ROASTED BEAN COUNTERS
A Carly Turnquist prequel story
By Leeann Betts
Bear Cove, Maine
Carly Turnquist loved numbers. Unlike people, numbers don=t change. Two plus two always equals four. And when they don=t, that=s where her particular skills came in. It was her job to make sure the numbers always worked out to what they were supposed to be.
She had loved numbers for as long as she could remember. After college, she worked at a large accounting firm, where she had been given routine assignments like preparing simple tax returns. However, she found her niche, and got her big break, when one of the senior accountants disappeared one day, and with him, over a million dollars of company money. The police were called in, and, naturally, everyone assumed that when Joe McLain hadn=t showed up to work that day, and couldn=t be reached by phone, he had taken the money.
Carly knew Joe, and considered him her friend. He couldn’t have done this.
All available resources in the firm were involved in the police investigation, including Carly. Joe had recently been passed over for promotion to become one of the managing partners, and the general consensus around the office was that he took the money out of retribution. Joe was nearing retirement, and even though he wasn=t her account manager, he always had time for Carly when she had a question.
Around this time, Carly heard from several different sources that Joe had a gambling problem, which surprised her. Although things looked bad for Joe, Carly had a niggling suspicion that someone was trying to lay the blame on an innocent man. Her primary reason for believing in his innocence was that he didn=t have access to the firm=s bank accounts. Only senior partners had that access.
More unsubstantiated accusations surfaced about forged checks and bribery, but whenever she asked the person telling her the story how they knew this information, she was met with blank stares and shrugs. Seemed nobody could recall where the rumor started.
On the day he disappeared, she went through every file he had worked on for the past five years. Everything was meticulous, every report in place, every statement in order, and their perfection taught Carly a thing or two as she investigated.
The next day, Carly talked to everyone she could find who knew him, even a niece he hadn=t seen in nearly twenty years.
But it was while talking to his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Markham, that Carly got her break.
The quiet older lady, who obviously had lots of time on her hands, wrung her hands in her apron. “Joe had a visitor the morning he disappeared. Early, it was, too.”
Carly perched on the edge of a dilapidated wooden chair, sipping lukewarm tea from a not-quite-clean china cup. “Was that unusual?”
“Sure it was. Since his wife passed, he didn’t have but one or two friends who dropped in. And surely not that time of day.” She shook her head, her rheumy eyes pale behind her glasses. “I don’t know people think these days. Coming and going all hours of the day.”
Not wanting the woman to get off on a tangent, Carly attempted to rein her in. “Back to Joe?”
“Right. He drove up in a taxi, went inside, and came out alone a little while later.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
“Just that it was a red and white cab.” She sipped her tea. “And I thought he looked like one of those spies on the television. Not that I watch much television now, you know. It’s hard to find a program fit to be seen.”
Carly nodded. “How do you mean he looked like a spy?”
The older woman leaned forward. “Well, you see, that’s another thing caught my eye. It was a warmish morning but overcast. And he was wearing a hat, sunglasses, and a trench coat. Just like a spy.” She gripped the edge of the wooden table. “My, do you think Joe could be mixed up with something like that?”
Carly didn’t think that was likely. “Was he tall?”
Mrs. Markham waved off her question with a flutter of her fingers. “Oh, I wouldn’t say so. Hard to tell, of course. I think he was average height, white, but I couldn’t be positive.”
Amidst promises to keep the older woman updated on the search for Joe, as well as more assurances that she didn’t believe Joe was a spy, Carly made her escape.
Since there was only one cab company in town, it wasn=t difficult tracking down the driver. What was more difficult, though, was to get that driver to give her any information. His argument? She wasn=t the police, and so he had >driver-fare confidentiality= to honor. >Driver-fare confidentiality=? But he wouldn=t budge. At least, not until she offered him twenty bucks. Seems confidentiality could bought. At least the >driver-fare= sort.
Once he tucked the bill in his pocket, the driver was more talkative. “I picked him up at the corner of Main and Blossom. The guy passed me a note with the address on it.” He scratched an armpit. “I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t answer. Some people think they’re above talking to a cabbie, I suppose. Not above riding in my car, though.”
“What happened next?”
“Well, I pull up to the address. He passes me another note and a twenty.”
“What did the note say?”
“He wanted me to wait for him. So I turned off the engine and had a snooze.”
“How long was he in the house?”
Shrug. “Not sure. Half hour, maybe a little more. Gave me another note that said: Main and Blossom. So I let him out where I picked him up. The meter said the fare was twelve dollars, including the wait time, so I started looking for change. But I had a hard time because this was my first fare of the day, and hardly anybody pays for a cab in this town with a twenty. By the time I found the change, the guy was gone.”
There didn=t seem to be much information here, except one thing bothered Carly. “Any idea why the man didn’t speak?”
Another shrug. “No idea. He didn’t give me one of those little cards that says he was mute or nothing.”
Carly left the taxi stand and headed for the downtown area, mulling over this newest development. If the man could speak, why use notes? Was there something he would give away by speaking? Since he had gone in to see Joe, Carly concluded that the man could speak, but didn=t want to. Why? Did he have an accent?
She did a quick turn through the downtown area businesses, asking if a stranger had been in recently, with a noticeable accent. There were none. She checked at the post office, the bank, and the gas station, the most likely places where someone passing through would frequent. Still nothing.
Her next conclusion was the turning point of the investigation.
While the police spent their time and resources putting out all-points-bulletins for Joe McLain, Carly went in a completely different direction. Knowing Joe as well as she did, she knew he didn’t take the money. So where was he? No one saw him leave his house that day, so she had to conclude he never left. If that was true, where was he?
The police had already searched the house, and she heard through the grape-vine at work that it didn=t look like anything was missing, from what they could tell. There were suitcases in the attic, clothes in the closets. He didn=t have a passport or a car. There was food in the fridge, and that day=s newspaper was on the kitchen table, unread.
When she’d visited Joe’s neighbor earlier, Mrs. Markham mentioned she had a key to Joe=s house, and he had a key to hers, >in case of emergency=. On the third day after Joe=s disappearance, Carly went back to see Mrs. Markham. Once again she was invited in for tea, but Carly was in a hurry.
“Maybe next time. Could I borrow the key to Joe’s house?”
The old woman’s brow furrowed. “Well, I don’t know. Joe and me, we trust each other. I already let the police traipse around in there. Heaven’s knows what kind of a mess they’ve left.”
Carly drew a deep breath to settle her racing heart and mind. “I work with Joe. We’re friends. I’m not going to take anything from the house. I just want to look for clues, things the police might have overlooked.”
The woman nodded. “I have to admit, I’m plenty worried about him. He always tells me if he’s going out of town, even if just for one day. He wouldn’t have left, not even in an emergency, without telling me.”
Words came unbidden to Carly’s mind. Joe could well have a million good reasons to leave town and not tell her where he was going. But no. She pushed those thoughts aside. Joes wasn’t a thief. And if he didn’t take that money, he must be in danger. “Please, Mrs. Markham. I need to find him.”
The woman stepped back as if to close the door and end the conversation. Carly’s heart sank. Mrs. Markham was her last hope.
Instead, the woman thrust her hand through the door opening, a single key dangling from a souvenir key fob from Niagara Falls. “But I’m going with you.”
Carly snatched the key before the woman changed her mind. “Thank you.” To be honest, she was glad not to be alone in the house.
Together they entered the quiet house. The police had finished their search and the yellow police tape previously sealing the door was gone. She flicked the switch inside the front door, flooding the foyer with light. Mrs. Markham seemed as nervous as Carly, and they crept quietly around the house. Carly felt like she shouldn’t be there. In all the years she and Joe had worked together, he’d never invited her to his home.
They did a cursory search of the main floor, including the pantry, laundry room, and two bedrooms. When Carly said she would go down in the basement next, Mrs. Markham suddenly remembered she had an important errand to run.
“Just make certain you lock the door behind you. And drop the key in through my mail slot.”
“I will. Thank you.”
With that, the older woman bolted from the house in a surprisingly agile manner, given her age.
Carly smiled at the woman’s retreating back. She didn=t really want to go into the basement, either, and especially not by herself.
Drawing a deep breath and making sure the basement light was on before she ventured down, Carly took the steep steps carefully, one at a time. Each creaked under her weight, making noises far louder than her slightly chubby build called for, she was sure.
At the bottom of the stairs, she paused for a moment to get her bearings. Shelves along one wall were piled with the various accouterments all homeowners tend to accumulate: old camping equipment, suitcases, unlabeled boxes, Christmas ornaments, old books. A washer and dryer filled one corner, with a small table between them, on which she could see some detergent and a full laundry basket. Against another wall were a couple of broken chairs teetering precariously next to a small workbench. A project for a rainy day, perhaps. And on the other wall was an old coal furnace, a newer gas furnace, and the water heater, all very dusty.
Carly stood in the middle of the basement and turned around slowly, looking for something out of place. On her third time around, she saw it. The gas furnace and the water heater were covered in a thick layer of dust. But the coal furnace, which was much older and should have been dirtier, showed some dust-free areas on the door, as if someone had brushed up against it. Had the police done that?
Sweat broke out on her forehead and dripped into her eyes as she contemplated this discovery. Should she call the police? If there was nothing inside but old coal, how foolish would she look? Then again, if there was anything else in there, did she really want to find that herself?
While standing there, arguing with herself about what to do, Carly heard a low, steady thumping. She jumped, turning quickly. Where was the noise coming from? She was alone in the house. Wasn’t she?
She strained to determine the direction that the sound was coming from.
Was she imagining things? Mike always said she had the nervous imagination of an ant in a frying pan.
Or was someone in the house with her?
Carly stood still, not making a sound. Where was the noise coming from?
Now that her heart calmed down a little, she realized that the thumping was coming from the old coal furnace.
Did she really want to look in there?
She knew the answer to that: no.
But her curiosity got the best of her. A quick peek couldn=t hurt. One quick peek, and she would slam the door shut again. After all, the police had probably searched the furnace already, right?
Then again, because it was the old coal furnace, obviously not in use anymore, why would they?
She scurried to the door, knowing that if she lingered much longer, she would talk herself out of doing this. She grabbed a piece of wood leaning against the wall, then realized she held an old broom handle. Not much of a weapon. She laughed at the thought of >sweeping= them off their feet. Still, just holding the splintered piece of wood bolstered her confidence somewhat, and she reached forward to open the furnace door.
Seemed like the latch hadn’t been turned in a while. She wrestled with the rusty handle for a moment, then finally the metal screeched, and the door swung open, rusty hinges squeaking in protest. Carly exhaled in a whoosh.
Inside the furnace, lying on the coal bed, was a body, trussed up like a Christmas turkey.
It didn’t move.
Carly feared with worst. She poked at one of the legs with the stick, and when it groaned, she jumped back in alarm.
One leg kicked out feebly, and she recognized Joe’s trademark argyle sock. He was bound and gagged.
Her nervous fingers fumbled at the ropes tying his feet together, all the while peppering him with questions he couldn’t answer since his mouth was filled with a piece of cloth. She grabbed him by the legs and pulled him toward her until she could reach the tape holding the gag in place. “Sorry, this is going to hurt you worse than it will me.” She ripped the tape off, wincing at the look of shock and pain on his face. “Let me help you out.”
She helped him to one of the broken chairs. Luckily this one only needed some repairs to the back. He slouched against the basement wall as she untied his hands.
Concerned with the pallor on his face, she kept asking questions as he seemed dazed. “Joe, it’s Carly. All you all right?”
He flexed his fingers. “I think so. What day is it?”
“Thursday.” She loosened his shirt collar.
“What? That means I’ve been in here—”
“This is your third day.” She surveyed him. “You don’t seem in too bad a shape considering how long you’ve been inside that furnace.”
He began to stand then sank into the chair again and buried his face in his hands. “Oh, Carly, I’m embarrassed for you to find me this way.”
“What are you talking about?”
He gestured to the dark stains on his trousers. “No bathroom facilities.”
Heat raced up her cheeks. “Right. Sorry.” She could only imagine how he felt. Being found in this state, and by one of the junior accountants, at that. “Let’s get you upstairs. I’ll make you something to eat, and you can get cleaned up.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Carly looped his arm over her shoulder, and together they made their way up the steps. While he went into the bathroom to clean up, Carly heated up a can of soup and put the water on for tea. While she stirred the soup, she pondered who had taken the money. It had to be a senior partner at the accounting firm. But there were none with accents, so that couldn’t be why the man hadn’t spoken. Maybe a lisp? Or a stammer? No, none with either of those speech impediments.
The only senior partner who needed to be disguised like a man was a woman.
By the time Joe returned to the kitchen, she was pretty sure she knew who had taken the money and concealed Joe in the furnace.
When Joe came into the kitchen, he was his old self again. “Thanks, Carly, for coming to look for me. How did you know where to find me?”
She set a bowl of soup on the table, along with some saltines and a spoon. “I didn’t believe you’d taken the money, which was the nasty rumor someone started around the office. The police already searched the house, but I hoped to find something they’d missed.”
He slurped his soup noisily, head bent over the bowl. “Well, you certainly did that. I didn’t even know what was going on.” He rubbed at his chin. “I think I was drugged.”
“I think I know who did this to you. Bear with me while I go through the details.”
Joe held out his bowl. “Can you refill that first?”
She complied and also set his tea on the table.
“Your visitor that morning was not a man, it was a woman wearing an elaborate disguise. If anyone saw her, she wanted them to remember a man. She didn=t speak to the cab driver, or he would know she was a woman.”
Joe nodded. “That’s right. Martha Wilkins came to the door that morning.”
“Martha is tall and muscular. She works out at the gym every day. I’ve heard her bragging that she can bench press two hundred pounds.”
Joe set his spoon down, the second bowl empty. “She smiled and asked if we could talk about something urgent. I had no reason to be afraid of her. Before I knew it, she’d knocked me out.”
“And as strong as she was, she’d have no problem carrying you into the basement. You don’t weigh much.”
“She called me that morning with a story about just having to meet with him about some discrepancies she had just discovered at the firm, that I could help her solve.”
Carly smiled at her friend. The color was back in his cheeks again, and apart from dark circles beneath his eyes, he looked like the old Joe. “And you, being the careful and conscientious accountant that you are, agreed to meet her.”
“Right. I served coffee. She must have drugged it.”
“Then carried you downstairs, tied you up, and shoved you in the old coal furnace.” Carly sat across from her friend. “Then she calmly went to work that day, knowing she had stashed the million dollars, probably in an offshore bank account. When the police came, she started the rumors that you a gambling problem.”
“Which you didn’t believe.”
Carly shook her head. “I know you, Joe. You couldn’t steal.”
Joe smiled. “Well, I think it’s about time to call the police and let them know what we know.”
“It should be easy to catch her. She’s still in town. I think she figured if she left town too quickly she’d be a suspect.”
Further investigations revealed Martha had bought a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro, terminated the lease on her apartment as of the end of this month, and given all her furniture and household goods away. She was caught red-handed, as it were, at the airport, her ticket, brand new passport, and beach wear combining to confirm the police suspicion that she wasn’t planning to return.
She gave up without a fight.
However, Carly wasn’t giving up. She’d caught the mystery bug. Not satisfied with simply adding and subtracting numbers, she took night classes in forensic accounting while she patiently explained to people that forensic accounting had nothing to do with dead bodies and everything to do with using investigation skills to find hidden assets and embezzled money.
Little did she know how wrong she was.