The mall noises were distant as I mused over the past few days. I really needed the break. My coffee was done and I was just about to get up to dump my cup and trash when an employee from the card shop next to the espresso cart approached me. The woman wore a bright apron and a name badge identifying her as a "Dodie."
"Excuse me, Miss?"
"Yes?" I looked over to see that she was actually speaking to me. I put my trash in the bin while I mentally figured she wanted to see if I had the time or something.
"Hi! I'm Dodie, I work over at that store over there," she indicated the card shop I'd seen her come from with a broad sweeping gesture. I think she was looking to be on a parade float at Disneyland in her spare time. She had that huge overly bright smile that didn't quite fit.
"I think this is supposed to be yours." Dodie wasn't some twenty something beach gal but an elderly, blue-gray haired woman. Her overly bright demeanor struck me as nervousness. She was ill at ease addressing me and trying to put a brave face on it. I watched her pull a light green envelope from the large front pocket of her apron. My throat tightened, I felt flushed and slightly lightheaded. I didn't take the offered missive.
"What?" I still ignored the proffered card. "How do you know it's for me?" I'm not sure but I think I may have growled.
"He said you were waiting for this," she seemed puzzled by my reluctance to accept the innocent looking envelope.
Exasperated by my tone and question she lost her perky mood and replied tersely, "Your husband, he said I was to give this to you after you finished your coffee. Belated happy anniversary!"
She slammed the card down on the small table I'd just vacated and stomped off. I guess she thought I was going to be pleased. Stunned, I looked at the card and saw that it was addressed to Mrs. Randolph Hagen III in a distinctive female hand.
"Excuse me, Miss Dodie?" I pleaded out to her stiff back, stopping her momentarily. I quickly asked, "Did you write this?"
She turned back and said, "Why, yes, of course. I mean after all, the gentleman's hand was in some kind of cast. Watching him try to scribble was so sad. What with all those bandages how could I let him struggle? Besides he was kind enough to allow me to help him."
She seemed mollified by my question and pleading tone, but didn't forgive me my initial rudeness. Pausing another second she added, "After all he is such a polite man!" She blushed and fled back to the safety of her store. Cautiously looking around the area, I couldn't see anyone I immediately recognized. Hesitantly I picked up the corner of the card and unopened I left the mall.
Unknown to her, Alanna was being watched getting the card.
The card was perfect! The doddering old Dodie was a lovely senior who should be spending her golden years out in the pasture with the rest of the sheep. How stupid can you be? Like I'm a nice gentleman? A fool and his money may soon part and Dodie was thrilled to help the old injured man write his beloved's name on the front. I adore using the stupid cattle lining the walkways of society. They really haven't a clue what's out there ready to pull them down and devour their souls even when we're staring them right in the face.
Speaking of faces. I adored the bovine bewilderment that washed over Alanna's face, as she grew delightfully panicked. I could see she was relaxing having that cup of cappuccino and that just wouldn't do. Oh my, now she's definitely scurrying away. Bye, bye for now, Alanna!
Ah, so the game is afoot now! To my chariot, I must catch this next installment on my electronic babysitter. Bet good old Mikey never bothered to check for bugs on his end and he thought he was safe, all those little electronic parts ever so useful, I must hurry and beat her back. After all of last night's listening I hope to finally hear something nice about me! At least some respect for how clever I am. She doesn't talk about me to Michael. I wonder why? How could she have forgotten all I did for her?
Oh, Marlene, how I miss your fawning already. But untrustworthy friends tend to pull one down. No more whining about not going anywhere. The dumpsters will take her far and from my placement of her parts they will scatter her wide. Such is life. She was so messy for such a tiny thing. But I had sheer enjoyment. Hi-ho ... off to play I go.
* * *
"How do you want to handle this?" Michael asked at the sight of the envelope in my hand.
"Lighter fluid and a match," I quipped.
"Alanna, come on," he was very upset at my flippancy. "What do you want to do?"
Not have to deal with anything anymore, I mentally replied.
With an audible sigh, I answered, "This can't be good. It's addressed to 'Mrs. Randolph Hagen, the Third' and the card shop lady told me belated happy anniversary. Nope, it's not going to be good at all."
"Okay, now what anniversary?" Michael asked.
I didn't have to think, "Had we still been married, last week would have been the seventh. But not having a handy little etiquette book with me I am just taking a wild guess and think that's the anniversary where ones spouse gives the other death threats?"
"No, actually wool or copper," he offhandedly responded.
"How do you know that?" I didn't think Michael was married.
His biography on my home security screening indicated he was single, at least as far as his most recent IRS declaration and most folks tended to fill those in properly given jail time was the penalty for fabrication on government forms. That tended to keep most folks honest and Peter had made sure my computer linked somehow to that database. I didn't think it was legal for me to know that stuff but shoved it out of my brain seeing how the possibly illegal link was already done by the time I got my system running.
He looked up sheepishly, "I had a short job at a local stationery shop, undercover, a few years ago. I memorized the anniversary gifts traditionally given because I had so many customers constantly asking me what was given. Surprisingly I still remember most of them."
It was my turn to be mollified I shrugged and said, "Okay, wool, copper or whatever -- I still don't like this. Somebody has to have been following us from my house."
"Or they might have just traced your cell phone when you called Peter from the bed and breakfast. I better check the car for bugs," I would have thought Michael had already done that sort of check. Alarmed, I looked around the room and with a sweeping hand, "What about -- ah," I trailed off and continued to indicate the space at large.
Michael shrugged and picked up the room's phone not responding to me but punching in some numbers from memory.
"Hey, Paul, it's Michael. Yeah, I know. So hey do you have some free time this afternoon and evening? Bring your bag of tricks." Some low mumbled conversation followed and I returned my reluctant interest to my still unopened card.
"Leave that," he brusquely commanded while replacing the receiver. I guess he was finished with his call. Catching my slightly raised eyebrow, he changed his tone and added, "Let's give Paul a chance to do some prints first. He'll be here in the hour. Until then I want you to start writing down absolutely everything you can remember about the Hagen family. I mean no matter how insignificant a detail, just list out as much as possible. I keep feeling this nagging sense that we are missing something vital."
Looking around the room, I picked up one of the complimentary pens and sat at the small hotel secretary-style desk and began the task of filling up pages of notes on the hotel stationery. Michael called down to room service and ordered appetizers and dinner for three. The hotel kitchen was backed up and it was promised within the hour. He also requested a stack of hotel stationery watching how quickly I was writing and discarding pages.
The requested paper arrived in minutes, long before the food, and time passed quickly as I had just begun the barest of family outlines. I was working hard to keep the facts in a coherent flow and finding myself making notes in the margin and numbered asterisks with more tidbits as things came back to me. A knock at the door and Michael answered, letting in a man.
Michael introduced Paul as Detective Paul Colton with seemingly great reluctance. Mr. Colton was an extremely fit man. He was wearing a pair of state gray dress slacks with a crisply ironed cream-colored shirt tucked in with matching black belt and dress shoes. This wasn't someone who wore jeans when working I instinctively knew. The large briefcase by his side was matching expensive leather. But with his height and sinewy body I could easily picture him running the local marathons just for fun. He was obviously a good friend of Michael's, yet they seemed ill at east with me there.
"Hello, Mr. Colton, thank you for coming so quickly," I rose from the desk and attempted to break the growing silence.
"Call me Paul. Sure, anything for Michael," he volunteered back, accepting my proffered outstretched hand in a firm, friendly grip. A few minutes more passed in painful silence and I grew uncomfortable with the awkwardness of the moment.
"Gentlemen, do you want me to leave?" I finally asked as the tension mounted in the room.
"What?" Michael roused himself from his disturbed thoughts, "No, you don't need to go anywhere. Paul, so how's Karen doing?" He finished in a puzzling aside.
"She left me. Right after you'd moved out by the desert, as a matter of fact. Without the competition between us there was nothing to hold her interest, I guess. She disappeared with all my DVDs, CDs and most of the small pricey knickknacks I had in my apartment. Guess you were right, she was quite the heart breaker."
Paul was subdued after the painfully revealing disclosure. He silently opened up his briefcase and began to remove various electronic gadgets, nonchalantly putting them onto one of the queen-sized beds in the room. Michael looked even more uncomfortable than he had minutes before the exchange. "Sorry, Paul, I hadn't heard."
"Sure, whatever," while responding, he held up a note for us to read instructing Michael to banter with me while he worked around the room.
Before we grew too tired of pretending casual conversation, the front desk rang saying my purchases had arrived from the mall. Shortly after the call the bell captain carted the bags into the room. Before Michael had completely opened the door, Paul had tossed a bathroom towel over his electronic toys to prevent any inquiries. The room service tray arrived almost at the same time. We tipped the hotel employees and snacked on the array of goodies overpriced by the management.
Michael had ordered a little bit of everything. The main courses were steaks. But I munched on deliciously prepared canapés, enjoying a nice mushroom paté and other tasty morsels while looking at all my spoils from shopping with some trepidation. I hadn't figured on witnesses to my trip.
"Okay, Alanna, confess you bought out the whole mall, right?" Michael said while cutting off a slice of filet mignon and dipping it in a sauce, which I assumed to be something with horseradish from the smell. I was still nibbling and not interested in the steak yet. But if I didn't hurry there wouldn't be any left. Paul was busy inhaling his steak nearly as quickly as Michael. They really were competitive. Made me wonder at how Karen had inserted herself between them. Still, they stopped long enough to look at all of the boxes and bags.