“What?” Venus exclaimed, looking around wildly.
“He’s talking on our comm sets,” Sandra said, tapping her ear piece. Her momentary surprise had given way to annoyance. “It’s his favorite trick; you’ll get used to it eventually.”
“Really, Sandy; so cynical!” Max clucked in his velvety baritone. “The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t able to get through to you for quite some time.”
“The factory floor must have blocked service,” Venus mused.
“Quite possibly. I have some news for you. I’ve been ‘following the money,’ as they say, and I’ve found a bit of a bombshell. It took a surprising amount of digging, but I’ve learned that Lothar Lurge was no longer the owner of the Lurge family robotics factory, effective September 30.”
“What? Then who was?” Venus asked.
“Mrs. Lurge, of course. The company transferred to her sole ownership on that date. And that’s not all I found, either. Are you ready for this one? The Lurges’ divorce was finalized on that same date!”
Venus and Sandra exchanged a look.
“Well, I guess that isn’t too surprising, uh, given what we just read.”
“No, indeed. But you can see this casts Mrs. Lurge in quite a different light.”
Venus nodded, and then remembered Max couldn’t see her, and added, “Sure does. Find out anything else?”
“I did! Before he, ah, ‘passed away,’ Mr. Lurge had wrapped up a deal with the state to let them take over running day-to-day operations and receiving revenues from events on the grounds.”
‘That’s right—you remember, Mrs. Lurge said the state had been trying to buy them out for years.”
“So what about the whole thing with McIntyre?” Venus asked.
“Most likely a red herring,” Max finished, “Thrown in to put us off the trail.”
“You mean… Mrs. Lurge was lying to us?”
“Let me posit a hypothetical series of events,” said Max. “See if you don’t agree that it has at least a better than 50/50 chance: Mrs. Lurge finds out about her husband’s infidelity, and she is outraged. She further finds that he intends to effectively abandon the family business by turning the proceeds over to the state. That’s the last straw. So she seizes control of the family firm, and brings old Lothar here, unsuspecting, and has him murdered in the night by his own machines!”
There was a long pause, broken only by the rumbling of the thunder.
“But then why would Mrs. Lurge hire us? She’d already committed the crime and gotten away with it.” said Venus.
“Why, to assist in the final masterstroke: the framing of Mr. McIntyre for the crime! She wanted to settle the old score with the McIntyres along with everything else. So, she contrived things, told us stories of the McIntyre’s interference with operations, to plant the suspicion in our minds. She wanted us to come here, find what we were supposed to find, and point the finger at McIntyre.”
“What do you think, Sandy?” Max asked at last.
“I dunno… maybe.” She murmured. “I just feel like… feel like…”
She whirled around suddenly.
“Like somebody’s staring at our asses instead of standing guard like I told him to,” she barked at Charlie, who had advanced into the room and had been hovering behind the two women.
He yelped and leapt backwards. “No, no,” he insisted, “I heard a man’s voice in here and wondered what was going on.”
Venus shook her head. “C’mon, let’s see what else we can find on this machine.”
Sandra locked eyes with Charlie and pointed firmly to the door, and he grudgingly retreated.
“Hey, look; here’s a message with the kid’s personnel file,” Venus said loudly enough to be heard in the hall as she scrolled through the menus.
“What!” Charlie huffed.
“No worries,” she said cheerfully. “Looks like your performance reviews are all strong… let’s see… ‘perfect for the job,’ ‘sensitive to company’s needs,’ a note from Mr. Lurge saying ‘hire this boy at once—he’s perfect.’ Wow, all that, and not a harassment complaint in sight, who’d have thought?”
Sandra chuckled. “What else you got in there?”
Venus continued scrolling through with incredible speed. “Well, there’s a long email exchange here with Mr. Lurge’s lawyers.”
“What’s it about?”
“Arguing over the terms and conditions of his agreement with the state… ‘the party of the first part agrees…’ ‘herewith the party referred to as the ‘operator’ shall agree to…,’ ‘if, after a period of less than 60 days, the goods are found to be faulty, the party referred to as owner shall recompense…,’ blah blah blah…”
“And then there’s this,” Venus continued triumphantly, continuing to read at an incredible speed. “Some emails between Lurge and McIntyre. It’s a thread that goes back quite a ways, but the last message is from the day of Mr. Lurge’s death. It’s from McIntyre—it says:
‘I’m confirming what we discussed this morning at the Chamber meeting. As we agreed, I’ll meet you on your premises this evening. I’m not sure what you believe will come of this, but you have my word, I’ll be there, as planned.’”
The two investigators exchanged a glance.
“That’s a bit of a—I mean, why would Lurge have invited him?” Sandra asked.
“Maybe he didn’t. Maybe McIntyre just sent that message to make it look like he had.”
“Could be, I guess. Still, something doesn’t add up.”
“There’s still one more angle we need to investigate,” Max chimed in. “Mrs. Lurge said that her late husband had entered by a back door. Have you been able to find that?”
“No, not yet,” Sandra answered. “Charlie!” she barked.
“Still here, guarding the rear.”
“Where’s the door that Mr. Lurge came in the night of his death?”
“Oh, um, it’s back down in the factory. At the very back, near where they keep the scrap metal.”
“Right, got it.” Sandra turned to Venus. “Can you download those emails? I have a data stick in my purse—”
“Don’t worry, got one right here,” Venus interjected. “You go ahead; I’ll catch up.”
Sandra shrugged, and made her exit. She and Charlie began to retrace their steps back down to the factory floor.
As she descended the steps, she fancied she heard a distant clanking noise echoing from a distance. Probably hail on the metal roof. As she exited the staircase, it seemed to become more pronounced, as if it were all around her. She felt slightly unnerved by it, but shook her head. It’s that stupid kid’s ghost stories, getting to me. Grow up, girl! she thought to herself.
With that thought, she turned on her heel and walked deeper into the darkness. But when the clanking persisted, she stopped and spun around just in time to see an eerie red glow looming out of the blackness, follow by a high-pitched whine and a sudden blaze of light roaring at her head.