From hence, ye beauties undeceiv’d,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieve’d,
And be with caution bold.
Nor all that tempts your wand’ring eyes,
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize,
Nor all that glitters, gold.
~Thomas Gray, 1747
Selina rested on her haunches, her tail swishing back and forth over the carpet. Her head was raised, her eyes darting, her ears perked forward. Every once in a while she emitted little guttural sounds as she observed the colorful tropical fish flittering and floating in the silvery-green water that stood against the wall.
Melinda bent to tickle Selina’s whiskers. With her other hand she pressed her phone to her ear. “I’d like to speak to human resources,” she said into the receiver. She straightened and studied her twenty-six-gallon hexagonal fresh-water aquarium that rose from its black acrylic stand in one piece, and offered no purchase for a cat. “Yeah,” she said. “Hi, this is Melinda Jellinek. I work in the Integrity and Accountability Office. I’ve been sick and throwing up all night — I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to work today….” She paused while she was put on hold. She squatted down next to Selina, and looked up at her goldfish and tetras and ruby barbs. “You’re just waiting for me to make a mistake,” she whispered to Selina. “Just one wrong move when I clean the tank, and those fish are dinner.” She stroked Selina’s back. The cat purred.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I should come to work,” Melinda abruptly said, and stood. “Yeah, well, I’m not going to the doctor. I don’t want to drive myself.” She listened as the voice on the other end explained the consequences of failure to produce a doctor’s excuse. “Yes, I understand,” she responded. “Goodbye.” She turned off the phone. “Assholes,” she said aloud. She quickly punched in a number and began pacing, her stomach tight with nervous excitement. An answering system picked up.
You’ve reached the voicemail of Brad Stubbs, I’m away from the phone at the moment, please leave a message at the tone.
“Brad,” she said, perhaps with too much volume and emotion, “it’s me, Melinda. Pick up.” She waited a moment, then continued, “I called in sick. Let’s spend the day together. Just you and me. We can take a drive, have a picnic. Get back to me ASAP!” She ended the call. She felt a shiver of anxiety, a knot in her gut. “I don’t know Selina,” she said to her pet. “Where is he? He should be home. It seems like the only time he talks to me these days is when he wants to borrow money.”
Brad Stubbs heard the answering machine pick up as he eased Amber out the doorway. “Hey honey cakes, I had a great time,” he said to her, the door half-closed on her hip and upper arm as she resisted leaving.
“Brad,” she said, her face puckering, “why are you so impatient to see me go?”
He took a finger and played with her straight blonde hair as it feathered her shoulder. “I have to go to work,” he said. “And I’m dating someone else, and you know that,” he added. He was dressed in boxers and a white wife-beater. The stubble on his lower face glowed a bronze color in the sunlight streaming through the glass on either side of the entrance.
She inhaled and exhaled forcefully, almost in a grunt, and pushed at the door so that it knocked him back a few inches. Then she turned, and was gone, a sleeve of her jacket trailing behind her.
Brad shut the door, secured the locks, and trotted to his land-line portable perched in its charger. He quickly grabbed it, and pushed numbers. He listened to the ring several times, until he heard her voice say “Yeah?”
“Hi, Melinda. Sorry, I was in the shower.” He walked into the kitchen and opened a cabinet, searching for a clean coffee mug. “What’re you doing still at home?”
I called in sick. I thought we could spend some time together….
“No, sorry, Lins, I gotta be at work in a few minutes and I’m already running late. I’ll contact you as soon as I’m off, this evening, okay?” There was a sound like garbled clicking, then the dial tone. “Hmph,” he said, and threw the phone on the kitchen counter as he secured a used mug from the sink. He rinsed that out quickly, and poured some fresh coffee from the carafe of his grind-and-brew.
He scooped the phone up again, and selected a number using his thumb as he walked back to his bedroom, holding the cup by the rim dangling from the fingertips of his right hand. “Hi, can I speak to Steve Emerlich, please?” he said, setting the coffee down on a night-table beside the bed. He strode to his closet, and reached for one of his suits that hung inside. “Hey Steve,” he said after several minutes. “Hello, man. Are we still on for today?” he asked. He listened…. “Uh huh,” he said. “Yup, okay. No, it sounds like a great deal. I can’t wait to see it.” He ended the call, tossed the phone on his rumpled, sepia-colored sheets.
He whistled and hummed as he entered the bathroom. He brushed his teeth, shaved, then got dressed. “I raised forty-thousands dollars,” he said aloud as he knotted his tie, gazing at his reflection in the dresser mirror. “I begged and scraped and lied and borrowed to get it together. But this is worth it. A foreclosed home I can fix up, and sell for at least a couple of hundred grand.”
Steve Emerlich slipped his iPhone back in his jacket pocket. He grinned and tried to keep himself from laughing. He was already at the house that Brad Stubbs wanted so badly to view. He set his briefcase on the top step, tugged at his vest and adjusted his collar. He used a small screwdriver and metal pick to jimmy the lock of the front door. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was on the street, and he hoped the people across the way weren’t watching. He pocketed the tools, lifted his satchel, and maneuvered inside, into a spacious foyer. He quietly moved the door until it was almost closed.
This was a three-bedroom, two-storey split-level that had been standing empty for over a year. The auction notice had been posted. That’s how he’d discovered it was available, empty, and possibly the perfect bait. He strolled into the living room — some furniture remained. He shoved back his sleeve and checked his watch. Just another fifty minutes. He needed to canvas the property, do some hasty web-searching using his laptop.
His shoes echoed loudly on the polished wood floor as he advanced to the family room-kitchen suite. He planned to spread out the paperwork, his identification and realtor’s license — prepared by one of the best forgers in the area — on the granite countertop next to the stainless steel sink.
“The trick is,” he said to himself, “to get that down-payment and get it cashed with lightning speed, and get out of Dodge.” He had important uses for the money. He yanked out his iPhone once more, checked his text messages. Three were from Julio, again. Steve smiled and used his thumbs to send back: “Will have cash tonight.”
Detective Roland Diaz — a.k.a. Julio — felt and heard the buzzing sound in his back pants pocket. He swiveled in his chair, turning away from his computer screen for a moment while he fished for his cell phone. He brought it eye level and flipped it open. He grinned and said aloud, “Looks like some action tonight. We’ve hooked the bastard!”
Detective Snyder, seated at the desk across from him in the Special Investigations Bureau offices of the Philadelphia Police Department, glanced up from his stack of case-files. “Yeah? Which bastard is that?”
“The real estate fucker — Matthew Murray, currently known as Steve Emerlich,” Detective Diaz answered. “I’ve been trying to catch this mother-sucker for two years now! You’d think he’d stay out of the Philly area, but he keeps comin’ back.”
“Is that the one you’ve been working on with North Narcotics?” Snyder asked.
“Yup!” Diaz answered with zest, rubbing his palms together, his eyes gleaming. “We jacked-up a huge and profitable drug deal for Mr. so-called Emerlich.”
Snyder leaned back in his office chair, making it creak. He pushed back a little on the casters. “Not a bad idea … getting help from the Narcotics Bureau.”
“I want to get him before the FBI does,” Diaz said. He pushed a button on his office phone. “Hey, Tamra, could you put me through to Teddy in Special Investigations — Professional Responsibility, please?” He wanted to say, please, doll, or, that’s a doll, but these turns of phrase were frowned upon by the very people he was calling.
Tamra O’Donnell, at the police headquarters switchboard, tried the Professional Responsibility office again, then connected directly through to the Office of Integrity and Accountability, which oversaw Special Investigations. “Come on, someone pick up,” she mumbled to herself. Finally a voice came through the speaker phone. “Sorry, Tamra, we’re short-handed today. One of our new receptionists called in sick,” Officer Rick Levine said. “What can I do ya?”
“I have Detective Roland Diaz — he wants to talk to Teddy in Special,” she answered.
Officer Levine glowered as he said “Okay” to the switchboard operator. He put her on hold — trying to remember how to operate the phone system — and entered Teddy’s extension. “Hey, Ted,” he said after a minute, “Rick here. Diaz wants to talk to you. Probably has something to do with that real-estate fraud case he’s been working on.”
Levine connected Ted to Tamra and stood up from his chair, stretched. He looked across the room at the empty desk where the new girl, Melinda he thought it was, was not sitting this busy Thursday morning. She was very pretty, very efficient, but hard to please. Levine considered, she was the kind of girl who he’d have to manipulate a bit, to get her to give anything up. He’d have to tell her he wanted a relationship, that he was lonely, that he wanted to commit. He’d have to tell her she was beautiful, exciting, one of a kind. He’d have to take off his wedding ring. He darted his eyes to the gold band as it gleamed on his finger under the fluorescent lights. But he could do that.