What happens when a woman simply doing her job becomes the target of a cover-up operation? Rob Hall reveals the answer in his new mystery novel, The Obituary Column.
Brenna Reid is a 28-year-old government computer technician who matches beneficiary files against the Social Security Agency's death database. While double-checking the reports, she discovers a discrepancy in the report totals. Attempting to resolve the inconsistency, Brenna probes deeper into the problem and unwittingly involves herself in an undercover scheme, which puts her privacy, her freedom, and even her life in jeopardy.
A mysterious obituary that appears on her coworker's desk first clues Brenna into the fact that something strange is going on at the Agency. On the same day she found the conflicting report totals, "OBIT" a mysterious user ID appeared on the Agency's computer system. She links the user ID with the obituary for Elmo Masters, whose part in the scandal is eventually revealed through the course of the story.
Rob Hall masterfully combines the elements of suspense, intrigue, and deception with a remarkable eye for detail. The Obituary Column reads like a shadowy detective novel, all the while maintaining explicit detail in Hall's exploration of the underworld of hit men, tapped telephones, and doctored documents.
The Obituary Column is a must for all readers with a taste for heart-pounding action and behind-the-scenes subterfuge.
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The calm, almost tranquil tone of his voice had a soothing effect on her.
But his eyes told a different story.
Two black circles, devoid of pupils it seemed, peered out from a smooth, shadowed face, moving, watching, but somehow detached, inhuman.
She could have just as well been staring at two pieces of charcoal. Something else seemed to be brewing inside but ebony masked the windows ...
The first man nudged open the door, just a crack at first, then all the way. Switching on his flashlight, he swept the beam past the maze of silent, empty cubicles on the third floor of the Chicago Federal Building. The globe of a street lamp, it's height nearly even with the third floor window at the far end of the office, bathed the room in amber hues. He stepped in.
Behind him in the dimly lit hallway, his colossal hands encased in latex gloves stood Brasher, the organization's handyman. A small black satchel hung from his right hand. He stepped in and shut the door. Turning on his own flashlight, he flicked the beam out across the room, letting the light penetrate the muted shadows.
Brasher stole a glimpse at the first man, the one the organization dubbed "Obit", standing there looking so unobtrusive in the gray darkness. Thin, nondescript build, vague features. The invisible face in the crowd. An appealing trait for their mole. One who could work quietly and not draw attention to his activities.
"Where does she sit?" Brasher asked.
They walked silently to a pitch-black windowless corner of the office and stopped at the last workstation. A rectangular plastic nameplate mounted on the divider read: Brenna Reid, Computer Specialist.
Brasher laid his satchel down on the desk and opened it, aiming the beam inside. "While I'm doing the phone, you take care of the report."
The first man nodded and took a key from his pocket and unlocked her desk drawer. Quietly, he slid it open. Shining the light on the folder labels, he found one titled "Match Projects" and spread it out onto the desk.
While he leafed through the reports, Brasher unscrewed the mouthpiece from the phone and removed the microphone. From the satchel he took another microphone and replaced the original. From the outside, they looked identical. But they were not alike. The new microphone, called a drop-in bug, contained a small radio transmitter. Electrical current to operate the unit came from the phone line itself. It could transmit forever. Simple to install, it had the ability to pick up both sides of a phone conversation and any surrounding noise as well. He reassembled the phone and replaced it on the desk.
The first man stared at the giant apprehensively. "It's not necessary to bug her phone. I tried to explain that."
"The organization thinks it is."
"But why? I can handle her."
"Did you remove Elmo Masters' name from the agency file yet?"
"I took care of it earlier. I didn't actually remove the name because that would have changed the number of records on the file. I replaced it with a different name, one that isn't on Social's death index."
Brasher turned his massive form and faced him. "And if she runs the match program again?"
Obit looked up, the unexpected movement caught him by surprise, his startled eyes locked on the giant's dimly seen face. He disliked being the center of this man's attention. A monster he had been told. Disarmingly quiet but ruthlessly efficient, he always got the job done. He had never worked with the man before and disliked being in his presence. "She'll only get one hundred twenty-five matches on the new report. Masters' name won't show up."
Brasher slowly nodded his approval. "Next time, make sure she gets the right file to match. You wouldn't want to upset the organization a second time, would you?"
Exhaling, he said, "No, of course not. There won't be a second time."
Brasher smiled. "I'll tell them what you said."
Sighing, the first man wished he had never agreed to this harebrained scheme. Sure, they paid him well for his time and expertise but now with the Inspector General's office forming new investigative units to handle government fraud, things were getting trickier to conceal. "You never answered my question," he persisted. "Why does the organization want her phone bugged? I had this whole thing under control. She won't learn a thing about the operation. The organization's activities are safe."
"I didn't see you switch the report," Brasher said. "Switch it now so we can leave."
Anxiously, he grabbed the old report from the folder and replaced it with another one he had made earlier. He shoved the folder back into the drawer and locked it. At night, thermostats in government buildings were always lowered to conserve energy but even the cooler temperature couldn't keep him from perspiring. He wiped a drop of sweat from his brow and flung it to the carpet. "It's done."
"Good," Brasher said. "Let's go."
"You still haven't answered my question," he went on, grabbing Brasher's shoulder.
Brasher slowly turned around. "You made a serious error by giving her the wrong file to match. They're very nervous she might find something out."
"But she doesn't know a thing."
"You can't assume that. She's seen the original report. She may have also seen the names on the report. She could compromise the entire operation. If another copy of the original report shows up, Elmo Masters' name will be on it. He'll be investigated. It won't take the Feds long to link his file back to us. He's a loose end, and my orders are to eliminate loose ends."
Brasher stood motionless for several seconds staring at him through the darkness; an undefined apparition blending in with the blue-gray shadows that surrounded him. "Social Security's death index says Masters is dead. But the kid still cashes the old man's check illegally every month. He's a loose end. In this business, there can be no loose ends. He must be eliminated. Does that bother you?"
"Bother me? No, of course not. Why would it? Whatever it takes."
At 8 A.M. Monday morning, Brenna Reid lowered her statuesque 5'8" frame into her gray low-backed office chair and unlocked the drawers to her desk. She pulled out the folder containing the computer-generated match reports she had created on Friday and began leafing through them one by one, making sure she hadn't forgotten anything for the Data Integrity board meeting at ten. She hadn't.
For the last three of her four years in government service, Brenna computer matched federal agency payment files against Social Security Administration's massive death database, considered to be the most complete compilation of death information in the world. Her job was simple: identify people listed as deceased on Social's file but who were still being paid government benefits. Every month, Brenna presented the matches to the Data Integrity board at their monthly meeting for investigation and termination of the payments. Since the program began, millions of dollars in overpayments had been identified and recovered.
Brenna closed the folder and slid it to one side, her fingertips still resting on the cover. Something small gnawed at her. What was it? She reopened it and pulled out the summary sheet. Why did the total matches read one hundred twenty-five? That wasn't the same total she had Friday. She remembered clearly because it was the same as the last three digits of her phone number: one hundred twenty-six. Brenna pulled out the agency voucher that accompanied the file and checked the total number of records. That hadn't changed.
Shuffling through the remaining reports, she quickly hand-added all the subtotals. But it still came up with only one hundred twenty-five matching records.
Brenna stared at it transfixed. How could it have changed? Did someone tamper with the file? For what reason? To prevent a name from showing up on the report and being investigated? She felt a tinge of suspicion course through her.
She sat still for several seconds and stared at the total, wondering how in the world a report locked in her desk all weekend could suddenly change for no reason. Brenna leaned forward and set up her PC for another match run. Nine minutes later, as the job spat out the new reports, she lifted the summary sheet from the paper tray, and gawked at the totals. One hundred twenty-five matches? What was going on? What happened to that last record?
At half past ten as the Data Integrity meeting was getting underway in Brenna's building, Elmo Masters stood in the vestibule of his apartment building on Chicago's West Side and stared at the row of mailboxes in the wall. There were six boxes. All of the fronts were bent out of shape from various robbery attempts. He inserted the key into the last box on the right and gave it a turn. The door opened easilyin fact, too easily. He had complained to the landlord at least a dozen times but as long as the boxes locked, his complaints fell on deaf ears.
There were several fliers, an assortment of envelopes, and a mail order catalog. Elmo focused on the envelopes and smiled. All were white except one. Social Security checks always came in manila colored envelopes.
Elmo's day flashed pleasantly through his head. First, he would go the currency exchange and cash his check. After that, the pool hall, and later, who knew? He'd think of something. He reached in and grabbed the Social Security check, tossing the catalog and junk mail to the floor. Then he closed and locked the box and began trudging back upstairs, checking the street behind him as he went. He disliked staying down there too long with a check in his hand. But today the street appeared empty.
Unlike most people, Elmo felt safest when no one else was around. An empty street had more appeal to him than a crowded one. His logic was simple: no people, no harm. And he prided himself on never having been attacked or robbed.
Elmo was luckier than most of the other men in his neighborhood. Except for his middle initial, he and his father had the same name. So when the old man died eighteen months ago, Elmo never reported the death. Instead, he decided to just let Social continue to deliver the check normally as though the man was still alive. Hell, the funeral parlor wasn't obligated to report the death, either. A little palm greasing took care of them. Besides, he theorized, he was doing society a favor. The money kept him off the streets and out of trouble. No need to rob some poor dude if he didn't have to.
As he reached the second floor landing, an apartment door at the end of the hall opened slightly. A head peeked out. Elmo caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, his foot hesitating mid-step. A woman, her black hair streaked with white, wearing only a powder blue robe and displaying a generous amount of cleavage, opened the door all the way and stepped out into the hallway. She stared straight at him.
"The mail here?" she asked, her gaze dropping to his hand. He nodded but said nothing. He had no time or money to waste on a whore.
"Want me to open it for you, sugar?" she asked, in an easygoing tone.
Elmo kept moving, cursing under his breath as he walked. When he reached the third floor, he went back into his apartment and cursed. Bitch. He had more important things to do than to blow an entire month's worth of money on a whore. Elmo checked the time: 10:35. He went back into the bedroom and finished dressing. He wore a pair of black pants, black shoes, black silk shirt, and a black leather jacket with a matching black leather hat. Forget brushing his teeth. Not much left to brush anyway. He would just suck on a Pep-O-Mint.
With his Social Security check nestled safely in his inside jacket pocket, Elmo started for the door but then stopped. His ears detected something outside on the stairs. The floorboards creaked. He sucked in his breath and quietly listened. Somebody was coming up to the third floor? But to see who? There were only two apartments on the third floor, his and the vacant one on the other side of the landing. He pulled out his check and stared at it. Maybe he should hide it somewhere, just in case. Elmo's heart raced. Then it dawned on him that it was probably the woman on the second floor. But what did she want now? He threw open the door.
"Leave me alone, woman!" he shouted.
A vacant landing stared back at him.
Surprised, he inched closer to the doorway wondering if she could be standing off to one side. When he reached the opening, he slowly and cautiously checked to the left. Suddenly, before his mind could even shift thoughts, a huge hand swept around from the right and grabbed his throat. Elmo gagged. A giant black man, several inches taller and any number of pounds heavier squeezed his neck tighter and stepped into the apartment. With panther-like swiftness, Elmo reached up with both hands and tried to dislodge the giant's grip while at the same time using the man's wrist as a brace, kicked him hard toward the groin.
Neither maneuver worked. The big man's thick overcoat blocked the kick and his sheer brute strength greatly overpowered Elmo's. Brasher squeezed tighter.
Elmo stared in terror. Panic rang clear from the failed assault. And without air, he had no strength for a second try. The giant forced him back into the apartment and shut the door. Isolated now, Elmo couldn't tear his eyes from the big man's bland features. Brown skin, black eyes, black hair. A myriad of thoughts flashed through his head but only one took precedence: he knew he was going to die.
Elmo had an irresistible urge to cough but couldn't draw in the air to complete the process. His head started to go numb. The man drew Elmo closer, his grip firmly wrapped around Elmo's throat. With his arm cocked, he released his grip and simultaneously pushed Elmo away.
Elmo reeled back, his hat flying off to one side, his arms flaying like a marionette with its strings cut. He landed hard against the wood floor, gasping for air. As his head began to clear, he looked up, his numb brain gradually giving way to the reality of the situation. The man held a gun aimed straight at him.
"What's yo' trying to do to me, brotha'?" Elmo asked, his voice struggling to carry the words. "You gone nuts or somethin'? You gots the wrong man."
The big man smiled. "You're the one I want."
"No, brotha'! You wants the dude that lives here. Right?
You want Elmo Masters. I was just visitin'." Elmo started to stand.
"Lie still," the man ordered.
Elmo froze, his heart racing erratically, his mind anxiously trying to calculate a means of escape. The man took two steps closer and stooped down next to him, pushing the gun into his temple.
"Hard for you to try anything stupid at this range," the man said quietly.
Elmo panicked, tears filled his eyes. A rush of heat suddenly encased his body. In desperation, he said, "Don't shoot me, brotha'. What did I do to you?"
"Nothing," the man said, quietly. "Just business."
He reached down and unzipped Elmo's jacket and began rummaging through the pockets. He pulled out the Social Security check, as though he knew exactly where it would be. Elmo stared in disbelief as the man's immense fingers grasped the thin, rectangular sheet, his colossal hand completely dwarfing it.
"Well, what's this?" He read the name out loud. "Elmo Masters. Elmo know you have his check?"
*** Brasher tucked the Social Security check into the inside pocket of his overcoat and walked quietly out the front entrance of the apartment building. Six pairs of windows overlooked the street, one for each apartment. Looking back, he carefully checked each one for signs of movement. Nothing. Good. If there had been, he would have had to gone back in and taken care of it.
He scanned the remainder of the street and sidewalk, checking the rows of three flats and vacant lots. Again nothing. The street was empty, just the way he liked it. No complications. He stopped, pulled out a handwritten list from his pocket and crossed off Elmo Masters' name
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I absolutly loved this story. The plot is totally amazing. It keeps ticking away like a time bomb. I found myself holding my breath as I turned each page. Just when thought I had it figured out, Hall throws another twist into the mix. Everyone will enjoy this book. I would love to see Brenna Reid, Hall¿s main character, in another story.