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When I awoke the next morning the sun was shining and a light breeze was fluttering the birch tree outside my window. Mrs. Tomasello, my housekeeper, would undoubtedly suggest we turn off the air conditioning, as she usually did whenever there was more than a breath of air.
She didn't disappoint me. After I showered, shaved and dressed, I was pouring myself a cup of coffee when she came in from the rear yard, a bunch of fresh picked flowers in her hand. "Buon giorno," she said, "it's a beautiful day. The weather has changed, it's much cooler than yesterday and there's no humidity. Please turn off the air conditioning so I can open the windows. I love a breeze through the house."
"Consider it done," I said, smiling to myself. "By the way, I won't be home until late tonight, so please don't fix dinner for me."
"Mi scusi, you don't eat enough, and you're getting too thin," she said, scolding me with a wagging finger. "I'll fix something and leave it in the refrigerator for you. Something easy for you to heat-up when you get home."
"That won't be necessary because I'll already have eaten. Besides, I'm not losing weight, with you constantly feeding me I have to work like hell to keep my weight where it's been for the last ten years." As always, I knew this was a debate I'd never win, so I finished my coffee and headed for the door. After stopping to turn off the air conditioning.
"You won't let me cook breakfast for you either," she said, in her best wounded-dove voice, "so at least have some fruit on your way to the office, per piacere, and don't swear at me." She grabbed my arm as I opened the door and jammed an orange in my hand. Like I said, why argue.
Mrs. Tomasello is sixty-three years old, has two grown daughters, and buried two husbands before she was fifty-five. She's been my housekeeper ever since I got fed up with apartment living eight years ago and bought myself an old three-story Victorian money-pit in historic Haddonfield. She comes in three days a week to clean and do my laundry; no cooking - or at least that was the deal when I hired her. As it turned out, she cooks whenever I'm home to eat - sometimes when I'm not - and does whatever else she feels needs doing; everything from food shopping to watering the garden.
Angelina Tomasello is the traditional Italian momma; small in stature, strong as an ox, capable of totally intimidating you in her native tongue when she's frustrated or trying to impose her will, then wrapping you in a tender hug to show her affection. She treats me like a son, so I guess I shouldn't complain. And I'm sure she knows how much I care for her. When my parents came to visit from Florida, shortly after she came to work for me, I overheard part of a conversation between she and my mother. Mom gave her a complete set of instructions on my care and upbringing. I guess I'm now one of the few men accused of ignoring two mothers.
There was a stack of telephone messages from yesterday awaiting me on my desk. Nancy, my secretary, had also left a few letters for my signature. I knew I had about thirty minutes of peace and quiet before the staff arrived and the phones started, so I spent the time reviewing revised estimate sheets for a project we're bidding. It's a complex estimate; a new middle school and high school, plus heavy renovation of two old schools - lots of margin for costly error - and bids are due day after tomorrow. I'm due to meet again with our estimator at eight this morning to see how much we can sharpen some of our numbers.
Our meeting ended shortly after ten. I had just poured my second cup of coffee of the day when Nancy buzzed me. She said a Lieutenant Ronko of the Atlantic City police department was on my line and that he insisted on speaking with no one but me. Before picking up the receiver it flashed through my head that David had gotten into some kind of trouble, although I couldn't imagine him breaking the law. I didn't know anybody else in Atlantic City, and certainly not in their police department. "Hello, Cole McQuaid," I said.
"Mr. McQuaid, my name is Ronko, Lieutenant Ronko, with the Atlantic City police. I'm calling in regard to a David Nesbitt, from London, England. Do you know him?"
"Yes I do. He's one of our clients. What's the problem?"
"There is a problem, Mr. McQuaid, and it's serious. I can't discuss it on the phone, so I'm afraid I have to ask you to come to my office. If you don't have transportation I'll send a car for you. I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but it's important that you get here quickly."
"I have a car, and I can leave almost immediately, but can't you give me some clue as to what this is all about? Is David in jail?"
"I'm sorry, but I can't discuss it further on the phone. When you get here ask for me at the front desk - Lieutenant Al Ronko." He then gave me directions to his station from the expressway.
"I'll be there in about an hour," I responded, and hung up the phone. All kinds of crazy thoughts were racing through my head. What the hell was going on? It must be serious, but why hadn't David called me if he had a problem - why Ronko? I didn't like the answer to that question. I stopped at Nancy's desk on my way out and told her what Ronko had told me, and that I would call her as soon as I knew what was wrong.
I made it to Ronko's office in just under an hour, and found him on the second floor of the building. His office was small and cluttered, and reeked of cigarette smoke. He stuffed out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray on his desk as he arose to shake my hand. He was on the short side, bald on top, with a fat face and bushy mustache. The mustache did nothing to hide his veined, bulbous nose. It looked like Al Ronko enjoyed his booze. "Please sit down, Mr. McQuaid, thanks for getting here so quickly." He produced a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, shook one out, lit it and blew a cloud of smoke in my direction. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but there's been a homicide. David Nesbitt is dead."
Damn! My worst fear had just come true. I had pushed this reality from my mind a dozen times on my way here. I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. "God, no! What happened...are you sure it's David?"
"I'll tell you what I can at this point, but first I need answers to a few questions. Also, when we finish here I'd like you to come with me to the morgue. The description of Nesbitt given to us by the hotel staff fits, but we need a positive ID. Now, when and where did you last see him?"
Cold sweat trickled down my spine as I recalled my conversation with David last night, and of the plans we had made for the next few days. I told Ronko about having dinner with David, and of seeing him off in the limo. I also mentioned David's plans for last night and today at the casino. "I'm curious Lieutenant, just how did you locate me so quickly?"
Ronko leaned across his desk and handed me a business card. "Recognize this?" he asked.
"Yes, it's my card. Where did you get it?"
"It was in Nesbitt's pocket when he was found. Just before you arrived I spoke with a girl in the limo service office. Your name came up there, too."
"Please, Lieutenant," I asked, "tell me what happened. This whole situation is unbelievable."
"Well, we're still piecing bits of information together, but apparently Nesbitt returned to his room from the casino around three this morning. He phoned room service and ordered breakfast for seven-thirty. We don't think he ever made it to bed. When the waiter arrived with breakfast he found the door partly open, badly sprung. When he pushed the door open he saw Nesbitt on the floor in the bathroom. The waiter called security; they called us. Everything so far indicates Nesbitt had been dead for a couple hours before he was found. Those hotel doors are tough. By the looks of things, whoever broke in had some heavy-duty equipment and knew what they were doing. And Nesbitt must have been taken by complete surprise; there were no signs of a major struggle, no calls to the desk, and nobody in other rooms on the floor heard a thing."
"How was he killed?"
"Two shots through the temple, one on either side. We know the shots were fired at very close range, probably with a silencer since nobody heard anything."
"Is it possible he was killed resisting a robbery? He could have been carrying a lot of cash; after all he came here to gamble. Have you checked with the casino to see whether..."
"Hold it," Ronko interrupted. "We don't think it was robbery, there are too many inconsistencies. And we have talked to some of the casino people. But before I go any further with this I need you to come with me to the morgue. We've got to have a positive ID, just to be sure. I'm sorry to put you through it, but you can save us a lot of time and trouble, particularly since he's from out of the country. After you confirm the ID we'll have to come back here, "cause we'll need a statement from you, too."
On top of the foul smell, Ronko's office was hot as hell. My stomach needed this whole bad dream to end; I felt like I was going to lose my breakfast and I really didn't need any more upset - I needed to get outside. The morgue was probably in another building, and maybe on the way there I'd get lucky and find some fresh air. Besides, even though my heart still held out some hope, my head told me it was David.
The trip to the morgue did nothing to relieve my queasiness. Once inside, things got worse. When the attendant pulled back the sheet I knew it was David, not so much by the facial features as by the hair and beard. Unfortunately, there wasn't a doubt. I've always considered myself physically and emotionally tough, but I had never seen what gunshot wounds can do to a human face. The attendant offered to uncover more of the body if I had any doubts, but cautioned me that there were other wounds. I said no thanks, I had seen enough.
On the way back to the station Ronko questioned me about David's personal life, what little I knew of it, and his relationship with my company. He admitted that they had no suspects, but that the lab crew was still in the casino hotel room doing their thing, and that maybe they would turn up something his people could run with. He didn't sound the least bit optimistic.
I again questioned the possibility of robbery. "Anything's possible," he responded, "but I still don't think so. I admit, we have a lot more in-house casino robberies than the public ever hears about, but they rarely result in murder. Usually the victim gets mugged by some low-life trying to cover his losses, or by a doper desperate for a fix. We're waiting to talk to the roulette dealer from Nesbitt's table when he comes on duty today. One of the pit bosses remembers Nesbitt and said he thought he dropped about six or seven hundred at that one wheel, but he didn't flash around any big money. To further spoil your robbery theory, Nesbitt's wallet and credit cards were scattered on the bed in his room, along with traveler's checks and more than seventeen hundred bucks in cash. Why would thieves or druggies leave that kind of loot behind? It just doesn't happen, particularly when it appears they weren't scared off. The only thing that appears to be missing is his luggage. There was none in his room and the bellhop can't remember for sure, but he said he took up two or three bags when Nesbitt checked in. He said Nesbitt also gave him a nice tip."
"He had a carry-on bag and a two-suiter when he left my office last night," I said. "I know because I carried them out to the limo. But why in hell would somebody leave behind that much cash and steal two suitcases? It's crazy."
"Exactly," Ronko answered, pulling into the station parking lot. "There are a lot of things that don't add up. When he was found, your friend was gagged and his hands and feet were bound with duct tape. He also had what looked like burns - maybe from a cigarette or cigar - on his hands and the soles of both feet. It was almost as though he was being tortured. Maybe we'll know more after the autopsy. It's scheduled to be started within the hour."
I still couldn't believe any of this, it was crazy. I followed Ronko back upstairs and gave my statement to a police stenographer. I told Ronko I'd take care of notifying London about David, and that I would call him as soon as possible with instructions for the body. Ronko knew how to reach me, and I asked him to call me immediately if the autopsy turned up anything or if there were any other developments. He said he would.
Walking back to my car I felt totally wiped out, and I felt even worse knowing I had a couple of tough phone calls to make. My car was parked in the sun and was stifling. After putting down the windows, I called Nancy on my car phone and, as directly as I could, told her of David's death - leaving out the grisly details. She was stunned. She probably had had more frequent involvement with David than anybody in our office, including Suzy and myself. She usually talked with David or his secretary at least once a week. She liked him, and enjoyed mimicking his clipped British accent. I asked her not to say anything to Suzy; I'd take care of that myself, and I wanted to do it in person. I also told Nancy to cancel everything on my schedule for the next few days, since I had no idea what'll happen when I call London. I sensed, rather than heard, Nancy crying on the other end of the line. After I ended the call I fiddled again with the air conditioning controls, to no avail.
So I left the windows down and drove home with the wind whistling through the car, trying to get the stink of death and cigarette smoke out of my nose and off my body.
Suzy and Nancy were sitting in my office with the door closed when I arrived. They were quietly talking and trying to console each other. Nancy saw the unasked question on my face and apologized. "I'm sorry, Cole. I came in here to be alone and Suzy came in and found me crying. I had to tell her."
An apology certainly wasn't necessary and I said so. They both asked the expected questions, and I told them what I had found out in Atlantic City, leaving out the details I didn't even want to think about, much less discuss. When I mentioned David's missing luggage, Nancy said that shortly after I left for Atlantic City she had found his attache case standing on the floor next to the sofa here in my office. She had put it in my closet for safekeeping. She said she knew it was David's because of the hunter green color; he had had it custom made some years ago. I guess he and I were so preoccupied with our discussion last night, the attache was overlooked when we walked to the limo. It was now almost nine-thirty in the evening, London time, and I couldn't chance waiting any later to call. I asked Nancy to get me David's home phone number, but had second thoughts as I started to dial. Damn! I just hated delivering this kind of news by phone, even though I knew I had no choice. On top of that it seemed almost cruel for me to call his wife when I had never met the woman. Then I remembered that because of the time difference, David had also given Nancy other phone numbers where he might be reached after banking hours. I asked her to check and was relieved when she found a home telephone listing for Alexander Trimble, David's boss. I don't know why, but I felt a lot more comfortable calling him. I couldn't delay any longer so I dialed Trimble's number.
A woman answered the phone. I asked for Trimble by name, and after a long wait he came on the line. "Mr. Trimble, we've never met. My name is Cole McQuaid, of Hammel & McQuaid in the States. We've worked with David Nesbitt and your bank for a number of years..."
"Yes," he interrupted. "I know exactly who you are, Mr. McQuaid, David has told me quite a bit about you personally. And I'm certainly familiar with your company, including your latest endeavor. The parcel of land you procured for us seems to meet all of our client's specifications. But why are you calling, isn't David there with you?"
"Mr. Trimble, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but I have very bad news...David is dead. He was killed early this morning." I heard a gasp at the other end and then a deep sigh. I waited, not knowing what to say next. Finally, Trimble spoke, his voice quivering, "McQuaid, oh god, this is terrible. He and I have been close friends for over forty years. This is unbelievable...you say he was killed - was it an accident?"
"No, I'm afraid he was murdered. The police say they have no suspects, and apparently they're not even sure what happened." I then told Trimble about David's side trip to the casino, and what I knew about his death. I also mentioned that David's family had not been notified. When I finished he said that he and Mrs. Trimble would immediate visit Mrs. Nesbitt to inform her of what had happened; the Nesbitt home was apparently just a short distance away. We then discussed arrangements for sending David's body home.
"Mr. McQuaid, if you'll be so kind as to contact British Air and arrange for shipment of David's body, I'll take care of everything on this end. Just let my office know which flight he'll be on. I believe they have a flight out of Philadelphia every evening. And please, call me if your police uncover any further information...anything. Do you feel the police are competent? Should we hire our own investigator?"
"Mr. Trimble, I'll take care of everything here. I think we should be patient and let the police handle things, at least for a few days. I don't even know the results of the autopsy yet. But I promise you, if I feel they're not doing enough, I'll call you. At this point I don't think a private investigator can do any more than the police."
"All right, I trust your judgment. At the moment I'm finding it very difficult to think straight. This news is so shocking to me I'm not sure what I should do, but there is one thing of which I'm certain; I think it very important that you and I meet in the immediate future. David's death is going to be devastating to my Board, and they're going to have many questions that I probably cannot answer. On the other hand, if his death was not the result of random violence, there are some things that may have a bearing on what has happened. At least you should know what they are. I apologize for the imposition, but how soon could you come to London? Of course we'll pay all expenses."
I was more than a little confused by what I'd just heard. David's death was scary enough, but what the hell was Trimble talking about? I'm not sure, but I knew I'd have to find out. "Can't we discuss this by phone, maybe in a day or so? It would certainly simplify things."
"No! I'm sorry, but that is out of the question - it is too risky. After we talk you'll understand why. I would greatly appreciate your cooperation in this."
Trimble may not realize it, but he really knows how to sink the hook. Now I'm really puzzled and frustrated. And if the situation wasn't so somber I'd probably be ticked-off. All my life I've hated waiting for things; particularly things that directly affect my life or my business. Things like waiting for a phone call you know is coming; tomorrow's answers to today's crossword puzzle; waiting for people to make a decision, when you know they've already made one - like bankers and clients; and waiting for people to share important information they admittedly have - like now. Maybe I'm just impatient, or maybe it's a flaw in my personality, but it annoys the hell out of me. Under the circumstances I guess I have to bite my tongue and cooperate.
"Well, today is Tuesday, Mr. Trimble, I'll have to cancel or reschedule some things to come this week, but that shouldn't be a major problem. There's also the question of how soon David's body will be released, and what you want us to do about settlement on the new property. It's still scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at two."
"Have the settlement postponed for thirty days. That certainly is not an unreasonable request, considering what has happened. If they refuse to cooperate let me know and I'll call them and threaten to cancel the entire deal.
"If David's body is released tomorrow or Thursday, you might possibly accompany it home. I'm sure services could not be held before next Monday, and that would allow us to meet on Friday or Saturday. I do think we should talk as soon as possible."
"Postponing settlement shouldn't be a problem, I'll call them first thing in the morning. I'll also call the police about David's body. And please assure Mrs. Nesbitt that we'll handle all arrangements here. I should be able to call your office by four tomorrow afternoon, your time, and give you the details. There is a British Air flight out of Philly for Heathrow every evening; at least there was the last time I flew to London. I don't know if everything can be done in time for the Thursday flight, but we'll certainly try. Friday is probably more realistic."
"Just do your best, Mr. McQuaid. I'm sorry you had to get caught up in this tragedy, but on behalf of all of us here I do thank you for your kind assistance. David and his wife Anne just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary - they were very close. I really dread calling on her tonight with such terrible news."
It was shortly after five when I walked into Suzy's office. She was curled up in a chair, looking out the window, and holding a cup of tea. Her eyes were still red and puffy. I told her about my conversation with Trimble, and asked why she hadn't gone home, considering how upset she was.
"I waited because I hate the thought of facing Julia alone with the news about David. She thinks the world of him. He has been the closest thing to an uncle she has ever had. I'd be grateful if you'll come home with me and help break the news to her."
"Sure, I understand how you feel. I'm sorry that both of you have to go through this. I can't help but think back to when Walter was killed. I was worried about how you would come through it, but I was totally convinced it would destroy Julia - she had become his pet, and other than you probably the center of his world. But we both know she handled it well, and seemed to get her life back on track faster than either of us. So don't underestimate her ability to cope. She's tough Suzy, and she's a survivor. Maybe it's just another blessing of youth."
"You may be right, Cole, but she's much older now and I just don't know how she's going to react. She baby-sat for a neighbor this afternoon, but was supposed to be home about half an hour ago. I haven't called because I'm afraid my voice will give me away if she answers the phone. She's probably getting dressed for dinner now, as you know we were supposed to be David's guests for dinner this evening. I hate to impose, but if you don't mind I think we should leave right away. I certainly don't want her hearing about David on the radio or TV."
Julia was coming down the stairs as we came into the living room. She was dressed for dinner, and her big smile told us that she hadn't heard the news. I got my usual high-five, low-five greeting from her, followed by a solid punch to my shoulder, to which I responded by pinching the tip of her nose. Julia is an unbelievably competitive athlete. A high school sophomore last year, she beat-out a junior and a senior to advance to first-singles tennis. She also played soccer, passed-up basketball because she thinks it's a stupid game, and, at third base was the leading hitter on the varsity softball team. But with all of that, Julia is a very beautiful young lady, and probably the nicest, most level-headed teenager I've ever known. To my knowledge, she has never given her mother a moment of grief. The only problem I've heard Suzy mention was the issue of Julia's dating; Suzy absolutely forbids lone dates until Julia is sixteen. Given the number of young stallions I've heard about, if she were my daughter I'd probably never let her out of my sight. At five-seven she is only an inch shorter than her mother. Her light blond hair is long but curly; it balances her height and beautifully frames her wide, full mouth and striking blue eyes. She and her mother have the most vivid blue eyes I have ever seen.
It upset me to think about what I had to do. It saddened me even more when my mind raced back in time six years, dejavu; I had stood in this same room, fumbling for words, trying to tell Suzy as painlessly as I knew how that Walter had just died in an automobile accident. A few minutes ago, on the way home from the office with Suzy, I was searching again for words to use with Julia. As I stared at her, I knew there were no right words, and that any further delay on my part would not make the telling any easier. Suzy's face was white as a sheet, and I guess mine reflected my thoughts; as I looked at Julia the smile left her face and she asked me what was wrong. Instead of answering, I took her by the hand and led her to the sunporch, with her mother following behind.
When I finished talking, Julia stared at me in silence for what seemed an eternity. Suddenly, she threw her arms around my neck and began sobbing. "It's not fair," she cried, her tears wetting my cheek. "First I lost my daddy, now uncle David. Why does it always happen to my family, to me...it's not fair. It's just not fair, dammit...it's not!"
The three of us sat on the sunporch until well past sundown. I held Julia in my arms until the tears stopped and she finally began to calm down.
She then began asking questions about how David had been killed. I told her he had been shot, but was determined not to tell her any more. So I lied, and told her I had no further information or details, but that we probably will know more after the police finish their investigation. We hadn't eaten dinner, so I went to the kitchen and found the ingredients for a batch of McQuaid's famous country scrambled eggs. With muffins, jam, and lots of hot coffee, it makes for a decent meal, even though it's a much better Sunday breakfast. The three of us kind of picked at the food and wasted more than we ate. I cleaned up the kitchen while Suzy helped Julia get ready for bed, and finished just as she walked through the kitchen door and said that Julia was already asleep. The sedative she had given her earlier had apparently worked. "I'm glad," I said. "it's been a long, tough day for all of us. The next few aren't going to be much better either, I'm afraid. I'm going home and hit the sack."
She took both my hands in hers and looked up at me. "I couldn't have gotten through this tonight without you," she said softly, tears glistening in her eyes. "Thank you for being so kind to Julia, and to me." With that, she kissed me tenderly on the mouth. In the years I have known Suzy, that was the first personal contact we have ever had, other than the usual Christmas and birthday pecks on the cheek. Even though we have been partners for some time, I have always considered her the boss's wife. Untouchable. And she has never indicated that she wanted it any other way. I guess old habits are hard to break.
Originally published: Tuesday, March 20, 2007; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019
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