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Chapter 1- Happy Birthday

Kahlil Shahrivar strode down the dim quiet street, parka hood over his head, swinging the leash that would support his cover story of a runaway dog. Even at one in the morning, he didn’t expect to be challenged. Residents of the small Montana town lacked the knife-edge of suspicion prevalent in most places he worked. He stopped in front of an old single-story Craftsman bungalow. A porch lamp glimmered, but its illumination didn’t reach the mailbox at the curb.

He checked the block. No approaching headlights, houses dark, safe, and sleeping. From his pocket, he took a postcard and a book-size package and inserted them in the mailbox.

On the side of the house, light from a small bathroom window spilled into the yard.

She was awake. He smiled.

For two patient years he’d waited to see Tawny Lindholm in person. Finally, here was the chance. Dense lilac bushes gave cover as he crept close and crouched in shadows a mere ten feet from the house.

Framed by the bathroom window, she brushed long coppery hair lightly streaked with gray. An oversized, threadbare tee-shirt hung loose on her slender frame. Probably had belonged to her dead husband. High cheekbones and delicate features bespoke the modeling career of her youth. And the lovely wide-set brown eyes he remembered from online photos.

Her shoulders tensed and she turned to look out into the darkness.

His heart quickened, even though he knew she couldn’t see him. She lowered the shade and the light went out.

He left cover and returned to the sidewalk, thrusting his hands into his pockets against the chill, smiling as he turned the corner.

The final stage of his attack on America’s electrical grid had begun.

* * *

Tawny Lindholm made her way to the mailbox in April morning fog. As she hurried back to her warm house, she thumbed through the envelopes. AARP sent birthday greetings and yet another invitation to join, which she tossed in the kitchen trash, along with a postcard advertising a smartphone class. A couple of bills and a bubble-wrapped package from an online retailer. Strange—she hadn’t ordered anything.

At the chipped Formica breakfast bar, she tore open the package. Inside was a new smartphone. The message on the label read: Happy 50th Birthday, Mom. Love, Neal.

Crap. Her son meant well, but he knew how much technology intimidated her. With him in the Army seven thousand miles away in Afghanistan, he couldn’t even show her how to work it.

When she picked up the device, a bell started to ding. She tried pressing buttons on the side. The sound changed to a whistle, a woodpecker tapping, a chainsaw buzzing. She swiped the screen as she’d watched other people do, but the display remained a shiny black mirror, reflecting her scowl. It was laughing at her.

“Dammit, if you’re ringing, I can’t even answer you.” The gadget had her talking to herself.

Despite Tawny’s frustrated prodding, the screen remained blank, indifferent. Since Neal must have ordered it online, she couldn’t even take it back to a local store. She didn’t want a phone smarter than she was. But Neal apparently thought differently. She could almost hear him scolding, Come on, Mom, it’s 2011. Time you joined this century. If it wasn’t a gift from her son, she’d gladly smash it against the wall. Still might.

A different tone warbled five times. Was this an incoming call? Or had she accidentally told the thing to launch a missile?

She twisted the tail of her French braid. “I ought to call you Lucifer.”

It chirped.

“You like that name, huh? Well, it fits you.”

Tawny had used a basic cell, no problem, when her husband Dwight was sick. Flip it open, punch in numbers, and connect with doctors, the oxygen company, the pharmacy, and finally, on a July night nine months ago, one last call, to the funeral home. Her throat constricted at the memory.

But with Dwight gone, she’d cancelled the cell to save money and only used her home phone. How could she afford the service for this fancy new smartphone? She’d have to ask Neal the cost…if she ever figured out how to make a call.

Then she remembered the postcard and fished it out of the trash. Baffled by your smartphone? Free class. Easy, fun, impress your children and grandchildren.7 p.m. at the library in downtown Kalispell.

The class was tonight. What lucky timing, Tawny thought. Although if she went, she was afraid she might be the dumbest person there. But, dammit, she wouldn’t let an electronic device outsmart her.

Besides, she didn’t have anything better to do than sit home in the silent old house, listening to the phone’s mysterious beeps and whistles.

* * *

As Tawny walked through the entrance of the hundred-year-old library building, her palms began to sweat. The same wood table still sat in the corner where she’d spent endless hours of her childhood with a tutor, struggling to read. Her dad had always said, “Good thing you’re pretty, hon, cuz you sure are dumb.”

Years later, when her daughter Emma couldn’t read either, Tawny had learned about dyslexia, but knowing what to call her problem didn’t cure the weakness she still felt deep in her core. What a rotten joke to name a reading disorder so its victims could never hope to spell it.

This night, kids sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, hunched almost double, their little noses buried in books. Adults wearing reading glasses tiptoed fingers along the shelves. How she envied people who read easily, even doing it for pleasure, something she couldn’t imagine.

At the front desk, she found a kind-faced young librarian. Showing the postcard, Tawny said, “There’s, uh, a class, I think…”

The librarian nodded and pointed to stairs at the far end of the room. “Second floor. In the meeting room. Lots of seniors.”

Seniors? How old did she think Tawny was? Well, according to AARP, she was now technically a senior, an uncomfortable milestone better forgotten. Thank goodness no one besides Neal had remembered her birthday. Tawny turned toward the stairs.

“Good luck,” the woman called after her.

Was she being sarcastic?

Tawny skipped up the steps two at a time. I’ll show her who’s a senior…

On the second floor, walls of books hemmed her in, making her claustrophobic. She followed a pathway to a glassed-in cubicle. About a dozen gray-haired people milled inside the room, chatting and comparing smartphones. Did she really look as old as these folks? Probably, in the eyes of the young librarian. At least Tawny had company in her ignorance.

A dark, attractive man at the entrance made her draw in a breath. Strong wiry build, six feet or maybe a little taller. Crisp white shirt, ironed chinos, tweed sport coat. About forty, she guessed, with shaggy black hair and a thick mustache.

And startling, soulful green eyes.

He held a clipboard. Must be the teacher. Tawny approached. “Smartphone class?”

He grinned, showing perfect white teeth below the mustache. “Welcome,” he said.

Would that tickle if he kissed her? What are you thinking? Stop that! Guilt welled for feelings she thought had died with Dwight.

The man’s eyes crinkled with warmth and humor, almost as if he’d read her mind. “I am asking people to sign in with their name and cell number.” A hint of an accent she couldn’t place touched his speech. He handed her the clipboard and a pen.

“I can give you my name, but I haven’t a clue what the number is. The phone was a gift. It goes ring-a-ding-ding, but the screen just stays blank.”

“May I?” He held his hand out for her phone.

While she wrote her name on the sign-in sheet, he tapped and flicked the screen with a feathery touch. Suddenly the phone lit up, a bright glowing mountain scene. His index finger flew, changing the screen to strange icons she didn’t understand. Might as well have been hieroglyphics scratched on a pyramid wall.

After a few more flicks, he handed it back to her, the heat of his palm lingering on the device. “This is your number.”

Tawny felt embarrassed that she needed to put on her glasses to see the display. “How’d you do that?” Her voice sounded breathy. Must be amazement, or a surprise rush of hormones. Yet when she looked into his green eyes, she felt a connection that stirred deep inside.

How she’d missed her man’s closeness during the eight long years of Dwight’s illness. She hoped she’d never let on to him the hunger she felt when he’d pulled away, no longer able to make love.

She shook the memories from her mind.

The dark man studied her, black brows drawn together, searching deeper into her thoughts. “Are you all right?” He glanced at the sign-in sheet. “Tawny? May I call you Tawny? I’m Kahlil Shahrivar.”

“Nice to meet you.” Beyond his good looks, she sensed concern, empathy, and, maybe, sadness in those eyes. “Thanks for making it work.”

His smile warmed her. “The brightness display was turned all the way down to save battery life. That is why you could not see anything. No magic.”

“Might as well be magic,” she murmured. “To me, it is.”

His hand brushed her upper arm, directing her through the door. “Let me show you how to peek behind the curtain. When you’re finished with this class, that phone will do everything for you except fold the laundry.”

She moved into the room, wishing his touch had lasted longer. “In that case, I need a different model. I specifically asked for one that does housework.”

* * *

Kahlil was a patient teacher as he explained how to take photos, record appointments on the calendar, and track heart rate. “If you think your phones are amazing now,” he said, “wait a couple of years.” Enthusiasm raised his soft voice. “Now we must remember a PIN or pattern code to unlock the phone. New devices are coming that will use your thumbprint, so no one except you can access your information. You will be able to lock and unlock the doors in your home and see inside even if you are half a world away. Your phone will track your grandchildren so you can keep them safe.”

An older gentleman with a pinched expression said, “Sounds like Big Brother,” which made everyone laugh.

Students practiced calling and texting each other. Tawny discovered a text from her son already on her phone, Hv fun w/ ur new toy. Watch 4 email w/ updated contact #. Love, Neal. I ought to spank your butt, you little brat, she thought, even though the little brat now stood six-three, a no-nonsense Army sergeant.

As people tried various tasks, she felt relieved not to be the dumbest student, even though Kahlil seemed to spend more time with her than the others. Hopefully nobody picked up on how she inhaled his masculine scent when he leaned close. Close enough that she spotted a small hearing aid inside his ear. Seemed young to be going deaf. Probably too much loud music as a teenager.

When the class broke up, a white-haired lady winked at Tawny. With a sly smile, she said, “Teacher’s pet.” Tawny’s cheeks burned. So she wasn’t the only one who’d noticed.

This is ridiculous, she thought. I can’t be interested in a younger guy, or any guy. She hurried from the room ahead of the other students, and skipped down the stairs, out to Dwight’s old Jeep Wrangler.

She now knew the basics of using Lucifer. Mission accomplished.

* * *

The next morning, wrapped in her blue fleece robe, Tawny sipped coffee and nibbled rye toast while she labored to compose a reply text to her son, although she didn’t know when or if he might receive it.

Neal’s deployment to Afghanistan three months ago made her heart ache with worry, since he was often out of touch for weeks. She was proud when he made sergeant early, even though he never talked about his work, except for vague mentions of “intelligence.” She guessed he’d confided in Dwight, a Vietnam vet. Father and son used to talk for hours, huddled in the downstairs den, turning up the TV to cover their conversation.

Now silence hung heavy in their old house, so empty and hollow. How she missed them both. At least, one day, she’d be able to hug her boy again, admire the square jaw and steady gaze he’d inherited from his father. Please, son, come home safe…

She tapped the phone’s virtual keyboard, which kept correcting her spelling, changing Neal to neat. “Dammit!” she muttered. “What were you thinking, sending me this instrument of the devil?” She wanted to write, Dear Neal, thank you for the phone. I hate it. But that would be ungracious.

Fed up, Tawny padded barefoot down the hall on the hardwood floor to check email in Neal’s old bedroom, now her office. On her laptop, she found the promised message from him with a new phone number to the Rear Detachment. Dwight used to poke fun at the “rear echelon M-effers” in Vietnam who stayed safely behind the action at a base. He scoffed that they were only useful for emptying trash cans.

But Tawny appreciated Rear Detachment for the emergency lifeline between deployed soldiers and family back home. They had treated her kindly and helped her get a message to Neal during the last gasping week of Dwight’s life. On the smartphone, she carefully created a new contact for “Rear D” and saved the number.

She finished off the thank-you text to Neal and sent it. At least she hoped it had been sent. Every time she touched the smartphone, a new unexpected screen popped up, full of choices she didn’t understand, like Tethering, NFC, Air View.

Kahlil had helped her through basic tasks at the library. She might’ve learned more if she hadn’t been so distracted by his sensual way of stroking the screen, his softly-accented speech. He reminded her of Omar Sharif from the old movie, Dr. Zhivago.

Kahlil. What kind of name was that? Sounded exotic, romantic, yet vaguely familiar. Then it hit her. In her daughter’s purple bedroom, Tawny pulled down a box of books from the top shelf of the closet and set them on the furry zebra-striped bedspread. She’d wanted to donate them to Salvation Army, but Emma protested. Somehow, unlike Tawny, Emma had overcome her reading difficulty and loved books. Whenever she came home, she promised to get her own place and take the books with her. Hadn’t happened yet. She lived like a nomad in a van with her tattoo artist boyfriend.

Tawny dug among the books. Phew, mildew. The slim volume she was looking for turned up near the bottom.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Emma had all but memorized the book during high school. At the dinner table, she was forever quoting passages of romantic, mystical poetry that didn’t rhyme. Tawny understood the appeal. Dwight would never speak such words to her, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t have loved to hear them.

Tawny carried the box to the patio and spread the books on the picnic table to air out in the warm sun. Then she got dressed, pulling on black leggings and a sleeveless coral spandex top for Zumba class. Working out had been her salvation while Dwight was sick. Now, though, she had to force herself to leave the house. Exercise temporarily lifted her out of the pit of loneliness, but didn’t take away the ache in her heart, the pressure in the back of her throat.

In the mud room, she donned a denim jacket and went out the back door. In the detached garage off the alley, she climbed up into Dwight’s Wrangler. The rig bounced like a balky mule, but her brawny husband had loved it. She’d sold her comfortable Explorer because driving the Jeep made her feel closer to him, and, besides, she couldn’t afford the expense of two cars.

On the way to the gym, Tawny stopped at the bank’s drive-up ATM and withdrew $200. The balance on the receipt caught her eye. Couldn’t be right. She dug in her bag for her readers, put them on, and verified the amount.

$47,281.06.

Impossible.

The checking account normally hovered around $5,000. This was $42,000 too much. Must be a computer error.

She parked the car and went inside the bank lobby, irritated. Once she’d badgered herself into leaving the house, she hated to miss Zumba class, especially for a mistake.

Her favorite teller Margaret was on duty. The plump silver-haired woman listened to Tawny’s explanation and tapped the keyboard to access the account. She rotated the screen to show Tawny. “Here’s the deposit yesterday. $41,500 in cash.”

Tawny stared at the screen. “But I didn’t make that deposit. It’s wrong. Can you tell where it came from?”

Margaret shrugged. “If it was a check, we could backtrack the account number. Cash is harder to trace.”

Tawny’s checkbook always balanced to the penny, a source of pride. She might struggle with reading, but she knew her numbers. “I did not make that deposit,” she repeated, as if her protest would alter the figure on the screen.

Margaret tapped again. “It wasn’t made at this branch,” she agreed. “Let’s see, it was done in Helena.”

“That’s a hundred and fifty miles away,” Tawny answered. “I haven’t been to Helena in more than a year.” An unwelcome memory flooded back of that last agonizing trip to the Fort Harrison VA, when doctors finally admitted defeat and pronounced Dwight’s death sentence. She shoved the bitter memory aside. “I couldn’t have made the deposit.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.” Margaret glanced over Tawny’s shoulder at customers lining up, then glared at a couple of young tellers chatting as they ignored the growing queue. She raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

Ridiculous. In the age of computer tracking, IRS monitoring, and surveillance cameras, a bank had to be able to figure out where the cash came from, and where it should rightfully go. “Is the manager in?” Tawny asked.

“Sorry, he’s out of the office.” Margaret pursed her lips and gave her a you-know-how-things-are shrug.

Yeah, the damn bank had been going downhill ever since a multi-national conglomerate bought it a year before and renamed it United Bankcorp. The former manager had taken early retirement, replaced by a man from San Francisco who’d made the front page of the newspaper when he flew into town in a Learjet emblazoned with a gaudy United Bankcorp logo. Tawny hadn’t met him yet and didn’t particularly want to. Once, she’d caught a glimpse of him glaring down from the mezzanine like an emperor. He’d averted his eyes, as if she were a peasant.

Margaret had confided that her new boss didn’t like being exiled to the backwater town of Kalispell. One by one, familiar employees left, replaced by twenty-somethings, with inflated titles like Account Management Specialist. They worried less about customer service than kissing the manager’s behind. Only Margaret remained, trying to hold out till she could collect Social Security. How much longer till she too was swept aside?

Tawny leaned forward. “I better see the operations supervisor.”

Margaret spoke into the phone, then gestured at a desk on the opposite side of the lobby. “He’ll be with you in a moment.” She mouthed good luck, as if she expected Tawny would need it, and made a face that warned you won’t like him.

Tawny sat at the desk and scanned the employees, all strangers now, behind sterile glass cubicles along the wall. Back when she’d kept the books for Dwight’s diesel repair business, an error like this would never happen. Or if it did, the problem would be solved immediately with apologies and a hearty handshake.

The once-neighborly atmosphere had been wiped clean. Gone were the days when a banker’s three-piece suit meant jeans, a plaid shirt, and down vest.

A young man about twenty-five emerged from behind a wood partition, newly built since the takeover. He approached, looking as bored as if he were flipping burgers and scooping fries. A black shirt, black tie, and black horn-rims emphasized his vampire-pale complexion.

Tawny pushed the ATM receipt across the desk. “I have a problem. Someone deposited $41,500 into my account yesterday.”

“Wish somebody’d do that for me,” the kid scoffed.

Tawny forced herself to keep smiling. “It’s not my money. Obviously someone must have keyed in the wrong number and it got put into my account by mistake.”

He stared at her through his horn-rims, blank with apparent indifference.

This nitwit was the operations supervisor? Trying to hide the irritation in her voice, Tawny said, “I’m sure whoever this money belongs to is expecting it to be in their account. Maybe they’re writing checks that are going to bounce. Don’t you think they might be a little upset?”

“The manager’s out,” he answered blandly.

“So I hear. Meanwhile, how do we straighten this out?”

With a put-upon sigh, he asked, “Are you sure it’s a mistake?”

She wanted to reach across the desk and swat him. “Look, a forty-one dollar error, maybe I could’ve screwed up. But I guarantee you I didn’t screw up $41,000 worth.” She sucked in a deep, nerve-settling breath. “Why don’t you call the Helena branch and talk to them?”

He peered over the top of his glasses, plucked a bank business card from a holder, circled a phone number, and handed it to her. “Here’s the 800 number. You can explain directly to them.”

She took it. “Is this the branch number?”

He heaved another sigh. “It’s the central number for the whole bank. They’ll help you.”

Useless talking to this clown. Tawny grabbed a pen and scrawled her name and phone number on a slip of paper. “When the manager gets back, please have him call me right away.” She rose and stalked toward the door.

“Have a wonderful day,” he called. How politely and professionally he had told her to go screw herself.

* * *

Tawny couldn’t wait to get home. When Dwight heard about this ridiculous mess, he’d blow a gasket and they’d be out looking for a new bank tomorrow…

Realization hit her like an ice cube down the back.

Dwight was gone. Forever.

Tears burning, she pulled over and parked. “Dammit, Dwight!” She pounded the steering wheel. “Why aren’t you here to help me?”

Most of the time, she held grief at bay…until the smallest trigger set off the horrible replay of his death. She felt as if she’d been hanging on a sheer cliff with one hand, desperately clinging to her husband with the other, until her strength ran out and she could no longer hold him. When he fell into the abyss, she’d been torn apart, and half of her had fallen with him.

She knew it wasn’t the bank and its corporate indifference that troubled her—it was the silent emptiness she faced at home, no one to talk to or share her frustration with. Guilt filled the hollowness inside her, multiplying and swelling, like Dwight’s cancer, seeping into the ragged edges of her soul.

It was her fault—she had wished for an end to the relentless pain, the vomiting, the sleepless nights. Now she regretted the wish with all her heart. Their bed was silent and empty with only his childhood teddy bear to hold, a pitiful substitute.

Still sniffling, she pulled herself together and blew her nose.

No matter how much she screamed and pounded, Dwight would still be dead and she still had $41,500 of someone else’s money. She needed to fix that.

* * *

At home, she steeled herself and called United Bankcorp’s 800 number. The automated response runaround offered to make a loan, open a credit card, consolidate her debts, and rattled off locations of branches in fourteen states. She heard a prompt for every possibility except what to do when someone else’s money winds up in your account.

After twenty minutes of merry-go-round trips back to the main menu, she repeatedly pressed zero, hoping to connect with a human being. The recorded voice sincerely apologized, but did not recognize that command. When she heard for the eighteenth time how important her call was to them and how valued she was as a customer, she disconnected. She wished she’d used the land line phone and at least could feel the satisfaction of slamming the receiver down. Damn smartphone deprived her of even that.

“Valued, my ass,” she muttered. “If I’m so important, why can’t I talk to anyone but a machine?”

Then she thought of the Slocums, neighbors who had retired from banking, Sheryl as a loan collector, Phil as a vice president. Maybe they could give her advice.

Tawny walked down the avenue under red maple and linden trees past well-kept old bungalows like hers. On double corner lots sat the landmark mansions built by Kalispell’s movers and shakers in the early 1900s. The Slocums’ was a two-story pillared Colonial with a carriage house converted to a double garage.

She rang the bell and heard Sheryl lumber across the hardwood floor with heavy dinosaur steps.

“Hi, Tawny, what’s up?” Sheryl always looked vaguely annoyed, as if her bunions hurt or her bra chafed.

“Hi, I wondered if I could talk to you and Phil about a banking problem I’m having.”

Sheryl looked her up and down, eyes gone flinty. Heaven help anyone who might fall behind on their payments to Sheryl. “You know we’re retired. We really don’t care to talk business anymore.”

Phil approached behind Sheryl with a leering smile, the kind Tawny dreaded from husbands because it made wives hate her. “Howdy, neighbor!”

Tawny took a step back. “I don’t want to bother you.”

“So what’s the problem?” Phil all but pushed Sheryl aside. “I heard something about banking?” He motioned Tawny into the house. “Come on in, sit down. Want some coffee?”

“No, thank you. I won’t take up much of your time.” She grimaced an apology to Sheryl, who narrowed her eyes and closed the door.

In their lavish great room, Tawny sat on an uncomfortable, but no doubt expensive, antique chair. Sheryl took the matching chair, while her husband filled a tapestry love seat.

“Now, what’s this about?” Phil asked.

Tawny released a breath. “This is going to sound weird, but United Bankcorp put money in my account, a lot of money, and I don’t know where it came from. I think it must be a computer mistake and it should have gone into someone else’s account. But I can’t get the bank to look into it. They insist I made the deposit yesterday in Helena. I haven’t been to Helena lately, so it can’t have been me.”

Phil hunched forward, elbows on knees, belly hanging. “How much are you talking about?”

“Forty-one thousand five hundred dollars.”

He whistled softly. “You sure it couldn’t have been a direct deposit, like from a life insurance payoff, or a tax refund you forgot about, or a settlement in Dwight’s estate?”

Tawny shook her head. “None of those. I think I’ve got the finances pretty well squared away. No, this is completely out of the blue. And it was cash. The trouble is, I can’t get anyone at the bank to pay attention. I’ve told them it’s an error, but they blow me off.”

Phil rubbed his chin. “This could be more of a problem than you think. Even before 9/11, regulators tightened restrictions and increased reporting requirements to track money laundering that finances terrorism. Any time someone makes a cash deposit of more than $10,000 to an account outside the normal ordinary course of business, banks have to file a CTR within fifteen days of the transaction.”

“What’s a CTR?” Tawny asked.

“Currency transaction report. That goes to the feds so they can monitor unexplained movements of large amounts of cash—you know, like from drugs or weapons smuggling. If something alerts the teller to unusual behavior, he or she fills out an SAR, suspicious activity report.”

Tawny’s stomach clenched. “What the hell? I’m no drug smuggler or terrorist. I just want the mistake fixed.”

“That’s all well and good, but the bank has probably already filed the CTR, so you may still come under scrutiny unless you can explain the source of funds.”

“What’s to explain? I don’t know where it came from. It isn’t my money.”

“You need to talk to the manager and ask about putting the money in a suspense account until they find out the source.”

“What’s a suspense account?”

Phil lifted his double chin and smiled while looking down his nose. “To put it in basic terms that you could understand, it’s an internal account where banks stick money they’re not sure what to do with until they figure it out.”

Tawny tightened at his condescending tone, but said nothing. She needed the ex-banker’s information.

Sheryl cleared her throat. Tawny recognized the wifely signal—wrap this up and get her out of our house.

Phil leaned forward. “You’re absolutely sure you don’t know about this cash? You’ve had a lot to keep track of with Dwight’s illness and passing. Maybe something slipped your mind.”

Tawny read doubt in his eyes and pulled herself straight. “More than forty thousand dollars didn’t slip my mind.” She rose. “Thanks for your time. I’ll see the manager tomorrow.” As she went toward the front door, she felt Sheryl’s glare on her back, and heard Phil mutter something to his wife.

They think I’m crazy. If my own neighbors don’t believe me, how can I convince the feds I haven’t done anything wrong?

Chapter 2 - Windfall

The next morning, Tawny dressed in cocoa-brown slacks, a cream silk blouse, and a copper-colored scarf that matched her hair, determined to talk to the bank manager. She stood at the entrance when the bank opened, watching the operations supervisor unlock the door. He held it wide for her, but otherwise gave no sign he recognized her from the previous day.

“Is the manager in?” she asked.

“No, he’s at a meeting.”

“Who’s in charge while he’s gone?”

He jerked a thumb at a glassed-in cubicle across the lobby. “She’ll help you.” He made his escape, disappearing behind the wood partition.

Margaret stood at her window. She caught Tawny’s eye and offered another helpless shrug.

Tawny crossed the lobby to a door with a nameplate that read Guadalupe Garza, Consumer Lending Facilitator. Dwight always said big corporations gave inflated titles to employees instead of decent pay. Tawny knocked. A round-shouldered woman in her mid-fifties looked up from her monitor and gestured to come in. Gray-brown hair fell in lank curtains on either side of her face, reminding Tawny of a lop-eared rabbit.

This time, Tawny felt more confident, having learned banker’s jargon from her neighbor. “Good morning, Ms. Garza. I’m Tawny Lindholm. My husband and I have banked here for fifteen years. I have a big problem and I need your help. Someone deposited $41,500 in cash into my account a couple of days ago in Helena. It’s not mine. The manager is out and hasn’t answered my messages. Your automated phone system makes it impossible to talk to a human being.”

Tawny paused to refresh the banking code words in her mind. “I need to get this straightened out because I don’t want you filing a CRT or an SAR that will make the feds look at me suspiciously. You need to put that money in a suspense account. And you should look at the surveillance video from Helena to find out who the money really belongs to and get it in their account.” She finished the rehearsed speech without a glitch. Wow, I did it.

Guadalupe Garza spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “Mrs. Lindholm, first of all, I’m very sorry you’re having this problem. But I’m sure you can understand why federal auditors would frown on us allowing a customer to determine what reports we do or do not file, as well as what funds should be put in suspense. To act simply on a customer’s say-so would violate more regulations than you can imagine.”

Tawny’s short-lived confidence disappeared. Garza had shot down ex-banker Phil Slocum’s suggestions in seconds.

“Besides,” she continued, “I’m a loan officer, not operations. That really is an operations matter.”

“I will not be put off again.” Tawny’s jaw tightened. “I’m a bank customer and there has been a serious error and you need to take care of it. I don’t care what your internal…” What was that big word Dwight used to say? “…hierarchy is. You need to correct this.”

Garza reached for the ATM receipt. “I’ll see what I can find out.” She tapped her keyboard then studied the screen. “Okay, what you were told is correct, $41,500 cash was deposited at the Helena branch.” She typed for a minute. “I’ve sent an email to branch operations and the manager, asking them to look into this. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Can you tell if one of those SARs or CRTs has been filed?”

Garza gave an apologetic shrug. “Again, that’s an operations matter, not my department.”

At least Garza had been more helpful than the guy in horn-rims, but Tawny still felt the brush-off. “Would you please write down the manager’s name, email address, and a direct phone number so I can follow up?”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I write novels about nice, everyday folks thrust into hellish nightmares. My heroine is much smarter and braver than I would be if I found myself in the messes I stick her into. I enjoy mentoring young writers and admire their limitless imaginations and endless enthusiasm.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
If you've ever wondered if your phone is TOO smart, this story explores that scenario. Ted Koppel’s book Lights Out described how a smartphone could trigger a cyber-attack on the grid. In 2016, terrorists attempted just such a run on a New York dam.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
The mystery/suspense/thriller genre provides an opportunity for good to triumph over evil. Justice rarely prevails in the real world. At least in my stories, justice has a fighting chance.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
It’s an addiction that’s not illegal, immoral, or fattening…unless there are cookies in the house.

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