CHAPTER

46

THE TRENT SATELLITE OFFICE was a one-story concrete block building painted light yellow that was reached by a winding gravel road. The parking lot held about a dozen cars and trucks. One of the cars was a Mercedes S550. It was parked in a spot right next to the door.

“Bill Strauss’s?” asked Puller as they passed it on the way to the entrance to the office building.

“How’d you guess?”

“The car was parked in front of

the Crib. The only other guy in town who could afford a ride like this is Roger Trent, and he’s not in Drake right now. Strauss beat us here somehow, probably when I told you to pull over. Or he took another route.” He eyed the dilapidated facility. “I would’ve expected some fancier digs for the company COO.”

“The Trent company philosophy is take the money home, not waste it on office space in the middle of a coal mining operation. Even Roger’s office at company headquarters is pretty spartan.”

“So there’s an operation near here?”

“A loadout like the one I showed you last night. And a surface mining op about a half mile north.”

“So they blast close to here?”

“Blast close to just about everywhere around here. That’s why the population has shrunk so much. Who wants to live in a combat zone?” She gave him a quick glance. “Military company excluded,” she added hastily.

“Trust me, soldiers would prefer not to live in a combat zone.”

“Who do you want to talk to here?” asked Cole.

“Let’s start at the top.”

They walked inside, asked at the front desk for Strauss, and were shown back to his office. It was paneled with crudely stained plywood. The desk was cheap, as were the chairs. There were old metal file cabinets stacked in one corner. A ragged couch and dented coffee table occupied another corner. There was another door that Puller suspected led to a private bath. Strauss probably had drawn the line at having to urinate with the hired help.

There was a shiny computer with a twenty-three-inch screen on his desk. This was the only sign Puller saw that modern technology rather than Goodwill inventory had come to the Trent empire. When he thought of the mansion he had been in the night before, he now saw what Cole had meant.

They really do take the money home. At least the head honchos do.

Strauss rose from behind the desk and greeted them. He had taken his suit jacket off, revealing a potbelly covered by his starched white shirt with the French cuffs. The jacket hung on a hook on the back of the door.

His fingertips were yellowed with nicotine and he must’ve just crushed out a cigarette in the overstuffed ashtray because the air was heavy with smoke. Puller waved his hand in front of him to clear the air, while Cole took several deep breaths. Maybe she was trying to suck in as much of the foul air as she could, thought Puller. Secondhand smoke gratefully inhaled.

“Thanks for meeting with us, Bill,” said Cole.

“No problem, Sam. If I knew you wanted to meet with me this morning, we could’ve done it at the Crib.” He motioned them into chairs.

“We’ll try not to take up too much of your time,” said Cole.

“Right. I understand you had dinner with Jean last night.”

“Yes. She invited a few of us over while Roger was out of town.”

“Where is Roger, by the way?” asked Puller.

“He’s doing business in New York,” answered Strauss.

“Business in New York?” said Puller. “I thought the company was a private concern.”

Strauss settled his gaze on him. “That’s right. Trent Exploration is private. But it’s also very profitable in the energy sector. That makes it attractive to all sorts of investors.”

“So is Trent thinking about going public?” asked Puller.

Strauss’s smile was tight. “I really can’t comment on that. And I fail to see how that might be relevant to your investigation.” He sat back down and glanced at Cole. “So what can I do for you?”

“As I mentioned to you before, we need to talk to Molly Bitner’s coworkers. But before we do, I’d like you to give us a description of what she did here. And how long she’d been working at Trent.”

Strauss sat back and interlocked his fingers behind his head. He glanced at the pack of Marlboros on his desk and the stuffed ashtray next to it, but must’ve decided against lighting up again.

Puller studied the man and his body language as he awaited Strauss’s response.

“She’d been here about four years. Before that she worked in another of our offices; the one on the north side of town.”

“Why the change?” asked Puller.

Strauss shot him a glance. “We often have workers switch between offices. It’s based on the needs of the company and also the desires of the workers. The north office did more work with a surface mining operation near there. This office handles more of the centralized operations, sort of a clearinghouse for multiple sites. I can’t give you the exact reason Molly came here because I don’t know. It may be that some of her coworkers could answer that question.”

“We’ll be sure to ask,” said Puller.

“And what did she do here?” prompted Cole.

“Filing, answering phones, dealing with orders from the field. Pretty normal stuff. She wasn’t in a position to order anything without higher approval. In the business world she would be described as a secretary or assistant office manager, I suppose.”

“Good worker? Any problems?”

“As far as I knew we never had any problems with her.”

“You notice anything unusual about her over the last several weeks?”

“No. But I wouldn’t necessarily. As I said, I knew her, of course, but we had little interaction on a daily basis.”

“No money problems of which you’re aware?”

“No one was garnishing her wages if that’s what you mean.”

They asked a few more questions and then Strauss led them to the cubicle where the office manager worked. Before Strauss left them Puller said, “How’s your son doing?”

Strauss turned to face him. “Just fine. Why?”

“Just wondering.”

“You know you had no right to ask him about his military career. And quite frankly I found your questions insulting to him.”

“Sorry you felt that way. Were you ever in the military?”

“No.”

“If you were you probably wouldn’t have thought they were insulting.”

Strauss looked at Cole, scowled, and left them.

CHAPTER

47

THE OFFICE MANAGER was named Judy Johnson. She was a rail-thin woman who had a strong grip and a businesslike manner. Her hair was brown and gray and worn back in twin pigtails. Her face was lined and her eyes a deep caramel and lively. She wore a beige jumper with a white blouse. Her black flat shoes were scuffed.

Johnson told them that Molly had been a good worker. She had come to this office principally because it was an easier commute for her and a slot had come open. She did not have access to all the files at the office.

“Which ones didn’t she have access to?” asked Puller.

“Principally the ones kept in Mr. Strauss’s office,” said Johnson. “There’s also a closet in his office. Inside that closet is a safe. They’re kept in there.”

“I thought it was a private bathroom,” said Puller.

“No. We all use the same restroom,” replied Johnson.

“And the key to the safe?” asked Cole.

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