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Authors: Brian M. Wiprud

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BOOK: Crooked
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“But they didn’t find the rest of him?”


“And they’re not sure about the foot. Could be somebody else’s foot?”

“Half digested. No prints.” She sniffed again deeply, laying out a few more cards.

“That’s convenient. You want me to look into this?”

“Not particularly. But you’re the only one I know with backwater savvy. Nicholas, I’ve got to know for sure.”

The bartender stuck her head in the door, eyeing the two of them speculatively, as though she were afraid she’d interrupted squabbling lovers.

“Uh, ’scuse me, Ms. Grieg. I got a party in this room soon. Last call.”

“One of these.” Nicholas held up his empty glass without turning, and the bartender disappeared. “Who at Newcastle retained Barney?”

“Drummond Yager. He’s in New York, from their London office.”

“Don’t know him. When was this?”

“Barney left a week ago. I got the call from Yager day before yesterday. By the time I decided to call you, I discovered that you’d taken that particular day to get your ass in a colossal sling. Just like you, too, screwing up something even before it’s started.” Nicasia produced a hanky, blotting her eyes.

“Easy, Nicasia, I know I’m beholden to you for…”

“Damn right you are!” She flared. “Getting Fick to rep you didn’t come easy. It took favors, and expenses, neither of which I could afford. Unless…”

“Unless? Unless I find Barney for you?”

“Yes. It’ll be worth it if you find Barney.” She pulled a plastic bag from her purse and tossed it across the table. A hairbrush and a blood-spotted tissue were inside. “Use it for prints, hair samples. The tissue’s from a shaving cut. Use it for DNA.”

The bartender barged in and pegged the drink down next to Nicholas.

“Here y’go, sport.”

He glanced back at her swaying blond braid as she exited, leaving the door open.

“I’ll look into it, Nicasia. But this could get expensive. I mean, DNA tests? And what if I’ve gotta mount some kind of safari in Costa Rica? You know, boats, arm a posse, that kind of thing. Or helicopters?”

“Send me the bill.” She stood and walked across the room, stopping in the open doorway to glance back at Nicholas. “Almost forgot, Nicholas.”

He didn’t know what to expect from the odd smile on her lips. Was it spiteful or nostalgic? Maybe both.

“Happy birthday.”

As Nicholas stared at the empty doorway, listening to her feet trot down the stairs, he figured he’d guessed about right: both. But life was too short for that kind of baggage. Travel light, he reminded himself.

He tapped a finger on the upturned joker and killed his drink. Thinking.

The idea of heading to Costa Rica to search for Barney was a loathsome prospect. Nicholas had had his fill of that life. The cities were blanketed in a haze of vile smoke from burning palm litter and garbage. The streets were nothing but potholes and junker cars, the neighborhoods chockablock with defunct construction projects draped in vultures. He despised the incessant din of crowing roosters, squabbling parrots, and howling dogs. The jungles were worse—thick with mosquitoes, leeches, humidity, and thieves. The rivers? Awash in crocodiles, toothy fish, parasites, and disease.

Yet his aversion to those environs went way beyond his entanglements with Nicasia. It was Devlin Smith, the double-dealing “mentor” he’d hooked up with after ditching Nicasia in New Guinea. Smith had sold him out to pirates, then watched, laughing, as the waters slowly rose up around Nicholas’s sinking boat. Never mind that the pirates then double-crossed Smith and ran him over with his own boat. Nicholas’s bitterness was not assuaged, and it became his defining moment as an adult. If you lose your life due to your own miscalculation, so be it.

How he ended up in New Guinea in the first place was another matter. His father had been a professional butterfly collector whose heart gave out while he was chasing spangled fritillaries in a field of marigolds. Nicholas liked to think he was of the same independent, single-minded stock, that there was a kinship between him and his dad. Even if that kinship was somewhat retroactive—the bond between them wasn’t much in evidence while his father was alive. Nicholas had been a wheeler and dealer back then, antithetical to the mores of his aging beatnik parents. When he tapped the family’s resources for an investment scheme that went bad, his dad worked incessantly to keep the family out of bankruptcy, and died soon after. Nicholas’s mother blamed him for his father’s death and moved off to Michigan, not speaking to him since. His only sibling, Garth, had only recently started talking to him again.

While Smith’s betrayal was the defining moment of his adult life, the debacle with Nicholas’s father’s money and subsequent death was the defining moment of his youth. It’s what sent him packing for the jungles and the Peace Corp in the first place.

So the Third World was his trial by fire, not to be relived. He needed somebody else to take on Costa Rica and the task of finding Barney for him.

But the day was young, Nicholas was tired, and there was much to do. He still wasn’t completely extricated from Dr. Bagby’s demise. And there was the matter of that missing Moolman canvass.

Downstairs he folded himself into one of the wooden phone booths and dialed a number. Got a recording, an announcement that was clearly read from a prepared script.

“You have reached Olbeter Investigations. The staff is unavailable to take your call at the moment, but if you’ll leave your name and number, we’ll contact you at the earliest possible opportunity.” A series of beeps followed.

“It’s Nicholas. Meet me as soon as you can, 113 15th Street. Or I’ll call.” He hung up. Olbeter didn’t have a staff. Just bluster to make it sound like he had a going concern. Nicholas liked him well enough: he had style and some street smarts. But that didn’t compensate for being your basic dope. Nicholas couldn’t figure out how Olbeter stayed in business, though he found him useful, now and again.

He bit his lower lip, pondered a moment, shrugged, and dialed a Brooklyn exchange.

“You’ve reached Park Slope Investigations,” a female voice intoned. “We’re out of the office right now, but if you leave a message, we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. BEEEP!”

Nicholas chuckled to himself. Maureen and Olbeter both making like they had an entire agency backing them up when they were both solo, like Nicholas. At least Maureen wasn’t a dope like Olbeter.

“Maureen? Nicholas. Need a little help, thought a neophyte might need some work.”

There was a clatter at the other end, then a click.

“Nicholas?” Her voice was huskier than usual.

“Never able to break that NYPD prowl-car snooze routine, huh?”

“Just got off staking the domicile of one Carlos Esteban. So I nab him, drag him down to the INS, and wouldn’t you know it? It’s too close to closing, bring him back tomorrow, we’ll deport him then. So I gotta hold this creep overnight. I’m not bringin’ him home, so I camp out in the car all night with Carlos Esteban making kissy sounds in the backseat. Don’t mess with me, Nicholas. I’m crabby. This isn’t the night for drinks and dirty dancing.”

“Still scrounging around for Immigration’s Most Wanted?”

“Can we cut the bullshit, Nicholas? What do you want?”

“Got some work for you.”

“Surveillance, I’ll bet.” She sighed.

“Meatier than that. Missing person, a guy I know who’s presumed crocodile chow but…”

“Say what? Slow down, Nicholas.”

“Barney Swires, white, thirty-six, five foot eleven, brown hair graying at the temples, deceptively youthful looks, kind of slouchy, blue eyes that seem to look right through you. Onetime civil servant and one of those guys who knows everything about anything that’s underground in New York. Used to work for the Department of Transportation exploring old train tunnels, lost sewers, vaults, all kinds of abandoned structures underground. Well, yours truly nabbed him a while back. Turned out he was using some of these tunnels to break into museums and such. Decided to start his own museum in a storage locker in Queens.”

“Never heard about this.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly turn him over to the fuzz. No money in that. I brokered the return of his cache to the insurance companies.”

Maureen yawned. “You mean he hadn’t hocked any of it?”

“Not this one. Saw himself as an art collector, not a thief. So he quit his city job and he’s now on a new career path as a security consultant to banks and museums. When do you think you’ll be back on your feet? Couple hours?”

Maureen yawned again. “Couple hours.”

“I’ll call you back at nine o’clock; fill you in once you get some coffee, a pencil, and some paper. I want you to take a meeting tomorrow at Newcastle.”


“The insurer. So let’s get cracking.”

Maureen let out a groan. “You’re a ballbuster, you know that?”

Nicholas hung up and turned toward the bar.

“I owe you for the second drink.”

The bartender glanced up from where she was washing glasses at a sink under the bar. “Catch me next time. ’Kay?”

Nicholas sucked the inside of his cheek, suppressing a smile. Policewomen were one thing, bartenders another. He pulled the netsuke peanut from his pocket and set it on the bar. “Hold this as collateral.”

He left Gravy’s, popped into a cab, and headed uptown. Time to canvass a few art dealers.

Similar to her downtown gallery, Beatrice’s uptown exhibition space was ground floor, large, and white. Upstairs, her office/apartment had a picture window with a commanding view of Madison Avenue and a Ralph Lauren boutique. It was seven o’clock and she was pacing in front of the window with her pocket phone pressed to one ear.

“Yes…Yes…No…Yes…By this weekend. It has to be finished. I have an opening the next weekend, and we need time to get alarms installed and the exhibition erected…I don’t want to hear that…that either. Do what it takes…”

Karen, BB’s assistant, was sitting at an ornate desk against a bare brick wall examining figures and stabbing a calculator. Occasionally, she would sigh and shake her head. Karen was feline slim and almost always wore black leotards under whatever else she was wearing, which often wasn’t much.

The doorbell chimed, and Karen looked up at BB quizzically. Beatrice looked back and shrugged. Karen pushed a button on a box on the desk.

“May I help you?”

“Nicholas Palihnic to see Beatrice Belarus.”

Karen looked at BB, who waved bye-bye at her.

“I’m sorry, sir, BB is not in at the moment, and for security reasons, I have instructions not to allow strangers unannounced into the building. If you’d care to slip your card through the slot with your business stated on the back, she’ll get back to you just as soon as she is able.”

“Forget about the card. Take a message. You got paper and pencil up there, don’t you? Tell her I see her pacing back and forth in front of the window, talking on the phone, and that I want to talk about Moolman. Got it?”

Karen looked up at BB, who squashed her call and walked over to the desk. With a demure smile, she reached out and ran one hand through Karen’s hair. With the other she pushed a button on the box.

“Mr. Palihnic, I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance.” Like a cat being stroked, Karen nuzzled into the petting.

“Well, I’m giving you a perfect opportunity. Care to talk about Moolman?”

“Perhaps we can arrange another time? I’m quite busy.”

“Five minutes, that’s all I ask. You can time me.”

BB removed her hand from Karen’s swirl of blond hair.

“Coming down with a stopwatch, Mr. Palihnic.”

Moments later, they stood together in the center of the large white exhibition space, which at the moment was hung with a number of orange, black, and yellow abstracts, as well as several constructivist pieces that contained a lot of egg cartons and marbles. BB slowly circled Nicholas as though considering the latest in found-art sculpture. If he was going to make waves, she’d bowl him over with a tidal wave.

Nicholas stood for inspection, arms folded patiently. This was the second of six dealers he’d had to visit, and he was prepared for the high-hat.

“What about Moolman, Mr. Palihnic?”

“Ever hear of me? I do a lot of recovery work for insurers.” Nicholas adjusted his glasses.

“Yes, I suppose I have. In this morning’s paper. I should call the police, you know that, don’t you?”

“Was I in the papers?”

“Said you’d murdered someone. For a painting. A Moolman, perhaps? I can only assume you’re trying to sell it to me.”

“I didn’t kill him, I didn’t get the Moolman, and I don’t sell stolen art. I return it to the insurer.”

“For a percentage, yes, I know of your type. Making a very fine distinction between crook and investigator, aren’t we?”

“Hey, I’m beginning to feel like a fireplug you’re circling. You’re not going to pee on me or anything, are you, Ms. Belarus?”

Beatrice stopped circling, her mouth twisted as though overwhelmed by a sour ball.

“Can we cut the chitchat, the power body language?” Nicholas spread his arms. “I heard that you deal in Moolman, along with other abstract expressionists. It’s not like I’ve singled you out. I’ve got a bunch of other rug merchants to visit. I’m just trying to find out if anybody has approached you with it, that’s all.”

BOOK: Crooked
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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