing before me was armed and dangerous.

“What did you do to convince Mother to co-sign your three-million-dollar loan?”

“Whoa! Watch it there! You’re here to give me a hard time about that, too? It’s already been done by the damn bankers, thank you. Mama will take care of it as she always does. So, be on your way like a good girl and come back in another ten to fifteen years.”

“I bet Mother will take care of it! That’s not what I asked you. I asked you what you did to convince her to co-sign. Did you threaten her? That’s what you do, right? Threaten?”

“Look. I kinda like you and respect you and everything, but I don’t have to tell you a damn thing about my business or about my relationship with Mama. Matter of fact, why don’t you—”

“Did you threaten Mother, Tyler? Did you lay a hand on her? Did you?” I took a couple of steps toward him and immediately regretted it. I didn’t want to step back, and I stayed put. I was shaking. He didn’t seem to notice. He smiled before answering me.

“No, I didn’t lay a finger on Mama and I never would. Let’s say that there are things, and people, and situations in this world that are on a whole different plane than the one you operate in. There are relationships that transcend all understanding of normal relationship and that operate at a much more basic level, which is the level of raw power. Do you get the concept of raw power, Jillian?”

I didn’t reply, and he went on. “When you tangle with the truly mighty you encounter raw power. In this world there are only two things that matter: power and pleasure. Power gives you all the pleasures you want, only if you’re smart and you hold on to your power. The whole struggle of humanity, throughout history, is nothing more than a struggle for power and a quest for pleasure. You’re tangling with something so big and powerful that you can’t even imagine it, sissy.”

I stayed silent. I was that teen-aged girl again and he was bullying me, again. This time with oddball philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

“So, when you ask me if I threatened Mama,” he continued, “You’re asking me if I exercised my power for the purpose of reaching my objectives. My answer is, yes, I did. It is easy enough for you to verify with Mama whether the wielding of my power hurt her in any way, other than in convincing her to see the wisdom and the necessity of what I was asking her to do. She understood and she yielded, and nobody got hurt.”

I wanted to know more.

“What did you use all that money for?” 

“To acquire more power, of course! I went for the big prize and I won. Mama says you know about this stuff, and you’ll see why I had to do it. I now own an absolute fortune in an incredibly special kind of bitcoin, issued by a rock-solid outfit that is into all sort of advanced artificial intelligence technology. I’m a big investor in it, perhaps one of the biggest in the world. I may be cash-poor right this minute, but I’m fabulously rich in highly-valuable assets.”

My heart sank. For a moment, I was no longer afraid of my brother. In the last thirty seconds he was transformed from a dangerous bully, capable of cruelty and violence, into this poor guy whose brain had obviously been damaged by too much booze and too many snorts. I knew a lot more about bitcoins than he did and based on what I knew about the risks of cryptocurrencies, I knew that Tyler had been taken for all he was worth—and Mother with him.

I turned around and walked back toward Mother’s house. I’d found out some details, but now the picture was much bleaker.

“Bye! Don’t be a stranger!” he yelled after me, but I knew I would continue to be a stranger to him, as he was to me. I never could play “big sister” when he was a little boy, even as I tried my hardest. I was three years older and at least five inches taller, but his furious tantrums taught me early on that I needed to stay as far away from him as possible. As soon as I could, it became a practice which continued to this day.

I stopped and yelled back. “What’s the name of the rock-solid outfit?”

“The PAI, p-a-i. Dark web only. Have a nice day!” He blew me a kiss.

The “pie” again. In the dark web. The name for an internet level protected by so many layers of encryption and security that made it impossible to access its websites through ordinary means. Sites that were not indexed by the usual search engines; sites that were not completely off the grid but could only be accessed by a specialized browser, Tor. Accessing some of these super-secret sites was dangerous because you may accidentally reveal your identity to an awfully bad actor in the Dark Web. Smart people stayed away from it, and most did not even know of its existence. This was a good thing, because all the businesses in the Dark Web hid in its depths for a reason. Many were illegitimate, trafficked in prohibited goods or substances, were the home of the most nefarious hackers, and did their business only in a cryptocurrency such as bitcoins. 

In hindsight, those were the good old days.

Mother came down for dinner. We ate the sandwiches I prepared, out on the porch. She drank her usual hot tea; I went for ice coffee. We talked about Paris and Mike and what I was going to do about getting a new job, and both of us carefully avoided the main subject. I’d always hated that part of my relationship with her. She was always subtly in charge of the conversation, even when she wasn’t saying anything, and she’d bring something up only when she was ready, no sooner.

Which was the following morning as I was getting ready to leave for Dawn’s place in Gloucester.

“So, your brother told you about it?”

“About what?”

“The P-A-I. The company he’s invested in. I saw you walk over there. That’s good, you needed to know about it. I don’t understand any of it and maybe he doesn’t either and I know you do. I don’t want to know, what’s done is done. I’m leaving tomorrow for Berlin.”

“And the bank?”

“It’s taken care of and there’s no need for you to be concerned about the details. There’s plenty of money left for your inheritance if that’s what you’re worried about.”

It was infuriating. Mother never ceased to amaze me. She was involved and uninvolved, at the same time. One moment she was all in and the next she was completely done. Things that distressed her disappeared behind a mask of impassibility, the master avoider at work. This behavior affected me. She’d raised two children by herself, from the ages of three and six, with little or no emotional upsets. When Dad died, she simply said, “We don’t cry” over and over, until it became a cliché and the standard Andrews response to anything. The philosophy was that whatever others deemed a serious problem could be easily solved simply by relabeling it as something else. Tyler’s cruelty to animals became “his peculiar games”; his scrapes with the law, “growing pains”; his addictions, “diseases” and his total lack of business skills, “his creative mind.” Dad’s death? “A natural passage.”

My problem was that I wasn’t at all like Mother; I was more like Dad. I took things seriously and whatever was supposed to hurt like hell, did. But I went overboard. Even what wasn’t that big of deal ended up being a catastrophe in my own mind—one of my shortcomings. For Mother and Tyler, nothing ever rose anywhere near that level. Lucky them.

I left without knowing if she’d paid the bank off or if she was just abandoning the place to be repossessed and fleeing to Berlin. I would find out soon enough, I told myself. There was little of mine in the house or in the farm. And I didn’t care about the inheritance, either. It seemed like something one would worry about much later in life. Given the turn my life had taken, I had other fish to fry.

Tyler’s truck was behind my car when I pulled out of Mother’s driveway. At the High Street, he turned left, and I turned right. I hoped it was an apt metaphor.

When I got to her house, I discovered that Dawn had been busy working on my problems.

“I may know why LYM fired you,” she said, as soon as I walked in.

“You do? I sure would like to know.”

“Well, first let me tell you how I know. I called Bruce after you and I spoke, and I gave him the rough outline of your problems with Mike. I also told him about your being unemployed right now and he asked me why and of course I told him that I didn’t know. So, he went and spoke to a colleague of his in corporate law who specializes in the media industry. The guy told Bruce that LYM had probably been hacked and that they could be trying to figure out who it was who did it and who to sue. They are working on that with the firm’s Manhattan office.”

“They don’t think I had anything to do with the hacking, do they?”

“Oh, no! Not by a long shot. The guy told Bruce that the top brass at LYM is scrambling—possibly because they lost some money. The hackers may have gotten into their system and asked for a hefty ransom.”

I didn’t understand what she meant and why this would have anything to do with me.

“I know nothing about the hack, I swear it to you, Dawn.”

“Like I said, it’s a long shot.”

“What about the thing with Mike? Any good lawyers for hire? I’m dodging the FBI till I get legal representation.”

“For sure,” said Dawn, while tossing the arugula and pineapple salad. “It’s criminal and federal, so it’ll be someone out of Boston. Bruce thinks you should talk to a guy by the name of Hannibal Stephens.”

“Hannibal? Apart from the obvious fava beans and Chianti reference, the other Hannibal lost the war against the Romans even though he was fielding battle-hardened elephants. I hope this guy doesn’t live up to his name.” 

We laughed. Being with Dawn made me feel good. For a minute, I was able to get my sense of humor back and I wanted it to stick around. In the wastebasket of her bathroom, I saw a used pregnancy test and it was negative. She was obviously having fun, these days. Lucky her.

That night, I finally slept. It surprised me to wake up when it was already daylight outside. We drove over to Land’s End and the Loblolly Marina, where the owner was more than glad to rent us a boat at full price because business was slow. Dawn piloted the craft to Thacher Island, and we walked it north to south to the twin lighthouses. We laughed as we chatted about our similar experiences with Roberto. 

We climbed to the top of the South Lighthouse and I could see Boston, but Dawn said I was imagining it. She went back down, and I stayed there, straining to see the city’s skyline through the hazy southwestern sky. There was a law firm over there, and they had answers. Was the lighthouse also a metaphor? Or was it a simile? I always got those two confused.

“What are you looking at, lady?” said a toddler as he looked up at me from three feet below. Muttering “I’m sorry” his mother scooped him up before I could answer.

I walked down counting the steps, and lost count three quarters of the way down. Would I have, normally? Was stress affecting my mind? I worried about the worry I was carrying and anxious about how anxious I was. They call it the “compound effect of stress,” where someone ruminates so much about stuff that they ended up making things much worse for themselves. That was me.

When I got to the bottom, Dawn walked out to the edge and was standing there, cutting a pretty silhouette. She was a little taller than me, not by much. Her hair was significantly shorter than mine and it looked good on her, much better than it did on me when I’d tried it. She wore one of those shapeless, free flowing natural fabric dresses that made you look like you didn’t have a body, with only the head and her bare arms sticking out of the folds. She was pretty, for sure. My wicked mind got stuck on how Roberto could have been in love with that type of woman and then turn around and be interested in me—until I chased that notion out of my mind because it was an unfair and useless comparison. Besides, I was more than just holding my own in the looks department.

She must have sensed something. “There’s a matter you haven’t yet told me about, isn’t there? God, I hope not.” Her South African accent came out in the way she said “mattah” and “goh-d”.

“Yes, I was thinking about why LYM would fire only me and nobody else. It’s not like I was the highest paid or anything like that, far from it. DeWanda didn’t say it in so many words, but I read into it that I was the only employee overseas whose position they decided to eliminate. And that’s because… because of the hacking? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Yeah, I see your point. The hacking is what Bruce’s colleague brought up when he told him about your job loss, but it could be totally off kilter.”

“There were others who left the company, though,” I said, taking the other side of the argument. “Some RIF did happen, and people took early retirement. Who knows how much money LYM will end up saving? Maybe it’s more than I can imagine. Right?”

It bothered me all the way back to the boat rental place.

The owner saw my gloomy face and called me out. “What? Didn’t enjoy Thacher, Miss? Bit hazy, but smooth sailing, no?” I sneered at him.


Hannibal the Boston attorney was a busy man. He saw me only because of Bruce’s successful pitch on my behalf.

“My God, what in the world’s been happening to you?” he said, with a theatrical hand-on-the-heart gesture. “Bruce tells me… but why don’t you tell me what brings you here?” 

His office was covered in mahogany, except for the floor, which was thick black carpet, and one wall which was nothing but a huge window onto the Boston skyline. Impressive and expensive… Claustrophobic for me.

I told him about the job loss and touched briefly on the Shackelford affair. Then, I got to the part about Mike and the FBI.

“Wait, wait!” he interrupted. “Wait a minute. You haven’t contacted the Bureau yet, have you?” I shook my head. “That’s good! You must not talk to them unless I’m with you, or they’ll hit you with a process crime before you can complete the first sentence. Let me give the Boston field office a call and see what they’ve cooked up for you. In the meantime, sit tight and don’t talk to anyone about this—that is, not anybody in law enforcement anywhere, here or in Europe. Is that understood?”

His phone rang and he took the call, a long one, and made me wait outside his office. His assistant kept on pecking away at her keyboard and ignored me.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Hannibal said, ushering me back in. “That was my fiancée, Ashley. Wedding planners are driving her crazy!”

“Congratulations. When is your wedding?”

“A week from tomorrow. Down to the wire! But, not to worry. I’ll make sure that my associate, Stan, is fully read in on your case and I’ll be available to him or to you day and night. Except during my honeymoon, of course!” He let go of a hearty laugh.

“Of course.” 

“As a matter of fact,” he added, “let’s bring young Stan in right now and, if you don’t mind, repeat your story, briefly, for him.”

The only things I remember about Stan—since that was the first and only time that I ever saw him—are his thick glasses and the furious notetaking on his phone. If there ever was a thumb-typing championship anywhere, Stan must have been at least a finalist.

“Let’s call the FBI and see what’s cooking,” said Hannibal, after I was done re-telling my story to Stan. Hannibal might have a been a mite too busy for my taste and expensive, but he moved fast.

He got through the gatekeepers at the Federal Building in no time and then looked at me while pointing at the phone. He was talking to the man in charge.

“Special Agent Burroughs, what a pleasure… Fine, fine, thank you… She’s fine, too, thank you for asking! … Ah, yeah, isn’t it, though? … Now, I got a situation that I’d like to run by you if you don’t mind… It may not be the competence of the Boston office, perhaps you can be so kind as to point me in the right direction?” 

Hannibal brief laid out my situation with Mike to the FBI man as a hypothetical and provided Mike’s name and details without mentioning me at all. Then, he listened, nodding from time to time and making notes on a pad.

After what seemed to me as a long-winded answer by the FBI man, Hannibal hang up and looked at me in a funny way.

“Ms. Andrews,” he said, “are you sure you heard Mr. Stanwick correctly when he called you about his case?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Mike said he was being sued for twenty-two million dollars and that I was going to be a party to the case, and that it was either federal or criminal, or both. Why?”

“Have you spoken again with Mr. Stanwick after that call?”

“No, why? Is something wrong?”

Hannibal turned toward his associate. “Stanley, that’ll be all for now. I’ll call you later. Thank you.” Stan got up without a word and left.

“Ms. Andrews,” Hannibal said, “the FBI told me that there is a years-old antitrust case against the Wolfram Corporation that is winding its ways through the courts. Nothing is currently pending and pertaining specifically to its CEO, Mr. Michael Stanwick.”

“What kind of antitrust case?”

“Agent Burroughs didn’t go into any detail. He spoke of it nonchalantly, which tells me it has nothing to do with an alleged criminal case against your ex-husband. As a matter of fact, he said there is no criminal case against Mr. Michael Stanwick, not in Washington, not here, not anywhere in this country.” 

A massive hot flash rose from the knot in my stomach and radiated to my chest.

“I don’t get it.” 

“There’s is something else,” he said, reading from his pad. “A Ms. Phyllis Stanwick has filed a missing person report in Alexandria, Virginia. It appears that Mr. Stanwick has been missing since the last week of June.”

“But that’s six weeks ago!”

“Exactly. Do you happen to know where your ex-husband was calling you from?”

“No, I don’t… wait! The caller ID said it was a 202-area code in Washington, DC, and a secretary or receptionist put the call through.”

“Possibly designed to fool you into thinking he was in his office. Phone IDs can be spoofed for any area code in the world, nowadays. It looks like Mr. Stanwick wanted you to believe that you were wanted by the FBI for questioning on a matter of intellectual property theft.”

“But why?” My face was on fire.

“That, Ms. Andrews, is the twenty-two-million-dollar question.”

There was no further need for Hannibal’s services. I left his office in a daze. A few miles out of Boston, I couldn’t drive any farther and I checked in to a La Quinta Inn, took two Ambien and collapsed on the bed.

The phone jolted me out of my sleep. I moved, and my handbag fell off the bed and spilled on the floor. The cell continued to ring while I rubbed my sticky eyelids. The digital clock on the nightstand said 9:45 a.m. The ringing continued as I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth. I hadn’t received anything but bad news every time the cell rang, and I could have gone a month without getting another call. I didn’t want to answer but, of course, I did.

“Hello?”

“Jill?” Dawn’s voice was happy and breezy. “It’s Dawn. How are you and where are you?”

What could I possibly say about how I was? She’d been helpful in setting up the meeting in Boston, she knew about Mike, about LYM, about Shackelford… I didn’t want to spoil the good feeling she had of being able to help a friend in need. Dawn was efficient, she knew all the right people, she had a captivating personality, and she had her life together and running smoothly, so why mess it all up with my intractable stuff?

“Jill?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting your call.”

She must have thought I was drunk or strung up on something because that’s how rough my voice sounded. Images of a bridge somewhere flashed in my head, and I was on the ledge—breaking news: third-rate technical journalist perishes in Susquehanna river currents, details at 11. 

“Were you asleep?” she asked. “I’m sorry to have awaken you!”

“No, I wasn’t sleeping. Passed out is more like it. I took two Ambien last night and they did me in. I was driving toward your place yesterday and suddenly I couldn’t drive any more. I’m at a motel somewhere off I-95. Are you at home?”

“I’m… you would have missed me. I’m visiting my aunt.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “I should have called before heading that way… you know, after my meeting in Boston.”

The conversation was stilted. I didn’t know if it was my foggy head or something else. We’d been friends for two years. How we’d “met” wasn’t exactly a good memory, for either of us. It was in a phone call from her to me. She was as mad as a swarm of angry hornets and she let me have it. Butt out, she said, you’ve no business interfering in my relationships, you’re nothing but a (a choice insult here) and pray to Goh-d I don’t run into your ugly face or I don’t know what I’m gonna do. That was just after I said “hello.” 

It got better after that. It turned out that she’d just received an effusive email from Roberto, whom she was dating at the time, singing the praises of this “amazingly smart and bellissima” techie he met in Paris. He told her what he told all his girls, that she should get to know me and that we should hang out and gave her my phone number. After that first call, the conversations between Dawn and me had frequently turned to our common frenemy, Roberto. I was mad that I mattered so little to him after what was more than a business meeting at a conference. That’s who Roberto was, and Dawn and I found our bond—we belonged to the same fan club.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“I got a call from Bruce last night,” she replied. “He said Hannibal Stephens was worried about you after you left his office, and that the FBI told him your ex is missing, and he’s been missing for weeks. He wanted to make sure you were looked after because you seemed ‘distressed’, as he put it.”

“That’s nice of him,” I said. What did “distressed” mean to Hannibal? As far I was concerned, I was incredulous and angry in his office, not distressed. Should I have been distressed? Had the FBI man said anything else to him that he hadn’t told me?

“You should go back to your mum’s place and forget about the whole thing,” Dawn said. “And I mean all of it. Mike, the job, your brother, everything. Get a fresh start, go back to your old love, lifestyle reporting. You’re not on the hook for anything, apparently. Why pursue it?”

“It may be a good idea. I’m fed up with everything that’s happened.”

But I didn’t take her advice. I got on the road again, and my head was clear and my determination stronger. I’d get to the bottom of all this weirdness and get my life back on the right track again—whatever track it was going to be. 

I’d never driven a car this much in such a short time. Hundreds of miles and this was only the beginning. The unrelated events happening in close succession could be related, but how? 

I headed to Alexandria, Virginia and to the house I’d briefly shared with Mike and his mother. That was the arrangement in our marriage. We stayed at his mother’s house because Mike never grew up enough to have a house of his own. We dated, he proposed, we got engaged, and got married. A lot of it with his mother’s unnerving presence. 

When we came back from the honeymoon, Mrs. Stanwick was there, living right below us. We didn’t have a separate entrance, and anybody who came to visit us went through her front door. Like I said, unnerving. She wandered upstairs often, with whatever her excuse of the day happened to be. She murmured under her breath and I could never figure out what she was saying. She’d have a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in her hand when she came up and invariably left it behind empty when she went back down. It gave her another excuse to come back up.

Did Phyllis Moore accept that same arrangement? 

Download An Easy Assignment.