Authors: Lee Goldberg
“I can see how this might look bad,” I said to Cardea. “Even very, very bad. But I can assure you that it’s just a coincidence.”
“You can assure us in an interrogation room at the Federal Building,” Cardea said and gestured to the door. “Let’s go.”
“You’re making a mistake here, Cardea,” Stottlemeyer said. “Take it from me, you’re going to regret it.”
“If I were you, Captain, I’d start thinking about how you’re going to explain to your bosses why you’ve employed two mob lackeys as police consultants,” Cardea said, and headed out.
Monk and I walked slowly behind him as if we were headed to our executions, and I was fairly certain that we were.
Mr. Monk and the Joke
he Federal Building at Mission and Seventh looked like an eighteen-story slab of concrete sheathed in chicken wire and glass. It was aggressively and bluntly incompatible with everything around it.
The same could be said for Special Agent Derek Thorpe, who hadn’t changed much in the years since Monk and I had last seen him. Back then, the bald, black, and extremely driven FBI agent was the leader of a high-tech special unit dedicated to serial killer investigations.
At the time, Thorpe took great pleasure in degrading Monk at every opportunity and touting his own expertise. Ultimately, though, Monk solved the case himself, humiliating Thorpe so thoroughly that the unit was disbanded.
Now, apparently, Thorpe was ready for some long-awaited payback. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Since we weren’t arrested, I’d insisted on driving us to the Federal Building, though Cardea followed close behind.
After we’d gone through the X-ray, pat down, and full-body scan in the lobby, which took a slow-moving, whining, and uncooperative Monk more than an hour to complete, Cardea escorted us to a windowless interrogation room bathed in a sickly fluorescent light.
We took our wobbly seats on one side of a metal table that reminded me of the ones they used down at the morgue to perform autopsies. I didn’t like the implication.
“I feel so violated,” Monk said. “If they are going to pat you down, they should have an anesthesiologist on hand to put you under so you don’t have to experience the ordeal. But at least they’ve made us comfortable in a nice room to relieve some of the tension.”
I stared at him. “This is probably the bleakest, most hopeless room in the entire building.”
He nodded in agreement. “They obviously brought us here as a professional courtesy. I feel more relaxed already. I think everything is going to be fine.”
A few moments later, Special Agent Thorpe walked in with Cardea.
Thorpe smiled, like a vampire showing his fangs. “We meet again, Rainman.”
“So that’s what this is all about,” I said. “You’ve been looking for any opportunity to make Mr. Monk feel a fraction of the humiliation you felt when he bested you and now you think you’ve found it.”
If Thorpe could have gotten away with shooting me, he probably would have. Instead, he tried to kill me with a look as he sat down across from us. When I didn’t lose control of my bladder, he opened the file in front of him as if it contained a knife he could use to finish the job.
“The facts speak for themselves, Ms. Teeger,” he said, idly scratching the back of his hand. “Monk has been in bed with Salvatore Lucarelli since that barbershop massacre years ago.”
“I fully cooperated with the FBI on that case,” Monk said. “I wore a wire the whole time, risking my life so you could get evidence against the mob.”
“But we didn’t get any,” Thorpe said, staring pointedly at Monk, “because you tampered with the listening device.”
“It was hidden in a tie and there was a stain on it,” Monk said. “All I did was wash it.”
“And iron it,” Thorpe said.
“We caught the killer,” Monk said.
“But Lucarelli’s mob empire continued to flourish, thanks to your sabotage. And when we finally got Lucarelli in jail, you came along again to help him out.”
“Oh, give me a break,” I said. “Lucarelli was arrested for racketeering, tax evasion, and extortion, not murder. It wasn’t Mr. Monk clearing Lucarelli of the judge’s murder that got him out of prison, it was your weak case on the other charges. You’re blaming Mr. Monk for the Bureau’s titanic failures. Are you suggesting we should have allowed someone else to get away with murder just so you could keep Lucarelli in prison?”
“I don’t let anyone get away with anything, and that includes you, Ms. Teeger,” Thorpe said. “The fact remains that you’ve consistently aided and abetted Lucarelli and that the stolen money from the sting that put him in jail was found in your house.”
“It’s a coincidence,” I said.
“A big fat one,” Cardea said.
“I’ll grant you that,” I said.
“How magnanimous of you,” Thorpe said.
“But let’s get real, shall we? You have extremely tight security here. There’s no way anyone can come in or out of this building without passing through it,” I said. “So you know that Mr. Monk and I haven’t been here in over a year and that we’ve been in New Jersey for the last month.”
“We don’t think you stole the money,” Thorpe said. “We believe it was done by an inside man.”
“I’m so glad we’ve settled that,” Monk said and stood up. “I knew you’d see reason.”
“We think you engineered the whole thing,” Thorpe said. “And then you took delivery of the money from him, skimmed off your cut, and delivered the rest of the cash to Lucarelli’s people in New Jersey.”
“Oh.” Monk sat down again and looked at me.
“If what you say is true,” I said, “how did we get all that cash through airport security?”
“We wondered the same thing,” Thorpe said, scratching his hand. “So we reviewed the security footage and discovered that Monk created a major diversion, allowing you to slip the money through in the chaos.”
I’d forgotten about that mess. Monk objected to being searched, which caused a scene, but then he spotted a fugitive bank robber, who bolted, causing the TSA guards to scramble after him. Thorpe was right—we probably could have snuck a polar bear through security in the midst of all that.
This was looking worse and worse for us.
Monk cleared his throat. “If I am as deviously clever as you are making me out to be, wasn’t it insanely stupid of us to accept payment in marked FBI sting money and keep it in our homes?”
“You intended to launder it at some point,” Cardea said, “but what you didn’t expect was one of Teeger’s sleazy friends to commit suicide in her house.”
“Have you seen Natalie’s house?” Monk said. “Of course I’ve been expecting it.”
“I didn’t know Michelle Keeling,” I said. “But let’s say that I did. Why didn’t I get rid of the money before I called the police?”
“Shock,” Cardea said.
“Jet lag,” Thorpe said.
I got up. “We’re leaving now.”
“I didn’t say you could go,” Thorpe said.
“That’s true, Natalie. They didn’t,” Monk said.
“We don’t need their permission to leave, Mr. Monk. You heard what they said. Their case is a joke and I don’t find it particularly funny.”
“Ah, now I get it,” Monk said, forcing a big smile as he got up. “It’s a practical joke. The hilarity comes from the contrast between the complexity of the situation and the increasing absurdity of events, until the subject of the joke finally realizes what is going on or the deception is revealed in a comical climax.”
“This isn’t over yet, Monk,” Thorpe said. “But if you tell us who the inside man is, we might be able to cut you a deal.”
Monk shook his head and followed me out. “You wacky jokesters. I thought you hated me.”
“I do,” Thorpe said.
Monk wagged a finger at them. “Always clowning around.”
Once we were in the hall and heading back toward the stairs, I whispered to Monk, “We’re in big trouble.”
“I know,” Monk said. “How are we going to come up with a joke on them as good as the one they pulled on us?”
“You weren’t punk’d. It’s no joke.”
“Do you think the captain and Devlin were in on it?”
“This is serious, Mr. Monk.”
“But you just said that it wasn’t. You were the one who pointed out the comical incongruities.”
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough circumstantial evidence to convince a jury anyway. Men have been sent to the electric chair on less. Who knows what else Thorpe and Cardea might turn up?”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Are you punking me now?”
That’s when I spotted the directory and checked out where I could find the evidence room. It was two floors below the lobby. I headed for the stairs and Monk followed along beside me. But when I kept on going, past the lobby, he gave me an odd look.
“You passed our floor,” he said.
“We have one more stop to make,” I said.
“Can’t you hold it until you get home tonight?”
“I don’t have to go to the bathroom.”
“Then where are we going?”
“To the scene of the crime,” I said. “Isn’t that usually the first place to begin an investigation?”
We emerged from the stairwell and headed down the narrow hallway, which had an unfinished look to it, as if the contractor had run out of money for anything more extravagant than a thin coat of gray paint. Conduits and pipes ran the length of the ceiling and along some of the walls.
“What are we investigating?” Monk asked.
“The missing sting money, of course.”
“It’s not our problem,” Monk said.
“Easy for you to say. You didn’t get home from New Jersey to find a dead woman in your bathtub and ten grand in marked money in your house.”
“That’s because I keep my house clean.”
“What does cleanliness have to do with this?”
“Filth attracts a certain element,” Monk said. “Why do you think rats are drawn to garbage?”
I ignored the comment, took out my badge as we approached the evidence room door, and clipped it to my belt the way Devlin wore hers. I also tried my best to imitate Devlin’s aggressive posture and body language.
“Are you having cramps?” Monk asked.
“I’m getting into character. It’s all about attitude. I’m trying to look like a tough cop.”
“Wouldn’t you look tougher without indigestion?”
“Just put on your badge and follow my lead.” I took a deep breath, opened the door, and entered the room like I owned it.
It was a windowless pit that looked like an enlarged version of the interrogation room, only without its charm. The floors were scratched linoleum, the walls were cinder blocks, the lighting was fluorescent, and the temperature was cold enough to keep milk fresh without refrigeration.
The back half of the room was closed off with thick wire-mesh screen, beyond which I could see rows of metal shelves crammed with file boxes, several padlocked cabinets of various sizes, and a walk-in freezer, which probably had something to do with why it was so cold.
There was a scuffed-up wooden desk situated directly in front of the caged area and it was covered with files and dozens of framed photos of a small white dog with big black spots and its owner, the woman who was the lone occupant of the room.
The nameplate on her desk read
SPECIAL AGENT JACQUELINE NESBO
. She was about my age, and in better shape, but much more pale—though that probably was an illusion created by the contrast between her skin tone and the big red pullover sweater that she was wearing. Two more sweaters were hanging from a coatrack in the corner.
“May I help you?” Nesbo asked.
“You could start by running a lint brush over your sweater,” Monk said.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“I’m Detective Natalie Teeger, Summit, New Jersey, PD, and this is my partner.”
“If you don’t have a lint brush, I do,” Monk said.
I kept talking, hoping to trample right over Monk’s comment. “We’re consulting with the Bureau on an organized-crime case and, since we’re here, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get some pointers on evidence storage and security from the expert.”
“Or you could burn the sweater,” Monk said. “Is there an incinerator in the building?”
She pinned Monk with a cold look. “What’s wrong with my sweater?”
“It looks like it’s made of dog hair,” Monk said.
Nesbo plucked a hair from her sweater and flicked it aside. “Occupational hazard when you live with dogs.” She looked affectionately at the photos. “But it’s worth it.”
“Your dog is adorable,” I said, trying to salvage the situation before Monk ruined everything. “I’ve never seen one quite like it. What’s the breed?”
“Jack Shitz,” she said.
“I’m sure he does, everywhere and indiscriminately, but there’s no need to tell us and no reason for profanity,” Monk said. “Show some self-control, for God’s sake. You’re a federal agent.”
Nesbo turned and gave him a long, hard look, and that was when I swiped her nameplate.
“It’s a Jack Russell terrier/shih tzu mix, also known as a Jack Shitz,” she said, then turned back to me, just as I stuck the nameplate under the back of my shirt. “Was there a reason you came down here?”
“Our evidence room back in Summit is basically a storage closet. My partner here has been asked to take it over. We could use some guidance.”
“He could use some manners, but I’d be glad to help.” She got up, turned her back to me, and gestured to the rows of shelving beyond the grate. “Thousands of different pieces of evidence come through here every year, everything from heroin to bull semen. Each item has to be meticulously cataloged and tracked to maintain the integrity of the chain of evidence.”
As she spoke in detail about the paperwork involved, I stole a small framed picture of her dog and shoved it in my purse.
“How tight is the security?” Monk asked.
“There’s an agent here at all times,” she said. “And nobody gets through the gate without signing the log and swiping their ID card into the reader. They also have to sign the evidence log for the particular item they are retrieving.”
“What about once they are in there?” Monk said. “Are they supervised?”
“We aren’t talking about unruly children,” she said. “They get their evidence and they leave.”
“What’s to stop them from rummaging through evidence in other cases or removing items that they haven’t signed for?”
“Personal integrity,” she said. “What are you getting at?”
She had a pen on her desk with an FBI insignia on it. So I swiped it, too, and stuck it in my back pocket.
“That once they are past the gate, they are unsupervised and can do whatever they like.”
“They still have to get past me,” she said. “Or whoever is sitting at this desk. We’re not just pencil pushers. We’re crack agents ourselves.”
“I never doubted it,” I said, glancing at my watch. “Oh my, would you look at the time. I’d love to stay and learn more, but we have a stakeout to get to. You know how it is.”