Joellen Becker pushed paper into arbitrary piles, glanced at file folders, tapped at her computer, her brow furrowed as if deep in thought. She had one of those little square offices with glass walls, and to everyone else in the offices of Marvin & Strauss Insurance Company it looked like she was working hard.
She was sneaking Little Debbie Swiss Rolls from her bottom desk drawer and playing Texas hold 'em poker online. She was up nine bucks.
Becker had trouble taking her job seriously. Just a few years ago, she'd been an elite member of a special ops unit for the National Security Agency. Highly trained in combat and investigations. Things had gone wrong. Mistakes were made. Jesus, you just shoot a few of the wrong people, and everyone goes apeshit.
Now she investigated claims for a second-rate insurance company. How the mighty had fallen. It was only temporary, she told herself. Something to pay the bills until the big opportunity came along.
The phone rang just as a heart flush beat her two pair, and she was maybe a little too cranky when she answered. "Yeah?"
"May I speak to Joellen Becker, please?" The voice was formal, crisp, just the hint of an accent.
"Speaking." She cradled the phone between chin and shoulder so she could continue typing at the keyboard. The computer dealt her a jack and a three. She'd stay in and get a look at the flop.
"Ms. Becker, my name is Billy Moto. I understand you are the investigator in charge of the Teddy Folger claim."
"The baseball card thing?" The computer dealt the flop, a queen, a six, and a ten. No help. She folded and logged off.
"Yes," Moto said. "A rare Joe DiMaggio card signed by the player, his wife at the time, Marilyn Monroe, and the film director Billy Wilder."
"We closed the file on that one," Joellen said.
"May I ask you a few questions about it, please?"
"What the hell for?"
Moto cleared his throat. "My employer is most interested. I was hoping we could discuss the claim in detail. I would naturally compensate you for your time."
"Uh-huh. Who's your employer?"
She made a mental note of the name. "The card burned in a fire." Joellen absently twisted a lock of black hair as she spoke. "I'll tell you that for free. No compensation needed on that one, sport."
"So I've heard," Moto said. "Nevertheless."
"As you say, the file is closed," Moto said. "So it could not possibly be of any consequence for you to divulge to me the information in that file."
"Are you fat?"
A long pause. "What?"
"Are you fat or ugly?"
"What does that have to do with-"
"I want you to buy me dinner, and I don't want to be seen in public with some toad."
"Buy you dinner?"
"I haven't been out in eight weeks. I'll bring a photocopy of everything in the Folger file, but you have to meet me in a restaurant. A nice one with cloth napkins."
Moto cleared his throat on the other end. "I'm authorized to compensate handsomely for your full cooperation and any information-"
"Yeah, we'll get to all that over dinner. Be sure to wear a tie. And I want wine."
"Ms. Becker, this is a most peculiar conversation."
"You want to throw dancing into the bargain, sport? Keep talking."
"Your terms are acceptable."
"Damn right." She told him the time and place, then hung up.
Joellen bit her thumbnail a second, reviewed the Folger case in her mind. A lot of bullshit, kids' stuff, comic books and games and Star Trek crap. And this one crazy expensive Joe DiMaggio baseball card. The card's price tag had sent a red flag through the insurance company's hierarchy of pencil pushers, and Joellen had been dispatched to investigate. She'd had a few mild suspicions, but really she was always suspicious of everyone, so the feeling hadn't meant much. Anyway, a routine look-see had turned up zilch and there was a backlog of case files cluttering her desk. She knew she'd given the case a perfunctory effort at the time.
Now she was curious. She put on some coffee and pulled the Folger file. She meant to give it a close read before her meeting with Billy Moto.
The thought suddenly struck her she should have asked Moto about his teeth. Nothing was more off-putting than a mouth full of yellow, crooked teeth. Oh, well. Too late to worry about that now.
Teddy Folger wondered if anyone was still looking for him.
Probably not, he mused. He sat at the Pensacola Beach Resort Tiki Bar feeling pretty pleased with himself. His master plan was coming together nicely. Still, he looked over his shoulder now and then, half-expecting to see his wife.
The vile and vicious Mrs. Folger wanted Teddy's balls dipped in bronze and mounted on her mantel. That blood-sucking bitch can kiss my fat white ass. He was pretty sure she'd given up the chase, and anyway it wasn't like she could afford a private dick to come track him down. He'd cleaned out the account, left her high and fucking dry. Served her right. She'd blindsided him, no doubt. Little gold digger tricked him into popping for a marriage license, and in two seconds flat her legs slammed shut tighter than a clam and Teddy was going bust paying for pedicures twice a week.
Teddy'd thrown the brakes on that shit. His master plan was now in full swing. He had the boat, the cash, and a ton of suntan lotion. His schemes hadn't all gone like clockwork. Not quite. The arson job hadn't produced the insurance payoff like he'd expected. No matter. He'd been trading online for a few years, and selling off all his stock would keep him liquid until he got his asking price for the Joe DiMaggio card. He'd tried to sell it on eBay but was dissatisfied with the bids. This card was his prized possession, and he wouldn't part with it lightly. But he'd made his start. The new Teddy Folger was headed for the Caribbean, and the whole world could just suck on that. His total and complete bliss lacked only one key ingredient.
The blond girl behind the bar eyed him from the taps at the far end. She wasn't in any hurry to come down to Teddy's stool. Considering the circumstances of their last meeting, Teddy wasn't surprised that Misty was a little skittish. Misty. What a perfect name.
And the Tiki Bar was the perfect place for Misty. All the girls wore bikinis. Misty was soft with big curves. Wonderful, golden-age-of-Hollywood starlet curves. None of this emaciated, toothpick, starving stick-girl bullshit that was on the covers of all the fashion magazines. Butter-silk hair, big wet red lips. Perfect skin. When Teddy had first plopped his ass on the stool and glimpsed her pulling drafts for the tourists, his big fat sappy heart skipped a beat. It was as if Marilyn had been reborn.
The magic and mystery wasn't quite there in Misty; the strange playful alchemy of seductress and innocent that flicked behind Marilyn's eyes, captured on thousands of feet of celluloid, was absent in Misty's face. Teddy had looked hard for it, had searched her eyes, hoping. Teddy was a sap, but he wasn't dumb. There was no reincarnation of Hollywood 's favorite bombshell in Misty, but there were good legs and straight teeth and breasts that stood up for themselves. Her face glowed with youth and eagerness, and there was something pretty okay about that. A simpler Marilyn for more complicated times. And when she laughed-not the fake laugh so the tourists would leave a bigger tip, but a genuine laugh, head thrown back, eyes closed-Teddy could squint and almost see a starlet.
So there he'd been a month ago, slogging back Tecate with lime and waiting for the weekday crowd to thin, and he was drunk and wanted her and struck up a conversation with a pretty girl, which was maybe the bravest thing he'd ever done in his life. And they talked, and Misty told him how hard it was to be a student and that she was behind on every single one of her bills, Visa and MasterCard maxed to the limit and beyond. It was a good little sob story, made even better by the fact Teddy suspected most of it was true. Probably she'd only been fishing for a bigger tip. Teddy doubted she'd been ready for what he'd done next.
Teddy pulled a wad of cash from his front pocket, peeled off ten one-hundred-dollar bills, and spread them on the bar like he was dealing a hand of solitaire. Misty blinked at the bills, looked at Teddy. He told her she was about the greatest thing he'd laid eyes on in a long time and he knew she was a good girl and didn't mean any insult but he'd sure be happy to help her out if only she could help him out a little bit too, and after all Teddy was a man with a man's needs and what could be more human and kind than two people giving each other aid and comfort?
Teddy braced himself for a slap or a scream or a couple of big bouncers tossing him into the Gulf of Mexico. None of that happened. Misty looked at the cash, looked at Teddy, nibbled her lower lip, and wrung her hands.
After shelling out a thousand dollars, Teddy found it odd how much he resented the twenty-nine bucks for the shabby room at the Dixie Winds Motel. Maybe he'd half expected her to ask him back to her place. The dim, dirty, anonymous motel room had almost ruined it. But then the grunting and sweating and heaving, and Teddy groped and thrust and howled and for a split second he'd touched Heaven and it had all been worth it.
All the following month he'd thought about her nearly every minute. It wasn't anything as good as love or as dangerous as obsession, but she lodged herself in his thoughts and he started imagining Misty at his side in the Caribbean, tanning on the deck of the Electric Jenny (he'd need to rename the vessel, he reminded himself) with an umbrella drink, cruising the bright waters under the sun, the salt breezes kissing their skin. Yes, Misty completed the picture, a picture Teddy'd been forming in his mind for a long, long time. The new Teddy Folger.
The old Teddy Folger was a dud. A pale comic-book nerd. Teddy'd never had a bad life. Nobody had picked on him in high school. He was not totally out of touch with reality as were many of his peers, the folks who frequented the comic-book and sci-fi conventions. Teddy was an adult. Most of the other people he knew who were into collectibles were also adults. Whenever Teddy told people he ran a comic book/baseball card/sci-fi store, they invariably thought of the quintessential geek with the sinus condition and the pointy Spock ears.
That wasn't Teddy Folger. Neither was Teddy the slick, trim, beach volleyball hunk with the six-pack abs and deepwater tan. The dude who had women climbing all over him. Teddy had always, always, always hated and envied those guys.
So he'd been working on his tan, and had done about ten thousand sit-ups since leaving Jenny in the dust. He'd gotten a really cool haircut and a pair of expensive wraparound sunglasses. A bottle of Polo cologne. A shitload of Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch clothing.
And a fat, juicy bankbook.
And now if Misty would just muster the courage to talk to him, Teddy could make his pitch.
Finally, she came, replacing ashtrays and wiping the bar with a rag until she was near Teddy. "Uh... hi." She wouldn't look at him.
"I've been thinking about you a lot, Misty," Teddy said.
This wasn't going to work, Teddy realized. He didn't have a chance in hell and was going to get shot down in flames. Misty had needed the money, needed it quick. She was obviously embarrassed to see him. He decided to forgo the preliminaries and dive right in. Might as well get the rejection over with.
He put a photograph of the Electric Jenny on the bar. "This is my boat. I'm headed to the Caribbean."
Her eyes darted briefly to the photo.
"Why don't you quit your job and come with me?" Teddy said.
Misty's eyes flashed from side to side like a trapped animal looking for escape.
Billy Moto spotted Joellen Becker as she crossed the restaurant toward his table. Moto had the semiuseful talent for matching faces with voices he'd heard on the phone. Joellen was almost as he'd pictured her. A little taller. Hair black and thick and cut short and round in the Prince Valiant style. Features dark and hard and Slavic. She wore a charcoal gray pantsuit, tapered to highlight her thin waist. Shoes with no heels. She didn't need any extra height, but something in the way she moved told Moto this woman wanted to be quick on her feet if needed. No rings, necklace, or earrings. A wristwatch with a plain black band.
She arrived at the table. "Moto?"
He stood. "Yes."
She sat, shook open the napkin, and dropped it into her lap. "Where's the waiter?"
Moto took his chair, sat stiffly. He did not know what to expect from this woman. "I asked for a wine list. I didn't know if you'd want white or red, but there's a good pinot noir and-"
"Cancel the wine, sport," Becker said. "I looked over the Folger file again, and it looks like we're going to need to talk business." The waiter wandered near the table, and Joellen grabbed his sleeve so he couldn't escape. "I need a triple Bombay martini with an olive the size of a poodle's head."
The waiter looked at Moto.
"Water with lime, please."
Joellen curled a lip. "Jesus, Moto, order a man's drink."
What was that look on her face? Contempt? Moto felt his cheeks flush. The woman was most vexing. "Johnnie Walker Black. No ice."
Joellen set a thick file folder and a VHS tape on the table. She crossed her arms on the table, leaned in. "Let's talk about what you want, and don't leave out the part about my being handsomely compensated."
"My employer is interested in the DiMaggio card. I'll pay you a reasonable sum for your information. We're simply hoping to ascertain Teddy Folger's whereabouts."
"I told you," Joellen said. "The card burned."
Moto nodded, a slight shrug. "My employer is interested in any other cards of similar value Folger might possess."
The drinks arrived, and Joellen took half hers in one gulp. "Here's what I think. I think the card didn't burn. I think Folger collected a juicy insurance check and now wants to unload the card on the sly. One card, two payoffs. I've seen it a dozen times, although it's usually jewelry or something. Folger's gone to ground, ducking his wife probably, and you can't find him."
Moto didn't know what to say. He sipped his drink to buy some time. "You are a clever woman," Moto finally admitted.
"I have my moments. So you went to Princeton, then Oxford, then served five years in Japanese Military Intelligence. Impressive."
"How did you know that?" Moto asked.
"Oh, it's easy enough to look up."
It shouldn't be. Moto had gone to some moderate amount of trouble to conceal his personal information from the general public. A routine background check should not have turned up anything. Either there was more to Becker than met the eye, or American insurance companies were damn strict.
Moto cleared his throat, and said, "Your insurance company's file isn't completely necessary, but it will save me some preliminary steps. How much?"
"Not for sale."
"Ah. You are negotiating, playing hardball."
"How much is your boss willing to pay for the card?" She sipped her martini.
"One million dollars."
Joellen sputtered, sprayed gin all over the table. "How much?"
"It doesn't matter. I only need the folder."
"The card's not worth that much."
"Mr. Kurisaka wants it," Moto said. Also, Kurisaka wanted to preempt any other offers and figured a million dollars would do it. Moto's boss had also sent word to the most prestigious collectibles dealers in America. Kurisaka wanted them to contact him instead of Hyatta if the card should happen to come into their possession.
"A million?" Joellen frowned. "Is he retarded or something?"
Moto pushed his drink away, threw his napkin on the table. "This is pointless. You are a bizarre, annoying woman." She was also completely unfeminine, a fact Moto found oddly disturbing. He stood. "This has been a most unpleasant encounter. I will say good night now."
"Jesus, Moto," Joellen said. "Sit down, will you? Let me make my pitch. You can leave then if you don't like it."
"Please be brief." He sat.
"I already know where Folger is."
Moto's eyes widened. Perhaps this whole baseball card business could be concluded quickly, and he could get back to Japan. "Is he still in Pensacola?"
"What if I had the card? Instead of Folger?"
"If you can put us in contact with Folger, I'm sure a finder's fee-"
She shook her head. "No, you're not hearing what I'm saying. What if I had the card instead of Folger?"
Ah. "Then... I suppose we would pay you the million dollars."
"And how would that work exactly?" asked Joellen.
"I'm not sure I understand."
"There's insurance fraud involved."
"No questions asked," Moto said.
"I've heard that in the movies," Joellen said. "No questions asked. What exactly does that mean?"
"It means do whatever is necessary. Beg, borrow, or steal. This is a private transaction, and legal technicalities concern my employer not at all."
Joellen smiled, nodded. "Beats the shit out of working for the insurance company." She ordered another martini.