<This story is archived on Crystal's Story Site, but I've also asked permission to showcase it here as well, since it's based on one of the images I have in the Modified Covers gallery. - Jenny>
My thanks once again to Jenny North for providing the inspiration for the this story. Her cover, Fashion Reporter2 was the inspiration for this story. Look for more from Mark Preston, Fashion Reporter.
As the last of the models finished the show, they all went to get cleaned up and change clothes. However, just as they were about to leave, they were all asked to meet in the conference room. The girls filed into the room for what should have been a fun meeting, all expecting to get their clothing assignments for the next show; instead, it turned out to be a notification of dismissal! Vera, the designer, Zelda her manager, and Tim all stood on the small stage as Zelda broke the news.
"Someone broke into the warehouse last night and stole all of the gowns. As of this moment, we have no idea who did this, but we are going to look into it. For the moment, I'm sorry, but we have to cancel the show. We'll call you if we solve this case anytime soon. We thank all of you for your time."
Later, after everyone had gone, Zelda asked Vera to join her in her office, where she suggested that a private investigator might have a better chance of finding the collection than the police. Vera, angry beyond words, merely nodded her head and stomped out of the office as Zelda picked up the phone to Mark Preston.
Mark was a well-known fashion reporter that always seemed to have the best and most accurate information about designers� collections, often weeks before a show. How he did it, Zelda didn't know, but what she did know was that Mark was extremely honest, having never divulged a secret, or a source, at any time. She made a call to his office, got the answering machine, and left a message.
Tired and frustrated, Zelda sat back in her chair trying to think of anyone who disliked Vera enough to steal the collection. Two candidates came to her mind. First was Tim, the young intern, a bright talented designer who openly disliked Vera for some unknown reason. Then there was Barbara, a secretary that had been recently fired for incompetence. Zelda doubted that Barbara had the connections for such a theft, but didn�t want to rule anything out yet�or anyone, for that matter.
The phone was on its third ring by the time it registered. Normally I�m not so absentminded, but in my defense, I was gazing into the bright blue eyes of a lovely blonde model at the time. Slowly I watched her turn away as she got up from the makeup table to step into her high-heeled shoes. She picked up her purse and struck a pose just for my benefit, giving a coquettish little toss of her hair and flashing a wide smile that made me�and in fact most men�weak in the knees.
"Marcia Prescott, you have outdone yourself," I said, watching as the lanky blonde in the mirror mouthed the very same words.
With an impish little grin, I tore myself from my reflection and headed into the other room to listen to the message on the answering machine. I was checking my purse when I heard Vera�s message, and my heart sank. Vera was one of the best of the newer designers, and I generally liked what I had seen in the previous collections that she had done. With a sigh, I erased the message and headed out to my appointment.
After hailing a taxi, I rode across town and went up an elevator to a small office I kept there. My brother Greg was in the office, working on some documents. He smiled as I walked in, and pointed to the computer screen. He waited patiently as I read what was highlighted there.
"So it was embezzlement?" I asked.
"I had to look pretty deep," he said, "but those offshore accounts had virtually all the money in them, and our friend in Belgium pointed us to someone that was quite big and laundering money as a side line. Once I had that name, it was easy. By the way, you look particularly fetching today!"
"Thank you! It's nice to have a brother that's so polite, and talented!"
"That's what brothers are for, Marcia, taking care of our sisters and any stray maidens we come across." Greg moved his wheelchair away from the desk so that he could sit close to me. "What's up? You have that look in your eye."
"The Vera collection was stolen."
"I see," Greg said. "That's for the next show, right?"
"Yes," I said, nodding. "Today was the last viewing of the current collection, the one she holds for her best clients."
"Then I'll open a channel," Greg said quickly, "and start a new file. Give me two days...I'll hope to have something for you by then."
I left my brother to his work, knowing that he had the best informants in the world at his fingertips, and any information that was available would be his. The cost would be high, but with a multimillion-dollar collection at stake, money wasn't a big concern. I left, taking a taxi to the office of Zelda, Vera's right hand. The taxi driver had a hard time watching the road until I closed my jacket, putting an end to his ogling. Zelda is the antithesis of most models. Short, she weighs about 150 pounds with graying hair dyed an ugly blonde that does nothing for her. Now almost 55, she once worked as a dancer on Broadway, and at one time was one of a handful of beauties that movie stars often took out. She has passed her prime, but she is extremely smart, and loyal almost to the death for her friends. I have known her for years.
"Marcia! You look fabulous as always! Come, sit! I'll order some tea."
Zelda was one of a very few people that knew who I really was, but that fact has never reached her lips. It just never occurred to her. She told me about the theft, her suspicions, then the details of where the collection had been stored and so on. Taking notes on my PalmVII, I sent them to Greg, who incorporated the facts into his growing file. Zelda mentioned something in passing that I nearly missed, but after I noted it we talked about her suspicions. I tended to agree with her about Barbara, but didn't rule her out. I did add a few names to my list, and sadly, one of them was Zelda's. She was a dear friend, but unfortunately she was also a suspect.
I went home, undressed and took a cool shower. Then, wrapped in a robe, I went to my computer and accessed the office files. Greg had a long list of potential candidates, some I had not considered, plus the name of the warehouse where the collection was stored, as well as the owner�s name. It turns out it was a shell company, and Greg was busy tracing that angle. I read a bit more and finally went to the vanity and carefully removed my breast forms and my special panty. The wig sat on the vanity, which left me feeling a bit more naked than I really was, but I knew I�d have to meet with Vera the next day as Mark, since I did not want her to know that Marcia, one of her models, was also an investigator. Not yet, anyway.
As I leaned back in the chair, my mind wandered to Greg. My brother is in a wheelchair because he was shot in the lower back. When we were in high school one of the other kids came into the building with a rifle, and just started shooting. Greg was one of three that were shot and lived. 14 others died, but he would not let that wheelchair slow him down, refusing to give in to the pandering so many well-meaning people try to foist on the disabled. Not Greg, no. He simply returned to school, and eventually became the class Valedictorian. After a stint at college, and a short list of jobs, he finally quit working for someone else, deciding to open an agency of his own. He knew that I had been dressing as a girl since we were kids, and could see that I was getting better at it all the time. He kept silent until one day he simply told me to quit screwing around, buy the stuff I needed, and do it right!
When I graduated from college, just a month ahead of him, I took a job at the paper doing gopher stuff. When he opened his agency, he invited me to join him, part time, and I agreed. About then, Rita, a long time employee of the paper, who had a column called "Rita's Report", retired. I was offered her job, and I grabbed it since it would put me right in the heart of the society types, fashion, and art world. That's when Marcia Prescott came to life. It was almost a month before I went to work as Marcia. Nobody said a word except for the Senior Editor, and he told me not to worry about it, saying, "this job really belongs to a woman, and since you seem to be able to do it, you might as well keep it up."
What I did not know was that Rita was also a man, and our Senior Editor had hired her knowing it! I didn't find that out for many years�when I spoke to Rita, all she would do was smile and told me that it wasn't all that hard, and she was sure that I could do just fine. In the meantime, Greg and I started to find small jobs, usually for the very wealthy, and he made enough money to expand his office while gaining a circuit of informants that he could rely on. I still don't know how he does it, and he won't tell me!
The next morning Vera let me into her office, unsmiling as she waved me to a seat. Vera was a bigoted, loudmouthed slob, but she designed some of the most popular clothes on the planet, which only fed her bigotry. I reported a statement she made at a party of other designers, and the outcry almost drove her out of business. She had said, "I do not design clothes for cows! If a woman weighs more than 105 pounds, she deserves whatever clothes she can find, as long as they are not mine!" Well, that statement caused her sales to plummet within a few days, ruining an otherwise stellar collection and driving her to the brink of bankruptcy. Needless to say, she didn't like me. The feeling was mutual.
"Mark," she said, "how nice to see you again!"
Without preamble I asked, "You didn't manufacture this theft yourself did you? I mean, if it was going to be a stinker, what better way to recover your losses�"
"You're a hard man, Mark Preston! This collection was my best so far! How can you suggest that I would steal my own dresses?!"
"Well," I said with a grin, "Let�s try this. At your last show one of your models was shot, right on the runway in front of millions of people. Then, when your previous collection was presented, I heard that there were threats to the models then, too. So in order to thwart another killing, you steal the collection, prevent another murder, and recover all of the money! It's clever, and not at all out of character for someone like you, Vera."
"Get out of my office this instant!" she screamed, "You're nothing but a rumor monger! Get out!" I left considering my options, and moved Vera to third on my list of candidates. If I was right, Vera would present the collection when it was found, and almost certainly another model would be shot. Vera had a long list of enemies, all capable of masterminding a plot that would ruin her by default. If the models wouldn't work for her because they feared for their life, then no matter what she designed it would rot on the mannequins. I called Greg, filled him in, and then went to find Zelda.
Zelda had a police record for minor theft when she was a teenager, but discounting that, her general demeanor still seemed to be edgy and tense, which made me wonder what she was holding back. I knew that her brother was a mercenary, but he was in Africa at that moment, and I doubted he was smart enough to steal a collection worth that much money. Still, she did give me a list of all of the scheduled models, their addresses, phone numbers and so on. Looking for Tim, I was surprised to hear that he had quit just 10 hours after the robbery. That moved him to number one on my list.
After talking to Greg, we decided that we would have to find the collection first, and then solve the murder, or Vera would never be able to hold another show again. Greg called her, told her what was planned, and reminded her that he needed a retainer on his desk in the morning or the case would be dropped. When he told her how much, even I gasped. He grinned at me and said that the retainer would be only a third of the bill!
"Mark," Greg said with a serious tone in his voice, "I think that it would be better if you let Marcia do all of the interviewing from now on. As a woman you lose that edge you have, and in this case, since we are dealing primarily with women, it might work out better. After all, a woman might tell another woman things she would never tell a man. As far as the men go, a woman can use her guile to draw them out and get them to tell her things they would not tell another man. Either way, I think it's time that Marcia took over�full-time, if you get my drift."
"Right," I said as I sat down. "You want me to become Marcia full time!"
"You make it sound like a death sentence," Greg said with a grin, "but we both know how much you like it! So just go home, stick on those boobs of yours and become Marcia from now on. Then," he said in a very serious tone, "I want you to find Tim and talk to him. He's staying with his mother. Here's the address. See you�oneish?"
Ordinarily I�d have given him a piece of my mind, but my heart wasn�t in it this time. I shrugged noncommittally. "I have a column due tomorrow. Make it four o'clock," I said.
That night I showered, and once again became Marcia. I had custom-made breast forms and a special panty that gave me hips, a rounder butt and so on. The overall look was realistic enough that it let me walk naked around other women if I had to, without detection. But since Greg was insisting that I remain a woman for quite a while, I placed a call to my salon and made an appointment for the first thing in the morning. Hot in warm weather, I decided no wigs for a while.
Just after ten I walked out of the salon, my once brown hair a soft auburn, set in a career style pageboy. I wore the navy suit with a white blouse and matching heels and handbag. I looked just like any successful career woman you would see anywhere. I went to my office and started banging out my column, featuring Vera's stolen collection and emphasizing that without it, she might be done. I wanted to provoke the people that stole the clothing to know that someone was looking for them, even if it was a mere fashion reporter.
I was done by two, so after emailing in the column I left to talk to Tim. His mother let me in, and gave me the look that only mothers get when one of their little ones might be in trouble. Tim was sitting in the front room, waiting for me. His mother left the room, but I knew that she was listening anyway.
"Why did you quit so soon after the robbery Tim? That does look a bit peculiar, and it certainly doesn't do much for your credibility either."
"I couldn't stand that bitch another minute!" Tim responded earnestly.
"Which bitch is that?" I asked.
"Vera, of course." The venom almost dripped from his mouth when he said it. "She couldn't design a paper sack without help, and I'm tired of her attitude!"
I asked him a whole series of questions designed to trip him up, but each time I got the same answer. Either he was an accomplished liar, or he was telling the truth. His mother was now hovering nearby, making no pretense about her eavesdropping. She had the look of a bitter woman about her. Grim-faced and wearing an ordinary house dress, I was very surprised when she almost casually mentioned that she knew Zelda.
"We were in show business together, when we were younger," she said with a grimace. Her words were clipped and sharp, as if she held a long festering hatred deep within. "Zelda always had the best young men you know," she added matter-of-factly. "The rest of us usually went home�alone."
I thanked them both for their time, but once I was in the car I used the Palm and sent my notes to Greg, I immediately asked him to dig up anything he could on Tim's mother. My list of possible candidates for the theft was growing bigger, with Zelda, Tim and Vera still competing for the top spot. On the first day of Vera's previous show, the fifth model on the runway had been shot, the bullet tearing through her leg and making her fall. In the pandemonium, whoever did the shooting managed to get away. The police determined that the bullet came from a very special kind of rifle, one chambered for a 6mm slug. The Russians and some of the Allies had used that type of rifle during WWII, usually in sabotage situations. It packed a big punch and didn't take a huge rifle to deliver it. The casing was all that was found, which meant that the shooter, if he was that good, had probably wanted the police to find it. Since everything else was perfect, I doubted that a mistake like that was a slip up. Was it a ruse, or was it a clue?
Back at the office Greg filled me in on what he had found out.
"Tim's mother? She was arrested in 1947." Greg sounded smug. "She got involved with a gangster named Benny Biggs who was killed while they were out to dinner. She wouldn't even tell the cops her name until she sat in jail for almost a week! I also checked the kids� records. It seems his mother neglected to name a father on his birth certificate. Tim was born almost seven months after Biggs was killed."
Grinning, he opened another file. "The warehouse, it seems, is owned by a shell company that is then owned by a partnership which is a front for a conglomerate, which, it turns out, is a holding company. Care to guess who owns the holding company?"
"Zelda?" I asked hopefully.
"Nope! It's owned by one Mrs. Edith Barrett, a.k.a. Edith Bellows, a.k.a. Edith Biggs," he declared with a flourish. "In other words, Tim's mother owns that warehouse!"
"Are you sure?" I knew it was a stupid question as soon as I said it, but Greg loved it.
"One Edith Marie Barrett married Saul Bellows on July 2nd, 1962. He was killed in what the cops at the time said was a random shooting, but six months later she and Biggs got married in Las Vegas in a very secret marriage. When Benny was killed she drifted out of sight, but Lt. King has a file that he let me tap. In it the cops speculate that Edith still runs Benny's operation!"
"But that would mean that she is connected!"
"More than connected," Greg said, "what it means is that she just might be the top dog!"
"It also means that Tim has the means to pull of a heist like this as well as get a model shot!"
"That's right Marcia. But then, we have Zelda." Greg turned the monitor so that I could see it. "Zelda was arrested in 1961 during that outbreak on the docks. It seems that the dockworkers went on strike just as the military ramped up to supply our Allies with military goods, which put a halt to that until someone shot and killed the head of the union. Then the mob stepped in and the guy she was with got everyone back to work. They had some kind of deal worked out so that he would be deported back to Sicily. Anyway, she was with him when a disgruntled dockworker took a poke at him and was killed for it. The Feds arrested him almost on the spot, along with Zelda, but the interesting thing is that when he was deported, she went with him, and she didn't come back to the states until he was quite old!"
Interesting...Zelda and Edith had ties that went back to the 1960's. Both had been connected with mobsters, one killed and the other deported, which presumably gave both of them at least some connections they could use to destroy Vera. In my heart I didn't think that Tim was involved, but that was just a surface feeling, and I still had no evidence that would include him or not. I was still mulling all this over when the phone rang in my office.
"Hello," I said lightly.
"Hi there, Cheeks." The voice was Lt. Jack King. He had called me Cheeks since the first time I met him.
"Hi, Jack," I said, "and don't call me Cheeks!" It was our usual repartee.
"How about dinner tonight?" he asked. "I might have something. Maybe we can share notes?"
"I'll pick you up at eight?"
"I'll be ready," I told him.
Jack King had met me during an investigation about three years ago, back when I was living as Marcia full time. After he had eliminated me from his list of suspects, he had asked me out and quickly tried everything he knew to get me into bed. It almost broke his heart when he found out that I wasn't a female, but he took it well, and over the years we had worked closely on many of the same cases. Sadly, it was obvious that he still had a crush on me, but to his credit, and even though he knew the truth, it had never stopped us from working together.
Telling Greg that I had a date, I went home, jumped in the shower, and got ready. By the time the doorbell rang I had changed into my red dress, the one that Jack likes so much. It showed off just enough to make him wonder without revealing enough to make him crazy.
"Someday," he said when I opened the door, "you'll have to tell me how you manage to look better than half the women I know!"
"Thank you!" I said, "But you don't know any women! Just fat cops in bad suits!"
"Yeah," he said quickly, "you're right. Ready to go? I have a table at JoJo's."
During dinner, I went over every one of my suspects with him, why I discarded some and made other a priority, starting with Vera. As he always did, he listened very carefully, only stopping me to fill in a few blanks as I went along.
"Biggs," he said softly, remembering. "He had two children. Did you know that?" I shook my head. "She had another son. He's younger than Tim by one year, which makes him 18. We tracked the kid through second grade then lost him! It's like he vanished from the face of the earth!"
"I wonder if Tim knows?" I asked.
"Zelda had a baby, too," he went on as if I said nothing, "also a boy. The kid would also be just 18 right now, but like Edith's kid, we couldn't find a trace of him after second grade." Sitting back he asked me, "Got any bright ideas?"
The connection was clear. "Let's get this straight." I said, "both have boys that disappeared are the same age, and neither of them have ever surfaced? Doesn't that make you wonder? Both Edith and Zelda worked together, both profess great anger for the other, yet their sons disappear at the same time? I'll have Greg get on this the first thing in the morning, but it'll almost certainly be a long shot. If they are collaborating, they will have covered the kids tracks extremely well, especially if you can't find them!"
"But you have that wizard brother of yours," he said with a smirk, "and we all know that he has the best pipeline to unattainable information in the world! I don't know how he does it, but he is way out in front of my guys!"
"I'll tell him you said that, Jack!"
"Oh, no you don't! Greg will be insufferable if he finds out I said that!" Jack said with a mock-hurt expression. He knew that I�d tell Greg, anyway. My brother adored Jack, but Jack didn't lean that way, so Greg stayed with his long time partner, Bill, who was an accountant.
Jack was a perfect gentleman all evening, the dinner was spectacular, and we both gained plenty of new information. Jack was limited by budget concerns, manpower and other crimes, while Greg and I were limited only by Vera's willingness to solve the theft of her dresses. I made my notes the minute I was safely locked in my apartment and then went to bed. I had a flower show to attend the next day at eleven, so I stopped by Greg's office and loaded my notes into his computer. Greg was eagerly working on the missing boys almost as soon as he had the information, accessing Jack's file to get details I didn't have.
The flower show was a huge affair, populated by the wealthiest matrons in the city, which gave me plenty of notes for at least three more columns. Some of those women, even with all their money, still couldn't dress themselves fashionably no matter how hard they tried. With a sigh, I knew that I was going to have to target a few of the most noted ladies there. My cell phone rang�
"You better get back to the office, Marcia."
Greg never used that tone of voice unless it was critical, so with one last look around at the ladies I was sitting with, I told them I had to go, and quickly drove to the office. When I got there he would have jumped out of his wheelchair if he could have he was so excited.
"I got it!" he exclaimed.
"Got what?" I asked him, puzzled. There was no telling when he was like that.
"Edith's kid," he began, "was in a school in central Iowa. I tracked down a teacher that says that she remembers that some men came to the school one day and took the kid, his name was�Henry, out of the school, though she thought his name was Barrett, not Biggs. Since he had to go to school somewhere, I began looking at old flight records out of Sioux City, and sure enough, there was one overseas flight that day...a private plane, by the way. The plane landed in Havana, refueled, then took off. Tracing the tail number, I chased that flight from Havana to Panama, then to Puerto Rico. From there they went to London, then Lisbon before the plane landed in Zurich. I checked every registry I could find, but no boy was admitted to any school, including the private ones, anywhere in Switzerland in the six months following that could not be accounted for."
"So it�s a dead end?" I asked.
He gave me a knowing smile. "No boys...but there were also 27 girls, all of which were accounted because they were natives, except one. Her name is Claire�Bellot." Greg was so good it sent chills up my spine!
"The other kid was taken from a Brooklyn school in almost the same manner, but they flew directly to London, Lisbon and then to Vienna. The records are very precise in Vienna, and they show a girl named Beth being admitted six months after the boy landed there. Her last name is Hasil, the same as Zelda's." Turning to look up at me, he was grinning.
Two boys, both just seven when they were taken away, then two girls exactly the same age started in a private school. It was good, but thin, and unless Greg was able to find a way to substantiate our guesses, we still had nothing. While I considered that, the computer chimed. Turning the monitor so I could see it�
"It looks like we have our proof, doesn't it?" Greg said.
The file that came in showed that Claire Elaine Bellot had undergone extensive surgery at the age of 13, while Beth Anne Hasil had the exact operation done at the age of 14. The files were vague, but neither of us had any doubt. The two boys had been surgically altered to become girls. Claire had gone on to join the Swiss National rifle team while Beth had joined the Olympic Rifle team for Austria. Both girls had been educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then once again disappeared. It was clear that they knew each other, but why disappear again? In fact, why make the boys into girls in the first place?
While Greg went back to work, I sat down with all of the files printed out and laying on my desk. It seemed as if the answer lay there right in front of me, if only I were smart enough to see it. A pattern of sorts was emerging, but it didn't make any sense. Edith was in her fifties as was Zelda. Both had sons, both had mobsters as the fathers of those children, and both of their sons had become girls. Just what the hell was the connection?! Reading the files some more, I came across a comment some cop had written in Jacks master file.
"If these women had sons by the men in question, would they be expected to take over after they become of age? Knowing the life span of a mobster, would the women want that?" KDC
KDC stood for Kenneth David Callahan, a retired detective that had trained Jack when he was a rookie. I picked up the phone and called Ken making arrangements to go talk to him.
It took about an hour to get to the small farm Kenny lived on. As I drove up, I was greeted with the ugly end of a shotgun that was only moved away when he recognized me. Taking my hand, he helped me out of the car and led me into the house where he poured two generous glasses of single malt whiskey.
"Bad day?" I asked.
"Yeah, but nothing I can't handle. A guy called right after I talked to you. Told me to shut my mouth!" Ken stood up, grabbed the box of shells, and sat them on the floor by his chair. "Bastards trying to scare me? After 40 years on the job? Not likely!"
"What about that note you made about those sons?" I asked. I showed him a copy of the original.
"Could be true," he said, "I mean, look at how many revenge killings are done against the sons of mobsters. It could be a way for the women to protect their sons."
"But surgically turning them into girls? Isn't that going a bit far? I can�t understand why a woman would do that to her son."
"I don't either, but them women were very tough, and they had more than enough money to do whatever they wanted to. If they thought that turning their sons into girls would keep them alive�"
"I see it, but I don't! Those girls would be so screwed up by now they would stick out like a sore thumb! And how could Beth join an Olympic team without taking the blood test? After what the East Germans did, testing became mandatory! That would have exposed them as genetic males, wouldn't it?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Depends on who took the test, doesn't it?"
Kenny was casting a lot of doubt, but he raised some interesting questions at the same time. In order for Beth to pass the blood test, she would have had to buy a judge or be a female. There wasn't any middle ground, not after what the East Germans did. But Claire never had to take a test like that, and she could have easily gone on with her life as if she were a natural female. The fact that Ken got a warning phone call only told me that we were close to the answer.
Ken and I heard the car long before we saw it. Standing up, he handed me a Colt 1911A1 .45 caliber hand cannon. I knew from experience that old gun could kill a Jeep if you hit it in the right spot! Watching the driveway, the dust cloud settled around the car, and as we waited, we both saw her get out of the car. The girl was about 18 or so, slim and athletic, and very beautiful. With the shotgun leveled at the door, he motioned for me to open it.
"I hear that you're looking for me," she said while standing perfectly still.
"And you are?" I asked.
"Claire Bellot," she said in a lilting and very feminine voice. "May I come in?"
"Easy," Ken told her. "Sit over there missy, and try not to move quickly. I get nervous easily."
Looking at me, "You don't look like a drag queen," she said suddenly.
"I'm not. I just like to dress as a woman now and then."
Clearly she was trying to get a rise out of me, but she managed to hide her disappointment when it didn�t work. "So," she said, "you found my sister and me. Why were you looking for us?"
"Sister?" Ken asked.
She nodded her head. "We had different mothers, but the same father. That makes us sisters!"
Something else occurred to me. "Care to tell us how you knew where I would be?"
"Someone called and told me to meet you here? Why?"
"I didn't tell anyone but my brother�" I began, and that�s when the penny dropped--we had been tapped! "It's nothing," I said, "forget I asked." I made a mental note to warn Greg about the phone tap as soon as we were through here.
Getting back to the business at hand, I thought over what Claire had said about the girls having the same father. That answered some glaring questions but it still got me no closer to the shooter, nor the theft of an entire collection of designer gowns. There wasn't even the smallest detail about Claire that was in any way masculine, and I began to doubt my notes on the girls having surgery, so I asked her about it. Surprisingly, she was quite open about it.
"We were both born with�both sexes, but we were predominantly female, so the surgery merely corrected things."
That explained why Beth could pass the blood test. She was actually a female!
"Who is your father?" Ken asked simply.
"Benny Biggs," she said softly, adding, "he had it too, but he was mostly male."
The light finally came on, and as the pieces fell into place, I was sure I knew who had set up the theft. Ken took Claire for a walk in the fields to give me some privacy while I made a few calls. The first was to Greg. After I got him on a secure line, I shared some of my thoughts with him and he promised to call me back after he ran a simulation. My next call was to Jack, who wanted everything all at once, but I put him off and told him to meet me at our offices the next morning. I thought I could hear him growling when he hung up�something about me being a stubborn broad.
I asked Kenny to keep Claire with him, but to bring her to the office in the morning, and to make sure he was armed. When I left he encouraged me to keep the .45, so I stuck it in my purse. Driving as fast as I could back to the office, I wondered if I was right.
Greg was just finishing the print out when I walked in. We went over it together and came to the same conclusion, and he went to work printing out all of his files. I left to clean up and have some dinner then reread everything to get ready for tomorrow.
The entire case rested on making one person admit that they were a mother. I had no doubt that Zelda would not admit it easily, especially since the baby was by Edith's husband at the time. But something nagged at me for several hours before I figured it out. Benny had undergone an autopsy when he was killed, and there wasn't one mention of his having both sexes, which should have been there if he did. Not only that, it would have hit the front pages of papers world-wide.
So that meant that Benny was not the father. Of course, that left only one candidate, and he was long dead. Calling Greg, I asked him to find that autopsy file and fax it to me. By the time I was out of the shower, I had the file, and my suspicions were confirmed. Later I called Jack and filled him in on what I thought had happened and who had done it, and then asked him to have all of the principals in my office at two the next afternoon.
The one person I never planned on accusing was now my main suspect, and while I really hated what I was about to do, I had no choice. The model that had been shot had died due to an infection, which made this a homicide in addition to the grand theft charge. I wasn't sure, but I also thought I knew where the clothes were, and when I told Jack, he said that he would have some of his guys quietly check it out. If I was right, he told me he would wear his red tie.
Kenny showed up with Claire about one, and the four of us set out the chairs as Greg made sure all of the files were handy. He also discreetly armed himself with a small and very ugly machine pistol that he hid within the framework of his wheelchair. By two, everyone was there, and although some of the less voluntary members were accompanied by a police escort. Jack was wearing a wide red tie.
"The theft," I started, "of Vera's newest collection was at first a ruse, as it was seen as a way to force the answer to a number of problems. That said, there are two separate issues here: murder and grand theft. The murdered model was Beth Anne Hasil, the daughter of Zelda. She had used a false name, but surely a mother knows her own child...or at least one would think so. However, since Zelda had not seen the girl for almost ten years, she had no idea that one of her models was really her daughter. And that's tragic, because when Zelda fired that shot, she picked a girl at random, and that girl just happened to be her own daughter!"
"Beth?" Zelda screamed, "That poor girl was Beth? But I didn't shoot her! I couldn't shoot anyone!"
I moved close to her. "When you and your friend lived in Sicily, you two sold guns the Russian weapons and all kinds of arms to guerrillas working the coast. The most popular gun was a 6mm rifle that is so small it would fold up and fit inside a small satchel, correct?"
"But I didn't!" she cried.
"When Benny Biggs was killed where were you?" I asked her harshly.
"I was here! In Manhattan! He was killed in Brooklyn!"
"With a .25 caliber pistol," I smugly told her, "which, as it just happens, you owned at the time. But that's beside the point. You shot that girl from the lower balcony, ran back to your office to hide the rifle in that gigantic bag you always carry, and later took it home. You wanted Vera to fail so badly that you were willing to risk a murder to get it. Vera is your sister, isn't she?"
"No! No! She's�she's not! She's my�friend!" Zelda was sounding desperate.
Turning to Jack, I told him that the rifle was probably still in her apartment, and would conclusively prove that she shot the model. I then turned back to Zelda.
"No Zelda, Vera is your sister. We found the documents to prove it. You were the designer and she did the books, but you were never very good in public, so Vera took over. Pretty soon you had faded into the background while Vera was the one that had everything was lavished on her. She had looks, a nice figure, and knew how to manipulate people...everything that you lacked. Still, you kept on doing the designing and letting her take the glory, until finally she told you that she was going out on her own. That's what this new collection is, isn't it? It's Vera's first completely original collection, something that you just couldn't allow! That's why you shot the model. If she couldn't get anyone to work the runway, none of her clothes would sell and she would have to come back to you, right?" A cop moved to stand behind her while I moved over to Vera.
"Your collection was never stolen, not really, was it?"
"It was! You were there! I have no idea what you mean by that!" Vera was very defensive in her tone, and a bit indignant, but I went ahead anyway.
"When you decided to go out on your own you couldn't ask Zelda for money, because then she would know what was going on. So instead you went to Tim because you knew that his mother owned and controlled most of the warehouses and you needed her help to get the muscle to pull it off. Your collection is now under the control of the police department, Vera, and will be evidence against you, because you arranged the theft so that you could pay off your debt to Edith. With the interest mounting, you needed the insurance money to pay her off. You had somehow worked out a way that you would find the collection just in time for the showing in Milan, recover your losses, pay back the insurance company and still have millions of dollars in the bank. It was clever, but when the girl was shot, Edith demanded her money right away, didn't she?" Not waiting for an answer, I moved to Edith who sat there smugly sure of her position.
"Tim was in love with Beth, and I'll bet that you had even met her once or twice. When Beth was killed you smelled a rat and squeezed Vera for the money, threatening to tell the cops everything unless she did what you told her. Tim quit that same day because he was sure that you had arranged it, but I'm willing to bet that he found out that Zelda had done the shooting. Maybe he saw her with the rifle? Who knows? But you bribed him with the idea that he could take over Vera's slot in the fashion industry if he kept silent, and he did. Harboring stolen goods Edith? I'll bet that Lt. King can find something to do with that."
Everyone fell silent as I paced back and forth. Danger was still in the air, and with so many people guilty of so many crimes there was no telling what anyone would do. Claire walked in with Ken, and as all eyes turned to her, Tim jumped up and made a dash for the door. He almost made it, but Ken grabbed him by the back of the shirt collar and dragged him to the floor where he put his big size 12 in Tim's neck.
"The old man," I said to everyone, "was the father of both girls, but neither Zelda or Edith knew the other was making hay with him. They both knew about his condition of course, but when their sons turned out to have the same condition, they both talked to the Commission. It was the only way it could have worked out. They had the connections to bury the files deep, and they still had a solid connection in Havana because Castro only wanted the country. He wasn't stupid, and didn't want to mess with them because they had the means to kill him. That's why that plane was allowed to land there. The Commission is the only organization with that kind of pull outside of the government, so it had to be them.
"That's also the reason Edith ran those warehouses. They had instant access to the docks and places to hide the stuff they brought in. Zelda got his money--but not much else--and started to design clothes. Vera on the other hand was good with numbers and people, but they both knew that they could not let anyone know they were sisters, since their father was still on the International list of war criminals. He ran the death camps, didn't he?" Neither of them answered me. "That's okay, we know it now," I said. You both changed you identity when you emigrated here after the war, but didn't quite lose the taste for revenge or killing, did you?"
The silence hung heavy in the room. After all this, I had expected some further protestations of innocence, but there were none. Confronted with the truth after all this time, it seemed the conspirators had nothing to say.
The cops dragged everyone down to the station, leaving Greg, Claire, Ken and I all alone. I was making us all a drink when Ken spoke up.
"Claire is going to stay with me for a while. She says that I need�guidance or some such thing. What I really need is for someone to help me bring in the next crop!"
I hugged Ken and Claire, then Greg and I watched them disappear out the door.
"Nice hair color," Greg said to me. "Does Jack like it?"
"He never mentioned it. Why?" I asked. "It�s not like we have any interest in each other."
"Just asking," he said with a grin, "he was staring at you a lot, that's all."
"Maybe he just likes pretty girls?" I said weakly.
"Maybe," Greg said. "Be careful around him, Marcia, or he'll catch you at a weak moment!"
Just then the phone rang, and Greg was all business again. A new client, by the way he was talking. I gathered up my things and went home. It was time to skewer a few wealthy matrons.
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