The phone rang and he snatched it up, then modulated his voice. “Hello, this is John Drake.”
“Mr. Drake,” the receptionist said, “There’s a man here to see you. Aaron James. Do you have a few minutes?”
After a quick glance at the clock on the computer screen, John figured he had five. “Just a few, but I’ll be happy to speak with the man until my next client arrives.” It wouldn’t do to turn down a possible commission, after all; one never knew when five minutes could turn into that Rolex he’d been looking at online.
With a sigh, John closed the internet window and shut down his laptop. Self conscious, he ran his fingers lightly over his bleached-blond hair, pulling out the mirror he kept in a desk drawer to make sure every hair was in place. In his job his name was his brand, so it was important to always make a good impression. He smiled brightly into the mirror to make sure nothing was stuck in his orthodontist-perfected teeth.
After stashing his laptop and the file with the documents he would need that day into his briefcase, John stood and walked out to the reception area.
The man facing him was dark haired, hard eyed and several inches shorter than John’s own height of six-foot-one. He wore a suit and was well groomed, John noted, so it was likely he made a decent income, even if his suit was off the rack. John extended a hand in greeting, “Hello, I’m John Drake, how can I serve you this morning?”
The man’s grip was firm, his expression flat, unimpressed. “I’d like to speak with you in private for a few minutes, Mr. Drake. Could we go to your office for a moment?”
A flicker of warning licked the inside of John’s chest and he forced his most charming smile into place. “I’m expecting a client shortly, but I have a few minutes.” Best to act calm and innocent. Just because he practically screams cop doesn’t mean he knows anything.
Mr. James nodded, but said nothing. A man John hadn’t noticed stood from his seat in the corner and joined them. The flicker of warning grew into a small blaze, but he shoved it away. Business men often traveled in pairs. The fact that they hadn’t introduced themselves yet was strange, but might mean nothing.
John turned to the receptionist and smiled reassurance at her confusion. “When my clients arrive, please have them take a seat and offer them some refreshment. I’ll be right back.”
No one spoke as John took them to his office. He glanced back at the tall, heavy-set man behind him and widened his smile into his most charming salesman grin. When they reached his office, both men stepped in and one closed the door behind them.
“Now, how can I help you?” John indicated the men should sit, then slid his hands into his pockets to hide the way they shook.
Ignoring the offered chair, Aaron James reached into his pocket and pulled out some papers. “John Sebastian Drake, these papers include a warrant for your arrest, and another granting us permission to search your home, car, and office.”
John felt the color drain from his face, but tried to brazen it out. “Come now, gentlemen. What’s going on here? Is this a joke?”
“No, Mr. Drake. We’re arresting you for fraud. Identity theft is a serious business, and we have evidence you’ve been seriously engaged in it for some time now. You may want to get someone else to take care of your clients this afternoon. You won’t be going anywhere except with us.”
Her call went to his voice mail again.
In frustration, Lily Drake hung up her cell phone and ran her fingers distractedly over the soft, damp locks of hair on her son, Stephen’s head. His head was hot, warming her collarbone where it lay. His fist curled at the base of her throat and she adjusted the overloaded diaper bag on her shoulder and headed out of the babysitter’s house toward the car.
Her prenatal checkup had gone well enough, though the doctor had been concerned about her stress levels and how they affected her seven-month-old fetus. She shifted her attention back to the child in her arms. “Played too hard with Cindy, huh? Maybe you’ll stay down while I work on dinner then.” She brushed her lips over his soft head and inhaled the sweet scent of her child. “Mom could use a nap, too.” Her back ached and her arms were tired from hitching Stephen over and around her swollen belly.
The day was warm for mid January. The sun shone and the latest snow was disappearing into the grass. Before she knew it, early spring flowers would be popping into bloom. If Lily hadn’t had the dratted dinner party to prepare for in a few hours, she would putter in the yard after her nap. The roses needed pruning and a few other spring chores needed to be done before the crocuses decided to show themselves. Her advancing condition was another reason to get to the yard as soon as possible. Instead, she mentally checked off a list of preparations and felt the tension growing in her shoulders.
She used to enjoy entertaining.
As she handled her keychain one-handed, trying to maneuver the car key out from the rest, she wondered again where John was. She mentally reviewed her preparations for dinner. Her signature cheesecake and special strawberry glaze sat in the fridge. Hors d'oeuvres of cream-cheese herbed melba toast and stuffed mushrooms were prepped and ready for assembly. And the house sparkled.
Doubtless John would find something to keep him from being completely satisfied with the evening’s preparations, but Lily couldn’t think of anything else she could possibly do to. Still, the fact that John hadn’t called to grill her was unusual. Worrying even. It wasn’t unusual for him to let voice mail pick up her calls when he was with clients. However, it was not normal for him to be so quiet when they were having dinner with clients.
It took only a couple minutes to get Stephen settled in his car seat, untangling her long brown hair from his fist, and sliding behind the steering wheel of the Lexus John had bought new for her the previous spring. The car was comfortable, had lots of safety features, and most important to John, announced he was making plenty of money.
Pushing her thoughts of her husband aside, Lily turned her mind to something else. She considered new flowers she planned to plant in the yard, mused over some raised-bed designs she had seen in a magazine, and planned which vegetables she wanted to grow in the small kitchen garden in a back corner of the lot—her ‘potager garden,’ as John preferred the French term.
Her neighborhood roads wound around natural hills and valleys, making a confusing, twisting trail that she had long ago learned by heart. She came around the last bend, slowing down in anticipation of reaching her home.
The surprise of seeing three dark sedans parked in front of her home, and the front door standing open, slowed her reflexes so she nearly hit one of the cars. Just in time, she twisted the steering wheel to pull around them and into her parking space.
Her heart was pounding, the blood rushing in her ears as she tried to decide what to do. Did she go in when there were obviously strangers in her home? Should she call the police? It wasn’t like whomever was inside had bothered to conceal their being in the home. Did that mean they wouldn’t be aggressive, or did it make no difference? Before Lily could decide what to do, a man came out and walked over. He stood tall and rangy, his politely curious expression topped with a shock of dark hair.
Lily rolled down the window only a few inches, flipping the door locks. She looked into his eyes as he leaned over to speak into the window opening.
“Can I help you, Ma’am?”
“This is my home. What are you doing in it?” She heard her voice quaver, but tried to pretend she wasn’t disturbed by the questions swirling inside her.
“You’re Lily Drake then? Wife of John Sebastian Drake?” he asked. When she nodded, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a black leather cover, flipped it open, and showed her his FBI badge. “I’m Agent Melton. I’m glad you’ve come home. I need to speak with you.”
Lily felt her brow wrinkle as she tried to make sense of his request. Why would the man want to speak with her? What were they doing in her home?
“What’s going on?”
“Please get out of the car so we can speak and I’ll tell you,” the man said.
Lily hesitated for only a moment before withdrawing her key from the ignition and hearing the doors unlock. Agent Melton opened the door as soon as the locks snicked, and backed away. Lily shut the door behind her and leaned back against it. “What’s going on?” She turned her head to steal a glance at her son, and saw him still sleeping peacefully. Small miracles, she thought as she wrapped her arms around her growing middle, suddenly cold, though the sun beat on her head.
The man stuck his hands in his pockets and put an understanding expression on his face. Lily distrusted him immediately.
“Mrs. Drake, what can you tell me about your family finances?”
That was one question she was not prepared for. Lily blinked. “What does that have to do with . . . anything? I . . . . ” she trailed off, not sure how to answer.
He sensed her confusion and came to the point. “Are you aware of your husband’s fraudulent activities?”
It took several seconds for her mind to verify that he had really spoken those words, then she shook her head. “You must be mistaken. My husband would never be involved in fraud.”
The agent must have sensed her need to sit down, because his face took on a note of understanding. “Let’s take this discussion inside, shall we?” Without waiting for an answer, he opened the back door of the car, and removed Stephen from his baby seat. Too numb to object, her mind reeling, Lily followed the man through the arched patio entrance, across the cobbled porch and into the spacious foyer of her home. Agent Melton led her to the buttery soft leather sofas in the great room.
“Let me put Stephen in his bed. I’ll be right back.” Lily took her son, using the minute it took her to step down the hall to try and gain control over her emotions. The sight of two men going through John’s office drawers only increased her tension, however. She turned to look behind her, seeing Agent Melton watching her. He moved closer and stood at the door to the bedroom as she put Stephen to bed.
“What’s this all about?” Lily asked when she was seated across from Agent Melton. She was sure she had heard something wrong outside. The man couldn’t be accusing John of fraud.
“We’ve been working for some time to track down a man we suspect to be involved in fraud in Utah and Salt Lake counties. Your husband, Mrs. Drake, is that man. I have a search warrant, if you’d like to see it.” He pulled a paper from the breast pocket of his jacket and handed it over.
Lily took the paper, though reluctant to look at it. She was afraid seeing it would make this become real and not just a mistake. She unfolded the sheet and noticed her address, John’s business address, and both cars listed as being covered by the warrant. A local judge’s signature flourished across the bottom. Her hands began to tremble as she handed the sheet back. “You’ve made a mistake.”
“We have not. I’m sorry to say that though we have no substantial evidence against you at this time, it’s hard to believe you could be completely unaware of your husband’s activities.” He looked around him at the solid mahogany tables and entertainment center, the Tiffany lamp in the corner and the china hutch filled with pretty trinkets. “You’ve certainly been living well.”
“My husband is very successful,” she answered, irritated with his insinuation. Lily could hear the sounds of men moving around down the hall, and deep voices speaking in tones she couldn’t distinguish. It seemed unreal.
“Not this successful. I saw last year’s tax return. It was a good income, yes, but not nearly equal to this kind of lifestyle. How much do you pay your gardener a month?” He turned his head toward the window. “I saw this place last fall when there were still late flowers in bloom. You’ve got a real setup out there.”
Last fall? They’ve been watching a long time. “I’m the gardener around here. Other than the mowing, which John insisted we hire a boy to do, I do all the yard maintenance and design.”
This brought a faint smile to his wide mouth. “You’re very accomplished. It’s clear you do more than help charge up the credit cards.”
Despite realizing he was probably trying to put her at ease, for whatever reason, she found it helped. She let out a slow, deep breath. “There was an inheritance a year or so ago. John was able to buy much of the furniture, as well as my car with the proceeds. It has enabled us to live a little more comfortably than we otherwise would have. And his folks have been very, very generous. This sofa set was a wedding gift from them.” She rubbed an absent hand over the sofa. Her in-laws were a little too generous, she admitted to herself. It made her uncomfortable.
He stood and walked over to the china hutch and inspected the pieces on display.
“It’s mostly glass, or flea market finds. John is a pro at that, and picks things up every time he makes a trip out of the area.” Lily was hasty to explain the beautiful collection John had slowly added to over the past several years.
Agent Melton sent her a look of disbelief, then opened one door and picked up one of the two candelabra on the top shelf. They had medallion bases, intricate serpent-looking sticks, tiny crystals hung all around it with cylinders of etched crystal surrounding the candle stick. Lily had to admit, the pair was exquisite. She hadn’t been surprised when John told her he paid a hundred dollars for the set. The workmanship was so incredible, she couldn’t argue that they were well worth it.
“That looks like Baccarat to me, and the pill box,” he set down the candelabra and picked up a small porcelain box. “I would swear it was Limoges. They certainly fit the descriptions of items purchased with the fraudulently obtained credit cards.”
Lily had only heard the brand names in books. Though John made a good income, they had never shopped anywhere that sold anything so expensive.
“You must be mistaken. They are beautiful, of course, but John wouldn’t spend several hundred dollars on a pair of candlesticks.”
“Fine crystal artistry,” Agent Melton corrected her. “Or so my wife calls it. And the candlesticks purchased with the credit cards cost several thousand, not several hundred dollars.” He replaced the porcelain pill box and shut the glass door.
She tried to convince herself the man was simply wrong. But the longer they spoke, the less sure Lily was. There were too many little things over the years that she couldn’t completely disregard. He walked over to stand near the sofa, his hands tucked into his front pockets.
“So I must ask you again: is there anything you’d like to tell me about your family finances, or anything you know about the fraud? Your credit cards are well charged up; you might have wanted a way to keep spending when you hit your limit. That kind of thing happens all the time—it’s why Utah has such a high bankruptcy rate.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have only one credit card and John pays it off in full every month.” Dread sat heavy in her stomach, however. She’d never seen the bills, had she?
His eyebrows winged up. “One credit card? I assure you, Mrs. Drake, you have no fewer than six in your name, with a combined balance of something around thirty-thousand dollars.”
Lily felt like she had been punched in the stomach. “You can’t be right. I’ve only ever applied for one card in my life and I know John said he was keeping it paid off. I only use it for groceries if I forget to bring my checkbook along, and then I give him a check for my charges so it can be covered at the end of the month. My household allowance is plenty for the bills I pay.”
“You mean the power, the gas, water, the telephone, fuel for your car, baby expenses and food items. Occasionally clothing for yourself, though not as much as I had expected.”
She blinked. “Have you been studying my spending habits?”
“This is an FBI investigation. I could tell you what ice cream you buy, the number of diapers you go through in a week and which flowers you’ve purchased online for your garden this summer.”
“Are you arresting me?”
The man lifted a dark brow, considered her for a long moment. “Not right now. If there’s evidence that you’re involved in the fraud, I will find it. And if you truly didn’t know about those other credit cards, you’re as much a victim as anyone.”
Lily clutched the arm of the sofa. Could John really have charged nearly thirty-thousand dollars on credit cards she hadn’t known existed? “Where’s my husband?”
Another man entered the room carrying a large garbage bag, and Agent Melton walked over to him. They spoke in low tones for a moment, then Agent Melton took the bag and walked back over to her. “He’s in custody. I wouldn’t be expecting him home anytime soon if I were you. I expect bail to be set somewhere around the half-million mark.”
“Ha-half a million?” Even the bond on that would be far beyond her ability to raise. Lily supposed his father might do it, but she couldn’t imagine even he had that kind of cash available. She sat back in the sofa in shock.
That thought reminded her of the clients coming to dinner that night, and she caught up the thread so unrelated to her current worries. “My father-in-law, does he know? We have clients coming for dinner. And John’s parents will want to know.”
“His father knows. Someone from our office spoke to him earlier this morning.”
After a few seconds passed, Lily heard men walking down the hall toward the door. They had boxes and bags in their hands. “What are they doing?”
“It’s either evidence, or items they want to look through. We’ve got to return to the office. Don’t worry; anything unrelated to the case will come back. You need to start making plans for your future.” The man reached into the bag he was holding and pulled out a gallon-size zippered baggie full of credit cards and picture IDs.
He held them out to her so she could see them more closely. Lily lifted her free hand and touched the bag, tilting the contents so she could see them better. There were cards from every imaginable bank with the names of people she had never heard of. Gilbert Louder, Samuel F. Caldwell, Samuel A Bishop, the list went on and on, and one ID card held her husband’s picture and description, but the name Jacob Lewis.
That ID dissolved the last of her hope that this was all one big, horrible mistake. Her hand dropped from the bag and she leaned back against the sofa while the men continued to remove items from her house.
“I’ll need you to come in for questioning. If you could gather your son, I’ll move his car seat to my car.”
Lily thought she heard a buzzing in her head, then realized it was her cell phone. She fumbled to open the phone single handed. Denise, her best friend, was on the line. She set the phone down without answering it. What would she have said, anyway?
“I’ll go get my son, though he probably needs a diaper change.”
He nodded and gestured for her to precede him to Stephen’s room. The tread of feet through the house quieted and she heard one car start up and back out of the drive.
The few minutes it took for her to change Stephen gave Lily time to think, to consider all of the times John had shown up with a new trinket, or what she had thought of as trinkets. She hadn’t grown up in a home where those kinds of extravagances were common. Her parents had provided a home for her, one that was steady, safe and if not fancy or large, happy. Though she liked beautiful things, she had never considered she would ever have them.
John had grown up in a completely different situation. He was the only child, the model son who put himself out to gain his father’s favor. He was driven to do better, be better, gain more. And he had been able to gain the best without her realizing what he was doing.
Lily tossed the dirty diaper into the pail in the corner and restocked her diaper bag. She saw Agent Melton standing in the hall, following her with his eyes. When she returned to the family room, she walked past the curio again, stopping to allow her fingers to brush the glass between her and the candlesticks that cost a small fortune. How had she been so blind?
Turning back, she picked up the diaper bag and baby carrier and headed for the front door.
As Lily sat in the agent’s car, her cell phone began to ring again. Checking it, she saw that it was, again, Denise.
“Answer it if you like,” the agent told her.
Lily wasn’t sure if she wanted to. What would she say to her friend? She wasn’t sure she believed what was happening, herself.
First place winner in the 2008 first chapter contest hosted by LDStoryMakers in the Romance category.