Reluctantly I chuckled. It did appear I bought far more than I'd thought. Continuing to eat the appetizers Michael had picked out from the room service menu I began unwrapping the clothes and accessories. Luckily the entire lot fit into the luggage I'd purchased, otherwise I might have had to continue to shop, for more suitcases if nothing else.
"Alanna, you want your steak?" Michael finally had finished his steak and was eyeing mine with some definite intentions.
Laughing, I waved for him to go ahead while I went back to my pages of the Hagen family stories. I really hadn't realized how many things had gone into my brain over the years. The food had soothed the men to a degree and Paul and Michael spoke to each other of their mutual acquaintances and variety of other activities while I organized myself and settled into work. The tension I had noticed between them earlier had disappeared. Not much time had passed before the food was all gone and I was deeply into the task of putting the Hagens' history on paper.
From the conversation between the two, I decided police officers were under far more stress and pressure than I ever had thought was possible. There must have been at least five of their friends who had divorced while three others had separated or began to cheat on their partners. While I was hearing the stories about the drunk driving and various drinking problems and not to mention the suspected spousal abuse, it dawned on me that I'd never considered such crimes part of a police officer's life, yet they both spoke offhandedly of such matters. Shaking my head, I returned to work on my pages.
"Okay, Alanna, I haven't found any active listening devices in the room but I am running some electronic white noise with this little gadget," he indicated a medium sized black box that I assumed was the device and continued, "just in case there is something aimed at us. So for all practical purposes the room is 'clean' of spyware." Paul had interrupted my scrawling. He and Michael had just returned from checking out the car and said they hadn't found anything there either. They both weren't smiling but rather grim. I think they had wanted to find something -- anything -- so they would know where that envelope had come from besides Dodie.
Next they checked the envelope and tested it for fibers or something obvious on the outside and then carefully Paul opened it with his latex-covered hands. He opened the card with an instrument that looked like an exact-o knife from the opposite side of the gummed flap explaining, "It may be possible to get a DNA match to the saliva from the flap if the person who sealed it was a secretor."
He went on to expound about DNA testing and the remarkable leaps of progress made in the recent years. He ranted about how high profile trials had screwed up years of strong results due to media warping the truth. He continued to do various tests for hairs and fibers. Paul shook the contents of the green envelope into a large clear evidence bag. I took heart in the fact he didn't have to borrow Ziploc bags from me like the cop did years ago when flubbing my case. Once he dropped the card into the evidence bag we all clumped together to look. Appearing innocent enough the customized script spelt out on three oversized lines,
Alanna, My Dear
Large red roses and yellow daisies were graphically cartooned on the front part of the card. While carefully reaching inside the bag with newly gloved fingers Paul used what looked like a giant set of tweezers to flip the cared open so we could continue to read without any of us touching the paper. Thickly bordering the verse was a repeat of the front floral pattern and phrase. Silently we all read the computer-inserted message. Various words were mumbled aloud by each of us as we simultaneously went through the missive.
Alanna, My Dear
Sorry I couldn't be there
News of my most recent demise
May have reached you by now
Let no tears fall from those eyes
For they, like you, are all mine
Oh-so belated wishes on the date
Which has passed like water under our bow
On the ship that sailed without me
But you will soon learn and how
That the time is very near
You have always been mine
There will be our fate
This you are soon to see
Mine, Mine, MINE
FOREVER this time.
"You said that the lady from the card shop wrote on the outside of the envelope, addressing the card to you?" Michael asked.
"Yes, from what she said it sounded like Randolph, or whoever is posing as Randolph, made the card at the shop and Dodie just wrote my name. I've used one of those card machines before, they aren't that difficult to operate." Granted it had been a while but I doubted the card technology had changed that much since I moved out to the desert.
"Can the machine information be uploaded?" Paul asked.
"It doesn't really matter," Michael said, "the poem in and of itself is not bad or anything illegal. Given the screwy things going on in your life, Alanna, we may all apply other meanings to the comments but beyond that ... " Michael trailed off at my obvious fury.
"How did that lady know to give the card to me?"
"Why don't you call and ask?" Paul interrupted my snarled question keeping Michael from growling back an answer.
"Oh," I felt silly for not thinking of it myself. Michael caught the look on my face and smiled at his missing that also. I had to hand it to Paul he didn't gloat.
The hotel room didn't have a phonebook, I found out looking through the various drawers. Since each time I dialed out it automatically cost a buck, not having a phonebook worked out in the hotel's favor and kept the room costs lower. The cost for directory assistance was another dollar or two. As it is nearly impossible to navigate through LA without proper maps or directions, which usually are found by phone calls or using the twenty dollar a day internet hook up, hotels quickly recouped their initial 'discounts' to the travelers. I didn't figure this out but had it explained over dinner one night at a catering event with some hoteliers and their staff. They found it extremely amusing while I just mentally took notes.
I had another approach for finding that stationery store. I went through my store receipts and found one of them that was located near the stationery store. I saw it had the phone number with area code. The reason I did this wasn't just to save a few dollars but the randomness of area codes in LA. The area codes were all over the map in a somewhat haphazard fashion, I'd found during my years working catering and event planning. As a child, I vaguely remembered LA actually having live telephone operators who knew something. A childhood companion of mine, Genny, actually had grandparents who were on a party line in the Mid-West. We loved to call her Grammy knowing all sorts of houses were being rung simultaneously and sometimes other people eavesdropped. The phone operator answering in the small town would tell Genny how her Grammy Flora Mead was feeling while she and I listened together waiting for her to pick up the call.
Those days of real live operators, for the most part, were long gone. Now getting information on the phone involved giving even more information to the operator than they ever gave to you. All of it done in a robotic voice we'd all grown to hate. The idea of calling and randomly selecting the correct area code without knowing the name of the store gave me chills. The second receipt had a number with a live person answering. All the sales clerks knew the espresso cart but it took the second call to find someone who knew the name of the stationery card shop. Cherry's Card Shop was familiar to the gal and she checked out the mall store directory roster and rattled off the phone number. I thanked her and took a drink of water Michael had kindly supplied while I was puzzling out the approach to take.
Biting the bullet, I dialed Cherry's Card Shop and asked for Dodie.
"Hello? This is Dodie." I could picture her perfectly with her damned weird Disney Cast Member grin. She was more than a tad off but I couldn't be choosy as I needed some information.
I tried to put a smile in my voice when I replied, "Hi, this is Mrs. Hagen."
Grimacing while using the hated name I asked, "Do you remember me?" Like a few hours later her short-term memory would have wiped me completely out of her mind. But for all I knew she was a total ditz and would draw a complete blank. I wasn't so lucky.
"Well, yes," the yes was drawn out and she said, "That young woman," yep the nasty tone was definitely creeping into her voice, to my dismay. She remembered me.
I cut in with, "I am so very sorry about earlier!" I positively gushed. Paul and Michael exchanged exaggerated expressions of macho posturing. I frowned at them. They weren't helping. If I burst out laughing she'd never give me any information. I glared at them.
"Dodie, I am so very embarrassed. You were so sweet to go to all that trouble and I practically bit off your head!" I groveled.
Placated, she simmered down a bit and said, "Yes, Mrs. Hagen, it's quite all right. I guess I startled you."
"Yes, you truly did. I felt awful. Say, how did my sweetie talk you into being the messenger? After all, you're the owner aren't you?" I couldn't meet the guys' eyes because they were finding my excessive flattery highly amusing. Shaking my head at them I turned away from them.
"Oh, how nice, ahem, actually I am the shift supervisor. I try hard to make this a nice restful shop. But I do appreciate your comment. Your husband had such a hard time. I remember his taking his time to pick out your card. Most men just grab the first one they see! He typed it out one- handed all by himself -- I mean what with all his bandages and wrapping on his 'good' hand. I was really busy so I didn't get a chance to help the poor dear. It took him a fair amount of time I seem to recall but he was certainly proud once it was printed." Dodie related to me. I was pretty sure that the time it took for him to 'find' a card had no relationship to the actual design but he was waiting for something.
I slipped in, "Dodie, did you like his poem?"
It was a good question, but she sounded a bit irritated by my assumption of her reading the card when she replied, "Oh, dear, I never saw it. I was too busy out front."
She continued, "He worked the machine by himself and sealed it once it'd finished printing back there. I don't know much longer we're keeping that machine -- folks don't seem to take time to use them. They'd rather just go online and pick something out and use the email to deliver. That's a lost art. But I noticed he was having some trouble writing with his cast." She confirmed my feeling that she'd never read the card or touched anything but the sealed envelope.
I listened to a few more minutes of her prattling then eased her off the phone. She also described Randolph fairly accurately even with the cast and bandages. She said he'd left the store a few moments before she came out to find me. I was told the man had pointed me out when I was purchasing the espresso and biscotti.
Hanging up, I was stunned as I turned back to Paul and Michael. During the last few minutes of the call Michael had stopped kidding with Paul and was busy looking through his notebook. He jotted down the gist of the anniversary card on the pages while Paul was sealing everything into evidence bags and tucked into the pockets of his briefcase.
He caught something in my expression and asked me, "Are you okay?"
"Yes, no, maybe. If you'll excuse me a moment, Paul," I gestured Michael to my side.
"Answer me this, is Paul your old partner?" I went for the direct approach.
A crimson flush edged over his face, casting his eyes down he mumbled, "Yes, well what about it?"
"How much do you trust him?" I hissed out.
"Enough to leave him my fiancé as a door prize," he grumbled.