Gerald J. Davis
A Murder Too Personal
The last call she ever made to me came in just before eight-thirty that night. I was still in the office wrapping up the final details on the file I was scheduled to deliver to the bank the next morning.
Working late gave you a chance to think in the stillness. Think about the sad bastard vice-president who was sweating like a stuck pig in front of his giant plasma screen picture-in-a-picture digital sound HDTV right now, wondering when I was going to hand over the file and how much damage it contained.
What it contained was a ream of printout that would put this joker away for a significant chunk of his active sex life. The only hitch was that the bank didn’t like the sound of the word embezzlement and the fact that it would besmirch their lily-white reputation.
I knew what was going to happen. It didn’t matter that this guy had lifted twelve million bucks because of a minor infraction like unauthorized use of the access code. The pantywaists at the holding company would have him make some kind of token restitution and plead nolo contendere-I never did it and I promise never to do it again.
The phone gave off its soft purring sound. It was almost like an apologetic sorry-to-bother-you tap on the shoulder. I still hadn’t gotten used to the new phone system. The thing kept on malfunctioning, with its goddam chips and electronic switching devices. At first I didn’t know if it was a real call or another false alarm. Whatever happened to the old comforting embrace of Ma Bell?
“Rogan,” I said into the speakerphone.
“Hello, Ed,” came her husky reply.
I didn’t answer for a long minute.
“Hello, Alicia,” I said finally. It had been a long time between drinks.
“I’m sorry to trouble you like this, Ed.”
I knew she wasn’t.
“How’ve you been?” I asked.
“Oh, fair to maudlin, I guess.” It was an old joke between us. She paused. “Actually, I’m doing very well on the professional front. I’ve gotten a lot of recognition from my peers over the last couple of years and my name is being mentioned on some of the outstanding analysts lists. But that’s not why I’m calling you, Ed. I’m calling because I’m having some personal problems.”
She didn’t have to tell me that. She was the kind of girl to whom the words interpersonal relationships were mutually-exclusive.
There was a long silence, as if she expected me to say more. When I didn’t, she said, “Ed, I’d like to hire you. I’d pay you whatever your going rate is.” She stopped and then added quickly, “It would be strictly a business transaction.”
She sounded just like she used to — bright and brisk and full of phony bravado.
I loosened my tie, swiveled my seat around and stared out the window at the darkening sky. You can get used to anything — even the view out of the forty-eighth floor of the Pan Am building looking north up Park. At least, what they used to call the Pan Am building before the airline went deep six.
“I don’t do that kind of work, Alicia. My clients are corporations. I do business investigations.”
I tried not to sound too harsh with her. Four years was a long time to carry a grudge.
“Couldn’t you just make a single exception — for me — for old times’ sake?”
Don’t push your luck, I thought. For old times’ sake was the very reason I wouldn’t do it.
Instead, I said, “You couldn’t afford my fee.” She didn’t know that was a load of guano. My fee was whatever deal I could squeeze out of the unsuspecting client. And sometimes even less than that. But she bought it. Why shouldn’t she? I’d never lied to her before. I’d always been as straight as Mother Teresa in the confessional.
My response surprised her. She hesitated.
I waited. The only sound in the office was the muted whir of the laser printer. I felt like getting up and pouring my eighty-third cup of decaf.
“Oh, Ed. You wouldn’t turn me down.” There was a plaintive note in her voice I’d never heard before.
I didn’t think she could generate a response from me anymore, but I guess I was wrong. Her tone was so different from the self-assured mask she always wore.
“The hell I wouldn’t.” I wasn’t going to sing that old song again.
“Oh, Ed. I’ll serve you linguini with white clam sauce and a chilled bottle of Pouilly Fuisse.”
I didn’t say anything. It was becoming a conversation of long pauses. I looked out the window at the June evening and thought about another time and another existence. A time when a man and a woman took endless walks of discovery through the city.
“Please,” she managed finally, “I need your help.” There was that note again. She never would have pleaded before.
I thought about it for a while. About a nanosecond. Then I said, “No, Alicia, I don’t think so.”
I could hear a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. Then I couldn’t hear anything. She was probably thinking about whether it was worthwhile to try to change my mind.
The laser printer finished its work and fell silent. Now there was no sound at all. It was strange to be in a city of eight million and not hear a single sound. Like someone had pressed the mute button.
Then she sighed. It was an anguished sigh and, for a moment, I almost regretted the decision.
“All right,” she said. Silence again. “Good-bye, Ed.”
She hung up.
Sure, it hurt. But I told myself it would hurt less this way.
She crowded into my thoughts a lot the next couple of days. You can’t be married for five years without building up a storehouse of memories. They say you remember the good times and forget the bad. But I remembered both the good and the bad — mostly the bad.
I delivered my report to the CEO of the bank the next morning at nine-thirty. Just the two of us in an amphitheater that could have held the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and had room left over for the third Roman legion plus its camp followers.
As I sat opposite him at the boardroom table, he kept shaking his bald head and flipping the pages of the printout. His face was so ashen it looked like it was covered with a layer of talcum. From time to time, he would murmur, “Son of a bitch.” He said it maybe seven or eight times.
I wondered how many different ways he could inflect those words. Here was a man making six point one million, including bonus, according to the proxy statement, and that was the extent of his vocabulary.
While he scanned the numbers, I thought about her. Had she changed her hair? Probably. Why did women feel this strange compulsion to change their appearance at regular intervals like clockwork? When I knew her, she wore her blond hair long and flowing, like her dresses.
She was a tall gal, six-one, almost as tall as me and she always held herself ramrod straight. She liked to have people stare at her. With her angular face and thin frame, she was striking. When she wore those full-length dresses that she loved, she looked like a Viking goddess here on a temporary visa from Valhalla.
I knew she was fragile but no one else did — and it wasn’t often that she let me see her frailty.
I glanced back at the CEO. He’d been reading the report for the better part of an hour. As he read, I looked around the board room. It was expensively but sedately furnished. The style was some indeterminate historical period between Periclean Athens and the Fall of Constantinople. The purpose was to create an atmosphere of solidity and timelessness, even though the bank was only seventy years old. The bank was medium-sized, striving mightily to enter the top ranks, so nothing was overstated. There was a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington on the wall. How many of these damn things did Stuart paint? I’d seen them in at least a dozen corporate headquarters.
Finally he looked up at me and blinked. “Neat,” he said with a grim smile. I didn’t know if he meant the scheme or the way I cracked it. The concept was neat. The vice-president had used the bank’s access code to wire odd amounts from an inventory of inactive private investment company accounts in the Cayman Islands to his accounts in Curacao, Panama and the Bahamas. He kept shifting the funds from account to account. Then, before an audit, he’d wire funds back into the PIC accounts to make them whole. The only problem was that he never took a vacation. He never even took a piss. Then one day, because of the federal regulations that no one ever pays attention to, the bank made him take a vacation. A two week vacation that the regs required. Someone noticed a discrepancy. That was the start of his slide down that slippery slope. That was where I came in. My job was to make sure he didn’t find a foothold.
“Outstanding job, Mr. Rogan.”
I nodded. “Glad to help the bank restore its budget for fresh-cut flowers.”
He grimaced and smoothed his hand over his head. It was tough to judge which was shinier-his bald pate or the boardroom table.
“I want you to do one thing for me,” he said.
“I’m going to destroy this report, Mr. Rogan. I want you to do the same with your copy and any back-up material you have. Do you understand?”
I nodded. I understood. He didn’t have to paint a me picture. They would take care of the bastard with their own brand of retribution.
“I appreciate your discretion, Mr. Rogan.”
“Needless to say, your check will be in the mail this afternoon.”
He extended his hand. I shook it. As they say, one man’s misfortune is another man’s good fortune. The check would be enough to keep the wolf away from the door until some future and indeterminate date.
I got to the office earlier than usual that Thursday morning. By seven-thirty I was making calls. This was the best time to reach the guys who you couldn’t get to during the day, before the hired help started tying up the phone lines.
Mr. Coffee was giving off his usual sputtering sound. I poured some coffee into a Styrofoam cup and drank it, steaming and black. Then I went back to my desk, took another sip, and slung my jacket over the back of the chair. One of the fluorescent bulbs in the outer office was dying and flickering on and off, but it was too early in the morning to replace it.
I hadn’t smoked in fifteen years but that first cup of coffee always brought back the urge. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
It was about a quarter after eleven when I started to get hungry. I was about to head down to Grand Central to get a jelly donut to hold me till lunch when someone came into the outer office. No knock. No salutation. Talk about your good old-fashioned manners.
I swung the chair out and craned my neck around the door frame to see who it was. A couple of times there’d been clowns who wandered in where they didn’t belong, but they didn’t come back again after they were politely disinvited.
This time it was different. There were two men in moderately-priced suits, poly-wool blends with just a little too much poly. They were cops. I recognized both of them.
Gene Black was a man I could deal with. He was a worn-out cop with a new wife and a new baby and an old beer belly. We’d worked together on a case back in the not- quite-so-tranquil old days when I was in corporate security with ITT.
It was the other son of a bitch I couldn’t stomach. Forgash was his name.
Detective/Third Alfonse J. Forgash. He was a thin sour-faced man of about thirty with a mustache and slicked-back dark hair. His main problem was that he hadn’t learned that a policeman was a public servant.
They walked into my office without the courtesy of an invitation.
Forgash spoke first. “Where were you Tuesday night?”
“I was at the needlepoint show. Didn’t I see you there stitching a throw pillow?”
Forgash looked at Black. “We got a fucking stand-up comic here.” He squinted at me. “You’re in deep shit, Rogan. You’re in big trouble, is all.”
“That a fact?” I said. “Somebody steal your lollypop?”
A vein started to throb in his forehead. “Listen, wiseguy…” He started to say something but Black put a hand on his arm.
“We gotta ask you some questions, Ed,” Black said. “Bear with us, OK?”
“Where were you Tuesday night, Ed?” Black asked.
I tried to recall. I couldn’t think of anything out of the ordinary, so I said, “Home, I guess.”
“What were you doing?”
“Reading, probably,” I said. “Reading before I nodded off on the sofa. Nothing very exciting. What’s the furor all about?”
Forgash couldn’t hold it in. “Somebody whacked your ex-wife, Rogan. Blew her fucking brains out. We got a good idea you did it. Whadda ya think about that?”
I hoped he didn’t see my reaction. First, I couldn’t breathe. Then I felt like I was going to puke up my guts. My knees had that weak feeling you get before you go into combat. I looked down at the papers on my desk, papers arranged in neat piles that didn’t seem to matter very much any more.
“Christ,” was all I could manage.
“When was the last time you saw her?” Black asked.
When was it? I thought back. When the hell was it? At the lawyer’s office? Soft leather furniture and deep carpeting and a dozen brass nameplates on the door.
No. I didn’t see her there. Only her lawyer.
It was at her sister’s… for a birthday party. Bittersweet. Knowing we were going to split up. A glass of champagne for a farewell toast. A last slow kiss goodbye.
“Four years ago, Gene,” I said. “That was the last time. I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her till she called me Monday night.”
Forgash was busy thumbing through his little notebook. He had thin fingers that looked like they belonged to a seamstress. The way he moved those little hands made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. He was the kind of man whose fingers never stopped fidgeting.
“Why’d she call you?” Forgash asked.
“She wanted to hire me.”
“What for?” Forgash said.“I don’t know. I told her no.”
“Any idea who’d want to kill her?” Black asked. He looked slowly around the office. It was evident he wasn’t very impressed with what he saw. “What can you tell me, Ed?”
I studied his weary cop’s face with its deep lines and rheumy gray eyes. “What do you have on it, Gene?” I said.
He considered for a moment, glanced at Forgash, then back at me. “She was coked up when she got it,” he said finally.
I shook my head. “You got it all wrong, buddy. Alicia never took drugs. “
Black sighed. He shook his head the way you do with a kid who doesn’t get it. “She was coked, all right. That’s the way it was.” He stared at me. “How long were you two married?”
“Guess you didn’t know her very well.” He tried to be helpful. “What guy ever does?”
Forgash stopped playing with his little notebook and waved a skinny finger at me. “We got it that a guy name of Wheelock was screwing your wife before you got divorced.”
I blinked. “Go to hell, Forgash,” I said. “What does that have to do with anything.”
“It’s an old grudge, Rogan. Old grudges fester, you know what I mean. They fester and then they boil over.”
I didn’t like his mixed metaphor. “Go to hell,” I said again.
“You better watch out, scumbag,” he shouted. “You better respect the law.”
“Fuck the law, my friend.” Once more and I was going to serrate his face.
Gene Black stepped into the breech. “This ain’t getting us nowhere.” He spread his hands and flattened them against the desk, like he was going to do push-ups.
“Tell me about her friends,” he said. “The people she hung out with, you know.”
“She had a lot of acquaintances. She liked to get out and around town. But she didn’t have any close friends, as far as I know.” I ticked off a list of people she used to associate with. “I don’t know who her friends are now. The way she was, she didn’t maintain relationships.”
“Who was her latest boyfriend?” Forgash asked, more tentatively this time. “Or was she still banging Wheelock?”
“How the hell should I know? Maybe she didn’t even have one.”
Didn’t have one? Not too likely. I couldn’t imagine her without a current stud. Was he the bastard who killed her?
“Can you give us some idea where she got that coke, Ed?”
“Damned if I know, Gene. She didn’t even drink when we were married. Claimed it was bad for her health. She only ate healthy foods, exercised regularly, strictly by the book, you know.”
Black nodded in acknowledgment. He was the type who took in information slowly, processed it thoroughly, and never forgot it. “Tell me about her,” he said. “What kind of person she was…what she did…”
I considered his question. What could I tell him? That she was elegant. It was the best word to describe her. There wasn’t anything cheap or second-rate about her. That she was loving. When she loved you, she gave everything she had without restraint until she couldn’t give you any more. There was no deception or artifice about her.
That wasn’t what they wanted to hear. There was nothing useful I could tell them now. I’d been out of the picture too long.
“Talk to her sister,” I said. “She can tell you more about Alicia than I can.”
“We will, Ed. Only she’s been out of town. She’s due back today.” Black’s eyes wandered over the top of my desk, inspecting the folders and stacks of paper.
“Was she close to her sister?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “They talked on the phone almost every day. No one was closer to her.”
I finished the last bitter dregs of my coffee and tossed the cup in the garbage.
Then I had a vision. Tall, thin, blond. Lying on the floor with unseeing eyes and mouth open.
“What did she look like, Gene?”
He glanced at his partner with a pained look, then back at me. “One slug through the back of the head. No struggle. Her apartment was ripped apart though.”
“Forced entry?” I asked.
“What was the time of death?”
“That’s enough, Rogan,” the seamstress cut in. “We’re not here to answer your fucking questions. Now you tell me what kinda gun you carry.”
“Glock seventeen. But I don’t carry it all the time, my friend. It’s at home.”
He squinted at me. “Have no fear. We’ll check it out.”
There were just a few peanuts left. Dave Tanner rooted around absentmindedly in the bottom of the bowl. I signaled the waitress for another round of Budweisers and held up the bowl for her to see.
Tanner stared across the tables as the girl sashayed away from us. He’d thickened some since our days of humping through Thua Thien province, but he still played a mean game of pickup basketball. And he still sported a crewcut.
Only now he was an institutional bond salesman with a white-shoe Wall Street firm, one of those venerable second-tier outfits you see in the middle of the tombstone ads.
“Too broad abeam?” he asked.
I shook my head. “She’s a good kid. Studying to be a lawyer.”
We were sitting underneath an oversized red umbrella in the outdoor patio of Cafe Centro on East Forty-fifth, surrounded by a barricade of shrubbery. It was a hazy late afternoon with just a faint breeze stirring. All around us office workers were scurrying home or out to an evening rendezvous. Men in dark suits with stress lines creasing their faces. Women in flowered dresses carrying shopping bags filled with credit card purchases. A couple at the next table were hunched together, deep in conversation. They’d had a few drinks already and, from the snatches of conversation I could hear, the guy was laying a full-court press on the girl to convince her to take him back to her apartment. Their faces weren’t more than a foot apart. They clutched each other’s hands and the intensity of his gaze would have been enough to scald her on the spot.
I brought the subject up first. “About Alicia…,” I said.
“What do you wanna know, old buddy?”
“Tell me what you know about what she was doing.”
He shrugged. “Cops came to see me too. Not too much I could tell them about her. I just saw her once or twice a year. At parties, mutual friends, that kind of thing, you know.”
He stopped talking and stared at the waitress’ breasts as she came to the table. Her body was fleshy but her waist was trim, so she carried some extra inches around her bust and hips. Her breasts were well-rounded and they swung forward as she bent over to pour our beers. She was wearing one of those barely-visible bras, more for support than for coverage. Her thin white cotton blouse didn’t hide very much.
She finished pouring and straightened up, flashing a bright smile, first at Tanner and then at me.
“Care for some more peanuts?” she asked.
“You sure are one hell of a waitress,” Tanner said.
She tossed her head and ran her fingers through her spun-copper hair. “I’m not really a waitress. I’m studying law at Fordham. Next year this time, I’ll be a lawyer.”
Tanner and I exchanged glances. He scratched his head and said, “Not a waitress. Well, I’ll bet you’ll be a hell of a lawyer. Give me your number. I’m going to need a good lawyer sooner rather than later.”
She laughed and tossed her hair again. She wasn’t pretty but she had the kind of submissive air a lot of men like.
“I won’t have the same number when I start to practice law. I’m going back home to Boston.”
“Shame it is,” Tanner said as she walked away, his eyes studying her backside.
“About Alicia,” I prodded him.
He considered for a minute. “I don’t know too much about her life now. It consisted mostly of her job from what I could see. You know how she was. She always put herself into her work, body and soul. She didn’t have time for too much else.”
I took a swallow of beer. It felt good and cold going down. “How was her work going?”
He shrugged and said, “I dunno. Hard to tell-difficult to say. She never told me anything about it.”
Then I asked the sixty-four dollar question. “Did she have a boyfriend?”
He polished off his beer and swiveled his head around searching for an instant refill. “Yup,” he nodded, “if it’s the same one I knew. A guy named Chisolm.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s chairman of a company called Insignia Biotech in Norwalk. A solid, substantial citizen.”
I knew what he was referring to. “How long had they been going out?”
“Maybe a year, I think.”
“Did she ever talk about him?”
“She once told me he satisfied her needs.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I said.
“She didn’t go into any details,” Tanner said. “You knew her. She was a gal who didn’t like to talk a lot-to open up, you know.”
The morning of her funeral was clear. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. The sun was so bright it reminded you of the way the sky looks on a summertime afternoon in Spain. Colors so vivid and whites like titanium dioxide whitewash on a canvas.
There were maybe thirty people at the cemetery-mostly expensively-dressed, well-coifed professionals wearing Swiss watches and English shoes. People like herself. They were probably her friends and co-workers.
I recognized three or four of her family members. They didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for me. As a matter of fact, they studiously ignored me, preferring instead to inspect the groundskeeper’s craftsmanship. Tanner was there. He flashed a silent salute when he saw me.
Why was I there?
I owed it to her. For sure, I damn well owed it to her. If I had said yes to her plea, would she still be alive? If I had helped her, would they be putting her in the ground right now? Goddamned if I knew. But one thing was as certain as night follows day-I was going to do everything I could, and then a hell of a lot more, to find the answer. And when I did, I was going to tear off the head of the bastard who killed her. She was only thirty-six. Too young to bring down the curtain.
As the hydraulic lift soundlessly lowered her coffin, I thought back to a trip we’d taken to Spain. There had been a small hotel in Barcelona, just off the Ramblas. We’d strolled down the broad boulevard with all the brightly-colored flower stalls and the locals had stopped and stared at her because she was so tall and so blond. At the hotel, the concierge had told me that she was so beautiful I couldn’t deny her anything.
And now they were covering her with clods of earth.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.
And it tolls for me.
After the gravediggers had finished and gone, the mourners stood around and spoke in muted tones. Some birds were chirping from a nearby stand of trees. The cemetery had become very quiet. The scent of newly-mown grass mixed with the smell of freshly-dug earth. Somebody put a hand on my arm. I turned to look. It was her sister, Laura.
“Hello, Ed,” she said in a whisper. “I was hoping you would come.” Her eyes were red and she sniffled into a tissue she had wadded up in her hand.
“I wanted to see you,” I said.
She nodded and sniffled again. Then she burst out sobbing and put her arms around me. I held her and felt her body quivering. Where Alicia had been muscular and sinewy, her sister was soft and vulnerable. Two sides of the same coin.
She continued crying against my chest for a couple of minutes. Her perfume smelled like spring flowers and her hair was soft against my cheek. She was wearing a black dress with long sleeves, too warm for the day. She wasn’t as tall as Alicia but she was prettier. I suspected she wasn’t as smart.
Finally she nodded to herself and dabbed her eyes dry. She nodded again and pulled away from me.
“I’m sorry, Ed,” she managed. “Please forgive me.”
She didn’t have to ask me to forgive her.
She was four years younger than Alicia and a lot more feminine. Alicia had a hard edge about her that could turn off a man, but Laura was the wife you wanted waiting at home for you at the end of a rough day.
After she’d had a chance to regain her composure, I said, “Laura, I want you to introduce me to some of the people here.”
“Why?” she asked.
“You can figure out why.”
She pursed her lips and thought for a minute. A tiny frown line appeared on her forehead. “Do you think someone here knows something about Alicia’s death?” She obviously believed the possibility was remote, from the way she said it.
I didn’t answer her question. “Do you have the key to her apartment?”
“Yes, but why?”
“I want to take a look around.”
Her eyes widened. “But, Ed…the police have already been all over the place. What do you think you can find that they can’t?”
I snorted. If only this little innocent knew.
“I look for things in a different way.”
She shrugged. “All right, but the keys are at home. I’ll have to get them over to you.
“Never mind that. I’ll drive you home and pick up the keys. Now tell me who’s here.”
She surveyed the gathering. “Do you see that tall good-looking man in the gray suit?” She spoke in a conspiratorial tone to my shoulder.
“That’s Michael Chisolm.”
“Who else is here?”
“That creepy-looking fellow-the one with the thinning hair.”
She indicated a man with gelled hair who stood in a hunched posture. His mother had evidently never told him to stand up straight. At first, I’d thought he was one of the undertakers.
“That’s Alicia’s boss-Stallings. He’s president of the brokerage house where she works…” She stopped and corrected herself. “Worked…”
“Introduce them to me,” I said.
She took my arm and we angled over to where Chisolm stood with two men in dark suits who looked like his subordinates.
“Michael,” Laura said. “I’d like you to meet Ed Rogan. He was…”
Chisolm cut her off. “I know who he is, Laura.”
We shook hands. His grip was firm but his skin was too smooth.
“Mr. Rogan. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He smiled without warmth. “Alicia spoke about you from time to time.”
He looked to be in his mid-fifties. He had flowing gray hair at the temples and he wore an expensively-cut Italian silk suit, probably Armani, with a red silk pocket handkerchief. His shoes were hand-made from alligator or snake or lizard or some kind of reptile that had once crawled on its belly over the face of the earth.
“Chisolm,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”
“All right,” he said with a barely-perceptible hesitation. “I was just leaving. Why don’t you walk with me back to my car?” He motioned to his men and jerked his thumb in the direction of the parking lot. “Let’s head back to the cars.”
The men nodded in acquiescence. “Sure thing, Mr. Chisolm,” one of them said.
I left Laura standing where she was and Chisolm and I ambled over a gently-sloping rise and down a gravel path to where his car was parked. He obviously wanted to show me the car. It was a Hummer. But I wasn’t very impressed because I knew only fools drive Hummers. This knowledge was imparted to me by the Edmunds. com web site where they featured a listing of the Ten Cars That Fools Drive.
When we got to his car, Chisolm stopped and turned.
“Go ahead, Mr. Rogan,” he said. “What did you want to ask me?”
I shook my head. “Not here. Not now. And in private.”
“Certainly,” he said. “I’d like to talk to you also. Here’s my card. Why don’t you come up to my office? We won’t be disturbed and we can speak privately there.”
The odds were good he was married and didn’t want to talk at home.
“Sure. That’s fine.” I pocketed his card. “I’ll give you a call.”
I headed back to where Laura was standing on the grassy rise watching us talk. There was a strange expression on her face that I couldn’t decipher.
“What do you think of Chisolm?” I asked her.
She adjusted a clip that held her hair in place. For a moment it fell loose as she swung her head back and forth. Her hair was straight and honey brown and was cut so it just touched her shoulders.
“He’s stylish and he’s certainly rich enough, but he’s not my type. Somehow I never thought he was sincere. I don’t know if he really loved Alicia.”
“Is he married?”
She nodded and looked down. “Precariously so. His wife has oodles of money and he doesn’t want to take a chance on losing it.” She rubbed the toe of her shoe on the lawn that was so even it felt like Astroturf. She said softly, “He’s had other girlfriends.”
She started to giggle, then remembered where she was and checked herself. “No,” she said with a vigorous shake of her head.
“Let’s talk to Stallings,” I said.
We walked over to the man who looked like an undertaker. He was standing alone staring at the grave, somewhere deep in his own thoughts.
“Mr. Stallings,” Laura said. “This is Edward Rogan. He was Alicia’s ex-husband.”
“How do you do, Mr. Rogan,” Stallings said. He was careful not to extend his hand. “It’s a terrible tragedy. Alicia was very well respected at the firm.”
I examined his face. He wore Ben Franklin glasses on the tip of his nose, which was finely-veined with a network of red capillaries. His eyes were a watery blue. They had deep shadows under them. His voice was soft and his diction was overly precise. He wore a dark blue suit, white oxford button-down shirt, blue repp stripe tie and black wing-tips. Matter of fact, he was wearing just what I was, but I don’t think he noticed.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a tragedy. That’s why I’d like to talk to you.”
“Talk to me?” He seemed surprised. “Why? What for?”
“I want to ask you some questions.”
His eyes narrowed. “What about?”
“About Alicia…her work…her co-workers…about who might have had a reason to kill her.”
“I’ve already been interviewed extensively by the police.” He was speaking rapidly. “I don’t believe there’s any reason for me to talk to you as well. You don’t have any official capacity in this matter.”
“Listen, Stallings. I’m a private investigator. My job is to ask questions. Only this time the case is a little closer to home.” I tried to calm him down. “I’m not saying her killing had anything to do with her work. I’m just looking for information that can help me find her killer.”
“Help you? Listen to me, Mr. Rogan. That’s the work of the police. I have no interest in helping you.” He tried to straighten his posture but the effort didn’t help much. “You’re just a private citizen. You’ve no right to interrogate me.”
I wasn’t in a mood to argue with this turkey. “You’ll talk to me, Stallings. You can make book on it.”
I gave him my back and walked away.
I drove Laura home from the cemetery. As we cruised along the Southern State, she didn’t say much, but neither did I. We both stared at the highway ahead and the neatly-trimmed grassy shoulders. Lost in the dim mists of our memories and our own private guilt.
The temperature gauge was starting to rise again. When you have a ten-year-old BMW, it’s one damn thing after another. I shut off the air-conditioning and opened all the windows. The wind felt good on my face.
The needle stayed on the hot side of the gauge, but at least it wasn’t rising any more.
There wasn’t much traffic heading back to the city at three in the afternoon, so we made good time. Laura and I hadn’t exchanged more than ten words the whole ride.
I drove her back to her apartment in a high-rise on Seventy-sixth between Third and Lex and waited in the car while she went up to get Alicia’s key.
It took her fifteen minutes to come back down. She gave me a quiet smile and said, “I’m sorry I made you wait so long.” She’d changed from the black dress she’d worn at the cemetery to a sleeveless one that was just as somber but not as dark. “I have Alicia’s key for you,” she said. She handed me a soft black leather Coach keycase.
I didn’t want to leave her alone just yet. “Let’s take a walk,” I said.
She nodded agreement. I could sense she didn’t want to be alone with her thoughts.
We walked a few blocks without speaking. A few puffy clouds had appeared in the sky but the day was still sunny and dry. After a while she fixed me with a sideways glance and asked, “Why did you leave Alicia?” Her voice was soft but the tone had an edge to it.
The question caught me off guard. I didn’t answer for a minute. “I thought you knew. She left me-I didn’t leave her. It was…you know…the guy…” I let it trail off.
She shook her head urgently. “No, she told me you left her a long time before that. Not physically, I mean. It’s just that you weren’t there emotionally.”
Christ, I was there. What the hell did women mean? How could you communicate with them?
“Laura,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was there. Same as always.”
“No, that wasn’t it. She kind of felt you withdrew from her. You seldom spoke to her. She said you weren’t concerned about her needs.”
This wasn’t where I wanted the conversation to go. I took another tack.
“Do you have any idea why someone would want to kill her?”
She shook her head and said quietly, “No. That’s why it’s so strange. It’s so unreal-like a fairy tale I used to hear when I was a child. I’ve never known anyone who was murdered before. And now, my big sister…”
“Did you notice any changes in her recently?”
She thought for a while. “Well, she did seem sort of edgy…tense the last few weeks, but I thought it was just pressure from her job.”
“You were the closest person to her,” I said. “If she had a problem, she would’ve told you.”
She shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair. “I used to be. But when she started taking some evening classes she began to drift away from me…she really became involved with the teacher and the other students.”
“What kind of classes?”
“Well, she enrolled at the New School and started becoming interested in metaphysics and things like that.”
“Why did she do that?” I asked. “Once she finished grad school she said she’d never set foot in a classroom again.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I think it was like something to do with the current atmosphere-liberalism, new age thinking, the environment, that sort of thing.”
“She was never like that. You knew how she thought. She hated fuzzy thinking. She liked things to be hard, clear and precise.”
Laura gave me a little smile. “Yes, she did. But that was then…”
“What do you mean?”
She considered for a minute. “Well, she really seemed to take to this Eastern mysticism. The teacher was almost like a master and the students were his disciples. They…” She seemed reluctant to continue.
I waited. Finally I prodded her. “Go ahead.”
She still didn’t speak. Then she said, “Well, they all had…sex…”
I raised my eyebrows. “Yes?” I had a notion this was going to be a good one.
“I mean sexual relations.”
“Yes. So what?”
She blushed. “As part of the…religious practices.”
“And the teacher encouraged this?”
Her face turned redder. “Not only encouraged it-he demanded it. Alicia said he told them it was the only way they could get in touch with their true natures. She said it didn’t matter which sex or sexual orientation.”
I nodded. “Sure. I know these cults. Polymorphous perversity. Any orifice in a storm. And did Alicia join in the fun and games?”
“I don’t know. She wouldn’t tell me. That hurt because it was the first time in our lives that she kept a secret from me. She started to keep other things from me, too. I think it was because she became close to one person in particular. A woman in the class. They started spending a lot of time together.”
She stopped walking, breathed a sigh that came from some place deep inside her anguish, and looked up at the street sign as if she were trying to get her bearings.
We were standing in front of a Korean greengrocer with its orderly rows of produce. The place was immaculate. On the sidewalk in front of the store, the Korean work ethic was getting a severe workout. The women and children were working the counter inside, but in front of us the father and the grandfather were wasting time playing a board game. The board was a piece of corrugated cardboard from some fruit carton, crudely hand-drawn, and the moving pieces were hand-made. Had they finally become that Americanized? Were they getting soft and lazy? No longer so hungry?
Laura turned to look at me. “You know, you’re going to get into trouble. The police sealed up her apartment. Nobody is allowed inside.”
“Don’t you fret,” I told her. “It’s just a minor inconvenience.”
The yellow police tape covered the front door in an X-pattern, like an emblem to ward off evil spirits. I peeled it off and unlocked the door. The apartment was just the way I imagined it. It was on the ground floor of an old brownstone and it was furnished in a traditional style with muted colors. There was a vestibule as you entered, a small kitchen and bathroom on the left, a living room straight ahead and the bedroom to the right of the living room. Both the living room and the bedroom had doors that opened out onto a tiny garden.
The garden was well-tended. You could see someone had given it a lot of care. This time of year the flowers were in full bloom. The area was completely walled in by an eight-foot high stockade fence. There was a double steel door to the basement that was padlocked on the outside.
Someone had started to tidy up the apartment, but the effort hadn’t helped much. Furniture was put where it didn’t belong, clothing and papers covered the floor, and pots and pans were all over the entrance hall. Whoever ransacked the place was looking for more than just valuables.
I took a look in the kitchen. The room was so cramped there was only enough space for a half-height refrigerator. But there was every kind of cooking utensil imaginable. It put me in mind of how much she loved to cook and how she’d make an elaborate project of her meals, from getting up early and tramping down to Chinatown or Little Italy or wherever she’d have to go for the proper ingredients.
Dammit to hell. I shook off the thought.
I checked the contents of the refrigerator and the freezer-opened every container, emptied the ice-cube trays, unscrewed the refrigerator light, took apart the microwave and emptied every container in the cupboard.
Then I did what I love best. Made an in-depth survey of the garbage. It was well on its way to stinking to high hell. What surprised me was the McDonald’s container next to the yogurt cup and a couple of Twinkies wrappers. That wasn’t like Alicia.
Next I checked out the bathroom. Under and behind the sink and toilet, the shower stall, the light fixture. Then the medicine cabinet. You can tell a lot about a person by looking through the medicine cabinet. There were half a dozen prescription vials-five of them from a Dr. Pasternak. She would never have taken those medications before. The names were familiar-Prozac, Nembutal. Grown-up candies.
There were also a lot of expensive cosmetics. That was a departure too. She used to wear eye shadow and blush, but that was the extent of it. She didn’t need much make-up. She had a clear complexion and a healthy look about her.
After I’d searched the place for a couple of hours, I took a break. There were five bottles of Michelob Dry in the fridge. I took one. She wouldn’t have minded. The apartment was sweltering and the beer was cold going down. I put the bottle against my forehead to cool off. A drop of water ran down my cheek and into my collar. I wiped it off with the back of my hand.
Then I did what I didn’t want to. I went back into the living room and studied the chalk outline on the floor. I stared at it for a good ten minutes. Then I knelt down and felt the rug. It was a hand-woven Iranian in a pattern that looked like a fruit tree with an intricate branch structure. Small fragments of skull bone and brain tissue were splattered all over the weave, disturbing the symmetry of the design.
The sofa, armchairs and coffee table were the same ones we had in our place when we were married. The same sofa we had sex on.
There was just one little oversight.
The police didn’t know it was a convertible because they hadn’t opened it up.
Careless-or maybe they didn’t give a damn.
I opened the sofa the same way I’d done so many times before. A rumpled sheet was wedged inside. I unfolded it slowly and spread it out. A small hard white pebble was caught in one of the creases.
You didn’t have to be Marion Barry to know what it was. Employee drug testing was a lucrative and growing business. This was like spinach to Popeye.
It was a cocaine rock.
That didn’t mean too much. It was probably just recreational use. Snorting cocaine on weekends. The fact that it was in the sofabed meant they were screwing. Snorting and screwing.
Well, it wasn’t surprising. Lab studies always showed coke was the drug of choice among primates.
I was about to fold up the sheet when something else caught my attention. It was the heavy sweet scent of Shalimar. Alicia didn’t use Shalimar-at least not that I remembered.
So I returned to the bathroom and checked out the perfume bottles. There was Jess, Lauren and Je Reviens-but no Shalimar.
Then I walked back into the living room, folded up the sheet and closed the sofa. Next to the sofa was a bookcase.
What was she reading now?
There were some books on metaphysics, a book by Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing, one by Schopenhauer, some works on Eastern mysticism, some books of pop psychology and a few psychiatry textbooks.
What caught my eye was a shelf of feminist writings. That was unusual. When we were married, she never read any feminist material-never paid it much attention. She seldom read fiction. Her reading tastes ran to contemporary non-fiction, mostly biographies, and some history. She didn’t read ephemeral subjects like psychology, philosophy or mysticism, and never advocacy literature.
Interesting how her reading tastes had changed so radically. It was almost as if the library belonged to a different person. I would never have known that these books were hers.
A book was on the floor next to the side table. The bookmark was on page 124. It was The Handmaid’s Tale.
She never would have read that kind of book before.
Alongside the bookcase was a computer on a wooden stand against the wall. It was a Dell mini-tower with a Pentium III processor. I switched it on.
An icon of a padlock appeared on the screen. My stomach sank.
I typed, “FUCK YOU.”
A little x appeared next to the padlock.
After a couple more feeble attempts, and a couple more little x’s, I gave up. At least I could take her floppies and run them back at the office. I looked for them but they weren’t in the stand and they weren’t in the bookcase either. As far as I could tell, they weren’t anywhere in the apartment.
Did the cops take the floppies? Or did the killer?
The bedroom was next. I opened the door and looked in. It was a small room. Everything had been tossed about like the aftermath of some berserk tornado. The contents of drawers had been emptied on the bed and the floor. The bed was a single against the far wall. A night table next to it had been knocked over. The closet held a lot of dresses, but they had all been shoved to one side. I inspected the dresses, one by one.
Most men don’t know the first thing about women’s clothing and I was no exception. You approach the subject the same way you consider some Eastern religion. It’s there, it has its own mystique, its own rules, but you can’t even begin to comprehend it.
Alicia wore only dresses. She wore soft flowing dresses that emphasized her height and her femininity. She never wore skirts and blouses. Occasionally she wore Levi jeans with a sweatshirt or a T-shirt. And she never wore designer jeans.
Jesus, I’d forgotten so much about her. But I still remembered a lot. Like the way she cocked her head to one side when she gave you her throaty laugh. And the way she could look through you without saying a word when she thought you were holding something back from her.
I knew I was going to miss her. And I didn’t have even the faintest beginning of an idea of who killed her.
The traffic was moving freely as I drove north up I-95. I was averaging seventy. It was ten AM. The skies were a leaden overcast and threatening rain.
I used to think people never changed. Now I had to allow for the possibility that maybe people could change. Only not so radically. Like Hanoi Jane turning into a Conservative. How did something like that happen? It was almost as if she’d become a different person. Would I have married her if I’d known her in this incarnation? That was a tough one to call.
It was when I hit Greenwich that the car started to overheat again. I slowed down until the gauge came back to the mid-point.
Chisolm’s company was located in Norwalk, about an hour from the city. I pulled off I-95 at exit 15 and drove north a mile and a half up route 7 past fast-food franchises and sleek industrial buildings until I got there.
The place sat on two acres surrounded by a chain link fence with rolled razor ribbon on top. The entrance had a guard post with a swinging barricade. Next to the guard house was a discreet sign that read INSIGNIA BIOTECHNOLOGY LTD. The guard had some kind of comic opera uniform with a gold braid that made him look like a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan. He shouted my name through the intercom and got the OK to let me in. He pushed a button and the barricade swung open while another guard looked at me without much interest.
There were two small buildings in the compound. Modern, gray and impersonal, with not a superfluous line in sight. Cookie-cutter designs without an original architectural thought, interchangeable with a thousand other nondescript industrial structures.
I pulled into a visitor’s parking slot in front of the administrative building. An electric eye opened the front door for me and I stepped into the reception area. The dark brown carpeting was deep and the lighting was subdued. The place was decorated in earthy autumn colors. There was a young woman with an absent look on her face at the console. She gave me her visitor’s smile, asked me to sign the log and escorted me down a featureless corridor to Chisolm’s secretary’s office.
Chisolm’s secretary was one of those lookers who’d just passed her prime. She was a tad hefty around the middle and had on too much make-up. Her hair was an artificial shade of reddish-brown that came right out of a bottle. It was done up in a style that strove for fashion but didn’t quite make it. She reminded me of Melanie Griffith on a bad day. I wondered how long she’d been with him. Some secretaries stayed with their bosses longer than their wives did.
She led me into his office. Her gray knit dress clung to her backside as it swayed. She was wearing sheer stockings and high heels with straps.
“Have a seat, Mr. Rogan,” she purred. “Mr. Chisolm is in the laboratory, but he told me he would be back shortly.” She eyed me up and down. “Would you care for some coffee?”
“Few things would please me more. I’ll take it black.”
“Sugar?” she smiled.
I smiled back. “Yes, I’ll have some sugar, sugar.”
The eyes with too much mascara glinted. “I won’t be long.”
Was Chisolm her type? Or was I? Or was Antonio Banderas?
She brought me the coffee in a Rosenthal cup and saucer with little flowers. There was a little mahogany coffee table in front of a couch across from Chisolm’s desk. She bent down and placed the coffee gracefully on the table, together with a linen napkin and a small silver spoon.
As she straightened up, she looked into my eyes and said, “My name is Justine. If there’s anything…” She didn’t finish the sentence.
If she’d been ten years younger, maybe…
“Thanks, sugar.” I gave her the sincere look right back. “Your kindness warms my very soul.”
She left me alone in the room. I took a sip of the coffee and felt like I was at a garden party. It was lukewarm and watery. You could see the little flower at the bottom of the cup through the light brown liquid. Blumschencafe.
Chisolm was no tightwad. It was obvious he wanted to display every nickel he had. The furniture, the carpeting and the paneling must have all set him back a pretty bob. There was a picture window to my left that looked out onto the quadrangle with an expanse of blue-green grass, trimmed hedges and a row of fountains, each one higher than the one in front of it.
The door opened and Chisolm stepped in, letting it close behind him with a muted click.
“Mr. Rogan,” he said, with what could have passed for a genuine smile in a dark alley if you didn’t look too closely. I stood and we shook hands.
“Have a seat,” he said and motioned me over to the couch. He took a seat in an overstuffed leather chair that gave him three inches in height over me. The guy had evidently studied the literature on Power Placement.
He reached over and pressed a button on the side of the coffee table. Inside of ten seconds Justine appeared. She looked at him and asked, “Coffee?”
The corners of his mouth turned up imperceptibly.
She nodded and turned on her heels.
Inside of fifteen seconds he had his coffee. That’s what it’s like when two people have been together for a long time. Non-verbal communication.
When we were alone, he said, “Frankly, Mr. Rogan, I’m interested in you. I was curious to see what kind of a man Alicia was married to. Obviously, a woman of that nature would have married an exceptional man.”
Where was he going with this line of horse hockey?
“I was surprised to learn you were a private investigator. You don’t look like one. You look more like a corporate executive, as if you just stepped off the cover of Fortune.”
He gave me the once-over, only he did it twice. “I know your background. Your credentials are impeccable…”
I grinned at him. “Your concern about me touches me deeply in my private parts,” I said. “But I came here to talk about Alicia.”
He nodded and put his fingertips together in a little steeple. “Please proceed.”
Chisolm looked every day of his fifty-five years. His skin was taut but you could still see where the wrinkles were before the face lift. His features were angular, but his lips were full-too full for a man’s lips. It was his eyes that gave him away. They were pale gray and sharp. Hungry eyes.
“Tell me about your relationship with Alicia,” I said.
“There isn’t much I can tell you that I haven’t told the police. They were here yesterday and questioned me up one side and down the other.”
“That’s fine. Just tell me what you told them.”
He leaned forward, separated his fingertips and put them on the edge of the coffee table, wiping away an imaginary speck of dust.
“We met for the first time about a year and a half ago. It was at a presentation for securities analysts. As you know, she makes a striking first appearance.”
He didn’t correct himself when he used the present tense.
“The presentation was given by a real estate investment trust of which I’m a director. She was working for Morgan Stanley at the time. Our initial contact was simply some brief chit-chat at the meeting and then a couple of drinks at the Plaza afterwards.”
He paused and took a sip of coffee. He was the kind of guy who stuck out his pinky when he drank from the cup.
“The next time I saw her was about a year ago. I went to a party given by my ex-partner, Joel Edelstein. It was to celebrate his endowment of a chair at Princeton. Alicia and I recalled our first meeting and thought it would be fun to see each other again.”
I knew Edelstein. We’d been undergraduate drinking and whoring buddies at Princeton. And I knew about Edelstein’s relationship with Chisolm. According to the information I had, Chisolm was worth some seven million. The seed money had come from his wife. He’d made the rest of it from paired REITs when the market for them was hot. He started the genetic engineering company four years ago. Chisolm was the money, the contacts, the business acumen. Edelstein was the scientist, the man with the ideas and the patents.
Two years ago, Chisolm had bought out Edelstein with a cash and stock package worth three million. Edelstein had taken the stock, sold it when the SEC rules allowed him to, and invested the after-tax proceeds in half a dozen Internet start-ups.
When I met Edelstein at an alumni reunion, he was a guy who had his heart’s desire-a teaching career, a research lab and a plush and comfortable cushion on the side. “That way I can tell them to fuck off whenever I feel like it,” he’d told me. I wondered if Edelstein had ever regretted leaving Insignia Biotech.
Chisolm cleared his throat. “I’m a married man, so our relationship had to be discreet. We’d meet once or twice a week, usually in the city.”
“Was she seeing anyone else?” I asked.
He seemed genuinely surprised by the question. “Why? Was she in the habit of doing that?”
I didn’t answer. Let him ponder that possibility.
He smoothed his hair back as if he were looking into a mirror. “I don’t think so,” he said. “At least, I didn’t think so at the time.”
I could see he was thinking about it.
“What did she do in her spare time?”
“She didn’t have much spare time. She was a real work horse-put in long hours. And when she wasn’t working at the office, she was working at home. You probably remember that about her.”
I nodded. “Yeah.” At least that much about her hadn’t changed. She was always a hard worker and a hard player.
“You have any thoughts on who’d want to kill her?” I asked him.
He shook his head slowly and I had the sense he was trying to find the right words. “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought the last few days. Trying to find the who or the what. The problem was that she never spoke much about herself and her inner feelings. In a way, that was one of the masculine traits about her. That and her competitiveness.”
He stopped and stared out the window at a bird that had landed on one of the hedges. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked.
I shook my head.
He went over to his large polished mahogany desk and took out a pack of Benson amp; Hedges. He lit one, held in the smoke for a long minute and blew it out slowly. “Most women can’t stop talking about themselves, you know. Their emotions, their hang-ups, their desires. Alicia was different. She very seldom would let you know what she was thinking. She kept it hidden-almost like a poker hand.”
He paused, then asked, “Did you find her to be that way?”
He wanted to compare notes, but I wasn’t playing that game. He was astute-I had to give him that much.
“Go on,” I said.
“There was one other thing. Her feminism. She was an ardent feminist. She’d talk at length about it-almost as if it were an obsession. She’d go on and on with this drivel, and I’d listen to her and nod, yes…yes, just because I wanted to hump her.”
“What did you think was the point of her feminism?”
“Well, she said she was never going to be dependent on a man again, and I had the impression she really meant it.”
“What about her friends?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I didn’t know any of them. She never mentioned any friends and we never went out with any of them.”
“How well did you know her sister, Laura?”
“Yes, we had a few conversations. Nothing more than that. But I liked her. She was quite warm-very different from Alicia.”
He studied a painting on the wall. There was no mistaking the artist. It was by Francis Bacon. Two indistinguishable bodies twisted in an embrace to the death. A gaping shrieking mouth. A bloody slab of beef. An odd painting to be in a business office. “Alicia was like a thoroughbred. She was frisky and high-spirited. A lot of fun to ride. But…” he paused, “in the last few months she turned skittish. She didn’t seem to be as much fun anymore. She seemed preoccupied about something. I had actually…”
He stopped and fell silent.
I didn’t say anything. He was doing the talking, not me.
Finally, he said, “I was going to terminate our relationship. I told her so. I wasn’t enjoying it any longer. It was becoming a chore. You know, a Frenchman once said the only value a woman has is in her novelty. I subscribe to that theory. We had sex exactly seventy-nine times. I always keep meticulous records. Sixty-five times straight intercourse, eleven times oral sex, three times anal sex. So you can imagine how tedious it was.”
That was a new one on me. I would’ve liked to see his baseball scorecards.
“How did Alicia take it when you told her you wanted to break up?”
“Quite composed, as a matter of fact. I thought she would have taken it harder, but she didn’t reveal any emotion at all. She sort of shrugged her shoulders and said, well, let’s carry on. I had the sense she was tiring of me also.”
I nodded. “What about her work as an securities analyst? Which industries did she cover?”
He took another drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out in an ashtray. “Well, as far as I know, she followed companies in the real estate industry. She used to cover defense and technology areas. That was unusual for a woman. I kept on trying to interest her in genetic engineering but she was reluctant to change. I told her that this was a hot industry-this was where man played God.”
He stared at me. “And that brings me to the reason why I wanted to talk with you.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Now that the human genome has been sequenced, we’re going to be a very successful company. We have several genetic engineering projects going on at the present time-one of which is particularly exciting.”
His hungry eyes grew positively rapacious as he spoke. This guy made the big bad wolf look bush league. “We’ve produced hemoglobin from genetically-altered bacteria. We use recombinant hemoglobin that’s been engineered to mimic natural hemoglobin. This means we can mass-produce cheap synthetic human blood that would be free of HIV and hepatitis viruses. You could give a transfusion to any recipient without worrying about blood-type matching and the product would have a much longer shelf life than human blood.”
His eyes flashed. “Do you see how this blood could be useful for accident victims or wounded soldiers on the battlefield?”
I nodded. “And why are you imparting all this valuable insider information to me, free of charge?”
“Because…” And his eyes gleamed brighter than the Eddystone lighthouse, “we are about to make an initial public offering of our stock. We’re a closely-held company. This is going to be an exceptional opportunity. I know you have top-drawer contacts. I’d suggest you purchase some stock at the offering and inform your associates about this opportunity to make a large profit very quickly and very easily.”
I looked at him. This clown was violating just about every SEC regulation in the book and some they hadn’t even thought of yet. “And you’re going to make me a rich man because you like the cut of my jib?”
He snorted. “I do like your style, Mr. Rogan. And I know you’re not stupid enough to turn down an opportunity like this. Aren’t you interested in making a killing?”
“Not this way,” I said.
“Don’t you understand what we’re doing? We’re creating new strains of human gene cells that will enable us to pass on better traits from one generation to the next-actually improving the human species. We’ll theoretically be able to create a race of superbeings-far superior to the diseased and disabled wrecks you see around you. Something Nietzsche would envy and be proud of. Something he could only hope for in his writings. And think of the fortunes we’ll be making in the process. These new people will be smarter, tougher, more disease-resistant. In short, they’ll be far above and beyond your pathetic human beings of today.”
This insufferable son of a bitch was starting to get on my nerves. I gave him a sour grin. “You better go back and reread your Cliff Notes on Nietzsche. His Superman was a man of integrity, considerate to his inferiors-not some money-grubbing stock jobber.”
His mouth opened but he didn’t make a sound.
I stood and said, “Don’t trouble yourself to show me out. I’ll find my way.”
I dropped the paper bag on Gene Black’s desk in his office next to the squadroom. “Here’s a six-pack for you,” I said.
He squinted up at me. “You gotta be out of your fuckin’ mind. They’re tighter than a nun’s asshole around here,” he rasped. “You want me to lose my pension? Me with five years till retirement?”
“Calm down, officer. Don’t get your balls in an uproar.” I took out a bottle of Perrier, opened it and put it in front of him.
He grunted. “Perrier water?” He pronounced the final R. “What’re you? Some kind of faggot?”
“Drink it,” I said. “Good for your beer belly. No calories.”
He took a swig and grimaced.
“Wadda ya want?” he asked.
“About my ex. What did you find?”
He nodded and rolled his swivel chair over to a file cabinet without getting up. He took out a file and rolled back to where I was sitting on the edge of his desk. Without looking at me, he thumbed through the contents and said, “You’re not looking through this. You can’t see it, so don’t even ask me.”
“What happened to Mr. Personality?”
“Your partner, Forgash.”
“Shit.” He shook his head. “I’m trying my damnedest to get him transferred to Tremont Avenue. That sombitch is driving me up the wall. You know what they say about oil and water.”
“I thought you two got along like ham and eggs.”
He wrinkled his brow. His face was one of those that always had a dark shadow, even when he’d just shaved.
“More like a cobra and a mongoose,” he said as he leafed through the file.
I surveyed the squadroom. The nineteenth was pretty quiet today. The place was mostly empty except for a couple of cops talking on the phone or typing reports. One cop with his feet up on his desk was tossing wadded-up balls of paper into a wastepaper basket.
“Did you see the story on Channel five? About your wife.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I didn’t feel like watching.” The local TV news shows had pounced on the story and were featuring its most gruesome aspects with unalloyed delight.
The Post had carried the story on page four. “Wall Street Beauty Shot Dead.” I guess the headline had an element of human interest in monosyllables.
Black looked up from the file. “We don’t have anything good yet, Rogan. Apartment ransacked, valuables missing, no forced entry. It was a nine-millimeter slug caught her in the back of the head.”
“Anybody hear the shot?”
He shook his head. “No one we can find. You figure it. I personally searched her place for two hours-couldn’t find as damn thing. No footprints, tracked in dirt, hair…” He rubbed his chin. “There were fingerprints, but nothing unusual. Michael Chisolm, he was her boyfriend…her sister…”
“What about Chisolm?” I asked.
“What about him?”
“He shoot her?”
Black shrugged. “Find me a motive. He was her boyfriend. He was entitled to be in her apartment.”
He took a long look at me and shook his head. “Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Way I figure it, push-in job. Some punk stops her outside on the street, pulls a gun, makes her open the door and let him in, kills her, takes the loot and splits.”
“What was her position when she was shot?”
“She was sitting.”
“That make sense to you?” I asked.
“You got something better?”
“Let me see the photos.”
He held up his hand. “You sure you wanna see them? It’s pretty rough.”
“Sure,” I said. I’d seen death before. Both friend and enemy. You never get used to it, but after a while it doesn’t seem so awesome.
Black scrutinized the photos one by one before he handed them over to me, as if he were censoring them. His face was twisted like he’d just smelled something bad.
I realized I was holding my breath as I looked at the pictures. I exhaled slowly. They were rough all right.
Alicia lay spread-eagled on her stomach, the left side of her head blown away, her legs awkwardly askew. You could see the hands on her watch, even the thin second hand. The watch showed twelve thirty-seven, the time the crime photographer took the shot.
It’s different when you see someone you know. Someone you remember eating, talking, sleeping. There was this finality.
The photos were exceptionally sharp. Brightly lit. I could see the jagged edge of her skull and the pattern of blood on the rug.
“There’s one more thing,” Black said.
“I don’t know if I should tell you.”
“What are you going to save it for? Christmas Eve?”
“Her tongue was cut out and stuck into her vagina.”
“Jesus,” I said. I recognized it. I’d seen it before. It was a crude inversion of what Charlie did to our boys in Viet Nam.
That was about all I could take. I felt like someone had been beating my chest with a baseball bat for half an hour.
“You seen enough?” Black asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve seen enough.”
The hallway stunk of fish and cabbage. The floor was covered with cracked linoleum that curled up at the edges. The linoleum had long ago lost whatever color it once had. The wallpaper was a puke green from the turn of the century. From behind closed doors came the dreary sounds of domestic life, muffled curses, children crying, women screaming, TV blaring.
Typical New York Saturday night.
The apartment building was on Eleventh, not far from the New School. It was a five-story walk-up located in a neighborhood “in transition” as the bureaucrats delicately put it. That meant it was rapidly sinking into a cesspool.
4H was at the end of the corridor. The sound of loud rock and the smell of pot came from behind the door. I jabbed the bell.
Nothing happened. I rang the bell three, four, five times. It looked like nobody was going to open the door. Finally, I tried the doorknob. It was unlocked. I pushed the door open slowly.
A man in a plaid bathrobe stood there and looked out through me. He had a black bushy full-face beard, dark hair pulled back in a pony tail and a round gold earring in his left ear.
“Dr. Garbarini?” I shouted over the racket.
He opened his eyes as if he was surprised to see me.
“My name is Rogan. I called you this afternoon.”
He stared at me vacantly.
“I’m Alicia’s husband…ex-husband.”
He blinked for the first time. “Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Of course you are. Come in, come in. I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”
He stepped to the side to let me in. The whole apartment was dark. He led me into the living room. The place was lit by three thick candles that gave off a whiff of bayberry or some other kind of sickly sweet scent. On top of that there was incense burning on a low table in the middle of the room.
My eyes needed some time to adjust to the dark. I had trouble hearing Garbarini over the music. It sounded like Procol Harum or Iron Butterfly or one of those acid groups from the sixties, the kind of endless rock we used to play in the hooches while we drank ourselves into oblivion.
Garbarini waved me to some pillows on the floor. I was still wearing a suit and wasn’t too pleased with myself for not changing. Not too cool looking like an executive when you’re trying to gain the confidence of a band of unreconstructed hippies. Or just maybe they were too stoned to even notice.
“Care for a toot?” the professor asked as he offered me a joint.
“Thanks,” I said and waved it off.
He lit the joint carefully and inhaled deeply.
I watched Garbarini in the candlelight. He had regular features, wide-set eyes and a relaxed manner, to say the least. His eyes were hypnotic-the way they hardly blinked.
There were five other people in the room in various stages of impairment. A man and a woman were lying on pillows next to me on the floor. Another couple of indeterminate sex were fondling on a sofa. They were oblivious to my presence. A girl sat on a chest up against the wall. She was in the lotus position with her eyes closed. She had an untroubled expression on her face. I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or not.
I sat there for a long time. I knew you weren’t supposed to disturb the natural rhythm of the universe, or something like that, but I was getting edgy. That’s what happens when you put a type A in a nest of tranquillity.
I tried to be one with the spirit.
Finally, after what seemed to be the length of a Grand Opera with two intermissions, the professor spoke. “Our door is always open.”
“What?” I shouted.
“We welcome everyone. Anybody who wants to join us can enter.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I certainly am,” I said and leaned over toward him. “Was Alicia a member of your group?”
“What?” he said.
“Alicia,” I repeated. “A member of your group?”
He shifted closer to me on the floor and spoke into my ear in a tone slightly higher than a whisper. “Our family,” he corrected me. “I liked to think of Alicia as a convert. She was one of my proudest achievements. Here I was able to take an exemplary member of the secular society and mold her into a seeker of eternal verities.”
The stereo was making such a racket I could only hear every second word he was saying. “Can you do me a favor?” I said. “Can you turn down the music?” I was trying as hard as I could to be polite.
He nodded eagerly. “It would make me very happy to be able to honor your request.”
The professor rose slowly and shuffled over to the stereo. It took him about three times as long as it should have to do this. Everything took longer than it should have. It looked like he was moving in slow motion. He lowered the volume with a careful movement. Then he stepped into the kitchen, took something from the refrigerator and came back to me.
I could make out two bottles in his hand. “I never imbibe alcoholic beverages,” he said.
There are a couple of people on the face of the earth who follow this practice, I know. But I was hoping I wouldn’t encounter them right here and now.
“I hope you understand,” he said.
I was trying real hard to.
“This is all I have at the moment. One of my disciples brought it today. It is completely organic.”
At least I could hear him now. I took a bottle. The label said root beer. The professor produced an opener.
I took a long drink of the swill. It was cold, but that was all I could say for it. The stuff tasted like bark and twigs-and it wasn’t even fermented.
“Professor Garbarini,” I said, trying to get the conversation back on track. “What would you say was Alicia’s greatest area of interest?”
“Yes,” he repeated, “her interest…her interest…her interest.” It sounded like a mantra. “I was glad to have Alicia with us. Everyone liked her. I always try to have as many people here as possible. This is not an ashram, of course, but many visitors stay here from time to time. The door is never locked.”
I nodded. “Tell me more,” I said.
The professor stared into the candle flame and took a deep puff on the joint. “I am a teacher of metaphysics, as you know, and I always like to have many souls surrounding me. My students enjoy coming here. Sometimes there are only two or three, sometimes ten or twelve. We listen to music, we smoke hashish, we make love to each other, we talk about serious themes. Ideas which have been discussed since the dawn of civilization. I’m sure Socrates and his students lay about in this way in the baths, debating these selfsame subjects. But they drank wine instead. This is a very close group. We love each other. We express our love in physical ways. Members come and go but the core remains. I am the Master, yes, that is true. But many interesting concepts come from the students.”
He stopped rambling and stared at the flame. I didn’t know how to get information out of him. It was like trying to grab the fog.
Just as abruptly as he stopped, he started up again. “Even when I’m not here, when I’m teaching or walking, people are always here. You might say it’s like an open house.”
Yes, I might say that.
“Did you have sex with Alicia?” I asked.
He looked at me like I just stepped off the shuttle from Mars.
“Alicia and I expressed our physical love for each other, yes,” he said. “But that is not unusual. I express my physical love for all my disciples and they express it for me. I believe you must empty your prostate every day. That is healthy. It does not matter who the receptacle is. The male essence or the female essence or those who express both essences in their nature.”
“What kind of lover was Alicia?” I asked.
“That was her problem. You know, each person has give and take within. Alicia would give but she would not take. A woman must always take, but Alicia would not take.”
I was beginning to see a vague outline of what he was getting at.
“Was Alicia a good disciple?”
“She was one of my best, except that she would not take. She threw herself into metaphysics as if it were an obsession. She was obviously seeking a yang for her yin.”
“You mean a man?” I asked.
He shook his head slowly, almost sadly, and wagged his finger the way you would at a kid who wet his pants. “Don’t be so literal. A yang is not necessarily a man. It is a complement to what is lacking in her being.”
“And tell me what was lacking in her being.” I was starting to feel like an untutored jackass.
“This we are not privileged to know. One can never know the inner soul of another person. One only sees the superficial exterior which may often be misleading.”
He paused and put his hands over his eyes. “Kundelini…searching for Kundelini.”
“Kundelini,” he repeated.
What in the pluperfect hell was he talking about?
Just about this time, with the incense and the bayberry and the music and the pot smoke and that goddam root beer, I was starting to develop a major headache. A really serious headache. I had an intense craving for a very tall, very cold glass of beer-any beer from any brewery in Northern Europe or the United States.
“Tell me,” I tried again. “Would you have any idea why someone would want to kill Alicia?”
The professor knitted up his brows so that twin furrows ran up his forehead. He concentrated his gaze on the flame. “Alicia was not contented. She had not reached spiritual peace.”
I thought of the people I knew. Neurotic New Yorkers and people trying to become neurotic New Yorkers. “Many people haven’t reached spiritual peace,” I said. “What does that have to do with her death?”
“This unfortunately I cannot tell you.” He looked at me intently. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be sincere or if he was just having me on.
I tried again. “Do you know who supplied her with cocaine?”
“No.” He shook his head. “We do not use cocaine. The only narcotic we use is hashish, in keeping with our beliefs.”
This guy was the master of blue smoke and mirrors. In a whole lifetime of years, I’d seen few his equal.
“Tell me, who was Alicia’s best friend?”
For the first time, he seemed to come awake. He smiled to himself and rubbed his beard. “Her best friend and closest confidant was this person.” He motioned to the girl on the chest.
“Rachel,” he yelled so loud I almost jumped.
The girl uncoiled herself from her meditation and came over to us. The professor craned his neck to look up at her and gestured vigorously for her to sit down. She lowered herself gracefully into the lotus position and stared into our faces. There was the faintest hint of a smile on her lips.
“Rachel,” the professor said, “this man is looking into the circumstances surrounding the death of Alicia. I am sure he would appreciate any information you can give him. I, for my part, have given him as much as I could and I am sure it has been helpful.”
I tried to give her a reassuring look. I hoped she had something more concrete than the professor’s sack of wind. She had finely-etched features and what looked like flawless skin in the dim light. She was slight and couldn’t have been more than five-two. An elfin creature. Her hair was dark and straight and cut short. Her eyes were large and her pupils were well-dilated. She was wearing a loose-fitting black top and bicycle pants. She looked to be in her early twenties.
When she spoke, her voice was soft and well-modulated. I had to strain to hear her.
“Please,” she said. “I’d like to do whatever I can, Mr.?”
“Rogan,” I said. “But call me Ed.”
Her eyes widened. They were deep and knowing. “You’re her ex-husband.”
“That’s right. How did you know?”
“Like I know everything about you.” Her smile became a little broader.
That was just a little unsettling. “Can we go somewhere to talk?” I asked.
Her reply was swift. “Sure.”
That was it. That was about all the damage I could do here. I gave my hand to the professor. He took it and held it tight between his two hands like he was measuring me for a glove. That lasted for an uncomfortable time. He looked deep in my eyes. I thought he was going to hug me. Instead, he suddenly released me and said, “Your spirit is just. Your motives are pure. Your soul is at peace. I wish you Godspeed in your quest.”
It was the most gracious dismissal I’d ever gotten.
I led Rachel out the door and gladly left behind the goddam noise, smoke and darkness.
It was past midnight. I didn’t know if we’d find a place nearby, but there were two all-night coffee shops on the block. One was cleaner and newer than the other. It was called Athena. There was a Hellenic motif on the walls and on the plates. The aroma of garlic was strong enough to knock you back ten hectares.
Rachel slid into a booth and said brightly, “I’m famished, you know. I haven’t had anything to eat all day.” She looked up at me the way a child looks at an adult. “Is it alright if I indulge in like some red meat?”
I sat down opposite her. Somehow her question seemed in character. “Sure,” I nodded. “How about a slab of tenderloin?”
She was older than I had thought. In the candlelight of the professor’s apartment, she looked to be in her early twenties. I wondered what Alicia would have had in common with a girl that young. Now, in the fluorescent glare of truth, I could see she was on the backside of thirty. She had the kind of skin that looks fresh and dewy when it’s young, but looses its moisture quickly and develops fine lines around the eyes and mouth as it ages. She had the movements of a younger woman but the presence of one who’s lived through a few of life’s more educational experiences.
A waitress hovered over us and made a perfunctory wipe over the Formica with a greasy rag. Then she shoved a couple of worn plastic menus at us. Rachel shook her head and said, “Let me have a big hamburger, half a pound, and make it like red rare.”
“Same for me,” I said, “but put more fire on mine. And give me a Bud.”
The waitress put her hands on her hips. “No beer,” she said.
“OK. Cup of coffee, then.”
The waitress grunted, nodded and shuffled away.
“I thought with all this ashram business you’d be a vegetarian,” I said to Rachel.
“I am. But sometimes I just have like such a craving for red meat,” she said with a wicked grin. She was one of those people who had to emphasize certain words with a dramatic flair.
I didn’t waste any time. “How do you know everything about me?”
She flushed. “What I meant was that Alicia told me a lot about you two…about your marriage, I mean. About how you lived…” She held my gaze for a minute and then looked down. The set of her jaw was determined but her eyes gave away her uneasiness.
I nodded slowly to reassure her. “Tell me more about what Alicia was doing. About how you met her.”
She nodded. “At the New School. It was like last year in a night class called Contemporary American Fiction. We sat next to each other and started talking and never stopped. You know what I mean?” She looked up at me. Her eyes were deep and dark. “About how you meet a person and, you know, start talking and you just can’t stop talking and you have so much in common.” As she spoke, her hands made delicate movements in the air. Her fingers were long and fine. The nails were manicured and covered with clear polish.
“We became good friends. As a matter of fact, she was probably like the best friend I’ve ever…”
Suddenly, out of the blue, she started to cry. Her body shuddered with the sobs. She put her face in her hands and bawled like a schoolgirl.
Just then the waitress came by. The woman grunted again, but this time in sympathy. “There, there,” she said. She put the food on the table and shot a dirty look at me. It was a look that would have made Attila the Hun crap in his britches. She patted Rachel on the shoulder and asked, “Is everything all right, sweetie?”
Rachel managed a small nod and a sniffle. That seemed to satisfy the witch and she shuffled away again. It took a couple of minutes for Rachel to pull herself together. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue using short, quick strokes.
When she got back to normal, she attacked her burger with a ferocity that had to come from some primordial swamp. She didn’t even bother to put ketchup on the meat.
We both finished eating and stared at each other. Something cold and distant quickened behind her eyes. I touched her hand. I wanted to feel her skin. She didn’t move her hand but she bit her lip. There was a long silence. She didn’t lower her gaze this time.
“I want you to lead me through Alicia’s life,” I said finally. “Tell me everything you know about her. What she did. Who she saw.”
I stared into those deep dark eyes. “Will you do that for me?”
She finally cast her eyes down. “Yes,” she said softly.
Outside the coffee shop, we turned north and walked up Fifth. At that time of night, there wasn’t anybody on the street. When we reached Fourteenth Street, she reached out and held my hand as we walked. That little gesture surprised the hell out of me. Christ, no one had held my hand since the sixth grade. Her hand felt as small as a child’s.
It was the kind of night that was perfect for walking. Cool and clear. It almost made the city look good. At a certain hour, and in a certain kind of light, New York was like a hooker who can trick you into thinking she’s passably fuckable.
As we walked, Rachel told me about Alicia. About her conversion to feminism, her joining some kind of Earth Mother cult, her visits to a psychiatrist who held a bizarre fascination for her. When she talked about the shrink, her tone took on a strange animation.
There was hardly anybody around on Fifth in the Twenties and Thirties. We passed darkened showrooms and grimy office buildings, some with bums passed out in the doorways. An occasional taxi would slow down as it passed to ask if we wanted a ride, but I waved them on.
There were a few more people on the streets when we hit the Forties. And there were always the Senegalese hawking Rolexes for ten dollars and Hermes scarves. Mostly, I let her do the talking, but I stuck in a question now and then. She was good at sorting out the details and highlighting what she thought were the important parts. When I asked her where Alicia got the coke, she gave me a blank stare. I told her if I could nail the supplier, I’d have a few more answers. That didn’t seem to impress her a hell of a lot.
Fifth Avenue had more people when we reached the Fifties. Some of the stores were open. Mostly electronic rip-off joints that reamed the tourists.
As she spoke, I got a sense that she wanted to help but that she wasn’t opening up completely. And I couldn’t tell if what she was holding back was worth anything.
The streets became deserted again in the Sixties. We crossed Madison and walked north a couple of blocks past small overpriced boutiques and then turned left on Park.
She told me about Chisolm and Stallings, or at least how Alicia had described them. Then she said that Alicia had told her she would never be dependent on a man again and that she was willing to take certain risks to achieve that. How much risk would she have taken? Rachel shook her head. She had no idea. In my experience, some people would risk a lot to be independent.
When we reached Seventy-second, I stopped and turned for a minute and looked South toward my office building some thirty blocks away down Park Avenue. I could see my window still lit up. How many evenings had I sat in that room? Close to ten years worth. Putting pieces together, asking questions, jumping to hasty conclusions, busting chops. I shrugged without moving my shoulders. It all meant very little, after all.
Then Rachel told me she lived at Park and Seventy-third. It was a pre-war building with huge apartments that cost large sums of ill-gotten money.
“You own your apartment?” I asked.
She nodded wordlessly. The girl obviously had some independent means. What I was curious about was how she got it.
“You live alone?”
She nodded again.
“I want to see you tomorrow,” I said. “I need more answers.”
She gave me a look that asked why at the same time that it knew the answer. “Is that all you need?” She laughed a sweet, delicate laugh.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said.
She nodded. But her eyes were tough to read.
It was almost seven in the morning and I was finishing my second cup of real coffee when the doorman buzzed me from the lobby.
“Detective Forgash is here to see you, Mr. Rogan,” came John’s voice with its rich Irish brogue over the intercom.
“Send the lowlife up.”
When I opened the door, Forgash brushed past me and walked through the foyer into the living room. He didn’t look like he was bringing me any chocolate chip cookies.
“What? No Good Morning greeting?” I gave him what I thought was a real warm grin. I was always told that a host should make his guest feel welcome.
“Listen, scumbag. Stay out of my fucking case. You understand me clearly?”
I used to dislike him intensely. Now I was starting to like him even a little bit less.
“I thought by now you’d be pounding a beat on Tremont Avenue.”
He scowled at me. “Don’t be a wiseguy.”
“I’m not. For you that would be a promotion.”
He sized me up. Contemplating… Those thin little seamstress fingers were clenching and unclenching rapidly. “Somebody made an unauthorized entry into that fucking apartment. Somebody who didn’t belong there.” He looked like he wanted to slug me one. “I know it was you. It had to be you. Nobody else would be that dumb.”
His eyes made darting glances around the room. “You think you’re a real fucking hotshot, don’t you?” he said in a squeaky voice that rose as he kept talking. “I could bust you for a stunt like that.”
“If you don’t have some sort of signed and sealed document from a judge in your sweet little hand, I’d suggest you depart the premises,” I said. “Right now, if not sooner, cretin.”
He blinked a couple of times and started to talk. “Listen to me, Rogan…”
I’d heard just about all I needed or wanted to hear from him. I slapped my right hand on his left shoulder and spun him around before he had a chance to get his balance, like I was going to give him a prostate exam. His muscles tensed. He was considering whether it was worth it to take me on.
What were the odds?
I was bigger and heavier. My hundred ninety-five to his, what? one sixty-five. I could probably put him away inside of a minute. Besides, how could he explain a fight in a premises he’d entered without legal justification?
His body relaxed under my grip. That was my cue to grab his other shoulder and shove him out the door. He didn’t resist. One final push and he was halfway out into the hallway.
“Your ass is grass, scumbag,” he yelled. “You ain’t quit with me yet. I’m gonna prove you killed her, Rogan. I’m gonna take you down.” A vein was throbbing in his forehead. Perilously close to a stroke, he was. He pointed his finger at me.
I was sorely tempted to break it for him, but I didn’t know if he had a good medical plan.
“Don’t let yourself get overexcited, my friend,” I said as I slammed the door in his face. “It’s bad for your digestion.”
Rachel opened the door just a crack and peeked out. Her eyes were half-closed and it looked like she’d just been rousted from the comfort of her cozy bed. It was after noon and she was still wearing a nightgown. White lace with little pink roses, thigh length. She opened the door wide. It didn’t seem to bother her in the least to greet me like this. She didn’t even take the trouble to put on a robe. Her hair hadn’t been combed and she wasn’t wearing any make-up. Her face was dry and clear. She was barefoot.
“I’m going to make a Bloody Mary,” she said. “Would you care for one?”
“Sure, as long as you put in two shots of vodka.”
She eyed me. “On the road to becoming an alcoholic?”
“The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
She nodded. “Come with me,” she said as she led me down a long hallway. The place was huge and expensively decorated. To my practiced eye, the apartment was worth at least three million, maybe four. Two or three bedrooms and a maid’s room. The decor was classical-obviously professionally done. There wasn’t a jarring note. Everything fit together like one of those homes in the decorating magazines that you thumb through, looking at the glossy pictures of perfect rooms that nobody lives in. You figure it out. The girl lives like an empress and then goes downtown and smokes pot in a broken-down cold-water flat.
She led me into the living room and I sat on a sofa that was as almost large as the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth. Over the fireplace in front of me was a Constable. It was a pastoral scene of a countryside with cows grazing in front of a large hay wagon. If I were English, it would’ve put me in a real King and country mood. I didn’t have to get a close look to know it was an original. I whistled to myself without making a sound.
She caught my reaction. “It was my Daddy’s, you know. He died a long time ago. Do you like the painting?”
“Magnificent,” I said. “And your Daddy left you some money too?”
“Enough now. Sweet Daddy,” she said with a note of bitterness. “But he left it in like a trust that I couldn’t touch until I was thirty. So I had nothing for all those years.”
“And then one day you had the entire world.”
She laughed. It was a musical laugh. “Have you ever been poor? And then, you know, hit the jackpot-rich overnight?”
“Can’t say I have. How does it feel?”
“Better than the other way around.”
She turned and left the room, her nightgown flowing behind. I watched her as she walked. She moved like nothing could frighten her. At least, nothing conceived by man.
I stood and walked over to the window. Down below on Park, the island in the middle of the street was bright with yellow flowers. I couldn’t hear the traffic. The windows were soundproof and the air-conditioning was humming low.
Inside of two minutes, she was back. In each hand she had a Bloody Mary. I took one and raised it in a silent salute. The glass was Baccarat. The drink wasn’t bad either.
I took another swallow and sat back down on the sofa. She sat down next to me and curled her legs up under her. It was the way the nightgown fell. She wasn’t wearing any panties.
She took a long pull on her drink and looked at me. Her eyes narrowed slightly. “I was just thinking how Alicia described you.”
“Nuclear physicist and male model?”
She considered for a minute. “Well, she said you were…you know. What was the word she used?” She rolled those dark eyes up and to the side. “Unyielding-that was it. And she said you were like well-informed about a lot of things-but in a superficial way.”
I grunted. Nothing like being nailed by a dead ex-wife.
“And she said you were good-looking.”
I examined her face. “Was she right?”
She giggled. “I’ll never tell.” She took a sip, then a long swallow and finished her drink. Then she looked hard into my eyes. “I always wondered if I’d ever meet you. From the way Alicia spoke…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. The girl was a curious amalgam of vulnerability and self-assurance.
I didn’t say anything. She got up and went into another room and came back with a small filigree glass and gold case. She put the case and a small mirror on the cocktail table and looked up at me. Her eyes glinted.
“Want a line?” she asked.
I shook my head and held up my glass. “My downfall. But you go ahead into never-never land.”
Her gaze took my measure. She seemed undecided.
“What else do you do?” I asked.
“Whatever my shrink says I can do,” she said with a tight smile, “and whatever he says I can’t do.”
She made up her mind. Abruptly she reached over, opened a drawer in the table and put the coke away. “Maybe I can convince you later, you know, when you’re more mellow.”
“Why do you go to a psychiatrist?”
“Why not? Who do you know that doesn’t go to a psychiatrist?”
“Did Alicia know you went to one?”
“Know?” she chuckled. “Hell, I sent her to my lovely, little sexy shrink.”
I shook my head. “Alicia never would’ve gone to a shrink when I knew her. She despised them. Said they were worse than useless.”
“Well, then either you were wrong or she changed her mind, because she became like a devout analysand. You know, the three-times-a-week kind.”
“And why did she go to your shrink?”
Rachel spread her hands. “Because either the world was fucked-up or she was fucked-up and she wanted to know which one it was.”
“How was Alicia fucked-up?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure she was. You’ll have to ask our cute little Dr. Pasternak.”
Yes. In due course I would do that.
It was four-thirty Monday afternoon, but not too late to get Stallings if he was still in his office. I’d called his office before I headed down to Wall Street and given a name I knew he’d recognize. His secretary told me he was in a meeting that would probably run past six.
His office building was on William Street in one of those Art Deco structures that had been renovated when the real estate boys convinced themselves that Art Deco wasn’t such a bad style after all. The building had turquoise and aqua highlights to show it was trendy again.
I planted myself across the street next to a construction site. It had just begun to rain, so I stepped back under an overhang and pulled up my raincoat collar. There was a clear view of the entrance to his building. I opened a copy of the Journal and paged through it, keeping an eye on the people exiting. When the downpour started, the street emptied quickly. The sky was slate gray and it didn’t give promise of clearing anytime soon.
It took forty-five minutes. Stallings came out of the building with another man. They talked for a minute, then split up. Stallings opened his umbrella and headed toward Wall Street and then turned onto Broadway. He went down the stairs to the uptown Lex and I followed not too far behind. There were enough people on the platform to give me cover.
In a couple of minutes, the express pulled in. I got into the next car where I had a clear view of Stallings through the glass window in the door. He didn’t read anything. Just stared straight ahead with a glazed end-of- the-day New York look. Behind me, two bums were arguing over who was going to finish off a bottle of John Daniels. The riders cleared a space around them to give them room to curse each other but otherwise didn’t seem to pay too much attention.
When we stopped at Grand Central, Stallings got off. He cut across the main waiting room, walking briskly, and went through one of the passageways where a man was playing All Day All Night With Maryanne on steel drums with a sound that reverberated like it was in an echo chamber. I was fifteen paces behind him on the other side. It was seven-fifteen and the terminal was still crowded with commuters.
Without a glance behind him, Stallings left Grand Central and headed west on Forty-third. His posture was shameful and he would’ve gotten an F for standing up straight if he were still in grade school.
Halfway between Ninth and Tenth, he ducked into a decrepit six-story building. There was a hand-painted sign next to the doorway with a stylized picture of a naked girl and the name “Pussy Cat.” I went in half a minute later and saw the elevator stop at three.
I knew where the sonofabitch was going but I didn’t know why. It just didn’t suit him. Stallings was a wealthy guy. His balance sheet put his net worth at five to six million. And here he was patronizing a low-class cat house. He’d pay fifty bucks for a bang instead of a couple of hundred for a decent hooker that guys like him usually took advantage of to ease the stresses of the workaday world.
Was he going here just to save a few lousy bucks?
Hard to tell, difficult to say.
It wasn’t necessary to follow him upstairs. I waited across the street in the doorway of a boarded-up storefront. The street was empty except for an occasional well-dressed couple huddled under an umbrella hurrying east toward Broadway and a can man with a large plastic bag rooting around in the garbage for a day’s income. I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long. A man of Stalling’s age and temperament wasn’t going to spend a lot of time engaging in pleasant chit-chat with the staff.
Stallings came out a little more than a half hour later. The rain had changed into an intermittent drizzle. He opened his umbrella, stopped by the curb and looked both ways before cutting across the street.
I let him walk half a block before I came up behind him and slammed him into the entrance of a shuttered store. He just stood there with his mouth wide open in disbelief.
That was all I needed. I shoved the muzzle of the nine millimeter into his gaping maw. Nobody likes the taste of hard polymer, especially a man who’s just been at heaven’s gate.
He sputtered and blinked wildly, coughing and trying to control his coughing at the same time.
“All right, my friend,” I said. “Now talk to me.”
I took the gun out of his mouth and placed the side of the barrel against his cheek.
“What…what…what…” he managed.
It’s relatively interesting to note how quickly a man’s spunk disappears when he’s just spent his load. The guy in front of me wasn’t the arrogant son of a bitch at the cemetery. Instead he was just a soft sniveling gelatinous mess.
“What was the problem?” I said.
“Why? What problem?”
I figured there was always a problem somewhere, human nature being what it was.
“The problem with Alicia,” I said.
He gulped and nodded. “Wait,” he said, trying to stand straight.
I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Her work wasn’t good. She…”
“What was wrong with it?”
He nodded again. “I had just fired her. Just a week before she…”
“Before she was killed?”
“Why did you fire her?”
“I don’t…” he said, flapping his hands helplessly. “She lost interest. She was making bad calls, bad judgments. Her stocks were down. Her earnings projections were off.”
“Why was that?”
“I tried to talk to her like a father. But she…she wasn’t working the way she used to. She antagonized a lot of people. She didn’t seem to care…” His voice trailed off.
“Why was she doing that?”
“I can’t tell you. I just don’t know. Please don’t hurt me. I promise. I swear.” He looked like he was going to come apart like a cheap suit.
“Who did she talk to at work?”
He thought for a minute. “I guess McCormack…Robert McCormack.”
“Who is he?”
“Our REIT analyst. He was her closest confidant. At least, she spent the most time with him.”
In the dim light he looked like he was about to cry. I let him go and holstered my gun. Stallings started to rock back and forth against the metal shutter and made it rattle in the night.
“Why would someone want to kill her like that?” he asked me. “Nothing like this ever happened to one of my employees before.”
“You just haven’t been in business long enough,” I informed him.
Laura came back into the room with two mugs of coffee and handed one to me. On the mug was some kind of logo and the name of Stallings’ brokerage house in an antique script. She sat down in an armchair and managed to give me a sad little smile.
Her apartment was as large as an oversized packing crate. That’s how people existed in New York. Each one with his allotted ten square feet of space. In a research laboratory it would have sent mice into convulsions. It was a junior one-bedroom. Modest, to say the least. Calligraphers don’t make a great income. But it was neat and well-furnished.
I was standing at the window looking out at Seventy-sixth. The rain had stopped and the first stars were trying to show through the clouds. The sidewalks were still wet and caught the reflections of the streetlights. Diagonally across the street on the far corner, an all-night grocery store cast shafts of light through the mist.
Laura got up and stood next to me looking out at the night. She held the mug in both hands and slowly brought it to her lips. She took a small sip and then stared down into the steaming coffee, as though she were searching for some meaning.
“Why did they kill her?” she asked finally. “She never hurt anyone.”
“We don’t know that.” I wasn’t about to tell her Alicia had nailed at least one person.
She started to say something, then bit her lip and stopped.
“Go ahead,” I said. “Say it. Whatever it is, you knew her better than anyone. At least you used to. You and Rachel…”
She cut me off. “Rachel. That whore.” Her eyes flashed.
“Why do you say that?”
“Never mind.” She waved a dismissing hand at me. “Forget I said it.”
I let it go. “Tell me anything you can remember.”
She chewed on her lip as she tried to think. Then she remembered the cup of coffee in her hands and took several sips. Finally she shook her head apologetically.
“I can’t think of anything that could help you. We weren’t that close lately. I mean, she didn’t tell me everything the way she used to when we were growing up. I guess she entered a new kind of life and left me behind.”
“Was there anything different in the last couple of months?” I prodded.
She was silent for a minute. Then she shook her head. “We spoke maybe once or twice a month and she wasn’t very specific about what she was doing. She did mention that she wasn’t happy in her work. She…she did say that Steve Wheelock had called her.”
“Was that unusual?” The bile started its work carving craters out of my gut again.
“Well, yes. Because they hadn’t spoken for a couple of years. And then, all of a sudden, he calls her out of the blue.”
“Did she see him again?”
She considered the possibility. “I don’t think so. She said we should never go backward-only forward. She said that seeing him would be the same as going backward.”
The vision came back to me, as it had so many times before. Alicia on her back, he ravaging her insides. I put the vision out of my mind.
“Are you sure she didn’t see him again?”
“I can’t be sure, but I know she didn’t want to see him. That was over a long time ago.”
She finished her coffee and grimaced as she drained the dregs. “Do you still hate him?”
I didn’t answer. How do you know hate, measure it, sound out its resonances? Do you need hate to keep you going?
I put down my cup and got up to leave. She walked with me to the door, moving with soft steps. When she turned her face up to me, I put my arms around her and kissed her on the forehead. She rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel her heart beating. She was a delicate blossom.
She answered my unasked question. “I’ll be all right. Even though I do miss her.”
“Do you know where I can find Wheelock now?”
“No.” She cast a quick glance at me, looked away, and then turned back to me. “Do you think he had something to do with it?”
“I won’t know until I talk to him.”
Dr. Donald Pasternack lived and worked out of a white stone townhouse on Eighty-eighth, just off Fifth Avenue on a block that fairly reeked of quiet old money. He buzzed me through the wrought iron outer door and then through the inner door to the vestibule. There was no receptionist. Was he cheap or was it just her day off?
I checked the alarm system on the way in. It was one of those rudimentary motion detectors that was at least fifteen years old. It wouldn’t pose any problem.
The good doctor stood at the top of the stairs looking down at me as I walked up. That was the last time he was able to look down on me. It wasn’t until I got to the top of the stairs that I could see he was at least a foot shorter than me. He wasn’t a dwarf exactly, but he was really short for a full-grown man, like one of those little people in the Wizard of Oz. Five-two maybe. He had a powerfully-built upper torso and a head that looked too big for the rest of his body. This, and his full-face bushy black beard and sharp eyes, gave him the look of a lion. A voracious pussy cat, at that.
When I faced him, he put out his hand and gave me a strong grip. Overcompensating?
Then he spoke and his voice came out as a full-throated growl. “Mr. Rogan, follow me.”
The landing was sparsely furnished with some expensive art objects. The house looked more like an architect’s place than a psychiatrist’s. The floors were white marble and the walls were stark white. The whole setting gave off a cold and unwelcoming appearance. It was tough to see how any patient would feel comfortable here.
He took me into his consulting room and shut the two soundproofed doors behind us, even though no one was within earshot. Matter of fact, there didn’t appear to be anyone else in the house. The room was silent as a tomb. He sat down on a large comfortable chair. There was no place for me to sit except the couch. But it was one of those torture racks that designers love-all chrome and leather that they think is pleasing to the eye but is pure hell for a real human being to sit on.
I sat on it and cursed him under my breath.
He was a dapper man. One of those guys who takes too much care about his appearance. His hair was black and bushy, just starting to show the first hints of gray like his beard, and just as well-trimmed. He was wearing an expensive cashmere sport coat, a Hermes tie, gray slacks and Gucci loafers. On one wrist hung a chunky gold bracelet and on the other a Santos watch.
He was sizing me up too, and he didn’t like what he saw either.
“I’m here…” I started to say.
He cut me off. “I know why you’re here. I’ve been expecting you. I suppose you think you can dance in here, get whatever information you believe you’re entitled to and then dance out again without taking any of the responsibility.” He leaned forward in his chair and put his hands on his knees. “Well, it doesn’t work that way. We all share the blame for Alicia’s death, but you most of all.” His eyes blazed. “Yes, you most of all. You were the one who killed her.”
I was beginning to get his drift, but I wasn’t buying a nickel’s worth of his psychobabble. These shrinks lived in a world of their own. They were all insane to begin with and heartily distressed with anyone who wasn’t.
“Was something troubling her the last few months?”
“Yes,” he said.
Now we were finally getting somewhere. “What?”
“You. You were constantly on her mind. You were an obsession with her. You were the one who was going to save her, rescue her from the mess she’d made of her life. Sir Galahad on a white charger. But I told her she was wrong. You weren’t going to save her.”
This shaman was right about that. “Why was I an obsession with her?”
“She never forgave you.”
I laughed. It wasn’t a pretty laugh. “Shit. Forgave me? She was the one who fucked Wheelock and walked out on me.”
He shook his head. “No, my friend.” It was obvious from the way he said it that I wasn’t his friend. He pointed a manicured finger with clear nail polish at me. “You weren’t there for her when she needed you. Sure, you were there physically, but you cut yourself off from her emotionally. You were out to lunch, emotionally-speaking. You didn’t communicate with her. You couldn’t give yourself to her spiritually. She said you never told her you loved her.”
His finger jabbed at me like he wanted to poke out my eye. “You kept your emotions bottled up inside you. You never talked with her about the way you felt.”
“All this rhapsodizing doesn’t have anything to do with Alicia’s death,” I said.
He grinned at me. One of those grins you give when you want to knee someone in the balls. “You’re wrong. It has everything to do with it. Because that’s when she started down the road that led to this end.”
“What do you mean?”
He gave me his evil grin again. “You sent her into Wheelock’s arms with your indifference. That led her into further situations which she shouldn’t have been in-situations and relationships that were destructive to her well-being.”
Now we were getting to the red meat. “What situations?”
He got up and walked over to where I was sitting. He came so close I could smell his cologne-a sweet powdery scent that men with manicures wear.
“Even if I could tell you, I wouldn’t.” He smiled with the command of his withheld knowledge. “Suffice it to say that she began her descent into her own private torment when you split up.”
He was standing next to me now and his head was almost on a level with mine. Two could play this amusing power game. I stood up and towered over this toy psychiatrist with his Olympian view of the human species.
I took a long shot. There was nothing to lose. “Dr. Pasternack, why were you engaged in sexual activity with your patient against her wishes? You know that’s a strong breech of professional ethics.”
He took an uncertain step back and stared up at me.
“She told me all about you. She told me what you did to her. How you had your way with her when she didn’t want to. How you took advantage of her weakness with your so-called therapy. I could take a little walk up to the state licensing board and give them all the details of your indiscretions with your patients. They could pull your ticket for a stunt like that. Then you’d be reduced to selling bagels on Forty-eighth street in all kinds of inclement weather.”
He waved his hands helplessly in front of him as if he was brushing me away. “It’s not…what you think…the way you think.”
“That’s not what she said. She gave me the story…about what a lowlife son of a bitch you are.”
“The only thing I ever did to her…I swear, I once got my finger in only a little way…for a very short time…and only once. She must have exaggerated…she was given to exaggeration.”
I shook my head. “That’s not what she told me.”
“She lied…she lied.” He was near tears. “I swear it. One finger…once. I loved her. I swear it. I loved her. She shouldn’t have been killed. You killed her.” He started to babble and blubber at the same time. Tears rolled down his hairy cheeks. “I wanted to but she wouldn’t let me. I loved her but she didn’t love me…she called me her love pygmy.”
The guy was out of control now. He couldn’t hold back the sobs or the torrent of words.
“I loved her. God, how I loved her. Now she’s dead. Gone forever…” His hands went over his face and his fingertips pressed into his eyes in a futile attempt to stop the tears.
He was carrying this transference nonsense a trifle too far. There was no sense in hanging around here any longer. He was no use to anybody like this.
I went down the cold marble staircase. Were his tears from grief or guilt? How much more did he know that he didn’t tell me? The only sound in the house was the rhythmic fall of my steps, the echoes of his nemesis walking away, leaving him with his solitary agony.
Downstairs, sitting on a flat leather bench in the entranceway, was a pale nondescript woman dressed in black and gray, a rust-colored Gucci scarf wrapped around her head. Her eyes were cast down, refusing to meet mine- a patient waiting for the uncertain relief of her therapy session.
Upstairs, Pasternak’s sobbing was clearly audible through the open door.
“I’d give him a couple of minutes to pull himself together,” I told her. “He hasn’t had a very nice day.”
“Last I heard he was flogging some junk public-housing munis for a bucket shop in New Jersey. He knew the paper wouldn’t survive till maturity. And he was right.”
Dave Tanner grabbed the neck of the bottle and held it upside down so the last drops of beer could wet his throat.
“Guy could perish of thirst in this joint,” he said. Tanner had a point. The bar was one of those overdecorated yuppie watering holes where the staff does you a favor by waiting on you. We hadn’t seen a waitress in ten minutes.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said. “I feel like stretching my legs.” I tossed a twenty on the table, got up and straightened my tie.
Tanner nodded in agreement and grabbed his jacket. As soon as we stood, the waitress was all over us. She looked like an aspiring actress who would have had trouble remembering her lines.
“What’s the matter, gentlemen,” she said with an edge to her voice. “Didn’t you like our service?”
“Sure,” I said. “The same way the cow likes it when the bull gives her service.”
We were out the door before she could frame her reply.
The night was cool for June and there was a good breeze as we headed north on Third. The sun was just setting and the sky was the kind of red you sometimes see in a Turner painting. Even Tanner looked at the sky and made a comment on the light, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who notices those things. It was the time of evening when couples start to stroll around and take the measure of each other.
“Is Wheelock still working in that boiler room?” I asked.
“Nah,” he shook his head. “Place folded soon as the SEC started poking around. The owners closed it and opened a new outfit across the street under a different name and they used new straw men as the principals. The Feds never had a chance. Soon as they smelled a rat, these guys would shut the shop down and open a new one with the same salesmen. Always two steps ahead of the law.”
We walked past a succession of boites, cafes and gin mills where the new generation was learning the unalloyed joys of the liquid fermentation process.
“What happened to Wheelock after that?”
Tanner shrugged. “Lost track of him. He dropped out of sight.”
“Who would know where to find him?”
Tanner watched a couple of girls coming toward us. “Wheelock was a strange bird. He didn’t have many friends. Laura might know.” When the girls reached us, Tanner turned to them and said, “Excuse me, ladies. I was wondering if you subscribed to the Apollonian or Dionysian world view.”
The girls stopped and exchanged glances. I mean, we looked presentable enough. No disfigurements that they could see. Two decent-looking apparently successful fellows in well-tailored dark business suits. They wanted to believe we were sincere and well-intentioned but there was dissonance in our words. They were at a loss as to how to reply.
Finally one of them, the plainer one, said, “I really don’t understand your question.”
They were in their early twenties, obviously out-of-towners, new to the Morris dance mating rituals of the unforgiving city. You could see the quandary they were in. They didn’t want to blow a chance at a hot night on the town but, on the other hand, they had no idea what the hell Tanner was talking about.
“What I mean to say is do you prefer Apollo or Dionysus?” Tanner went on in his sardonic tone.
The girls exchanged another glance. The prettier one allowed a gleam of insight to shine through her heavy-lidded eyes.
“Hey,” she said. “Are these like discos or nightclubs or something?”
Tanner nodded. “Yeah, but very old and very Greek.”
The girls squealed in despair. There was some kind of communication gap here.
“I’ve never been to a Greek disco before,” the prettier one said.
I nudged Tanner. “Let’s keep moving,” I said. There was no contest. It would have been too easy.
Tanner nudged me back. “We can nail them, old buddy,” he said in a mock whisper.
I grabbed Tanner’s arm and said, “Come on, champ.” To the girls I said, “Good night, ladies. Don’t you know the dangers of chance sexual encounters?”
I hauled Tanner away against his protests and left the girls with a look of wide-eyed wonder on their faces. Defender of the innocent, protector of a maiden’s chastity. Was I a man living in the wrong century?
“Laura told me Wheelock called Alicia a couple of months ago,” I said.
Tanner raised his eyebrows. “And she doesn’t know where he is?”
I shook my head.
“Fond of the sauce, he was. The guy could always drink you and me together under the table.” He paused. “Think he whacked Alicia?”
“I don’t know. The odds are good. She didn’t want to go out with him. You know what a hard head he was.” I pictured Wheelock’s face. Flat, cold, smooth with deep-set eyes. “He was capable of it.”
Tanner nodded. “Maybe. Let me make some calls. You never know. He might turn up under some rock.”
Justine rolled over on her side and gave me one of those sleepy, satisfied smiles. The pink satin sheet had fallen away and exposed her tired left breast.
I smiled back at her. She wasn’t bad-looking for her age. You could see she’d once been able to turn heads on the street but time and some of life’s little disappointments had etched their passage on her face.
She ran the tips of her fingers over my face and lips. Long ruby-red nails, beautifully manicured. The final chords of a Mozart concerto echoed through the house. It was a long piece with violas and woodwinds. I used to know which one, but now I forget.
I leaned over and nuzzled her neck. Her perfume smelled good, but it wasn’t Shalimar. She put her arms around me and pulled me to her. The motion was feminine, eternal, giving.
I hadn’t meant it to turn out this way when I called her at Chisolm’s office. I was trying to find whatever I could without being too obvious, but soon we were sliding down that slippery slope. Now I was flat on my back in Chisolm’s bed with his secretary and his house was wide open to me. Chisolm and his wife were out of town for the weekend and Justine just sort of hinted that her mother wouldn’t take it too kindly if she brought a man home to spend the night. My place, of course, was being painted, as it always is when such a need arises.
She climbed out of bed with a sigh and padded off to the bathroom. Her buttocks were a little too full and her thighs were cratered with what was popularly called cellulite, but you could see she worked out regularly. She was limber and in reasonably good shape. I guessed she was in her mid-forties.
She blew me a kiss as she closed the bathroom door. I lay back in the bed. It was a custom-made job, as big as a Civil War battlefield. I wondered if Chisolm kept a box score of his sexual encounters with his wife-or if he even had sex with her.
The ceiling was lavender, just like the walls. The room looked like some kind of training ground for the Sex Olympics. Mirrors, exercise equipment, bidet, the works. At the foot of the bed was some kind of a roll bar whose use I couldn’t figure out.
I tossed back the sheets and got dressed. By the time she came out of the bathroom I was standing by the window with my jacket and tie on and a really strong craving for a cigarette. She raised her eyebrows but didn’t say anything. She was wearing a white satin robe that had a fluffy collar and cuffs like the heroines used to wear in those films noir of the forties. Mrs. Chisolm’s maybe?
“I guess I should get dressed too,” she said as she brushed her hair back with long slow strokes.
“Tempus fugit,” I said.
“I know, I know,” she nodded. “We’ve stayed longer than we should have.” She finished the last slow strokes and said, “Do you think we could have one more drink?”
I spread my hands. “Sure, if you make it as good as the last one.”
She giggled like a teenager. Some women never lose that quality. She snapped off a sharp military salute. “Yes, sir. An extra dry martini coming right up.” Without makeup her skin looked drier and sallower, the way Irish girls look as they age.
The martini was better than the first one, or was it just that booze tastes better after the act?
As she sipped her drink, her eyes questioned me. “Was it wrong to do it or was it just wrong to do it here?”
“Neither,” I said. “No one was hurt and there was no damage, if you don’t count the stained sheets.”
She reddened. The flush was apparent through her translucent skin. “Oh, don’t be concerned about that. I’ll have them cleaned and the bed made like new before they get back.”
I had the feeling she’d done this before. We carried our drinks down an endless corridor and went down two steps into a sunken living room. The house was done in a slick modern style that suited Chisolm. There were huge abstract paintings on all the walls. Each room had its own fireplace and they were so clean it was apparent they had never been used.
We lingered another half-hour over the drinks. Our conversation was the talk of two solitary souls who knew the words would be the last between them.
When I stood up, she got to her feet and went down the hallway back to the bedroom to get dressed. After she was gone, I had a chance to scope out the alarm system and the window locks. I left one of the living room windows open a crack.
She must have sensed something because she was back faster than a thoroughbred out of the gate.
“Ready, dahling?” she said, and she held the ah just a split-second longer than necessary.
I nodded. As we stood in the entranceway, she flicked on the alarm and checked to see that the red dot was lit.
“We have forty-five seconds to get out,” she said with a wistful grin.
I grabbed her. “Just enough time for a goodbye kiss.”
Her lips were soft. And, as I turned her around, I shut off the alarm. It was a long and deep kiss. When it was time, I turned her again and led her out the door.
Before an hour had passed I was back inside the house. It was one of those contemporary colonials that was neither contemporary nor colonial, just a bastardized edition of some architect’s vision. Like Chisolm, the house was ostentatious. It stood on the crest of a small hill in the center of four acres of neatly-tended grounds. What percent he owned and what percent the bank owned was a question to speculate on.
I had all the time I needed to inspect the house. There was nothing unusual in the standard hiding places. He had a safe in his office that was easy to locate. It was behind a false front of the Harvard Classics and, knowing Chisolm the way I thought I did, there was only one reason for him to have the Harvard Classics in his home-as a false front for a safe.
I didn’t even try to crack it.
The house was large-too large for just two people. I went through every room. The interior was expensively detailed, with hand-carved moldings and plaster walls. You could see that these were people who entertained a lot, and extravagantly. The house seemed designed for that. One room served as a photo gallery and there I got a lot of views of Mrs. Chisolm. She looked a few years older than her husband, not unattractive, with a patrician solidness about her. I might have recognized her face from some society photos I’d seen in the Times. She had a square jaw and a clear intelligence in the eyes-or was it just arrogance?
I’d have to find out more about this babe. The green-eyed monster was a nasty son of a bitch. If she didn’t know her husband had broken up with my wife…
It took me three hours to search the entire house. The only thing of interest was in Chisolm’s office. It was in his rolltop desk, in one of those secret compartments that look like woodwork until you pull it just the right way. Next to a checkbook was a glassine envelope with a couple of grams of coke.
It didn’t prove much, but it tied in with the blow in Alicia’s apartment. So Chisolm was a cokehead. And he’d probably introduced Alicia into its pleasurable byways. Another stop on the highway to perdition. What the hell had Alicia become? A metaphysical, psychological, feminist cokehead. My innocent bride, who wouldn’t even smoke a cigarette, who despised Freud, and who believed that fellatio was wrong.
I flipped through the checkbook. Nothing out of the ordinary. Unless you believe that surviving on your overdrafts was unusual. Considering all the people I knew who were living beyond their means on their lines of credit or home equity loans, I guess it wasn’t anything special.
I put the coke and the checkbook back where I found them and headed home.
Now all I had to do was to check out Mrs. Chisolm’s temperament and find out if she was capable of shortening a person’s life expectancy.
“Why didn’t you tell me your little shrink played non-Freudian games?”
“Ha,” Rachel said. “If you only began to know what that squirt was capable of.”
“Then why do you go to him?”
“Because like he amuses me.” She put her hands on her hips. “He’s transparent and he’s also a real sicko. He tries to do every female patient…and I would say his batting average is pretty good.”
“And they go to bed with him?” I kept the distaste out of my voice.
She laughed. “If you call that sofa a bed.” She inclined her head toward me. “You know about transference?”
“Well, he’s like the master of transference. All his women love him. And he loves them back in every hole. Sometimes he even cures some of them.”
We walked along the path around the lake and came to Bethesda fountain. Central Park was almost empty this early on a Thursday morning. It wasn’t eight yet but the day was going to be the first hot one of the spring. I’d traded in my suit for a navy Lacoste shirt and khaki pants.
I turned to look at her face with its delicate features. Almost perfection, except for the glint in her eye. What the hell was it? Wild, devious, cunning? Damned if I knew.
“Why are you seeing Pasternack?”
A broad grin spread across her face. “You know better than to ask a patient a question like that. A person in analysis should never say why she’s going to a shrink.” She seemed delighted with the question. “But I’ll tell you anyway.”
She locked arms with me. “It was my condition,” she whispered in my ear, even though there was no one within thirty meters of us. “I have like a disorder called vaginismus. Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head.
“It’s a condition that makes intercourse extremely painful.” She screwed up her face in a rough approximation of pain. “He was trying to find out if it was organic or psychosomatic.”
“And what did he find out?”
She looked out over the lake at a young couple rowing a boat. The boy was having trouble maneuvering the boat back into the dock. He finally guided the boat in and the girl stepped over the seat and put her arms around his neck and kissed him. She was wearing a light summer dress that flowed with her movements. Shot in soft-focus, it could have been a thirty-second spot for a douche or a condom.
Rachel turned away from this touching vignette and said, “He wasn’t sure. He said it might have been caused…by Daddy. In like a roundabout way, of course.”
I didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”
She shook her head abruptly. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
“All right. Then tell me why Pasternack is such a sicko.”
She clearly didn’t mind talking about that. “He’s very good with his fingers and his tongue. But that’s all he uses, you know. I’ve heard he like only gets off by himself. I think he wants to show power over his female patients.”
“A real Rasputin, this charmer. Tell me something. Do you think he’s capable of murder?”
She chewed on that adorable lower lip. “If you’re a doctor, you think you’re like a god. You’re infallible, you know. You can do no wrong. It’s a given. Do you think a shrink measures himself by human standards? My little sicko has probably done more than most.” She giggled suddenly. “More than me, even.”
I grunted. “You haven’t done half of what you claim.”
“More than half,” she said with another giggle. “Maybe even more than twice.”
I sat in my office that afternoon, shoes off, feet on the desk, drinking black coffee out of a paper cup and thinking about Alicia. The coffee was hot. That was about all I could say for it.
What were her final moments like? Did she think of me in those last measured seconds? That poor sweet bitch.
Jesus. I just wanted to rip the heart out of the bastard that killed her.
I had no shortage of real good possibilities. Stallings, her boss. Why did he fire her? Did she have something on him? Maybe he was banging her. Was I paranoid, or was the girl who was a virgin when she married me turning into the whore of Babylon? Chisolm. Cocaine and the end of a love affair. Mrs. Chisolm, angry beyond belief at her husband’s latest infidelity. Wheelock, because she wouldn’t go out with him or revenge because she dumped him? Pasternack. A twisted shrink. Was he twisted enough to kill? Garbarini, a harmless superannuated love child or a stern Zen master punishing a wayward disciple? Even Rachel. She wasn’t a killer, but there was something about her that didn’t sit right. Something I couldn’t figure out. It was that uncertainty…
Where the hell to begin to begin? I was starting to descend into one of those black butt-kicking moods because there was no shortage of possible murderers and no feel for how to proceed from here. Then the fax rang and rolled out its message.
I eased my feet off the desk and stood watching. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The typeface was Courier 12 point. Could have come from any computer in the free world. The words were not very polite. “Stay out of this you fucking bastard or you’ll be dead”
Short and sweet. Only three more words than he needed to make his point. Maybe he added them for emphasis.
Stay out of what? I was working on half a dozen cases. Which one was he referring to?
I checked the sending number on the header and called it, but all I got was a fax tone on the other end. I sent a fax asking where they were located but all I kept getting was a disconnect message. Five minutes later, the fax got through. The return fax took another couple of minutes.
The fax said the place was on Forty-second between Sixth and Seventh, in what you would not call the fanciest precinct in town. It was four blocks from my office. I grabbed my jacket and got down there as fast as I could. It was one of those public fax-sending storefronts with Xerox machines and post office boxes, squeezed between a smoke shop and a porno hangout. The fat slob behind the counter took a spit-soaked cigar out of his mouth long enough to tell me, “I don’t remember nothing about nobody. We get hundreds of people in here every day.” When I put a twenty on the counter, he just shrugged and looked out the door at a sleazebag who was trying to come in. “Get the fuck out of here,” he yelled, “or I’ll bust your fucking skull.”
I picked up the twenty. That was the way I felt too.
I was in one of the foulest moods I’d ever been in. Black as pitch. For the next couple of hours I wandered around the city trying to sort it out.
Every block was so familiar. I walked around the East side until it became too sterile. Then I took the Seventy-ninth street transverse through the park and walked around the West side, sensing rather than seeing the menace. This was a third-world city next to the opulence of the East side, separated by the green wilderness. A jumbled whorehouse of all nations next to the ordered world on the other side of the park.
All the walking and musing did nothing to ease my disposition. I walked through the night. Tomorrow, I’d start looking for Wheelock. I hoped it would be him. That would be a nice symmetry. I wouldn’t treat him too kindly.
You could call them boiler rooms or bucket shops, but they were usually located in storefronts or first-floor offices in rundown buildings in old industrial neighborhoods. They had names like Second Jersey or First Interstate or First International or various combinations and permutations of names like Morgan, Whitney, Rothschild, Fiske. The only thing they had in common was that their names ended in Securities.
This one was located in Hoboken, but it could just have well been in Miami or Denver. They never stayed put in one location too long. Just long enough for the complaints to pile up in the state attorney general’s office or the SEC or the NASD. Then, just before the investigators swooped down, they moved operations to a less inhospitable site and took a new name.
All they needed was a switchboard for the phones and some desks. Sometimes they didn’t even need the desks. The young turks who worked these shops were college dropouts. One or two years of college and a burning desire for quick and easy bucks were all that was required. That and a slick phone manner. They’d call across the country, say they were calling from Wall Street, and play to the greed that drives the blue collar and pink collar and the retired and the widowed. The story was invariably the same. There was a gold mine, or a Russian default, or platinum options, or a new Internet company, as long as it had. com as a suffix. There was a new process, or a crisis impending. There was always a scheme-and if you waited too long you would miss out. The company would go public, the process would become common knowledge, the crisis would erupt. Now was the time to get in-before the masses, while you had early knowledge.
It had taken me more than an hour to get there because the upper level of the George Washington bridge had been closed and I had to go five miles an hour in a vehicle designed to burn rubber at a hundred and fifty.
The Palisades were partly shrouded by the early morning haze. The view of the Hudson was still magnificent, but not enough to compensate for the slow crawl. As I sat stalled on the bridge, I watched the drivers around me picking their noses or smoothing their hair, tapping on the steering wheel to the rhythm of an unheard backbeat.
I finally made it across to Jersey and drove along the local commercial streets, looking out for the building number. It was a storefront and there appeared to be a lot of activity inside the front window. A bunch of old men in working class clothing stood outside the door in a conspiratorial huddle, surveying the operation. There were signs hanging in the window promising 8 % to 10 % returns tax-free with no risk, guaranteed without fail.
I parked on a side street in front of a row of neat two-family houses that spoke of solid values. No problem leaving the car there. There was always an Italian grandma watching out of the upper floor window and wired right into the local precinct.
The girl at the desk looked surprised to see me, as if anyone half-alive ever wandered into the place. She was a luscious specimen of eighteen or nineteen with teased big blond hair and black nail polish, probably local, looking to get a job across the river on Wall Street. She must have assumed I was an investigator from the NASD, because she got up from behind her desk and came around to meet me.
I told her I wanted to see the boss and she returned with a fat, sweaty guy in tow. By now all the young studs had lowered their voices or cupped their hands over the mouthpieces, and were staring at me surreptitiously. One flash of my badge was all I gave him. That was enough. I caught his sigh of relief as he pulled a dirty handkerchief out of his back pocket.
“I’m looking for one Steve Wheelock,” I said to him.
“Oh, yeah. Wheelock…Steve…” He passed the handkerchief over his brow. He was a tall, greasy guy, balding, with a bad shave and a protruding lower lip. He wore a poly shirt that still had yesterday’s dinner on it and a six-pack tie with those stripes that shaded from dark to light. The shirt was open at the neck and the knot of his tie was a third of the way down from his throat to his beer belly.
“Wheelock worked here for a couple of years. He was a good broker. Put in his hours, made his calls, met his quotas, one of the best. Left here, let’s see,” he said as he rubbed his stubbly chin, “last April or May. Booze trouble, broad trouble, you know.” He winked at me with a jaundiced eye.
“Yeah,” I said. “Which broad?”
He wiped the back of his neck with the handkerchief. “He was a real cunt man, you know. Banged everything in sight. Some broad came into the office, not this one, the old office, when we were upstairs and she was waving a gun and said she was going to blow his balls off and everything.”
He seemed to think this was very funny because he started to guffaw and then it turned into a half laughing- half coughing spasm that I thought was going to end up in a heart attack, but he finally caught himself and wadded the handkerchief over his mouth and hawked into it.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Anyway, this broad must’ve scared the shit out of him because he didn’t come back no more. I heard he started drinking even more than before. He had us send his commission checks to…let me see…some place in Connecticut.”
I had a good idea why this turkey was being so helpful. He had no beef with me. He thought I was a cop and he wanted to keep me happy and get me the hell out of there. As long as I wasn’t investigating securities fraud, he would have told me which way his wife liked to take it. Hell, he would’ve offered me his wife.
“Who was the woman with the gun?”
He hesitated and rolled his eyes up.
“No idea. His girlfriend, maybe. A good-looking broad, though. Tall and thin, with long blond hair. Think her name was Barbara…something. I can find out for you.”
“Sure,” I said. “Do that for me.”
He yelled out across the room. “Elliot, come over here, willya.” A guy in his mid-twenties hung up his phone and threaded his way between the desks. He was wearing a neatly-pressed blue shirt with a white collar and red suspenders. The shirt was buttoned at the neck and he wasn’t wearing a tie. He looked like one of those Iranian diplomats on TV. He had closely cropped curly hair and no sideburns.
When Elliot got to us, Greasy threw an arm around his shoulder. “Elliot, my man. This gentleman is official.” He winked at Elliot. “He’s looking for Wheelock. You remember that broad that came in waving a piece around the old office? What was her name?”
“Oh yeah.” Elliot’s head bobbed up and down in recognition. “Oh yeah. What a chick. Name was…Alice…I think.”
My mouth went dry. I coughed, but not too loud.
“Boy, she was all pissed because he was screwing the secretary at the old place. That one with the big tits and the fat lips. You remember Mary Lou? She was a champion head job. Best in the office. She could suck your eyeballs out of your dick. Wheelock was so played out he couldn’t fuck his girlfriend so she came around looking for him and Mary Lou, remember? They were in the conference room screwing and this wacko comes in and says she’s going to shoot his dick off and…”
Greasy jabbed Elliot in the ribs.
“Nice operation you run here,” I said.
“We try to keep things under control but you know how it is when you get a lot of young buckos together. They got an expression here. “Only two things count-writing tickets and getting laid.”
“What about this broad?” I asked. “What happened to her?”
Elliot shrugged. “Nice looking broad, though, but high strung, if you get my meaning. I seen her a couple times before she came round with the gun. That was some fucking day-bombs going off all over the place. Wheelock in the conference room banging Mary Lou and this wacko broad running all around the place, screaming and waving a gun. And that was the day the Jefferson County bonds went belly up and all the customers were panicked and were calling in trying to unload the shit and the switchboard was all lit up and…”
“Yeah,” I cut in. “I can see it now. Like A Night at the Opera, right?”
Elliot stared at me. Greasy nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, yeah.”
“Where did you send Wheelock’s checks?” I said.
“Someplace in Connecticut.” Greasy replied.
“Get me the address.”
He kept nodding as he trotted off to a filing cabinet. In his hurry, he kept tossing files onto the floor. Then he found what he was looking for, sighed, and brought it back to me. The address was in Greenwich. I could still make it before dark if I left now.
I put my hand on Greasy’s arm. “You’ll see my ugly face again if I don’t find what I’m looking for.”
“Yes, sir,” Greasy said. “I’m always glad to help you any way I can.”
“I like the way you handle yourself,” I told him. “Just keep those young men on the phone and off the girls.”
I felt like a regular commuter on I-95. First, Chisolm’s company, then his house, now Wheelock’s address. It was 5:45 PM and smack in the middle of the evening rush. At least the car wasn’t overheating, not yet anyway. There was plenty of time to ponder our fragile dependence on mechanical objects and the unchanging physical laws of the universe.
As I drove along and tried to stay out of the trajectory of those angry sixteen-wheelers, I weighed the likelihood of Alicia running around waving a gun and threatening her boyfriend’s privates. She wasn’t a violent person, but she was tough and she was capable of defending herself. She wasn’t a fragile blossom, like those old-fashioned women. Come to think of it, she could be a vixen when pushed too far. I remembered a day long ago, when we were first married. I said something, damned if I recall what it was, but it went deep into her soul and riled her beyond belief. She grabbed one of those carving knives from the kitchen stand and chased me around the apartment, her eyes flashing, half-laughing at her audacity as she threatened to raise my voice two octaves. When I finally got the knife away from her, she crumpled on the floor and we did it then, Alicia laughing hysterically as if she couldn’t believe she could have ever acted so irrationally.
The woman they described sure sounded like her. And I guess she was capable of that kind of rage. What the hell had happened to my girl since she left me to put her in such a state? What sort of pressure could make a well-brought-up woman turn into a banshee in a public place?
I pulled off 95 at exit 4 and made a wide swing beneath an underpass. Spray painted on the concrete wall were the words I WANT MY MTV! No incitement to violence, no cry for identity, no lovesick plaint. Just a teenager’s simple wish.
The sun had just scudded behind some clouds when I located the address. It was a shabby-looking house on a quiet cul-de-sac. The other houses on the street looked like Buckingham Palace by comparison. The smell of freshly-cut grass hung in the air, but the smell wasn’t coming from this house. The yard was overgrown with weeds. There was a sculpture of a Cupid that had once been painted pink, but the paint was flaking and patches of rust were showing through, like large scabs. The house was a Cape Cod with brown cedar shakes that had been worn away by a quarter century of rainstorms so you could see the insulation under the ragged edges of the shakes.
The front door was half-open, but the outer screen door was locked. I knocked a couple of times and called out and waited maybe three minutes before I heard a heavy tread coming down the stairs. She was a slow-moving hulk of a woman in her sixties and she peered at me through heavy-lidded eyes.
I held my badge up for her to see through the screen. She squinted at it for a long minute, but her vision was obviously less than perfect.
“I’m looking for Steven Wheelock,” I said.
Reluctantly she unlatched the screen door and shoved it outward. “He ain’t here,” she said with a look of sour displeasure. “He ain’t been here since last winter. Skipped out without paying the last two months rent. His room’s still empty. Ain’t been able to rent it since.” Her voice was gravelly and seemed to issue forth from her nose. Her features were puffy and her skin was too pink, almost flushed. “Lowlife son of a bitch, he was,” she muttered, more as a confirmation to herself.
“Let me see his room,” I said.
She half nodded and led me to a wooden staircase with a runner that looked as old and dirty as the hills. She led me up the stairs, each one creaking more than the one before and showed me to a room at the top of the landing. It was a pitiful room for a grown man. Worse than the one in the Van Gogh painting. The room was as dirty as the rest of the house. It had a sloping ceiling that made it feel even more cramped than it was. The one small window was coated with a film of grease that wouldn’t even allow the daylight to shine through. Poor suffering bastard.
I took a long look around and asked her, “Did he leave anything behind?”
She laughed. “Sure, he left his books and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey.”
“Let me see.”
She jerked her head toward the closet. I yanked open the door and looked in. On the floor were stacked four corrugated cartons, filled mostly with paperbacks. I slid them out into the middle of the room and put the boxes side by side. The motes of dust floated up and caught what little light entered the room. I reached out and flicked on a gooseneck lamp on a rickety wooden table next to the bed.
Well, if Wheelock was a lowlife son of a bitch, he was an intelligent one. The books were a good sampling of what a well-educated man might want to read. There were some works by the classical philosophers, standard histories of shining eras of Western civilization, and great fiction that stood the test of time. It was a collection that could have come from the circulation desk of a good liberal arts college. The only deviation was a significant number of books by Sacher-Masoch, de Sade, and their ilk, and some Victorian pornographers and earlier specimens like Fanny Hill. There was nothing else in the boxes. I put the books back in the boxes and shoved them back into the closet.
“He leave anything else?” I asked her.
She thought for a while before she answered. “Left a note, is all.”
“Do you still have it?”
She grunted, “Yeap.”
“Let me see it.”
She padded out of the room and back down the stairs. I was alone in the room-me and Wheelock’s ghost. The mattress was stripped bare and rolled up at the foot of the bed. That’s how thin it was.
“Why did you take her away from me, you bastard?” I said out loud.
The response came back silently. “Because you let me.”
The landlady’s steps sounded on the stairs and the landing like the soft strokes of a brush. She walked into the room and handed me the note. It was scrawled on a legal- size lined yellow sheet. The handwriting was jagged and uneven.
Dear Mrs. Lenkowsky,
I’m sorry I had to leave without paying the rent. As soon as I have the money, I’ll send it to you. For security,
I’m leaving you my books. I know you don’t think they’re worth two months rent, but to me they’re worth a lot more.
Again, my apologies.
I looked up at the old woman.
“He never sent the rent?”
She shook her head vigorously, like she wanted to shake his memory out of her head.
“Son of a bitch,” she repeated.
“What else can you tell me? Did he ever see anyone or talk to anyone that you knew of?”
She hesitated. She needed some incentive. I fished in my pocket, came up with a ten, and held it up for her to see. Her eyes followed the bill, savoring it.
“Some woman used to call him. Said she was his sister.”
“Did she give a name?”
“Nope.” She reached for the ten. I let her pull it out of my hand.
“Anything else you can think of that would help me find him?”
She was engaged in some heavy duty thinking now, the glint of greed flashing somewhere far back behind her eyes.
Finally she shrugged in resignation. “I don’t know where he is.”
“OK,” I said and gave her my card. “Call me if you have anything. There’s money in it for you.”
I’d engaged her interest. “Yes sir,” she said, her voice a notch higher. “You betcha.”
The ride back to the city was a breeze. It was Friday night and I was going against the traffic. Anybody who could rub two nickels together was headed out of town for the beach or the mountains. I didn’t feel like going back to an empty apartment so I called Rachel from the car, but all I got was her machine with a sexy message about how much fun the caller was missing. I told the machine to get back to me and left my home and cell phone number, hoping she’d return soon. There was nothing to eat in my fridge except a pack of frozen hot dogs and some cheese that was showing its age, so I pulled into the garage under my building, parked in my space and took a copy of Fortune along to read while I grabbed a bite. There was a coffee shop on the next block that was friendly, if nothing else. The place was half-empty when I walked in so I had my choice of seats. I slid onto a stool at the counter and winked at the waitress. She was Mediterranean-looking, late twenties, always looked tired and sweaty, but never begrudged a smile.
“Hiya, doll,” I said. “What’s good tonight?”
“Hello, Mister,” she smiled back and put her hand on my forearm. “Steak, mashed potatoes, green peas. Real good today.”
“You sold me. And a real cold beer.”
The beer came first. I slugged down a couple of gulps as I thumbed through the pages of Fortune, not really paying attention until I saw a small piece with a picture of Stallings. The story said his firm had been pressured to fire an unnamed analyst because of an overly-aggressive sell recommendation. It seems the analyst had jumped to some rash conclusions and had knocked down the stock price by some seven points. Stallings had stuck by his employee initially, but relented when threatened with a ruinous lawsuit.
Over-zealous employees. It brought to mind Talleyrand’s advice to his ministers. “Above all, not too much zeal.”
The steak was a major miscalculation. It was small, dark and hard, like an old whore’s heart. I consoled myself by ordering another brew and ate the mashed potatoes and peas instead. To fill the empty part of my stomach, I had apple pie a la mode and coffee. The apple pie was home-made and had little pits in it. I gave the girl a good tip and rolled up the magazine. The clock on the wall said it was five to eleven. I resigned myself to going up to an empty apartment, just like I’d done so many times before. The sad part was that everything would still be where it was when I’d left early in the morning.
The night was clear and quiet, and Forty-ninth street was completely deserted. It was quicker to cut through the garage, so I headed down the ramp. Jimmy, the attendant, wasn’t in his usual place in the little office with the cinderblock walls. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the shadow of somebody by my car. At first, I thought it was Jimmy. As I stepped closer to take a look, I could make out a guy kneeling next to the BMW with some kind of tool in his hand.
I followed my first instinct, which is usually not too smart.
“Get away from my car, you scumbag,” I yelled.
He stumbled back and fell down.
That was my mistake. I never saw the joker behind me. I sensed him rather than saw him. As I dropped and turned, his knife sliced into the top of my left shoulder. The shoulder pad of my jacket partly deflected the blow, but it still hurt like hell. I knew it was bad. My vision started going in and out of focus.
The garage was strangely silent, except for their grunts. They were both on me in a flash. It was a happy coincidence that I wasn’t carrying a gun today. All I had was a damn rolled-up magazine in my good hand. They both had knives. Wicked looking switchblades. I turned to look from one to the other. They both kept moving the knives from side to side.
Jesus, I hated knives.
I couldn’t move my left arm.
I could see the guy to my left and his blade. That was OK. It was the guy to my right that I was worried about. I made a half-turn and saw his knife come arcing down. He shouldn’t have done that. The magazine caught his wrist below the blade and checked the downward motion. I kneed him in the balls and, as he crumpled, I slammed the end of the magazine into his throat. It crushed his voice box. He made a kind of gurgling sound and fell to his knees. I pounded my heel into his face and saw him cough up blood and bile and half his supper.
The other guy hesitated. Then he lunged at me. The blade got past my right arm and took a slice out of my side. As he pulled back, I swung the magazine but it hit his elbow and flew out of my hand.
The first guy was on his back, grabbing at his throat and giving off hoarse grunts.
I was in a big hole now. One arm gone, the other side hurting like hell, and an asshole with a knife about to punch my ticket.
He took a step toward me. I took a step back. And tripped. Over a goddam speed bump. I went down, off balance, and jammed my bad shoulder into a fender. I believe I let out a good-sized yell. The pain was that bad.
The guy was right after me. He didn’t miss a beat. But he was a dunce because he swung the knife downward. My right hand caught his wrist and held it. My back was against the floor and my arm was rigid. The knife wasn’t going anywhere. He realized this and the first sign of panic showed in his eyes. He had me on the floor with a knife point at my chest and he was scared. He couldn’t push down, so he pulled to the side. That gave me the chance to roll away from him. He brought the blade down again but it missed me and scraped against the concrete.
I was up now and facing him. He came for me. I let him reach me, then half-twisted so he went past as I slammed the heel of my good hand into his face, ramming his septum up into his brain. He stood motionless for half a second and then went down like a sack of shit.
He was finished.
The other guy saw what happened and scrambled up the ramp out onto the street. It was going to be hard to catch up with him after all the blood I’d lost. I was starting to feel light-headed and it was tough to focus my eyes. I held my shoulder to try to stop the flow and ran after him. But he was twenty paces ahead of me and he turned the corner and was out of sight.
I went back to the garage and examined the guy on the floor. The pulse in his throat was almost gone. He’d be checking out before the medics could get here.
I went over to where the magazine was lying on the floor and picked it up. Hell, I knew Forbes was called the capitalist tool, but I never really thought of Fortune in quite the same way.
From where I stood, I could see into Jimmy’s little office. His feet were sticking out of the doorway and his head was under the desk. When I got closer, I saw the large blood stain on his chest.
It was getting hard for me to stand so I sat on the edge of the metal desk and dialed 911. Maybe they could still save Jimmy. He took better care of my car than anyone else I knew.
They kept me in the hospital less than twenty-four hours. I was given some blood and some stitches, and told how lucky I was. The cops were more of a pain in the ass. They kept me repeating statements, then more statements, and finally more statements. I felt like Uncle Remus telling all those Br’er Rabbit stories over and over. Finally these geniuses came to the conclusion that this was a foiled case of grand theft, auto. I didn’t agree with them. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to steal a ten-year-old BMW, except maybe a fan of automobile nostalgia. The dead guy was made as a small-time junkie, pusher and car thief. Gene Black came by with another cop to see how I was doing. He said Jimmy was going to pull through. Then he delivered his judgment on the dead guy.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish was how my mother used to put it,” he told me. His eyes were sad, maybe from remembering his sainted mother.
I got home in a taxi and checked my messages. Rachel had returned my call and there was a message from Laura asking me to call her. Laura wasn’t home and I was too played out to banter with Rachel, so I grabbed a can of beer and climbed into the rack. I hadn’t even finished the beer before I was out.
When I woke, the clock said six-thirty, but I wasn’t sure if it was AM or PM. I didn’t really give a rat’s ass. All I wanted was a hot shower and a rare steak. The shower was hot, but I had to settle for a couple of franks instead.
While I ate, I turned on the TV. The local news was on, so I knew it was the evening. I was beginning to feel relatively close to an approximation of a human being again. The doc had put my left arm in a sling and the shoulder still throbbed. My right side gave me a twinge every time I moved the wrong way.
Laura called about eight and, when I filled her in on what happened, she said she was coming right over. She rang the bell a half hour later. When I opened the door, she was standing there like an angel of mercy with a pot of soup in her hands. She was wearing a short flowered cotton dress and she had a white crochet shawl draped over her shoulders.
She made me go back to bed while she put the soup in a bowl. At least she didn’t insist on feeding me. But she did sit on the edge of the bed watching me with troubled eyes as I wolfed it down. She didn’t say a word. It was some kind of home-made vegetable soup. I had always felt that home-made soup was somehow magical. I didn’t know anyone who actually made soup.
When I looked into those eyes, I understood how some men who needed mothering could be attracted to her. There was the kind of warmth of the eternal feminine.
But when she leaned over me to get the bowl, I caught the sweet smell of her perfume. It was Shalimar. It ticked off a distant memory of a fragrance. A remembered scent. And the possibility of a girl who wasn’t telling me everything she knew.
I caught her off guard.
“Why didn’t you tell me you screwed Chisolm in Alicia’s sofa bed?”
Her eyes gave her away. She was incapable of guile.
“Oh my God. He told you,” was her reflex response.
I nodded. “He told me everything.”
“Oh my God,” she repeated.
“Why did you do it?”
She covered her face with her hands. “I’ve never done anything like that before. It was so bizarre.”
The next guess was easier. “It was the coke, wasn’t it?”
She wanted to find something to blame. “Yes,” she said. “I’d never taken cocaine before then… or since. I can barely remember what happened. It was Alicia’s fault. She said he wasn’t satisfied with her alone. That he wanted someone new to stimulate him, so she made me get into bed and do it with them.”
I almost repeated the word, “Them.” I caught myself in time. I was almost surprised. But, hell, I stopped being surprised a long time ago at the meaning and variety of peoples’ sexual habits-about the time I stopped wetting my drawers.
“Go on,” I said.
“I’m so ashamed,” she said as she tried to look at me and failed. I believed her. I put my hand on her arm. She didn’t shrug it off.
“It was the cocaine,” she insisted. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I did it for her.”
“Sure you did.” Was I a cynical, unfeeling son of a bitch? “You got into bed and did it with them, after you sniffed some coke.”
She nodded. “First he did it to Alicia, then he did it to me, then he did it to Alicia, and then he did it to me…”
I was truly impressed. “That must have been an outstanding brand of coke. The guy’s prowess amazes me.”
She shook her head in confusion. “Oh no, no. You misunderstood me.” Her face flushed. “He didn’t finish with Alicia and then finish with me.” She seemed to want to set the record straight.
“What do you mean?”
She studied the empty bowl. “Well, I mean, he did a few strokes with me, then a few strokes with Alicia, and so on. I mean, he didn’t actually…you know…”
“I see.” This was a new color in my paint box. “You mean, sort of, like musical chairs?”
She flushed. “He said he couldn’t decide which one to…you know…so he…you know, by himself.”
“Oh really?” I raised one eyebrow. What the hell else could I say?
I think that was about all the truth or consequences she could handle. She got up and retreated to the kitchen. I could hear the water running as she washed the bowl.
It took her ten minutes to wash out one bowl. Then she reappeared and stood in the doorway and stared down at me. But she didn’t move from where she stood.
“Come over here,” I said to her in the most supportive brother-in-law voice I could muster.
She hesitated, then finally did come over.
“Listen. I don’t blame you for what happened. And I don’t judge you.” I tried to assuage her, what? guilt. “But you have to tell me everything you can. It’s the only way I can find the killer.”
She considered that. “You think that what I just told you will help?”
I was honest with her. I didn’t know what that little tidbit of perversion meant.
“Who knows? Every piece helps. My job is to ask questions. Asking questions, getting answers, finding the ones that don’t fit…”
“Are you going to ask Chisolm more questions?”
“You bet. Him and his wife.” I examined her face, but all I saw were eyes that trusted me. “What’s her name?”
“Constance…it’s Constance, I think. She’s from Greenwich. I know she was married before.”
“So was Chisolm. This is the second marriage for both of them.” I grinned at her. “You know what Samuel Johnson called a second marriage?”
She looked at me carefully. “No,” she said. I wasn’t sure she knew who Samuel Johnson was.
“He called it the triumph of hope over experience.”
She laughed. “I like that.” Then her tone turned serious. “Do you think you’ll ever get married again?”
I hadn’t anticipated the question. I was going to say, “If I had a girl like you…” but I thought better of it. I didn’t want to tease her.
I’d been alone so long I didn’t know if I could handle another marriage. I was coming around to the point of view that women were creatures from another universe, someplace with a methane-based ecosystem. “I don’t know,” I said finally. “I don’t think I’m right for marriage. Too much of a lone wolf, I guess.”
There was disappointment in her gaze. “That’s a shame. A real catch like you.”
“Yeah. Catch of the day. Fresh from the bay to your table in one day-skinned, de-boned, and split wide open.”
Rachel said Dr. Pasternak left New York every weekend, so I waited until late Friday night to make an unsolicited visit to review his files. It was a bitch climbing in the window with my bad arm. But at least there was a toehold to ease my way up to the ledge. And all the while I kept thinking this used to be a lot easier in Parris Island when I was a green youth, full of energy and innocent enthusiasm. Then I had the same flashback I always got of clawing my way up an incline in the Au Shau valley while we took enfilading fire, scrambling for a crevasse to squeeze into, shaking like a madman with palsy, dirt in my face, cursing Charlie, smelling acrid napalm from the treeline, half-deaf from incoming, wishing, just wishing we were home, warm and safe. Every time I climbed, that same godforsaken scene came back to me.
Once I got onto the ledge it was easy. I cut the glass, opened the latch and slid the window open. Inside the house I skirted the ancient motion detectors without any trouble. There was nothing of interest on the first floor. The house was so cold and spare and devoid of any sign of humanity that it looked like it had never been inhabited. The file cabinets weren’t in the consulting room on the second floor where Pasternak had started bawling like a little old lady, but after a quick search I located them in his private office. It was furnished in the same way as the rest of the house-sparse and uncomfortable. The desk was just a glass top with saw-horse chrome legs, and the chair was a couple of leather thongs on a metal frame. The decor was what you could call early masochist.
There were three metal file cabinets. The kind where the drawers swing out. I tried a few master keys before I found one that worked. Obviously he didn’t think anyone was interested in breaking into his files. They were locked for privacy-not security.
Alicia’s file wasn’t there. It wasn’t where it should have been alphabetically. I tried every possible combination for her name. There was plenty of time so I went through every patient’s file, but it was missing all right. In my search I came across Rachel’s file. Was I human? Sure, I was human. Were human beings curious? Does a fish swim? Does a bird fly?
Later, I said.
There was no other place in the office where Pasternak could have put Alicia’s file. There were no drawers in the desk.
I scanned the bookcases, but there were no files tucked away between the books. Everything was neat and clean and in its proper place. The books were even arranged by subject. The guy was evidently fastidious about cleanliness and order.
The file wasn’t in this room.
Pasternak could have removed it or the police could have subpoenaed it. I’d make a search of the house later but, for now, Rachel’s file kept calling me like a big slice of chocolate cake with a side of vanilla ice cream.
There were many pages of handwritten notes in a tiny tortured scrawl, densely packed, difficult to read. She must have been seeing him for some time. I didn’t understand most of the terms and the notes were in some kind of shorthand that probably only he could decipher. But I got the gist of the analysis.
What I read added a new twist to my perception of that delightful little creature. Laura had been speaking literally, not figuratively, when she referred to Rachel as a whore. She had been a dues-paying member of that noble profession for a few years. It wasn’t clear if she was actually practicing her calling when she started going for psychotherapy.
Anyway, that’s when Daddy’s trust fund kicked in. The notes showed that Rachel was thirty when she was able to have access to the money. She didn’t have to be a working girl anymore and she settled into retirement without a pension or a gold watch. But the profession had left scars on her psyche, and I guess on her body too.
Her condition, as she delicately put it, was obviously the result of her work. And Dr. Pasternak was trying to exorcise the twin demons of lust and greed. To open up those tightly grasping labia.
Jesus, what a story. Poetic, wasn’t it? She could do it when she didn’t enjoy it, had to do it to survive in a style she wanted to become accustomed to. She didn’t want to work in a normal job or couldn’t earn enough for that style, so she earned it the easy way-on her mattress. Now, when she wanted to enjoy the good old in-out, she couldn’t. Fate had decreed, now that she had all the money she wanted, no one could get into her.
It was a tough one to accept. I thought of those eyes.
I closed the file. I’d have to sort it out with her.
The martini was dry and cold going down. I tossed it back and asked the barkeep for another one. Laura was still delicately sipping her first.
I hadn’t worn my tuxedo in a while and it was feeling a little snug. Either I’d have to let it out or pull myself in. I sucked up my gut. Did a daily diet of fermented barley, malt and hops over a couple of decades cause you to generate excess avoirdupois?
I took Laura by the arm and guided her through the French doors outside to the floodlit swimming pool.
“Where’s Mrs. Chisolm?” I asked her.
She shrugged and spread her hands. The night was cool and she shivered as she rubbed her bare arms to warm herself. She was wearing a little black cocktail dress that made her look like a refugee from one of those Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn movies.
“Have you been here before?”
“Yes,” she said. “That was when I met Chisolm for the first time. Alicia invited me to a cocktail party just like this one. I thought he was a dreamboat.”
I fought it, but there was still that hard edge of jealousy. I wanted her to be virginal, even though the horse had already bolted from the barn.
“Tell me about Mrs. Chisolm. What’s she like?”
“A perfect bitch,” she said with a perfect giggle. “All the men love her and all the women can’t stand her. She’s a gorgeous society lady whose family made oodles of money during the First World War selling some sort of inferior supplies to the army. At least, that’s what Chisolm told me in a weak moment.”
Two couples ambled out onto the patio. The men were talking to each other and the two women were following behind chattering, oblivious to their surroundings. The men’s heads were close together and it looked like they were involved in some kind of business negotiations. The band was playing a Cole Porter song inside the house and the sound drifted out to where we were standing.
We stepped back inside the house. I recalled the upstairs bedroom with the lavender sheets and the balance bar and wondered how many more workouts they’d been given. Justine had been standing near the entrance when Laura and I came in, and we exchanged a glance that was as old as civilization itself, maybe even older.
“Show me Chisolm’s wife,” I whispered into Laura’s ear. I didn’t have to whisper. The band was playing Begin the Beguine loud enough to drown out any casual conversation.
There were maybe a hundred people in the house, the men in tuxedos, the women in long dresses. Sleek, smooth, successful. The place was drowning in new money, freshly minted in the Nineties. These were the people who hadn’t given it back.
Laura shot a glance of recognition at someone across the dance floor.
“Let me introduce you to Robert.”
She led me through the crowd and stopped in front of an even-featured young man with an easy smile.
“Ed, this is Robert McCormack. He was a colleague of Alicia’s. They worked on several projects together.”
He took my hand and shook it gently, a handshake that spoke of indeterminate sexuality.
“I’m happy to meet you,” he said in a silky voice. “I liked her a lot. I’m terribly sorry she’s dead.” He dropped his gaze and inspected my shoe shine closely. His sandy hair was blow-dried and thinning.
“What kind of jobs did you do together?”
He looked back up at me and then away. “We wrote research reports. We did some on REITS and a few on defense contractors.”
“That’s an odd combination,” I said.
“Yes, it is. I specialized in real estate and she specialized in defense, but we enjoyed working together. She was a great investigator, very thorough, and she often came up with a slant that was unique.”
He checked my shoes again and said, “She was a valuable analyst. That’s why I was surprised when Stallings wanted to fire her.”
He had pale blue eyes that looked like they were always ready to cry. He was in his mid to late twenties and a full-fledged member of that new generation of young men and young women that you saw so often in the workplace-neat, clean, hard-working, politically correct, and so gender-neutral that you couldn’t tell the males from the females. The boys looked the same as the girls, they spoke the same way and they espoused the same philosophy. No one must ever be offended at whatever cost. Organically, ecologically, historically-correct, even though they had trouble reconciling that with their notion that history began on the day they were born.
“Why did he want to fire her?”
McCormack looked at Laura and then at me like he was giving out a deep, dark secret. “She was going to be fired because she offended one of the firm’s clients, a big real estate developer named Jergens. Alicia found out that the free cash flow on one of his buildings was artificially inflated and that made all of his other projections suspect. He was pissed off beyond belief. He went to Stallings and said if she wasn’t fired, he wasn’t going to float the new stock issue with us. And he said he was going to sue Stallings into bankruptcy court. Stallings panicked-he’s that kind of a guy,” he said with an ugly snicker.
He seemed to enjoy telling this tale. A small smile gave him a Peter Pan look, like an elderly teenager. “He fired Alicia. But then she came up with something to make him re-hire her.”
Laura looked at him in disbelief. Or maybe it was a look of hurt. “She never told me about this.”
A waiter came up and asked for our drink order. Laura ordered another martini and I seconded the motion-extra dry. McCormack pointed at the yellow-green concoction in his hand and wordlessly ordered a refill.
The violins had segued into a medley of Noel Coward songs and had picked up the tempo. Some delicious aromas were drifting out from the kitchen, curry and garlic and something else I couldn’t identify, and my stomach was starting to make rude noises.
I watched as a tall thin female sliced her way across the dance floor and stopped in front of us. I recognized her as Mrs. Chisolm, only older and more bitter than her photos. She was wearing a full-length red gown pulled in at the waist, and it was a tiny waist. Her hair was honey brown and fluffy. She had a small straight nose, a pinched mouth and smooth skin, except for some fine lines at the corners of her eyes.
She grabbed my hand with a cool grip and said to my face, “Laura, my dear. You didn’t tell me you were bringing such a good-looking date. Wherever did you find such a luscious specimen?”
Without waiting for an answer, she squeezed my good arm and edged me onto the hardwood floor.
“You poor baby,” she said, as she eyed my sling. “What happened to your arm?”
“I sprained it opening a beer bottle.”
She must have been well-oiled because she thought that was very funny. She gave me a big laugh, more like an extended snort.
“Do you like to dance real close, lover boy,” she hummed into my ear in time with the music.
“Only if I can lead.”
She stepped back and looked at me in mock horror. “My God, you’re so forceful..so eloquent.”
With a pronounced lack of subtlety, she snuggled up to me so tight her body had no secrets. I moved her around the dance floor to the beat of a fox trot. As we danced, she ground her crotch into mine like an eight-hour drill press operator on a four-hour shift.
Was this woman capable of murder? It all depended on how much she hated her husband. How many times had he betrayed her? How many times had she returned the favor? Maybe she didn’t give a good goddam.
There were a dozen couples dancing around us in various stages of inebriation. The band was good. They wanted to approximate the forties sound and they were doing a credible job of it.
Her relentless grinding was beginning to have an effect on me. I could see she noticed it too. She smiled the kind of smile that envelops you.
“Are you having a good time, lover boy?” she purred.
“You keep rubbing my crotch and you’ll find out.”
She laughed out loud.
I pulled out of her iron grip and stepped back about a quarter of a centimeter. “We have a lot in common, Mrs. Chisolm.”
“Is that so?” She raised her eyebrows. “What do we have between us?”
“Your husband and my wife.”
Her face darkened. She was no longer the cool seductress. Now she looked more like a wounded lamb.
“Who are you?” she asked in a more tentative voice.
“My name is Rogan.”
She still didn’t make the connection. But something in the dark recesses of her mind was telling her this was going to be unpleasant.
“Your husband was engaged in various and sundry sexual activities with my wife.”
“Who is your wife?” she asked.
Her eyes got it first before her mouth opened. “You’re…”
“That’s right, Mrs. Chisolm. Alicia’s husband.”
She was clearly shaken. “What right do you have coming here? You’re not welcome at this party.”
I gave her a ugly grin. “From the state of my member, I would say I was pretty welcome.”
She gritted her teeth. “Get out of here,” she said.
I grabbed her wrist so hard she winced. “Listen to me, sugar. First you tell me if you knew your husband was banging my wife.”
She tried to struggle out of my grip. The music was playing louder and louder. The band was back to Cole Porter.
Birds do it…bees do it…
Why don’t we do it?
She stopped resisting and went limp. I let her go.
“Yes, I knew,” she said, so low I could barely hear her. “But she wasn’t anything special. She was only the latest in a string of women. Michael is a man of prodigious appetites. One or two women could never satisfy him. He always keeps written records, to help him remember. She was just one insignificant notation among many. He showed me his records.”
“Damn considerate of him.”
I took her in my arms and started dancing again. I figured I could hear her better that way. She didn’t resist. She followed me like a dutiful wife, submitting graciously.
“At first I thought he might have killed your wife. That is, if she ditched him.” Her voice was still muffled, as if it was coming from a faraway place. I had to strain to hear her. “But then I realized he didn’t have the balls to do it. He just doesn’t have the pure hatred you need in your heart.”
I gave it to her. “Do you?”
She grimaced like I’d stepped on her toes and stared right into my eyes. Yeah, she had it. A long-smoldering anger from how many remembered betrayals. Her look said it all.
I let her go. No use dancing with a bitch long dead. She gave me a grim half-smile, so different from the come-on of a few minutes ago.
“What’s the matter, big boy? Lost your appetite?”
It was true. My hard-on was gone, replaced by a cool revulsion. One look, the wrong kind, was enough to dampen any guy’s interest.
The band had finished the set. The room was quiet except for some giggles and the clink of ice cubes.
“Yeah. I just remembered I have to feed my piranhas.”
I did an about-face and walked away.
Gene Black was waiting for me when I got home. John, the doorman, nodded at me and jerked his head at the hunched figure of the cop. It was 1:10 AM and he was sitting in the lobby on a sofa that was badly in need of reupholstering. He’d been deep into the sports pages of the News and his stubby fingers were black with ink.
When he saw me, he stood, grinned sheepishly and rubbed his hands together. “Nice tux. You just get off bartending?”
“Jesus,” I said. “The hours you keep. You should’ve been the madam in a cathouse. Sleep all day, play all night.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Black nodded in tired acquiescence. “Listen, Rogan. I’ve had a long day. Gimme a break, willya, buddy?”
I nodded. He was right. That was no way to treat a long-suffering civil servant. “Come on upstairs. We’ll make some brewmaster happy.” I threw my arm around his shoulder and pushed him toward the elevator.
It took a long time for the elevator to get to the ground floor and it took just as long to get to the tenth. There was always some problem with the mechanism and I suspected it was about to give out again. The other car had been out for weeks. The walls of the elevator were some kind of wood-like veneer that was warping and pulling away from the backing. Some glue would have served to stick it back in place, but no one had ever had the motivation to fix it, so each week it separated a little more from the wall.
When we got to ten, Black got off first and followed me down the hall to my apartment. The door had just been painted for the first time in ten years, but some bozo of a workman had brushed against it and left a streak where his back had been.
Black looked at the door. “What happened? You try to knock some guy through the door?”
I grunted. It was too late in the day for witty repartee. I opened the door for him and pointed the way to the living room.
“Help yourself to a brew. I have to drain the lizard first.”
On the way back from the head I checked the machine for messages. There were a couple of calls from bill collectors and one from Rachel. Her voice sounded edgy. She said she had something important to tell me. I didn’t know what time she made the call. My answering machine was one of the ancient kind that didn’t have a time stamp.
I looked at my watch. It was 1:25 AM. I decided to call her after Black left.
By the time I got back to the living room, Black had polished off half a bottle of Rolling Rock. I got one for myself and caught up with him.
He didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes. Just sat there kind of shell-shocked. I didn’t disturb him as he sat there rummaging through his thoughts. Then he seemed to wake up and notice that I was sitting across from him.
He made a face and said, “Wadda you got for me?”
I told him the truth. “I ain’t got dick.”
He nodded and fell silent for a long time. Then he finished his beer and went to the kitchen for another one. When he came back, he plopped down into the chair, took a long swig and said, “I think it was the boyfriend.”
He pulled a pack of Camels out of his shirt pocket, lit one and jammed the pack back into his pocket. When he couldn’t find an ash tray, he tapped the ashes into the mouth of the empty bottle.
I really felt like bumming a cigarette from him.
“Chisolm?” I said.
He nodded and I could see that old cop’s mind working.
“I don’t like him. He’s too slick.”
“Sure,” I said. “Try to get a conviction for that. You got anything on him?”
He shrugged and I could see he didn’t. “Where’s his motive?”
“They were breaking up. She was going to walk out on him.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” I said. “Besides, you don’t kill someone for walking out on you. That’s too Victorian. He’s not the kind to do that.”
“I don’t like him,” Black repeated.
“Then don’t have his child.”
“He’s the one supplied her the coke.”
“Is that right?” I chewed on that for a minute. “Or did she supply him?”
He shook his head vigorously. “Naw, he gave it to her.”
“Even so, you still don’t have a motive.”
He threw up his hands. “OK, so who do you like?”
He had me there. I didn’t even have as much conviction as he did. What I did have was a goddam pain that shot up my arm and down my side.
Black saw me wince. “Still hurts?” he said.
“Only smarts when I do the high hurdles.”
He took a deep drag on his cigarette and studied the lit end with real concentration. Then he let out the smoke very slowly. I’d never seen anybody enjoy a cigarette so much.
“What about Chisolm’s wife?” he asked. “She looks like a bitch with a killer instinct.”
I nodded. I had to agree with him. “She sure does, doesn’t she? I haven’t given up sniffing around her.”
He gave off a long sigh. I looked at him real close. What a sorry sight the pair of us made. There we were, a worn-out cop about to be pensioned off and a smart ass ex-marine with a gimpy arm. Two seasoned pros and we couldn’t get to first base.
“I don’t know who killed her, Gene. I wish I did because I’d like to end his miserable life.”
“Now, now…I’m a lawman. You can’t say that kind of shit in front of me. I might get offended.” He took a long swallow of beer and cleared his throat with a hoarse cough that sounded like he was about to puke up the contents of his stomach.
“What about her boss, Stallings?” he asked.
“What about him?”
“She didn’t like him.”
“Big deal. You like your boss?”
He grunted and spread his hands. Then he leaned back and locked his hands behind his head. “Well, who else is there?”
“Only a couple of hundred other suspects.” It was getting late and I wanted to call Rachel. I got up from the chair. “We’re out of beer, Lieutenant.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said as he rose reluctantly. “I get the hint. You don’t have to be so blunt. I can understand subtlety.”
“Yeah. Like a two-by-four over the head.” I gave him a smile and a half-salute. “Carry on, regardless.”
He turned serious when he reached the door. “I wanna close this case. You get something, you give it to me, right?”
“I want to close this case more than you do. Make book on it.”
I shut the door behind him.
Rachel was sleeping when I called her. She was also on something because I couldn’t get her to form coherent sentences. She kept muttering something like, “My shrink is dead. He left me behind. He left me all alone…”
“Listen,” I said finally. “I’m coming over. Tell the doorman to let me up and leave your front door open. You got that?”
I had to repeat it three times before she gave me an acknowledgment.
I was at her building inside of fifteen minutes. The doorman nodded when I told him my name and sent me up the elevator with a small wave of his hand.
Her front door was half open. I shoved it the rest of the way and walked in. The place looked like Hue after the Tet offensive. Clothing was all over the floor and the place looked like an unholy mess. I walked back down the long hallway to what I assumed was her bedroom. The door was closed.
I opened it slowly and saw Rachel’s form on the bed in the dim light from the hallway. Her nightgown was way up around her chest. She wasn’t wearing anything else. One arm was flung up on the pillow and the other hung over the side. The shaft of light behind me slanted across her face.
She didn’t move. The only way I could tell she was alive was the slow rise and fall of her belly.
Then she opened one eye and smiled. “Hello, long-lost stranger,” she whispered.
“What happened to Pasternak?”
She shook her head in slow motion from side to side. As she did it, her face disappeared into darkness and then came back into the light. It was like watching an old time silhouette lantern show.
“I don’t know,” she moaned. Then she said it again.
“You said he was dead.”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?”
“How did he die?”
“He’s dead, you know, and he left me stranded without a shrink.”
I could think of worse things. Like running out of cold beer on a hot summer day. I stepped over to the bed and shook her shoulders. “What the hell did you take?” There was no smell of alcohol on her breath.
She didn’t answer. I slapped her a couple of times.
She blinked and tried to sit up but she didn’t make it. Then she mumbled something I couldn’t understand. I sat on the edge of the bed and propped her up against the headboard. Her nightgown fell to her waist.
“What did you take?”
She opened her eyes and gave me a glassy stare. “Some pills…I think…”
She tried to think, then gave up and shook her head. “Just some pills…” She giggled. “Am I a bad girl?”
“No, you’re wonderful. You’re a great girl.”
She put her hand up and touched my cheek. “You’re a dear. You’re tough and you’re sweet.”
“How did Pasternak die?”
She gave me that glassy look again. Her thoughts were struggling to come back from that place where they’d gone. I ran my hand through her straggly hair.
“Talk to me, baby. Tell me what happened to him.”
With a visible effort, she managed to break through. “He killed himself. He’s dead. And now like I don’t have a shrink.”
I tried to comfort her. I held her in my arms as she rocked back and forth. “Don’t worry. It’s all right. You’ll find another shrink.”
Then, without warning, she burst out laughing. “Yes, but what about tonight?” She laughed so hard, tears started down her cheeks. She was laughing and crying at the same time and she kept on like that for a couple of minutes. Then she calmed down. She took some deep breaths.
“My little doc is gone,” she said in the sing-song voice of a little girl. “My little doc is gone.” I cradled her as her breathing became deeper and deeper. My eyes had become accustomed to the dark and I could make out the prescription vial on the night stand and the glass of water next to it.
Then she started to surface. She looked up at me and whispered, “I want to swallow you and I want to swallow your juice.” She reached down and started to caress my crotch.
“You’re in no condition to swallow anything,” I said.
She stopped moving her hand but left it where it was.
“How did he die?” I said.
She was back now. She would be all right. “How does a shrink die? He overdosed on pills. A lot of pills. He left a note, you know, saying it was because he loved her.”
Her smile was nasty. “You’re the detective. Let’s play a guessing game.”
“Give the man in the balcony a silver dollar, my daddy used to say.”
That threw me for a loop. “Why the hell…”
She interrupted me. “You’re a big boy. You’ve heard of transference.”
“Yeah, but transference works the other way.”
Her grin became even nastier. “Usually it does. But in this case…” She left the sentence unfinished.
I rubbed the stubble on my jaw and tried to put the pieces together. A heartsick shrink checked out with an OD. And I had a broad in my arms with a bad case of psychoanalytic withdrawal. All this wasn’t making my job any easier.
All of a sudden I felt really tired. Too tired to make it back to my place. The way you feel when you know your reserve tank is empty and the nearest gas station is over the county line.
I pulled off my tuxedo jacket with some difficulty, favoring my bad arm. Then I loosened my tie and kicked off my shoes.
“Shove over, buttercup,” I said. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Well, thank you very much, Mr. Politeness,” was the last thing I heard before my head hit the rack.
The next morning at ten, I ducked into Stalling’s office and slammed the door shut behind me. He was surprised to see me. I was surprised by the fact that I was lucky enough to stop by while his secretary was down the hall at the coffee wagon discussing the latest Serbo-Croatian foreign policy initiative.
As he looked up from the research report he was reading, I could see that flash of fear in his eyes. So he remembered our last cordial encounter and the cold feel of a hard polymer gun against his cheek.
He reached for the phone on a little table next to him.
“Don’t do it,” I said.
He pulled his hand back.
“Why did you fire Alicia?” I walked behind where he was sitting on a sofa next to a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over the harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
Stallings had one of those modern offices that had dispensed with the desk, that archaic symbol of work. He was slouched down on an overstuffed leather couch with a pile of reports on the floor next to his highly-polished shoes. He’d shrugged off his Brooks Brothers suspenders with the little ducks and was sipping herb tea from a china cup. He was wearing the kind of shirt with a white collar and blue body, French cuffs and little gold button cuff links. His slicked-back hair was so shiny the ceiling light reflected off it.
Just as I stepped next to him, he made a sudden jerky movement and dropped his teacup onto the rug. It didn’t break, but the tea slowly spread out in a darkening stain on what was probably a very expensive oriental.
He stood and turned around to look at me. The expression on his face was a strange mixture of fright and annoyance.
“Sit down,” I said. I shoved him back onto the couch.
He did. His undertaker’s style had deserted him. He was no longer the old smoothie. You could see he wanted me six feet under.
“Why did you fire Alicia?” I said.
He looked at me like I’d said, “Why did you kill Alicia?”
The words came out of his mouth in a stammer. “I…I didn’t…”
“Don’t hand me that, Stallings.” I grabbed his shoulder from behind. “Did it have something to do with Jergens?”
His eyebrows went up about six inches. “How…?”
“I find things out. Things you don’t want other people to know. I know what color your skivvies are.”
He slumped even more in the sofa. “I have nothing to say to you,” he tried. “Talk to my lawyer.”
I squeezed his shoulder so hard he winced. “This isn’t due process, Stallings. You can’t take the Fifth with me. But I have a hunch the SEC would like to hear about it. I’m sure you’d welcome an investigation of Jergens’ stock offering. You know how these Boy Scouts are when they start to poke around.”
“Oh, God, no.” His frame slumped even more.
While he debated whether to betray a valued client and lose a stream of future income, I surveyed the view from the fortieth floor. He had the corner office with tinted windows on two walls. From where I stood, you could see all the way down the East coast to Key West. The Statue of Liberty looked insignificant way down in the harbor, like one of those souvenir shop models. You wanted to reach out and pick it up and shake it and let the snow settle on its base.
“What about Jergens? Was he the reason you fired Alicia?”
The answer was barely audible. “Yes.”
I had to prod him. “What happened?”
Stallings practically had tears in his eyes, like I’d just punched the last hole in his meal ticket. “Jergens was going to float a new stock issue in the third quarter and we were to be the lead underwriter. The real estate market has been strong, as you know, and Jergens was one of the strongest operators. It would have taken the slightest hint of scandal to derail the offering and our underwriting fees with it. I couldn’t afford to take a chance. The future of the firm literally depended on it.”
“We’ve lost some large underwriting clients recently and our reputation was starting to suffer. If we’d lost this deal, people on the street would have started questioning our ability to do deals.”
“What did Alicia do?”
Stallings permitted himself a small smile and then looked up at me to see how I’d take it. “She was a clever woman, your wife. I don’t know what caused her to suspect anything, but she actually went down and inspected a bunch of properties in person. She started at the top floor in each building and went through every one, knocking on doors to determine occupancy rates. She talked to maintenance workers and cleaning ladies. What she found out was that Jergens’ financials were not strictly cricket.”
I had to hand it to Alicia. That sounded like something she would have done in the old days, before her new age, Mother Earth self. “Nice detective work, for an amateur.”
Stallings nodded vigorously, as if he wanted to get on my good side. Little did he know I’d lost my good side a long time ago, somewhere in that perfect purgatory that was called the Au Shau valley.
“That’s when you canned her?”
“Well, no,” he said. “It was a little more complicated than that. She evidently went directly to Jergens and told him of her findings. I don’t know to what end. He threatened her and told her to bury the information. Then he set up a meeting with me at an out-of-the-way restaurant and told me to fire her.”
“So you did?”
Stallings nodded. “Yes. But then an odd thing happened.” He narrowed his eyes. “He called me back a couple of weeks later and told me to re-hire her.”
“Why did he do that?”
Stallings leaned toward me. “That’s the strange thing. I don’t know why. But she came back to work as if nothing had happened.”
“What about the report?”
“It was never published. It just disappeared off the face of the earth.”
I took this all in. “What did Jergens threaten her with?”
“He swore to destroy her career. I believe he even threatened her with physical violence. When she came back to the office after meeting him, she looked scared to death.” He stopped and caught himself. “I suppose that’s a poor choice of words.”
“Don’t trouble yourself about it,” I said. “No one’s going to flunk you for insensitivity.”
Her starched white dress made an audible rustle as she rose to get me the file. In a single motion, she reached down and smoothed out the wrinkles on the front of the material where her legs had been.
“I really shouldn’t do this,” Pasternak’s nurse said in a tone that meant she really wanted to do it. “But since he’s dead and she’s dead, I don’t see how it can hurt anyone.”
A sob story always worked on a babe like this. Nurses were sweet, they were caring, that’s why they went into the healing professions. I’d told her how grief-stricken I was by Alicia’s death and how I thought Pasternak’s suicide might have tied into it and how I wanted to make sense out of the whole tragic business. She bought into it. But only up to a point.
“I can’t let you take the file out of the office, but I’ll let you read it here,” she told me with a tone of concern. She confirmed that the police had taken Alicia’s file. That was why I couldn’t locate it when I made the unsolicited house call to Pasternak’s office on that midnight dreary.
She led me into a cramped waiting room with a soundproof double door that was a shade more comfortable than Pasternak’s office had been. She turned and gave me a pleasant little nurse’s smile. Her accent was somewhere between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and her face was round and flat in a Balkan kind of way. “Take as much time as you need,” she said in a voice that came from years of practice in the art of comfort and solicitation. “I have a lot of paperwork to do before the office is closed down.”
She laid Alicia’s file down carefully on a coffee table covered with editions of Architectural Digest, Vogue, The New Yorker and other magazines that reflected the supposed browsing habits of the ideal clientele Pasternak wished for but didn’t have.
“Before you go, I’d like to ask you a few questions,” I said.
She looked surprised, but quickly said, “Sure, Mr. Rogan, whatever I can answer.”
“Thanks. Why don’t you sit down.”
She sat facing me in a prim and proper way with her knees pressed together and her feet in their sensible white shoes flat on the floor.
“I just want to understand why my wife is dead and why Dr. Pasternak is dead.” I tried to look earnest. “Will you help me.”
“I’d be glad to, if I can, but I don’t know very much about your wife. She came once a week, but she broke her appointments a lot. Doctor used to get very upset about that-more than with most of the other patients, you know.”
“Why do you think that was?”
She shrugged brightly. “I don’t have the faintest idea. Maybe Doctor liked the sessions with her more than the others.” She furrowed her brow. “Doctor did tell me once that her sessions were…what was the word he used… fascinating.”
She leaned forward and spoke softly, almost reluctantly. “You know, Mr. Rogan, it’s like this. Most of Doctor’s patients were older you know, elderly, and they were, you know, not very interesting. They were…he called them ‘run of the mill.’ They were, in other words, boring, you know. Doctor said they had body odor and they… they had flatulence, you know?”
“Yeah, I know what that is.”
“Well, he did have a few young ladies as patients and he seemed to appreciate those sessions more. He used to tell me that was the way psychiatry should be, you know.”
“Do you think Dr. Pasternak had a physical relationship with any of his patients?”
She drew back and her face went white. “Oh, no, never, not ever. That’s against all the rules, the ethics, you know. Doctor would never do that, never.”
“I see, I see,” I said reassuringly. I didn’t want her clamping up on me. “How did you find out he committed suicide?”
“Why, I discovered his body.” She seemed almost pleased with herself. “Doctor lived alone, you know, and I usually come to work at nine. Only that morning he didn’t let me in. I thought that was strange, you know. I had a key he gave me so I could do work when he wasn’t home, you know, so I opened the door and went in. I thought he just wasn’t home.”
I watched her mouth move as she told her story. Some people just love to talk. All they need is time to spare, an excuse and a listener.
“Well, anyway, I started to do my billing and then I caught up on a lot of overdue paperwork, you know. I guess I’d been working for a couple of hours and I was getting thirsty and hungry and my ears were starting to hurt from the headset, so I went to the kitchen to make myself a snack and get a soda and then I went to the bathroom. Only the bathroom door wouldn’t open. So anyway, I pushed hard and it opened a little and then I pushed a little more, you know, and I could feel something was holding the door shut, so I pushed more and I saw his foot. You couldn’t imagine how surprised I was, you know.”
“I have a pretty good idea,” I said, by way of encouragement.
“Well, anyway, I’m a nurse, you know.”
“I kind of suspected that.”
She nodded. “So I tried to resuscitate him, you know, but I could tell it wasn’t any good. He’d been dead for hours. So I just sat down and thought. I didn’t go into shock or anything, you know. I’m a professional,” she said, holding her head erect. “So anyway, after that, I walked through the whole house to see what I could make of it.”
She moved closer to me and whispered, “I even went up to the top floor, where I never went before, because he said I was forbidden to go up there. And that’s where I found it.”
“The suicide note,” she explained.
“Yes, it was on the night table by his bed.”
“And what did it say?”
She held out her hands in front of her with the palms facing me. “The police told me not to say anything, you know.”
I was as smooth as warm butter. “Yes, I can imagine. But you can tell me because I was her husband,” I said in the most masterful non-sequitur I had ever used.
She eyed me suspiciously. “Well, I guess it’s all right. The note went something like ‘Because I loved her and now she’s gone.’ “
I nodded. “What do you think he was referring to?”
“I don’t know…I really can’t imagine.” She looked genuinely puzzled.
“What else did you see?”
“Well, there was an empty prescription bottle on the table next to the note. The police took that too. I’m not sure, but I think it was Prozac.”
She thought for a minute or two, then said, “Nothing else really, you know.”
I could see that was all she had, so I thanked her and told her I’d read Alicia’s file for a while.
I stayed in that little room for almost an hour, just getting up once for a cup of coffee. She didn’t have any real coffee, so she made me a cup of what she said was hazelnut-flavored instant decaf, but what I took to be coffee-flavored dishwater.
The file was a bitch. Pasternak’s handwriting was tough to decipher. I tried to make some sense out of the technical terms, shorthand notations and abbreviations. But the part that set me back a couple of squares was a beauty. That was the series of entries that described the sexual relationship between Alicia and Rachel.
It was like Dr. Pasternak’s own private window into a subterranean life. It appeared that both Rachel and Alicia confided their unembarrassed thoughts and actions to Pasternak, so he had a front row seat from both angles to their labial activity of huffing and puffing and sweating.
I had no reason to suspect they were screwing, or whatever it was called when lesbians did it to each other. Rachel might have had some minor justification, with her vaginismus. But Alicia…? She never showed any inclination toward women. On the contrary, she always told me it made her want to heave. And now…I could just visualize all those fingers and tongues busy at their lubricious work.
All this non-traditional sexuality was starting to make me doubt the eternal verities. Whatever happened to the good old male-female in-out? Seemed like it was on its way to becoming a niche product in the medicine chest.
I’d seen enough. Alicia’s file described a complete stranger. I was about to toss the file back onto the table when I saw another page that had been folded over and tucked into a flap in the cover.
That page surprised the hell out of me.
It described in excruciating detail how Alicia had been brutally raped and beaten several years earlier. How she’d been taken to the hospital in a semi-coma and had remained there for almost a week. How all identification had been removed from her so she was admitted as Jane Doe until the police could put a name to her. And how she’d told no one about the incident. Absolutely no one, except her shrink, for fear of the humiliation.
And who was the lowlife rapist? His name was Wheelock.
I put the file down, took another swallow of dishwater and leaned back in my chair. There was a deep dull ache in my chest. I tried to imagine the torment my girl had gone through. I wished I could have been there to comfort her. But she never told me.
The rape and beating was a new insight but I didn’t know what it was worth. Could that have caused the change in her personality? Oh, the intricate clockwork that we call the human psyche. Who could ever plumb its depths or make any sense of it?
“Find Wheelock for me,” I told Tanner. “The son of a bitch has gone to ground and I can’t locate him.”
He squinted and ran his fingers through his thinning crew cut. “Sure thing, old buddy. Maybe one of his old sailing mates has a line on him. How close did you get?”
“Tracked him down to a rented room in Greenwich. After that he just disappeared. Couldn’t scare up a trace of him.”
Tanner finished off his beer with a flourish and lit up a large foul-smelling cigar. We were in the cocktail lounge of the Hyatt on Forty-second street in the middle of a sea of marble and polished chrome and glass. As the smoke wafted over to the next table a middle-aged woman with wire-rimmed glasses and a sour expression wrinkled up her nose in distaste.
“Let us absent ourselves from this place,” I said. “I need a long walk.”
I tossed a ten on the table and headed through the lobby in the direction of Grand Central. Tanner grabbed his briefcase and hustled to catch up with me. Before we were halfway out of the hotel, our cocktail waitress came running, her rubber-soled shoes making squeaking sounds on the polished marble, and caught up with us.
I turned to face her. “What’s on your mind, honeybunch?”
She struggled to catch her breath. “It’s not enough,” she wheezed.
“What? We just had a couple of beers,” I said. “The rest is your tip.”
“I know,” she said between deep gasps.
“Sir, the beers are five-fifty each,” she said.
Tanner and I exchanged disbelieving glances.
“Barley, malt, hops, yeast. A little fermentation. A percentage for advertising, overhead and profit,” he said with a big grin.
I shrugged and handed the girl another ten. “Does this redeem us?”
“More than enough to reserve you a place in the heavenly choir.” She put her hand on my arm. “Come back anytime, gentlemen.”
“Sure,” I said. “Next time I hit the trifecta.”
We left the Hyatt, walked through Grand Central, went up the escalator, through 200 Park and the Helmsley Building and exited onto Park Avenue.
It was lunchtime and all the office workers were out for a stroll. The day was clear and warm and sunny. Tanner and I walked for a few blocks without talking. The only thing fouling the air was his cigar.
“Jesus, will you put out that damn thing. It smells like a cathouse the morning after payday.”
“Sorry, old buddy,” he said as he poked me in the ribs. “Didn’t know your nose was so sensitive. You used to like the smell of WP.”
“Yeah, but that was a different time.”
His remark brought back the memory of a green lieutenant carrying a badly-wounded captain on his back from one of the hilltops guarding Khe Sanh through triple rows of wire and elephant grass to a medevac landing zone and waiting with him for the choppers to arrive while rocket-propelled grenades and mortars fell all around them. He was the kid. I was the captain. I owed him.
We walked to Fifty-ninth without a word. Old friends can do that. Wordsworth once spent an entire evening at Coleridge’s house without either man speaking. When he left, he thanked his friend for a pleasant time.
The secretaries in their summer dresses sat with their boyfriends in front of the office buildings eating salads and drinking Evian. The people strolling by studied the people sitting down who, in turn, studied them.
“Dave,” I said finally, “Did you know that Alicia’d been raped?”
“Raped and had the shit kicked out of her. Spent a week in the hospital.”
“Jesus,” he whispered. “Who did it?”
He let out a long slow whistle. “When did it happen?”
“A couple of years ago. Nobody knows about it.”
“How did you find out?” he said.
“From a dead psychiatrist.”
I looked at him. His eyes had tears in them.
“Find the bastard for me,” I said. “I want to exchange a few words with him.”
“Tell Mr. Jergens my name is Rogan.”
“Just a moment please.”
The secretary came back on the line. “Mr. Jergens says he doesn’t know you, Mr. Rogan.”
“That’s correct. Tell him it’s about Alicia Rogan.”
She clicked off and came back a minute later. “He says he doesn’t know of any Alicia Rogan.”
“She was a stock analyst working for Stallings. He might have known her by the name of Alicia Farrell.”
She clicked off and on again. I could picture her by the tone of her voice. Pinched nose, thin lips, hair tied back in a bun. “Mr. Jergens still doesn’t recall anyone by that name.”
“All right, then tell him it’s about his phony house of cards.”
She was back in a flash. “Mr. Jergens says he doesn’t know anything about a house of cards and he asked me to bid you a very good day, Mr. Rogan.”
And then she was gone.
Rachel opened the door to her apartment. She was holding an enormous drink in her little hand.
“Is that scotch?” I asked.
Her lips curled up in an approximation of a smile. “It might be. Care for a sip?” She held the glass up to me and offered me a taste.
I took the glass and tried some. It was scotch all right, and it was good.
“You made a sale. I’ll take four fingers.”
She led me into that enormous living room and sat me down on that enormous couch.
“I thought you’d like it. It’s as expensive as scotch gets.” She reached over to the cocktail table and poured me a glass-full from a decanter.
I took a couple of long, slow sips and thought about all the joys I’d been missing. Cheap scotch dulls the taste buds. Or was it just the passing of the years?
She put the decanter back on the table and glanced sideways at me with a hint of impatience. “Well, tell me. What did you find out?”
I hesitated. “Did you know that Alicia had been raped and badly beaten?”
She took a deep breath and shook her head slowly. “No, I didn’t know,” she said softly. “I thought we were friends. You should be able to tell your friend about something like that, you know. She never told me…”
She took a big drink of her scotch. Then she took another big drink. There was pain in her eyes. She looked down and closed her eyes so I couldn’t see the hurt. She didn’t say anything for a long time.
Then she looked up at me and said, “What else did you find out?”
“It’s not pleasant,” I said.
“I’m a big girl. I can take it.”
“You sure can.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“You were a lot closer to Alicia than you told me.”
It didn’t register at first. Then her eyes lit up as she got the picture.
“Tell me if you’re referring to what I’m thinking,” she said coolly.
There wasn’t any use pussyfooting around the subject, so to speak. I let her have it as plainly as I could. “You fucked Alicia.”
A nasty smirk played on her lips. “I didn’t fuck Alicia.”
I smiled too. “That’s technically correct. But you did have sexual congress with her.”
The smile left her face. “That’s like technically correct, if you must know.” She stared into the glass of amber liquid she cupped in both hands. “But, in my defense, I only have sex with people I like.”
I could buy that. “Tell me something,” I said. “Did you have a hard time convincing Alicia to do whatever it was you did?”
She took a large swallow of scotch. “Not really. I think she was like primed for it. I mean, she was surprised when I first suggested it, but she wasn’t angry or disgusted or anything like that. I think she was secretly flattered. It didn’t take long to convince her to do it.”
She gulped down the rest of her drink and quickly poured herself another glassful. She pursed her lips and said, teasingly, “Is this an official detective investigation or are you just curious?”
“Less than a week,” she said softly.
She kept rotating the glass in her hands so the ice cubes clinked. The glass was cut crystal with an intricate pattern that caught the light and gave off rainbow colors as it turned.
“What did you tell her to make her do it?”
Her eyes flashed. “I didn’t make her do it, buddy boy. She said she wanted to. She said she’d had it up to here with men. That they’d sold her like a bill of goods-and that included you.”
She pointed her glass at me for emphasis. “It was easy to get her into bed. I told her she’d understand her own sexuality better after she’d made love with a woman.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I had a hard time believing she was actually telling me all this. “I should have figured out you were bisexual.”
“Bisexual, ha,” she laughed. “I’m trisexual-I’ll try anything.”
I whacked her with the back of my hand. She wasn’t expecting that and it really shook her. She drew back and put her hand on her cheek. For the first time since I’d met her, she didn’t know what to say. She started to cry softly.
“You bastard,” she whispered. The tears ran down her cheeks.
Then, wordlessly, she made her way into my arms. And we had sex, her way. But it wasn’t really sex. It was more like warfare. Sudden, brutal, uncoordinated. Two armies of the night, struggling on a dark battlefield. Until both armies were battered, beaten and exhausted.
The eighth hole at Birchwood was a dogleg left par four with a little stream that served as a hazard. It was a good day for golf-cool and clear. And the course wasn’t crowded because it was a Tuesday.
I parked the BMW on a deserted side road and crossed the seventh fairway and a wooded area that bordered the eighth fairway.
Jergens and his two overweight buddies couldn’t see me standing in the shadows behind the treeline. Aside from the fact that the bodyguards had been drinking from brown paper bags, their eyesight didn’t seem to be particularly keen and they had no reason to be on the lookout for someone like me.
The men were getting ready to tee off, standing next to their carts practicing their swings. One of the men was punching the keys on a cell phone.
I started out of the woods and walked slowly up to them. The guy on the phone was calling Domino’s Pizza and ordering a pie to be delivered to them at the ninth hole. He was in the process of asking the others what kind of toppings they wanted.
They glanced over at me as I strolled up to them. You don’t often see a guy in a business suit on a golf course.
“Jesus, it looks like the secret service,” the bigger clown said. He could have been a junior league sumo wrestler, only he had a close-cut beard and an earring with a dangling crucifix.
I took off my sunglasses. “Jergens,” I said. “You’ll be happy to see me. My name is Rogan.”
He squinted at me. “You’re a persistent son of a bitch.” There was a notable lack of warmth in his voice.
“That’s what endears me to people.”
Jergens exchanged wary glances with his bodyguards. It was obvious they didn’t know what to make of me.
“This is a private club,” Jergens said.
“That’s OK. I’m a private citizen.”
The smaller guy pulled out what looked like a one iron to my unpracticed eye. He had a plug ugly face with a head that looked like it had been squeezed in a vice, front to back. His neck was thicker than his head. “Want me to get rid of him?” he asked Jergens.
Jergens started to nod, then held up his hand. “What the hell do you want from me, Rogan?”
He was a well-built man in his mid-forties, with a square jaw and longish light brown hair. His face was creased with self-satisfaction. His eyes were dark and narrow, with a nasty glint. He was wearing a pink Polo shirt and khaki slacks. And his swing was strong and sure.
“I want to know why you killed Alicia.”
That wasn’t what he expected to hear. He was the kind of man to whom people seldom spoke frankly. When you control a massive portfolio, people are invariably polite to you. He jerked his head in my direction.
“Kick the shit out of him,” he said without any emotion.
One iron stepped back and took a quick swing that caught me on my bad side. The pain was incredible. My legs felt like overcooked spaghetti. I went down faster than a two-year-old on an ice-slick.
“That’s about the only thing you could hit with a one iron, turkey,” I said, looking up at his inseam.
Evidently he didn’t like my evaluation of his golf proficiency. “Fuck you, scumbag,” he said as he brought the club down on my head.
I saw stars. Purple and black and yellow, like a kaleidoscope.
The junior sumo rocked back and let go a kick that caught me in the chest and knocked the wind out of me. This was turning out to be not much fun. If I were younger, faster and had better luck, I could be kicking the shit out of them right now. I didn’t think I could take it much longer without passing out. As it was, they were pummeling me without mercy, and I was just lying there trying to think of something witty to say.
The big guy caught me with a one-two kick to the head that left me dazed. I started to see things double and triple.
Then I blacked out.
Laura looked like an angel from one of those old Audrey Hepburn movies. She was wearing a white silk scarf over a white dress and her hair was drawn straight back. A preview of heaven or at least what it was going to look like after the environmentalists got around to cleaning it up.
She was leaning over me and whispering my name. I tried to sit up, and managed on the third try. I was in my own bed.
“Ed,” she said. “What happened to you?”
Then I remembered. “I forgot to duck when the guy yelled fore.”
She attempted a smile, but the attempt wasn’t very successful. She got up and went into the kitchen and came back with a glass of ice water. It tasted better than Moet amp; Chandon. Nothing tasted as good as New York City water when you were thirsty.
“I think we have a good line on Jergens,” I said. “There’s a real possibility he killed Alicia, or had her killed.”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to talk now. You can tell me about it later, after you feel better.”
“I never felt better. I just look like hell.”
She gave me a dubious stare.
“The problem is that it’s tough to get to Jergens,” I said. “You know who he is?”
“He’s in real estate, isn’t he?”
“He’s one of the biggest developers in the country. All the banks come to him, begging him to take their dough. They shovel it out the door at him.”
She looked puzzled. “But why would someone like that want to kill Alicia?”
“She had something on him. She might even have been blackmailing him.”
“Alicia would never do that,” she said with a shake of her head.
How could I explain the dirty facts of life to this innocent? “The problem, sweetheart, was that she got herself in too deep. Alicia was tough, but she was playing with the big boys and they had a different rulebook.”
She gripped my hand tightly. “But what are you going to do? I’m worried about you. Look what they did. They might kill you too.”
I shook my head. “They haven’t got a prayer. I’ll just break some more of their golf clubs with my head.”
She laughed. It was a sweet laugh, warm and trusting. “How will you find out?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Jergens is tougher to get to than the crown jewels. He lives on the top floor of the Plaza and he has a security set-up Willie Sutton couldn’t get through. The windows are soundproofed and sealed with sheets of opaque plastic. Short of landing a helo on the roof, there’s no way to get to him. He always has a couple of bodyguards with him. And he hasn’t been returning my phone calls.”
She smiled. I reached over and kissed her on the cheek. “I may look like hell but I feel like hell warmed over. Let me get some shuteye.” I lay back down in bed. “Help yourself to some beer.”
She wrinkled up her nose. “I don’t like beer.”
“Good,” I said.
Tanner called me that night while I was watching the news. “Nobody on the street knows what the hell happened to Wheelock. He vanished clean as a whistle, old buddy. It’s like he de-materialized.”
“What about that guy Murdoch used to work with Wheelock at Merrill?”
“Yeah, I thought of him. Only problem is he moved to Vegas.”
“They have phones out there?” I asked.
Tanner chuckled. “Guess they must. I’ll see if anyone has his number. I’ll get back to you.”
He hung up.
I managed to get to the bathroom. I did look like hell warmed over. And my suit, or what was left of it, didn’t look so great either. I took the hottest shower I could and stood there letting the scalding water run over my aches and pains long after I’d finished washing, wondering why I wanted it to be Wheelock and not anyone else.
The hallway was long and hushed, like a cathedral. The wallpaper was understated and expensive and the carpeting was thick underfoot. There were maybe thirty rooms behind heavy wood doors opening onto the corridor. The muted sounds of a TV talk show filtered out from behind one of the doors. It was mid-afternoon and my guess was that most of the rooms were empty.
The hallway ended in a right angle. I edged along the wall, crouched down and stuck my head out a little.
Thirty feet from me was a man sitting in a folding metal chair, reading some kind of comic book. From where I was, it looked like the X-Men. If he’d looked up, he would have seen me in the right-angle mirror over my head. At his feet were a can of Coke, a bag of popcorn and a walkie-talkie. I could smell the popcorn. Behind him was the door that would get me in to see Jergens.
I stood up, loosened my tie, opened my collar button, mussed my hair and put on the goofiest grin I could manage. Then I turned the corner and staggered toward the guy.
“Yo, buddy,” I boomed. “Where’s the can? Ah gotta piss or ah’m gonna bust a kidney.”
He looked up at me with his jaw wide open and dropped the comic book. “There ain’t no bathroom here, asshole. Go down to the lobby.”
He was as big as me and a little heavier, but his muscles had turned to flab a long time ago. He rose and stood his ground.
“Ah cain’t go to the lobby. Ah got no time. Ah got to piss right now.” I staggered once again.
He started to come toward me, completely unaware of what was happening.
I turned sideways, unzipped my fly and put the palm of my left hand on that lovely wallpaper.
When he saw what I was doing, he roared, “Oh no, you can’t piss here, asshole.”
He clamped his beefy hand on my shoulder. He was off-balance. Dumb and off-balance.
I leaned forward and brought my right elbow back sharply into his solar plexus. He let out a deep sigh and tried to inhale but he couldn’t draw the air into his lungs. His arms were flapping like useless chicken wings. His face became red and puffy.
I took half a second to zip my fly back up. You never knew who you would meet, and I always liked to make a good first impression. Then I gave him a one-two to the right and left temples. A final rabbit punch to the back of the neck was enough to put him down.
I pulled off my jacket and tossed it over the security camera and hoped no one had seen our little charade. They could always play the tape later at their leisure and get a big chuckle out of it.
I took some duct tape out of my pocket and tied his hands and feet together behind his back, then sealed his mouth.
He was carrying a Smith amp; Wesson. 38 and he had a set of handcuffs looped through the belt of his brown polyester pants. I rolled him over and went through his pockets. There was nothing worthwhile.
The door was heavy-duty steel with two Medeco locks. And this turkey didn’t have the keys.
I searched him again even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good. “Christ,” I said under my breath.
There was no way I could open this sanctorum.
I kicked the goddam door a couple of times, then picked up the walkie-talkie.
I pushed transmit and said, “Open the door.”
Static filled the air. “That you, Junior?” it squawked. “We can’t see nothing. What the fuck is going on?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” I said. “Open the door.”
Static again. “You gotta use the password, I told you a dozen times.”
“Open the fucking door,” I muttered through cupped hands.
“The password, Junior.”
“You mudda wears combat boots.”
“That ain’t the password, Junior. You gotta learn it, I told you a hundred times.”
I flung the walkie-talkie against the steel door and walked away down what seemed like the longest corridor in the developed world.
I put in a call to Laura when I got back to the office that afternoon, but she wasn’t home. I left a message on her machine telling her that I hadn’t been able to get to Jergens but I’d keep on trying. Then I called Tanner to see if he had any luck in locating Wheelock.
“I tried an on-line search through Nexis to get an address change on his driver’s license and his broker’s license, but all I came up with was a dead end,” I told him.
“Don’t fret, old buddy. I tracked down Murdoch in Vegas,” he said with a note of pride. “He was shacked up with some chorus girl from the Luxor and he was still flogging penny stocks to old ladies. He said he thought Wheelock was somewhere in Connecticut, maybe Westport.”
“Outstanding,” I said. “Now get me some coordinates.”
“Aye, aye, sir. I’ll make some more calls. We’ll tree the SOB yet.”
The super opened the apartment door without using a key and turned back to look at me.
“It was not locked, mister,” he said. “Just slammed shut. Solamente cerrado.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know that,” I told him.
I gave him a twenty. “Thanks for your help.”
He nodded several times rapidly. “Gracias, mister.” He was a small man with smooth movements and a friendly smile. I’d told him I was Laura’s brother-in-law and that I was worried because I hadn’t been able to contact her. It didn’t take much to persuade him I was telling the truth. Maybe he was just a newcomer to New York and hadn’t had time to develop that gimlet-eyed instinct that protects the city dweller.
I shoved open the door and stepped into the living room.
Nothing looked out of the ordinary. The apartment was cute, spotless and comfortable. It always smelled like lilacs. Only this time there was another smell and it wasn’t good. It was the stench of death. It was an odor as familiar in the triple-canopy jungle as the screech of the birds.
The words came back.
Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption. He passes from the stink of the didee to the stench of the shroud.
My stomach started to clench up. The super was a step behind me. He touched my sleeve in a tentative way. “Senor, something does not smell good.”
“I know.” I hoped he didn’t hear the tremor in my voice. “Wait here. I’ll take a look around.”
She was lying on her back on the bedroom floor next to a Chinese rug. There was a small bloodstain on her chest. She was wearing a sleeveless dress with a pattern of red flowers. If you looked quickly, you might have mistaken the bloodstain for one of the flowers except that it was a little larger and a little darker. That innocent face was twisted into a rictus of surprise and fear. There was a thin line of dried blood at the corner of her mouth.
I kneeled beside her and touched her cheek. It was cold. Colder than anything I’d ever touched.
I cleared my throat and got up and looked around the room. There was nothing unusual. The bed was neatly made and all the clothing was in the proper place. There was a night table next to the bed with a thin vase and a single rose, wilting.
I stepped back into the living room. The super stood there, looking out of place in his work clothes in the middle of this delicately furnished setting. He was trembling slightly.
“She’s dead,” I said in a low voice, not wanting to spook him. “You better call the police.”
“Yes, mister. I will call right now.” He rushed out of the apartment, leaving the door open.
There wouldn’t be much time before the cops got here. I did the standard search but didn’t turn up anything. The apartment was a junior one-bedroom with a cramped kitchen, a large living room and a bedroom half the size of what a bedroom should be. But it wasn’t out of line with the square footage allotment of a typical New York apartment. Every inch of space was put to good use.
The kitchen was clean. No dishes in the sink. I opened the dishwasher. It was empty. When had she put away the dishes? When was the last time she’d eaten? What was her last meal? The M.E. would know. But I would never know. Who did she have her last meal with? Did she laugh that sweet little laugh when she cocked her head to one side?
Laura knew the killer and had let him in. Three to one it was the same guy who killed her sister. And for the same reason. Whatever the reason was. I didn’t have the answer. I wasn’t any closer than I’d been when Alicia died.
I waved my hand at no one in particular. There was nothing in the kitchen that could help me. I went back into the living room. There was a wall unit with a bookcase. Her taste in reading matter ran to romance and biographies of show biz folk. You could forgive her for small weaknesses.
There was a magazine rack next to the sofa. In it was a large manila envelope with Laura’s name written on it. The handwriting was familiar. I recognized it immediately. It was Alicia’s.
I opened the envelope. It was empty.
I folded the envelope twice and put it in my inside breast pocket. I didn’t know what it meant. But it would mean more to me than it would to the cops.
“Listen, scumbag,” the seamstress said. “How do we know you don’t have another piece stashed away somewheres?” He ran his fingers over his mustache. “And you used it to whack these sisters for some reason for which we don’t have figured out yet.”
His partner winced. Maybe it was the tortured syntax. “Shut up,” Black said. “You make more noise than a cow pissing on a flat rock.”
The seamstress looked hurt. His fingers kept doing their twinkletoes dance in the air. “I still say this scumbag is the best lead we got. He knew both sisters. Had access to both of them. I say he killed both of them.”
I stared at Forgash across Black’s beaten-up desk. “Go stand in the corner with your thumb up your ass like little Jack Horner,” I said.
The seamstress started across the room toward me, but Black’s words stopped him. “Get the fuck out of here,” he yelled. “Get back to your desk.”
Forgash halted, torn between his desire to make a mark on me and his fear of disobeying his boss. Discretion won out. That, plus the risk of suffering some serious basic bodily injury. He shot me a dirty look as he left.
Black waited a couple of minutes before he spoke, as if he were running the facts of the case over in his mind. While he thought, he rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, over and over. He closed his eyes.
Finally he spoke. “This is my last case before I retire.” He opened his red-rimmed eyes and studied me. “I don’t want to leave the game on a strikeout.”
I leaned back in my chair and looked out through the slits in the venetian blind into the squad room. The seamstress was sitting at his desk, his shoulders hunched forward, his chin in his hands. He looked like a kid who’d been caught by the principal pulling his pecker in the little boy’s room.
I looked back at Black. His face was one of those that tell you they’ve seen every crime in the book-and some that aren’t in the book. Every crime that can be committed will be committed. I felt sorry for the old bastard, but not sorry enough to give him Jergens. Black was telling me the cops hadn’t been able to crack two perfect murders. Neat and clean.
“I wish I could help you, Gene,” I said, “but I don’t have a goddam thing. Not even an angle. I can just tell you what you already know.”
He nodded. “OK. Same gun. Clean entry. No struggle. Killer was known to both girls,” he rattled off in his raspy voice.
He rose heavily, like a man old before his time. “Coffee?” he asked.
“Sure, if it’s strong.”
“Curl your toes,” he said. He walked around from behind his desk over to a hot plate sitting on a low file cabinet. He poured two cups black and steaming from one of those round glass pitchers restaurants use. This one had an orange top.
“Is that decaf?” I asked.
He glanced at me sheepishly and then looked down. “My wife says regular coffee makes me jumpy.”
“A cop’s supposed to be jumpy.”
He grunted. “Not if your wife’s twenty-five years younger than you.”
“You having troubles at home?”
“Nothing that a smaller prostate and a stiffer stick couldn’t cure.”
It was my turn to grunt. I took the coffee and drank some. It was hot but it was still decaf and it tasted bland.
“The angle of entry was different,” I said.
“Yeah.” Black nodded. “Your wife was sitting at the computer with her back to the shooter. She got it in the head. Her sister was standing, facing the guy. It was easier to hit her in the chest.”
“You think they both knew something and the guy was trying to shut them up?”
“That’s my guess,” he said. “Only I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it was they knew in common.”
“It could have been a grudge,” I said. I was thinking out loud, trying to probe what he knew. Maybe the cops had picked up something he wasn’t telling me.
I shrugged. “Who knows? Feminism, political correctness, new age philosophy?”
He raised an eyebrow. “People kill over that?”
“Hell,” I said. “People kill over parking spaces.”
There was a message on my machine when I got back to the office. It was from McCormack.
“Mr. Rogan, it’s Friday afternoon about two forty-five,” said the neat clipped voice. “I’d like to meet with you as soon as possible. I just came across something in a filing cabinet I shared with Alicia that I think you’ll find interesting.”
I called him faster than a hooker could drop her panties.
“It’ll take me a half-hour to get uptown from Wall Street,” he said.
“OK, fine. Meet me by the information booth in Grand Central at four-thirty.”
He showed up on time, wearing his Armani suit and Gucci tie with the little stirrups and suspenders with little bulls and bears. His face was pale underneath his salon tan. He was carrying a brown manila envelope.
The huge waiting room was starting to fill up with homeward-bound commuters threading their way between the bums and the tourists. You could tell the commuters. They strode purposefully, always looking straight ahead, heading for the 4:35, the 4:41 or the 4:45…
I took the envelope. “What is it?”
His tone was tentative. “It’s a disk. I thought Alicia had cleaned out all her files and taken them with her. I was going through a file cabinet we shared. She had the top two drawers and I had the bottom two drawers. I needed some more space for my files and I found this disk in the back behind some empty folders. It must have been a back-up copy.”
“Did you run it?”
He bit his lip. “Just enough to know what was in it. I didn’t want to see any more than that.”
“And what was it?” I prodded to get his reaction.
He took half a step backwards. “I’d rather you answered that for yourself.” He took another half-step back.
I put my hand square on his shoulder. “Come upstairs to my office while I run it. You can explain it to me.”
He pulled his shoulder away from my grip. “You’ll understand it when you see it.” He widened the distance between us. “Besides it’s late and I have to run.” He glanced at his tank watch without noting the time.
Then I guess he had a sudden change of heart because he leaned in toward me and whispered, “I’m in this too deeply already. I don’t want to be part of it anymore. I’m scared. You’ll see why when you run the disk.”
He did a brisk half-turn and blended into the crowd of well-dressed yuppies on their way to their health clubs and juice bars.
I stopped off at the Roy Rogers to pick up a bacon cheeseburger and a cup of coffee with skim milk and took the elevator back up to my office.
I pulled off my jacket and tie and threw them over the back of a chair. Then I slipped the disk into the computer and started my dinner as the computer went through its opening routines.
What I saw was halfway to finding the Rosetta Stone. Page after goddam page of Jergen’s financials corrected for cash flow deficiencies and reconstituted statements showing fraudulent or non-existent cash flows. All of the financials combined indicated that Jergens had a negative net worth.
Alicia had done a masterful job. What a competent gal she was. She’d taken all of his financials and recast them using the figures she’d generated from her own investigations. This was the weapon that would bring Jergens down. Here was one of the biggest real estate operators in the country skewered like a shish kebab. No wonder he wanted to get her fired…or worse.
I didn’t waste any time. Jergens was probably still in his office. Maybe I should have waited and planned a strategy. But there was one thing I learned in the Corps and it was the only strategy they had-find the bastards and pile on.
I called Jergens’ office, got his fax number and faxed five of the most damaging pages together with a note asking him to give me a call at his earliest convenience, if it wasn’t too much of a bother.
The clock said 5:36. I finished my bacon cheeseburger and waited for his call.
It came in exactly seventeen minutes.
A female voice, free of regional inflections and well-modulated, said, “Mr. Jergens would like to speak to you, Mr. Rogan. Please hold the line.” She sounded like one of those computer ladies on the voice mail.
Ten seconds later Jergens got on. “Rogan, you fucking asshole scumbag.”
“Good evening, Mr. Jergens,” I said. “It’s always a pleasure to hear your voice.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Rogan.” His voice blasted out of the speakerphone and reverberated through my office. “Get your ass over here right away.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“Don’t mess with me. I’m warning you. Get over here or I’ll send my boys over with an engraved invitation. And it won’t say RSVP.”
“First I’ll have to consult Miss Manners on the etiquette of all this.”
“You watch your step, Rogan or…”
I had him. “Or I’ll end up like Alicia and Laura?”
His voice level dropped a couple of thousand decibels. “Listen, I’m asking you to come and see me. I’m asking you in a nice way, you fucking scumbag.”
“I accept your invitation. Where will I find you?”
He gave off a grunt that was a half-laugh. “I’ll be in the usual place. You know where it is. I think you were here before and tied up one of my men.”
“Oh, you mean the hotel. I’ll be there in fifteen.”
I grabbed a cab just off the ramp downstairs and told the cabby to drive up Park. He was an Indian or a Pakistani and the car smelled of chana batura with a hint of curry. When we hit Forty-ninth we got stuck in some kind of motorcade and slowed to a crawl. The cabby turned his head and motioned in the direction of Third.
“We go up Third, Boss? Faster that way. Less traffic.”
I waved toward Madison. “Naw, go up Madison. It’s closer.”
He nodded vigorously three or four times. “Your city, Boss. You know better. Not my city, you know.”
It took a half hour to get to Jergens’ hotel. This time I walked straight through the lobby like I owned the first mortgage on the place and headed for his private elevator. The guy on duty saw me coming and his eyes widened in recognition. It was the sumo wrestler, only this time he was wearing a wrinkled light blue suit that was two sizes too small for him and looked like it came from the bargain basement at Wal-Mart.
“Back for some more golf?” he grinned.
“Not till you improve your stroke. You’re supposed to hit the ball, remember?”
“I kinda forgot. Your head looked so tempting.”
I smiled at him. “Enough of this pleasant repartee. Take me to see your master.”
“I want to see you again, fuckface. I enjoyed beating up on you.” He opened the elevator door and motioned me inside. He followed me into the car and stood facing me as the door slid shut behind him. It wasn’t a big elevator and he took up ninety-five percent of the available space. His BO expanded to fill about ninety-nine percent of the available air.
“Ever think about going on a quick-weight-loss diet?” I asked him.
He glared at me. “Listen, wiseguy…” he started.
“Well at least suck up your gut and hold your breath until we get to the penthouse. There’s no air left in here for me to breathe.”
His blood pressure looked like it was ready to go off the chart. His cheeks, which were ruddy to begin with, were starting to turn the color of overripe plums. It was a good thing we got to the top floor before his blood vessels ruptured.
Two guys stood there blocking the view as the door slid open. One was the second golfing buddy. I didn’t recognize the other. He was a big guy too, but more muscular than Mr. Sumo. His shoulders looked like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
“Shakedown time, Rogan,” he said unpleasantly.
“Pleased to meet you, Tiny. This is my Filipino houseboy, Kato,” I said as I jerked my thumb back at Mr. Sumo.
“Never mind the fucking jokes, Rogan,” he said. “Assume the position.”
I sighed, stepped out of the elevator and raised my arms over my head. My bad arm hurt when I held it up. They patted me down and then grunted as a sign of satisfaction. Tiny motioned to me to follow him and started down the corridor. The golf player walked behind me. Mr. Sumo got into the elevator and went back down.
The corridor was furnished more expensively than most mansions. The furniture pieces were antiques in Louis XIV style. The floor was inlaid hardwood patterns covered by Persian carpets that were worth approximately the budget of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It was incongruous to see these low-life thugs in such an opulent setting. The place could have been an exhibition gallery in the Morgan museum.
Two heavy wooden doors stood at the end of the corridor. Above the doors were two security cameras. Tiny pressed a buzzer. The right door opened. Tiny grabbed my arm and pulled me into a large anteroom. It was furnished as expensively as the corridor, but there was no daylight. The windows were covered with thick damask drapes and behind the drapes were heavy gauge opaque sheets of plastic blocking any outside light from filtering in.
Three men sat in the room. Two were playing gin and the third was the turkey I’d left tied up the last time I was here. He was still reading the same X-Men comic book, or maybe I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was re-reading it.
The men looked like figures in a wax museum. They didn’t move, didn’t look up, except for my friend, who shot a dirty look in my direction and went back to scrutinizing his literature.
Across the room was another set of heavy wooden doors with another set of security cameras. The golf player came around from behind me and pressed the buzzer next to the doors.
There was a loud click and Tiny shoved both doors open, then pointed his finger for me to go in.
It was a big room and it looked like a combination office and living room. It was decorated even more elegantly than the other room. There were four medieval unicorn tapestries covering the walls and I didn’t have to look long to know that they were originals. The drapes, tapestries and carpets combined to give the room a real somber air. The lighting was dim and came mostly from a huge chandelier.
In the center of the room was a massive darkwood antique desk. Jergens sat at the desk, leaning back, his hands locked behind his head.
“Rogan,” he said. “Anybody ever tell you that you have an extraordinarily large set of brass balls?”
“Standard issue in my line of work,” I told him.
He nodded. “Come over here and sit down.”
I made myself comfortable in a wing back chair.
He opened an intricately carved cigar box and shoved it across the desk in my direction.
“Care for one?”
I picked up a cigar and examined it. It was an H. Upmann.
“Only if you promise it won’t explode.”
He tossed me a well-worn Zippo. On it was the anchor, globe and eagle. I raised my eyebrows and looked at him.
“Fifth marines,” he said.
“The hell you say.”
I lit up, took a deep puff, and digested that one.
Then I took another puff and said, “Why did you kill Alicia?”
“I didn’t kill anybody.”
“She was blackmailing you.”
“Big fucking deal,” he said. “So what?”
“That’s a good reason to kill somebody.”
“Not in my book.” He stuck his jaw out, like he was daring me to contradict him.
“You were paying her off.”
He smiled for the first time. “Yeah, her and ten thousand other freeloaders.” He stopped and squinted at me. “I pay people for what they can do for me.”
“Yeah. And what was that?”
His grin took on the look of one of those evil clown masks. “She was a sexy bitch. I wanted to ream her out.”
I took another puff and let the smoke out slowly. The cigar was starting to taste foul. “And what happened?”
Jergens laughed. “Exactly fucking nothing. The bitch had principles in her own way, you know. She would fuck me, but she wouldn’t fuck me.”
I stared back at him. “She had the goods on you-falsified financials, fraudulent 10K’s. She was going to knock your whole operation down like a stack of toy blocks. That’s why you killed her-to shut her up before she could. Only you didn’t count on one thing. She sent a duplicate set of documents to her sister, so you had to whack her sister too.”
He looked at me for a long time, then he said, “Rogan, you’re not as smart as you think you are.”
“What do you mean?”
He leaned across the desk, picked up the Zippo and started toying with it. “You didn’t do your fucking homework,” he said.
I let him continue. He fiddled with the Zippo until it gave off a light as big as a flame thrower. Then he stopped playing with the lighter and put it down on the dark polished desktop.
“She didn’t have to shoot me down,” he said finally. “I was finished before she came along.” He looked me square in the face. “Didn’t you check the short interest in my stock?”
“No,” I said. I was starting to get an uneasy feeling in my liver.
“Go and scope it out. It’s been getting bigger every month for the last few months. The word is out on the street. Every cocksucker and his brother knows about the scam. The only thing that kept the stock from collapsing was that there was a small float and I kept buying back shares to squeeze the shit out of the shorts. Only now I’m tapped out, so the stock’s gonna drop like a rock. Then the fucking SEC’s gonna come poking around and I’m going up the fucking river.”
He reached over and lit up a cigar. The lighter shook as he tried to steady the flame.
“They’ll send me to Club Fed for two to three. Then I’ll be back, bigger and badder than before.” He sucked on the cigar and blew out a large cloud of smoke that hung in the air over his head.
“Why did you send those two clowns to nail me in my garage?” I said.
He shook his head. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I didn’t send anybody after anybody. You were the one who came after me, remember? I didn’t even know who you were until you started showing up in my face.”
I got up. “If you drop the soap, don’t bend over to pick it up,” I told him.
“Thanks for the advice.”
“Always glad to help out a fellow jarhead.”
“Semper fi,” he said as I walked out.
“Yeah,” I said. “Whatever.”
It was one of those early summer thunderstorms that come down fast and hard and leave the city cleaner and cooler in its wake. The only problem was that it took ten minutes to flag down a cab. I was soaked to my skivvies as I climbed in and headed South back to my office. When I got there, I took off my jacket, tossed it over the back of a chair and slung my holster over it. The suit needed to go to the cleaners anyway.
I logged onto Dow Jones online and called up the short interest history on Jergens’ company. Sure enough, it looked like the guy was telling the truth.
Starting back in February, there had been an exponential increase in the short interest each reporting period. To double check, I called a buddy who ran a hedge fund downtown.
Without missing a beat he said, “You got it, bucko. Company’s got a ten million share float. Out of that, there’s four million short. There’s no way in hell Jergens can keep it afloat. He’s going down with the ship.”
“How did you get wind of this play?”
His answer didn’t come back for a couple of seconds. “I can’t talk about that now, bucko. I’m on a cell phone. You know how those boys in D.C. are about this kind of thing.”
“OK. I get your drift. Catch you later.” I hung up.
I noodled around with the figures for a while, then turned and watched the rain sheeting on the windows as the sky began to lighten in the distance.
Laura’s face kept coming back into my thoughts, dark and painful. Then it finally hit me and it hurt like hell. I’d never seen a dead woman before. I wanted to see her again. I wanted to see her more than anything.
Never again. Never again. There was a heavy rock sitting right on my heart.
And the rain kept on falling.
I didn’t turn around when I sensed someone in the outer office. There wasn’t a sound. Just a sort of presence. At first, I thought it was one of those invisible cleaning ladies in their light blue smocks who appear after dark to clean up all the mistakes of the day.
Then there was the hint of a squish, like a wet shoe on the floor.
A chill went up the back of my neck. It was like the half-second that hangs suspended in the air for what seems like forever between the time the wire is tripped and the flare goes off.
I dove for the deck. Before I hit it, a slug shattered the frosted glass between the offices. I rolled over and grabbed the Glock from the back of the chair and pumped two shots through the hole where the glass had been.
It was enough to scare the hell out of whoever it was. The outer door slammed and then there was silence.
Silence except for the rain hitting the window.
I got up and went into the other room. There was nothing but a couple of wet footprints on the carpeting. I poked around on my hands and knees until I found the shell casing. It was a. 38 Remington rimfire. I went back into my office and dug the round out of the wall. The slug was a hollow-nose and it had left a nice size hole.
Whoever the shooter was, he wasn’t very good. He hadn’t come within a country mile of where I was sitting.
That made me feel much better.
Was this turkey just a bad shot?
Or was he trying to send me a candygram?
The Linxweiler House was a dilapidated two-story frame structure on the Post Road in Westport, located between a McDonald’s and a pool and patio shop. The lawn, if you could charitably call it that, had long ago gone to weed. It looked like whoever tended the grass had given up in despair and gone on to take care of lawns that would actually respond to his efforts. The grass was long and spotted with weeds and brown patches. The house looked like it hadn’t been painted in decades. It was covered in worn dull gray shingles that were separating from the insulation beneath. The gutters sagged under the weight of years of accumulated debris and neglect. It was one of those houses that gave the impression of always having been there, at least in the memory of those still living.
No one I stopped to ask for directions had ever heard of the house. Its purpose was too far a stretch from the ordered pace of their daily lives. It was incongruous to see such a run-down wreck on such an expensive piece of real estate. The town was rich, judging by the prices of the stores on Main Street, and there were so many SUVs on the road the place looked like a staging area for a military convoy.
I pulled into the rutted driveway and parked next to the rusted-out hulk of a long-deceased car. There didn’t seem to be any sign of life in the house. I walked up some rickety steps and stood on the porch, my back to the front door, looking across the traffic on the Post Road. On the other side of the street was a Japanese restaurant named Sakura and next to that an upscale clothing store.
Such was life in the suburbs. Neat, safe, comfortable, with none of the lurking random menace of the city. Only here, the danger lay behind expensively-carved front doors where you were likely to be whacked with a sterling silver candlestick by your enraged wife because your bonus wasn’t large enough to buy the vacation home in Palm Beach that she had her little heart set on.
The screen door rested precariously on rusted hinges. I knocked but there was no answer. The door shrieked like a banshee when I swung it open and stepped inside. A feeling of gloom hung in the air like faded hopes and dashed dreams. It was dark. The only light was a dim bare bulb that lit the hallway. The dirty wooden floor squeaked with each step I took. No one could ever sneak unannounced into this place. It had its own alarm system, and it didn’t need a central station monitor or monthly fees.
It smelled like a locker room, and that was being kind. The place probably hadn’t been washed down or disinfected since Elvis was young and innocent and thin.
At the end of the hallway was a living room. I could see the flickering light from the TV, but there was no sound. I looked around the corner. There were two men on a couch, watching a baseball game on a black and white TV. They sat without moving or talking, frozen like a photo from the Fifties.
I walked into the room. One of the men glanced up at me and then turned his attention back to the game.
“I’m looking for Wheelock,” I said.
The man who looked up kept his eyes on the television. “You came to the right place,” he said.
I waited. He didn’t say anything else. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought he was grinning. Both of the men looked defeated, drained of any energy, and badly in need of a shave. They had the appearance of guys who’d been dried-out for a long time but had never lost the desire for a tall one.
“Yeah, and…?” I said.
Still no reply.
“So, where is he?”
“You came to the right place.”
“You said that already.”
The guy was grinning. “He ain’t going no place.”
“That a fact?” I said.
The other man moved for the first time. “I can’t enjoy this game if you keep talking.”
“I’ll stop talking as soon as you tell me where Wheelock is.”
He jerked his head in the direction of a doorway on the other side of the room. “Take a look in there. He’s not going nowhere. That is, if he didn’t crap in his pants already.”
I walked across their line of sight and stood in the doorway. It was a kitchen. The only light in the room came from outside through a couple of unwashed windows. Dishes were stacked up on the table in the middle of the room and in the sink. The counters were covered with opened cereal boxes and cans of vegetables, both opened and unopened. Newspapers were scattered around on the floor.
A man sat hunched over at the table staring straight ahead. He was motionless, except for a slight tremor that gave the only sign he was alive. There was something familiar about his appearance. A hint of a presence I had once known. But it didn’t seem possible. There was nothing of the vigor, nothing of the tension. The creature sitting in front of me was no one I knew.
“Wheelock,” I said.
He turned his head slowly. At first, there was no sign of recognition. Then, by degrees, his expression changed. His eyes flickered. His lips twisted into an approximation of a smile. He started to speak. It was painful to watch.
“Hell… hell… hello, Rogan.” He had difficulty getting the words out. He seemed to be pulling the words out, one by one, from a reluctant set of lungs. His voice was soft.
I moved closer. He must have had some kind of wasting disease. Maybe it was insensitive of me, but I said, “What the hell happened to you?”
He tried to rise. His body gave him trouble as he got to his feet with an unsteady motion. He held onto his chair for support. Then he began to walk toward me. It was more of a shuffle than a walk. His steps were short, halting, feeble. It took an eternity for him to cross a short distance. Finally he stood in front of me. He was a couple of inches shorter than I remembered him. He stared straight at me. His eyes were dead.
His words didn’t want to come out. He gave me a sad smile. “I…I…I’m not…well.” His hand reached out and stayed in mid-air, trembling like a dying bird, then fell to his side.
Schadenfreude is not a nice emotion. Happiness at someone else’s misfortune. The krauts nailed it perfectly with that one word. I tried not to feel satisfaction. I tried really hard.
“I…I…I’m glad…you came…to see me,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Don’t mention it.” As if he could. I took a deep breath.
I had to read Emerson’s essay on compensation again. Maybe you were rewarded or punished for your actions in the long run. Maybe there was an unseen symmetry to the world, after all.
I turned and started to leave.
“I…I’m…so sorry, Rogan,” was the last thing I heard as I walked away.
Mrs. Chisolm was just getting off the Nautilus when I caught up with her. She was wearing tight purple shorts and a pink tank top that showed to the world at large everything she had and was proud of. Her face was buried deep in the fluffy white folds of a large towel. She was still, leaning against the machine. Her body was taut, small-breasted and supple. Small beads of sweat covered her upper lip where it showed below the towel.
There was no one else in the health club yet. It would start to fill up in another half-hour.
I stood there waiting for her to lower the towel. When she saw me, she raised her neatly-plucked eyebrows and said, “You’re up early, lover boy.”
“I have to get up early to beat you.”
Her reaction was markedly different from the last time we spoke. Maybe she’d had time to reconsider or maybe the workout had gotten her juices flowing. Her face was flushed and she was breathing deeply. She pursed her lips. “Would you beat me?” she teased. “Promise?”
I shrugged. “Depends on what kind of answers you give me.”
“I have any kind of answers you want and some you don’t.” Her eyes ran over me the way you look over a piece of horseflesh. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know if you’ll get out of that suit and into a jock strap and some skimpy gym shorts.” Her smile was as old as Eve.
“I don’t have time right now.”
“Make some time. You won’t be sorry. I’ll give you some answers you’ll never forget.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. It was warm and sticky. I gave her what I hoped was an engaging smile. “Thanks, but I’ll pass on your pass, honeybun.”
“Don’t touch me unless you intend to finish it,” she said with a pout.
“I’ll finish it, but not now.” I pointed to the juice bar. “Can I interest you in a broccoli and kelp cocktail?”
She laughed. “I’ll take some pure natural Polish water fresh from the faucets of Warsaw.”
“Deal,” I said.
I took her arm and guided her across the newly-washed floor, threading our way between the exercise machines. We sat on the juice bar stools and she started revolving slowly, pushing herself around and around, like a little child.
“Why do you have to do this kind of work?” she asked. “It’s so demeaning, so tawdry.” She wrinkled up her nose like she’d just smelled something foul.
“Why does a fish swim? Why does a bird fly?”
She must have decided it wasn’t worth pursuing this line of reasoning. She fell silent, stopped spinning and started rubbing her foot against mine.
“Did you know Alicia’s sister was killed?” I said.
She pulled her foot back abruptly. “No,” she said with a shake of her head.
“She was killed with the same gun that shot Alicia.” I studied her face. “Do you have a gun?”
“No,” she said quietly. “I don’t like guns. They make loud noises. They frighten me.”
“Does your husband have a gun?”
“No,” she said in the same voice.
“Did you know your husband banged Alicia’s sister too?”
Her jaw tightened. “My husband and I have an arrangement.”
“He can see whoever he likes and I can see whoever I like.” There was a flame deep inside her eyes. It might have been lust or it might have been anger. “Sometimes we even see each other.”
I leaned back on my stool. “Well, that sounds eminently reasonable to me. Who could ask for a fairer arrangement?”
The flame flared brighter. “Don’t patronize me. You live your damn life the way you want to and I’ll live mine the way I want to.”
“Why would you want to kill both women?” I asked.
She stared hard at this meat-eating sedentary stranger who’d just wandered into her oasis of fitness. “I never killed anybody. I never had any reason to kill anybody-especially now…” She stopped speaking.
I took a stab. “Your finances are bad right now.”
Her eyes flickered. “Not for long.”
“You had lots of filthy lucre when Chisolm married you. He blew most of it. Bad investments. High living. Broads. Now the glory days are over.”
Her cheeks were flushed even more. “You’re wrong, lover boy.”
I moved closer to her. “Your husband wanted to shut up both of those girls…”
She shook her head. “My husband wouldn’t take any chances now.”
“We’re too close to the payoff.”
She wanted to prove me wrong. You could tell she was weighing whether to tell me whatever it was and shut me the hell up. “We’ve finished the phase III trial and we’re about to get FDA approval on the human blood factor drug.” She allowed herself a triumphant smile. “And once we have the approval, Bingo. Jackpot. We’ll have our IPO. You know what an IPO is, don’t you? I won’t have to come to a public health club with the unwashed masses. I’ll have my own private gym and my own full-time personal trainer and you won’t be allowed within a mile of it.”
She slid off her stool and put both feet flat on the ground.
“Well then if I can’t exercise with you, I’ll have to retire my jock strap, permanently,” I said. Maybe it was the ambiance, but I’d lost my thirst for a broccoli and kelp cocktail. I was more in the mood for a chocolate milkshake with whipped cream.
A door opened behind us and a man and a woman in exercise clothes came into the gym. They glanced briefly at us and walked on. Something she said made me want to know more. I got off the stool and slung my jacket over my shoulder.
“So long, doll,” I said. “Keep those gorgeous buns tight.”
“Well, the semester’s over and I have abbreviated office hours, but I could see you this afternoon at three,” Edelstein said over the phone.
“Fine,” I said. “Where will I meet you?”
“Come to my office. I’ll take you to the most popular student hangout.”
“Outstanding,” I said. Then I asked him, “Do you remember me?”
“Sure I do, Rogan,” he guffawed. “You were the one voted most likely to end up under a beer truck.”
“Yeah, that would be me. Makes me feel good to know my reputation preceded me.”
The drive down to Princeton was a breeze and the BMW didn’t overheat. It was a little after three when I got to the campus. Edelstein was waiting for me in his office. He hadn’t changed much from the way he looked as an undergraduate, except that his sandy hair was thinner and less curly. Or maybe it was just because he cut it shorter and combed it straight back. He used to be as big as a house. Now he was as big as a small condo complex. He had the same awkward grin and the same soft, sibilant voice. His glasses were different. In the old days, he wore gold wire-rimmed aviator glasses. Now his lenses were large and square and rimless. His face was as unlined as a teenager’s, which you could probably attribute to the fact that he had so much money he could tell the dean to take a trip to Kosovo whenever he felt like it.
When he saw me, he chuckled loudly, came over and punched me in the arm. It was my bad arm. He saw me wince.
“What’s the matter? You getting flabby?” he said.
“Yeah, it’s the aging process, you know.”
He nudged me again. “Never heard of it. Anabolism. Catabolism. It’s all a state of mind.”
“Maybe for a biologist like you,” I said. “You can repeal the laws of the double helix but the rest of us have to live with it.”
He nodded. “Still the same old Rogan. You haven’t changed at all. Better looking than ever, in fact. You could have played a senator from central casting.”
“Except I feel like the great old white leviathan, with all these scars on my carcass.”
He grinned. “I’ll engineer a new skin for you that will regenerate your tissue and repair all your scars.”
“Can you do that?”
He shrugged. “In a few years, maybe. It’s not my top priority.”
I took a brief look around the office. It was academic nondescript except for the photos on the wall. There were pictures of the statues on Easter Island, the Sydney opera house, the Great Wall of China and Saint Peter’s in Red Square. Nice work if you can get those sabbaticals and have the bucks to enjoy them.
“What is your top priority?” I asked him.
“Well, right now it’s finding a cure for sepsis using recombinant DNA. But I don’t think we’re going to find it for a while. It’s very difficult. There are so many different forms of…” He stopped in mid-sentence. “You must be thirsty. Driving all the way from New York. My top priority right now is buying you a beer. It’ll bring back those good old drunken undergraduate days.”
I slung my arm around his shoulder. “Couldn’t think of a better priority myself.”
We strolled across the campus in a time warp, like medieval monks among the gothic buildings. Nothing had changed. It was as if the sixties and the seventies and the eighties and the nineties had never existed. The waves of time had washed over the campus in never-ending echelons, erasing all memories. All the agony of Viet Nam, the riots of the sixties, the oil crisis of the seventies. All lost in the dim mists of history. Lord Macaulay had said, “Nothing matters very much, and hardly anything matters at all.” The kids, the buildings, the campus, everything looked as peaceful as it did back then. Some boys were playing Frisbee while another group tossed a football back and forth.
We talked about buddies, marriages, divorces, cancers, deaths and heartbreaks, a hell of a lot more cynical than we were the last time we walked on the freshly-mown grass. The buildings didn’t look any older than they did two or three millennia ago.
Edelstein took me to the tavern we used to frequent when we were undergraduates. It was a working-class bar but it was too early in the afternoon for the usual patrons. Dim and dank and smelling of brew, it hadn’t changed at all over the years. Only the bartender had changed. He’d been old then. He was positively ancient now. He looked like one of those villagers from the Caucasus who live to be a hundred and twenty.
He recognized me and said with a glint in his rheumy gray eyes, “You college boys…you all get older, but you all come back. I remember you, sonny boy. You used to like your beer.” His hands shook as he poured us a couple of Rolling Rocks.
“Still do, Pops,” I said. “Only now it’s the non-alcoholic kind for me.”
He snorted. “What’s the point, sonny boy?”
Edelstein led me to a booth in the back. There was a man by himself at the next table, hunched over a shot of whisky, and a boy and girl sitting across from us in a booth holding hands. They were college kids and they were deep in conversation about something to do with political correctness. The boy was saying something about “censorship by the minority” and the girl responded by saying something like “dead white males.” Then the boy’s hand slipped under the table and started playing with the girl’s crotch.
On the jukebox, Johnny Cash was singing a song about falling into a burning ring of fire.
I turned back to Edelstein. “I understand Insignia is about to get FDA approval on their new drug, this HBF gene thing.”
He nodded but didn’t say anything.
“I assume this means a lot of pocket change.”
He grunted. “You could say that.”
“I’m looking into a murder case. Two murder cases. My ex-wife and her sister were both killed. You never met Alicia but…”
“Yes, I did,” Edelstein said.
I blinked. “What?”
“I met Alicia.”
“When?” I felt like a bloody idiot.
“A couple of years ago. It was at a party my partner, Chisolm, gave to celebrate some contract. Your ex introduced herself. She told me she was a securities analyst. She said she was thinking about covering biotech. She asked me for some advice. I told her I’d be glad to help her anytime.”
He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. “About four months ago, she called and said she was preparing a research report on Insignia and could I help her with some evaluations. I told her I’d been out of the company for several years but I’d call some people I knew there and put her in touch with them.”
“Alicia never covered biotech,” I said.
Edelstein took off his glasses and closed his eyes. “Interesting,” he said. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “She said she’d already spoken to Chisolm, so I told her to call a fellow named Eric Hobley who was in charge of the clinical trials. After she did, Eric called and said he wanted to meet me.” He opened his eyes and looked straight at me. “It was a very disturbing meeting.”
I stopped him. “Did this meeting have anything to do with the FDA approval?”
He nodded. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to bring a new drug to market?”
“I can guess,” I said.
“More than your guess. It can be in the neighborhood of a hundred million bucks.”
“Pretty high rent neighborhood.”
He leaned back in the booth and took a swallow of beer. So did I, except I finished mine.
“I don’t want to say too much because I don’t have all the facts, but I’m going to put you in contact with Hobley. He’ll be able to fill in the details.”
“Will they get FDA approval for the drug?”
“Probably,” he said. He drained what was left of his beer. “That’s what troubles me.”
Eric Hobley looked just like I thought he would. He was a thin wiry guy, about five-six, with a high-pitched voice and a shock of brown hair over his forehead. His eyes were dark and deep-set and constantly moving. The only sartorial feature I hadn’t predicted was the bow tie he wore with a starched white shirt.
“Alan Edelstein said you were a man of confidence,” he said.
It was a familiar expression in Spanish, I’d never heard it used in English before.
“Honestly, I’m a little concerned and I don’t know what to do.” He chewed on his thumbnail. His nails were all bitten to the quick. It was tough to see what there was left to chew on.
I got up and went to the outer office. The glass partition hadn’t been replaced yet and I could see his bald spot through the opening.
“Want some coffee?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he said. “With milk and sugar, please.”
I went back to my desk and handed him a cup of black coffee. “You’ll have to take it black. I don’t have any milk or sugar.”
He made a face but took a sip anyway.
I sat down, rolled my chair back and put my feet up on the desk.
He took a few more sips, made a few more faces, but didn’t say anything.
Finally I said, “What are you concerned about?”
He started to work on his other thumb. “I don’t want to get into any trouble, but I’m in a very difficult position.”
He stopped talking and sat there as if waiting for a revelation.
I said to him, “Tell me about it.”
He swallowed hard and said, “All right. You know the kind of work I do. I’m a technician. I work on the clinical trials at Insignia.” He took another sip and it was evident he wasn’t enjoying the coffee. “I’ve never had any trouble before in my life.”
He looked like he’d never even had an overdue video rental.
“Well, we’re about to get FDA approval on a new blood product that we manufacture through genetic engineering.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And I’m in charge of compiling the clinical trials.”
This guy seemed to have a real problem getting to the point.
His eyes kept darting around the room. He opened his mouth and then shut it. He didn’t say anything for almost a minute.
“So what’s the problem? The mice started fucking the cats?”
“No, no, no.” He shook his head vigorously. “You don’t understand. The clinical trials were conducted on volunteers. That is, human volunteers, you see?”
“I kinda guessed that.”
“Well, anyway, I believe…no, I know that the trials were not valid and reliable. The study design was flawed and, to make matters worse, the data were doctored.”
“How do you know this?”
Up to this point, he hadn’t looked me in the eye once. But now he did. For the briefest split-second.
“Mr. Chisolm had all the technicians use just one kind of blue Bic ball-point pen. All the records were kept with this one specific kind of pen. And I personally witnessed Mr. Chisolm change the results on several occasions. I was familiar with the parameters of the study and the control group and I know for a fact that the data and the results are different. What I don’t know is whether the changes were material enough to get us the approval.”
“How significant are the changes?”
He brushed back his forelock with his hand and moved to the edge of his chair. “Well, you see, the clinicals are supposed to show that the drug is safe and efficacious. We have a problem in both areas. There have been unfortunate side effects and even three fatalities. Now, that’s still within acceptable limits but it appears that the fatalities were ascribed to other causes rather than to the drug.”
“Would that be enough to stop approval?” I asked.
“Not in and of itself. But it raises serious questions and would require additional testing. And that, of course, would cost more money.”
“Is that serious?”
He nodded. “You bet it is. We’re at the end of the line. Our venture capitalists have said they’re going to pull the plug. They told us they’ve sunk in too much money already and they weren’t going to invest any more. This was our last chance.”
“Would it be a problem if you didn’t get the approval now?”
He looked at me as if I’d asked, would it be a problem if the sun didn’t rise tomorrow.
“It would mean the end of the company and all the years we’d put into it.” He fidgeted in his seat and cast his eyes down.
I took my feet off the desk and sat up. “OK. What can I do?”
“I can’t in good conscience let a flawed drug onto the market without verifiable clinicals. Too many people’s lives are at risk.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Honestly I’m afraid to do anything myself. I’m not a brave person. But I believe in doing the correct thing. You can see I’m in a terrible dilemma. I want to blow the whistle but…”
I finished his sentence. “You’re scared? You want me to do it for you?”
He nodded wordlessly.
“OK,” I said. “Your fairy godmother just granted your wish. But first I’m going to ask you some questions. And I need some sharp answers.”
He sighed with relief. “I’ll tell you whatever I can.”
“Did you know a woman named Alicia Rogan?”
“Yes. She called me a few months ago. Early April, I think it was. Said she was doing some research on Insignia and could I assist her. At first, I thought this could be the answer. She would be the conduit for me to get the clinicals out to the proper authorities. I gave her copies of as much of the flawed documentation as I could. But that’s where it ended.”
This was starting to smell most foul. “What do you mean?” I asked.
Hobley spread his hands helplessly. “She didn’t do anything with the information.”
That’s what you think, buddy boy. This amateur was playing a game and he didn’t even know what game he was playing or how high the stakes were.
“I never could reach her after that. She never returned my calls. It was as if she used me and then discarded me. I was terribly discouraged after that.”
“Did you notice any changes in Chisolm after you gave Alicia the documents?”
He shook his head. “Nothing special that I could point to…except maybe…he became even more intense than before…more determined.”
“More determined to do what?”
“To get the FDA approval.”
I sat back. So Alicia had been a busy beaver. Jergens wasn’t the only one she’d been blackmailing.
“What do you think she did with the copies you gave her?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Beats me. As far as I know, she never wrote that research report.”
You bet your sweet ass, buddy boy. She was getting a lot more mileage out of those papers than just a fat Wall Street paycheck.
I took my feet off the desk and leaned forward in my chair. “Here’s what I want you to do,” I said. “Is there a back entrance to the place where you keep the clinicals?”
He looked at me again briefly. “Yes, there is. The files are kept in a room next to the lab.”
“Can you leave that door unlocked?”
“Is there an alarm?” I said.
He nodded. “Yes, but I can turn it off.”
“Good. Now how do I get over the fence?”
He thought for a minute. “There’s a gate on the north side. No one ever uses it, though. I think I can leave it unlatched for you.”
I got up. “Outstanding, Eric. We’re going to be excellent partners in crime.”
Hobley was as good as his word. The north gate was left unlocked. I pushed on it and it swung open with a little effort and a loud squeak. The noise was almost as loud as the chorus of the crickets. Fortunately, their chirping would have drowned out any sound quieter than a freight train chugging up a forty-five degree grade.
Before I headed for the buildings I broke the catch of the lock with the butt of my gun to make it look like a forced entry. There was no use pointing an incriminating finger any more than necessary. Nobody could tell who was going to catch the flak for this unorthodox entry. Chisolm was going to be pissing in his pants when he learned about this surgical removal.
The lights were on in the two low-slung buildings, but otherwise the night was black as hell and twice as forbidding.
I dropped to a crouch and crossed twenty meters of lawn to the back of the nearest building. That was where the offices were. I flattened myself against the building with my back to the brick wall. In front of me, about fifteen meters away, at the edge of the parking lot was a white security van. The lettering on the side of the van was too indistinct to make out. Next to the van was Chisolm’s fool car, the Hummer. So Chisolm was working late. Either he was doing some honest productive work or he was doctoring up some more phony clinical trial results.
The windows behind me were above eye-level, so I couldn’t get a look inside the building. There was no way of telling if there was a batallion inside or just a lone security guard. Hobley had given me some intelligence, but his information might have been inaccurate or obsolete. I hated to go blind into a situation like this.
It was another twenty meters to the second building. I made my way over in a crouch. Both buildings were two stories. This one housed the labs. Hobley had described the emergency exit. I ran my hand along the brick wall until I found it, maybe five meters down on the far side. It was a solid steel door that opened outward. I put the heels of both hands against the door. It was cold to the touch in spite of the warm evening air.
I listened. There wasn’t a sound except the crickets. I couldn’t see a damn thing for the blackness and I didn’t want to use a flashlight unless I had to.
The door didn’t have anything to grab on to. I ran my hands over the entire surface. Then, halfway down on the left-hand side, a piece of cardboard stuck out an inch. That was where Hobley had taped over the lock. I pulled the piece of cardboard slowly until I could get a couple of fingers inside the door. This was the moment of truth when the alarm would go off.
I pulled the door open a crack until I could see the light inside.
Still no alarm. I held my breath and opened the door wide enough for me to slide in. Once in, I peeled off the tape and the cardboard, put them in my pocket, and eased the door shut. My back was in the hollow of the door frame. I shifted my shoulder holster so it would be easier to grab the gun.
A blank wall faced me and a corridor ran to the right and left. Hobley said I’d have to go left and make the first right to get to the security guard.
I looked to the right to make sure it was clear. Then I started down the corridor to the left. The hum of the air-conditioning muffled my steps on the asphalt tile.
It was twelve thirty-six. Hobley said the relief guard didn’t come on until one-thirty, but sometimes he showed up early to shoot the breeze. He also said there was a guard in the other building.
I got to the right turn and stopped. Straight ahead was a set of double doors and above them was a sign that read:
LABORATORY-AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
I dropped to one knee and snuck a peek around the corner to the right. At the far end of the corridor the guard sat at a console of closed circuit monitors.
There was just one tiny problem.
He was looking straight at me.
I jerked back.
It felt like Peter Rabbit and Farmer Mac Gregor.
Had the son of a bitch seen me? There was only one way to find out.
I took another look.
The guy hadn’t moved.
OK. I couldn’t just saunter up and say, “Nice night, isn’t it?” On the other hand, I didn’t know if I’d come around behind him if I went up the other corridor. Such are the vagaries of life.
Might as well chance it. I headed back the way I came, passed the exit door and stopped at the end. The johns were to the right. Straight ahead was an unmarked door. The corridor angled left. Above the door was a TV camera. The guard was probably watching my smiling face right now on his monitor.
This was not my idea of a fun night. I headed left up the corridor. There were more rooms on both sides. Some of the doors had small windows in them. The rooms appeared to be auxiliary labs and offices. Any one of them could be occupied. I edged along the outer wall and tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. Like a tarantula on top of a slice of angel food cake.
I made it to the end of the hall without setting off General Quarters or causing any other kind of disturbance. The place was as quiet as the grave. I took a deep breath and peeked around the corner.
The guard still hadn’t moved. He just sat there, his left side to me, his hands on the console. His hat was slanted forward over his eyes.
Two to one the guy was catching some z’s. What else would you do on the night shift, besides dance the tango?
I took two steps over to the far wall and put my back to it. At least I was outside his field of vision.
I sidled along the wall like a crab and hoped the son of a bitch was a heavy sleeper.
He looked like a retired cop with a pot belly and a fringe of white hair under the cap. As I got closer, he started to fidget in his chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. Then he rubbed his nose with the back of his hand and began the slow process of waking from his alpha state.
I was next to him and five feet from his left shoulder. Over his shoulder I could see the console monitors and the control board.
He was still half asleep. I crossed the five feet and tapped him gently on the shoulder. He spun his chair around slowly, his mouth wide open. I smiled at him, just as sweet as could be, put my index finger over my mouth and whispered, “Shhhh.” He blinked. I pointed behind him at the corridor straight ahead. He swiveled around the way he was facing to get a look, giving me the back of his head. I removed his hat and rapped him smartly with the Glock. Just enough to stun him. He fell forward over the console.
I tied his hands and feet and taped his mouth. Then I maneuvered him so he was under the console.
I checked my watch. Twelve fifty-seven. Little more than half an hour. Tight but not impossible.
I walked down the corridor straight ahead to the lab. The double doors were locked. It wasn’t hard to jimmy them open with a screwdriver.
The lab was dark except for the light that slanted in from the hallway. The shapes and shadows were the same as any other lab. Refrigerators, autoclaves, centrifuges, petrie dishes, racks of syringes.
Beyond the lab was the room with the clinicals. I edged down the long counters, trying not to knock anything over in the semi-darkness. The place smelled like a hospital-full of odors of disinfectants and chemicals. The only things missing were the patients and the flowers. And it was quiet. There were no gongs and no loudspeakers.
The door to the file room wasn’t locked. I pulled a flashlight out of my back pocket and flicked it on and swept the beam around the room. It was small, maybe twelve by twelve. There were half a dozen file cabinets against the wall on the right and two metal desks against the wall on the left. Wedged between the file cabinets and the wall were a couple of folded corrugated cartons. Good old Hobley.
I shut the door behind me and put the flashlight on the nearest desk so it gave enough light to work. I set up one carton and looked for the file drawer with the telltale piece of Scotch tape. The drawer opened smoothly. As I put the files into the box in the proper order, I started to understand why Laura had been killed.
Alicia had sent that manila envelope with some extracts of the clinicals and instructions to Laura to open the envelope if something happened to her. When Alicia was killed, Laura saw the clinicals, didn’t realize what they meant and contacted Chisolm. She was so innocent. So trusting. She didn’t know it meant her own death.
The envelope was postmarked the day before Alicia was killed-the day after I’d turned down her plea for help. Was that why Alicia wanted to see me? Would she have given me the clinicals? Would I have been able to save her?
The first carton was filled. I folded the top flaps down so they interlocked and started filling the second box.
Why didn’t Laura come to me instead of Chisolm? Do you have a closer bond with somebody you fuck than with somebody you don’t?
The second carton couldn’t hold any more files. I shoved down the contents as much as possible and closed it.
The boxes were too heavy to carry both at once. I grabbed the first one and backed out of the room, shoving open the door with my shoulder. I retraced my steps through the lab back to the exit and dropped the box there.
Then the alarm went off. The goddam bloody alarm went off. My heart started pounding like a jackhammer.
Why the hell did it have to go off now?
It was loud and it didn’t stop. I couldn’t tell which was louder-my heart pounding or that damn alarm. It howled through the night like a wounded beast in its death throes. At most I’d have five minutes.
I went back to the file room. I picked up the second box and lugged it through the narrow aisle between the counters in the lab. My side was aching again but I couldn’t put the box down.
Then a door slammed behind me.
I tried to turn in the darkness but I couldn’t move fast enough with the box in my hands.
I heard Chisolm’s scream a couple of feet away. “Rogan-you son of a bitch.” His yell was high-pitched, like an angry woman. “Let go of my papers. Give me my papers.” He sounded frantic, hysterical. Like he’d lost control of himself. “I want my papers.”
I saw the flash from the muzzle out of the corner of my eye and felt the slug hit my shoulder at the same moment. It knocked the wind out of me. I lost my grip on the box and it fell into Chisolm’s path. He stumbled over the box and fell on top of me in a dance of death that felt so slow, it was as if time had stopped.
I couldn’t get to my gun. My right arm was useless. He was on top of me. My back was twisted over the edge of a counter and he was pounding my head with both fists. The guy was grunting and moaning and screaming all at the same time and in the dim light his eyes had a weird intensity.
I swung my left fist and missed him. Or rather I hit him a glancing blow on his shoulder that seemed to make him even more insane. He kept on shrieking wildly into my ear. I couldn’t understand what the hell he was screaming.
There was no feeling at all in my right arm. The blood from my wound was all over the side of his face and his neck. He grabbed my head with both hands and began ramming it against the countertop.
I started to black out.
“Don’t trouble yourself, dear,” a woman’s voice said evenly. “I’ll finish him off.”
I tried to make out who it was. I took a deep breath and shook my head to clear it. In the dim light I could see Mrs. Chisolm holding a gun. She was the one who’d put the hole in my shoulder.
Chisolm turned to look at his wife. “Do it,” he whimpered. “Kill him, for God’s sake.” He was crying uncontrollably.
I could see her white teeth in the darkness as she smiled. “My husband couldn’t kill a cockroach. He’s too much of a pussy. Too fastidious. He’d never get his hands dirty.”
“Kill him now,” Chisolm sobbed. “Please, kill him now.” He started to move off me to give his wife a clear shot.
She raised the gun in a police grip with her left hand supporting the right hand. She looked like a real cool pro.
I bit down hard on Chisolm’s ear and held on like a beaver in heat. Nothing in this world or the next was going to make me let go. I could taste the warm blood. I didn’t know if it was his or mine. He let out a surprised shriek. At the same time, I slid down under Chisolm and pulled my gun out with my left hand.
Mrs. Chisolm hesitated, but she shouldn’t have. She fired and her slug caught Chisolm between the shoulders, right where my head would have been.
I went down and stuck my left hand with the gun out from under Chisolm’s crotch.
She saw the gun and her eyes widened in fear. She opened her mouth.
I gave it to her in the chest. Twice. The impact of the slugs knocked her back against the wall.
She slowly slipped down the wall and left a broad red streak behind her to mark the beginning of her descent into hell.
I didn’t have much strength left. My vision was narrowing, like in a tunnel. Black and narrow. I couldn’t see very well.
Chisolm dropped off me and hit the floor on his back.
He didn’t move. Mrs. Chisolm didn’t move.
Neither did I.
I couldn’t move.
But Mrs. Chisolm’s eyes were still open and there was still a little light in them.
I could talk. Or at least I could whisper. I could say a few words before I blacked out. So I did.
“You bitch,” I said. “That was for Laura.”