In Deadbeat by Wendi Lee, Boston P.I. Angela Matelli returns to solve a mystery involving the stolen identity of her client, Cynthia Franklin. Franklin's identification has been stolen and now she finds that her credit rating is being destroyed. Angela finds the person responsible, dead, and now her own client is the prime suspect in the crime.
About the Author
WENDI LEE is the author of the Angela Matelli mysteries, including The Good Daughter and Missing Eden. She lives in Muscatine, Iowa.
Wendi Lee is the author of the Angela Matelli mysteries, including The Good Daughter, Missing Eden, and Deadbeat, as well as numerous other works of fiction. She lives with her family in Muscatine, Iowa.
Read an Excerpt
By Wendi Lee
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Wendi Lee
All rights reserved.
Cynthia MacDonald didn't wear her Anne Klein power suit so much as she wielded it. Her body language made it clear that she would feel more comfortable sitting behind my desk than in the client's chair — she was obviously better at being the interviewer than being interviewed — and I hazarded a guess that she worked for some large, faceless corporation. Cynthia MacDonald had been here for ten minutes and I couldn't even venture a guess at why she was here. For a woman with a problem that only a private investigator could handle, she hadn't told me a damn thing. So far, she'd spent most of that time asking about my background, and the only thing we hadn't covered was my personal life.
"So tell me, Ms. Matelli," Ms. MacDonald said now, sitting back in the straight-back chair, "why did you become a private investigator?"
"It was what I was qualified to do after I left the Marines," I replied.
When I joined the Marines, I was lousy at typing, so they couldn't stick me in the typing pool with the other BAMs, short for Big Ass Marine — not something a male marine wants to call a female marine to her face — so I was assigned to assisting a major. Basically, I drove him around, ran errands, and ran interference for him in certain touchy situations. But the major and I were attracted to one another, and although we kept it on a friendly basis, his wife didn't like me. When she made a big stink about "that BAM slut who's assisting my husband," I was reassigned. Fortunately, the major gave me free rein to choose my next assignment. I chose the Military Police. It wasn't long before I was a sergeant in charge of investigations. But I wasn't about to go into all that detail. Telling Cynthia MacDonald that I'd been in the Marines was enough.
In fact, she beamed at me and nodded approvingly. "A marine? You must be made of tough stuff, then."
I smiled confidently, then took a sip of my cappuccino and burned my tongue. Being the tough marine that I was, I didn't wince in my client's presence. I'd recently had a birthday, and Ma had given me a cappuccino machine. Of course she had bought it at a discount from one of her myriad relatives.
I have three brothers, Ray, Vinnie, and Albert, and two sisters, Sophia and Rosa. My sisters have apartments in the building I own — Rosa lives on the second floor and Sophia and her two kids will soon be moving out of their temporary digs on the first floor. I'm the middle sister, and in the whole family, I rank fourth. Rosa and Albert are younger than me and, except for Ray, Rosa's the only one who's attending college — the University of Massachusetts. Ma took Rosa's choice of major, art history, pretty well. She shrugged and told her, "Well, at least you'll have a chance to meet Mr. Right while you're still in college. Unlike your sister." Ma was referring to me. Her fondest wish, when I was in the Marines, was that I would meet my Mr. Right and marry him, have babies, and not reenlist. But we all love Ma, despite her Old World views.
Which brings me back to the cappuccino maker. Ma had figured that it would add a little polish to my tiny office and would attract a better class of clientele. Of course, she dreams that someday soon a wealthy client will come in and, during the meeting with me, notice that I made wonderful cappuccino. He'll ask me out, we'll fall in love, marry, I'll give up the private-eye business, and have babies. Cynthia MacDonald was suitably impressed. But I hoped she wouldn't ask me out on a date. She wasn't my type.
The cappuccino maker also had the added benefit of attracting my neighbors in the office building. It was nice to get to know them, although in some cases, I wasn't sure if it was a benefit at all. The smell of fresh-brewed Italian roast permeated the hallways outside my office and wafted past the delicate olfactory senses of the Romanian cross-dressing dentist, Dan Something-or-Other (his name was unpronounceable in my book, but it had a lot of Xs and Ys in it), and a bail bondsman by the name of Bennie the Bond, who seemed to know everyone I knew. I'd never heard of the guy till I got my cappuccino maker.
While my mind wandered, Cynthia MacDonald continued to prattle on. I tuned in again, wondering if she had noticed the glazed look in my eyes.
"I suppose that's why I became a stockbroker." She smiled for the first time, as if allowing herself that luxury. "I'm good at numbers and projecting the future of a stock. It seemed to have been the path for me to take at the time." Her smile turned ironic. Ironic: that was a five-dollar word I'd learned from my little sister Rosa, the college girl.
"Are you married, Ms. Matelli?" Cynthia MacDonald crossed her thick ankles and cocked her head, leaning forward. If I had been a man and she had been a reasonably attractive woman, I might have been interested in the gap in her ivory silk blouse beneath the red suit jacket. But it was clear to me that Cynthia MacDonald had risen to whatever power position she held by her brains and her ambition. The prominent mole on the left side of her bulbous nose could not be called a beauty mark by any standard, and her colorless eyes had short, colorless lashes. She hadn't even attempted to put makeup on, probably because she knew it wouldn't help. Her only stunning feature was the lustrous dark-auburn hair that was swept up in a shining mass of curls.
"What does my marital status have to do with anything?" In my opinion, the only person who has any right to ask whether I am single or married is Ma. And as I explained, she wields her power over me like a guillotine.
My potential client looked a bit taken aback by my sharp tone, but then she waved a hand. "I just want to be thorough. If you're married, you might have commitments that would stand in the way of taking on this case."
I sent a frozen smile back to her. "Most private investigators do their job regardless of their marital status. I just don't want you to get the impression that simply because I'm a woman in this business, I can't do the job because of a husband and kid at home." She had taken up enough of my time with her anal-retentive thoroughness.
Although I could use a case that didn't involve picking up a repo from in front of a steroid user's house in Chelsea, I didn't need a case this badly. The truth of the matter was that I was bored, bored with the bread-and-butter stuff I'd been doing lately — repos, and investigating the insurance claims, and serving summonses on occasion. I wanted a real case. I just hoped there was promise here, not merely some woman who wanted to see if her fiancé was being faithful.
"What exactly are you looking for?" I finally asked.
She closed her eyes, propped her elbows on the arms of the chair, and made a steeple with her fingers. "I need you to find me."
If my ears could have done a double take, they would have. "Excuse me. You did say you wanted me to find you?" The lyrics to that awful '80s song, "I've Never Been to Me," forced their way into my head. It was unrelenting, and when this woman left my office, I would have to fill my ears with some good music — maybe Elvis Costello or Bonnie Raitt.
A faint, wry twist of her mouth and a nod left no doubt that this was what she wanted. "It sounds bizarre, I know. Let me explain."
"By all means." I leaned back gingerly in my office chair. The chair was like a cantankerous bucking horse — several times I'd leaned too far back and had been unceremoniously dumped out of it. But the saying, "If you get bucked from a horse once, you need to get right back on it," applied to that chair, and so I was back in the saddle again.
"Recently, I was at Tech City in Quincy to buy a big-screen television, and I applied for instant credit." She paused for effect. "I was turned down."
I raised my eyebrows. "Everyone gets turned down for credit once in a while."
She shook her head. "You don't understand. The guy at Tech City told me that I already had credit with them, and that I had passed my credit limit."
"Could you have gotten credit from Tech City a while ago and forgotten?"
Cynthia MacDonald began to drum her fingernails on the arm of the chair. "No. That's not possible. I keep very good records of my transactions and my creditors."
"And it wasn't just a mistake on their part?" I ventured. "Possibly a different Cynthia MacDonald?"
"The address was different, and the phone number. I had them verify that much for me. But the Social Security number was the clincher." She'd been looking off to my left. Now she looked straight at me. "It was my number." She paused, as if waiting for the da-da-da daaa to accompany her revelation, but when it didn't, she continued: "I decided to have my secretary do a little digging into my credit background, and that's when I discovered that my credit record was a mess."
Trust a woman boss to have her secretary do all the work while she takes all the credit for the discovery. "Get in line. Half the population has a messy credit record," I said, putting my empty cappuccino cup down.
Cynthia MacDonald sighed impatiently. "You don't understand. There are credit cards on my file that don't have an iota of credit left on them." She opened her briefcase and pulled out a thick file folder, setting it down between us. "And they're all cards I never applied for.
"My name is on accounts with stores all over the New England area. We discover a new account almost every day. I owe thousands to credit companies." She leaned forward for the full impact of her words to hit me. "I didn't open those accounts and I'm not paying for them. At this point, I'll be ruined inside of a month. The other Cynthia MacDonald has rung up a total of seventy-five thousand dollars already, and not all the bills are in yet. Will you take my case?"
I frowned. It sounded as if someone was using her name and Social Security number. Interesting. "Okay, Ms. MacDonald —"
"Please call me Cynthia," she said. I could see the release of tension in her shoulders.
I hadn't really decided to take her case, but it would have been awkward to explain that I was just going to say, "Okay, Cynthia, please try to relax." So I didn't say anything at all. Besides, I was beginning to feel sorry for her. If she treated all her employees the way she treated her secretary — giving her work that was unrelated to her office duties, then taking the credit for the work done — I could easily understand some disgruntled coworker ordering twenty-five pizzas delivered to Ms. MacDonald, or putting her name on every junk-mail list available. But if what Ms. MacDonald's secretary found in her employer's credit history was true, this was either a case of deep-seated hatred from a disturbed mind bent on revenge, or Cynthia MacDonald was the victim of true name fraud.
"Okay, Cynthia. Do you have any idea of who might be doing this to you? Is someone out for revenge?"
She gave me an impatient sigh. "I can't think of anyone offhand. Although it doesn't happen very often, sometimes a client of mine has a setback due to some financial recommendation I made, but most of them are pretty gracious about the loss."
I slid a small legal pad and a pencil over to her. "Make a list of the ones who weren't very gracious about it." As an afterthought, I added, "In fact, make a list of all the clients who had financial setbacks up to the time your credit began to slip."
She stared at me. "You think this might be about revenge?"
I shrugged. "It's a possibility. The other possibility is that it's true name fraud. Tell me, was your wallet stolen at any time in the past, sometime around when this all began?"
"Yes, now that you mention it, my purse was stolen during rush hour on the Green line. I didn't even notice it was gone until I got off at Arlington Street."
"When did this happen?"
"About a month before my credit troubles began."
"Your credit cards were stolen, then," I said.
She nodded her head brusquely. "The police found my purse in a restaurant Dumpster off the Red line, at South Station, a few hours after I reported it stolen. It was minus the money and credit cards, but I reported the cards to the companies right away."
That didn't mean much, I thought. A lot of people didn't know that even if stolen credit cards were canceled, knowledgeable thieves could still use those same cards to establish credit.
I would have to check the police report and find out if my client was one of several purse snatchings, or was the only one. It wouldn't prove anything, but if she was the only one, it might point to Cynthia being a target. I steered my questions in that direction.
"What about your office? Is there anyone there you have some doubts about or that you find untrustworthy?"
She paused, then shook her head. "I trust everyone in the office implicitly."
She probably thought only of her colleagues — not the clerical staff.
I took another moment to think, then asked, "Including temp help and janitorial staff?" Most employers don't think about the temporary help as anything more than a convenience. Most employers didn't even think of temps in human terms, and they don't see temp help as a threat. I noticed she wasn't writing anything down yet — probably not used to taking her own dictation — so I decided to prod her. "While you're writing down this information, you might want to include the Tech City that you were in, and the name of the man you talked to."
"True name fraud," she said. She took out her Day-runner and consulted it as she scribbled something down. "What do you know about it?" She put the pencil down, dug in her purse until she came up with a cigarette, then gave me an inquiring look.
I usually don't allow smoking in my office, but it was cool enough outside to open a window, and Cynthia MacDonald looked as if she really needed it. She lit up and looked around for an ashtray. I found an empty pop can in my wastebasket — slap me on the wrist for not recycling — and handed it to her. With a look of distaste, she took it.
"It's not a real familiar crime yet," I said. Lee Randolph, my police detective friend, and I had talked about it a couple of times. Lee told me that it was a hard crime to prove, and that quite often it was difficult to get a conviction even if the perp was picked up. "It's mostly a crime committed by rings of criminals working together. But I've been told that a person's identity is a valuable asset these days, and if your pocket is picked or your wallet is stolen on the subway, you may be out more than just the bucks you had on your person. The mugger can sell your identity to a credit-fraud ring and you can be taken for mucho more."
She grimaced. "I know more about that end of it now than I care to. But I still say I'm not paying for it. The credit companies should have caught on by now. I notified them the minute I discovered that someone was using my name and credit. And I filed a police report as well, but the police seem to be as much in the dark as I am."
I shrugged but didn't say anything. I wasn't going to argue with her. Lee had told me that victims of true name fraud could still be charged for the first fifty to one thousand dollars, depending on the credit-card company. As far as I was concerned, the apocalypse was just around the corner with the advent of "instant credit."
"So what exactly do you want me to do for you?"
"Find the sons of bitches who did this to me." That was pretty clear. Cynthia tapped her cigarette ash into the pop can. "I wanna sue the crap out of them."
Something was bothering me and I had to know. "But if you've already filed a police report, you don't need me."
Cynthia gave me an impatient look. "I'm trying to buy a house. It's not easy in this area for a single woman to do, but it's impossible when you have to deal with a messy credit record, even if a police report backs you up." She tapped the file between us. "Copies of the bills from the other Cynthia MacDonald are in this folder, as well as copies of the reports I filed, and letters from my lawyer to the credit-card companies. I also included my own credit record for comparison purposes." She handed me the legal pad with a few names and phone numbers scribbled on it. "I'll have to fax the information on coworkers who might dislike me, and the names of temp agencies. Or better yet, you can talk to Amy Brandywine, the personnel director at my brokerage."
Excerpted from Deadbeat by Wendi Lee. Copyright © 1999 Wendi Lee. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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