It was overwarm, as usual, and she could feel her hair frizz before she was a dozen steps inside the door. Over in their usual meeting spot, Hazel squealed at something Esther had said. The sound scraped it's way along her spinal column and she could feel the smile freezing on her face.
Still, there was no harm in Hazel. It probably wasn't her fault that she had a voice like a screech owl with a bad case of bronchitis. Forcing her mouth to relax, she shouldered through the crowd and dropped her bag next to Esther's.
"Millie!" Hazel squealed. "You're late!"
Mildred smiled gamely. "You try to find a parking spot in that mess."
Hazel poked her playfully. "That's why you come early, silly! I always find a good spot." She handed Mildred a sweating aluminum can. "Here. I picked up a beer for you. You'll owe me one in the fifth frame. 'Kay?"
Mildred accepted the beer gratefully. It had been a hard day at the office, with the boss and Miss Holt sniping at each other almost constantly. She'd had to placate several visitors who weren't used to the rather unusual working style of that particular office, and this was in between three skip traces and a small Andes of paperwork left over from the last two cases. She really needed her Wednesday night out with the girls. She also needed a cold beer. She sighed in contentment and slipped her street shoes off. Now she had both.
She had to put her beer down long enough to dig her bowling shoes out of her bag and slip them on, then she picked it up again, letting the pre-game chatter of her friends wash over her.
" and Gina tells me that Roger turned it down! Can you imagine anything so silly?"
"Oh, you know men. They have to do what they think they want to do, even when it's not in their own best interest. You take my Jeff. When he was Roger's age "
" well, I had to sit her down and spell out a few things about child-rearing you'd think she'd know by now."
"You can't tell a new mother anything, my dear. They have to learn it all the hard way, just like we did. My eldest, Rachel, bless her, insisted on absolute silence when Courtney went down for a nap and it was simply too "
"Of course the return won't be much at first and with everything going like a roller coaster all the time, well, it's not a gold mine, but patience is a virtue as my mother always said and I think "
"Give me his number. It sounds intriguing. I'm ready for a small fling of sorts "
"And did you ever see such a mess as that head of hers? If I came out of a shop looking like that, I'd find a good lawyer and sue their curling irons right into the ground!"
"I wouldn't be caught dead coming out of a shop looking like that. I'd buy a wig, first."
She sat on the plastic bench, her eyes closed, cool liquid trickling down her throat and thanked whatever God there was for The Dragon Ladies. A sharp slap on her shoulder roused her. Hazel. Grinning.
"Well, grab your gear and let's go! We're up next. Lane eight."
Still managing a smile, Mildred hoisted herself and her "gear" and followed her group to their appointed lane. Now if she could just keep her ball out of the gutter for the next two hours, the night would be practically perfect.
"Goodnight, Millie! See you next week!" Mildred turned and waved at Hazel and the rest of the Dragon Ladies as Rose pulled her car away from the curb, then she turned and headed toward her own front door. Not a perfect night, what with her car refusing to start afterward, but very close. She'd bowled a good 12 pins above her usual average and her team had, as usual, won the night. If they kept this up, it was the state championships for sure this year. And with any luck at all, the garage would find the problem and have her car back to her by the close of the business day tomorrow. At least, that's what they'd promised.
A rectangle of light appeared to her left. "Miss Krebbs? Is that you?"
Mrs. Sobrinski. Mildred felt her teeth clench and she forced her jaws to relax as she turned and favored her neighbor with a smile. Helen Sobrinski wasn't the worst person in the world. She was a terribly sweet, well-meaning older woman who occasionally had issues with reality. She also sent over a pan of the best divinity fudge Mildred had ever set tooth to each and every Christmas without fail. And if she occasionally needed help with reading small print, or wanted someone to make a quick run to the store for a pint of milk, well, Mildred didn't mind at all. But prefacing all of this would be at least an hour's worth of aimless chatter and tonight, at the rousing hour of 10 p.m., with work looming in the morning, Mildred truly didn't feel like spending an entire hour chatting with anyone, least of all Mrs. Sobrinski.
"I'm so sorry to bother you, dear, but could you ?" A small flutter of nervous fingers covering the withered rosebud mouth. Mildred squared her shoulders, her smile fixed in place, and headed resolutely toward her neighbor's front door and away from her own.
"Oh, whatever it is, Mrs. Sobrinski, I'm sure it's no trouble at all. And how are you this evening?"
"Oh " And the elderly face in front of her crumpled suddenly into a mask of pure anguish. Mildred felt her heart wrench and knew she was lost. Whatever it took, she'd be hanging in for the full duration of this one.
"Let's go inside, out of this cold night air," she suggested and followed the frail, bent form into an immaculate, though small, apartment. It was stuffed from brim to baseboard with the largest, most varied collection of bric-a-brac Mildred had ever seen in her life. Kewpie dolls posed, nude and grinning, alongside fragile, spun-glass ornaments, all fighting for space on the fireplace mantle with a large orange-and-green stuffed snake. Suncatchers and crystal prisms of every conceivable size and shape dangled from end to end of the large picture window, sometimes mere centimeters above a double-row of lush potted plants. Mrs. Sobrinski had the greenest thumb of anyone Mildred had ever known and had even rescued a few plants that Mildred, horticulturalist superb, had given up on.
Now she led Mildred into her cluttered kitchen, where Mildred perched uneasily on an ancient chair, which creaked alarmingly with each inhalation she took. A ancient china teacup, the approximate density of an eggshell, appeared on the table before her and her hostess poured a thin, green tea into its delicate depths before offering a plate of cookies that looked to have been only recently dusted. Mildred took one and bit into it gingerly. Lemon crisps, and good ones at that. She took a second and laid it on her saucer while the older woman settled herself into a chair across the worn, Formica-topped kitchen table.
"What's happened?" she asked gently, hoping to get to the heart of the matter sooner, rather than later.
"John will be so upset with me," Mrs. Sobrinski said softly, looking down at her teacup. "And he'll have every right to be. I should never have done it. It's all my own fault, I know that. It's just "
John, Mildred knew from previous conversations with her neighbor, was Mrs. Sobrinski's only son, grown and living in Silicon Valley, a successful marketing manager for one of the top three software firms in the U.S. He visited seldom and always left his mother vaguely upset and worried in his wake, though she was never quite able to say why, it seemed.
"Just what?" she prompted, and was instantly afraid she'd said the wrong thing.
"I love my apartment! I love living here, with my plants and my radio and my my neighbors " The voice was low and faltering and Mildred was suddenly afraid that her hostess was about to burst into tears right in front of her.
"Well, why on earth shouldn't you?" she demanded sternly. "You have every right to live wherever you please, don't you?"
Her neighbor's voice was, if anything, even lower than before. "John doesn't think so. He thinks he thinks oh, dear!"
"He wants you to live with him?" Mrs. Sobrinski's reaction to this was immediate and vehement.
:"Oh, no! He lives alone. That would never do. With me there how would he oh, no. He doesn't want me to live with him. And I wouldn't do that, not ever!"
"Well, then, what does he want?" There was a long, uncomfortable silence and the light dawned for Mildred, finally. "Oh, he can't think that! You're not ready for a nursing home! Why you manage on your own just fine! The way you keep this place up and pay your bills on time and-" she stopped abruptly, alarmed at the way her neighbor's face changed color.
"But that's just it, you see," Mrs. Sobrinski said simply, wiping her eyes with the edge of her sweater. "Unless I can find a way out of this mess, I won't be able to pay my bills. That is, not after a very short while, anyway. Oh, I never should have! I should have known better! John will be furious and I won't have a leg to stand on this time!"
She raised her red-rimmed eyes to meet Mildred's. "That's why I asked you to stop by. It's just well, you're so good with financial things and all " Mildred winced. She'd helped Mrs. Sobrinski out with her taxes last year and the woman had been so effusive in her praise it had made Mildred faintly uncomfortable. There was nothing even slightly complex about her neighbor's finances and the tax return could have been filled out with ease by a fairly bright sixth-grader. "I hate to ask, but I have nowhere else to turn, you see. And John will be so angry."
Heaven forbid that John be angered, Mildred reflected with a small inner sigh. "What seems to be the problem?" she asked gently.
"I seem to have trusted the wrong person," her neighbor said softly. "And now I'm in real trouble."
It was close to one in the morning before Mildred closed the door to her own apartment behind her and slipped off her shoes with a sigh. It had been a long story, if an old and worn one. And Mrs. Sobrinski hadn't exaggerated in the slightest. She was in real trouble. But she believed wholeheartedly that Mildred could find a way to extract her.
Only Mildred wasn't so certain she could. Perhaps, she reflected as she lifted her nightgown off it's hook, this was one she should take in to Miss Holt and the boss. They were kind people, and discreet. They could probably figure this thing out in no time at all.
Relieved, she slipped between the covers and settled herself for sleep with a comfortable sigh.
Well, so much for that grand plan, Mildred thought grimly as she gathered her things together at the end of the next work day. It had not been the best of days and the current case had just take a turn for the worse. Neither Miss Holt nor Mr. Steele had time to even discuss Mrs. Sobrinski, much less do anything about helping her. Mildred had waited for a good opportunity to bring the subject up, but hadn't managed to do it all day. So here she was, alone in the office at 4:50 p.m. and dreading the thought of walking up to her own front door in a half hour.
Mrs. Sobrinski, she knew, would be there, waiting like some tiny, pink bird of prey, ready to pounce at the first sight of Mildred. Wanting reassurance. Wanting a neat solution tied up with a pretty pink bow.
But Mildred had no solution. She didn't even have a plan. What she did have was the beginnings of a severe headache. She opened her purse and rummaged inside, looking for aspirin. But all she came up with was a torn corner from her bowling scoresheet with a new casserole recipe on it.
Well, that was nice, but no help at all. What she needed was someone to turn to. Someone who might be able to -
She found herself staring at the torn piece of paper, an idea forming in the back of her mind, the sort of idea she had all too frequently, the kind that almost always got her into trouble. This, she told herself firmly, was bad. This would not work. This was the last thing she should even consider doing.
But then again, it was either this or shouldering her way up her front walk and facing Mrs. Sobrinski. Alone. Trembling slightly, Mildred picked up the office phone and dialed.
"So that's the problem," Mildred found herself saying, an hour later in a coffee shop across the street from the bowling alley. "I know it sounds silly, but she's an old lady and we may be her only hope. What do you say? Will you help?"
The three women across the table looked dubiously at one another. Typically, it was Hazel who spoke first. "Will this be dangerous in any way?"
Mildred shook her head firmly. "Not in the least. Nobody will be dodging bullets or ducking knives. This is a simple operation. No danger involved."
She was surprised to see three pairs of shoulders slump slightly. Again, it was Hazel who plunged ahead.
"Well, then, will we at least get to go 'undercover'? You know, disguised and the whole bit?"
Mildred smiled warmly. "Of course, hon! That's the whole idea of this little scam."
Hazel brightened considerably. "Well then, Millie, count me in!" The other two nodded eagerly. "What do we do first and when do we do it?"
"Well," Mildred said, thankful once again for the Dragon Ladies, "it's like this "
"O.k., are you sure you understand what to do now?" Mildred asked gently. Helen Sobrinski looked vaguely uneasy, but nodded. Mildred patted the wizened hand across from her. "Don't worry about a thing. We've got it covered. All you have to do is set us up and we'll take it from there."
"Are you certain?" Mrs. Sobrinski said, looking worried. "I mean, to involve these others, it's seems so risky to me. What if they get hurt as I did? I'd feel horrible if anything were to happen to anyone else."
"Nothing's going to happen to anyone. Well, almost anyone," Mildred added with a small smile, which Mrs. Sobrinski mirrored with her own.
"I think I could live with that," she said simply.
It was two days later. Mildred was at her desk at the agency, not unheard of on a Saturday, except that neither Miss Holt nor Mr. Steele had any idea she was there.
They also had no idea who was inhabiting their offices at the moment. Rose and Esther were huddled in Mr. Steele's office playing cards and Hazel was perched behind Miss Holt's desk with the latest Rosamund Pilcher novel. All three had strict orders not to open any drawers or read any files or paperwork of any kind. Still, Mildred knew the real trouble she'd be in if either of her employers caught wind of this scheme. If she'd had any venue other than the agency available to her she would have used it, but there had been no time to find another office. It was the this or nothing.
Now, if the phone would only ring, she thought and then jumped slightly when the phone did ring. "Good morning," she said brightly, "R-, uh, Rossmore Limited. Can I help you? Yes, sir, she is. I'll put you right through. Please hold." She pressed two buttons. "Hazel? It's him. You're on, kid!" She punched another button. "Mr. Covington? Ms. Rossmore will speak with you now." Having connected the call, she sat back with a sigh and, pulling her handkerchief from the pocket of her blazer, mopped her suddenly sodden brow. This "skirting the edges of the law" thing was hard. How had Ms. Holt and Mr. Steele managed it all these years without going completely crazy?
It was a scant ten minutes later, though it seemed more like an hour, when her intercom buzzed and Hazel's voice floated out. "Miss Krebbs, can you place a conference call to the Brewster sisters, please?" Mildred picked up the phone again and pressed a button. "O.k., girls, you're on! And don't forget your lines!" She pressed another set of buttons, then depressed the intercom switch. "I have Abby and Martha Brewster on the line. You can go ahead, Ms. Rossmore. " Then she quietly pressed yet another button and began listening avidly.
"Hello? Abby? Martha?"
Silence. Soft giggling. "Yes, dear?" "Oh, we hear you perfectly, Ms. Rossmore."
"I have someone here I'd like to introduce to you, if you don't mind. His name is Mark Covington, and he has a proposition I think you might be interested in."
"A proposition? My, how exciting." "Yes, do go ahead."
"Yes, Mr. Covington?" "It's lovely to meet you, Mr. Covington."
"Ladies, I understand you have some money you'd like to invest."
"Well, it's really not much money, Mr. Covington, but we'd like to, I don't know how to put it, we'd like to build a little nest egg, put something aside for a rainy day, plan our futures better than we have so far, I suppose." "Yes, after all, there are older women like us doing it every day. I mean, what about those old ladies who got together down south and made just millions playing the stock market?" "Of course, my sister and I don't want to make millions. We'd just like a tidy little nest egg, a few hundred thousand, just something to put aside for our old age. That's all." "Yes, and perhaps to do some good in this world before we leave it."
"I completely understand, ladies, and I'm sure I can help you. I have an investment portfolio that I'm certain you'll be interested in. Is there a convenient place and time where we could meet? I've always found that these matters work best when you have all the information laid out in front of you, in black and white, so to speak."
"Oh, but of course. I'm sure Miss Rossmore would be kind enough to set all that up for us, wouldn't you dear?" "Yes, she's so efficient, don't you think?"
"I'd be happy to help out in any way I can. Mr. Rossmore, perhaps we should meet this evening at my home. Would that be convenient for you?"
"Certainly. Is it acceptable to the ladies, though? They need to be there as well."
"Oh, it's perfectly acceptable to us!" "Heaven's yes. Why, we were planning to visit dear Miss Rossmore anyway. We just made a new batch of wine for her to try."
"Then I look forward to seeing you ladies this evening."
"Oh, that would be splendid." "You have lovely manners, Mr. Covington. Doesn't he have lovely manners, Abby?" "He most certainly does, Martha. And, Mr. Covington?"
"Yes, Miss Brewster?"
"You'll have to try some of our wine yourself. It's homemade, you know, from an old family recipe."
"I'm looking forward to it. Miss Rossmore, I believe I have your address?"
"You do, and I look forward to meeting you as well. Your portfolio may be of interest to some of my other clients as well."
"Then, until this evening, ladies." There was a soft click, followed by a dial tone. Letting out the breath she hadn't been aware of holding, Mildred replaced her receiver in its cradle. Two doors opened simultaneously and the gleeful faces of her friends popped out.
"We did it!"
"Yes, we pulled it off! He never suspected a thing!"
"Oh, it was just too much!"
"Yes," Mildred said dryly. "It was a bit too much and then some."
"Why, Millie," Hazel said, her hands going to her hips aggressively, "you sound as if you don't think we did so well there!"
"Homemade wine?" Mildred said with one raised eyebrow. "Wasn't that pushing it just a wee bit too far?"
Esther shrugged. "Oh, we can pass off any old hock on him. He's a weasel. He won't know the difference. We'll just pick up a bottle of something cheap on the way home and decant it into something else. A mason jar perhaps. That ought to convince him."
"The main thing is," Hazel said firmly, eyes on Mildred, "that he's coming at all. That's what's important, isn't it? All we have to do is meet him, get the prospectus he'll bring us, and use it to prove he's a fraud. What could be simpler? We've already done the hard part, getting him to come. Now all we have to do is snap the trap shut and we have him."
"Piece of cake," Rose piped up, snapping her fingers casually. "Which reminds me, should we serve cake tonight? Or perhaps just cookies? Men don't always like a big dessert."
Mildred rolled her eyes and sighed briefly. No matter how you cut it, tonight was going to be two things. Long and difficult. She only hoped it would turn out to be worth the trouble.
Hazel's home was spacious and comfortable. It was in an older neighborhood, not posh, but filled with trees and bushes and small groups of maniacal children who careened along streets and sidewalks alike on skateboards and roller blades with the usual childhood disdain for potential collisions, abrasions, fractures and adults.
Mildred cast a dubious backward glance at her elderly compact car before hurrying up the walk, her purse and a large tape recorder tucked under either arm. The door swung open before she reached it.
"C'mon, Millie! Hurry!" Hazel was excited. You could always tell, because, when calm, her hair was merely wild and frizzy. When excited, she looked as if she'd been plugged into a live socket. Today, she looked as if she and Phyllis Diller had been separated at birth.
She tugged Mildred inside and slammed the door shut behind her. Within moments, Mildred found herself tucked into a chair in what had to be the only existing real, old-fashioned pantry in southern California. Her purse was wedged under her feet and the tape recorder was perched on her lap. The door had been left open a crack. Mildred drew a long, steadying breath and nearly screamed when the door was yanked open suddenly.
Hazel frowned at her. "What's wrong with you, today, Millie? You're so jumpy!" She handed Mildred a steaming mug. "Here. This should settle your nerves." Mildred took a grateful sip. Hot cocoa. Well, better than tea, which would make her sojourn in the pantry much longer, given that the bathroom was out of reach for the duration of the festivities.
"Thanks!" she called softly through the crack in the door and was answered by three hissing shushes from the general direction of the kitchen table. She smiled and took a long sip of cocoa. Even if nothing came of this, the girls were certainly enjoying themselves. From the brief glimpse she had gotten of Rose and Esther, they were fully prepared for their chosen roles. Each of them had their hair pinned up or pin-curled into their idea of a genteel elderly lady. Rose, in particular had used so much rouge and powder she looked as if she was appearing in a Kabuki play. Each had chosen the dowdiest dress in existence, and Esther had found a crocheted collar, which she'd pinned to her dress none too evenly. Rose had settled for a knitted shawl draped around her shoulders. Both wore sensible shoes and Hazel, who had annoyingly perfect vision, had an antique pair of spectacles perched on her nose. She at least, was dressed more conventionally, although the severe business suit with the floppy bow at the throat wasn't exactly her usual choice of wardrobe. Hazel had always been more the sweater-and-slacks type.
Mildred had to chuckle at her friend's enthusiasm for this little game. She supposed it did them some good, jarred them out of themselves, made them think of others, and all while letting them play. There was no downside.
Well, unless the whole thing went south on her, that is. She crossed her fingers and said a quick prayer just as the faint chime of the front doorbell was heard. Showtime. She checked her tape and her batteries, squared her shoulders and leaned forward slightly, the better to hear through the crack in the door. A few minutes later, she heard the group return to the kitchen.
"Please, have a seat, Mr. Covington."
"Thank you, Ms. Rossmore."
"Please, call me Elaine."
"Thank you, Elaine. And it's lovely to meet you ladies in person, finally. Almost as lovely as yourselves."
Giggles. "Oh, Mr. Covington, you say the nicest things, doesn't he, Abby?"
"Yes, dear, so he does. It's a real pleasure to make your acquaintance as well, Mr. Covington."
"Please, ladies, call me Mark."
"Oh, we couldn't. It wouldn't be right. Not a man of your stature."
"But you're so sweet to offer, isn't he Martha?"
"Yes, he is. Elaine, dear, why don't you offer Mr. Covington some of the wine we brought over?"
"No, thank you, I'm not really a drinking man."
"Very sensible of you, I'm sure. Elaine, I should think you'd have something else to offer this dear man. Some cocoa, perhaps?"
When the small clattering of china finally subsided, a male voice cleared it's throat audibly.
"Now, ladies, I thoroughly enjoy visiting with you, but I have been very anxious to show you this portfolio in hopes that it will meet with your approval." There was a rustle of papers and a soft scraping and cups and saucers were no doubt, being pushed aside.
"Oh, my! How absolutely clever. All those numbers and lines and charts and things. But I'm afraid it's a little too much for the likes of us to understand, don't you think, Martha?"
"Yes, indeed. Mr. Covington, perhaps you'd better explain this to us. We're not financial wizards, you understand, just a pair of ladies with a little money to put to some use. I'm sorry to be so stupid about this, but could you managed to make this simpler, somehow?"
"Certainly. I'd be glad to. What I'm proposing is a divestiture of interests. That means, when you boil it down, that you take your money and, instead of lumping it all in one place, you spread it around among a lot of little stocks. You buy a little here, a little there, then you sit back and wait. Some of the stocks go up, and you sell them off and buy more, at a lower rate, and wait from them to go up. The rest, you let sit where they are, then you wait for those rates to go up."
"Well, it sounds simple enough, I supposed, but how do you know?"
"How do I know what, Miss Brewster?"
"Well, how do you know what stocks to buy at what rate and when to sell and when to hold on? All those details, it makes my head swim, doesn't it yours, Abby?"
"Oh, it most certainly does, Martha. Mr. Covington, I'm afraid this is all a bit more than we had planned on. We aren't quite up to following the stock market to that extent. I could never decide on some of those things, when to sell and when to buy and how much and things like that. We were hoping for something simpler, easier to understand and carry out."
"Well, ladies, there's nothing simpler than this, I assure you. Because you won't have to decide a thing or do a thing yourselves. I'll take care of all of it for you. I'll pick the stocks and invest and follow the market and reinvest until you've achieved the capital growth you've decided on."
"Well, that certainly sounds simple enough, but I don't know "
"What's wrong, Miss Brewster?"
"It all sounds so very risky. Wouldn't it be easier to pick one stock at a time? Then, if it didn't go up or, heaven forbid, it went down, you could see it in time and move to something else?"
"Yes, Martha's right, I think. After all, we don't have so very much to invest to begin with. It might be better to start small, with just one or two stocks, don't you think?"
"But ladies, what I'm proposing is even simpler. You see, you're not the only ones investing. You'd be joining a group of other investors, mostly small investors, people like yourselves who have a little money to invest and don't know how to go about it. So I take the money and put it in one large pool. Then I invest it all at once. With a larger amount being invested, it cuts the risk for everyone. Then I keep track of who invested how much, so that if you want to draw out your share, I can tell how much money that would be."
"But how would that work? I mean, someone who has been in this group for awhile now would automatically have much more money invested, because of returns and things. So if we drew ours out, how would you know how much to give us back?"
"It's all done with computers, ladies. Records are scrupulously maintained and the possibility of error is virtually nil."
"But who are these 'other investors', Mr. Covington? What sort of people are they? We wouldn't want to be involved in anything shady, you know."
"Yes, we make it a point to only associate with proper people. We have to be very careful."
"Of course you do. And I only accept investors of quality. But these people are very protective of their privacy. The list of investors is kept in strictest confidence. I can only assure you that they are all, like yourself, people of impeccable credentials and social standing. None of them is rich, and all of them are cautious and upstanding individuals."
"Then why can't we know who they are?"
"Well, you wouldn't want me putting your names out and about when I was recruiting new investors, would you?"
"Mr. Covington? One question?"
"Yes, Miss Brewster?"
"If there are a great many investors in this pool of yours, well, the more investors, the smaller the return, isn't that right? I mean, you take a pie and cut it into so many pieces, well, if you double the number of pieces, then each individual piece has to be smaller. That's only sense, isn't it? Why should we join a huge group of people only to make less money? Wouldn't we be better off investing by ourselves?"
"Oh, no, Miss Brewster. It doesn't work like that at all. Each of you puts in whatever amount you decide to invest. Your return is strictly based on how much you individually invest. The protection comes from having a large group of investors at once. It lessens the risk for everyone, but not the individual return. It's done all the time."
"I don't know. We have such a small amount to put in ourselves."
"Maybe it's time to talk about that, too. Exactly how much were you wanting to invest?"
"Oh, I'm almost embarrassed to say. And it's so crude talking about money, but then, we are here to talk about money, aren't we? My! Isn't that crude of us. Well, since we are, I suppose "
"Oh, do stop dithering Abby. I'll tell you, Mr. Covington. We only have ninety-five thousand to put in ourselves. Of course, that's both of us together, you understand. Not apiece, I mean."
There was a soft, choking sound. "Mr. Covington? Are you all right?
"Oh, certainly! Certainly, Miss Brewster. I'm fine. The the hot cocoa just went down the wrong pipe there. Nothing to worry about. You did say ninety-five thousand? That's what you want to invest?"
"Well, yes. Of course, we couldn't invest more. We have to save something for living expenses and it's foolish to invest everything, don't you think?"
"Oh, of course. You wouldn't want to invest everything?"
"And our poor Papa, may he rest in peace, would never approve of that."
"No, of course not. Well, you won't have to invest everything. I should say ninety-five thousand should be just about right. And then, maybe later, you'll want to invest more. But for right now, I'd say you have just the right amount."
"We do? Oh, that's such a relief. We were afraid, you see -"
"Yes, we were. But now, oh, this is just splendid. You will help us, won't you, dear Mr. Covington?"
"Yes, this way we'll have something to leave our dear nephews, Jonathan and Mortimer. That would mean so much to us. And to dear Miss Rossmore, too, of course."
"Well, yes, she and our Mortimer are engaged, you see. She looks out for us as well. She's just such a dear. So anything that will benefit Mortimer will, of course, benefit her as well. Isn't that nice?"
"Oh, quite. Then you're interested in the portfolio?"
"Oh, dear. Abby?"
"I'm afraid, Mr. Covington, that we just couldn't. Not that it doesn't sound quite wonderful, you understand."
:"Oh, yes, Mr. Covington. It sounds truly remarkable. All those people, all working together, and under other circumstances, we'd love to join in."
"Under other circumstances?"
"Yes, you see, I'm not certain how you came to find us, but you're the answer to a prayer."
"Yes. We could never do it alone and we were at a loss as to where to turn."
"And it's most important that neither Mortimer nor Jonathan ever know, you understand. It would wound their pride."
"You see, Mr. Covington? I knew you were a kindred spirit! You do understand."
"And you will help us?"
"You hear, Martha? Isn't he just the sweetest thing?"
"Yes, Abby, and so understanding. We so appreciate it, Mr. Covington. And, of course, you'll be paid for your help."
"Oh, of course you will. We wouldn't dream of expecting you to do it for free. Would thirty percent be a reasonable amount?"
"Forty? Um, ladies, I still don't know what it is you want me to do. Maybe we should talk about that first."
"Why, we need you to front for us."
"Yes, with Mortimer and Jonathan."
"Yes, mainly with Jonathan, of course. He's the elder of the two, so he's more in charge. Mortimer is sort of a 'silent partner'. So it will be Jonathan you'll have to talk to personally. But ultimately, you'll be helping both of them. And isn't that the best part of it all?"
"I'm sure you're right, Miss Brewster, but I still don't see what you want me to do for you."
"Well, if the boys knew that it was us trying to bail them out, they'd never accept our help."
"No, their pride would never allow it, don't you know? So we need you."
"Well, I hope you don't mind, but we've invited Jonathan over tonight. We were hoping you could engage him in conversation and then, well, casually offer him money."
"As an investment, don't you see?"
"Yes, the poor dears have been having such a time of it. And it really isn't so much that they need, but of course, they won't take a dime from Abby or I. So we need someone to do it for us."
"Specifically me? Why?"
"Well, we don't know you, do we?"
"That's right. And, more importantly, Jonathan doesn't know you. And you come so highly recommended."
"Yes, dear Mrs. Sobrinski couldn't say enough kind things about you. So we talked it over and decided that, if you called us, as Mrs. Sobrinski said you might, well, we'd go ahead and hire you on the spot. And you called, didn't you? So here we are."
"And here you are and our problems are all solved, aren't they?"
"So all you have to do is talk to Jonathan and fix everything up with him, don't you see? And then tomorrow, we'll meet in your office and write you a check of some kind."
"With an appropriate commission for your troubles, of course."
"Yes, and then everything will be just fine. You will help, won't you, dear Mr. Covington?"
"It shouldn't be terribly difficult. After all, you start small, just ten thousand to start. And then later, we can shift more money over. With a commission for you, of course. And perhaps we'll have something left over to use on your, what did you call it? Your portfolio. But first, we must help Jonathan and Mortimer. You do see that, don't you?"
"Well, I suppose I-"
"Oh, you're just too kind, Mr. Covington. Isn't he just too kind, Martha?"
"He is indeed. You can do it for us, then? It's only ten thousand and we'll be in your office promptly in the morning with our check. But it must be a check from your account that you give to Jonathan. He'd know if it were anything else, like a cashier's check or some such. You're just the kindest man. I feel ever so much better with you to watch out for us now."
"Oh yes. I feel we'll both sleep much better after this evening. Are you quite sure you won't have any wine, Mr. Covington?"
Mildred, tucked away in the pantry, nearly choked on that, but the sound was covered by the ringing of the doorbell. She was relieved to hear a familiar voice.
"Aunt Abby! Aunt Martha! How are my two favorite pin-up girls?"
"Jonathan, how good to see you!"
"Elaine! Come over here and give your future brother-in-law a big hug."
"Jonathan, may I introduce Mark Covington?"
"Mr. Covington, it's nice to meet you. I'm Jonathan Brewster. I understand my aunts want me to hear some sort of proposition you have for me."
"Of course, I didn't come all the way out here just for that. I understand you girls made another batch of your famous wine."
"Oh, you dear boy. Of course we did. But not one drop for you until you mind your manners and listen to what Mr. Covington has to say."
"In that case, I'm all ears. Go ahead, Mr.Covington."
"Jonathan, Mr. Covington is in the investment business."
"Yes, and he's come all this way just to talk to you about investing in your business. Isn't that marvelous?"
"What? But how did he hear about it? I never put anything out about looking for investors, and I know Morty didn't either."
"Well, Mr. Brewster, you know what word of mouth can do."
"Is that so?"
"It is. The word is out all over the street and I thought, well, if I'm quick, maybe I can get in on the ground floor, so to speak."
"Well, Mr. Covington, I don't know about your ground floor, but if you don't mind what some landlords like to call a garden apartment, maybe we can do some business."
"Well, maybe we can at that."
At this, Mildred sat back with a soft sigh of relief. It was all coming together. One more "bit" player needed to come in on cue and the trap would be sprung. She checked her tape player. It was working perfectly. Of course, the tape was simply insurance, but as everyone knew, insurance was important.
The details and paperwork took very little time and a check for $10,000 was written out, signed and turned over. "Jonathan" was effusive in his thanks, a little too effusive in Mildred's estimation, and then he exited the stage. Now was the tricky time. They had to keep Covington there just long enough. That was Hazel's job, the trickiest job of them all.
"Mr. Covington? You mentioned that your prospectus might be of interest to my other clients?"
"Um, yes, I think I did at that."
"Well, perhaps we could go over your paperwork for a little bit, just so I could get a feel for it? You have time?"
:"I always have time for conversation with an intelligent woman such as yourself, Miss Rossmore."
Mildred winced, but with a decided sense of relief. Hazel came through again. No strike, but a decided spare. Not only would Covington stay for the final act, but Hazel, who had worked as an accountant for 27 years before retiring, would get a really good look at the infamous "prospectus." It was really coming together. For the first time, Mildred began to believe they were actually going to pull this incredible scheme off.
A half-hour later, she wasn't quite so sure. Hazel had dithered and stalled and used every trick in the book to spin things out for as long as possible, and still the final act couldn't be played. The last actor hadn't entered, stage right, yet. Mildred wiggled slightly on her chair and, during a brief pause in the conversation, inserted a fresh tape into the recorder on her lap. The suspense was manifesting itself in a Niagara Fall of sweat rivulets, running down her back. This was becoming worse than uncomfortable, it was quickly becoming unendurable.
She was trying to decide whether to make a "Cunningham entrance" or sit tight when the faintest chime of a doorbell was heard. A few moments later, a dearly familiar voice was heard.
"Aunt Abby! Aunt Martha! Imagine finding you here. What brings you ladies out?"
"Dear, dear Mortimer! Mr. Covington, we'd like to introduce our youngest nephew, Mortimer."
:"This this is Mortimer?"
Mildred froze. This was the trickiest part of the entire scenario. If there'd been another way but there hadn't. It would just have to play itself out.
"Of course this is Mortimer! Why would we tell you it was if it wasn't?"
"But, but you said "
"Said what, Mr. Covington."
"I thought uh, that is well, I understand congratulations are in order, Mr. Brewster."
"Yes, I understand you're engaged. To be married. To Ms. Rossmore."
"Oh, well, thank you. I see my aunts have been busy giving you our whole family history, then, haven't they?"
"You seem a bit pale, Mr. Covington. Is anything the matter?"
"Oh, no, Miss Rossmore. Nothing at all."
"Oh. Yes. Elaine."
"Darling, I think Mr. Covington is just a bit surprised by us, that's all."
"Surprised? Why, Mr. Rossmore, I wouldn't have thought you'd be a prude about a little difference in age? Don't you know your only as young as you feel? And how old did you think I was?"
"How old? Uh, that is, I didn't, I mean, I don't, I mean "
"That's o.k., Mr. Covington, Ellie and I are used to this sort of reaction. Actually, I rather enjoy it." There was a soft, feminine giggle and Mildred could feel her teeth clench.
"Why, Morty! Please, not in front of our guest and your aunts!"
"Oh, come on, Ellie. They like a good shock now and then. Relax. So, tell me, what's been going on tonight?"
"Why, nothing, Morty, dear. We just stopped by to see your lovely Elaine and meet Mr. Covington and see all his lovely charts and numbers and things."
"Charts and numbers? You two haven't been Elaine?"
"What's wrong, darling? Surely I can help your aunts invest a bit of their savings, can't I? I mean, I am practically family, after all."
"Elaine, Mr. Covington, could I see you over here for just a minute? No! Aunt Abby, Aunt Martha, you two stay right there, please."
Mildred heard three sets of footsteps approach the door to the pantry and stop just outside. She held her recorder up closer to the open door.
"Elaine, you should have come to me with this before you did anything! Now, how far has this nonsense gone?"
"Why, Mortimer Brewster, you sound like I've done something wrong!"
"Elaine, I don't have time for this. Has any money changed hands?"
"Excuse me, Mr. Brewster, but I simply decided to make a small investment of my own. Mine is the only money that has changed hands at all."
"Well, that's a relief, at any rate."
"Why is that, sir."
"Because my aunts aren't exactly money conscious. And they could have gotten themselves, and Elaine, into serious trouble if anything else had happened."
"What do you mean?"
"They have this fixed idea that they still have all the money that my grandfather left them."
"You mean they don't?"
"Morty, what are you talking about? They always acted as if they were so well off."
"Acted is the operative word here, darling. Those two dear old birds ran through Grandad's money years ago. I made a few investments for them at the end and that's pretty much all they have left, other than Grandad's pension check and their Social Security. They've got just about enough to live on, nothing else. Elaine, those two don't have a nickel between them to invest in a candy bar, much less the stock market."
"Elaine, what's wrong? And why is Mr. Covington looking so green around the gills?"
"Uh, Miss Rossmore, I mean, Elaine? I think I need to make a phone call. Right away, if you don't mind."
"Of course, Mr. Covington. It's right there, in the hallway."
Footsteps moving away. Quickly. Mildred sat back and finally relaxed all the way. It was almost over and it was going perfectly. That is-- she sat up straight, suddenly alarmed. Did Hazel remember? A low moan escaped her lips, hopefully too soft to be heard beyond the pantry door. The next few moments were interminable, then, finally
"Fine, Elaine. But your phone is out of order."
"It is?" Footsteps moving away again. Then, from the hallway, faintly
"It sure is out of order. Morty, could you check-"
"Please, Miss Rossmore, I don't have time. Is there a pay phone anywhere in the area?"
"Well, let me see, there was one over by the gas station, two blocks over-"
"But that was torn out. Then there's the one at the Laundromat, next to the donut shop. But someone jammed a donut in the change slot and it won't take money."
:"Is there a working pay phone anywhere in this entire city?"
"Please, Mr. Covington! There's no need to be rude."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Brewster, but I really need to make a phone call! And time is of the essence!"
"I'm sure it is, but that's no reason to snap poor Elaine's head off."
"I'm sorry, but please a phone?"
"I'd say try the library, but they're closed Mr. Brewster! Are you all right? Your face is so red. You're not having a heart attack, are you?"
"Not yet "
"Elaine, we hate to butt in "
"Please, ladies, if you have any idea of the location of a working phone, butt in!"
"Well, if you don't mind, Mr. Covington "
"I don't mind!"
"You might try the Tasty Mart. They stay open late and their pay phone is usually working. It's right down on Sheffield and North. It's a kind of bad area of town, but, you being a man and all, you won't mind, will you?"
"I'd use a pay phone in hell right now as long as it had a working dial tone!" There was a scrambling of feet and Mildred heard the front door slam, followed by a burst of feminine laughter. With a sigh of relief, Mildred finally emerged from her hiding hole and was met with a burst of applause.
"Millie! We did it!"
"We certainly did! We were wonderful!"
"Wonderful? We were fantastic! Had the idiot eating right out of our hand!"
The doorbell rang and everyone froze. Finally, Hazel, with a sidelong look at Mildred's pale face, went to open it. Mildred glanced at the table next to her and brightened considerably.
"Look!" she cried gleefully. "He left it all! Every scrap of incriminating evidence he brought in with him!" She glanced in the direction of the front door, then suddenly swept all the pages off the table and began stuffing them in her purse, stopping only when Hazel returned, trailed by a dear old friend.
"Mildred! What did you think? Was I magnificent or what?"
She faced him with a dry smile. " 'Or what' springs to mind. Did you have to gush so much? I thought you were going to start drooling on the man at any moment."
"Drooling?" The melting, puppy dog eyes were turned on her, full force. "Miss Krebbs, how can you say such a thing? After all I did for you, too."
"Oh, cut the soap, Mulch," she said tersely. "I'm drowning in suds as it is. Did you get it? All of it?"
George Edward Mulch grinned his widest grin and pressed a slightly crumpled envelope into her hands. "There it is, Mildred. You can count it, if you like. But it's all there! All $10,000 of it, in cash."
"And what if he goes looking for Jonathan and Mortimer's business, G.E.M. Enterprises, Inc.?"
"He simply won't find it. Dissolved the corporation right after cashing the check. And, since it was a privately-owned business, in my brother's name, he won't find too many corporate records to point him at me." Mulch sounded especially proud of himself. Mildred frowned.
"I never intended for you to close your business over all this."
"Oh, no bother. I was planning on doing it anyway."
"Yes. I felt it was too restrictive. These days, off-shore corporations are all the rage. The Bahamas. That's where the new corporate identity is being forged. The Caribbean."
"So the I.R.S. finally caught up to you."
"Oh Mildred, 'caught up to' is such a pejorative phrase."
"For a pejorative reality, no doubt. Well, never mind. As long as you're in the clear. But what about your brother?"
"Jimmy? Let 'em try to get anything from Jimmy! And good luck to 'em. Heck, I can't even find his gravesite anymore, much less his tax records."
"Uh, Mr. Mulch?"
"Yes, young man?"
"If you're in some kind of trouble with the I.R.S., perhaps I can help ow!"
"Bernard, don't you even think about getting mixed up with one of Mulch's messes. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, Aunt Mildred. Sorry, Mr. Mulch."
"Oh, that's o.k., Bernard. No hard feelings. Except maybe where she slugged you. That looked painful."
Before further conversation, or violence, could take place, the doorbell chimed again. The small group in the kitchen exchanged nervous glances while Hazel crossed reluctantly toward her front door. Her voice floated back to the group in the kitchen.
"May I help you?"
"Oh, I hope so. Are you Hazel?"
Mildred started violently, then hurried toward the front door.
"Mrs. Sobrinski, what are you doing here?"
"Hello, Miss Krebbs. My, you look wonderful today. Oh, I've been here for some time. I've been sitting at the bus stop down by the corner, watching all the cars come and go. When I saw HIM leave in such a rush, I thought it would be safe to come and see what had happened. I must say, I'm rather disappointed. There wasn't a single police car here. You just let him go?"
Hazel once more took the lead. "Why don't we all go into the kitchen and sit down? We'd all be much more comfortable, I'm sure."
A few moments later, the ladies were in seats, with George and Bernard perched on counter stools. "Now then," Mrs. Sobrinski said, her eyes bright as they darted from one group member to the next, "fill me in. Tell me everything."
"First things first," Mildred said with a wide smile and place the envelope in her neighbor's hands. The older woman opened the envelope and drew out the contents with a puzzled frown.
"I don't understand, Miss Krebbs. What does this mean?"
"We got it back for you! The whole $10,000! Now you won't have to worry about John anymore."
"But but " Mildred flapped a hand at Mrs. Sobrinski as the older woman gaped and stammered.
"Don't mention it. It's all fine now. You've got your money back and we've got enough evidence to nail that slimy rat to the nearest wall." She pulled the sheaf of somewhat crumpled papers out of her purse and laid them on the table. "Once Hazel and Bernard and I have a chance to go over this 'prospectus', I'm sure we'll find enough to send our Mr. Covington up the river for quite some time."
Mrs. Sobrinski brightened at that and leaned over to pat Mildred's hand confidingly. "Oh, you won't need to go over much," she said cheerfully, then began riffling through the pages Mildred had spread out. "If you look here," she said, pointing to a series of paragraphs, "then read this section here," indicating another paragraph on a different page, "I think you'll find all the information you need. Of course, if you go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, you could possibly nail some bigger fish than just Mark Covington. But that's only if you fee so inclined. It's up to you."
Mildred found a gape spreading across her own face. "But, Mrs. Sobrinski, if you knew about all this, why on earth did you give Covington your money in the first place?"
Withered fingers once again flew to the rosebud mouth. "Oh, dear. I'm afraid I've been very naughty and caused you all a great deal of trouble by it. I didn't realize, I suppose " The brightness left her eyes and she looked positively ashamed. This time it was George Mulch who took the lead.
"My dear Mrs. Sobrinski, I'm sure a lady as charming and delightful as you could never be 'very' naughty. Why don't you tell us about it. I'm sure it's nothing too dreadful."
"Well I didn't think it was, at first. I just thought that Mildred here might find a way to, how did you put it, nail Covington's hide to a wall? I never thought she'd get all of the rest of you involved as well. Why, when I thought of the risk you all were taking, I was just appalled. I never meant things to go this far. I just thought someone should stop him and Mildred seemed the best choice."
"You see," she continued, turning to face Mildred directly, "I never put any money in Mr. Covington's hands. I would never do anything so foolish. I saw at once that it was a scheme, and not a very good one. But I also realized that, the way this fool could talk, he was going to get someone in deep financial trouble, and most likely someone who couldn't afford it."
"There really didn't seem to be anything I could do about it personally. The problem with being an old lady no, now don't argue, an old lady is what I am and I'm not ashamed to admit it but the trouble with it is that, while you're free to be eccentric and to impose on friends and neighbors, you lose the automatic respect that your years would earn you in some other culture. So, no matter what I might have reported to the authorities, they would have just patted me on the shoulder and sent me on my way with a sweet, condescending smile. And that, you see, would never do."
"So I turned to Mildred, hoping that she, or her employers, could find a way to stop this thief before he harmed anyone who couldn't afford to be harmed. I didn't realize she'd drum up the Baker Street Irregulars to get the job done. Though I must say, you've done better than I ever could. When he visited me, I couldn't get him to leave the paperwork with me for love nor money. He knows, of course, how incriminating all this is. You should put this somewhere safe, and quickly. He's likely to be back, looking for it at some point."
Hazel stood up and reached for the paperwork. "I have a safe built into the wall in my bedroom. I'll put it there for now. Then, tomorrow, we can get it into the hands of the proper authorities."
Mutely, Mildred handed over the papers, continuing to stare blankly at her neighbor, who twinkled at her in response.
"Uh, I hate to bring up a delicate subject, ladies," Mulch interjected, "but if Mrs. Sobrinski didn't give Covington any money, what do we do with the $10,000 we got from him?"
Mrs. Covington fairly beamed in Mulch's direction. "Oh, I have such a lovely idea about that!" She glanced around, suddenly somewhat nervous. "That is, if you all approve. You see, there's a free legal service here in Los Angeles, and they do extensive work with senior citizens. But they're always so short on funding. I thought, perhaps, if it's not illegal in some way, we could donate this to them?"
The vote was unanimous after Mildred gave Mulch a sharp elbow to the ribs. After which, Mildred, Mrs. Sobrinski, and "the Baker Street Irregulars" enjoyed a late dinner before going their separate ways.
Mildred walked Helen Sobrinski to the door of her apartment, then turned to go.
Mildred turned back. "Yes?"
"You know, you and your friends did some truly fine work tonight. I know that, in some ways, it was just a game, a sort of lark, if you will. But you really did some wonderful work, and I think your friends truly enjoyed it. It's important to have friends, you know."
"Yes, it is, isn't it?" Mildred looked at the older woman warmly.
"You should do more with that group. They have talent. And flair. Why, I'll bet even your Mr. Steele would find them helpful in some capacity."
Mildred choked slightly, thinking of the irregular ways Mr. Steele could find to use her "Baker Street Irregulars."
"You might be right, Mrs. Sobrinski, but I don't think I'll mention it to him just at the moment. He's rather caught up in his cases right now."
"Oh, I'm sure he is, dear. But you mention it to him someday. It would be a shame to squander all that talent." She turned to open the door. "Goodnight, dear, and thank you again."
Mildred turned to go, when the voice behind her made her stop short.
"You never know, dear, I might just come up with something for them myself!"
And, headed back towards her own apartment, Mildred didn't know whether to laugh or worry