The country club was empty this morning. Most people aren’t interested in tennis when it’s thirty degrees outside, but Hughes and Piper aren’t most people. They had only been on the court for five minutes, but to Abby, it may as well have been five hours. She sat inside the restaurant, next to a window overlooking the tennis courts. In the distance, an elderly couple drove up to the third hole on the gold course. Even from a distance, Abby could see them huddling in their jackets and readjusting their knit caps. Even further in the distance, the pond in the middle of hole five was frozen over. Even though there was no snow, the frosty grass and skeletal trees lent the already cold landscape an icy and depressing air. Abby warmed her hands on her tea cup, her second in the five minutes she’d been there, and readjusted her jacket over her legs. If she had known she would be out of the office today, she would have worn something warmer than stockings.
Outside, Piper had become more animated in his tennis moves. He flailed as he lunged for a stray ball, missing it entirely and crashing into the padded fence separating courts. Hughes couldn’t contain his laughter as he watched Piper push himself off the pad and grab another ball. In a swift motion, Piper served the ball, but Hughes was still laughing and didn’t notice until the ball bounced forcefully off his shoulder. Now Piper’s roaring laughter filled the courts and the two began gathering the tennis balls together to start another game.
Abby idly stirred her tea as she watched the two grown men play a horribly immature game of tennis. She wanted to bang her head against the table in frustration, but she only stirred faster. Sighing, she gulped what was left in the cup and poured another cup from a steaming kettle on the table. Rhonda was planning on accompanying the two bosses to the country club, but she called early this morning to say she wouldn’t be able to make it due to a suspected case of food poisoning. Abby ground her teeth as she hung up the phone after Rhonda’s call; she knew she would be expected to go in Rhonda’s place, and dreaded the hours spent sitting alone in the restaurant while the bosses played tennis or golf. She was only there to take notes and help with any unexpected meetings or client issues. Both of the boss’s cell phones sat in the center of the pristine white tablecloth. She prayed that they didn’t ring.
Just as he took a sip of her steaming tea, a phone did begin to ring, but after a quick look at the boss’s phones, she saw that it was her phone. Time to change my ringtone, she thought. Zach’s picture appeared on her screen and she snatched the phone up, suddenly interested in talking to the person on the other end.
“Hey, what’s up?” She took another sip and glanced down at the court. The bosses were in a heated battle, both watching the ball intently.
“Oh, not much, just sitting down with a cup of coffee. How’s the office today?”
“I wouldn’t know; I’m at the country club. Rhonda called in sick this morning and the exciting responsibility of watching two grown men sweat bullets while smacking a little green ball around fell to me. I’m on my third cup of tea and we’ve been here for ten minutes.” She sighed and took another sip.
“Hmm,” Zach sounded deep in thought.
“What is ‘hmm’?’”
There was a pause on the other end. Abby could hear the door to his office closing before he spoke again. “When I got to work there was a note on my desk. I don’t know who wrote it, but it says: The key is in the basement; the basement is the key. Happy hunting.”
“What does it mean?” Abby rolled her eyes as Hughes missed a ball as it sailed over his head. Across the court, Piper did a celebratory dance.
“I really don’t know. I think it’s related to the file, though, so I thought maybe you could help.”
“I never was any good at riddles,” Abby frowned into her teacup.
“Well, let’s see if we can figure some of this out. You said you’ve been in the basement a lot at work, right? What’s down there?”
“It’s our main file storage area. Lots of cabinets and shelves, all packed with client and employee information. There are restrooms down there, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them. Oh, and there is a meeting room, but it hasn’t been used in years. We use the table when we’re looking through a stack of files.”
“Hmm. Ok, well what are you doing with the files you’ve been pulling for Piper lately?”
“I don’t know. Piper gives me a post-it note with a few names on it and I go downstairs and pull the files. Once I’m done, I bring them to him and that’s it.”
“Have you ever looked in any of the files or recognized any names? Or have you noticed anything weird?”
“Besides the one I brought home, no, I haven’t looked in them, but there may be something of note in the missing or incomplete ones. I just don’t know where they are.”
“He’s having you pull nonexistent files?”
“No, they’re just missing. Some are there, but not where they should be.”
“Huh.” Abby could hear Zach tapping a pen on the desktop as he thought. “Maybe we’re on the wrong track here. Last night you said he mentioned something about his home office?”
“Yeah, he said something about how no one can bother him down there. I guess we can assume it’s in his basement, but I don’t see how his basement has any thing to do with this Friday.” Abby lowered her voice as a waitress passed, switching out her empty kettle for a full one.
“Well, maybe it’s more than just a home office. I’m thinking maybe I should take a look.”
“Zach,” Abby said in alarm, “I’m pretty sure that’s illegal, even for a journalist.”
“So, if the key is in the basement, meaning his basement,” Zach continued, completely ignoring his wife’s tone, “then what does it mean the basement is the key? Ohhhh, wait a minute!”
“Sounds a bit redundant to me. Zach, you can’t just break into his house because you have a hunch brought on by an anonymous note!”
“Where are the locker rooms at the country club?” Zach’s excitement was apparent through the phone.
“They’re downstairs, why?”
“In the basement, you mean.”
“So Hughes’s keys are in the basement?”
“Yes?” Abby drew out the word as she began to understand Zach’s thoughts.
“And he gave you his locker key to hold, didn’t he?”
Abby’s eyes darted to her purse where both Piper and Hughes’s keys were. “Yes he did. But I’m not doing this, Zach. No way. He’s my boss!”
“No he’s not, Piper is your boss. Besides, Hughes sexually harassed you at work yesterday, so I know you aren’t interested in protecting him.”
“Look, you’ve only been there a little while, right? I’ll leave now while you go down and swipe his keys. I’ll meet you at the club and grab them, go make copies, and I’ll have them back to you before they’re even thinking about calling it a day.”
“Zach! No, I’m not doing this!” She yelled as quietly as she could into her phone, but he ignored her.
“I’m leaving now. I’ll meet you in the restaurant in a few minutes.”
“No!” But he had already hung up. “Argh!” Abby dropped her phone onto the table. She gulped what was left in her cup and refilled it. As she let the tea steep, she thought about Zach’s words and realized that he was right. Hughes was hiding something, she was certain. The only way to find out was to follow through with Zach’s plan. Sighing loudly, Abby snatched up the boss’s phones and her purse and walked as calmly as she could out of the restaurant, down the stairs, and to the men’s locker room.
She knocked on the door and peeked inside, but it was vacant. Slipping inside, she retrieved the keys from her purse. She didn’t know whose was whose, so she had to pick one and give it a try. She searched for the first one, number 174, finding it in the middle row. Glancing behind her, she saw the second locker, number 89. She took a deep breath and unlocked the first locker. Inside, she saw Piper’s jacket hanging from a hook, his dress shoes on the floor underneath. Wrong locker, she thought. Locking it, she turned and inserted the key into Hughes’s locker. She yanked it open and immediately began searching for his keys. She found them in his shoes, likely thrown there at the last minute as they were leaving the locker room. She snatched them up, secured the locker, and left the locker room, peeking around doorways and corners as she went.
Back upstairs, Abby settled herself back into her seat and took a sip of tea as she calmly waited for Zach.
“You have no idea how close we were to getting caught,” Abby leaned over the counter, hear head almost touching Zach’s as he leaned over from the other side. Between them, a set of fresh keys shone in the kitchen light. “I wasn’t sitting at my table more than five minutes before Hughes and Piper walked off the court.” Abby shivered. “I can’t believe we did that.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t feel wrong, though. I expected this to feel more-“ he paused as he found the right word, “ominous.”
Abby nodded in agreement. “When should we go?”
“Tomorrow while he’s at work?”
Abby shook her head. “His wife works from home. I’d like to keep my charges limited to breaking and entering, if you don’t mind. Adding assault would probably add more jail time.” She looked up as he nodded. Abby’s eyes widened as she remembered something. “The mayor’s holiday dinner is tomorrow! All the bosses are going, and they’re taking their wives. The house should be empty then.”
Zach took a deep breath. “Alright, tomorrow night it is. What time?”
“The dinner starts at 7:30; we should have three or four hours, maybe more.”
“We should probably plan on them arriving to the party late, just in case. Let’s be there at 8:00 and stake it out for a bit, just to make sure they’re gone.”
Zach chuckled. “Look at us, planning our first burglary together.” He winked, drawing a smile from Abby and breaking the tension hovering over the set of keys.