Authors: George C. Chesbro
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery Fiction, #Private Investigators, #Mongo (Fictitious Character), #Criminologists, #Dwarfs, #Private Investigators - New York (State) - New York, #Criminologists - New York (State) - New York, #Dwarfs - New York (State) - New York
My telephone rang and I picked it up.
"Garth, Mongo." My brother's voice was tense and low. In the background, I could hear the distinctive sounds of the station house. "I see you've been goosing elephants with your usual casual abandon."
"What's the matter, Garth? I thought you were off today."
"Well, let's say there's a lot of unusual activity around here this morning. I got called in. The Chief's been in and out all morning asking about the Rafferty file. The funny thing is, I get the impression he's not even sure what he's talking about. I had to tell him you were in here asking questions about it. It didn't make him happy. I take it you called that Washington number?"
"Afraid so, Garth."
"I figured as much. They asked me if I'd given you a copy of the file. I said no."
"That's true enough. Has anyone mentioned the Morton case?"
"No. And I can't bring it up without admitting that I at least pulled some files for you. I just wanted you to know what the reaction's been like around here. I'm playing dumb, so I don't think I'll be lining up for unemployment. You just be damn careful where you're digging; you're liable to hit a land mine, if you haven't already."
"Thanks, brother. I appreciate it. I owe you a couple."
"You owe me a gross, but I'll settle for the steak dinner you promised."
"Lawdy, lawdy, I haven't forgotten."
"I'll be mighty glad when you're gone to Acapulco," Garth said, and hung up.
I checked through the phone book, looking for Jack's Cakewalk. There was a listing for a restaurant with that name on West Thirty-sixth. I decided to go for a walk.
Three minutes after I hit the street, the black Chevy passed me; it had lost one passenger, and I'd undoubtedly grown a tail. I did a quick-shuffle around a corner, down into a subway station, and up to the street on the opposite side, where I hailed a cab. There was no black car in sight, but the exercise had been wasted; a crude hand-lettered sign on the window of Jack's Cakewalk proclaimed that the restaurant was closed on Sundays.
The Chevy, with its full contingent, was waiting for me across the street when I got back to my apartment house. Neither man looked at me, but I thought their faces seemed slightly redder than normal.
The rest of the day I spent packing and taping. I went to bed early, lulled to sleep by the thought that big wheels turning just might grind out a few answers.
The possibility that those same wheels might run me over left me relatively unperturbed. Some years ago a psychiatrist had told me that finding out things other people didn't want known was my way of trying to stay even with a society filled with people bigger than I was. The remark had been meant to startle, to provoke insight, and eventually to alter my behavior.
Instead, I'd simply found that I thoroughly agreed with him, and had gone out after a private investigator's license.
The next morning I ate breakfast out, just to see who was on the surveillance team's day shift. The men had changed, and they were using a pink Pinto, but the haircuts had remained the same. The man who actually got out of the car and followed me into the restaurant wore a black-and-white checked suit and open-necked red shirt.
After breakfast, with the man in the checked suit in tow, I took a short bus ride downtown to the United Nations. Since the man made no effort to disguise the fact that he was following me, I didn't bother losing him; he provided a kind of comforting reassurance that I was doing something right.
At the U.N. I walked under the rainbow of flags, across the plaza, and into the lobby of the Secretariat building. My companion stayed outside. He looked bored as he leaned against one of the concrete barriers, crossed his feet and arms, and heaved a huge sigh.
During my years with the circus, I'd participated in more than my share of benefits for UNICEF. The U.N. official I'd worked with most closely was a Pakistani by the name of Abu Bhutal; if Abu was still with the U.N., he'd be a valuable contact.
I sat down on a polished marble bench in the lobby and took out one of the copies of the conference program Richard Patern had given me. I took a quick count and came up with about two hundred and seventy-five names, from every part of the world. That was just too many names to work with. I knew it was risky, but I winnowed the list down to around fifty Americans, including aides. I put a double line under the name E
; that certainly looked like two first names to me. Then I went looking for Abu.
An attempted end run around the security guard at the elevator didn't work, so I used a phone to call the UNICEF office. I gave Abu's secretary my name. There was a short pause, I heard a few clicks, and then came a booming "Mongo the Magnificent! How are you?"
are you?" I had to hold the receiver away from my ear. Abu Bhutal's good nature was habitually expressed at a decibel level higher than the human ear could tolerate.
"Downstairs, Abu," I said. "I'd like to talk to you if you've got a few minutes."
? I am your
, Mongo! You just wait right there! I'll be right down!"
Less than a minute later, Abu emerged from the elevator, went up on the toes of his patent leather Gucci shoes, and started looking around for me. His jet-black hair flashed blue highlights in the fluorescent light of the lobby. He was wearing a vested sharkskin suit. Abu had a taste for expensive, well-cut Western clothes, and he looked well in them.
He spotted me and took off across the lobby at collision speed. There were tears in his eyes when we shook hands. His effusiveness and warmth embarrassed me; I was the one who'd broken off contact.
Abu ushered me past the security guard, into the elevator, and up to his office, where he sat down behind his desk and sighed expansively. "It's good to see you, Mongo."
"And you, Abu. You look wonderful."
"I thought we were friends, Mongo," he said quietly, tapping his fingers lightly on the top of his desk.
"Then why haven't I heard from you?" he asked reproachfully. "It's been years. I discovered you were no longer with the circus only when I called to try to get you to do another benefit."
The bitterness and tension I'd felt in those years, the bridges I'd burned, were not among my favorite subjects. I mumbled some apologies and promised not to let it happen again.
He seemed appeased and grinned broadly. "So, my friend, I suspect it's more than old times' sake that brings you here."
I cringed. "You never were one to be fooled. Abu, I could use your help."
"There is no way I could refuse. How can I help you?"
"Have you ever heard of Victor Rafferty?"
Abu thought about it, then shook his head. "I can't say that I have."
"He was an architect. I understand he did a lot of volunteer work for the U.N., so he definitely had connections here. I'm trying to find out who those connections were. I'd like to go over a list of names with you."
"May I ask why, Mongo?"
"I'm investigating Rafferty for a client who's in trouble. Some of these people may have information that could be useful to me. Abu, do you know a man by the name of Elliot Thomas? He may work here."
"No, my friend, I can't say that I do. But wait just a minute." He took a U.N. personnel directory from a drawer and thumbed through it. "Aha!" he exclaimed, stabbing the page with a bejeweled, stubby finger. "Elliot Thomas! He's on the American staff of UNESCO. Came here in '71. It says here he has an office on twenty-six."
"Does it mention in there what he does?"
"He's a stress engineer."
"Now, what do you suppose a 'stress engineer' does?"
Abu grinned. "How do you say? 'Beats me'?"
"Don't give me any of that 'ignorant foreigner' crap, Abu. You know more American slang than I do." I wrote down the information on Thomas in my notebook, then handed Abu the conference list. "Do you know any of these men personally? For now, just the names I've circled."
"Yes, I remember this conference well," he said as he thumbed through the program. "It was very successful." He moved a thick finger down the page of names. "Samuel Atkins is with UNESCO now. Ronald Tal is Special Assistant to the Secretary General, and Hillary Peterson, I believe, left a year or so ago."
Abu continued down the list of names he was familiar with while I took notes, crossing off the names of men Abu characterized as under thirty-five, Oriental, black, or Puerto Rican. I ended up with twenty-three names.
"Abu, do you suppose any of these people would agree to talk to me?"
"I can ask. Who would you like to speak with first?"
"Why not start at the top? What about Tal?"
Abu picked up the telephone. "I must warn you that Ronald is an extremely busy man. I'll have to tell him who you are and what you want."
Abu spoke to Tal on the phone, and I listened. I couldn't catch Tal's words, but his voice was low and well modulated, like that of a man who does a lot of public speaking— which Tal did, much to the distress of a good many Americans who didn't like what he had to say. Abu did a good job of building me up, then mentioned Victor Rafferty and why I was there. When the conversation was over, Abu slowly hung up the phone and looked at me. He seemed vaguely surprised. "Your fame and reputation for good works precede you. Ronald recognized your name and is most appreciative of what you've done for this agency. He'll see you in"—he looked at his watch—"forty-five minutes. His offices are part of the Secretary General's suite. You'll be expected. In the meantime, I'll make inquiries as to who may have known Victor Rafferty." He clapped his hands once, loudly.
You've got forty-five minutes to kill. What say we have a little drink?"
? Thanks, Abu, but give me a rain check. I want to see if I can get a line on this Thomas. I'll be in touch." I made a mental note to call him for dinner after I got back from Acapulco, if I didn't hear from him first.
Now that I was actually inside the working quarters of the U.N., internal security didn't seem to pose a problem. I had no trouble getting to the twenty-sixth floor, but once there, I wasn't sure how to proceed. There was no receptionist, no directory—just a long antiseptic-green corridor with small offices on either side. I ambled down the corridor, hands in my pockets, trying not to look like a lost tourist. I rounded a corner and almost bumped into a man who was wearing a pale blue, three-piece suit. His full auburn beard just reached the top button of his vest.
"Excuse me," the man said as he backed up, gripped my shoulder solicitously, and limped around me.
He turned and smiled quizzically. "Yes?" He had a kind face with kind eyes that were the wrong color—brown. But he could have been wearing contact lenses; the hair and the beard could be dyed, or phony altogether. I knew very well what wondrous things could be done with cosmetics and plastic surgery.
"Yes," he said easily. "Can I help you?"
"My name's Frederickson," I said quickly, stepping forward and offering my hand. "I'd like to talk to you if you have a few minutes."
"Sure," he said, shaking my hand tentatively. The hair around his mouth parted slightly to reveal a set of even, white teeth. "What is it that you'd like to talk to me about?"
"I, uh ... uh ..." Clever detective that I am, this marvelous stroke of luck found me totally unprepared; I hadn't thought up a cover story. I went right at him with, "I'm looking for Victor Rafferty."
It got a response. The teeth disappeared, and I thought I saw something move behind the earth-brown eyes. But then, I was looking pretty hard; I didn't want to be fooled by my own expectations.
"Interesting," he said pleasantly. "Why don't you come into my office?"
He led the way into a small but neatly appointed office with a nice view overlooking Manhattan. My reflexes were quicker than my thinking had been; as he moved around his desk, back to me, I reached out and snatched a cheap plastic protractor from the midst of a pile of papers and drafting tools. I was hoping he wouldn't miss it as I dropped it into my inside jacket pocket.
"Is this a joke?" Thomas asked as he sat down. His smile was wearing thin, but that seemed understandable. "Victor Rafferty has been dead for some years."
familiar with the name?"
"Of course," Thomas said, gesturing to indicate that the answer was obvious. "I'm a stress engineer."
"I'm sorry, but I don't know what a stress engineer does."
sorry," Thomas said evenly, still smiling, "but I don't know what
A quick search of my mental resources still failed to turn up a plausible cover story. "I'm a private detective," I said. "I've been hired to investigate the death—or, uh, disappearance—of Victor Rafferty. I thought you might be able to help me."
Thomas' chuckle was easy, good-natured. "What ever gave you the idea that I could help you? I never even met the man."
"But you asked about him at the dedication ceremony for the Nately Museum."
He thought a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Patern! The architect!
where you got my name. But I didn't
Victor Rafferty; I said the building reminded me of his work." He reached inside his beard, tugged at his lower lip, frowned. "I don't remember telling Patern where I work."
"Mr. Thomas," I said quickly, "will you tell me how you happen to know so much about Rafferty's work?"
A shrug. "Why not? You see, a stress engineer evaluates the
requirements of a given design, and the geographical location where the proposed building is to be erected. First, I tell the architect whether it's
to build from his design; if it is, I give him the strength requirements of the materials to be used, depending on the location. For example, any building erected in an earthquake zone is going to have to be stronger than garden apartments in, say, Hoboken. I'm the person who makes those kinds of judgments."