Big Trouble

Episode 4

Arilin Thorferra

Sydney and I met up at Tommy’s Coffee Shop that evening, just a block from his law office. They’d kept the Cross and Baker name, even though Cross never set foot in them anymore. The possum, dressed to the nines and even more foppish than I’d remembered, walked over and swept his eyes up and down my body from vest to slacks. “Still trying to look the part of a man, I see, Mallory.”

“I see you are, too, Harman. How’s that going for you?”

He snorted and slid into the booth across from me. “Splendidly, thank you very much. I should make partner within the year.”

“Do you get your name on the door then? I have my name on my door. It’s very nice.”

Rolling his eyes, he raised his arm and waved over the waitress, a middle-aged mouse who looked like she hadn’t slept since last Tuesday. “Coffee, two teaspoons of sugar, splash of cream. Rye toast, medium dark, light butter, orange marmalade.” She grunted and headed off. Sydney turned to face me, lacing his fingers together. “So what are you fishing for?”

“East-West Global Imports.” I dug into my own suppertime breakfast, corned beef hash topped with an egg over easy. “I think they were one of Mr. Millings’s clients.”

He drummed his long fingers on the table. “You’re the one who was his secretary turned snoop.”

“And you’re the one who sent him most of his shady clients.” I waved a bite of egg at him. “And who got them back after Bud’s death.”

He nodded to the waitress as she set down his toast, and spread the marmalade over it with the precision of a master painter as she poured the coffee, staying silent until she left. “We sent you the ones we wanted to avoid being associated with, and if you think we took most of those back after Mr. Millings found himself on the wrong end of a gun barrel, you’re quite mistaken.” He nibbled on the toast. “What’s your interest in East-West, anyway? I know the kind of cases you get now—”

“Now that I don’t get cases from Cross and Baker, you mean.”

He sighed. “That wasn’t my call. It came from the top.”

“If I blamed you, I wouldn’t be buying you toast and coffee. The truth is, I don’t blame anyone. Mr. Cross and I mutually decided to end our arrangement.”

“That’s very tactful of you. I’d joke you could be a politician, but you’d probably slug me.” Sydney set down the toast and leaned back. “You still haven’t said why you’re looking into East-West.”

“It came up in one of those cases I get now. I’m looking into a personal matter for a client, and it led me there.”

“What’s your client’s ‘personal matter’ have to do with them?”

“I don’t know yet. What’s East-West’s real business?”

“My educated guess would be global imports.”

“You’re a real card. What else?”

“What answer are you looking for?”

“Someone who works there is getting paid to keep a lid on someone else’s private life. I want to find out who. And to find out how they got some very interesting photos and who took them.”

He grunted, and took his time munching on marmalade before answering. “What I can tell you is that they’re not one of our clients now, and—”

“So they were in the past.”

And,” he repeated firmly, then lowered his voice and leaned forward, “I can tell you they deal in high-value imports. I can’t imagine anyone there would waste their time with a penny-ante squeeze play on…what is it? Some sap cheating on his wife?”

“I didn’t say it was penny-ante, and that’s a curiously specific guess on your part, Sydney.”

“Like I said, Nora, I know the kinds of cases you get now.” The possum finished his coffee.

“Does Joey Knives work for them?”

“I have no idea who that is, but he sounds lovely.” He grunted again. “It sounds like you don’t know who this Mr. Knives is employed by, either. For all you know, he’s a legitimate customer.”

“For all I know the extortion money he’s bringing to East-West goes to feed and clothe homeless orphans. It’s still extortion money.”

The possum shrugged, dabbing his lips with his napkin. “Maybe some employee of the company has a side hustle. You know how import companies are. They attract seedier workers.”

“I thought that was only true for the seedier companies.”

He stood up. “I’m afraid I need to be on my way, Nora.” I let him take my hand and give the back of it a perfunctory kiss. “Let’s catch up again sometime.”

“Looking forward to it.”

After he left, I leaned back, crossing my arms. Sydney’s argument held water, sure, but for being left unspoken, “don’t dig into East-West” was as loud as a foghorn. If he was warning me off, I doubted it was for my benefit. That made the contrarian in me want to march right back to the import company’s warehouse, but I had other angles I could tackle, and I might be better off following through on those first.

I reached into my vest pocket and flipped through the notes I’d taken while I watched Edgar at the Regency Club. He wasn’t antisocial, but he was hardly the life of the party, either. He said hi to anyone and everyone, but only said more than that to a half-dozen. Just two of those had given me the impression of being possible confidantes.

Using the staff entrance might get me back into the club past that self-important maître d’, but to start with, I could just hang out in the parking lot looking for Edgar’s two possible mates: a tiger built like a boxer, and a coyote built like a matchstick.

I sighed. Time for another damned stakeout.