May 8, 8:12 p.m.
Otto Berger and Arthur Shoulders, sitting across a table from their boss Willard Ord, listened to Willard sum up what he'd told them: They were in Ord's garden-level apartment in the Village. The rest of the brick building, upstairs, was vacant except for storage and also owned by Ord.
“So it could be the fake bracelets,” Ord said. “The nonsense with the cat, all or most of it, was to help mislead and convince the insurance company the real bracelet was stolen. It looks like an insurance scam to me, with Alexis Hoffermuth using the Clairmont brother and Craig's wife. Hoffermuth has probably already filed for a big settlement.”
“The cat didn't have no bracelet around its neck when we snatched him,” Otto pointed out.
“I take your point,” Arthur said.
Willard stared at him, disgusted. “There is definitely the possibility that no bracelet was ever stolen, and Alexis Hoffermuth still has it.”
“Insurance fraud,” Otto said. “Makes a lotta sense.”
“We need to find out for sure,” Willard said.
“The easiest thing might be to make her talk,” Otto said.
Willard smiled. “Easier than chasing a cat.”
“More fun, too,” Arthur said.
May 9, 10:17 p.m.
“What on earth is the emergency?” Alexis Hoffermuth asked, when her private elevator door slid open and two huge men in cheap suits stepped out. She was wearing blue silk lounging pajamas and a matching top with decorative string ties and a low neckline. Her slippers were fur-lined and matched her outfit. “The doorman phoned up that I should admit you. That it was important.”
“Melman,” one of the men said. “He sent us up here.”
“Yes,” she said, puzzled. But she trusted Melman completely. “Why did he let you in? Are you acquaintances of his? Family?” She found both possibilities highly unlikely.
They said nothing. One of them smiled, displaying horrendous teeth. The other blatantly observed the unfastened top buttons on her pajama top.
Alexis didn't like this at all. Tomorrow she'd have a serious talk with Melman.
Fearless as ever, she crossed her arms and stared unblinkingly at both men. If it was a fight they wanted, she didn't mind stepping up out of her weight class. “Well?”
“You actually sleep in that outfit?” asked the slightly smaller man, with good teeth.
“That would be beside the point,” Alexis said.
She'd had enough of this. Her evening had been disturbed, and that made her grumpy. She stalked toward the nearby phone to call the doorman's desk and set things straight with Melman.
Alexis was amazed that the two men had entered farther into her domain. They'd even moved apart somewhat as if to block her access to her elevator.
She held the receiver down near her waist and could hear the phone down in the lobby ringing.
Then it stopped ringing, but no one spoke.
Alexis pressed the receiver to her ear. “Melman? Melman?”
The man with the horrible teeth grinned and said, “Get her.”
Alexis actually advanced on the man, raising her hand to slap him.
But before she could bring the flat of her hand forward, he punched her hard in the stomach. She made a whooshing sound, then panicked and thrashed around when she couldn't inhale. Her mind was functioning, but not well.
She began a harsh rasping that caught in her throat. The pristine white ceiling with its skylight was in front of her.
How did I get on the floor?
“When she catches her breath, she's gonna wail like a train whistle,” one of the large men said.
“I'll find something, Arthur,” said the man with the bad teeth.
He disappeared in the direction of her bedroom.
The one called Arthur began to undress her. He worked a few buttons on her pajama top, then lost patience and ripped the top apart, sending buttons flying. Alexis was now able to breathe in a labored way, but she still couldn't muster enough strength or will to move of her own accord, enough air to scream. Someoneâ
it must be me!
Arthur had a wicked looking knife now, and was skillfully slicing material in order to undress her. Except for her pajama bottoms, which he simply yanked off.
Through her terror, Alexis felt a mounting rage.
Who are these animals, that they think they can do this to me? I'll be able to speak in a few minutes. Then I'll tell them who I am, what's going to happen to them, how very sorry they'll be. Damn them! They'll be so sorry!
Breathing was still a great effort, but she thought that with even more effort she could talkâcould
She attempted to scream but heard only a soft croaking sound.
“Here, Arthur,” said the man with the bad teeth. “She's getting her sea legs. Better stuff this in her mouth before she yelps.”
“We're not on a ship, Otto.”
“This is no time to be a grammarian,” Otto said, handing something to Arthur.
My favorite Burberry scarf! Oh, damn them!
Alexis managed another moan. Louder.
“Better stuff,” Otto said.
But instead of wadding the scarf and stuffing it in her mouth, Arthur wound it tightly around Alexis's neck. “Help me flip her on her belly,” he said. “She can try to tell us what we wanna know, but whenever she gets spunky and raises her voice, I'll give the scarf a tug, choke the bitch a little at a time. She can live quite a while that way.”
“That sounds productive, Arthur. We are, after all, here to get information.”
“No point in stuffing the goose that lays the golden egg,” Arthur said.
Alexis felt their hands on her, and her stunned body was rotated onto its stomach. A hand pressed her head against the carpet. The one called Arthur used a pants leg from her pajamas to bind her wrists tightly behind her. Then he made a fist with the hand holding the knife and pressed it painfully into the small of her back. When Alexis cried out, he used his other hand to yank the scarf tight, bending back her neck and choking off any sound other than a strangled gurgle. She kicked hard against the carpeted floor and against Arthur, but he simply ignored her kicks. Seemed, in fact, to enjoy watching her flail around.
“What I'm gonna do,” he said, leaning close to her ear, “is what I done plenty of times, so don't think it won't work. I'm gonna ask you a question, then you're gonna lie to me, then I'm gonna insert the point of my knife between two of your vertebraesâ”
, I think that is, Arthur,” said the one called Otto.
“Wouldn't that be singular?”
“No. It's like
“You got me there,” Otto said.
Arthur turned his attention back to Alexis Hoffermuth. “Thing is,” he said to her with his foul breath, “I know just where and how to insert the blade between your verte
, and believe me, next time I ask a question you'll be eager to answer it and I'll know you'll be telling the truth.”
“I'll stillâ” The scarf contracted like a vise against Alexis's larynx and her words were choked off.
“You'll be dying to tell the truth,” Otto assured her. “Nobody refuses telling the truth to Arthur. He's the best at his job.”
“Like a polygram,” Arthur said.
,” Otto corrected.
“It's a thousand-to-one chance Arthur's not gonna eventually kill you when he knows you've spilled everything you know or ever knew, but at a certain point, you'll think that's a bet worth making. It'll be all you got left.”
“Making folks speak the truth,” Arthur said, “is a psychological thing. Long time ago, my psychiatrist told me I was the one should be the psychiatrist. He had something there. And I got something here. Show her, Otto.”
“Yuk,” Otto said. He pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and drew something from it. He held the object out where Alexis could see it. “Know what that is?”
Alexis stared. The thing he was holding was tubular, darkly splotched, with gray and white showing and red andâa fingernail!
My God, it's a severed finger!
“She knows, Arthur,” Otto said. “See her eyes?”
“I do, Otto.”
“You need some lubricant?”
“She's pissed all over the place. I'll use that. She should feel it go in.”
Alexis did feel it. She struggled to scream, her eyes wide with horror. They were inserting the horrid
into her! The scarf got so tight she momentarily lost consciousness.
“... Like I said, psychological,” she heard Arthur say. “While you're laying thereâ”
“âLying,” Otto said.
“Lying there wishing your back pain would stop, you can also think about that finger. I got nine more of them for you, counting thumbs.”
That last was a lie, but Arthur thought the powers that be would forgive him. He was, after all, seeking the truth.
“I wonder if all those fingers will fit,” Otto said.
“Oh, they will,” Arthur said.
Alexis felt the knife slide into her back, into her spine. The pain traveled everywhere inside her body. It was electric. It was unimaginable.
When the scarf was loosened she was breathing hard from attempting to scream.
“You got a lot more vertebraesâverte
,” Arthur said. “So, are we ready to talk about the insurance scam?”
“What insurance scam?” Alexis asked. “What on
Arthur smiled. She was a good little liar.
He inserted the knife again.
This process might take hours.
He was patient.
May 10, 9:20 a.m.
Melman, the Gladden Tower doorman, was inside his drab studio apartment overlooking a parking lot in Queens, He didn't know for sure if Otto and Arthur were Alexis Hoffermuth's cousins, here from California, who wanted to surprise her. Didn't care, either, once they'd paid him a thousand dollars in tens and twenties to look the other way and let them use the private elevator to the penthouse. As a crooked ex-cop, he'd accepted larger bribes. But considering his present salary, and the state of the economy, this one looked too good to refuse.
Melman saw on TV news this morning that he'd been only half right.
The two men weren't really Alexis Hoffermuth's cousins from California, here to surprise her.
That left Melman with two choicesâhe could run, or he could be implicated as an accessory to murder.
He thought the situation over and decided he'd better not even take time to pack. He phoned in his resignation, leaving it on an answering machine. That might at least slow things down a little. Then he hurriedly grabbed up a few items to take with him in his small carry-on. After a quick glance around, he headed for the door.
He had to get out of here before the police showed up. Or worse stillâ
Melman had saved time by packing only the carry-on, but there wasn't much time to save, when it was so rapidly running out.
When he opened his apartment door, the two big guys were standing there, the so-called California cousins.
Melman's mind raced. This was not good. The resignation, the hurried getaway. He could easily be fitted for Alexis Hoffermuth's murder.
If the police had been at his door, he at least would know his body wouldn't be buried in a shallow grave over in New Jersey. That would be some very small, very brief, comfort.
“Going someplace?” the big man asked.
“Oh, he's going someplace,” the even bigger man said. “He just don't know where.”
Melman knew the man was wrong. He realized with a certainty glowing like a star, illuminating his entire mind, that from the time he'd taken his first bribe as a rookie cop in Brooklyn, he'd known where he was eventually going.
May 10, 9:21 p. m.
Renz called Quinn's cell phone that evening when Quinn and Pearl were home in the brownstone watching an early episode of
The Good Wife
on TV. Jody was upstairs studying for a legal exam. Quinn thought maybe she could learn more down here in front of the television.
Pearl glanced at him, curious about the phone call. Quinn pointed to the TV and she used the remote to freeze and mute the DVD picture.
“I hope this is important, Harley,” Quinn said into the phone. “Like I'm just about to see a case broken and all the bad guys going to jail.”
“Unreality television,” Renz said.
Quinn wandered out of the living room, in case Pearl wanted to press Play and watch the conclusion of the
trial. It was about a crooked international pharmaceutical company. The DVD would retain its position on the disk only so long. If the phone call lasted a little while, the TV screen would go blank and they'd have to go back to the beginning and fast-forward. Or choose scenes. Whatever the hell you did with a DVD.
“Okay,” Quinn said. “Court's in recess.”
“Preliminary tests show we got no record of the DNA left from that severed finger that was found in Alexis Hoffermuth's vaginal tract. Got something else, though. A fingerprint. A match turned up right away in the FBI database.”
Quinn waited three or four seconds, knowing Renz was in love with dramatic pauses. “So tell me, Harley.”
“The fingerprintâright forefinger, incidentallyâbelongs or belonged to John Wayson Clairmont. Goes by Jack. Three arrests in upstate New York for burglarizing jewelry stores. One conviction. Did a three-year stretch behind walls, was released four years ago.”
“Tell me he's related to Craig Clairmont.”
“His brother,” Renz said.
Quinn paced with the cell phone, wondering about this development.
“You wanna send one of your people to talk to brother Craig?” Renz asked.
“No. Let's not tell Craig, or Ida French, about the owner of the finger yet. See how this plays out.”
“Jack might not have had anything to do with Craig, and Craig might have nothing to do with Alexis Hoffermuth's missing bracelet.”
“Or Jack's missing finger.”
“But it isn't missingâ”
“Jack would disagree.”
“The rest of Jack might be as dead as his finger,” Renz said, “tucked away someplace where it won't be found.”
“Jack was at one time in that alley where we found his finger,” Quinn said. “Unless somebody transported the finger there.”
“Always a possibility,” Renz said, “somebody running around with a spare finger. Good for counting beyond ten. But where the finger was found is easy walking distance from Craig's apartment. You believe that much in coincidence?”
“No,” Quinn said. “You got anything else?”
“Ida French. Real Name Ida Beene. From Cincinnati. Used to be a hooker, one conviction, then went to work as a hotel maid in Cleveland. Seems to have cleaned up her act.”
“So many people go to Cleveland to start over,” Quinn said.
“Craig's real name is Lester,” Renz said. “Not much about that couple is real.”
Quinn waited, then said, “That it for tonight?”
“Not quite. Nift's postmortem on the Hoffermuth woman is in. She died of a heart attack.”
“I thought the scarfâ”
“Probably it was only used to choke off her screams when the knife was applied to her back. There were a lot of knife wounds along her spine, very precise, between the vertebrae. Nift said whoever wielded the knife was skilled. The insertions must have produced incredible pain. She had her heart attack simultaneous with being throttled to keep her quiet.”
“Hell of a way to die.”
“There are a few good ways, but hers wasn't one of them.”
“Any other cheerful news?”
“That's it for now,” Renz said. “You can sleep on it.”
“But not very well,” Quinn said, trying to hang up on Renz. But Renz had already broken the connection. Renz liked to do that. Thought it made him the dominant party.
When Quinn returned to the living room, he saw that the DVD had timed out and Pearl was now watching a Yankees game with the TV on mute.
Quinn told her about Renz's phone call.
“Sounds as if Craig was in on stealing the Hoffermuth bracelet with his brother,” Pearl said.
“And maybe the cat has the bracelet around its neck. Eloise thought it was a collar.”
“Which is why Craig and Ida BeeâFrenchâare so hot to find Boomerang.”
“But what's the deal with Jack's finger?” Quinn wondered aloud.
“Maybe Jack told somebody something he shouldn't have,” Jody said. She had come downstairs and listened at the living room doorway to Quinn's account of his phone conversation with Renz. Her springy red hair was flat on one side from reading lying down. “He might've fingered somebody, and the severed finger's a mob message to anyone else who might have similar ideas.”
“Sounds plausible, but I've never heard of the mob doing that,” Quinn said, “cutting off somebody's finger because they fingered someone. They usually cut off more than that.”
“But it's his forefinger,” Jody said. “His pointer.”
“Wouldn't they cut out his tongue?”
“You ever try to cut out somebody's tongue?”
“She might have something there,” Pearl said, mostly to defend Jody.
Jody glanced gratefully at her mother.
These two were about to gang up on Quinn. He could feel it.
“Let's all sleep on it,” he said, echoing Renz's suggestion. “What's the score on that ball game?”
“Detroit's winning eleven to two in the eighth inning,” Pearl said.
“Let's go back to the DVD and see if that international pharmaceutical company gets convicted of testing that dangerous drug on kids in third world countries.”
“What pharmaceutical company?” Jody asked, her ire obviously up.
Quinn loved to do that with Jody.
“Have you ever considered,” Jody said, after the pharmaceutical company's entire board of directors were successfully tried in the Hague for murder, “that Alexis Hoffermuth might have set up this whole thing? She might still have the genuine bracelet.”
“And all this running around and bracelet switching is to deceive the insurance company,” Pearl said. “Everyone's so curious about where the bracelet is, they're beyond questioning whether the thing was ever stolen in the first place.”
“I've thought about it,” Quinn said, though he had only briefly. With Alexis Hoffermuth, you'd better be damned sure you have something before opening that particular door.
Jody, whose thirst for justice hadn't been quenched by the downfall of Big Pharma, looked from one of them to the other.
“We shouldn't rule it out,” Quinn said.
Pearl's cell phone chirped, and without thinking to check who might be calling, she answered it.
“Pearl!” her mother's voice said, from Golden Sunset Assisted Living in New Jersey. “I have been trying to get in contact with you in regard to an outrageous change in dining room seating in this nursing home hellâ”
“Assisted living,” Pearl corrected, as she often did.
“Anyway, to continue my diatribeâand I know that is how you regard it, unable to conceptualize as you are that nefarious things do go on in this purgatory of pain that reasonable people ...”
“Is that Grandma?” Jody asked, her face lighting up. “Let me talk to her!”
Pearl tossed her the phone, and Jody snatched it from the air and walked off into the next room, yammering.
Pearl and Quinn smiled silently at each other.