A Crack in Everything: A Susan Callisto Mystery #1

A Crack in Everything: A Susan Callisto Mystery #1

Susan Callisto is pushing thirty and taking stock.  The man in her life, Massachusetts police lieutenant Michael Benedict, has unaccountably left her--without a word of goodbye. Wounded but full of ...

About The Author

Angela Gerst

After law school, Angela Gerst moved from New York to Massachusetts and worked at journals. As a suburban desk reporter, ...

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Chapter One

Good Girls Go To Heaven

I was churning out voter surveys when he ambled in, tall, fifty-ish, with a head of thick brown hair going gray. If he knocked, I missed it. Maybe I should’ve felt threatened, all alone so late in the day, but campaign season was heating up, and all I felt was tired. “Can I help you?” I said.

“Susan Callisto?” His smooth baritone seemed to imply that by Susan he meant something sly.

“That’s right. And you are?”

“Charles Renfrow. Chaz, when I’m not signing something.” His clothes were a racy mix: heirloom sports jacket, Armani jeans over hard thighs, burnished old boat shoes on his naked feet. He carried a glove-leather portfolio, and his eyes were as blue and bold as taw marbles. Not that I noticed.

We shook hands over the ormolu clock that always says midnight but adds a bit of splendor to my disorderly desk, and he…or was it me?…hung on for one of those heartbeats too long. Maybe, I thought, he dressed like a nouveau-Yankee to compensate for that crooked front tooth and the too-confident eyes which had already surveyed my warehouse establishment and were now scrutinizing my tee shirt-with-a-message, Good Girls Go To Heaven.

He bit back a smile. “Thought you’d be older.”

Left-handed compliment; I let it pass. Going on thirty, five years out of law school, with two years of victory in the political arena, I figured I was old enough for whatever Chaz Renfrow had in mind. With some ostentation, I glanced at my watch.

“I know it’s late,” he said, “but I’ll only take half an hour of your time.” He commandeered the visitor’s chair with an affable assurance that got my dander up.

“Sorry. I’ve got a six o’clock meeting in Newton.” I leafed through my calendar. “The only time I can spare is tomorrow afternoon between two and two-thirty.”

“Won’t work. I have to decide this evening whether to run for mayor of Telford.”

Mayor? My candidates chased low-level office, nothing grander than alderman. I should have been pleased by the upgrade. Instead, for no reason that I could articulate, I felt manipulated. “Filing deadline’s Friday. Got your papers in order?”

“Not yet, but I only need five hundred signatures.” “Better make that six hundred. More.”

He searched through his portfolio and settled a sheaf of papers on my desk. “Not according to the regs.”

“You need a margin for error.”

My nameplate caught his eye, and he stroked the engraved letters, lingering over the sinuous ‘S’ of Susan. “I need you.”

From neck to cheekbones, I could feel the blush. I covered it by letting my hair fall over my face while I loaded voter surveys into my hobo bag and stifled my anger. This alpha man was damn well going to learn to take no for an answer. “Mr. Renfrow, I can’t help you. I’m too busy, and you’re too late.”

Dusty afternoon light slanted through the high arched windows that overlook Moody Street. Three stories down, a horn blared, cutting through the rumble of rush hour traffic and the hum of my floor fans. I was about to fling my bag over my shoulder, when Renfrow pinched the bridge of his nose and slipped his papers back into his portfolio.

“If I decide to run, I will have a place on the ballot. Beyond that, I can’t predict. That’s where you would come in.” He spoke almost wistfully now, which might have been a ploy, though he sounded sincere. “You’re a lawyer, isn’t that so?”

“Do you need a lawyer?”

“I own a biotechnology company. The mayor is trying to chase us out of Telford. If I don’t run against him, I’ll take him to court.”

I circled the office, closing windows, turning off fans. Near the rent-a-receptionist’s desk I paused to switch off a lamp, and from there I veered toward the door. “Sounds like a long story. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

“Why not tonight, after your other business? Wait, I’ll give you a retainer. You can always return it if you decide you can’t help me. Minus your consultation fee, of course. Ten thousand? Just to hold my place?”

Words like “sorry” and “no way” died in my throat. “Twenty?”

“Mr. Renfrow!”

He took out his checkbook. “Let’s make it twenty thousand.” Before I could tell him I don’t charge for the first consult, he’d signed the check, and then the sight of four zeros hitched to that two froze my tongue. Twenty thousand was way too much money for my vanilla advice. Of course, if he wanted tutti-frutti lawyering too…

He moved closer, the check dangling from his fingers. “Take it. Deposit it. The money will help you think. And please call me Chaz.”

I pondered my knotty situation, flip-flopping like a political hack. A debt-ridden Californian, I lived alone in the tight heart of New England, a life that lacked the simplicity only money, or love, can deliver. Love, I flipped, wasn’t numbers on a check. But money, I flopped, certainly was. “Um, Chaz, my policy—”

“Ms. Callisto, Susan, I’m drowning in deadlines.”

His words broke through my dither, and I averted my eyes from the check, tripping over the plant table on my way out the door. “Why didn’t you come to me weeks ago?”

“I only just made up my mind.” He kept to an easy pace as I charged down the hall, his long strides putting him slightly in the lead. “You said it yourself. I’ve got four days to file my papers. I need to discuss things with you tonight. Have dinner with me. Even campaign doctors need to eat.”

Our arms touched, and I drew myself in. The man unsettled me: his money, his irony. Or maybe it was something much simpler. Something I tried not to think about since Detective Lieutenant Michael Benedict stopped coming around.

Inside the freight elevator, I caught a whiff of Renfrow’s aftershave, old-fashioned bay rum. Michael had used it once in awhile, and I liked the scent, cozy with an edge, like Michael himself. My eyes closed, the elevator descended, and my loneliness retreated for the length of the ride. Renfrow didn’t intrude on my silence; he seemed to shift his demeanor effortlessly, a useful trait in a politician.

On the ground floor, we passed the harpsichord factory, closed, and Boris’ Bakery, still exuding cinnamony, chocolaty aromas. I hadn’t eaten all day unless coffee counts, and for once the smells stirred my never-robust appetite. The exit door opened on a steamy twilight and locked behind us with such a definitive click I wished it were Friday when I’d be off to the Cape for a weekend with friends.

As we closed in on my twenty-year old Beemer, the little engine that usually couldn’t, Renfrow’s aftershave bombarded me with reassurances. Or were they pheromones?

“What about it?” he said. “There’s an all-night diner on Milk Street.”

Would it kill me to listen? I could modify my policy on first consults and let him pay me a few bucks to tell him not to run. “Not dinner. Coffee, at Freddie’s Donuts.” The neighborhood pit stop was just visible at the end of the block. “Eight-thirty.” “I’ll be there with bells on. Although you should know,” he hung onto my car door while I eased inside, “I am much more convincing over dinner than doughnuts.”

“All the more reason for Freddie’s.” I rolled down the window and, like a trout rising to a fly, I snagged the check he was holding out to me. Just to hold his place.

# # #

US Trust reared up on my left. Twenty thousand dollars would lop a chunk off debt I’d incurred going solo, with a cushion left over for a few paltry extras, like rent. In a matter of seconds, I could slip Renfrow’s check into the ATM machine and come away moored in safe harbors. On the other hand…the bank whizzed past…I’m the erstwhile Boston real estate specialist who traded buttoned-up security at Fairchild, Volpe, Weiss & McGrath for jeans and sandals in Waltham. Truth is, I have more problems around authority than I do around money. Freedom really matters to me. And “boss” was writ awfully large across Chaz Renfrow’s psyche.

Halfway to Newton, I pulled over and examined the check: Charles L. Renfrow, NovoGenTech, 850 Industry Road, Telford, MA. My maps told me Telford was closer to Worcester than Waltham. Renfrow had wandered out of his orbit. With twenty thousand to spend on advice, why had he come to a smalltime political consultant tucked away in a rehabbed warehouse off the gritty side of Moody Street? Why, in other words, me?

One thing political consultants do is call in their chits. I dug out my cellphone and scrolled for Beauford Smith, a savvy operative based near Worcester. During the last state senate race I’d done him a favor, and when his dark horse won, gentleman Beau had graciously shared the credit with me. Our paths hadn’t crossed since, but Beau claimed to know everybody. After two rings, an automaton gave me a new number which led to Beau’s voice mail. I spoke a brief message, reminding him of my existence, and asking about Charles Renfrow. “Even scuttlebutt would be helpful,” I said.

Along with my cell, which I’d neglected to charge last night, I left him my office number, linked to Deirdre Wilcot, whose answering service gave my low-rent establishment an aura of size and stability and a kind of earthy-crunchy class. Then I reviewed the five figures on Renfrow’s check. Why the hell not me?

Roddie Baird’s big stone fake French farmhouse loomed over the circular driveway, crowded with upscale cars. I parked behind an Escalade and waited out the afterburn that always convulsed my BMW in muggy weather. Like my office building, the Beemer had been rehabbed by Mimi, my sister, who’d passed it on to me. And rehab, I was learning, does not mean restore; the second law of thermodynamics, or something.

A woman in a white halter dress left the house and walked briskly toward a Mazda sedan. Chin length hair hid her face, but even from where I sat, I recognized Roddie’s wife. Lauren Baird looked thirty but was actually forty-three, which I knew because blabbermouth Roddie, proud of her good looks, had told me. And she was pretty if you like skinny blondes who dress carefully and don’t have much to say.

Snotty me. But I’m just as hard on myself, a skinny brunette who dresses indifferently and will rattle on. Lauren manipulated the Mazda in that economical way I can never manage, and in seconds, she’d pulled out of a tight space and was gone.

After a last shudder rocked my car, I walked to the house and tapped the half-open door which swung back on a large central hall. In true fake farmhouse style, the entire ground floor was open to view: spacious living and dining rooms, country kitchen off in the distance. Behind the only closed door lay the den where, six weeks ago, Roddie and I had outlined plans for his alderman’s race, and Lauren made it clear that the campaign shouldn’t expect much from her.

“Hello! Anybody home?”

A teddy bear of a man in chinos and sneakers bounded out of the den, his face etched with smile lines. “Susan! Punctual to a fault.”

“I’m twelve minutes late.”

He pointed at my shirt. “Good girls go to heaven? Where’d you get that?”

“Won it at a feminist raffle.” Actually, it was a farewell gift from my old law firm, along with a Tiffany dragonfly charm. The charm brought my campaigns luck, and the tee shirt tided me over on late laundry days. What more could I ask, if not severance pay? “Check out the back.” I swung around so he could read the rest of Mae West’s sage observations: Bad Girls Go Everywhere.

He grinned the loopy little grin that made it hard to believe my genial candidate was a canny businessman with investments ranging from swimming pool filtration systems to apricot orchards. “Bet you don’t get out much, am I right?”

“Just far enough to sample the voters.” I passed him one of my surveys, which he slipped into his pocket.

“I’ll look it over with Lauren when she gets home. Her foodie group called an emergency meeting. Somebody had a vegan attack.” A big ham-eating grin overpowered his face, and he nudged my arm. “Come on. Let’s go share your wisdom with Finance.”

Outside the den, Roddie hesitated, his expression suddenly somber, but after a moment his mood swung back, and he threw open the door. “Hey, everybody, meet Susan Callisto. She guarantees victory, or my money back.”

“Got that in writing?” I said, and Roddie winked at me.

I shook hands with three local businessmen and John Snow, who managed Roddie’s passive investments. From a vine patterned sofa, retired judge Odette Brenner, all raspberry lipstick and brassy red hair, flashed me an uncertain smile. “They want me to head the committee,” she said.

“Go for it. You’ll have all the fun.” From a carafe on Roddie’s desk, I helped myself to coffee, then gravitated toward a rattan chair with rockers like mastodon tusks.

“But won’t I have to raise the most money?”

“Not necessarily. You could be taskmaster. Slave driver. Set the goals and let the gentlemen here meet them.”

“Oooo, slave driver,” she crooned, and there was a little nervous laughter from the gentlemen.

I glanced at my watch. Six fifteen. Plenty of time to scatter every crumb of my political wisdom: Raise money. The rest, as they say, is commentary. “The campaign will need fifteen thousand dollars. More if you can’t get enough volunteers.”

With a few nudges from me, Odette and the men brainstormed about who would contact which potential donor, and how to pitch. Lists were drawn up. Notes were taken. I passed around telephone questionnaires, and they cross-examined me for a while. Snow promised to have his web-designer son put up a page to solicit donations, and at seven fifty-two, I said a quick goodnight and broke for the door.

Roddie hurried after me. “Wait up. I’ll walk you to your car.” Just outside the den, I almost fell over a bundle on the floor.

At the sight of me, the bundle scrunched up its eyes. “I want my mommy,” it sobbed.

Roddie pushed past me and picked up his little girl. “Delia, why aren’t you in bed?”

“‘Cause nobody tucked me in.” Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she stuck her thumb in her mouth. The other hand clutched a pink blanket, tiny fingers working up and down the silky border.

“Where are Sam and Josh?”

The thumb popped out, moist and shriveled. “In the playroom, and they won’t let me stay.” Her voice rose to a wail. “When’s Mommy coming home?”

“Gotta go, Roddie!” I rushed across the hall, putting distance between Delia and me before she leaned over and drooled on me. “Call me about the survey.”

Hefting his daughter, Roddie caught up with me under the portico. “I’ll stop by your office tomorrow. It’s not only the survey. I, uh, I need a favor.”

I wondered if Roddie was getting cold feet. A fifth candidate had recently come out of nowhere, which meant extra work and a primary. “Is everything all right?”

“Sure. It’s just…stuff.”

Delia snuggled against Roddie’s shoulder, and I could see her relax in his arms. “Can I have a cookie, Daddy?”

“‘Leven zillion cookies,” Roddie said, and gave her an Eskimo kiss.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek against his.

What a campaign picture that would make, I thought, framing it in my mind. Worth at least a hundred votes.

By eight twenty-two I’d parked in my Waltham lot, smoothed my hair, and smeared on lip-gloss. I mistrusted Chaz Renfrow but evidently I wanted to look good when we met again. This was brain stem stuff. I never try to analyze it.

I jaywalked, wading toward Freddie’s Donuts through traffic that never winds down in this part of town. From a ragtop Jeep, music poured into the street, something as sultry and elemental as hot fudge. My spirits jagged up, and I stepped to the beat.

Freddie’s door opened on a crowd of chowder and doughnut freaks, and one searching glance told me Chaz hadn’t arrived. I sat at the counter and nibbled the edges of an éclair that had no flavor, unless grease is a flavor. Three cups of coffee later, I checked my cell and found the battery had died. Freddie loaned me hers, and I called my service, but Deirdre was busy tonight; I had to leave her a message. Outside, my spine fused to the building, I waited near the entrance until nine fifteen.

Annoyed at myself for short-shrifting Roddie and, I had to admit, disappointed, I walked back to my car. I’d been right  to mistrust Chaz Renfrow. Not only had he stood me up, his outlandish check was still in my hobo bag. Twenty thousand dollars. Now what was I supposed to do about that?

In the parking lot I changed my mind about heading home and went up to my office, where I reviewed documents for tomorrow’s early morning session with an ornery client and his landlord. Then I tried Deirdre again.

She picked up on the first ring. “Susan, I tried to call you but your cell phone’s off. Beauford Smith left you a message.” Her voice was luscious with warning. “Keep away from Charles Renfrow.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, why?” The Beauford I remembered swung between paranoia and euphoria with every twitch of a poll.

“Because he’s a hypocrite and a bloodsucker.”

A hard-driving businessman, in other words. I sighed. “Anything else?”

“Renfrow…your friend laughed when he said it, but he called Renfrow an evil man.”

My great-grandfather, born near Genoa, buried near Mendocino, would have warded off evil with a forked thrust of fingers. My own contemporary digits tapped the desk, but  a decidedly noncontemporary chill scuttled briefly along my spine. “I better try Beauford again.”

“Don’t bother. He was at some airport, changing planes. Wants you to meet him tomorrow morning, ten-thirty at Memorial hockey rink, so he can talk to you face-to-face.”

“Hockey? In July?”

“He’s coaching a summer league kids’ team. It’s the only way he can see you before he leaves for Brussels. Promise you’ll meet him, Susan. I have a bad feeling about this.”

Her worry allayed mine, the way sharing a burden lightens the load. “Deir, I appreciate your concern, I really do. I don’t suppose the sinister Mr. Renfrow tried to reach me?”

“No one else called.”

After we hung up I scoured the Web for Renfrow and NovoGenTech, but found nothing of interest except a photo of Chaz on NGT’s bare-bones webpage. There was a scanty list of his credentials, those of a few key employees, and three NGT phone numbers. But no private email address and no way to reach Chaz after hours. Dialing information got me nothing for Charles L. Renfrow anywhere in the state.

# # #

Cicadas, and my own gloomy thoughts, masked the sound of footsteps until way too late. A hand fell on my shoulder. I swung around, my key pointed like a gun.

“Chaz!” I dropped my arm. “What are you doing in my driveway? How did you find me? My address isn’t listed.”

“I…I ran a credit check on you last week.”

“You did what!” This kind of snooping riled me, especially as my credit was wobblier than a congressman’s knees.

“I always look before I leap. Don’t be angry. Aren’t you planning to investigate me?”

“That’s different. You came to me. On the spur of the moment, apparently.”

“It was a sudden decision, but I had you in mind all along.” “Why me?” A kind of atavistic shame made me blush. I had trusted a stranger. Among Mediterranean types this was like putting ketchup on your spaghetti. “I’ve got a very small practice, Mr. Renfrow. You can afford one of the big boys. I don’t know what your game is, but count me out.” I opened my bag and rooted around for his check.

“Susan, wait. You’ve never lost an election. I want your success.” Almost flattered, I hesitated. Renfrow wanted my success, not quite the same as wanting to win. A figure of speech, but the nuance seemed like a warning. Beauford jumped to mind: Bloodsucker. I held out the check. “You didn’t deposit it?”

“Luckily, no. I’m sure it would’ve cost me a bounce fee.” “Susan…Susie…”

“It’s Susan, and if you don’t take back your check, I’ll tear it up. How could you leave me hanging at Freddie’s Donuts and no way to call you? You don’t even have an unlisted number.”

“Please. Let me…apologize. Explain.” The word seemed to relax him, explanations perhaps flowing more easily than apologies from Chaz Renfrow’s lips. “My home phone is in my housekeeper’s name. I’ll give it to you, and my cell phone number.” “A little late for that. Why didn’t you at least call my service?”

“I ran into trouble. Since I had to wait for you, I decided to look at property in the old Navy Yard, in case NGT is forced out of Telford. The broker insisted on taking me to Cutters Island in Boston harbor. His launch lost power on the way back. Cost me an hour.”

“And the dog ate your homework.”

“I don’t have a dog.” His eyes stared unblinking into mine, and I was tempted to tell him hypnosis wouldn’t work any better than lies.

“As soon as we docked, I called your office from my car, but no one answered so I came directly here. Have a little mercy, Susan.” His grin was jokey, self-deprecating, and somehow, gently enticing.

I shook my head. “I’m just too busy to help you, Chaz. I can give you a few names. Beauford Smith does good work.” I watched for a reaction.

“I know Smith, and I’m not interested.” He looked put out, mildly annoyed, as if Beauford were a fly too small for swatting.

I shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“You’re still angry. Couldn’t we start again? Won’t you be generous?”

This was masterful: an appeal to my better nature, the worst kind of flattery.

The money helped.

I relented. “Well, I’m sorry you couldn’t reach me.”

“And I’m sorry if you thought I’d forgotten you. Look, we’ve already lost too much time. I’m going to suggest something wild. Let’s drive to Telford. We can talk on the way. If you’re going to help me, you’ll need to get a sense of NGT and the town.”

“Can’t do it. I’m dead on my feet.” But even as I spoke I knew that, between the evening’s coffee consumption and my chronic insomnia, sleep was not in the cards tonight.

“Traffic’s light this time of night. Forty minutes each way, thirty if I push. We’ll take a quick tour of NGT, and forget the town. I’ll have you home by one.” Chaz looked less polished than he had in my office. The jacket had vanished, his hair was windblown. His face was all planes and shadows in the moonlight. A soft humid breeze, the cicadas, his crooked front tooth, all goaded me.

Still clutching my key, and the check, I followed him to his car, a little white number I’d noticed in my Waltham lot but had missed on the crowded Brookline street where I live. He told me it was an old SAAB Sonett that he drove once in awhile to shake the rust out. “They only built five with a back seat. It’s a semi-classic, like your Bimmer wants to be.”

“Beemer.”

“Beemer’s the motorcycle.” “I never heard that.”

“You came late to the party. Check Bimmer online. I used to drive a 2002 back when they were rare. Not expensive, mind you. Just rare.”

You say tomayto…I say Beemer.

On our way to the Pike we stopped at my bank, and with Chaz standing by, I deposited his check. The ATM machine swallowed it whole, with an eerie metallic hum that sent shivers down my spine. Did those shivers mean, as my romantic half-Irish grandmother would say, that a banshee was howling over my grave?

Nope, my own pragmatic little inner voice replied. It meant that I’d accepted money from a man I didn’t quite trust and was already, viscerally, regretting it.

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