Tom studied the ledger. Some of it he understood, but some of it was indecipherable.

Lot X-231 – Sold to 546 – 30,000

“What the hell,” Tom muttered. “This isn’t how my uncle keeps his records. What does this mean?”

Remley shrugged. “Beats me. But whatever it is, Tom, I can tell you this—there’s a lot more of it.”

Remley turned the volume down on the infomercial he and Ellen were watching in Tom’s living room. Three barely touched cartons of Chinese food sat on the coffee table, the smell of sweet-and-sour chicken by now drowned out by the constant stream of Ellen’s cigarettes, which she lit one off the other until her pack was empty.

“How much longer you think he’ll be in there?” Remley asked, peeling his attention away from a pretty damn fine deal on a handheld food processor.

“Don’t know,” Ellen said.

“I’m getting antsy.”

“Do a crossword.”

“You want to make out or something?”

Ellen looked at him. “And to think you survived so much only to die at my hands.”

Remley got up from the couch and started pacing. “I’m going to talk to him. I’m going crazy out here. I can’t stand it.”

“You know the rule, Remley. No interruptions when he’s building a kit.”

“He’s not, though. He’s just sitting in his room surrounded by ninety-seven pounds of paperwork. Maybe he needs our help! Maybe he fell asleep!”

The door to Tom’s room swung open. Tom, ignoring them both, moved quickly into the kitchen, disappeared for a moment, then went back to his room, carrying a jar of instant coffee and a spoon. He closed his door behind him again.

“At least he’s using silverware this time,” Ellen pointed out. “I’ve seen him eat it straight out of the jar.”

“Disgusting,” said Remley. “Like an animal, our friend. Like a dumb, loping beast.”

It was nearly five in the morning. What went unspoken in the living room was this steady progression of minutes—the fact that in three hours Paul Avon would return to the Everything Store and discover his office ransacked. Whatever puzzle Tom was piecing together, if it wasn’t solved soon, any advantage of surprise garnered from the break-in would be gone.

Remley picked up the telephone. “I’m going to call. I’m going to order a hand-held food processor with free shipping and two free flame-retardant oven mitts. If I don’t do something soon, I’m going to lose my mind.”

Ellen watched as he fished out his credit card and took the phone into the kitchen, where he began rattling around refrigerator. “Yes,” he said to an operator, “tell me, can I dice onions? My friend has onions. Okay, what about cucumbers? Excellent. Now tell me, ma’am—how does this thing handle the major deli meats?”

Ellen turned off the television and began fishing through her ashtray, looking for any stray butts that might still contain a puff or two. Anything to keep busy. Anything to think less about what was happening.

It was six o’clock when Tom came out of the bedroom. It may as well have been years. Without his hair, he looked skinnier, more gaunt, and the purple shadows growing beneath his eyes made him look positively skeletal. He stood in the hallway, looking at nothing, and then finally he was looking at Ellen.

“So?” she ventured. “What did you find?”

“Everything,” Tom said. “Too much.”

“What do you mean?” Remley asked. “We gonna do something now? We gonna go and kick some ass?”

Tom nodded slowly, but maybe not because he was listening.

“New plan,” he said softly. “Whole new plan. We don’t need Josephine Prelligate. She’s not involved, not the way I thought.”

“Tom? Tom, what’s going on? Fill us in.”

He pushed his palms against his eyes and then blinked, like he was just starting to wake up from a bad dream.

“I think I know,” he said. “I think I know who killed Rebecca Strahm.”

****

Instant coffee photo by Editor at Large (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.