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Number Please


Telephone Company Mysteries
 

 

NUMBER, PLEASE
by Sheree Petree
Oak Tree Press
July 2002
ISBN 1892343-25-8
$ 9.95 U.S.

Winner of the 2001 Oak Tree Dark Mystery Contest


An innocent operator in the Santa Cruz phone company office is mistakenly run down in cold blood. The driver’s intended target: college hire Trish Malcolm, who worked the switchboard in the dead operator's place the night before. during the season's worst storm. Now it’s only a matter of time until the killer has Trish's number.


"A tightly plotted novel with unexpected twists and turns aplenty. You'll find yourself rooting for the feisty, independent sleuth, Trish Malcolm, and the sisterhood of hardworking telephone operators in the male-dominated world of the 1960s. What a terrific debut for Sheree Petree."          
Margaret Coel, author of THE SHADOW DANCER

"A very clever amateur sleuth novel that captures the ambiance of 1960s America. The heroine is an admirable and determined young woman who acts according to her own convictions, not caring if everyone thinks she’s a fool. . . The mystery is so well constructed that readers won’t guess who the killer is until the author chooses to reveal him."

                                                                                                   Midwest Book Review

Prologue
Santa Cruz, California 1965

“Operator.”

Trish Malcolm plugged in her back cord, automatically reaching for the front one with her left hand, the pencil in her right hand poised to mark down a number.

Emma Baily, a forty-year Phone Company veteran, glanced sideways at her. “You working the board?”

Trish jerked her head toward the window. “Because of the storm, Maureen called me back in. She’s desperate.”

Emma chuckled. “So it seems.” A rotund woman with large milk-fed teeth, she closed her switchboard key and handed Trish a stack of tickets. “Here, use these, if you don’t mind tickets with my operator number on them.”

Trish stacked them in front of her. “Might as well. I don’t even have an operator number.”

“So, I’ll get credit for your calls. You can help boost my ticket volume.”

“As though you need it. You handle more calls than any three operators on the payroll.”

Emma grinned. “Give me a holler if you need help.”

“What do you mean ‘if’?” Trish studied the cord in her hand as though it might detonate. “I haven’t a clue what to do with this thing.”

Trish wasn’t trained to work the damn switchboard. A college hire, she’d been with the Phone Company less than three weeks, and her job description listed call estimating, force adjusting, and managing operators. Not plugging out lights on the stupid board. Yet, with the storm hammering the coastline, knocking down power lines and toppling telephone poles, all traffic employees, management included, found themselves cramming headsets over their ears and answering pay phones.

Trish was no exception. By midnight, she was exhausted. Her head ached from listening to complaining customers, and her fingers throbbed from punching numbers on the key set and flipping through the cardex for rates.

So drained she could barely utter the standard greeting, she plugged into a coin box.

“Operator.”

“I want to call Hawaii.” The man’s voice sounded gruff and surly. He gave her the number.

Trish called the rate and route operator and was told it cost two dollars and thirty cents for the first three minutes and sixty cents for each additional minute.

“Our coin boxes hold only two dollars,” she told the customer. “Would you deposit that now, and I’ll collect the additional thirty cents when your party comes on the line.”

“Just hurry it up.”

She could hear coins dropping into the box and the drone of the foghorn in the background. He must be near the beach. She wished she could ask him if the power was still out.

She listened until all the coins were deposited and then keyed the number.

It answered on the third ring.

“Brad.” He barked the name.

“Hey Jay-Jay. Is that you? How’s it going, man? You got that ocean view yet?”
Trish pushed the collect button and heard the coins fall into the box.

“Please deposit the additional thirty cents.”

The customer continued talking. “Getting close. The mouthpiece seems to be coming around.”

“That’s great, Jay-Jay. Get him on our side, and you’ve got her.”

“He said something about looking for a pucker string. You know what that is?”

“Hell, no.”

Trish tried again. “Sir. Excuse me, sir. This is the operator. Would you please deposit an additional thirty cents?”

The Hawaii party heard her. “Hey, Jay-Jay,” he said. “There’s somebody on the line.”

Trish took advantage of the silence. “It’s the operator. Would you please deposit another thirty cents?"

“Shit. The damn operator’s on the line. Hold on a minute.”

Trish heard the coins fall into the box.

“Thank you.” She pushed the collect button and closed her listening key.

Emma leaned toward her. “Watch that connection,” she said. “When they squabble about the deposit, they’re likely the sort who’ll run out on their overtime.”

Trish completed another call and felt an elbow in her ribs. She turned back to see Emma pointing to a disconnect light. She stamped off the ticket and pushed her ring back key.

“Yeah.” If anything, the voice sounded gruffer than before.

“One moment for your overtime,” she said, reading the time stamped on the back of the ticket. “You owe a dollar eighty cents for the additional three minutes.”

“What are you talking about? I didn’t talk three extra minutes.”

“Yes, you did, sir. Please deposit an additional dollar eighty.”

“Like hell, I will. I didn’t talk that long.”

Trish had had it. Her shoulders ached from hunching over the switchboard, and knots lined her stomach like a rope ladder. “Look, Jay-Jay,” she said. “You talked a total of six minutes. Deposit the money.”

“What did you call me? How did you know my name? Who are you?”
She wanted to reach through the phone line and snatch those words back. How could she have called a customer by name? Plus, she’d argued with him. Trish’s stomach lurched. If anybody found out, she’d lose her job for sure.


Chapter One


Lord, she was tired.

The day following the storm Trish worked twelve straight hours. At least she didn’t have to operate the board.

She’d expected her boss to jump all over her for arguing with a customer and calling him by name. Who could blame her? But Maureen had been too busy explaining last night’s sorry quality of service to the Division Office and calling on Trish to crunch the numbers that would justify the late-night overtime.

The only bright part of the day’s frantic storm reporting occurred when a customer called in a commendation for Emma Baily and followed it up with an orchid delivered to Operator Fifty-nine. Her face wreathed in smiles, Emma pinned on what she called her first posy, even though she said she couldn’t remember the call. Some coin box call to Honolulu.

At ten o’clock, Trish helped Emma pin the corsage on her coat and followed her and the rest of the ten p.m. shift down the stairs and out the front door.

She was more than ready to go home.

Giving a quick wave to the group, she turned toward the parking lot. She sensed movement, heard a screech of tires and glanced back. Someone behind her called out while the women, laughing together a moment ago, scrambled in different directions. A huge vibrating machine, a deep churning engine, barreled down the dark street and swerved toward Emma.

Trish heard a shriek, what sounded like a pop, a sickening thud, and watched the dark shape disappear around a corner. The street stood empty, except for a pale lump on the asphalt.

What was happening? How could this be?

Hardly daring to breathe, Trish stood frozen, gooseflesh rippling her arms. She heard footsteps running behind her. Someone shouted for an ambulance. Someone screamed.
A man bent over the still form, knelt beside it, then stood and shook his head at the women huddled at the curb. Sobbing filled the air. In the distance, a siren howled.

Trish made her way across the street, stepping gingerly as though tiptoeing on glass.

She spotted Emma’s orchid first and wondered why it was red. Someone pushed against her, and she became aware of people crowding around, policemen in uniform, flashing lights.

Emma had been run down. The enormity of what happened pounded against Trish’s rib cage. She started to sway and felt hands on her shoulders. The man she’d seen kneeling in the street pulled her back from the crowd, sheltering her with his warmth.

“Are you all right?”

She recognized him from the Plant Department, but couldn’t think of his name. She couldn’t think of anything except the form lying in the street.

Muscles in the back of her throat quivered when she tried to speak. “It was deliberate,” she blurted.

The man regarded her soberly. His jaw tightened, and he steered her away from the street, back to the building.

“Let’s get out of the way,” he said. “Looks like a hit and run, probably kids joyriding.”

“No, I saw it. The car aimed right for her.”

He didn’t react, didn’t appear to be listening. She leaned against his arm and sensed he was trying to steady her, calm her down.

She didn’t want to be calm. She might never be calm again. A feeling of helplessness flooded her. She struggled to get the words out. “It was deliberate. I’ve got to tell someone.”

“Not now.”

An ambulance pulled to a stop, blocking their view of the street. She could still see it. The red orchid. The motionless form.

He took both her hands in his and drew her toward the building. “Let’s go upstairs and get some coffee.”
“I don’t want coffee. I want to talk to the police.”

“I’m sure they’ll find us. They’ll want to question everyone who saw the accident.”

“It wasn’t an accident.”

She let him lead her up the stairs. What else could she do? She sat at a table in the lunchroom and accepted the mug he set before her. Blowing the steam off the top, she took a careful sip. She hadn’t realized her hands were shaking.

He sat across from her, and she looked at him for the first time. He had dark unruly hair, a nose that leaned to one side and eyes the color of the coffee in her cup.

She looked into those eyes, but the image of Emma’s body lying on the street flashed between them.

“I’m Steve Taylor. I work in Plant.”

“I know, I’ve seen you.”

“I’ve seen you, too. You’re the college hire.”

She didn’t want small talk. “Did you see it happen?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I was here when I heard the screams. By the time I got downstairs, the car was gone.”

Neither spoke for awhile. Trish put her hand, warm from the coffee mug, against her throbbing temple. She couldn’t blot out the picture of Emma lying on the pavement. She pushed her chair away from the table. “I’ve got to call Maureen, and someone should notify Emma’s family.”

Judy Womack walked through the door, plopped down beside Trish and lit a cigarette. Tears streamed down her face. “Police said they’d be up to talk with any of us who saw it.”

“What did you see?” Steve asked.

“Nothing.” Judy, a painfully thin girl about Trish’s age, brushed ashes off the table. “Me and Amy heard a car and seen tail-lights going down the street.”

“Where’s Amy?” Trish asked.

“She told the cops she didn’t see nothing, so they let her go on home.”

Trish stood up. “I’m going to call Maureen. And shouldn’t we notify Emma’s family?”

Judy shook her head. “I’ve worked with Emma Baily for two years, and I don’t know anything about her family.”

She stared at her cigarette. “You think you know somebody because you work beside them every day. I don’t know a damn thing about her. She said something about a sister, but I don’t have a clue who to call.”
“Maureen will.”

Steve downed his coffee. “She was a nice old lady.”

* * *

By the time Trish returned to the lunchroom, a police officer and three operators whose names Trish didn’t know sat crowded around the table, sipping coffee. Steve pulled out a chair for her.

“What did Maureen say?” Judy asked.
“She’s upset.”

The officer introduced himself as Sergeant Sanchez. He turned back to the woman he’d been talking to, his pencil poised over a skinny notepad. “What kind of car would you say it was, Miss Burke?”

Trish recognized her then, Shirley Burke, a sallow-faced woman with bleached hair and heavily mascaraed eyes. The other two were older operators, Grace Potter and Velma Dugan. Grace had finger-waved gray hair, and Velma wore hers pulled back in a bun.

It was too dark to tell. I’d just finished my shift and come out the door when I saw it speeding down the street,” Velma said. “He was driving crazy.”

“He?” The sergeant wrote something in the notebook. “Did you see the driver?”

Shirley shook her head.

He set the pencil down and looked around the table. “Did anybody see anything?”

Trish raised her chin in his direction. “I did.” Sanchez turned his compact body toward her. He had thick hair and a dark mustache, but a nice face, with gray eyes that seemed to appear impersonal, but managed to be unflinching and compassionate instead.

“And you are?”

“Patricia Malcolm. Trish. I’m an ATOM here.”

“A what?”

“An assistant traffic operating manager.”

“What’s that?”

“I manage a group of operators and assist Maureen McDaniels, the Traffic Operating Manager or Chief Operator.” Trish picked up her still warm coffee mug and pressed it against her temple. “I’m what they call a college hire. I’ve been with the Phone Company a little over two weeks.”

“You saw the accident?”

She set the mug down. “It wasn’t an accident.”

A gasp went around the table. Sanchez picked up his pencil and turned toward the others. “None of you have to stay here. You can all go home,” he said. “I’ll talk to Miss Malcolm.”

No one budged. He turned back to Trish. “Why do you say that?”

She had a flashing memory of lights bearing down on Emma. “The car aimed right at her.”

“What do you mean ‘aimed’?”

Trish closed her eyes. “It didn’t swerve like it was out of control. Emma was with Judy and the others. They ran straight ahead, but she turned toward the right. It turned with her.”

“Why would it do that?”

She opened her eyes and forced herself to take a deep breath. “I don’t know. It just did.”

Sergeant Sanchez scribbled in his notebook and turned toward the three operators and plant service man crowded around the table. “Any of you see that?”

Steve spoke first. “By the time I got downstairs, the car was gone.”

Judy lit a cigarette. “I’m Judy Womack,” she said, pausing while he wrote the name down. “I heard the engine, saw the lights and started running. I grabbed Amy’s arm when I felt the car whiz by, but I didn’t see it.”

“What about the rest of you?” He looked at the other three women sitting at the table. Shirley stared down at her hands.

“It was too dark to see anything,” Velma said, finally.

Shirley gave a nervous laugh. “Why would anyone try to run down Emma?”

Sanchez picked up the pencil and moistened it with his tongue. “Why indeed?”

Trish swallowed and plunged on. “When the car started down the street, its light were off. It didn’t turn them on until it was almost on top of them, then it headed toward Emma.”

Judy nudged Shirley with her elbow. “That car wasn’t running without headlights. I saw them.”

“After it was almost on you.”

Judy shook her head, making her dangle earrings bob dramatically. “It had to have lights all the way.”

Trish fought back a wave of anger. “I know what I saw.”

Sanchez shrugged. “You’re the only one who saw it. Miss Burke here said the car was driving crazy, and Miss Womack saw the lights.” He looked around the table. “Did anyone get even part of a license number or a glimpse at who was driving?”

They shook their heads.

Sanchez glanced at his notes. “The victim was Emma Baily, age sixty-two. Tell me about her.”

Trish swallowed. “She was in my group, been a telephone operator for almost forty years.” She looked down at her coffee cup. “When she started with the company, operators used to answer calls by saying “Number please.” Emma told me that once in awhile they’d substitute the words “Rubber Knees” to break the monotony.”
Judy managed a brief smile. “Yeah, Emma loved that joke. Said customers never caught on.”

“No one would want to hurt Emma”, Velma spoke up. “We were in Telephone Pioneers together, played on the company bowling team. She was the sweetest person.” She glared at Trish. “It’s crazy to think anyone would intentionally hurt her.”

Sanchez flipped a page in his notebook. “Let’s talk about the car. What did it look like?”

Trish gazed into space for a moment, trying to picture it. “I only saw a dark shape.”

“Was it a two-door? A four-door?” He sat back in his chair and looked around the table.

Nobody spoke.

“Come on. One of you must have seen something.” He leaned toward Judy. “You said it whizzed by you. Try to picture it.”

Judy wrinkled her brow. “The headlights blinded me. Then it was too dark.”

“Could it have been a pick-up? A van?”
“I don’t know.”


“And you?” Sanchez looked at Trish expectantly.

She hesitated. “I don’t know either.”

“But you do know it was deliberate.”

“Yes.”

Sanchez sighed, snapped the notebook closed, and got to his feet. “I’ll be in touch if we need anything more.”

The minute he left the room, they started talking at once.

“What made you say that?” Grace stared at Trish.

“You can’t mean it.” Velma compressed her lips. “No one would deliberately run down one of us.”
“Are you crazy?” Judy puffed on her cigarette and blew smoke in the air. “The car had headlights, and it swerved out of control. That’s all there was to it.”

Trish felt heat sting her cheeks. Her gaze went to Steve. A frown creased his forehead. He gave her a sad smile. “We weren’t there. We have no idea what you saw.”

Trish tried to smile back. Polite. Someone had taught him to be polite.

Shirley glanced sideways at Grace and Velma. “It couldn’t have been done on purpose.”

“I saw it,” Trish said. “The car aimed right for her.”

Muscles in the back of her throat quivered when she tried to speak. “It was intentional,” she blurted.

Steve regarded her soberly. His jaw tightened. “It happened so fast.”

Trish sensed he was trying to whitewash her accusation. A feeling of helplessness flooded her. She struggled to get the words out. “Someone deliberately ran her down.”

Judy sucked on her cigarette and ground the butt out in the ashtray. “I’m going home,” she said. “I’m bushed.”

Trish wanted to scream at all of them. Smothering her frustration, she pushed her chair away from the table and headed for the door. Steve moved in front of her and opened it.

“I’ll walk you to your car,” he said.

“That’s not necessary.”

He took her arm and helped her down the stairs. “You look like you’re about to keel over.”

Once outside, she was glad to lean against a strong shoulder. She glanced up at him. Wavy brown hair clung to his head and rested square against his collar, looking like it had been chopped off with a blunt scissors.

“Do you agree with the girls that I’m crazy?”

“They didn’t mean anything. Everyone’s just overwhelmed about the accident.”

She couldn’t bring herself to correct him.

But damn it, she knew it was no accident.

When they reached her car, she pulled her key from her purse and put it in the lock. She leaned against the door, willing away the sound of metal hitting flesh. It reverberated like a crescendo over and over in her ears.

“Are you okay to drive? Do you live near here?”

Trish realized he was staring at her.

“The company gave me a motel voucher until I find an apartment,” she said. “It’s just a few blocks away.”

“You seem really shaky. Is there someone you could stay with?”

“I’m fine.”

“Where are your folks?”

Trish squeezed her eyes shut. Nausea churned in her stomach. For a moment, longing for the safe haven of her close family overwhelmed her.

She looked up at Steve, saw the concern evident in his eyes. “They live in Orange Cove.”

“Where?”

“Near Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley.”

“Can you call them? Do you have a brother or sister who could come and stay with you?”

Trish shook her head. “My kid brother, Marty, was hurt in an accident last year. He’s in a special hospital.”

“I’m sorry.”

Steve touched her shoulder, and the warmth of his hand made her fight back the tears she’d been determined not to show. She pulled away, not wanting physical contact.

She twisted the key in the lock and swallowed, forcing her voice to remain calm. “Thanks. I’ll be okay.”

She cried that night, burning tears that rolled down her cheeks and tasted salty on her lips. The sight of her music books stacked in the corner of her room did it. She cried for Emma’s lost dreams, for her own and for her little brother whose dreams might never begin.




CHAPTER TWO

Trish bolted upright in bed, her body drenched with sweat. Wide-awake, she glanced at the clock. Three-thirty. Leaning her head against the pillow, she knew she’d never go back to sleep. Her mind kept replaying what the police insisted was an accident.

Trish knew it wasn’t.

Closing her eyes didn’t stop her from visualizing the scene, hearing the sounds.

Emma had been run down. Her fault. Her fault.

Trish climbed out of bed and lurched across the room to the bathroom. She clawed a towel off the rack, wet it with cold water and pressed it against her face. She hadn’t told the police the very thing that mattered most. She hadn’t told them about the orchid.

She could still see it. The red orchid. The motionless form.

Evidence sprang at her, jolted her. A call to Honolulu, for God’s sake. Her call? There couldn’t have been two of them at midnight with Emma’s operator number on it. Why would an enraged customer send a commendation?

Trish hated things that didn’t make sense. She needed to think, had to be certain. If only she had a piano. Running her fingers up and down the keyboard always gave her strength, helped her to focus.

Keyboard or not, the truth screamed at her. It wasn’t easy to admit, but there it was. Because of her, the car had aimed right at Emma.

She left the towel in the sink and pulled on a robe. She had to tell the sergeant about the orchid. Maybe then he’d believe her. Maybe they all would.

* * *

At seven-thirty Trish paced outside Sergeant Sanchez’s office waiting for him to get off the phone. She paced another five minutes before he opened his door and nodded to her.

“Patricia Malcolm, right?”

“Trish,” she said. “Could I talk to you for a minute?”

He waved her inside. “You remember something about the car?”

“No.” She sat on one of three wooden chairs lining the wall and waited until he closed the door behind them and settled back at his desk. “I wanted to explain why the hit-and-run was not an accident.”

Sanchez crossed his arms. “Go ahead.”

Trish took a deep breath. “Two nights ago, if you remember, we had a huge storm here. Power out, phone lines down. The switchboard was a mess.”

Sanchez nodded. “The whole town was. We’re still cleaning up.” He frowned. “Are you saying the storm caused the accident?”

“No, of course not. I’d gotten off work before the storm struck, but Maureen called me back at ten o’clock to work the board.”

“Who?”

“Maureen McDaniels. She’s my boss, the Chief Operator.”

Trish pictured Maureen, a no-nonsense woman in her early fifties, with a squarish face and short, cropped red hair, who ran the telephone central office like a gigantic chessboard, manipulating operators like pawns. She expected Trish and the rest of her ATOMS to do the same.

“Maureen told me and Carrie Johnson, the evening service assistant, to get on the board and take coin box calls because of the power being out and people needing help,” Trish went on. “Carrie used to be an operator and loves to take calls. I never did it before. I was hired directly into management after I graduated from CAL.”

Trish didn’t mention how vehemently Maureen had protested against having a college hire thrust upon her. All her other assistant managers had worked their way up through the ranks, paying their dues with years of working the board.

She didn’t tell him how terrified she was of the cords and keys, and how Maureen knew it, wanting her to fall flat on her face.

“Operators get two weeks’ training before they’re turned loose on the board, “ she explained. “They gave me one day to read the manuals. I’d never handled calls before.” She took a deep breath. “Maureen told me to sit next to Emma so she could help me if I got stuck.”

Sanchez nodded. “Last night’s accident victim, Emma Baily?”

“Murder victim.” Trish scowled at him. “Aren’t you going to write this down?” She wanted him to reach for his notebook, give physical substance to her words, validate them.

Sanchez leaned back in his chair, his eyes searching hers. “If I need to, I will.”
She had to settle for that.

“Anyway, around midnight I placed a coin box call to Hawaii. I heard the caller’s name, and when he argued about his overtime, I called him by name.” Her face burned. Turning her head away from Sanchez, she concentrated on an outdated calendar pinned to the wall. She forced herself to look back at him. “Using a customer’s name is totally against company rules.”

“So?” Sanchez stared at her without expression and glanced at his watch.

She took a breath and let it out. “The caller got nasty. He accused me of listening to his call.”

“Did you?”

“No, of course not.”

“But you could have? You could have listened in?” For the first time he sounded interested.

Trish nodded.

Sanchez lifted his eyebrows. “How?”

“The switchboard has listening keys aligned to each set of cords. Operators push open the keys to talk to the customer and close them when the call goes through and conversation begins. It’s possible to pull the keys back and listen without the customer hearing.”

Sanchez smiled at that. “So operators really can eavesdrop.”
Trish felt herself bristling. “No one ever does. They’d get fired.” She took a breath. “The thing is the caller thought I did and hollered at me. He demanded my name.”

“Did you give it to him?”

“No. We’re not allowed to give names, only our operator numbers. I don’t have an operator number, but I’d been using Emma’s tickets with her number on it.”

“So you gave him Emma’s number.”

“No, that’s the point. He called me some names, put in his money and hung up.”

Sanchez let his eyes drift back to his watch. She could tell he was losing interest. She decided to give him the punch line.

“A man called later wanting to give a commendation to the operator who handled a midnight call to Hawaii. When commendations like that come in, service assistants search through the tickets so the operators can get the credit. Carrie Johnson found it and told the customer the operator number. Yesterday, the day Emma was murdered, an orchid was delivered to Operator fifty-nine. That’s Emma’s number.”

Sanchez spread his hands out, palms up. “Miss Malcolm, where are going with this?”

“Suppose the guy thought Operator Fifty-nine overheard something on that call, and he sent the orchid so he could identify her when she got off work?”

Trish sucked in her breath. As though in slow motion, she saw again the shadows of the women crossing the street, the sudden glare of the headlights and the group exposed like startled deer in a searchlight. One figure sported a corsage.

Her hear beat so hard, she thought it would choke her.

“What if it’s true?” she asked again. “What if the driver wanted to identify Operator fifty-nine? What if Emma had been singled out because she alone wore a purple orchid pinned to her coat?”

Sanchez snorted. “That’s a whole lot of ‘what ifs’.” He loomed to his feet. “The truth is a bunch of kids drove too fast on streets still flooded and slippery from the worst storm to hit Santa Cruz in ten years.”

He crossed the room and cupped his beefy hand under her elbow. Before she knew it, Trish found herself standing outside his office looking at his closed door.
Outside. Alone with her conviction.

She told herself it was okay. She’d been alone ever since she’d uttered the name Jay-Jay.

"NUMBER, PLEASE is a refreshing, highly entertaining story and the first one of what -- we can only hope -- will be a long running series by this new, talented author." readertoreader.com.


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