Time once again to post another chapter for those of you who still don’t know about this thing novel I wrote a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away.

So picking up from where we left off, here’s Chapter Ten of the first Sam McRae mystery, Identity Crisis!

Identity Crisis

It was a long time before either of us spoke—probably only ten minutes, but it seemed longer.

Various parts of my body were talking to me, with nothing particularly good to say. If my doctor had seen me, I don’t think he would have had anything good to say either.

Melanie looked almost catatonic. Now and then, I checked to see if she was still breathing.

Finally, she muttered something.

“What?” I asked.

“My luggage …”

I sighed. “I know. I’m hoping the bus driver or somebody noticed it. You can use my cell to call Greyhound if you want.” I dug the little-used phone from my purse. I’d bought the thing only for emergencies. This seemed to qualify.

While Melanie tracked down the number and made the arrangements, I scanned signs for the next food, gas, lodging exit and pulled into the first place I saw, a Perkins Restaurant. As Melanie hung up, she said, “What are we doing here?”

“Getting something to eat. What do you think?”

“How can you think of food?”

“It could do you good. We’ve got a couple of hours to drive ahead of us.”

Inside, we took a booth. The waitress came, and Melanie ordered toast, changing it to a club sandwich only after I insisted she get more. I decided to carbo-load on a big stack of pancakes, and we split a “Perkins Famous Bottomless Pot of Coffee.”

Melanie’s face was regaining its color, but she still looked rattled. I felt drained. I was tempted to order two pots of coffee.

“Do you think this is a good idea?” Melanie glanced out the window. “Those guys might still be looking for us.”

“I doubt it. They’re probably on their way back to Maryland, and they’re not going to stop at every restaurant and gas station on the way to look for us.”

We fell silent again. I tried to gauge when I could ask questions. I was also trying to figure out which ones to ask first.

“So,” Melanie said after our coffee came. “Tom … what happened?”

“He was shot. Found dead in Bruce Schaeffer’s apartment.”

“God.” She shook her head. “And they think I did it? That’s a good one.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, between the Mob and his so-called friends, there are plenty of other suspects.”

“That may be,” I said. “But you’re the one who ran.”

“I told you—”

“And I’m just telling you how it looks.”

She said nothing for a moment, then nodded. “Pretty bad, I guess.”

“Definitely not good.” I paused. “So you didn’t know Tom was dead?”

“No, I didn’t. The last time I saw him, he was alive.”

“When was that?”

“Saturday—the day after we met at your office. When I got home that night, I found a letter from Tom slid under my door. He apologized for everything he’d done. He said he understood it was over, but he had to talk to me about something, and it couldn’t be over the phone. He also said he was in danger. Maybe I was, too.

“I thought at first he was crazy. Or trying to provoke me. But something made me call him.”

She paused looking at me. “He sounded strange. I could tell something was different about him right away. I asked why we couldn’t talk on the phone, and he said some weird shit about wiretaps. It was nuts. I would’ve thought the whole thing was BS, if he hadn’t sounded so … unlike himself, you know?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“We agreed to meet at his place the next day. I wanted to pick a coffee shop or something, but he didn’t want to meet in public. That bothered me. I tried to change his mind, but he insisted.

“So I went there. He looked awful. He had grown a beard and lost weight. He told me that someone in the New York Mob was after him, and they might come after me, too.”

“Did he say why?” I asked.

“He wasn’t specific. Something about a conversation he recorded. He didn’t spell it out, but I got the feeling he was blackmailing the guy.”

“Not very bright.”

“That’s Tom—smart in some ways, clueless in others. He is—” She caught herself and frowned. “Was a very clever liar. He was bright, but had no judgment.”

“So what did you do?”

“I still wasn’t sure I was in danger. I believed he thought I was, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I started thinking about what he said. For instance, I’d been getting phone calls—blocked calls—from someone who would hang up when I answered. Tom didn’t do that. He’d always try to talk to me.”

Our food came, but Melanie didn’t seem interested. She had barely sipped her coffee, and I was on my second cup.

“You really should eat,” I said.

She shrugged, then picked up a sandwich wedge and nibbled on one corner.

“What made you change your mind? About being in danger?”

“When I got home, one of my neighbors said someone had been asking about Tom and me. Someone with a New York accent, she said. She told him Tom moved out, but she didn’t tell him anything else, even though he asked a lot of questions. She said he was a little scary. Kind of a big guy with a scar. No doubt that guy who chased us today. When he left, she saw him get into a big black car.”

She put the sandwich down and stared at it. “That pretty much settled it for me. I decided to leave and get a motel room. I packed as much as I could into a bag and left. I figured I’d drive until I found something out of the way. While I was looking around, I noticed a black car that seemed to be following me. I freaked out. Lucky for me I happened to be near a state police barracks. When I pulled in, the car took off.

“I waited a while, then went back to my apartment and called a cab. I had the driver take me to the domestic violence center. I watched to make sure we weren’t followed. They fixed me up in a shelter home. I told them Tom was violating the order. Technically, that was true, though it wasn’t why I was seeking shelter. Anyhow, that’s where I was for some time.”

“There was no one you felt you could turn to?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to put anyone else at risk,” she said. “And I didn’t want to go back to the motel, because it seemed too dangerous at that point. Someone could call and ask if I was registered. The shelter home locations are confidential. No one but the staff and the residents know where they are. I just needed to buy time. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.”

“So you decided to leave town.”

“Yes, a couple of days ago. I made the arrangements quickly.” She looked at me. “Did Jenna tell you I was coming?”

I nodded. “She had your best interests at heart.”

“I know. I’m glad she did, actually.”

I wanted to believe that was true.

“Did Jenna tell you I called her?” I asked.

Melanie hesitated. “I don’t recall her saying that.”

“Really? Because she told me she mentioned it.”

She shook her head. I couldn’t think of any reason for Jenna to lie, but I could think of a few reasons Melanie might.

“Even so, why didn’t you call me?” I asked.

“Why?” she said, looking disgusted. “So I could get a restraining order against the Mob?”

Good point. Even if Jenna told her to call me, maybe she didn’t bother because it was futile. I couldn’t argue with that. But now we were getting to the harder questions. “Did Tom ever mention someone named Gregory Knudsen?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“The FBI agent said he had something to do with the Mob guy.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

I finished off my pancakes. Melanie managed to eat half a sandwich and had the rest boxed to go. I took care of the bill.

As we got in the car, I said, “If you don’t know Gregory Knudsen, I’m assuming you also don’t know about a certain post office box in College Park.”

“Huh?”

“A post office box in my name.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Did you go back to your place at any time after you went to the domestic violence center?”

“Are you kidding? Of course not.”

I put the key in the ignition, then turned to face her, propping my arm on the back of the seat. “I need you to be very honest with me here.”

“I have been honest with you.”

“All right. Here it is. Someone pretending to be me tried to open a ten-thousand-dollar credit line in my name. Do you know anything about that? Because I found the paperwork in your apartment.”

“What were you doing in my apartment?”

I told her about Donna’s request, and how my attempt to find her had led me to the P.O. Box key.

Melanie looked stunned.

“When I went back to your place to return the key, there was a big box of files. Paperwork on my credit line and information on other people, too. Somebody’s been committing identity theft in a major way. What do you know about it?”

“I … I don’t know anything,” she said.

I still wasn’t sure whether to trust her. “Well, those papers were in your apartment. The cops have searched your place, so they probably have them now.”

Melanie stared at me. “You think I tried to rip you off?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I buckled up and turned the key in the ignition. This time, nothing happened. I tried again. The car was dead. I moaned in frustration and banged the wheel. Melanie continued to stare at me.

I sighed and reached for the cell phone again.

*****

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PS: On an unrelated, but awesome, note, one of my feature film screenplays made the preliminary cut! Wow! 😀 (Search on “Mack” or scroll down to p. 9.)

I don’t want to get too carried away, but …!

Um, yay! 🙂

 

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