Authors: Linda A. Lavid
Paloma: A Laurent & Dove Mystery
Linda A. Lavid
Copyright 2011 by Linda A. Lavid
Kindle Edition from Linda A. Lavid/FCPressLLC
En memoria de
Jesús y Mercedes
quienes me lo dieron todo.
Tangled up in sheets after another restless night, Max Laurent rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. Sketchy morning light cracked through the slits of the permanently drawn blinds. He glanced at the numbers on his clock radio – 6:20 – and groaned. Another day, another god-awful hour.
For months Max had tried sleeping in, going to bed later and later, but he still woke at dawn. Now he had to face it, he was either a morning person or mentally impaired. How else could he explain waking up for no good reason before the Today Show even started? He stretched. Gnawing aches racked through his back and hips. Arthritis was clearly settling in, hosting itself in every joint. He was up to a bottle of aspirin a week – self-prescribed. He felt the same way about doctors as he did about lawyers – hoaxsters, every last one of them. And now there was something new to consider. A knifelike pain pulsated inside his head. An aneurysm ready to blow? A brain tumor? He looked at the ceiling light and closed alternating eyes to check for double vision. Nothing. He sniffed, getting a whiff of himself. Lingering remnants from another night of Hennessy and Cuban cigars made him stink like a rhino’s ass. Hell, this retirement thing was killing him.
Max had left the FBI five months earlier after thirty-two years of service, telling his few friends and only cousin that they’d offered him an early incentive package. He’d failed to mention how strongly he’d been urged to take the money and run. It had been a matter of ass-backward protocol – supercilious court orders, tiresome subpoenas that took up valuable time. Hell, he’d gotten the job done, but that’s not what the big Dick had wanted to hear, citing ad nauseam the Manual of Operations and Procedures. As Max saw it, the MOP was nothing more than a wish list of technicalities for three-martini, snake-eyed lawyers who made their chump change protecting the guilty while leaving the victims hung out to dry. Sure, he had sidestepped the regs, but only for the greater good. Any hairy-assed goon could’ve seen that. He scratched his head and thought about going back to sleep. But now he was fully awake and pissed. He hated lying in jumbled sheets. He’d have to get up and remake the bed, put everything back in order.
Max rubbed his eyes. Wednesday. Golf day with Reggie.
Jeez, he despised the sport. Sure, he looked forward to being out in the morning, walking the greens, hanging with his cousin. But by the tenth hole he was ready to call it a day and by the eighteenth, if he wasn’t drinking, a mild psychosis would settle in. It always boiled down to that one friggin’, pockmarked, poor excuse of a ball that wasn’t properly balanced at the factory. In any event, as despicable as golf was, Reggie was family and Max believed in family. He dragged himself out of bed, showered, shaved, made coffee, and at seven-forty, the doorbell rang.
Max opened the door. “You got to be kidding.”
Reggie marched inside. He was in complete regalia: plaid knickers, a canary yellow shirt, matching golf hat, and blinding-white socks. He spun around. “What do you think?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“What? Is it the color? Yellow, Max, it screams power, winning attitude. You’ll see. Oh, here’s your
.” He slapped the plastic-bagged newspaper down. “I don’t know why you bother with an out-of-town paper.”
Max smiled in spite of himself. Ever since Reggie was a kid, he always went to great lengths in looking the part – smoking a pipe when he tried writing, putting holes in his jeans when he bought a guitar. “We all got our quirks.”
Reggie stepped back. “What are you implying? That I’m eccentric? Thought I’d do a retro thing and go a little Payne Stewart. The Tiger Woods thing was getting too predictable. Besides there was a sale at the Pro.”
“I thought we agreed to keep it simple and go for the Greg Norman look.”
Reggie planted his feet, settled into a stance, and air-stroked a putt. “Bor-ring.”
“Well, there’s no way –”
“Cool down, Max. I got your hat. It’s in the car.”
“I am cool, but you won’t be. Twenty minutes on the links in that getup and you’ll be sweating enough to water the greens.”
Reggie shook his head. “Don’t be jealous, Max. It’s not becoming. Speaking of water, can I use the facilities?”
“Go ahead.” Max picked up the newspaper. “Want some coffee?”
Bounding up the stairs, Reggie yelled over his shoulder, “Half a cup.”
Max returned to the kitchen, poured two cups and turned off the pot. He then settled his six-foot three-inch frame onto an old metal folding chair left over from Monday night’s poker game. Spreading out the paper, he cruised the headlines.
A picture of a burned-out apartment on MacDougall in lower Manhattan immediately caught his attention. The shot was taken from street level; not directly dead-on, but off to the side, clearly a corner lot. The bay window was a gaping black hole. Jagged metal casings dangled from the opening. Max scanned the center of the article. Phrases registered in his line of vision:
fire bomb, late evening.
He slowed down and read each word:
An unidentified woman was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she later died.
He looked again at the photograph then scanned the story for an address.
Reggie was back. “I only wanted half a cup.”
“No problem, I’ll drink it.”
Max glanced at him. “No, not you. I meant the idiot who wrote this.” He grabbed the wall phone and called information. “New York City, the New York Times,” he told the operator. A cybervoice spouted out a number. After he pressed one to dial automatically, another computerized menu of hypothetical ‘if’s and then’s answered. He slammed the receiver down. “Look at this picture. Concentrate on the building details.”
Max sprung from his seat and bounded into the living room. He then dove into the closet and pulled out an accordion file. His fingers flew across the dividers:
, all cities where Agnes had lived. Stopping at
, he fingered through the dated sub-files. Digging his hand into the tight pocket, he fished out some glossy five by sevens from twelve years earlier. The snapshots jogged his memory. He’d gone down in August. The weather was dismally hot and steamy. New York was never the place to be when the humidity climbed over seventy – too many people, too much concrete, no place to breathe. He pulled one picture closer. Yes, this was the one. Her hair looked wet, blacker than usual and slicked back as if she had just come out of the shower. A sleeveless, blue dress revealed the soft curve of her shoulders and outlined her slim silhouette. She carried a large leather bag. The picture caught her going down the front steps, holding on to the railing. Her oval face was turned downward, looking where she walked. What he saw of the building was confined to the stairs, porch floor and the bottom six inches of the entry. Max stuffed the remainder of the pictures into the folds.
Back in the kitchen, he lay the photograph next to the
article. The grainy, black and white newspaper shot seemed to have nothing in common with the photograph he’d taken of Agnes. Max turned to Reggie. “So, same building?”
Reggie put on his glasses and leaned forward. After a few seconds, he frowned. “Max, this isn’t who I think it is?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. That woman, the one you stalked.”
“Followed obsessively. Does that sound better?”
Max didn’t need to hear this. He reached over.
Reggie caught his wrist. “Let me take a look anyway.”
Max withdrew his arm and stared down at the picture. Throughout the years she hadn’t changed, or at least he hadn’t noticed. He now remembered more of that day. He shadowed her to the library then to a small outdoor market. He also recalled how her hips swayed beneath that summery dress.
Reggie’s eyes darted between the two pictures. Max could count on Reggie. He was a detail person, an accountant. Decimal points, commas were his specialty.
Reggie pointed to a corner of the stair. “See here.”
Max narrowed his gaze.
“The masonry has a hole in it. Now when you look at the color shot, you notice a smaller hole with cracks. Could be with time the concrete deteriorated. And here, near the doorway, the bricks have the same design.”
Max jumped for the phone and dialed information, only this time for the New York City Fire Department. After several holds and transfers, a man said, “Lieutenant Becker.”
“Lieutenant, this is Laurent, FBI. You had a fire in your sector yesterday, a fire bomb on MacDougall.”
“We need to know the address.”
The man snarled, “Corner of St. John’s,” then hung up.
Stunned and queasy, Max replaced the receiver. It was Agnes. It had to be. “I’ve got to go to New York,” he said.
“It’s her place? Her apartment?”
Max stared off. After all she had been through, she died in a fire? No, a firebombing. But if was her apartment, how could she not be identified? Agnes had disappeared many times over the years but leaving a body behind was never her style. He couldn’t fathom her dead. That wasn’t part of his plan.
Max promised Reggie a golf date the minute he got back. He then packed his dark blue suit for a funeral, his sneakers for a chase.
Max checked his watch. Almost two p.m. He’d made record time in the flight from Buffalo to New York. But now he was being iced. Another five minutes and he’d be waiting two full hours for the medical examiner.
In an otherwise busy hospital, he sat in a distant corridor that attracted few staff, fewer visitors, and the rare, most likely lost, walk-in. His eyes ached from the harsh fluorescent lighting, and there was a tang of rubbing alcohol in the stale, recycled air. What airborne toxins were seeping into his body? He assumed the worst – mutant viruses, flesh-eating bacteria, lethal spores in numbers too many to count. He swallowed hard. Hospitals were nothing more than glorified repositories of disease and death. God, he hated them.
A man, pushing a cleaning cart at the end of the hall, stopped at a distant door, then entered.
Max could only imagine what was going on behind closed doors – the snap of latex gloves, the methodical review of cold ashen skin, sliced, stretched out; autopsies, dissections, mutilations after the fact. Could this desecration be happening to Agnes? Max shook his head. He needed to think of other things.
Holding a Styrofoam cup half-filled with cold, black coffee, he hunched over and stared blankly at the frayed laces of his shoes. More than anything, Max wanted to get this over with. On the flight he had reasoned almost to the point of certainty that Agnes couldn’t have died. That instead she had moved in the past year, or subleased, or somehow gotten out of the building in time. But now, after the slow torture of waiting, he began to think otherwise. What if she had been burned beyond recognition? Her skin roasted, melted like strips of old celluloid film exposing her delicate bones; her thick hair gone, ignited into nothingness. Would he recognize her? Of course, he would. Surely there’d be something. A chill ran through him. This wasn’t how he expected it to end, not so soon anyway. They were supposed to have at least one last talk. There was so much he wanted to say.