“How’s that possible?” Will’s voice carried through the phone and into the stillness of the kitchen.
Jared glanced over his shoulder at Mary resting on the living room couch with a cool cloth over her eyes. He retreated further into the kitchen to muffle his reply.
“Mary received a phone call on her cell from Sylvia, David’s so-called sister. Sylvia told her David had been killed in an accident on the way to the airport this morning.”
Will whistled. “That was unexpected. How did you find out?”
“Mary fainted after hearing the news, but Sylvia hadn’t disconnected the call. So I had a chance to talk with her.”
Jared filled the teakettle with hot water from the tap. “She’s resting and I’m making her a cup of tea.” He turned on the burner and set the kettle to boil.
“You didn’t let on you knew David hadn’t really died, did you?
“No, I played along with her on the phone.”
“Good. What about the money?”
He took down two mugs and plopped in Earl Grey teabags in each. “I haven’t asked her about that yet, but the painting sold two days ago. I’m sure the wire transfer would have cleared and the bank has approved the funds. Can we put a hold on the account before they steal her money? I can’t imagine David and his cohorts will let too much time go by before he visits his local branch to arrange a transfer of the funds.”
“Call me as soon as you know the money’s in the account. We have a court order ready to freeze it.”
The teakettle whistled and Jared poured the steaming water into the mugs. “Has he pulled this ‘accidental death’ stunt with the other brides?”
“I’ll have someone check on that right away. Can you text me the phone number the woman called from? That would help with crosschecking phone records. We don’t want to tip off the gang before we have the net ready.”
“I can do that. When I find out about the transfer, I’ll send a text.” Jared ended the call and picked up Mary’s cell phone to page through the calls received list. He texted Will the number and slipped both cell phones into his pocket. Picking up the two mugs, he carried them into the living room. Mary lay with her eyes closed on the sofa. Setting the mugs down on the coffee table, he leaned over to touch Mary on the shoulder. “I’ve brought the tea.”
She sat up and pushed her hair out of her red, blotchy eyes. “Thanks.” Their fingers touched when he handed her the mug, but she didn’t seem to notice as she wrapped her hands around it.
He sank down onto a club chair set at a right angle to the couch and opened his mouth to speak but wasn’t sure how to begin. The urge to pray overwhelmed him. If ever he needed guidance from someone, now was the time, and he yielded, silently offering up a prayer. Dear Lord, you know the situation better than we do. Please comfort Mary right now. Give me the words to say. I want to be a help to her during this time, not a hindrance. Help me to be the friend she needs. Amen.
“I needed this.” She wiggled into the corner of the couch and tucked her feet up underneath her legs. “I can’t believe I fainted. I guess the fatigue from not sleeping well, with the stress of the wedding and the auction caught up to me.”
Jared sipped his tea. “I’m so sorry.” He seemed to be apologizing often to her lately. Not exactly the words he wanted to say. Now, he was unsure if he’d ever be able to say those words to her, not after he told her the whole story.
“That means a lot to me.”
He cleared his throat. “I hate to ask, but has the money transfer from the auction come through yet?”
She wrinkled her brow. “I received confirmation this morning.”
Jared dug his phone out of his pocket and started to text the information to Will.
“What are you doing?”
“I need to send a text to a friend.”
She blinked and set down her tea. “Now? What’s going on?”
He dragged in a deep breath. “I have something to tell you, and I’m not sure how to begin.”
“That sounds ominous.” Mary bit her lip. “I’m not sure I want to hear this, not after this morning’s news. Can’t it wait?”
Jared shook his head. “No. I haven’t been entirely honest with you. I’ve been working with the FBI on a fraud case.”
Mary raised her eyebrows. “A fraud case? I don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“I’d better start at the beginning. My friend, Will Fulton, is an FBI agent who heads a team in the Internet fraud division at the Washington, D.C., headquarters.” That was the easy part to explain. “One of his cases led us to David Kline and his activities on Soul Believers.”
Mary’s mouth dropped open. “Are you telling me the FBI has been investigating David Kline?”
Jared nodded, his eyes never leaving her face. So far, she hadn’t exploded or sent him away, but that didn’t mean what he was saying had registered with her, given her grief over David’s supposed demise.
“About what?” She leaned forward. “The man is . . . was a dedicated missionary. What could FBI possibly want with him?”
“I don’t know how to tell you this.” He paused. He had to tread a fine line between what he was authorized to tell her and what she had a right to know.
“Tell me what.”
“That David Kline doesn’t exist.” He waited for her objection, but she only stared at him. “Or rather, he did at one time but he’s dead.”
“I got the call. I know he’s dead.”
“He used an assumed name. A man who’d passed away ten years ago.” This was the tricky part. His explanation couldn’t contain any details that would jeopardize capturing the swindlers. “I can’t tell you much more than that. Will you just trust me?”
Mary hugged her legs to her chest and stared off across the room. “This all sounds so far-fetched. I’m not sure what to think.” She rested her forehead on her knees. “You’re telling me that my fiancé, who was killed in a car accident this morning in Iowa, is not a real person?”
“The David Kline you knew was masquerading as a man who died in Mason City, Iowa. That David’s widow actually lives in Warrenton, and I’ve spoken with her.” Jared’s phone buzzed, signaling a new text. “This might be Will.” He glanced down at the screen and read the text: Bank account cleaned out but only deposit was $10,000. Maybe Will had made a typo in his text. The painting had sold for more than $10,000. He’d follow up later to clarify.
“No. David withdrew all the funds in your joint bank account.”
“What? But David’s dead.” She stared at him. “How can a dead man withdraw money?”
Jared put the phone beside his empty tea mug. “Because David isn’t really dead.”
# # #
Mary slumped back on the couch. Grief tightened her chest and she only wanted to crawl under the covers and sleep for a week. Now Jared was telling her David had taken money from the joint account after he was dead. “I’m not sure what to believe. One moment, I’m grieving my dead fiancé, and the next, you’re telling me he wasn’t even real.” Her head ached and her thoughts muddied from the day’s events.
“He’s a real person, just not the David Kline you know. We don’t know his true identity yet.”
Mary kicked out her legs and knocked a stack of papers under the coffee table. David’s smiling face peered up at her from the brochure cover. She leaned down and picked it up, tears blurring the image of her dead fiancé. Or wait. Jared had said something earlier about the man in the photo being a model. She held up the brochure. “Who is this then?”
“That photograph is of a model named Ray Germain, who lives in New York City. I sent Ray’s agent a copy of David’s brochure, and he confirmed the man in the brochure is his client.”
She traced the outline of David’s, no Ray’s face. Nothing made sense. She loved someone who didn’t exist, but her heart ached as if he was real. “Was everything in his profile a lie?”
Jared moved over and sat beside her on the couch, close but not too close. She breathed in the scent of something spicy, probably his soap or cologne. “The imposter took the deceased David Kline’s workplace, church affiliation, address, and a lot of other details from the other man’s life and said that was his life.”
She couldn’t wrap her mind around what Jared was telling her. The thought that David or whoever he was had manipulated her so easily burned in her stomach. She wrapped her arms around her middle as if the pressure would ease the pain. Something else Jared had said niggled at her. “But that still doesn’t explain the FBI’s interest. Surely, this isn’t the first time a man has misrepresented himself online. In fact, there’s a country song about it, ‘Online’ by Brad Paisley.” She dropped the brochure back onto the coffee table.
“Will was looking into another case when a code name popped up on Soul Believers. That person checked out a dozen profiles including yours. Since you were the closest in proximity to DC, Will thought it would be good for us to start with the local angle.”
“You keep saying ‘we’ and ‘us.’” Her eyes narrowed. “Are you working with the FBI on this case? Have you been spying on me?”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.0