Holding the Dream

Chapter Thirteen

Storms blew in, pelting the coast with driving rain, sweeping it with raging winds. Relief that the dangerously dry season might be averted with the unrelenting wet warred with worry over flooding and mudslides.

Kate tried not to take the nasty weather personally. But there was no doubt that it prevented her from intensifying the treasure hunts. Even as the rains abated, the cliffs were too wet for safety.

So they would wait.

There was certainly enough to occupy her. Pretenses' summer season was in full swing. Tourists crammed Cannery Row, jammed the wharf, queued up for a trip through the aquarium. Arcades clattered with the sounds of games and jingling tokens, and families strolled the sidewalks licking ice cream from sugar cones.

The busy carnival atmosphere out in the streets meant business.

Some came to feed the gulls and watch the boats. Some came to gaze upon the street that Steinbeck had immortalized. Some came to bask in the eternal spring that Monterey offered, or take the sweeping drive along the coast.

Many, many were lured by Margo's clever display windows to come in and browse. And those who browsed often bought.

"I see dollar signs in your eyes again," Laura murmured.

"We're up ten percent from this period last year." Kate turned from her desk and looked at Laura. "By my calculations, Margo should be able to pay off all of her debts by the end of the next quarter. When the holiday shopping season hits, we're actually going to be in the black."

Eyes narrowed, Laura came farther into the room. "I thought we were already in the black."

"Not technically." As she spoke, she continued to crunch figures. "We take a minimum percentage in lieu of salary. We have our pool for resupplying. Then there's operating expenses."

She worked one-handed as she reached for her cup of tea - and tried to pretend it was coffee. "Initially the bulk of our stock was Margo's property, and she took the lion's share of those profits in order to square with her creditors. We're gradually moving into new stock, which is acquired by - "

"Kate, just skip all the details. Are we operating at a loss?"

"We have been, but - "

"I've been taking money every month."

"Of course you have. You have to live. We have to live," Kate amended quickly, seeing the guilt cloud Laura's eyes.

Seeing that it would be necessary to explain and reassure, she set the cup down, resisted the keyboard. "This is how it works, Laura. We take what we need - what we're entitled to, and plow the rest back into the business. Each of us has personal expenses in addition to the shop overhead. Once those are seen to, we reinvest the profit. If there is any."

"And if there isn't, we're in the red, and that means - "

"That means reality. There's nothing unusual in operating at a loss in a new business." Kate bit back a sigh and wondered why she hadn't begun the discussion a different way.

"Forget all the ledgers for a minute. What I'm telling you is good news. We're going to end this calendar year not just eking out a minimal living and paying off old debts. We're going to make a profit. A real profit. That's rare in a business that's barely into its second year. By my projections, we'll have a net gain in the mid five figures."

"So we're okay?" Laura said cautiously.

"Yeah, we're okay." Smiling, Kate ran her fingers over the keys of her computer as if they were adored children. "If the charity auction goes as well as last year, we'll be cooking."

"That's what I came in to talk to you about." Laura hesitated, frowned at the figures on the screen. "We're really all right?"

"If you can't trust your accountant, who can you trust?"

"Right." She had to believe it. "Well, then, you won't have any problem cutting a few checks."

"You've come to the right place." Humming, Kate took the invoices from Laura, and then choked. "What the hell are these?"

"Refreshments." Laura offered a bright, hopeful smile. "Entertainment. Oh, and advertising. All auction-related."

"Christ, we're paying this for mind-numbing chamber music from a bunch of nerds? Why can't we just plug in a CD? I told Margo - "

"Kate, it's a matter of image. And this trio isn't a bunch of nerds. They're very talented." She patted Kate's shoulder, well aware why Margo had suggested that she be the one to pass along the bills. "It's union scale, just like the waitpeople."

Grumbling, Kate flipped open the checkbook. "Margo has to do everything in an ornate and showy fashion."

"That's why we love her. Just think how the cash register's going to sing the week after the auction. All those rich, materialistic customers with large disposable incomes."

"You're trying to sweet-talk me."

"Is it working?"

"Say 'large disposable incomes' again."

"Large disposable incomes."

"Okay, I feel better."

"Really? Good." Laura winced, held her breath. "About the fashion show we've set up for December? You agree that's still a good idea?"

"It's a great idea. A well-executed special event will more than pay for itself, and it has the potential of generating new clientele."

"Exactly my thought. Okay, here's my preliminary budget." She kept her eyes squeezed shut as she dropped the figures in Kate's lap. She heard the yelp, and when she opened her eyes, she saw Kate plucking at the back of her shirt. "What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to pull out the knife you just stuck in my back. Jesus Christ, Laura, we've got the clothes, you've tapped your committees for the models. Why do you need all this money?"

"Decorations, advertising, refreshments. It's all listed. It's negotiable," she said, backing out. "Consider it a wish list. Gotta get back on the floor."

Making noises in her throat, Kate scowled at the door. The trouble was, she decided, both of her partners were too used to being rich to fully appreciate that they no longer were. Or that Pretenses wasn't, she corrected.

Margo had married for love, but she'd married a Templeton, and Templeton meant money.

Laura was a Templeton, and despite being hosed by her exhusband, she would always have access to millions. She just wouldn't take it.

It was up to good old practical Kate, she decided, to keep things on an even keel.

When the door opened again, she didn't bother to turn around. "Don't hassle me, Laura. I swear I'll cut this wish list of yours down until you won't be able to serve anything but Popsicles and club soda''

"Kate." Laura's voice was quiet enough that Kate whipped around in her chair.

"What's wrong? What - "

She broke off at the sight of the man standing beside Laura. Fiftyish, she judged, with a hairline beyond what could legitimately be called receding. He had the beginnings of jowls, and bland brown eyes. His suit was neat and inexpensive. Somewhere along the line, he'd punched extra holes in his brown leather belt to accommodate his paunch.

But it was his shoes that tipped her off. She couldn't have said why those shiny black shoes with the double-knotted laces shouted cop.

"Kate, this is Detective Kusack. He wants to talk to you."

She wasn't certain how she managed to get to her feet when she'd stopped feeling her legs. But she was facing him, surprised somehow that their eyes were on a level. "Am I under arrest?"

"No, ma'am. I have a few questions regarding an incident at Bittle and Associates."

He had a voice like gravel bouncing on sandpaper. It reminded her foolishly of Bob Seger's gritty rock and roll. "I think I'd like to call my lawyer."

"Margo's already calling Josh." Laura moved to her side.

"That's your option, Ms. Powell." Kusack poked out his bottom lip as he considered her. "Maybe it would be best all round if he met us at the precinct. If you'll come along with me, I'll try not to take up too much of your time. I can see you're busy."

"It's all right." Kate put a hand on Laura's arm before Laura could step forward. "It's all right. Don't worry. I'll call you."

"I'm coming with you."

"No." With icy fingers, Kate picked up her purse. "I'll call you as soon as I can."

She was taken to an interview room designed to intimidate. Intellectually, she knew that. The plain walls, the scarred center table and uncomfortable chairs, the wide mirror that was obviously two-way glass were all part of a setup to aid the police in getting information from suspects. No matter how

Kate's practical side ordered her not to be affected, her skin crawled.

Because she was the suspect.

She had Josh beside her, looking particularly lawyerly in a tailored gray suit and muted striped tie. Kusack folded his hands on the table. Big hands, Kate noted distractedly, adorned with a single thin gold wedding band. He was a nail-biter, she thought, staring with dull fascination at his ragged, painfully short fingernails.

For the space of several heartbeats, there was nothing but humming silence, like the hushed anticipation just before the curtain rose on the first act of a major play. A bubble of hysterical laughter nearly fizzed out of her throat at the image.

Act one, scene one, and she had the starring role.

"Can I get you something, Ms. Powell?" Kusack watched her muscles jerk in reaction to his voice as her gaze flew from his hands to his face. "Coffee? A Coke?"

"No. Nothing."

"Detective Kusack, my client is here, at your request, in the spirit of cooperation." His cultured voice chilly and hard, Josh gave Kate's tense hand a comforting squeeze under the table. "No one wants this matter cleared up more. Ms. Powell is willing to make a statement."

"I appreciate that, Mr. Templeton. Ms. Powell, I'd like it if you'd answer a few questions, so I can get this all straight in my mind." He gave her a kindly, avuncular smile that made her insides quiver. "I'm going to read you your rights. Now that's just procedure, just the way we have to do things."

He recited the words that anyone who had ever watched an episode of a police drama from Kojak to NYPD Blue knew by rote. She stared at the tape recorder, silently documenting every word, every inflection.

"You understand these rights, Ms. Powell?"

She shifted her eyes, stared into his. The curtain was up, she thought. Damned if she was going to blow it. "Yes, I understand."

"You worked for the accounting firm of Bittle and Associates from..." He flipped pages in a small dog-eared notebook, read off dates.

"Yes, they hired me straight out of graduate school."

"Harvard, right? You got to have a lot of smarts to get into Harvard. I see you graduated as a Baker Scholar, too."

"I worked for it."

"Bet you did," he said easily. "What kind of stuff did you do at Bittle?"

"Tax preparation, financial and estate planning. Investment advice. I might work in tandem with a client's broker to build or enhance a portfolio."

Josh lifted a finger. "I want it on record that during my client's employment at this firm she increased business by bringing in accounts. Her record there was not only unblemished, it was superior."

"Uh-huh. How do you go about bringing in accounts, Ms. Powell?"

"Contacts, networking. Recommendations from current accounts."

He took her through the day-to-day business of her work, the questions slowly paced, quietly asked until she began to relax.

He scratched his head, shaking it. "Me, I can't make a damn bit of sense out of all those forms Uncle Sam wants us to fill out. Used to sit down with them every year, all spread out on the kitchen table. With a bottle of Jack to ease the pain." He grinned winningly. "The wife finally had enough of that. Now I take everything up to H & R Block in April and dump it on them."

"That makes you very typical, Detective Kusack."

"They're always changing the rules, aren't they?" He smiled again. "Somebody like you would have to understand rules. And how to get around them."

When Josh objected to the tone of the question, Kate shook her head. "No, I can respond to that. I understand the rules, Detective Kusack. It's my job to recognize what's black and white, and where the shades of gray are. A good accountant uses the system to circumvent the system when possible."

"It's kind of a game, isn't it?"

"Yes, in a way. But the game has rules, too. I wouldn't have lasted a month at a firm with Bittle's structure and reputation if I hadn't played by those rules. An accountant who doctors tax forms, or cheats the IRS endangers herself and her client. I wasn't raised to cheat."

"You were raised right here in Monterey, weren't you? You were the ward of Thomas and Susan Templeton."

"My parents were killed when I was eight. I - "

"Your father had a bit of a financial problem before his death," Kusack commented and watched Kate's face go sheet-white.

"Charges brought and never resolved concerning my client's father twenty years ago have no bearing here," Josh stated.

"Just background, counselor. And an interesting coincidence."

"I wasn't aware of my father's problems until recently," Kate managed. How had he found out so quickly? she wondered. Why had he looked? "As I said, both my parents were killed when I was a child. I grew up in Templeton House in the Big Sur area." She took a quiet breath. "The Templetons didn't consider or treat me as a ward but as a daughter."

"You know, I'd have figured they'd have taken you into the Templeton organization. A woman with your skills, and they've got all those hotels, the factories."

"I didn't choose to join the Templeton organization."

"Now why was that?"

"Because I didn't want to take anything else from them. I wanted to go out on my own. They respected my decision."

"And the door remained open," Josh put in. "Anytime Kate wanted to walk through. Detective, I don't see what this line of questioning has to do with the matter at hand."

"Just laying a foundation." Despite the recorder, he continued to make little notations in his tattered notebook. "Ms. Powell, what was your salary at Bittle at the time of your termination?"

"A base of fifty-two-five, plus bonus."

"Fifty-two thousand." Nodding, he flipped through his book as if checking facts. "That's quite a come-down for someone who had the run of a place like Templeton House."

"I earned it, and it was enough for my needs." She felt a line of cold sweat drip down her back. "I know how to make money from money. And in an average year, I would add twenty thousand to that base in bonuses."

"Last year you opened a business."

"With my sisters. With Margo and Laura Templeton," Kate qualified.

"It's risky, starting a business." Those bland eyes stayed on hers. "And expensive."

"I can give you all the statistics, all the figures."

"You like to gamble, Ms. Powell."

"No, I don't. Not in the standard sense of Vegas or the track. The odds always favor the house. But I appreciate an intelligent, and cautious, investment risk. And I consider Pretenses to be just that."

"Some businesses need to be fed a lot. Something like this shop of yours, keeping stock, all that overhead."

"My books are clean. You can - "

"Kate." Josh put a hand on her arm in warning.

"No." Furious now, she shook it off. "He's implying that I would take the easy way, because my father did. That I embezzled from Bittle to keep Pretenses afloat, and I'm not having it. We've worked too hard to make the shop run. Especially Margo. I'm not having it, Josh. He's not going to say that the shop's involved." She seared Kusack with one hot glare. "You pick up the books at the shop anytime. You go over them line by line."

"I appreciate the offer, Ms. Powell," Kusack said mildly. He opened a folder, slid papers out. "Do you recognize these forms?"

"Of course. That's the 1040 I completed for Sid Sun, and that other one is the altered duplicate."

"That's your signature?"

"Yes, on both copies. And no, I can't explain it."

"And these printouts for computer-generated withdrawals from Bittle's escrow accounts?"

"It's my name, my code."

"Who had access to your office computer?"


"And to your security code?"

"No one but me, as far as I know."

"You gave it to no one?"


"You kept it in your head."

"Of course."

Kusack kept his eyes on hers as he leaned forward. "Must be some trick, keeping all kinds of numbers in your head."

"I'm good at it. Most people keep numbers in their heads. Social security, PIN numbers, telephone numbers, dates."

"Me, I have to write everything down. Otherwise I mix it all up. I guess you don't worry about that."

"I don't - "

"Kate." Josh interrupted again, met her impatient glance with a quiet look. "Where do you record the numbers?''

"In my head," she said wearily. "I don't forget. I haven't had to look up the security code in years."

Lips pursed, Kusack examined his ragged nails. "Where would you look it up, if you had to?''

"In my Filofax, but..." Her voice trailed off as the impact hit home. "In my Filofax," she repeated. "I have everything in it."

She grabbed her purse, fumbled through it, and took out the thick, leather-bound book. "For backup," she said, opening the book. "Backup's the first rule. Here." She located the page, nearly laughed. "My life in numbers."

Kusack scratched his chin. "You keep that with you."

"I just said it's my life. That's literally true. It's always in my bag."

"Where do you keep your bag - say, during office hours?"

"In my office."

"And you'd carry it around with you. I know my wife never takes two steps without her pocketbook."

"Only if I was leaving the building. Josh." She clutched his hand. "Only if I was leaving the building. Anybody in the firm could have taken the code. Christ, anybody at all." She squeezed her eyes tight. "I should have thought of it before. I just wasn't thinking at all."

"That's still your signature on the forms, Ms. Powell," Kusack reminded her.

"It's a forgery," she snapped and rose to her feet. "You listen to me. Do you think I'd risk everything I worked for, everything I was given, for a lousy seventy-five K? If money was what was important to me, I could have picked up the phone, called my aunt and uncle, called Josh, and they would have given me twice that without a single question. I'm not a thief, and if I were, I sure as hell would cover my tracks better than this. What idiot would use her own code, her own name, leave such a pathetically obvious paper trail?"

"You know, Ms. Powell" - Kusack folded his hands on the table again - "I asked myself that same question. I'll tell you what my take is. The person had to be one of three things: stupid, desperate, or very, very smart."

"I'm very smart."

"That you are, Ms. Powell," Kusack said with a slow nod. "That you are. You're smart enough to know that seventy-five large isn't peanuts. Smart enough to be able to hide it where it couldn't easily be found."

"Detective, my client denies any knowledge of the money in question. The evidence is not just circumstantial but highly questionable. We both know you can't make a case with this, and you've taken up enough of our time."

"I appreciate your cooperation." Kusack tidied the papers and put them back in his file. "Ms. Powell," he continued, as

Josh led her to the door, "one more thing. How'd you break your nose?"

"Excuse me?"

"Your nose," he said with an easy smile. "How'd you break it?"

Baffled, she lifted a hand and rubbed it, felt the familiar angle. "Bottom of the ninth, stretching a double into a three-bagger in a bad imitation of Pete Rose. I cracked it against the fielder's knee."

His teeth flashed. "Safe or out?"


He watched her go, then flipped the file open again and studied the signatures on the forms. Stupid, desperate, or very, very smart, he thought.

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