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
"Then it was morning?"
"Yeah. And it was summer. I remember it was summertime because of this far-out joker that came to talk to me. I mean, everybody in the city's sweatin' like a pig, and
guy's bundled up in a fur coat. Bald-headed guy. Kind of leaned on me when I started tellin' him what I'm tellin' you."
"About the food?" I asked.
"Yeah, about bouncin' the food. First he tried to make out I was nothin' but a crazy old man, like he wanted
to believe that. I told him to go screw. Then he offered me money if I'd promise not to tell anybody else about the food. I told him I didn't want his money. I told him I just wanted to be left alone so I could earn my
money." He glanced at me suspiciously. "You sure you ain't from Social Security, mister? I
this job and the pension just to keep body and soul together."
"C'mon, Barney. You're looking at the last word in neglected minority groups. Tell me what happened after Rafferty ordered breakfast."
"Well, I was bringin' his food over to him on a tray. I was just a coupla feet away from the table when I tripped over a loose board." He pointed behind him into the gloom. "Damn thing's still there. I didn't see exactly what happened because I was fallin' down myself—"
"Then, you didn't actually
any food 'bouncing' off Rafferty?"
He stiffened. "No, but I'll tell you what I
see. When I got up, this guy didn't have any food on him. The tray was flyin' right at him, so the food
to bounce. You get my meanin'?"
I waited, but it seemed that was all there was to it. "You're saying the food didn't get on him?"
He clapped his hands hard, once, then rubbed them on his apron as if he'd hurt himself.
you got it!" He seemed upset that I wasn't more impressed. "You see," he continued eagerly, "that's what really stuck in my mind. I was worried he'd been scalded by the coffee, but he wasn't. I could see. The food and the coffee were splattered all around him, but he didn't have a spot on him, not a single stain." He frowned, clucked. "But he was hurt; he was moanin' and hangin' on to his head. Then he just passed out. Almost fell on top of me. I tried to bring him around, but he was out cold."
"And you're absolutely
that the food was going to land on him?"
"How do you think he managed it, Barney?"
"Jesus Christ, I don't know, mister. Nobody ever asked me that before." He thought about it for a moment, then cackled at me again. "He must have had one of those 'invisible shields' they talk about on the deodorant commercials!"
"Is there anything else you remember?"
"Nope. Have I earned my money, mister?"
Barney had earned his money, and I'd earned a headache. I got up and shoved the bills into his shirt pocket. "Thanks, Barney. You're a tiger."
"Hey, you really a private detective?" "Barney," I said, slapping him on the back, "it's hard for me to understand why everyone keeps asking me that question."
The waitress blew me a kiss on my way out.
Wanting to clear Barney's laugh and the gloom of Jack's Cakewalk from my mind, I decided to walk the twenty blocks back to my apartment to check the mail. It was a mistake. The noon streets of New York were hot, filled with the stench of exhaust fumes, the tension of constant hurry. By the time I reached my apartment, my headache had evolved from a dull throb to a sharp pain that flashed back and forth between my temples like arcs of electricity.
The man sitting on my couch was short—five feet six or seven. The eyes that had looked so dark in the newspaper photograph were actually a deep, glacial blue, made to seem even larger and colder by the high dome of his forehead. His eyes were like blank screens hiding his thoughts and emotions. I'd seen eyes like that before; they were either the mirrors in front of a psychopathic mind or the result of years of training, tempered by more than a little pain. He was completely bald.
He was a man who seemed totally at ease with himself, even in someone else's living room. He wore a light blue poplin suit with matching shirt and tie. There was no bulge under the armpit, but I was certain that was due to good tailoring.
He rose and put aside the magazine he'd been reading. "I'm Mr. Lippitt," he said, eyeing me steadily.
"How do you know?" he asked quietly.
"You've changed your wardrobe. I almost didn't recognize you without your overcoat."
"The newspaper photo," he said. There was a hint of annoyance in his voice, and something that might have been an emotion passed quickly across the blue surface of his eyes and was gone. "The phone number had to come out of the police file. Your brother must have given it to you; very unprofessional of him, but I'm rather glad he did it. Why do you want to know about Victor Rafferty, Dr. Frederickson?"
"You're pretty goddamn abrupt for a guy who's sitting uninvited in my living room."
"Come, come," Lippitt said. His voice had dropped a half octave, the whisper of silk across a knife blade. "You indicated you wanted to talk to me and I'm here. My circumstances don't allow me to stand around on the street waiting for you."
"I can believe that."
"Who are you working for?" Lippitt asked suddenly. His tone had shifted again. He used his voice like a weapon: reasoning, entreating, bludgeoning.
"Why do you care that I'm investigating Victor Rafferty?"
"It upsets me," Lippitt said evenly. There was just the slightest whisper of menace, and I had no doubt that it was intentional.
It took him a long time to answer. He saw me watching the dark shadows move behind his eyes and looked quickly away. "I feel a responsibility to make certain that people who have been involved in this matter are not physically harmed." He added pointedly: "That includes you."
"Is that a threat, Mr. Lippitt?" "You might call it a warning."
We could dance around each other's words all day, so I decided to feed him a little information. "Rafferty may not be dead," I said, watching him.
"What are you talking about? Of course he's dead." The impatience and incredulity in his voice seemed genuine, and it surprised me.
"Other people aren't so sure," I said.
He stared at me. "What other people?"
"Myself, for one."
"Who else?" Lippitt persisted. There was something else in his tone now, and I was sure it was fear. Of what? For whom?
"I can't tell you that," I said quietly.
you tell me?"
"My turn. Tell me about Rafferty."
Lippitt said forcefully. It seemed to me that he hadn't blinked for a long time.
"He supposedly fell off a catwalk into a furnace filled with molten metal. Did you actually see him fall, Lippitt?"
"Yes," the bald man said calmly; "as a matter of fact, I did. I watched the whole thing."
"Why is it that I didn't see your name in any of the reports on the accident?"
His thin eyebrows arched slightly. "Would you really expect to?"
"Was Harry Barnes with you?"
"The watchman? Yes." He finally blinked. "You've been very busy, Dr. Frederickson. And resourceful."
"I'm a good reader; I was a Bluebird all through first grade. I'm also good in math. If I were to add two plus two in this case, I think I'd end up with a bribe. Did you set Harry Barnes up in the dirty-movie business in exchange for his forgetting the fact that you were there that Sunday?"
"All right," Lippitt said quietly, his eyes shifting. "I suppose that does become obvious."
"Was Barnes even there?"
A long pause. "No," he said at last. "But I was."
"Who the hell
"An ex-watchman who worked in Victor Rafferty's lab, as advertised. That much is true; and the story of what happened to Rafferty is true. I simply could not afford to become involved. You see, you've reached a wrong conclusion from your otherwise astute deductions."
"Have I? Let's take a look at it. A government agent and a world-famous architect are standing around on a catwalk over open smelting furnaces on a Sunday afternoon. You're having a pleasant chat when—whoops!—the architect falls into one of the furnaces. I'll bet that sounds silly even to you."
Lippitt abruptly sat down in a chair, crossed his legs, and lighted a thin cigar. He didn't appear to be amused, and it occurred to me that the man could be dangerous. "Often, what seems silly is the truth, Dr. Frederickson," he said easily, puffing on the cigar.
"Not in this case."
"Why not? I
telling the truth about the most important point: Victor Rafferty died five years ago."
"Lippitt, I don't think
saw Rafferty fall into that furnace." He'd stopped blinking again. "For some reason, you and your people want the world to think Rafferty is dead. Why?" I decided to take a wild swing at a ball thrown in from the bleachers. "Is Harry Barnes really Victor Rafferty?"
He almost smiled. "Are you serious?"
"Yeah, kind of. I admit it would be quite a transformation from the Victor Rafferty I've heard about, but I suppose playing porno-film maker is as good a cover as any."
"Cover for what?"
"For whatever work he actually performs for you."
Lippitt rose, put his hands in his pockets, and walked to the window. He didn't turn around when he spoke. "We've prepared a psychological profile on you, Dr. Frederickson. It's sketchy because of the limited time we've had, but it's fascinating nonetheless. Your karate, your Ph. D., your obvious need to achieve. You're aggressive, occasionally hostile, but I suppose that's understandable. You have the mind of a giant trapped in a dwarf's body. A pity."
"My mother thought so too," I said testily. "What's your point?"
He slowly turned and dropped his dead cigar into an ashtray. "My point is that we consider you a dangerous man. I'm not sure how to handle you."
"A suggestion: Try telling me the truth."
"The truth here is irrelevant!" he snapped. Then he sucked in a breath. "It is absolutely essential that you drop this investigation!"
"Essential to whom?"
"To the well-being of innocent people," he answered without hesitation. "Do you know what a 'freak' is?"
"Who would know better?" I said drily.
Lippitt didn't smile. "The term 'freak' has a special meaning in my field. Put simply, a freak is a terrorist, a torturer. Most of the ones I know of are truly psychopathic. They're used on occasion by all countries. Their assignment is simply to spread havoc, but only under special circumstances. Such a man was brought into this situation five years ago but— thankfully—never used. That doesn't mean that he won't be used now if it's discovered that this matter has been brought up again."
"As far as I know, you're the only heavyweight who knows about my interest in Rafferty."
Lippitt laughed shortly, without humor. "Yes, but who knows where your questions will lead? My good man, you have no
how dangerous this business could become. The others have resources." He tapped the tips of his fingers together a few times while he stared at me, then dropped his hands to his sides. I had the feeling he'd made some kind of decision.
"I'll tell you the truth that you seem to think is so important and I say is irrelevant," he continued. "I know Rafferty is dead because I killed him."
I studied the map of Lippitt's face, but there was no key there to indicate whether or not he was lying. My mouth had suddenly gone dry. "How?" I asked in a cracked voice.
"I shot him to death," Lippitt said evenly. "He was trying to kill me. It was after I shot him that he fell off the catwalk into the furnace."
"Why did you kill him, Lippitt? Why were you after him in the first place?"
"He was about to defect to the Russians. He forced the issue; he backed me into a corner."
"But what would the Russians want with an architect?"
"Rafferty had certain invaluable information. We could not let him share that information with anyone."
"What kind of information?"
Lippitt shook his head. "I can't tell you that, Frederickson."
"Maybe you haven't had the time to cook up that part of your story."
He ignored the barb. "I won't argue with you over something that can't be proved," he said quietly. "Perhaps you should simply give me the benefit of the doubt."
"Why should I do that?"
"To save lives." His even tone lent weight to his words. I suddenly felt brushed back and on the defensive. "Other governments knew that Rafferty had this information," Lippitt continued. "What developed was a race to control Rafferty."
"That would explain the Missing Persons report with your name on it."
"Correct. A number of governments were involved; like us, they would have spared nothing to find him. What Victor Rafferty knew was that valuable. Now, if you continue to stir things up, certain parties may begin to suspect that Rafferty
still alive and they'll begin looking for him. If
happens, Dr. Frederickson, people will die. I guarantee it."
"Is that what happened to Dr. Morton?"
Lippitt caught his reaction a split second too late. "Who is this Dr. Morton?"
Rafferty's neurosurgeon, and I think you know it. He was murdered a few days before the time you say you shot Rafferty. I believe the two cases are linked."
"I wouldn't know anything about that."
I was sure he was lying, and I wondered why. "Somebody else must have shared Rafferty's knowledge," I said.
"Why do you say that?"
"Somebody helped him get out of that locked hospital room," I replied. "If Rafferty had an ally, it seems reasonable to assume that the ally knew what Rafferty knew."
Lippitt shook his head. "Rafferty worked alone. There's a simple explanation for what happened at the hospital: The officer responsible for guarding Rafferty didn't do his job. The door wasn't bolted properly, and the officer fell asleep."
"That's your version. He says he was hypnotized."
"That's rather creative, but it's nonsense. What excuse would
use if you'd been in his place?"
"He also believes that you kept him from being sacked."
"Then he's a senile fool."
"You know, Lippitt, you make it easy to suspect that you and your people have Rafferty and don't want anybody to find out about it."
"And what if we did?" Lippitt snapped, anger flaring in his voice. "There would be nothing you could do about it! The only thing you'd accomplish would be to bring trouble—maybe death—to innocent people. The
person they might go after could be his widow."
"Why? Because she knows what Rafferty knew?"
"Because the others might
that she does, or think that she knows where he is.
could be in great danger as a result of what you're doing, but that doesn't seem to bother you."
"On the contrary," I said; "you're scaring the hell out of me. I don't want anyone to get hurt, and that includes me. But I don't like to be threatened, either. You're not what I'd call a disinterested party."
"Why did you go to the U.N.?"
"If Rafferty is alive, he may have been working there two years ago. He may even be working there now."
"What are you talking about?" In his voice there was disbelief mixed with concern.
Lippitt seemed to grow agitated as I showed him the picture of the Nately Museum and gave him a quick rundown of what I'd learned.
"Impossible," he said when I'd finished.
Lippitt's body suddenly convulsed, and for a moment I feared he was having an epileptic seizure. He was shuddering, as if suffering from a bone-cracking cold blowing in from some subterranean region of his mind. I moved toward him, but he held out his hand to keep me away. I watched with horrified fascination as Lippitt struggled to bring his body under control. Gradually, the shuddering abated, his teeth stopped chattering, and blood came back to his face. He leaned hard against the wall, then straightened up.
"You must excuse me," he said quietly.
"Can I get you something?"
"No, thank you. I'll be all right." He took a deep breath. "Have you discussed this matter with anyone at the U.N.?"
"Maybe," I said after a pause.
"Then you've made a terrible mistake. I understand that you mistrust me and my motives, and that you think I'm lying. But I want you to consider what
burden of responsibility will be if I'm telling the truth."
"I'll give it a lot of thought," I replied, meaning it. "One more question: Do
know what it was that Rafferty knew?"
"That will have to remain a mystery." He turned and walked to the door. He hesitated a moment and I thought he was going to add something, but he didn't. He stared at me for a few seconds, then left. The air in the apartment suddenly felt oppressive and dank, as if Lippitt had left behind some of his private cold.