Our flight arrived on time in Philly. The weather was still hot and sticky; a thunderstorm rumbling on the western horizon. After the usual delays in retrieving our luggage, getting out of long-term parking, and fighting late afternoon commute traffic, it was almost five o'clock when I dropped Suzy at her home. She was tired and wanted a hot bath. Even though it was late I had to find out what was happening at the office, and I arrived there just as most of the staff was leaving. When I walked in, Nancy was stacking opened mail and phone messages on my desk. She looked upset.
"Cole, I'm glad you're back. I didn't know if you'd stop by the office today, so I left a message on your machine at home. Things here are really hectic; today has been a nightmare."
"What's wrong? What happened?"
"Somebody broke into the office last night. They did a pretty thorough job of searching and trashing the place. I don't think they missed a drawer or a closet in the building - everything was really a mess. It took all of us the entire day to straighten things out. The police were here for more than an hour this morning, but I don't think they found anything useful."
"Didn't the alarm system work?"
"Joe was the first one in this morning. He noticed the alarm wasn't working when he tried to disarm it at the keypad. Then he saw the mess and called the police. The detective who came later said the alarm had been disabled by someone who knew exactly how to do it. He said they got in by prying out an air vent in the Blueprint Room."
"Was anything taken? Were the computers damaged?"
"That's what's odd. We can't find anything missing. And computers and our other equipment appear to be untouched. Even the petty cash box was left intact with the money still in it. All they apparently did was rummage through closets, drawers, and files, and make a terrible mess in the process. It's crazy."
Then it hit me. David's attache case! Before leaving for England I had put his case in our fire file. The fire file is actually a small fireproof concrete room in the basement. "Was anything disturbed in the basement?"
"Joe checked and said everything looked O.K. Apparently they didn't go down there."
I did, and when I told Nancy why, she was right on my heels. Maybe whoever broke in didn't realize we had a basement, or maybe they just missed the door to the fire file. The room is difficult to spot because the only door is set flush in the wall and is painted to match. It can't be seen at all from the bottom of the stairs because it's located off a narrow aisle behind rows of file cabinets. Regardless, I breathed a sigh of relief when I unlocked the door and found David's case standing just where I had left it.
I sent Nancy home and sat at my desk to look at my mail and check the phone messages. Nothing from Atlantic City. Even though it was late I decided to call Ronko to find out if anything new had developed - if he would talk to me. He was in, but all he would tell me was the case was still open and he had nothing new to report. The unspoken message I got was that regardless of what he knew he wasn't talking to me. Frustrated, I hung up and called my brother.
His secretary answered and said he was on another line. She recognized my voice and asked me to hold. She was on her way out the door but said she would tell Ben I was waiting. Before he came on the line it dawned on me that I had better watch what I say. Maybe the bastards who broke in here last night also bugged our phones.
"Hey little brother, how was London?" he said when he came on the line. His phone greeting to me rarely varies. It isn't just because I'm younger, it's his way of tweaking me because of he's five inches shorter. We've always had a close relationship, and love to needle each other. I can always set him off with one of my latest bad lawyer jokes. Particularly since he has yet to come up with any bad engineer jokes.
"London was great, Ben, although I didn't like some of the news I heard. On top of that, when I got home I heard my building was broken into last night. I need to talk to you as soon as possible - how about tomorrow morning?"
"The morning's O.K., but it'll have to be early. I've got two late morning meetings and a one-thirty deposition in Philly. What happened last night at your office?"
I told him what I knew about the break-in, without mentioning David's attache case. We agreed to meet for breakfast at a diner in Cherry Hill at seven-thirty the next morning.
After I hung up I spent the next half-hour wandering from room to room looking for anything missing or out of the ordinary; something that would prove me wrong about David's attache case being the target. I found nothing other than the remains of what used to be our security system. It may have been the the frustration of not finding what they wanted, but after electronically disarming the system, our friends screwed-up the main panel and ripped out just about every motion sensor in the building. Nancy said our alarm company had looked at the damage and told her the system couldn't be put back in service until tomorrow at the earliest.
I then called our local police headquarters to find out what they were doing about the break-in. All they could tell me was that the detective handling the case had gone home for the day. I said I would call back in the morning and also asked that they check our building during the night because of the alarm is off.
It seemed like two days since I had my shower this morning at the Dukes. On top of that, I was hungry and tired, so I grabbed David's attache case, locked the door and headed for home.
With a hundred thoughts spinning around in my head I was about halfway home when I suddenly remembered the earlier incident of being followed. I glanced in the rearview mirror and, sure enough, there was a dark blue car behind me. I couldn't tell if it was the same car, so I slowed down until it was about fifty yards back. It looked familiar but I couldn't be sure. For the next mile they stayed right on my tail; speed up, slow down, it didn't make any difference. I weighed the risk and decided to try something. The road was fairly straight with a decent shoulder and traffic in my direction was light. I hit the accelerator and moved up to about seventy. Then I angled off onto the shoulder and slammed on the brakes; they had choices, either stop behind me, ram me, or pass me. They got two wheels on the shoulder but realized they weren't going to stop without hitting me, so the driver veered back on the road and went past; which was exactly what I had hoped for. He was accelerating fast but I was able to make the tag; it was Pennsy registration. And it was the same dark blue Ford that tailed me last week, and the same two guys in the front seat. Why was I not surprised?
I called Ben from my car phone and told him what had happened and gave him the tag number. I knew he had enough contacts to get the tag traced quickly. He said he would, and might have the information for me when we met in the morning. "But tell me, Cole," he continued, "what do you plan to do with the information after you get it - except maybe get yourself killed? God, why the hell are these guys tailing you - have you got any idea what you're involved in? I think before anything else happens you should go to the police and get yourself some protection.
"And what the hell do I tell them? Come on Ben, you know as well as I that they can't protect me any better than I can protect myself. Besides, I'm pretty sure I do know what this is all about. I think you'll agree when I tell you the rest of it tomorrow morning."
"O.K., but why don't you at least spend the next few days with us? Maybe we can sort this out together."
"Thanks, but no. There's no point involving you and your family any more than you are now. Believe me, if I could walk away from this I'd do it in a heartbeat. I'm damn well not trying to play hero, but, like it or not, it looks like the mess has been dumped in my lap. And I've got to keep the focus on me - it would kill me if I did nothing and one of my family or friends got hurt. You may understand better after we talk in the morning."
There was no further sign of the blue car the rest of the way home. I did check the streets around my house - no sign of the car, and I went through the house checking doors and windows. No bogeymen.
Mrs. Tomasello had gone home but had left a note for me on the kitchen table. It said dinner was in the icebox - it would always be an ice box, never a refrigerator - and "make sure you eat every bit". God bless her, I was starved. In two plastic containers, I found a huge helping of lasagna and a salad of tomato, cucumber, and onion, in vinegar. With the help of my microwave, a couple of warm rolls, and some iced tea I had a great meal. While I ate I went through the mail she also had left on the kitchen table; the usual bills, ads, and junk mail. I checked my phone messages. Nothing, other than the call from Nancy about the break-in. After cleaning up the kitchen I unpacked my luggage, took a shower and went to bed. It was earlier than usual, but I suspected tomorrow was going to be a long day. Before I fell asleep the phone rang. It was Suzy. She wanted to make sure I was O.K. and to say goodnight. I told her I missed her.
Ben was already having coffee at the counter when I got to the diner the next morning. We moved to a booth where Ben told me he had already managed to get a run-down on the Pennsy license - but it wasn't going to be much help. The tag belonged to a rental picked up at the Philly airport about two weeks ago. Ben's contact was told the car had been charged to a credit card that later was identified as stolen. The car was supposed to be returned in seven days, and when it wasn't it was reported to the police as stolen. It was still missing.
We ordered breakfast, or rather Ben did; I had my usual juice and coffee. For the next thirty minutes or so I went through everything Trimble had told me in London. All the deaths - everything. I also gave him the details of David's death and told him what I knew about the stonewalling I was getting from Ronko in Atlantic City. About halfway through his bacon and eggs Ben put down his fork and just sat and glared at me, his chin leaning on clenched fists. I knew he was pissed.
I finished by relating what I had asked Trimble to do and what I intended doing, at least as much as I had worked out in my mind. When I finished he leaned across the table, almost in my face. "Goddamn it Cole," he said in an angry whisper, "this is even worse than I imagined. What the hell were Trimble and his people thinking - how could they have their heads up their asses all those years? They've waited way too long to find out what's going on... what you suggested to Trimble should have been done fifteen or twenty years ago. It serves them right if they go belly up, I couldn't care less. What I do care about is your end of this; with David's death, they've got you involved right up to your baby blues. Maybe all of us. And severing ties with them now isn't going to change that, although I strongly recommend you do it and do it quickly. I know I can protect your business interest from here on - if Trimble cooperates - and hopefully mitigate any liability you have from past dealings, but I can't do a thing about the personal risk. And I don't know if what you propose doing will accomplish anything - other than getting more people hurt or killed. I just don't know..."
"Ben," I interrupted, "I know there's risk, and I don't like it either, but do you have any better ideas?"
"No, other than close up shop and move everybody to Tahiti," he answered with a forced grin.
"Good, because I don't either, but I don't know if Tahiti is far enough...this crazy client seems to have awfully long arms. Go ahead and call Trimble and do whatever you think is legally necessary. But beyond that, just don't sell yourself short; there are things you can do to help me with my end. I'm going to need help getting information, and cutting through the bullshit - like you did tracing that license plate. You can probably do with one phone call what would take me days to accomplish - maybe never. For starters, how about calling your friend Brian whatshisname in Washington. See if he can shed some light on what's happening in Atlantic City. I can't imagine why, but maybe the feds are involved with the investigation into David's death. Maybe they're the reason Ronko's not talking to me."
"You must mean Brian Hamilton. I think what you ' re suggesting is a little far-fetched, but I'll call him - although I doubt he' ll tell me anything. I see him once or twice a year when he comes up for Princeton games, but since he started moving up in the F.B.I. hierarchy he rarely ever talks shop. We' re really not that close anymore, but I'll try."
"O.K., but failing that, do you know any of the powers that be in Atlantic City, particularly in the police department? I can understand the cops not talking about an on-going investigation, except what little they leak to the newspapers and TV. What annoys the hell out of me is the one-eighty flip that Ronko did in less than twenty-four hours. First, he damns near talks my ear off - tells me everything about David's death except who did it - and the next day tells me he can't talk to me at all. Was he running off at the mouth the first time...and his boss didn't like, or did somebody get to his boss?"
"You may be overreacting, Cole, it could be pure coincidence. I don't have any contacts in their department, but I do have a friend in the Atlantic County prosecutors office. We used to work together. I'll ask him to snoop around and see what he can dig up."
"Good. Just let me know what you find out. I' ll be in my office all day."
Ben pushed away his half-eaten breakfast. He agreed to call or beep me as soon as he made some phone calls.
As I walked back to my car a thought popped into my head; something one of my college professors used to drill into us: the the best and quickest way to solve a problem is to surround it with as much information as you can throw at it. It made me smile. I'm sure my present dilemma is no different.
When I got to the office the alarm company serviceman was busy putting our security system back together. I started attacking the mess on my desk when Suzy came into my office and shut the door - something she rarely ever does. I knew something was wrong.
"Cole, why didn't you tell me last night about the break-in. Nancy just told me about it and said you mentioned that David's attache case was apparently what they were after. Do you have any idea why his case is that important? Did the police find anything? What can..."
"Whoa, Suzy, one question at a time. I didn't tell you because you were tired and I felt there was no reason to upset you. Regardless, there wasn't anything either of us could do about the break-in last night. His attache case spent the night under my bed, and right now it's on the floor here behind my desk. It's locked; I don't have a key, so I have no idea what 's in it. I am going to try picking the locks as soon as I convince a very sexy blonde to go back to her office and stop destroying my concentration. But seriously, there is one thing you can do right away; call the police, I tried last night but the detective handling the case had gone home. See if they have any leads and what they're doing to follow-up. Let them know that we're really upset about the whole episode."
"Do you really think I should call," Suzy said, a coy grin on her face, "I wouldn't want to destroy their concentration?"
"Shouldn't be a problem...as long as they can't see you. Oh, by the way, I didn't see any reason to delay, so I met with Ben this morning and told him about my meetings with Trimble. I didn't withhold anything. He was mad as hell, particularly after I told him what I plan doing. After admitting he had no better suggestions he calmed down and agreed to help any way he can. He's working now to dig up some information for me - I hope to hear from him later today. Also, he's going to contact Trimble and insist on an agreement outlining our limited involvement in this whole mess from day one, and absolving us from any future liability. Bottom line: after we get through this I don't think we'll be doing any more business with Alex Trimble's bank. But for now, right or wrong, I'm still proceeding with Plan A."
"And I am still terrified for you. Please, Cole, whatever you do be careful. I'd also appreciate it if you would have dinner tonight with Julia and me at my place. A good home cooked a meal for a change, and I hope we can talk about just what it is you plan to do next. Maybe I'll feel better after if I know."
"I'll look forward to dinner. And please try not to worry. The more I think this through the more I'm convinced it's the right thing to do." I purposely didn't mention being followed last night.
At noon Nancy sent out for sandwiches and me ate mine at my desk, all the while playing with the locks on David's case. I had learned how to pick a lock back in college when I persisted in losing my locker keys. A friend showed me how to do it with two bent paperclips. I thought I was still good at it, but the locks on David's case proved to be tough; it took me about half an hour to open both. I guess I'm out of practice.
There were a number of things in the case, including the usual pens, pencils, a few ruled tablets, and a calculator. It also contained an assortment of maps, an address book, three manila file folders, and a small, well-worn leather loose-leaf binder, with David's name embossed in gold on the front. I removed everything and spread the items on my desk. Nothing struck me as out of the ordinary, so I then checked the case for a possible hidden compartment. Nothing. At least nothing my untrained eye could find.
The first manila folder contained computer-generated spreadsheets of financial data. There were twenty-five or thirty pages in all, and a glance at some of the mind-boggling numbers told me they related to the client. The second folder held typed lists of properties acquired by David's bank. I recognized the ones we had been involved with. Each contained a date, the full name and location, and in the right-hand margin a series of handwritten letters and numbers; I guess some kind of code or cross-reference. The last folder was apparently David's expense account records: airline, hotel, restaurant, and rental car receipts, and slips for a lot of miscellaneous stuff.
The loose-leaf binder really piqued my interest. It was about two inches thick and had a tab for each year, starting with 1967 and ending with 1997. Behind each tab were dog-eared ruled pages containing hand-written entries, some in pencil, most in ink. Flipping through, I noticed some of the writing was faded and almost illegible. I scanned through a few of the years when I had been involved and saw a lot of familiar names and locations. I also saw notes pertaining to some of the disappearances and deaths Trimble told me about. What really grabbed me were the combinations of letters and numbers written alongside each name and location. They were similar to what I had seen in the other folder. I hadn't a clue as to whether anything I was looking at was important or had any bearing on David's death. But something must be - why else would somebody go to so much trouble to steal it. I buzzed Nancy.
"Nancy, all of this stuff came out of David's attache case. I'd like you to drop what you're doing and run two copies of everything. Put the copies in separate folders and mark each to agree with David's. Oh, and be careful handling the originals in the leather binder, some are really fragile. There's a lot to copy, but I'd like you to finish before you leave today. Can do?"
"Sure. What should I do with everything when I finish?"
"Bring it all back here. I'm going to put the originals and David's attache case back in our fire file. I guess it's as safe there as anywhere. Tomorrow morning I'm going to put one copy in my safe deposit box at the bank. The other copy I'll keep with me to look over; I still have no idea what some of it means."
Suzy buzzed me around three to tell me that she had finally caught up with the police detective investigating our break-in. He told her they had no real leads; the prints they had lifted from the air vent couldn't be matched and there was no other physical evidence. They would maintain it as an open case, and hopefully, something would develop. I knew they were up a blind alley.
Ben called around four and said he had reached Hamilton in Washington. Hamilton claimed he knew nothing of the situation in Atlantic City, but reluctantly agreed to check into it and get back to Ben. Ben had also placed a call to Trimble in London but he wasn't in his office. He had left a message with the officious Miss Nickleby. Ben said he wasn't going to call his friend in the Atlantic County prosecutor's office until he heard from Hamilton. Not a very productive day so far.
Dinner at Suzy's relieved some of my frustration. As always, Julia made me feel like I didn't have a care in the world. Suzy had fixed a great crab salad, with corn on the cob, fresh peas, and coleslaw. Julia had her usual iced tea, while Suzy and I shared a good California Merlot that I had picked up on my way from the office. Were both red wine freaks. After dinner, Julia went to her room to call a friend. While Suzy and I cleaned up the kitchen we talked about my plans.
I admitted that I was still trying to sort out everything that had happened, and how it fit together...if it fit at all. Was there really a common thread as Trimble suggested...and what about motive? If Trimble's client was responsible for everything that has happened, was guarding their identity the sole reason for all the violence? I don't think so. If what Trimble told me was accurate, some of the deaths may have been pure retaliation, particularly the more recent killings. But David's death still puzzles me - it does n't seem to fit either pattern. With all this rattling around in my head, one thing was crystal clear; I knew I had to start in Tampa. I wanted to meet the Tampa people, particularly Maria Sippano, the woman identified by Trimble as having some sort of relationship with David Nesbitt. Regardless of what Trimble had said about Tampa's role, I wanted to meet these people face to face and decide for myself whether they were playing some kind of deadly game.
"What I find in Tampa will determine what I do next. If I draw a blank I'll probably come back here and concentrate on the Atlantic City investigation, or maybe follow-up on the death of that Byrnes woman in Santa Barbara in '91. But, if I suspect that Tampa is involved I'll play it by ear and do what I think necessary. Either way, I shouldn't be gone more than a few days."
"Please, Cole," she said, her voice trembling, "promise me two things; that you won't take foolish risks, and that you call me here at home every night to let me know where you are and that you're safe. As I told you, I can't bear the thought of anything happening to you. If you do suspect that Tampa is involved in some way, can you go to the police down there and let them handle it?"
"That depends, Suzy. If all I have are hunches, with nothing to back them up, I can't go to the police as an out-of-town stranger and expect them to do anything. After all, this Tampa outfit has been in business there for forty years. Guilty or not, if they' re half as smart as I think they are, they have a rock-solid reputation in the business community. I'1ll just have to wait and see what develops. As far as your request is concerned, if it makes you feel better I'll do what you ask. How about if I call you around ten each evening?"
"That'll be fine...and it will make me feel better."
I left Suzy's place around ten and headed home. It was a beautiful night, so I decided to take the road along the river through the park. My car's air conditioning was still not working - I've got to take it back to the dealer tomorrow - so I had the windows down, enjoying the cool breeze. The road is poorly lighted, and before I realized what was happening a car with no lights was passing on my left. As it pulled slightly ahead the driver veered right and cut me off. I reacted by slamming on the brakes and skidding onto the adjoining grass, narrowly missing a huge tree. The other car also stopped and quickly backed-up until it was directly in front of me. It was the blue Ford, and as soon as they jumped from the car I recognized the two goons, coming at me fast from left and right. It all happened so quickly I hardly had time to react. I tried putting my car in reverse, but before I could do it Righty reached through the open passenger side window and yanked my keys from the ignition. Then Lefty blindsided me by slamming his fist into the side of my face. I knew he really nailed me - first I had trouble focusing my eyes, and then everything went from fuzzy to black nothing. I don't know how long I was out, but when I started crawling out of my black hole they had me outside the car, spread-eagled, with my chin and arms on the roof.
Lefty did the talking, his voice guttural, with a definite foreign accent. "We will go to your office now and get Nesbitt's briefcase. I don't know where you hid it but I know it is there...it has to be. Your actions have caused us much trouble and I will not tolerate further delay. Come, we will go in my car. My friend here will close and lock your car. If you cooperate you will not be harmed."
His pressing hand had my body pinned so tightly against the car I had difficulty twisting my head around to talk, and I was still having trouble getting my eyes to work. "You're wrong," I mumbled with some difficulty, " I have no idea where Nesbitt's briefcase is...he took it with him to Atlantic City."
"Do not lie to me, McQuaid, I know he didn't take it with him to the casino. He had it at the airport, so it can only be at your office. I warn you, any more stalling and I'll let my friend here use you to practice his knife skills. Believe me when I tell you that you don't want that to happen."
What helped clear my head was the realization that these were David's killers... they had to be - they knew about the casino! From the corner of my eye, I saw Righty standing about six feet away, a wild-eyed stare on his face and a nasty looking long-bladed knife in his right hand. I didn't doubt he knew how to use it, remembering how David had been worked over with a knife before he died. Even if I give them the damn briefcase I'll probably end up as carving practice for this nut unless I do something fast. I didn't move, trying to buy time to think. Lefty wasn't going to wait. My chance came when he reached up to grab my arm from the car roof. I knew I had less than a second to act, so I spun around fast, and with as much force as I could muster drove the back of my elbow into his exposed side, just below his armpit. I heard ribs crack and he doubled over, gasping for air. My head felt like it was going to explode. I grabbed one of Lefty's dangling arms by the wrist and twisted it up behind his back. I held on and with a hard shove drove him forward into Righty, who obviously couldn't think fast enough to get out of the way. When they hit I felt something give in Lefty's arm. They both went down in a heap, Righty landing on his back. He dropped his knife and my car keys - and there were also some loose papers on the ground, apparently from one of their pockets. Lefty was moaning and having trouble breathing, his dead weight pinning Righty to the ground. I grabbed the knife, my keys, and the papers and quickly got back in my car. I started the engine and threw the shift selector in reverse; Lefty was out of commission, but Righty was on his feet again and he worried me. He might be slow-witted, but he had about two inches and forty or fifty pounds on me. I couldn't believe it when he didn't come after me. Instead, he was struggling to get Lefty into their car. Headlights in my rear view mirror told me why.
The lights were moving slowly, but I was thankful for the distraction. Righty finally got Lefty in the car, started the engine and sped off. Before I could do anything the approaching car pulled in ahead of me and stopped. It was a Park Police patrol car. I shoved the knife and papers under my seat, but I knew I couldn't hide the side of my face - I hope it didn't look as messed up as it felt. The officer asked for the usual ID and wanted to know why I was parked off the road, telling me it was a violation. He played the beam of his flashlight around the inside of my car, but, luckily, not on my face. He never mentioned it. I guess he also hadn't seen the blue Ford, he never said a word about that, either. I explained why I was there by telling him my air conditioning stopped working and I was playing with the controls, trying to get it to run. He dismissed me with a warning not to park off the road in the future. I said I wouldn't. I also silently thanked him for probably saving my life.
By the time I arrived home I had one helluva world-class headache. I gulped some aspirin and took a hot shower, before looking at myself in the mirror. When I did, I knew I'd have a lot of questions to answer tomorrow morning at the office, but with what had happened tonight explaining my battered face was the least of my worries. I fixed a stiff drink, then sat in the dark in my favorite chair and began rethinking the whole crazy mess.
The drink helped me relax - maybe too much, I had a hard time staying awake. My thoughts were rambling...David's death; I still didn't know why, but at least I know who killed him. Lefty and Righty...I wonder who they are and where they' re from...can't place that accent. I' 've gotta be more careful...they' re killers, and that son of a bitch Lefty hits like a piledriver - I don't think I' 've ever been hit that hard. They sure don't impress me as being very smart though, hell, they know where I live... followed me home that first time. Maybe they' ll come here tonight...I guess it depends on how badly Lefty is hurt. And I with no gun...never owned one, so if they do come I' ll have to rely on my old Louisville Slugger...right here next to my chair...also know I can't leave for Tampa until something is done about both of them...gotta make sure Suzy and everybody are safe. I put my half-finished drink on the table and was out like a light.
My head was pounding and the repeated ringing went through me like shock waves. Why won't it stops? After I got my eyes half open I realized I had fallen asleep in my chair; the dim light coming through the window telling me it was almost dawn. My legs refused to cooperate and that damn ringing wouldn't stop. Then it did but started up again almost immediately. It was my cordless phone laying on the table next to my dead drink. I grabbed the phone and grunted something; my mouth and my voice didn't seem to be working very well.
"Is that you, Cole?"
"I think so, who's this?"
"It's Ben. God, you had me worried, and you sound terrible. I let your phone ring at least twenty times, then I hung up and dialed again. I knew you were supposed to be home, so I thought maybe something happened to you. Are you O.K.?"
"I've felt better. But why in hell are you calling at this ungodly hour, the sun's not even up?" My voice was coming back but I didn't think my head was going to make it.
"I called because I have good news. I just heard the cops nailed the two guys in the blue Ford, the one with the Pennsy tags."
"When...where?" This was fantastic news after last night.
"They were arrested in the ER at the hospital in Cherry Hill. One was apparently banged-up in a fight and the other guy took him there. The stolen car is what screwed them. That's about all I know now, but why don't you meet me at the police station in about an hour and we can get the details first-hand. Sam Abromowitz is on duty - he's the one who called me."
I agreed and Ben hung up. After prying myself out of the chair I plodded up to the bathroom. What greeted me in the mirror was n't pleasant; the left side of my face looked like I was chewing on a tennis ball, and was about nineteen shades of purple. My left eye wouldn't open more than half-way. With a crooked grin on my face, I had to admit that maybe all this was worth it, based on what Ben had just told me.
I put the coffee on, took a shower, and decided to pass on shaving. I couldn't remember whether Mrs. Tomasello was coming today - when she does she arrives around six - and I couldn't face the prospect of her questions. So, I quickly drank my juice and coffee, grabbed a pair of dark sunglasses, and left the house.
When Ben saw my face he reacted as I knew he would. I promised to explain everything later, but not until I knew what our two friends were being charged with, and how long they'd be out of commission. I asked Ben how he heard about the arrests so quickly. He explained that Sam Abromowitz was an old friend and was also the contact who had traced the Pennsy tags for him. It was pure coincidence Sam was on duty when the arrests happened.
Sam offered coffee, which we both accepted, took us into a small office, and in classic police, jargon explained what he knew of the arrests.
"The injured perp was driven to the hospital by his partner, who made the mistake of parking in the ambulance zone outside the ER main entrance. Officer Jarvis arrived at the ER in his patrol car at 2:10 a.m., delivering a kid who had apparently OD'd on a controlled substance. By this time the injured perp was being X-rayed and his partner was sitting in the waiting room. He was asked to move the car but, instead, stupidly gave Jarvis some smart mouth, then couldn't produce a drivers license or registration. Seeing the Pennsy tag, Jarvis suspected something was wrong and ran the tag. It was immediately confirmed as stolen, so he called for backup. Then Jarvis tried to cuff the guy and he put up quite a fight. Fortunately, Jarvis handled it and was able to force the guy into the back of the patrol car.
"Meanwhile, they finished treating the injured perp; he had broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. Said he had fallen off a ladder. When we searched the car we found their papers - both are apparently foreign nationals. In the trunk, we also found three automatic weapons, two handguns with silencers, boxes of ammunition, and a fancy wooden case of knives. The clincher was a gym bag containing a little more than four pounds of hashish and a shoe box stuffed with nickel bags of coke. In the same gym bag, we also found almost twenty thousand in cash. Both individuals were placed under arrest, processed, and are downstairs in the lockup."
"So what happens next, how long can you hold them?" I asked.
"They're both being held on a stolen car, weapons, and possession with intent to distribute charges. Later today they' ll be transferred to county jail. To answer your question, they're not going to be on the street anytime soon, unless somebody comes up with bail...and that's unlikely considering the charges. Their twenty thousand has been confiscated, and I would guess bail will be a minimum of fifty thousand each."
"You said their papers were found in the car'" Ben said. "What exactly did you find?"
"In the car's glove box we found two passports, visas, a drivers license, about half a dozen credit cards - all with different names - apparently stolen, and receipts for three different motels, all in this area. Here, I'll show you, we just finished inventorying the stuff."
He dumped the contents of a manila envelope on the desk and spread it out for us to see. The first thing I noticed was one of the credit cards. It was issued to David Nesbitt. After my experience last night I knew these guys were David's killers - something Ben didn't - so I pushed the card in front of Ben and feigned surprise.
"Dammit, Ben, look at this, these have to be the guys who killed David!"
Ben picked up the credit card and stared at the name. "I don't understand what's going on, but it sure looks like you' re right! Hell, they' ve been tailing you, and are probably also the ones who broke into your office. Now, this. It's unbelievable. I guess they tailed you because they think you have something - whatever the hell it is they're after. Is it possible David was mixed up in narcotics?"
"Absolutely not, Ben, I'd bet my life on it!"
"Wait a minute," Sam said with a puzzled look on his face, "who is David?"
Without mentioning any of my recent involvement, I spent the next few minutes explaining how David Nesbitt was a client from London who came to see me on business, went to Atlantic City to do a little gambling, and was promptly killed. I gave him the details, as I recalled them, and told him what I saw and was told when I identified the body, and of my later conversations with Detective Lt. Al Ronko, if you could call them conversations.
Sam jotted something on a note pad. Finally, he looked up and said, "This is the first I've heard of the Nesbitt homicide. I certainly have no idea why Ronko acted as he did, although homicide investigations sometimes take funny twists. Maybe there is more to Nesbitt's death than he initially thought. And if the evidence we found here is an indicator, maybe he suspects there is some sort of narcotics connection. In any event, I' ll have to talk to Ronko as soon as possible, to let him know what happened here and about Nesbitt's credit card. We' ll probably end up working this thing together. Before I call though, are you certain this is your friend's credit card...no way it could be another David Nesbitt?"
"Positively," I answered. "It's a corporate card. Look on the front of the card. Below his name is the name of his bank in London. There's no mistake." I then remembered what Ronko had told me about finding credit cards on the bed in David's room. They obviously missed at least one.
"O.K., it looks like you're right," Sam said as he took the card from Ben and studied it. He glanced at both of us and started placing the items back into the envelope. "I don't think either of you can learn anything from the rest of these papers, even the passports. All they gave us were names and photo IDs. The photos match but the names might be aliases. Just for starters we checked state and local and drew a blank on both perps. So we sent their prints through NCIC, but haven't heard anything yet. We also talked to the FBI in Philly and Interpol in New York. Both said they'd be back to us by late morning. I'm also waiting for a call from Immigration."
Before we left, Sam promised to notify Ben as soon as their IDs were confirmed. He also said the prisoners would still be transferred to the county jail later in the day, but not until he talked to Ronko and the county prosecutor's office about a possible murder charge. If that happened, bail would be out of the question. That was the best news I had heard in some time.
As we walked across the parking lot Ben turned and grabbed my arm, stopped and looked up at me. "O.K., little brother, level with me. A lot of things have happened over the last week or so that individually don't seem to relate. But, string them together as I did when you were talking in there a few minutes ago and there's no way they can't be connected. First, David's murder, then the crazy business with Trimble's bank, you being followed, your office being burglarized - now this bullshit with the two guys in Sam's jail and David's credit card. With all of that, I feel I'm still pounding square pegs in round holes, and do you know why? It's because you're holding out on me - you're not telling me everything. Example, maybe Sam didn' task about your face because he was being polite...but I won't be - by any chance are you the ?ladder' that sent our boy in there to the hospital?"
"You guessed that right, and I do owe you an explanation, but believe me when I say I don't have all the answers because I don't. What happened last night may clear up some of the mystery surroundings David's death, but I don't know that it had anything to do with Trimble's bank and what happened years ago. Maybe, maybe not. I do admit to stalling and not telling you everything, but I haven't lied to you - things just happened too fast. I know you're curious about my face... it's not too pretty. As bad as it may look though, after hearing what Sam said, I think I gave more than I got. But, all things considered, I was damn lucky." I told him the rest of what happened last night.
When I finished he looked at me and shook his head. "Jesus, Cole, you were lucky, lucky you're not dead. Why didn't you report it to the police, or at the very least go to the hospital and get checked out? You also could have come to my place."
"No, the hospital wasn't necessary, and as far as the police are concerned, what could they have done at that point? As it happened, things couldn't have worked out better. And, until I know more of what 's going on, I don't want to involve you or anybody beyond what I already have. Besides, I wasn't thinking too straight last night."
"O.K., but now that these two are in jail what are you going to do next? This may completely change things."
"I'm not making any firm plans until Sam tells us exactly who these two guys are. I still need your help in getting the information from your FBI friend that we discussed yesterday." I was still having trouble making my face work, but I forced a grin and said, " Other than that, you can do me a huge favor by coming to my office and explaining to everybody what happened to my face. Save me a lot of time."
"No thanks, little brother. You can handle that chore yourself. I'd love to be a fly on the wall though...just to see you bobbin' and weavin' around the truth."
Before I left I did make Ben promise to call me as soon as he heard from Sam Abromowitz.
When I arrived at the office Nancy looked up from her desk and stared at my face. Before she could ask the obvious I told her to call Suzy, Joe Mancuso, and a few others into my office. When Nancy and the others arrived I explained as briefly as possible what had happened on my way home last night. I also related what Sam Abromowitz had told Ben and me earlier this morning about the arrests at the hospital; the charges, and the suspicion that the two guys in custody were involved in David's death. I finished by saying this should put an end to the recent craziness - purposely avoiding any reference to what had happened over the past twenty some years. The reason for the avoidance was my own indecision about whether this latest incident had any connection whatever with Trimble's bank and the past history of their mysterious client. No matter how I tried to rationalize it, I just couldn't tie the two issues together. Nothing seemed to fit.
Joe Mancuso is a very laid-back, gentle person. He won't even go fishing because he thinks it a cruel sport. So I wasn't surprised when he seemed more upset than anybody. "What the hell is going on, Cole - they break into our building and mess-up everything...you should've seen my office, they follow you and try to kill you, and now you say they probably killed David. I don't get it. Why? Who the hell are these guys?"
"The police don't know yet who they are, but they're working on it. We're not sure, Joe, but apparently, they were after something they thought David had, and then thought I had. And I haven't a clue as to what it could be." I really didn't know for certain, but I did know it had to be something I found in David's attache case.
"O.K. guys, now you know as much as I do. I'll let you know if anything new develops."
Everybody left but Suzy. I was surprised she hadn't said anything up till now. With a somber look on her face, she walked over and leaned on the edge of my desk. "Cole, I'm sure you couldn't have done anything to stop what happened last night, but, my God, this is what I've been afraid of. I'm just thankful it wasn't worse. Do you really believe it will end now?"
"I can't be sure. Realistically, I still don't know if there's any connection between what's happened here and Trimble's bank. Oh, and thanks for not bringing that up in front of the others. The fewer people who know about it the better. We won't know if it's over unless, and until, something else happens. I've put my plans for Tampa on hold until I know who these two guys are and whether there are any apparent ties between them and Trimble's client. Right now the whole situation is pretty murky."
"I understand, Cole. Don't worry about the Trimble business getting around the office. Nancy knows about David's attache case, but that's all. You, Ben and I are the only ones who know the rest. But, please, whatever you have to do...remember your promise to me - no unnecessary risks. I would also feel better if you had a doctor look at your face."
"I haven't forgotten my promise, and believe me, Suzy, all my face needs is time, not a doctor. It actually feels a little better already."
After Suzy went back to her office I spread my copy of the pages from David's leather binder around my desk. I needed to make sense of the coded entries written in the margins of the pages, combinations of numbers and letters. I consider myself pretty good at crossword puzzles and cryptograms, but after more than an hour of trial and error I knew I wasn't getting anywhere, so I asked Nancy to have lunch sent in.
Food didn't help, mostly because it hurt like hell to chew. After another hour of unproductive doodling, I gave up, put David's puzzle back in the file, and switched to office work. By three I realized why I wasn't accomplishing anything, all my concentration was on the clock and my phone - awaiting a call from Ben. He finally called around four and told me he was faxing me info on the two jailbirds. Sam Abromowitz had come through with ID's confirmed by both Interpol and the FBI. According to both agencies, most of the data was furnished by an? anonymous source' within the CIA.
The fax was three pages long, two for Lefty and one for Righty. It looked like both had long-standing histories in Europe. Although neither had apparently been convicted of anything, the reports suggested it was the result of political connections and intimidation more than their innocence. It was no surprise that Lefty was the boss. His real name is Moussa Muzzadin, a fifty-eight year old Iranian national who entered the country illegally with his partner about eight years ago through Mexico. They were picked up by Immigration at the border but escaped before being processed. The FBI got involved immediately, but both men disappeared and didn't surface again until yesterday, at the hospital. By the different entries in the reports it seems all of the agencies had files on these guys but, whether it was bureaucratic indifference or just a screw-up, they never found Muzzadin or his partner...the reports were blank after 1989. Maybe it was because the two did such a good job of staying under cover.
Muzzadin's physical description fit the man I knew with the sled-hammer punch; five-ten, two-twenty, black hair with a swarthy complexion, deep-set brown eyes and bushy, black eyebrows. What I read next did surprise me: Muzzadin was a former member, actually third in command, of the Shah's secret police, the Savak. He headed-up the Shah's execution squad, and earned the nickname? mad one' He was also college educated, considered extremely intelligent, and was fluent in four languages, plus all of the dialects of his home country - from Persian and Kurdish through Pashto and Ossetic. When the Shah left Iran, Muzzadin fled to Turkey, where he joined a terrorist group and dropped out of sight. He was later identified as a leader of groups that conducted raids for the Pakistanis. Still later, he was reportedly spotted in Libya and Iraq. But his home base was Turkey, where he apparently recruited his partner Bahram Salemi.
Salemi was born and raised in Turkey. His date of birth was unknown, but he was in his early thirties, six-five and two-sixty. Salemi was bald, with two gold front teeth and a pock-marked complexion. Known to be very strong, he had an IQ approaching moron, but was expert with knives and was considered extremely dangerous. According to the report, Muzzadin was rarely ever seen without Salemi at his side.
Amen. A couple of really nice guys. I now realized just how lucky I was.
Originally published: Wednesday, March 21, 2007; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019