Elena smirked. "Your limo to LAX and your pickup in Athens are confirmed. I have ordered irises for your mother. Blue, I a.s.sume that's okay."
"Perfect. Thank you."
Milo said, "Could we please have an address for that agency?"
"Not necessary," said Elena. "Take the elevator to the ground floor."
As we waited by the elevator, a nervous fellow in pinstripes pa.s.sed by, tugging at his hair.
Milo said, "Know anything about Masterson?"
The banker stopped. Frowned. Muttered, "Ghost town," and continued.
Ding. We boarded. I said, "Masterson's basically a West Coast clearinghouse office."
"Just Kotsos and that little battleax. Maybe they launder money for an oil cartel or run an international human smuggling ring or lobby for some cannibalistic dictatorship. The question is, what was Brigid Ochs curious about?"
"DSD used to be headquartered in D.C. The smell of international intrigue grows more intense."
He rubbed his face. "With friends like you."
Kersey and Garland, Executive Search and Human Resource Consultants, was tucked into a corner past the ground-floor snack bar, not far from the public restrooms.
The weary older woman who sat at the front desk looked at Jane's photo. "Oy, her again. Now what?"
Jody Millan on her desk plaque. Framed shots of face-painted, costumed grandchildren cluttered her desk.
Milo said, "Again?"
"That's Brigid Ochs. We dropped her."
"She's been dropped permanently, ma'am."
"Someone murdered her."
Jody Millan went white. "My G.o.d ... that's a... whatever you call it... morgue shot? I wasn't wearing my gla.s.ses."
"You recognized her without them."
"That much I could see, but..." Out came half-specs. "Oh, my G.o.d, I'm getting nauseous. Who did it?"
"That's what we're here to find out, ma'am."
"Then you came to the wrong place. She hasn't been with us for months."
"After lying about her credentials to get the job at Masterson."
"She sent you here," said the woman. "The Russian, should've figured. I'll bet she enjoyed pointing the finger. One little slip-up, she couldn't wait to fire us."
"I got her that job and it sure as h.e.l.l paid off, didn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"She started as the boss's secretary, ended up snagging him."
"The boss being Mr. Kotsos? She's Mrs. Kotsos."
"The fourth," said Millan. "And no doubt determined to be the last." Wicked smile. "Are you checking her out? She was furious at Brigid."
"Is there anything interesting in her past?"
Millan picked up a pencil. "Honestly, no. She was crackerjack. Worked for a top exec at Kinsey and did a bang-up job. And I suppose she had a right to be upset. Still, Brigid was extremely convincing. It's not as if Elena picked anything up, herself."
"Brigid was a good actress?"
"This town, we get plenty of that, you'd be amazed at the b.s. I get handed. But Brigid didn't come across that way, not at all."
I said, "She wasn't theatrical."
"Just the opposite, quiet, well mannered, didn't play herself up at all. Such a pretty girl but she didn't make the most of it. Almost like she wanted to avoid attention. I know we should've run a background, but Elena was impatient, needed someone now."
"Could we see the application?"
"Sorry, we don't keep records once they leave us."
"There's no need to hold on to trash. I can tell you what she claimed, because I interviewed her personally. Guess I shouldn't claim credit for that. But I'm not going to beat myself up, she came across bright, calm, articulate, eager to please. I don't get deeply into personal data but I do like to get a feel for the person, so I asked her about her background, the basics of her social life. She said she was single and happy to be so. I took that as maybe she was recently divorced or out of a bad relationship. She said she grew up in the Pacific Northwest, claimed to work for one of Bill Gates's top a.s.sistants, then said she moved to Los Gatos and spent some time at a tech venture capitalist, then on to eBay, where she did website organization. Her skills seemed perfect for what Elena claimed she needed."
"Trust me, nothing will make that woman happy," said Millan. "Truth is, she doesn't want anyone else up there but her and Kotsos. Though, if you ask me, he's gay."
"Odd couple," said Milo.
"Hey," she said. "This is L.A."
I said, "Masterson's office seems pretty laid-back."
"It's a tomb," said Jody Millan. "Once in a blue moon, you see someone, but the only two constants are Kotsos and Elena. The only business I've seen is rich foreigners out to lunch, kissing up shamelessly."
Milo said, "What kind of rich people?"
"Mostly Arabs, sometimes they're wearing those robes and headdresses. Like sheikhs. Maybe they are sheikhs."
"Have you sent Kotsos any other people?"
"Temps," she said. "Before Elena. Girl's got a work ethic, I'll grant you that."
"So Brigid Ochs was the first post-Elena hire."
"Elena said business had grown to the point where she needed backup. Because she and Kotsos were traveling more together." Head shake. "I pride myself on reading people well but I really got taken. Everything Brigid told me turned out to be baloney, down to her Social Security number." Brightening. "That I might still have. Not that it's going to help you."
"After I found out I'd been conned, I ran a trace. The number matches a poor little girl born the same year Brigid claimed, in New Jersey. A kid who died at age five. Hold on."
She entered a back office, returned with a Post-it. "Here you go, Sara Gonsalves."
"Did you confront Brigid?"
"Would've liked to but the number she gave me was disconnected."
"Where was her address?"
"Santa Monica, turned out to be a mail drop and she was long gone."
"She died with another person. A man named Desmond Backer."
"Don't know him. Was Brigid involved in criminal activity?"
"There's no evidence of that."
"Well," said Jody Millan, "she certainly wasn't an upstanding citizen."
We took the stairs to the sub-lot.
"Brigid Ochs," said Milo. "What's the chance that's her righteous name?"
I said, "Whoever she was, she was obviously curious about the Borodi project and DSD."
"International intrigue ... okay, time to call in some favors."
He flipped through his notepad, found a number, punched and left a vague message for someone named Hal.
As we got in the car, he tried Moe Reed, got voice mail, settled for his other occasional D One backup, Sean Binchy, and asked him to run Brigid Ochs through the databases, including Social Security.
Binchy phoned back in ten minutes. "Nothing on her anywhere, Loot. There is a Brigitte Oake, spelled like the tree but with an e at the end, incarcerated at Sybil Brand, awaiting trial for cocaine, possession with intent. Extensive record for solicitation and drugs, but she's forty-nine. Social Security was kind of a.n.a.l, said the number had been 'retired' due to misuse. I tried to get confirmation about that five-year-old Sara Gonsalves but it's like she never existed. For some reason I got the feeling they'd been told not to cooperate, but maybe I'm being paranoid."
"Trust your instincts, Sean."
"I'm learning to do that, Loot."
A mile before the station, Milo detoured to a taco joint on Santa Monica, inhaled two burritos slathered "Christmas style" with red sauce and salsa verde, gulped a mega-c.o.ke, then a refill. "All that green talk is making me conserve energy. Onward."
No call-back from Hal the Fed. A note from Binchy said, "No luck on the Internet." Milo Googled Brigid Ochs anyway, did the same for DSD Inc.
Whole lot of zeros.
I said, "Maybe it won't be about high intrigue and Brigid wanted Masterson's address list so she could help Backer apply for a job there."
"Along the way, the two of them have fun-time in high-end piles of wood?"
"How do most employees abuse the office computer?"
"Maybe plywood was hers."
He sat back, twisted an ear until it turned scarlet. "Let's try Backer's sister again."
He dialed, hung up. "Scott and Ricki and Samantha and bark bark bark."
The 206 backward directory yielded a name: Flatt, Scott A.
That pulled up a one-page family website showcasing the same holiday photos we'd seen in Backer's apartment, a few more of little Samantha, now around three, and travel shots from half a dozen national parks, plus Hawaii, London, Amsterdam.
Scott and Ricki Flatt were both elementary school teachers.
I said, "School's out of session, they get summers off, could be anywhere."
"Gonna be a h.e.l.luva welcome back." He spun in his chair, nearly collided with the wall. Mumbled, "There's a metaphor for you."
"Brigid told the employment agency she'd grown up in the Pacific Northwest. Skillful liars embed truth in their stories, maybe that part was real and this is about old friends reuniting. Recalling the good old days when she and Des used to park under the stars."
"Under the stars is one thing, Alex. Why a d.a.m.n construction site?"
"Maybe the two of them were wild kids, enjoyed trespa.s.sing."
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