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November 21, 2022
"Mes de los Muertos"

Betrayal In An Envelope, Part 2

By Kathryn Long

The jingle of bells disrupted my thoughts as the door opened. I glanced up and watched a rather tall woman, about sixty I'd guess, with spiked heels and thick chestnut-colored curls gathered in an upsweep, stride over toward me. I braced my arms atop the counter and took a deep breath.

"Hello, Mrs. Benson." Greta extended a hand to shake.

It was firm and self-assured, I decided. Her confidence seemed to make me breathe a bit more calmly. "It's good to meet you, Miss Allstein. Or is it Mrs.?"

"Actually it is Mrs., but I'm widowed."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Would you like something to drink? We've got a cooler in the back stocked with fruit juice, pop, and water."

She shook her head. "I really can't stay long. My brother is expecting me."

"All right. So, what did you want to see me about then?" I watched as she fussed with the clasp on her handbag.

"Mrs. Benson, I have been keeping a secret for nearly...well, since your friend Wesley died." She watched me very closely and waited.

I thought about Wesley's death, the last time I talked to him, and the note I kept all this time. All of it had been a trying period in my life. All of it like a mystery, webbed in a fog with no way to see out. Was Greta Allstein about to add to that mystery? I wondered. When I didn't speak, she went on.

"I can't really find any excuse for my behavior. I should have come to you years ago, after he died, but at the time I really didn't have the courage. You see, Mrs. Benson, my loyalties were torn. It's just that he asked me to do this, to give it to you if anything should happen. I tried reminding myself Wesley had always helped keep the family money safe. He was more than just an accountant. I knew him so well. He was such a good person, and he deserved better. I should've done the right thing, but it was so tempting, so easy. I had to open it. And...once I realized what it was...how it could hurt... Well, it doesn't matter, now."

I frowned. "Just what are you telling me, Mrs. Allstein?"

She took an envelope out of her handbag. "Take this. It should explain. I can't keep it any longer and it's not mine to keep. Never really was."

I stared at the writing on the outside; "receipts and documents" was all it said. I glanced back up at Greta whose eyes held a tortured expression. It was a look I recognized. Before I could utter another sound she pivoted around on her heel and hurried to the door.

"I'm sorry. I have to go and meet Brock. He's expecting me soon. If you...if you need to talk, Mrs. Benson, it must be soon. We will be going out of the country for...awhile. Maybe for several weeks. My home number is on the back of the envelope. But call no later than early tomorrow morning." For a brief moment, she turned and gave me a stiff smile, and then flew out the door.

I found myself frozen, my hands to the envelope, my eyes to the words, "receipts and documents" written in Wesley's familiar script. I felt like he was here, the envelope, his writing, bringing back a piece of him. I shivered. That is how Stephanie found me five minutes later.

"You okay?" Her voice heavy with worry, she laid her hand over mine.

I finally breathed and moved my hands. "You ever get a strange feeling, one of those shivers that just washes over you like you know something very weird, very...unsettling is about to happen?"

"You mean like when you just knew something had happened to Wesley, and then you got the call about the car accident?" Stephanie spoke in a whispered tone as if she knew how it might upset me.

I nodded. "I have that right now, Steph. I really don't want to open this." I held out the envelope. In a slow, awkward movement she took it. We both stood there, not speaking, and not opening the envelope.

"You know," Stephanie stared at her hand. "I think about those moments in life. Like this." She held up the envelope. "The kind that can change things. Maybe kick you in the gut or knock you over the head." She laughed.

I nodded. "Life altering kind of moment?"

"Yeah. Life altering...I'm just thinking...you ever wonder what life would be like if Wesley had lived? Or--and I know this sounds weird--if it was Wesley you'd married?"

Smooth switch. I smiled, but dodged the question.

"What?"

"Just...I can't let myself think about that too much, but when Bill and I..." I sighed and thought about that night before graduation.

"Yes? What is it, Anne?" Stephanie leaned close.

I shook my head, grabbed the envelope from her hand and started to open it. Inside was a folded piece of paper torn from a business ledger and some canceled checks. I studied the paper that had a list of several businesses. When I noticed Bravo Boutique about five lines down, I stopped and cursed under my breath.

"Damn what? What's damned?" Stephanie came around to look.

I pointed to the line. "See?"

"What do those figures mean? I don't get it. Why would Greta Allstein have facts and figures about Bravo?"

"I don't know, but I do know these have to do with investments. Here's the figures for, well, seems like these go back to..." I stopped when it registered. I poured myself another shot of brandy.

"Oh wow. It's the same year, isn't it?" Stephanie grabbed the bottle off the counter and, not bothering with a glass, took a swig.

I nodded. "I'd say maybe three months before the accident."

"What about those checks?"

I studied each of them and found all were made out to Brock Allstein. "Looks like some of the profits from investments were transferred over to him. Maybe he was part of the investment process and this was payment for his services? I'm guessing." I shook my head.

"Did you know about this?" She chewed nervously on a fingernail.

I recognized the habit. "Stop chewing, Steph. Thanks for worrying, but this is my problem." I picked up the ledger paper once more and read through the list of businesses. There were other local ones besides Bravo. I turned the paper over and found a handwritten account of the deposits and amounts by date, each with a checkmark in front as if someone had been keeping track.

She shrugged and pulled her finger away. "So, did you know?"

"You mean about Bravo investing?" I shook my head. "You know there's no shareholding. And any profit we have at the end of the year gets put right back into the business." I couldn't take my eyes away from the written list.

"So, where do these figures come into the picture? This looks like Bravo invested in...Tristar Enterprises. Like thousands of dollars worth. What's Tristar?"

Stephanie looked at me as if I should know, but I didn't. Yet, from what I could tell, Brock Allstein raked in a lot of cash from Tristar and the investments made by all these businesses including mine. But the most troubling to me was what this had to do with Wesley. True. He took care of the accounting work for Bravo, up until he died. After that, another partner in his firm took over. But I trusted Wesley. He wouldn't cheat. Ever. Still, the envelope had his writing on the outside. It must mean something, I thought.

"You think she's hiding something, don't you?"

I knew she meant Greta. I nodded. "I'm sure there's more to Mrs. Allstein's story. And if she was hiding something, it must be because of her brother." I thought about Letta's news. "No point in protecting him now, I guess."

Stephanie looked puzzled. "Protecting?" The fingernail wedged itself between her teeth once more.

I sighed. "Never mind. I need to run. I'm going to Greta's and get the truth from her. She must know something more." I grabbed the envelope and shoved it into my purse. "Close up for me, Steph. I'll call you later," I hollered as I ran out the door.

My mind ran at warp speed as I drove up Crestwood and toward the Allstein estate. Why did Wesley have this information and how did the envelope manage to end up in Greta's files? Could Wesley have placed it there? For safe keeping, maybe. My breath caught. Or for some insurance? I couldn't help but think it looked like embezzling. Brock Allstein embezzling seemed feasible considering his recent troubles. And if Wesley knew... I couldn't let myself consider the rest. Wesley was a good person, Greta had said. And he was, I thought. No way could Wesley have been a part of embezzling. I recalled the note tucked away in my bedroom dresser and felt the heaviness of doubt. Whatever it meant, if it meant something, I needed to know. Wesley was dead. I had lost a dear friend, someone who could have been... I needed answers. And Greta would have to explain.

I pulled into the drive. All the lights were on, but when I rang the bell, no one answered. I pounded on the door. Still no response. I took the envelope and my phone out of my purse and began to dial.

"Hello?"

"Yes. Mrs. Allstein. It's me, Anne." My voice came in short, breathy spurts.

"Ah, Mrs. Benson. I expected you would call."

I searched for the right words, a way of easing into this, but couldn't. "Was Wesley's death an accident?" A lengthy silence. "Please, Greta. I need to know."

"I can't say, Mrs. Benson. Perhaps it wasn't." Her voice quivered a bit.

"If it wasn't... did, could your brother have killed him? Is that really the reason you kept this envelope?" I shut my eyes tightly and waited.

"I said it could have been murder, but I didn't say it was my brother who did it, Mrs. Benson." Her tone became agitated, no longer unsure of herself.

"Then who?" Quickly, I had gotten past the point of questioning whether Wesley had been murdered. And that surprised me. All that remained to answer was who took his life.

"Just think about it, Mrs. Benson. Wesley wanted to tell you, but he couldn't. When he gave me the envelope, he tried explaining. He told me he was afraid of hurting you. That the news he discovered quite by accident would destroy you. That you might feel betrayed in the worst possible way. Now, we both know my brother and his unethical doings would not feel like a betrayal to you. At least not of the heart. You don't even know him."

I struggled with understanding. "But who then? Who could I...?"

"Wesley loved you, Mrs. Benson, didn't he? And did you love him?"

My heart pounded and I nearly dropped the phone. To hear someone else say it was unsettling. Even if I had known for years, I had never confessed it to anyone, never used the word "love", not even to Wesley. We never dared to talk about it.

"But how...?" I sputtered, my voice uncertain.

"Please, Mrs. Benson. I told you Wesley was more than the family accountant. He became a close friend to me. After my husband passed, you see. I suffered terribly. Wesley was like a son. He consoled me. We talked. We trusted each other with our thoughts, our feelings. Odd, perhaps, but it happens. And you cannot hide much from someone who knows you so well. When he spoke of you, well, it was his eyes. His eyes couldn't hide those feelings."

My mind raced with thoughts and images. Wesley's smile, his soft voice, his scowl when he worried as I confessed my problems with Bill, with the store, with anything. The urgent words in his last note to me, his last words to me, just before the accident. But not an accident.

There is something that has been troubling me and we need to talk. I felt a tightening in my throat. I gasped for air.

After this trip I will be able to tell you all about it.

I heard the words, the phone call from my mother. "There's been an accident, Anne. Wesley was coming home from a trip. Odd, the roads weren't icy, but..."

When I get back from New York, we will get together, during the holidays. I banged both fists against the dash.

"You loved him and he loved you. Isn't that right, Mrs. Benson? Now, do you really think you could hide that from someone you see every day? Someone who knows you so well?"

"I don't know what you mean." I swallowed hard, the lump so big in my throat ready to choke me.

"I think you do, Mrs. Benson. Greed and jealousy. Those are two very strong motives for murder, aren't they?"

I sobbed and nodded. No more words came from me. I felt empty.

"Did you look at everything inside the envelope, Mrs. Benson? It's all there. Everything you need to know. I should go now. We have an early flight, and there's still packing to do. Family must take care of family. At least that's the way I see it. You will need to decide that one for yourself. Take care, Mrs. Benson."

I heard a click at the other end, and then I lowered the phone to my lap. The envelope rested on the seat next to me. I stared for a moment, frightened even to touch it. But the familiar writing gave me courage. I wiped the tears away and with an unsteady hand opened the flap. There was another paper, folded into quarters, tucked away in a bottom corner. The folds were soft as if from repeated opening. I wondered how often Greta Allstein had looked at it over the years, and then put it back in its safe place, waiting for the right moment.

Did you hear about Brook Allstein? He's ruined, I tell you... Family must take care of family. At least that's the way I see it.

I unfolded the paper, slowly at first, but then in a quick, fluid movement opened it to discover its contents. I had to know. I read. Tears stained the faded parchment as I started all over again to spill my emotions. I trembled, not just from sadness, but from anger. Rage burned inside. I wanted to scream, but instead I dropped the paper on the floor and started the car, put it into reverse, and left Mrs. Allstein behind to deal with her own demons. I considered calling 911, but couldn't take the time, not now. My mind continued to pummel me with its thoughts.

How's business, Anne? Maybe you should think about opening a chain of boutiques. I made quite a bundle in the stock market this year. We could put that toward another store. My mind raced in all directions. His voice attacked me, each word a tiny dagger.

Do you really need to see him? What's so important that you have to talk to Wesley and not to me? Why don't you stay home with me tonight? Really, Anne, sometimes I think you don't trust me. I slammed down hard on the steering wheel and the horn, nearly colliding with an oncoming car as I swerved around the corner.

I have to take a business trip up north this weekend, and I might find time to do some last minute shopping for gifts, see the lights. I don't suppose you'd like to tag along? Oh, that's right. You have that wedding shower for your cousin on Saturday. Maybe next time you can come and we'll see a Broadway show.

On the next turn I hit the curb and the front tire rode along the sidewalk for several yards before I could gain control and bring the wheel back down. It was enough to grab my attention. I pulled over into an empty lot and stopped the car.

I sat and cried. My hand reached down to pick up the note once more and I read the words, as if reading them again would make me understand any better. You won't get away with it, Benson. Anne has to know. About the embezzling and the cheating. All of it. I don't know how she will take losing you both, but she needs to know. Either you tell her by the end of the week, or I will. I'll give you that... Wesley.

I checked the ledger once more to be sure. I was certain the dates matched, but I had to have proof. And the proof was at home. My hands shook as I folded the note once more and placed it back inside the envelope. I stared at the ledger one last time, and the written list with its familiar left slant.

You're not feeling well? Bill's hand signing for the meal, placing the card in the tray, and picking up his fork once more with his left hand. I felt the jagged stab of pain.

You're my partner and my best friend, Anne. You know you can always trust me, confide in me. That's what girlfriends do for each other.

Home. I thought about driving home, but I couldn't make that turn. Instead, I headed for the shop. I needed to go there. The lights shined through the front windows.

Stephanie, who could always make me laugh, stood at the counter. You ever wonder about those moments? What if you'd married Wesley? I think about those moments in life. Life altering? Yeah, life altering. I felt the tears run down my face and I watched through the store window.

I watched how Stephanie laughed, and Bill, standing close, placed his arms around her. He touched her cheek, a gentle stroke, and then he kissed her. Long and passionate.

I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and took the phone from my purse. My finger touched the nine, another nine, and then one.

"I'd like to report a murder...Yes. It's Bravo Boutique, the corner of Baird and Main. No...don't worry. I'll be here."

Greed and jealousy are two very strong motives for murder, aren't they? I opened the glove compartment and took out the .22 caliber pistol Bill made me keep for protection. "Yes they are, Mrs. Allstein. Yes, they are." I placed two bullets into the chamber and walked to the front doors of Bravo.

-- Kathryn Long

Article © Kathryn Long. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-02-09
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