And so we come to the epilogue, and my chance to thank everyone who's been along for the ride. Especially KCS for constant reviews and support, Laura Hardy for suggestions and revisions so each chapter felt better than the last, Red Hardy, Cherylann Rivers and Whitetigers for detailed and hilarious reviews, Amblewat, Josie Hardy, Angry Penguin, Wishingstars and everyone who has read but not reviewed the story and gotten this far. Thank you! Oh, and this chapter is NOT meant to be a comment on UCLA or crab cakes.
Disclaimer: I am ready to return these characters to their owners safe and sound (but not completely the same).
Epilogue – three months later:
"Slacking off?" Fenton inquired teasingly as he walked into his study. "I didn't realize my newest partner was prone to bouts of laziness."
Laura laid the thick tome on the desk and turned her swivel chair around to look at her husband. "It's for Frank," she defended herself. "He and Callie are going to be home for the holidays soon. He'll have questions for me, and I don't want him to know just yet that I won't be able to keep up with him much longer. What did Sam find out?"
"Simon's mother's maiden name is Reno," Fenton said, grinning from ear to ear. "We're finally getting somewhere."
Laura got up and walked to the chart posted on the opposite wall of the windowless study. They had slowly constructed a web on a whiteboard over the last month until they had a visual of how individual figures in their investigation were connected. Fenton joined her as they added one more line and another name, and their thoughts raced along the same path.
The case they were currently working on had been brought to their attention by Con Riley – and Con wasn't even sure there was a case at first. His friend Sandy's grandmother had died. Before her death, the grandmother had informed the entire family what their inheritance should be. When the will was finally read, the total amount of assets was around 5,000 less than what they had expected. Although the family did not want to seem unduly greedy, they had approached Con for a recommendation of a financial investigator who could find out what had happened to the money. And Con had referred them to Fenton and Laura.
An examination of tax forms had revealed that the income and investments were less than what the family had expected to inherent, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with that – the grandmother could have decided to spend some extra cash. But Sandy was adamant that it wasn't the case, Con vouched for her judgment, and there was no record of a bank withdrawal so Fenton, Sam and Laura kept looking. Laura had obtained names of the lawyer's clients from an overly talkative receptionist and after a long investigation, a pattern began to emerge. Several clients at the firm had similar stories. It was always a relatively insignificant amount of money, but when they added it up, it looked like someone was skimming around 50,000 per year from people's wills. Fenton had zeroed in on a young paralegal, Simon, in the office as being the likely candidate. And now it looked like Simon might be connected to a disenfranchised branch of Sandy's family, giving him a strong motive.
"Time to ask Simon a few questions," Fenton said. "He's had connections with everybody. The entire setup is so obvious and simple. He just relied on not dealing with large enough amounts of cash to attract attention and never would have if Sandy hadn't requested an investigation."
"There's no way a paralegal could have done all this on his own," Laura said thoughtfully. "A lawyer as well as a bank official is probably involved as well."
"Time to pay him a visit at his favorite restaurant this afternoon," Fenton said. "We have enough time before Vanessa's tournament tonight."
"Uh-huh," Laura said. Vanessa was entering her first Aikido tournament that night and had invited Fenton and Laura to watch. "We'll be there at seven when it starts." She turned around and surveyed the small room.
Fenton's desk was in the corner where it had always been. The filing cabinets had been moved and a second desk had been installed in the opposite corner where Laura now spent much of her time. One flowerpot now stood on each desk and a deep red circular rug covered the middle of the floor. Where the bare wall had previously stood behind them, a whiteboard, now showing the outline of their current case, had been added.
The changes had not been easy for either of them. Fenton's workspace was always neat and meticulous. Laura's was rather messy. Although she had always kept the rest of the house in perfect order, she was seemingly incapable of keeping her desk neat. Fenton stuck with his yellow notepads and extended filing system. Laura kept most of her notes on the computer with backups and only kept a few files in her drawers. She proceeded through systemic analysis while Fenton went by his gut. And, after spending one entire day in his Spartan, windowless office, she had felt like her head was going to explode.
Even though they had lived in the same household for years, they had never really realized how much their daily habits had varied and just how intensely the house had been divided into "his" and "her" space until three months ago. But they were both determined to give it a shot.
He agreed to the rug, whiteboard, and flowerpots, but drew the line at painting the study or adding impressionist paintings to the walls. Furthermore, if she was going to be in his study, he argued, he still wanted dinner served at six o'clock. If that meant that he had to cook dinner and clean up after himself, then he was going to cook dinner for both of them and Laura better get used to not having everything exactly where she had last put it and eating crab cakes (which she eventually admitted didn't taste that bad).
She quickly realized that catching a thief is, in many ways, harder than being one. And, there were a lot of things she did not know how to do, from thoroughly interviewing suspects and witnesses to whom to call to get a quick answer to a question about an obscure federal law. But she was a quick learner and Fenton was a good and patient teacher. They were currently in the process of accommodating to each other's working styles, and even though there had been a few bumps along the way, it was working out.
More than once, they wondered just how Frank and Joe had managed to become such a good team and why things couldn't work out just as flawlessly for their parents. And then they realize that their sons had not become a good team, they just were a team. Everyone else, including themselves, had to work at it.
As Fenton picked up his private phone line to update Con on their progress, Laura went to answer the ringing phone in the hallway.
"Hello," she said. "Oh hi, Joe. Is everything ok?" Joseph Hardy practically never called home unless he was sick or something was wrong.
"Everything's fine mom," Joe said good naturedly. "I have a case that I can't quite solve by myself. I usually call Frank for this kind of thing, but he's busy with finals now and I thought I'd try you instead."
"Sure," said Laura quickly pulling up a chair next to the phone and looking around for a paper and pen. "What's the case?"
"Cheating," Joe said. "Although UCLA sees a few cases every year around finals, this is something more serious."
"People writing papers for other students, and students buying them on the internet?" Laura asked disapprovingly.
"Professors have a good handle on that," Joe said. "They buy papers themselves to see what they'll get. This is someone stealing the actual answers to exam questions and passing them around to students. The people who receive the answers always get them anonymously and get different sets with some answers wrong and some answers right, but always just enough to pass the exam or give a good enough answer to an essay question."
"How did you get involved?" Laura asked.
"A student finally blew the whistle and went to her class dean," Joe answered. "Someone slipped a set of answers to her chemistry exam in her mailbox. Instead of using them, she reported it. The Dean went to the head of judicial affairs who knew Dad, so they asked me to look into it because I'm less noticeable than a public safety officer."
"What have you discovered so far?"
"The people who are the most likely are four student workers in different departments. One in math, one in chemistry, one in history and one in physics. I overheard a conversation and think one student in particular is the one who passes them to others who distribute them anonymously. I've been tailing him as often as I can for the last couple of days, but still can't figure out how he does it."
"Does he have a routine?"
"Not really," Joe said. "He's in the dining hall by nine, he's one of the few people who eat a regular breakfast. He plays softball and almost always sits with teammates. And then he has calculus at 10, organic chemistry from 11 to 1:230, eats lunch, studies in the library for a few hours exercises before a 3 pm class and spends the evening after dinner hanging out or studying."
"Any people he sees everyday or-" she began, but Joe cut her off "Mom, I've been doing this for a while. Nobody he talks to regularly that he doesn't have a perfectly legitimate reason to talk to. Some are close friends, others are in classes. And at least while I've been around, he's never said anything incriminating."
"Ok, sorry," Laura said. Her sons had been doing this for longer than she had and would think like a detective more than she ever could. It was time for her to think like a former criminal. "I need you to go through his routine again," she said. "And I'll stop you if I need to."
"Nine o'clock in the dining hall, he sits with his teammates and they eat pancakes and they talk about what they did at the party last weekend."
"Ok, so are there any cleaning staff around the breakfast table?"
"No," Joe answered impatiently, wondering if he really should have just called Frank instead.
"Trash bins, ashtrays, potted plants?"
"Potted plants!" Joe said as she imagined him rolling his eyes. "You've got to be kidding."
"I could tell you stories, but I assume that means he hasn't been leaving papers under potted plants," she said.
"Well he could be, but I think I would have noticed."
"Remind me to show you a few tricks. Every time you notice something, I'll give you 20 bucks."
"Ok," Joe said, convinced by her tone more than anything else. "I'll keep a closer eye out."
And they went through Joe's suspect's entire day. The bridge where students gathered to smoke, the woman who always cleaned the bathroom at a certain time, the empty lockers at the fitness center…
"What about the library?" Laura asked.
"Librarians watch everyone like hawks," Joe answered. "If you speak above a whisper they give you really nasty looks. And don't even think about eating or drinking."
"So where does he sit?" Laura asked.
"The fiction sec- oh…"" Joe finished slowly.
"He's a chemistry major and he suddenly has time to read fiction?" Laura asked.
"Well, he doesn't read," Joe said. "He studies, gets up for a walk and browses for a while and then goes back to studying. Just like everyone else."
"Like everyone else?" Laura asked.
"Right," Joe said. "A study break, stress reliever. Some people talk on cell phones, others get something to eat, some browse the books, and everyone tries to keep their eyes open when they go back to the table. You're thinking that he's leaving the answers in certain books?"
"Possible," Laura answered. "Especially college where people have no time to read for fun."
"But it's a risk. Anyone else could just open a book by accident," Joe said.
"They could be misfiling them on purpose and putting them out of order so only they know where they are," Laura answered. "But it would have to be the same section or the librarian would notice and put it right back. Have you happened to notice any books he's been interested in?"
"Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie," he said. "1984 – George Orwell, something about the thirty years war and North Dallas 40 by Peter Gent."
Laura wrote down the titles on her notepad and let her mind wander for a few seconds. "Clever," she said with a little laugh. "Someone pays attention to their Dewey Decimal numbers."
"Huh?" Joe said. "10, 1984, 30 and 40 don't mean anything when you put them together."
"Unless you put a five before them," Laura clarified. "Then they form the Dewey Decimal classification codes. 510 is mathematics, 519 is probability, the 84 doesn't mean anything, 530 is physics and 540 is chemistry. He's leaving those answer keys in the corresponding fiction books. "
"Great!" Joe said. "I just have to look for the other titles and catch everyone red handed. Hopefully the case will get solved by next week before I leave for home."
"Looking forward to seeing you next week," Laura said as she heard Fenton wind up his conversation with Con Riley in the study.
"Yep, I brought my plane tickets today," Joe said and then he hesitated. "I'm actually thinking of finishing the year here and then transferring back to a college on the East Coast," he finally said.
"You definitely can if you want to," Laura said. "But I thought you were happy where you are."
"I love California," Joe replied. "But it's far away from Bayport, Vanessa, and Frank, and I can't just come home on the weekend."
"Why don't you see how it is when we're all home for a while?" Laura suggested. "I know Frank just wants what is best for you, as we all do. And from what I've seen, you've been happy where you are. Any more thoughts on your major?"
"I still haven't declared yet," Joe continued. "I can't decide if I want to study psychology, global studies, or something else."
"Lots of choices," said Laura. "But I guarantee it will be easier for you than it was for me. And I ended up in the best possible place."
Laura smiled as she hung up the phone and looked at herself in the hall mirror. Laura Basden was gone forever, buried in New York City with the rest of her past. In her place was Laura Anne Hardy, private detective/librarian, wife and partner of Fenton Hardy and the mother of Frank and Joe Hardy.