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2

Fleeced

If just this morning someone had said to Thomas Pilsner, Have a nice day, he would have responded in the usual robotic fashion that most of the rest of the world did when they heard the clich'ed phrase.

What a difference twelve hours makes.

How could he have known that at lunchtime two members of the club where he was president would give him the greatest news in the world? The Settlers Club, which needed repairs like nobodys business and had been in serious danger of running out of operating money, was going to get what would probably amount to four million dollars.

Hows that for a shot in the arm? Thomas thought to himself. It was eleven oclock at night and he had felt electrified since lunch. He was working late, going over everything that had to be done before the big party on Saturday night. What a celebration it would be! Nat and Ben had told him they wanted to do a special presentation of the diamonds at the party.

Anything you want! Thomas had said with a fierceness he almost didnt recognize in himself. Hed practically done a jig around town this afternoon when he was running his errands. He hadnt told anyone yet, but he suspected the news had leaked. But who cared? Alls well that ends well. The party would be exciting no matter what.

The phone on his desk rang. That must be my little Janey, he thought. Janey was his girlfriend of six months, and they usually talked several times a day. Theyd met when she attended a lecture at the club, and everyone agreed they were perfect for each other. She was never without a strand of pearls and a cardigan sweater. He was never without his trademark bow tie. Both only in their twenties, they felt like old souls who had been together in another lifetime, who really belonged in a bygone era. Sometimes they discussed how they would have loved to live in New York City in the 1890s. But the time they had treated themselves to a horse-and-buggy ride in Central Park, in an attempt to re-create the past, theyd been surrounded by sweaty joggers and an obnoxious Rollerblader who kept circling the buggy.

It didnt take long after Thomas answered the phone for his face to fall. Ben Carney? Oh no

Thomas ran out of his office, down the hallway, and frantically pressed the elevator button. The door slowly rumbled open, slowly rumbled shut, and the ancient elevator creaked its way upstairs to the fourth floor. Another thing that needs to be replaced, Thomas thought in the midst of his anguish. How could he break the news to Nat about his old friend Ben?

When the door opened again, Thomas ran down the hallway to Nat Pemrods apartment and rang the bell. The sounds of another one of Lydia Sevaturas singles parties echoed from across the hall. The gauche things I have to put up with so that this club might attract new members, he thought.

Nat didnt answer.

Thomas rang again.

When Nat still didnt answer, he put his ear to the door. He thought he could hear the faint sound of the television. Thomas reached in his pocket and pulled out the master key he always carried in case of emergencies. He unlocked the door and entered cautiously. To the left of the foyer was the hallway leading to the bedrooms and the kitchen and dining room. To the right was the archway to the living room that extended the length of the apartment.

Nat? he called. As he approached Nats bedroom, the sound of the television got louder. Nat?

At the doorway of the bedroom, Thomas peered in. Pillows were propped up against the headboard, and the bedspread was rumpled. Thomass throat went dry. He walked into the bathroom. A scream, barely audible, escaped his mouth.

His feet carried him quickly back down the hall and out the front door, just as the door to Lydia s apartment opened. He felt breathless as he ran to the end of the hallway, through the fire door, and took the steps three at a time, down to the first floor. In his office he dialed 911 as fast as his fingers could move.

Within minutes the police and Nats private doctor arrived on the scene. Back upstairs, Thomas watched in horror as the doctor pronounced Nat dead.

He slipped in the tub, Dr. Barnes said. It looks like blunt trauma to the head. Hes been having some dizzy spells lately

Just then, one of the patrolmen walked into the bedroom. Theres a lot of jewelry out on the desk in the living room. The safe is empty.

Thomas looked up. He told me he and his friend Ben were about to sell the four big diamonds in the red box and donate the proceeds to the club.

I didnt see any red box.

But they just showed it to me this afternoon!

Believe me, theres no red box. A lot of dark blue boxes. But no red box.

Thomas promptly fainted.


| Fleeced | c