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Obfuscator
by
Besterette

Besterette@aol.com

 

The place looked perfect. A three story 'Greek' colonial, white with black shutters, and a columned front portico. The yard was elegantly landscaped, with neatly trimmed boxwood hedges lining the sidewalk up to the front door. In one of those quiet, respectable, old money neighborhoods.

I double-checked the address in the newspaper, and rang the bell, readying myself to meet one James Ellison, retired military officer, in need of some live-in help. Expecting someone in their seventies, I was a little surprised when the door was opened by a tall man in his mid-thirties, with a lean build and piecing blue eyes. If this formidable figure was the son, I'd have to fold now.

"Uh, my name's Blair Sandburg, I'm here about the ad in the paper?"

"Oh, that." He opened the door wider and motioned me in. The front room was a big disappointment. An oriental rug that might have been good quality once, but was now faded and frayed. And the furniture wasn't antique, just old and shabby. Department store stuff. I sat down gingerly on a sprung sofa in front of a scratched and scarred coffee table, and waited while he lowered himself into an armchair. "What do you need to know?"

"I, uh, I understand you're looking for someone to live-in? With your father?"

"No, I'm James Ellison. I don't really need someone living in, but my brother's always nagging me about being disabled and on my own, so I placed the ad."

I nodded. The brother was worried, and bugging him, so he placed an ad to make it look like he was doing something about it just to get him off his back. The kind of weird but clever thinking that went with the elegant facade of the house and the garage sale rejects front parlor.

I heaved a big sigh. "Well, I guess that's that. Thanks anyway," and started to get up, a look of misery on my face. Most people fall for it. I've got big blue eyes and I look young for my age, and I can do sad like a kicked cocker spaniel puppy. It used to annoy me but now I milk it for all it's worth.

"You're interested in the job?"

I gave him the eyes again. "I'm new in Cascade, and kind of low on cash, I was hoping I could save on rent..."

"Okay, you're hired. Hungry? I was about to fix lunch."

Nothing surprises me anymore but Ellison here was throwing nothing but curveballs. "What exactly is the job? You're disabled?" He looked healthy enough. He wasn't setting off my creep-detector, but most of the people I deal with could be knocked over by a stiff wind, and the helpless waif act could attract trouble sometimes.

He winced. "Yeah. Seven years ago, I was in a chopper crash in the service... took a medical discharge... head injury. I lost some memory, and I have these spells where I, uh, I get distracted easily. I don't drive, see you've got a car, so running errands, maybe some light housekeeping. Make sure I turn the stove off, I forgot last month and had a small fire. Stephen had a fit. Can't pay you much beyond room and board, but I don't need you full-time, you could get a job, save up."

I couldn't quite get a read on this guy, but there was no hurry. I usually stayed a month before the robbery, became a trusted member of the household, then worked a few more months before getting 'a letter from Mom.' Come home, all is forgiven, blah blah blah....

I went back to the warehouse I was squatting in and collected my things. I'm working my way through college and I spend my summers raising tuition. I drove my old Corvair back to Ellison's house, arriving a little after five.

He answered the doorbell after the third ring. "Sorry to keep you waiting. Kitchen's in the back. Supper's ready, you can pick a room later."

I dropped my suitcase by the stairs and followed him into a Fifties nightmare of a kitchen. Patterned linoleum, avocado appliances. He caught me looking around. "Pretty grim. Place hasn't been done since my dad died."

"How long have you lived here?" I asked, wondering why he hadn't gotten somebody in to redecorate. Why he didn't have a girlfriend or a wife who'd love to fix this place up.

"Five years now, since I left the army. Why don't you grab us a couple of beers while I set the table?"

The contents of the fridge were pathetic. But I hooked two bottles of beer. Dinner turned out to be meatloaf, baked potatoes, and green beans. Good food. Tasty food. Filling food. But not rich people food.

Maybe he was just one of those guys who can't cook. He looked proud of himself. "I made it special. Figured you might be hungry. And it was lucky I had the stuff."

I made a comment about the empty fridge.

"Yeah, they changed the bus schedule on me, last time I went out for groceries, I missed my transfer."

"You don't drive, right?"

He nodded. "Not since the crash. Doc can't find a cause for it, but it's like mild epilepsy... if I don't answer right away, yell, that'll snap me out of it. Don't want to have a seizure while driving, so I don't."

"What about cabs?"

He snorted. "You know how much that would cost? With a military pension I barely make ends meet. If it wasn't for Stephen..."

"Your brother, right?"

"Yeah. We aren't close, but we're family, so he makes sure the bills get paid, drops by once a month to make sure I haven't taken a header down the stairs."

"You said he worries about you."

Ellison grunted. "He worries about the Ellison name and how things look. Probably brags to his friends about taking care of his older brother, the family freak. It's all about keeping up appearances. You saw the outside of the house? Guy comes to do the yard, the house was painted last year... that's for the neighbors. This..." He waved a forkful of green beans around the dingy kitchen. "This is what he thinks of me."

I was starting to think I'd made a mistake. I'd been operating on the theory that Ellison was one of those eccentrics, you see stories about them on the news, who live like bums and then leave millions to some televangelist or their pet cat.

I only rob from the rich and give to the poor. Me. After all, if money is the root of all evil, I'm just saving them the bad karma. But I don't take anything from anyone who can't afford to lose it. Hell, half my marks probably don't realize they've been robbed. You got a half dozen sapphire rings you never wear, how do you notice one missing? See, my mom was one of the original hippies, and a single mother. Not that I'm blaming my mom for my larceny, it's the system. There was no way she could afford to send me to college, and even with the scholarships and working two jobs, I'm barely making it. That's when I resorted to involuntary donations.

After supper, Ellison told me to go upstairs and pick out a bedroom. He explained that he didn't really go upstairs much, he slept poorly and usually camped out on the couch in the den. He added that he had a color television in there and I was welcome to join him after I got settled.

I took my time, looking around. There were five bedrooms on the second floor. One of them was obviously the master suite. Huge carved mahogany furniture. Still a few good quality suits in the closets, years out of style. I opened a few drawers in the his and hers dressers, looking for jewelry, watches. Nothing.

A couple of boys' bedrooms, decorated identically. Stephen's contained a collection of model planes. Jim's had bookshelves lined with football and baseball trophies, and I winced a little at the photo of the grinning teenager on the desk, thinking of the beaten man downstairs. Ellison may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it looked like he'd lost a lot along the way.

I found what must have been a guest bedroom, with simple sparse furniture, found cleaning supplies in the bathroom down the hall, and got to work.


Life with Ellison was different from any other job I'd had. When I cooked, he helped. If I washed dishes, he dried. At night, if he lost interest in the television program I was watching, he just picked up a book and read, companionably, until the news. He did have a couple of seizures. Creepy, finding him standing in the hall with blank eyes, like he'd forgotten where he was going. Almost like a sentinel zoning out. I could tell it embarrassed him, and I pitied the guy, strong athletic type like him, the aftereffects of his accident must have been rough on him to make him hide himself away like some invalid. I began to get a better picture of what his life had been like, five years in this house, venturing out once a week for groceries, only visited once a month by a brother who came to gloat.

What I couldn't understand was why he was living this way. He had to have money, I could tell by the junk mail. Resort and cruise brochures, investment prospects, swanky catalogs, not the junk your average Joe Sixpack has to toss out. So his brain got stuck in neutral now and then. He was still young, healthy, and he wasn't bad-looking. I managed to get that story out of him one night when we were watching this sappy romantic plotline on one of the shows, oldest story in the book. He'd had a girlfriend in the army, but they'd broken up just before the chopper accident, he was lost in the jungle for a year and a half when the helicopter went down, and when he'd finally gotten back to civilization... she'd married his best friend.

Yup, that was another reason for him to hide and lick his wounds.


The day I took him out in my car, he was like a little kid. He noticed everything. He pointed out a theater showing a movie we'd seen a commercial for on television the night before. Guy didn't even have cable. I asked him if he wanted to go see it, and he grumbled about ticket prices and noisy kids. Making a sudden decision, I pulled into the nearby shopping mall. He followed me in amiably, enjoying the chance to get out and people-watch, but balked in the electronics store where I was looking at VCRs when he realized I wasn't window-shopping.

"I'm buying the VCR," I told him, "and I'll take it with me when I leave." Part of me was wondering what I was doing, spending my own money on a mark, but I shrugged it off. I'd just make sure I covered my expenses.

At the grocery store, the list was absolutely unbelievable. Ellison had an envelope of carefully counted money, and a thick sheaf of coupons. Thinking back on it, we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese. Tuna salad, in sandwiches and on crackers. Rice with just enough ground beef for flavoring. Canned soup. Something must have shown in my eyes, because he shifted uncomfortably.

"I told you, money's stretched pretty tight."

"There must have been family money, with that house..." I ventured.

"Yeah. Dad was a businessman, but he made some bad investments, the stocks earned less and less, and by the time he died, there was barely enough to bury him. If it wasn't for Stephen, I'd be out on the street."

I suggested we split up, to get through the line faster, and bought more than was on my half of the list. Fresh fruit and veggies, the bakery had Dutch apple pies on sale. I picked up some microwave popcorn and vanilla ice cream for the pie. I also rented Die Hard and Under Siege in the video section.


When I unpacked the stuff, it was like Christmas and his birthday all rolled into one. I was really starting to feel for the guy, whether he was poor or not, he believed that he was, and well, struggling through poverty was something I was familiar with and it's no fun. I managed to save the best for last, and surprised him at dinner with the porterhouse steaks. I almost had to laugh at the sight of him eating, closing his eyes to savor every bite. It occurred to me, as we sat down to watch our movies, that I kinda suck at this con artist business, but the expression on his face was worth it.

I was really glad of it later. Between the movies, when I got up to nuke some nachos, and found there was a treasure waiting hidden in this house. I offered Jim some nachos, and he declined, saying he couldn't eat spicy food any more. I asked if he had a bad stomach. He laughed and said it was the accident and the head injury... now too much salt or pepper burned his tongue.

I sat back to watch Bruce Willis blow stuff up, and it hit me. Ellison's chopper had crashed. He said there must have been a head injury, though he couldn't remember one, and the doctors' couldn't find anything, because of the aftereffects. He'd been isolated in the jungle. Now he had these zone-out spells, couldn't handle spicy food....

Could he be a sentinel? That's what I was studying, anthropology, people with heightened senses who had become the ritual guardians of their tribes. I managed to get a few other tests past him, hearing and sight, and then started planning how to make this an academic score instead of a financial one. Using a lesson from the con, I let him think it was his idea. I got my books out and began to study every night. Jim asked my major, talked about his school days a little, joked about seeing me on PBS or having my own show on the Discovery Channel one day. He asked about my thesis, and I described a sentinel. I described Jim himself, and waited. Sure enough, he was the one who asked me if he might possibly be a sentinel, and I grabbed onto that. After a few days of working with him, the seizures seemed to stop, we both took that as a sign that I was right.


That Friday was my 'day off', we both thought it might be easier if I wasn't around when Jim told Stephen about me. I took care of some things, did a little research at the library that confirmed my belief that Jim needed to be in therapy. Reading the business section of the paper for ten years back. William Ellison had his fingers in so many pies it would have taken a major Wall Street wipeout to ruin him, and I haven't heard anybody singing 'Brother Can You Spare A Dime' lately. I was hoping, if I could prove that Ellison was a sentinel and not just a little loop-de-loo, I could coax him out of his shell. Yeah, the guy started out as a mark and ended up a thesis subject, but somewhere in between we became friends.

"So how did your visit with your brother go?" I asked when I got home.

"Pretty well. He wasn't too happy about me letting you move in. Doesn't want any gossip spreading, ruin the family name. I didn't tell him about the sentinel stuff. Uh, actually, I told him you were retarded."

"Retarded?" I repeated.

"Yeah. A little slow. Too slow to make any trouble for him." There was a devilish glint in his eye. "Yeah, he liked that, his brain damaged older brother with a retarded housekeeper. Probably tell everyone that he's privately funding a halfway house, maybe try to take it off his taxes."

I laughed with him, totally missing the clue. It wasn't until the first of the month, I went out to get the mail and found a thick stack of envelopes, all from prestigious companies, and looking very much like quarterly stock dividends.

"What are these?" I asked Jim, laying them on the kitchen table.

He glanced at them. "Bills. Thank god Stephen takes care of them."

"They're addressed to you."

He sighed. "People Dad owed money to. We go through them and sign them so Stephen can pay off the debt. He tried to explain it to me once, but I was never interested in all that financial stuff."

I saw red. Jim wasn't an eccentric millionaire. He honestly believed that he was destitute... because his baby brother was robbing him blind. Yeah, I know I came to do the same thing, but I've never left anybody agonizing over whether to buy Del Monte green beans or the store brand because generic was a quarter cheaper. I only take what I need, and what people can afford to lose. I prefer cash, and I've never taken jewelry that I knew was a family heirloom.

I knew what I had to do. After lunch, I suggested that Jim take a look at the yard, check the plants for bug damage, and do a few sensory tests to keep him busy. While he was outside, I made a few phone calls.

Stephen Ellison had made it easy for me. He had indeed told everybody that he'd hired a nurse-companion for his poor addled older brother, so when I called and said Jim was a little confused about a letter he'd gotten in the mail, they were glad to help. When I said he'd thrown away a list of important phone numbers, they helpfully recreated the list.

Stephen had been telling everybody that his brother was a brain damaged invalid who really should be in a hospital, but was too attached to their childhood home. They thought he was a saint for his patience and his generosity in hiring me so that Jim could stay in familiar surroundings.

I'm a pacifist. Always have been. But at that moment I could have cheerfully murdered Stephen Ellison.

Next I called the bank, told the manager that I was Jim's nurse-attendant, and that the television had died and Jim wanted to buy one of those big screen HDTV cable ready models, but we couldn't find his bankbook. Could he afford one?

The manager laughed, "Of course he can, Jim hasn't even touched the interest from the trust in five years. Jim can afford anything his heart desires. Pity he's become such a recluse, but then their father wasn't much for entertaining..."

I thanked him, and then hung up, feeling sick. When Jim came in, after he washed up, I took the stock dividends and told him what was happening. It wasn't easy, but I got the words out. "Stephen's been stealing your half of the inheritance," I finished, and waited to see how Jim would react. He was silent for a moment.

"I know Stephen resented me, I know we aren't close, but I didn't think he hated me," he said softly.

"I don't know if it's hate, but he sure is greedy." I shifted uncomfortably. "Thing is, you don't have to live on your pension any more. You're rich. You can afford to do anything you want."

He smiled without humor and his eyes burned. "I want to see my brother."


Stephen stumbled all over himself, but couldn't deny the truth, and didn't even try to apologize. He was upset that he'd been caught, but he was proud of himself for cheating his brother out of their money for so many years.

"After all, you took off. I was the one who stayed here under the old man's thumb, that money was mine, I earned it," he finished, bitterly.

Ellison folded his arms across his chest, and looked his brother up and down. From the Armani suit to the expensively barbered hair, handmade Italian loafers and slim gold watch. He rubbed a hand over his hip and the worn seam of faded jeans.

"Stephen, you're a spoiled jackass. Always have been. We need to get a few things straight. Once I start rebuilding my life, people are going to know I'm not the Section 8 case you've made me out to be. But if you don't want your golfing buddies and business associates to know what a lying thieving snake in the grass you really are, we've got to set a few ground rules. First off, we're no longer family. I never want to see you again. I'm turning all my financial matters over to Pritchard at Cascade National. And you're donating twenty-thousand dollars to a homeless shelter."

Stephen squawked at that. Ellison was adamant. "You've shown me what it's like to stretch from check to check. And that's barely a drop in the bucket compared to what you've stolen from me. Goodbye, Stephen."

As we were walking to the door, Stephen glared at me. "He never paid attention to money before. This is all your doing, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said simply. "I think you're scum and I'd be calling the cops if I didn't like your brother."

Something ugly moved in his eyes as he looked me over, taking in the long hair and the two silver hoop earrings in the same ear. "Oh, that's it, you're sleeping with him. Figure he'll spend some of that money on you now...."

Jim caught my fist before it could connect. "You can't hit him, Chief." He turned, and lashed out a sharp right that sent Stephen sprawling on his ass on the front walk. "You aren't related to him."


The next few months were hectic as Ellison had the house gutted and redone. The kitchen, the bathrooms... floors refinished, new paint and wallpaper. Jim bought a truck and bought out a sporting goods store and we went camping up north during the worst of it. He started paying me, which felt weirdly like getting an allowance. With new confidence, he started driving, going out more, joined a health club... and I tried not to die of shock the morning a stunning redhead turned up for breakfast.

Toward the end of August, Jim started to brood. I asked him what was up. "You know, there's a good college not far from here. Rainier."

"An expensive college."

He half smiled. "I've got the money to spend." I shook my head, but he continued, "Hell, I never would have known about it without you, I owe you a finder's fee at least. Stay here, finish college. If the house isn't private enough, I'll call back the contractor, we'll do up the carriage house apartment for you. What do you say?"

"I came here to rob you," I blurted.

Jim stared at me for a long moment, then he began to laugh. "Good thing Stevie beat you to it. Don't choke on your pride, boy, actions speak louder than words and you're less of a thief and more of a brother to me than that rat ever was. What do you say?"

What could I say? That's how I ended up in the Rainier grad school program. And Jim's getting bored, he had enough of being idle-poor that idle-rich isn't so different. He's looking for something to do with the rest of his life. I think these law enforcement classes might be interesting....

~ End ~


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Page last updated 8/15/03.