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Chapter 1

King of Rules

Michael L. Piazza

“Looks like a nice sunny day on the mountain,” Matt said, looking out the glass doors to Mount Bachelor, “probably get up to near seventy today.”

It is a clear and bright morning in early May. Not a cloud in the sky, just a deep blue horizon in every direction. Temperatures in the Bend area and across the Oregon high desert have been ranging from near eighty degrees during the day, dropping into the forties at night. The temperatures on Mount Bachelor have remained ten to fifteen degrees cooler, but warming enough to limit the resort activities. With the skiing season slowing down to a few hours a day, traffic into Matt’s stained glass shop had dropped sharply as well.

“I don’t think much is happening today at the resort, so Kiki should be off most of the day,” Matt said, looking at his watch. “They have been closing the lifts by mid-morning. I’m sure she’s at the shop by now. Think I’ll go in right after we have our lunch and go for a drive.”

“How’s she doing at the store?” Sandy asked, handing Matt a cup of coffee.

“She’s doing pretty good,” Matt replied, taking a sip of the freshly brewed gourmet coffee. “Wow! This is great stuff!” he said with a smile.

Sandy has become quite a barista since their rushed escape to Oregon in September. With no job to report to, she has really enjoyed spending time each day trying new blends and experimenting with the grind coarseness. Matt really enjoys the creative flavors that she brews up. Her blends remind him of the creations Ben Chipman came up with during their years of working together.

The blend this morning tastes a lot like the flavorful brew Ben served Matt at Ben’s condo in California during Matt’s visit there last August. The familiar tasting brew brought back memories of that day, which now seemed like to Matt to be a very long time ago. So much has happened in his life since that week in August.

The last nine months in Bend as Matt Wilson, stained glass artist and store owner, have been like a haven for him. Those turbulent last few days as Mississippi Inspector General Matthew Petricelli ended  when he and Sandy used the seventh code in the CAIN system to create their new identities and escape through Phoenix. Those hard memories have slowly but surely faded into his subconscious.

Matt forces himself not to spend any time recalling those days. He still has great remorse over the situation with Herb Jinson and the horrible untrue stories about him in the press. Matt remains very committed to one day fully exonerating Herb and his legacy.

He quickly shook off the rising memories of those grueling days just before they left Mississippi, taking a deep breath and looking out at the beautiful view of the desert bordered by the mountain range.

“What is this one? It’s so smooth,” Matt asked, savoring a few more sips of Sandy’s creation.

“My special vanilla bean dark roast,” she said with a smile. “So, what does ‘pretty good’ mean?” Sandy pushed, knowing how readily Matt changes the subject when he wants to avoid a question. Sandy has been counting on Matt’s promise that Kiki could handle the shop alone most of the days over the summer. 

“Oh, she’s doing well enough,” Matt said, opening the sliding glass door. He felt the cool breeze on his face as he scanned the horizon for his dog Rex. “Since she’s a ski instructor,” he continued, “she has a way with people, which makes her really good with the customers. Always polite and patient.”

“What about her glass work?” Sandy pried, “is any of it selling?”

“Most of it,” Matt said, continuing to sip his coffee, “several of her small things sold out fairly quickly. There’s been some interest in her larger pieces, but no buyers yet. She said that she’s starting to get the feel for what tourists want and how much they are willing to pay, as opposed to the locals she’s been selling to. I think she’s just about ready to run the shop all day long if we need for her to.”

“Well,” Sandy said, rubbing her stomach, “if the doctor is correct, Jenny is scheduled to arrive in early to mid-July. I expect you to be totally freed up by then to help me out a lot when she gets here.”

“Sure thing,” Matt said, smiling. “It’s going to be quite a different world when she arrives and makes us a ‘sho nuff family’,” he said with a country accent. “Don’t worry, Kiki could easily handle the store right now with the slow traffic. Not sure what the summer will bring, but she’ll have plenty of time to spend in the back breaking and grinding glass while watching the storefront at the same time. Plus, her additions to the inventory make the shop seem so much more fuller.”

“More full,” Sandy said, walking up next to Matt in the doorway.

“Always the editor,” he chuckled, sipping his coffee. “I thought my professors used a lot of red ink on my papers in graduate school, of course, that was long before you started editing my reports. Geez! I figured you must have gone through two or three red pens a week!”

“Hmmm, maybe one every two weeks or so,” Sandy replied, rubbing her chin. “Sometimes you seemed to be a genius with your flow and presentation, but then your grammar! Like ‘more fuller’!” she said, laughing.

Their conversation was interrupted by the phone ringing. Sandy walked over and picked up the portable receiver, studying the caller ID. “Out of area, again,” she said, shaking her head.

“Hello,’ she said, pressing the button on the receiver. “Hello,” she repeated. “Hello. No one there,” she said, slightly perturbed. “I don’t know why we deal with this land line anyway. We get a lot of telemarketing calls on this thing! Then, ones like that one, no one is ever there when you answer.”

“Well,” Matt said, “remember, that line serves two really good purposes. One, as we’ve learned, the cell service can be volatile in this desert. Plus, it serves as a good rollover from the phone line at the shop.”

“Hmm,” Sandy said, pressing other buttons on the receiver, “that’s the fourth call from that number. Three yesterday,” she said, wrinkling her brow, “and this one. They never answer, only silence. What a nuisance!”

“Then, just don’t answer it,” Matt said, taking the last sip of his coffee, “if it’s important, they’ll leave a message. Any more of these wonderful dregs?” he said, holding out his empty cup with a big smile.

“Yes, sir,” Sandy said, acting like a wait staff, “another cup coming up right away. Same level of sugar and spice, and me being nice!”

Sandy walked over and poured more coffee into Matt’s cup, glancing again at the small screen on the phone. “Just the same,” she said, placing the phone back in its cradle, “I don’t get these kind of calls on my cell. They’re a real pain in the you know what!”

“Simple,” Matt said, savoring his fresh coffee, “as I said, just don’t answer it, let it go to the answering machine.”

“Yeah,” Sandy said with a sigh, “maybe you are right. But since your friend popped in on us from nowhere in March, I stay on alert. These calls make me a bit nervous…just not sure who or where they are from.”

“Okay,” Matt agreed. “If it bothers you that much, we can have it disconnected at the end of the summer. For now and until after Jenny is born we need the backup line, just in case. Just let it go to answering machine. Again, if it’s important, or a call rolled over from the shop, they’ll leave a message...”

Matt could tell that his answer didn’t take care of Sandy’s concern. He walked over and put his arm around her. “Look,” he said, “the last stories I saw about ABEL and CAIN and the whole seventh code scheme were several weeks ago. I think the storm has completely cleared. We can relax. When Ben left here that day, he…”

“Not so,” Sandy said, shaking her head leaving his embrace. She walked over and sat at her desk and stared at the screen, clicking around with the computer mouse. Matt walked up behind her. She seemed very serious.

“Check this out,” she said, pointing to the screen.

“New Evidence of Seventh Code Use” the story headline read.

“That’s from this morning,” she said tightly, “doesn’t look like it has gone away at all to me!”

Matt glared at the screen and read the full story. It contained references to some forced accounts and related activities that appeared to have been created using the seventh code fraud scheme, probably in the past few weeks. Not much detail, only an overview of some of the items contained in the transactions. The article concluded that the money involved may have been substantial, but no references as to how much.

“Look,” Matt said, placing his hand on her shoulder, “this has nothing to do with us. We are off the radar screen. I’m sure Ben and his crew are about to wrap this thing up. We shouldn’t let this interfere…”

“There has been almost a month of silence, virtually no articles about this at all in April. Then, there have been four of these stories in the last two weeks,” Sandy said, looking in Matt’s eyes. There was a short silence between them.

“The weird thing is,” she continued, pointing to the screen, “there has been absolutely no mention whatsoever of your friend, the alias Robert Anderson, or his team. The only quotes in the latest articles are from our dear friend Marshal Rusty Payton,” she said, looking intently at Matt. “Each of the recent articles say that Mr. Anderson was not available for comment. That doesn’t make sense,” Sandy said slowly. She stared at the screen for a few moments, then looked back at Matt.

“The main thing that spurned the original national news coverage of all of this was the catchy thing about your friend’s Anderson Binary Extraction Language, and the story line that “ABEL slew CAIN.” Until now,” she said, looking back at Matt, “every article has contained his picture and comments, or some mention of him and his ABEL software.”

“Well,” Matt interjected, “As I said, I’m sure Ben and his team are wrapping things up and not in the forefront any longer. Kind of like Kiki at the resort. Not much to do so she...”

“Why all of a sudden? Why now?” Sandy asked, shaking her head. “Just doesn’t make sense to me. The auditor in me says something’s just not right here.”

“Come on, Sandy, it’s a beautiful day,” Matt said compassionately, “let’s get out of here and go have a relaxed lunch like we had planned. I feel your worry, but let’s not let it get us down today. Look out there,” he said, pointing toward the open glass door, “it’s a wonderful clear day. Can’t ask for anything more wonderful than…”

Matt was interrupted by the phone ringing again. “I’ll get it,” he said to Sandy, walking toward the phone in its cradle.

“Hello,” Matt said, pressing the talk button on the phone. “Hello,” he repeated. After a short silence, he said in his practiced professional tone, “Look, this is a personal residence. Do not, and I repeat, do not call this number again or I will report you to the proper authorities!” he said, then clicking the off button.

“Maybe that will help,” Matt said to Sandy. “Hope they got the message that time.”

Sandy walked over and took the phone from Matt’s hand and started pressing buttons and looking at the small screen. “Same damned number!” she said in a loud tone, looking at the caller ID, “we need to find out just who the hell this is!!”

“Okay, okay,” Matt said, trying to comfort her, “you don’t need to get so upset, especially in your condition. The doctor said you and Jenny can share the same emotions at seven months and…”

“Yeah,” Sandy snapped, interrupting Matt, “so the sooner we find out who has called us five times in the past twenty four hours, the better off we both will be!”

Matt could tell that Sandy was not only worried, but that her auditor training and experience was nagging away at her. Five calls with no one on the line was not normal. Not even for telemarketers.

“What are you doing?” Sandy asked, looking at Matt pressing the buttons on the phone, then placing it to his ear.

“I’m calling the number and see what happens,” he responded.

“Busy signal, probably,” Sandy snapped, “I’ve called it several times myself. Always a busy signal.”

“Yep, busy signal!” Matt said, pressing the off button on the phone. “What the hell kind of phone number has a busy signal these days?”

“My point, exactly,” Sandy pushed, “these calls aren’t right, something just not right with them.”

“Probably roll overs from the shop,” Matt said, staring at the small screen on the phone, “I’ll call there and see if Kiki is in and get her to look at the shop’s caller ID.”

Sandy didn’t respond to Matt, but walked back over and sat at her desk again. She looked at the computer screen and started clicking around. Matt pressed the speed dial number on the phone for the shop and walked back over to the sliding door, looking out over the desert scene.

“Summit Glass Shoppe, this is Kiki,” said a cheery female voice.

“Kiki,” Matt responded, “good morning, how are you?”

“Great,” Kiki said, “how ‘bout you?”

“Good,” Matt said, looking over at Sandy working away on the keyboard. “Have you been there long? Anything going on?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, I guess that I’ve been here ‘bout fifteen minutes,” she replied. “ Been in the back. No traffic yet. There was a call a few minutes ago and made me remember that I didn’t take the phone off call forward. I hope it didn’t bother you.”

“No, not at all,” Matt said, noticing Rex prancing across the field in the distance coming towards the deck. “Can you take a look at the caller ID on the main phone and see if the number that just called has called before? We’ve been getting some telemarketer calls and just trying to see if they were actually meant for the shop.”

“Sure thing,” Kiki replied. “Hang on and let me see. Ahhh…one, two, three, four, five,” she said, counting the calls as she scrolled the tiny screen. “Yep, looks like that number called five times. Looks like three from yesterday, one a little while ago, and the one just then.”

“Good deal,” Matt responded, “that answers that. We are going to grab a lunch and then I’ll be in after that. Call me on my cell if you need anything.”

“Sure thing,” Kiki said with a smile. “Tell Sandy I said hello!”

“Will do,” Matt replied and hung up the phone.

Kiki and her husband Frank are both in their late twenties and work as seasonal ski instructors at the main resort on Mount Bachelor. Frank is a finish carpenter and woodworker and gets a lot of side jobs during the off season. Kiki was an art major in college, with a concentration in pastel paints. Just before they moved to Bend a few years ago, she learned the art of stained glass and loves working with it. She gets some commissions around the area for mid-size works and takes some of her small pieces to the area flea markets and arts fairs.

During Matt’s first set of ski lessons in October, Kiki found out that he had opened the stained glass shop. Since she and her husband live in a small efficiency apartment in the ‘cool artsy part of town,’ she really doesn’t have room for a decent studio, but has to clutter their kitchen whenever she does her work. She immediately talked with Matt about the possibility of periodically working in his studio at the store. In Matt’s design of  the shop, he laid out four fully equipped studio stations so that he could hold classes for the locals. He is yet to have anyone interested or any demand to push the classes, so the stations have sat vacant and unused.

Instead of signing up officially for a second set of lessons in November, Matt invited Kiki to use one of the stations in the shop as her own personal studio area in exchange for some advanced ‘off the books’ ski lessons. She jumped at the opportunity. It has been a win-win for the both of them. Matt gave her a key to the shop so she has a fully equipped production outlet whenever she chooses to use it, while Matt has gotten some really great no cost advanced tips and ski training.

With the ski season coming to a close and Sandy needing Matt’s help around the house when the baby arrives, Matt asked Kiki if she were interested in watching the retail area of the shop while she creates her pieces in the back studio area. Kiki was excited, especially since Matt offered to pay her a small salary for her time there as well as giving her a brand new retail outlet for her work. Kiki has agreed to watch the shop over the summer until she is needed back full time at the resort. Again, a win-win for both of them.

“Well,” Matt said over his shoulder to Sandy, as Rex hopped up onto the deck, “that takes care of that! Kiki said the calls were rollovers from the shop, so they were most likely junk calls.”

Matt rubbed Rex’s rib cage as he came up to him on the deck, then Matt turned and looked at Sandy sitting at her desk. She had her hand over her mouth and a look of fear had consumed her. Small tears were in her eyes.

Matt pushed Rex away from the doorway. “Not now, fella,” he said, as he closed the sliding door and walked quickly over to Sandy.

“What’s wrong,” he said, wrapping his arms around Sandy.

“The 769 area code…” Sandy said quietly, “the one from those calls. It’s from Central Mississippi…the calls are from home. I knew this would happen one day! I just knew it!”

“Calm down,” Matt said, holding her tighter, “nothing has happened yet. I know this isn’t normal in any way, but it’s just some phone calls.”

“Yeah,” Sandy said, taking a deep breath, “just some phone calls. Just some phone calls,” she repeated.

Sandy clicked the mouse closing the programs on her computer. She sat very still, staring out the glass door at the view to the mountains. “May not be anything,” she said in a very unsure tone, “probably just one of those things, wrong number or something.”

Matt made no attempt to respond or try to console her. Since Ben Chipman’s surprise visit in March, they have both lived in anticipation of the day when ‘the other shoe would fall’. As Ben left the ski lodge the day that he was there, he gave the impression that he was closing the door on the code that Matt had used in the CAIN system to make their escape with. But Matt and Sandy both know that in the investigative world, as Matt always quotes, “it ain’t done until it’s done.”

They are both investigators and know that the door they went through in the system could be reopened at any time by another skilled investigator. Regardless of whether or not Ben closed it shut. Only when the system was totally out of commission would they be safe. Matt knew Sandy was right, with the current articles, it didn’t appear that the system was totally dead yet. The door to them may still be opened, at any time.

“Look,” Matt said softly, holding Sandy close, “this may or may not be anything. If it is,” he said with forced confidence, “we’ll just handle it. We both know that one day this whole thing will be done with. We didn’t do anything but save our butts,” he said assertively, “other than that, we aren’t guilty of anything.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Sandy said, releasing  her fear. “Like most things, the fear of this thing is probably much larger than the actual thing itself. When the day comes, we’ll just handle it. Super Matt and his bitchy audit manager,” she said with a forced smile.

“No,” Matt said, kissing her neck, “Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Petricelli and their sweet, loving daughter Jenny. Those days of super Matt and his bitchy audit manager are long gone.”

They stayed quiet and just held their embrace for  a few moments more. With Sandy in her seventh month of pregnancy, her emotions were strong enough as it is. She knew that she didn’t need to carry any unneeded worry of the next phase, if any, of the CAIN system investigation. Matt was right, they did what they did to protect themselves. Nothing more.

“Let’s just go have some lunch,” Matt said sweetly, “the food will do all of us some good. I’m sure Jenny is starting to get hungry as well.”

“You’re right about that,” Sandy said, relaxing, “we can only deal with what is before us, and right now, a good meal is our major need.”

“We’ve done all we could,” Matt said, walking around the chair and looking Sandy in the eyes. “The life we have here is one that suits us well. We’ll live it as long as we can - hopefully, forever.”

“My sweet, loving Matthew,” Sandy said, running her fingers through his hair, “you are always trying to be the optimist. And I love you for that,” she said, smiling, “but just as you have your sixth sense, I have mine as well. And that intuition is telling me that our dear Jenny is going to be born in the heat and humidity of the deep south. Not in the dry, cool climate of this desert.”

“But we fit in here,” Matt protested, “we are like lizards on green leaves, we come and go as locals…”

“Oh, Matthew,” Sandy said, easing forward to stand up, “your cute beard with your long hair, and my short, frizzy blonde look may keep the locals from tying us back to those awful official ID photos the press uses for us in their coverage, but,” she said with a pause, “you and I both know in the digital world, our disguises are irrelevant. When it’s time, they will find us. My inner alarm says that time is drawing near, very near,” she said, pointing to the phone in its cradle.

Sandy stood up and wrapped her arms around Matt. He knew she was right. Looking like an artist and running a stained glass store was fun and rewarding, but their cover was very thin. A few hours of good digital investigation and their identities would easily be pierced.

“Okay, my queen,” Matt said with resignation, “your intuition, like my radar, is never wrong. Let’s just go our way today as we had planned and see what turns up. I still think those calls are just…”

“Shhh,” Sandy said, placing her finger on his lips, “we’ve said enough about all of that for now. As you said, let’s go get lunch like we planned and relax on this beautiful day.”

They went to one of their favorite local sandwich shops just a few miles away. Just behind the fun and light mood they expressed during lunch was the hanging fog of what the phone calls may have meant, if anything. Matt tried to accept Sandy’s feeling that they would be back in Mississippi before Jenny was born, but he wasn’t sure how true that may be.
They had talked before about how wonderful it would be to have her parents around to help with the baby. But Sandy knew that since both of them were still employed full time, just a few years away from retirement, that they couldn’t drop their lives and jump to Oregon.

Matt had always felt that her fear of going home was actually mixed with a desire to be back there, and be around family and friends who could help her. Giving birth and caring for a newborn was not going to be an easy road for either one of them. Though he felt very much at home in the high desert of Oregon, Matt wanted the best for Sandy and her life, regardless of where that may be.

Since it was such a beautiful day, clear bright skies, cool temperatures, their original plan was to have lunch then take a long drive and enjoy the early afternoon. After that, Matt would then go to the shop and do what he needed to do. But the disturbance of the five phone calls from a Mississippi area code took the joy from their spirits. They both agreed to take the drive some other time.

“I’ll drop you by home,” Matt said, preparing to leave the parking lot of the restaurant, “then I’ll go to the shop for a while. I have a few pieces I need to make some progress on. Should be home by four or so.”

“No,” Sandy said, fastening her seat belt, “I’ll go to the shop with you. I’d like to see for myself just ‘how much fuller’ Kiki’s stuff makes the shop look.”

“Are you sure?” Matt asked, trying to decide which way to turn from the parking lot, “won’t be much for you to do while I work.”

“Don’t really want to be alone in the middle of the desert right now,” she said, forcing a smile. “I can occupy myself, don’t worry. You and Kiki can work away and I’ll just be a fly on the wall reading my book as usual.”

“Sure thing,” Matt responded, seeing the fear just behind Sandy’s eyes. “I won’t be long, we can leave the store whenever we need to. I can finish those pieces anytime.”

They were quiet as they rode to the store. Matt turned on an easy listening station on the car’s satellite radio. Neither said a word as they journeyed to the shop. The parking lot was empty except for Kiki’s small car. There wasn’t much traffic on the road so Matt didn’t look for much business for the day.

“Hello, anybody home?” Matt asked playfully, as they entered the shop, talking over the door alarm that chimed as he opened the door. “We need to buy a thousand dollars’ worth of stained glass!” he said loudly.

Kiki smiled as she looked through the Plexiglas panel that separated the retail part of the store from the working area. She waved to them as she carefully placed her soldering iron in its stand. She took her safety glasses off and headed for the retail area.

“My, don’t you look great,” Kiki said, giving Sandy a hug, “you just don’t look that far along. Oh, I know you just can’t wait for that baby to be here!!”

“Thanks for the good words,” Sandy said, smiling, “but if you walked around in this body all day long, you would easily know just how far along I am. Wow!” Sandy said, surveying the storefront, noticing a lot pieces she had not seen before. It had been over a week since she had been to the store. “Kiki’s stuff does make the place look, as you said, much more fuller!” Sandy said, emphasizing Matt’s grammatical error. They both chuckled.

“Thanks,” Kiki said, smiling, “but, isn’t it ‘much more full’?”

“My point exactly,” Sandy replied, both of them grinning.

“Anything going on?” Matt asked, interrupting their mutual chiding of his grammatical errors. “Any traffic?”

“Naw,” Kiki answered, pointing out the window, “a warm day and not much for me to do at the resort so I left pretty early. Been making some good progress on my stuff, though.”

“Any more calls, or anything?” Matt asked, glancing over at Sandy.

“Nope,” Kiki answered, “not since the last one, just before you called.”

“Good deal,” Matt said with a forced smile, “I told them to stop calling or I would report them. Must have worked.”

“Must have,” Kiki agreed.

Sandy didn’t say anything or engage in the conversation. She slowly walked around the shop inspecting the variety of the inventory, occasionally picking up a piece of Kiki’s work and turning it in different directions catching the direct light of the sun coming in through the window.

“My, goodness, Kiki,” Sandy said enthusiastically, “you are very talented and do some wonderful work. Matt told me your stuff sells quickly.”

“Thanks,” Kiki replied, blushing slightly, “I really love doing glass. It’s a great way to express myself.”

A glare off of the windshield of a vehicle coming into the parking lot shined in the shop like a spotlight, moving through from left to right. It was a dark, almost black colored SUV, stopping at the shop’s door. After a moment, both front doors of the vehicle opened and a man got out of the passenger’s side while a woman stepped out of the driver’s side, clicking the car key fob locking the doors as she got out.

Matt, Sandy and Kiki watched the two as they slowly opened the shop door causing the door alarm to chime. They both appeared to be in their early thirties with professional looking clothes on. Sandy noticed that the man was wearing a white shirt with the collar open, dark slacks and lace up black shoes. The woman was wearing a light blue blouse buttoned to the neck line, dark pants and black flat shoes. They did not appear to be tourists or the usual customers that popped into the shop. They walked slowly toward the main counter, glancing around the shop at the brightly colored glass pieces.

“Welcome to the Summit Glass Shoppe,” Kiki said, walking up to them, “my name is Kiki. Can we show you something today?”

“Just kinda’ looking around,” the young man responded, “we’re, ah, looking for something for our Aunt Jane, a nice birthday gift. Not sure what stained glass costs or anything. Just thought we’d look around some.”

Sandy glared at Matt. She noticed a slight Southern accent in the man’s speech. She turned and intently studied the two.

“Like I said, my name is  Kiki,” she said, reaching her hand out to the young man, “and you are?”

“Ahh, I’m Jason,” he said, shaking her hand.

“And I’m Malory,” the woman said, shaking Kiki’s hand.

“This is Matt and Sandy Wilson,” Kiki said, pointing over the counter to Matt and Sandy, “they are the owners.”

The two looked intently at Matt and Sandy, raising their brows slightly. They then looked at each other and shared a pleased expression. A moment of silence ensued as Sandy looked at the two, knowing that they were studying her and Matt.

“So,” Sandy interjected, “looking for something for your Aunt Jane. Then are you husband and wife, brother and sister…?”

“We’re ahhh…” Jason stammered, looking at Malory.

“Cousins,” Malory answered quickly, “our mamas are sisters. Aunt Jane is our mama’s sister, too. We came over from Portland and thought we would shop the arts stores around the resort and get her something different.”

Sandy looked deep into Matt’s eyes as she detected a tinge of a Southern accent to Malory’s speech also.

“Well,” Sandy said, looking back at Malory, “I’m sure Kiki can help you find something nice for your aunt. She’s a very capable artist. She may even create something unique for you if you don’t see just what you like.”

“Yep!” Kiki said enthusiastically, “that would be me! I can help you pick out something, or even create something for you!”

Kiki walked with the two over to front of the store to look at the pieces hanging in the front window. As she engaged them, Sandy pulled out a pen and pad from under the counter and pretended to be writing something.

“Well,” Sandy said softly to Matt, “looks like my intuition was right on. Looks like friends from home have arrived.”

“Why do you say that?” Matt reacted, acting alarmed.

“Come on, Matt,” Sandy said with resignation, “those aren’t people from Portland. Those accents are Southern and you know it. Plus, who else would say ‘our mamas are sisters.’ I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say ‘mama’ like that in the nine months that we have been here.”

“But,” Matt said defensively, “I think you are taking quite a leap to infer…”

“Okay,” she said, acting like she was pointing to something on the pad, “let’s look at the clothes. White shirt, collar open. He just had a coat and tie on but left them in the car. Malory, or whoever, is wearing professional attire. No accentuation of her features at all. Those are pants to a suit. She had a coat on as well before they came in here.”

“Okay,” Matt responded quickly, “but…”

“Their car is a rental car,” Sandy continued. “There’s a plastic tag on the keys that make them too big to put in Malory’s pocket so she’s holding them in her hand. Didn’t catch the company name, but that’s definitely a return ID tag for a rental agency.”

“So what,” Matt tried to rebut, “they look like they had dress clothes on, and could be in a rental car. But that doesn’t mean that they…”

“I want you to walk over and act like you are looking at some pieces near them, getting an inventory number or something,” Sandy said assertively. “Look at Malory’s belt on her right side. Look at the back of Jason’s belt. Tell me what you recognize.”

Matt stood for a moment, unsure as to what to do. He looked at Kiki showing them various pieces as they listened to her sales pitch. Sandy motioned with her eyes for Matt to go over by them. He slowly walked over to the front window and as Sandy had said, pretended to be looking at the tags on a couple of pieces of glass. He looked at the belts as Sandy had suggested. He walked back to the counter with a frown taking over his face.

“And,” Sandy asked softly, “what did you see?”

“As you said, a car rental tag on the keys in Malory’s hand,” Matt uttered.

“And, what else?” Sandy pushed.

“Worn spots and creases on their belts,” Matt said slowly.

“From…?” Sandy asked.

“Obviously worn spots from the metal clips attached to their slide on holsters as they put them on and off,” Matt said, looking at the floor.

“Well, it appears to me,” Sandy said decisively, “that our young duo  removed their guns and coats before coming to our shop. I bet if we were able to open their vehicle, we would find holstered guns in the glove compartment, a tie and coats on the back seat. Do you remember our drills like that on assignments when we tried to quickly look like everyday people?”

Matt didn’t reply. He just stared at the pad and pretended to write some numbers down. He knew Sandy was right. These two were not who they were trying to present themselves to be. During their investigations, he and Sandy had done similar last-minute ditching of their holsters and coats many times trying to look casual.

Matt’s stomach was churning as he realized that Sandy’s intuition was probably very accurate. These two were more than likely the first contact of much more to come. He tried to dismiss those thoughts, but coupled with the phone calls, it all made for a convincing possibility.

Kiki showed Jason and Malory a variety of stained glass pieces from small decorations to some medium size panes to be mounted in windows. Malory finally stated that they would wait until the next day to make a decision. She said that their Aunt Jane was coming into town later in the evening and they would bring her back to the shop with them the next morning for her to pick out a piece for herself.

“Is ten o’clock tomorrow, okay?” Malory said to Kiki, as they were at the door. “We came by earlier this morning but the shop was not open yet.”

“Not sure I can be here that early,” Kiki said, looking over at Matt.

“That’s fine,” Matt responded, “I’ll be sure to be here by then and open up. You can shop around with your aunt until Kiki gets here.”

“That’ll work,” Malory said, opening the door, “see y’all in the morning.”

Sandy looked at Matt, “Yeah, see ‘y’all’ then,” she replied, emphasizing the use of the Southern euphemism of ‘y’all.’

Jason and Malory walked out and got into their vehicle and slowly drove away. Kiki immediately went into the studio area and resumed her work. Sandy told Matt that he should go ahead and work a while as he had planned. She pulled a novel out from the shelf under the counter top, then slowly sat in the large comfortable chair next to her.

“I can relax in this big chair as usual and catch up on this story,” she said holding the book up. “Make some progress on your pieces then we can head home whenever you are finished.”

As Matt had predicted, it was about four o’clock when he was done with the work he wanted to catch up on. Kiki said she would close up later when she was done with her work. Matt and Sandy rode home in near silence. Neither one wanting to speculate on the events of the day.

After a quiet early dinner, Sandy immersed herself in grinding and mixing some of her coffee beans, brewing and tasting them. Matt sat out on the deck playing with Rex and watching the sun set, enjoying the twilight of the desert. They both knew that the other was avoiding a conversation about the day, especially the appearance of the two strangers at the shop. Their evening was not strained, but it was definitely oddly silent.

As they laid down for the night, Matt finally broached the subject. “What do you think we need to do tomorrow about this Jason and Malory?” he asked calmly. “How should we prepare for them? What do you think we should be ready to do?”

“Well,” Sandy replied, turning off the lamp beside her bed, “I guess that will depend totally on who ‘Aunt Jane’ actually is. No need in worrying about anything for tonight. We’ll know what to do when the mysterious Aunt Jane arrives…sleep well, my darling.”

Nothing more was spoken between them as they eventually dozed off to sleep.


View Chapter 2

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