Authors: Howard Engel
THE RANSOM GAME
is the creator of the enduring and beloved detective Benny Cooperman, who, through his appearance in twelve best-selling novels, has become an internationally recognized fictional sleuth. Two of Engel's novels have been adapted for TV movies, and his books have been translated into several languages. He is the winner of numerous awards, including the 2005 Writers' Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Award, the 1990 Harbourfront Festival Prize for Canadian Literature and an Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction. Howard Engel lives in Toronto.
Also in the Benny Cooperman series
The Suicide Murders
Murder on Location
Murder Sees the Light
A City Called July
A Victim Must Be Found
Dead and Buried
There Was An Old Woman
Getting Away with Murder
The Cooperman Variations
East of Suez
Also by Howard Engel
Murder in Montparnasse
Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell
A BENNY COOPERMAN MYSTERY
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Published by Penguin Group (Canada), a division of Pearson Canada Inc., 2008
First published by Clarke, Irwin, 1981
The Canadian Forum:
Published by Seal Books, 1982
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (WEB)
Copyright Â© Howard Engel, 1981
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my mother and father
The city was beginning to look deserted. Everybody who could afford to go to Florida was in Florida. My mother and father were in Florida, my brother Sam, the surgeon, was in Florida, my cousin Melvyn, the lawyer, was in Florida. Even the radio announcer who usually reads the local weather was in Florida. I can remember a time when Melvyn couldn't even read the time. I taught him. Now he was in Florida, sitting by a swimming pool getting a tan all over his hairy body while I, Benny Cooperman, was here in Grantham. No matter how I examined it, I couldn't make it come out looking fair. The coldest part of the winter, with starlings and sparrows falling stiff from the trees, frost creeping under my door and climbing the stairs two at a time, and I sat here, waiting for a client to read my sign: “Benjamin Cooperman, Licensed Private Investigator,” and come in asking me to solve the sudden disappearance of a long-lost rich uncle. Nothing easier, in the middle of February: he's gone to Florida.
From the window I could look down on St. Andrew Street. The black pavement was chilled white, the frosty breath of the manholes rose straight up. Not a drop of snow as far as the eye could see; somehow that made it look even colder. I tried to find the evidence for cold without snow, just to kill the time until I could legitimately lock up the office and have some lunch. I gave myself points for the white salt stains on the cars, and the white lime on the brick wall of the bank. There was no colour anywhere, from the gray sky down to the gray and nearly deserted sidewalks.
I was occupied with these constructive thoughts, when I heard a knock on the frosted glass of the door. It was a feeble knock, and the knocker had obviously not seen the words “Come in” written in peeling gold-leaf at the bottom of the sign. I shouted the same message at the door and it opened an inch at a time.
“Are you Mr. Cooperman?” The question was asked by a good-looking blonde on the thirtyish side of twentyfive, and I didn't mind a bit. I nodded and heard my chair squeak behind me as I got up and came around the desk to help her off with her dusty blue Persian lamb coat. Her eyes were big and blue, and I guessed that under her expensive fur she was very nicely put together. She didn't quite come apart as she wriggled out of the sleeves. She was wearing a fuzzy white turtle-neck sweater and a light blue skirt with a slit up one side, so that when she sat down, smoothing her skirt under her, I got a glimpse of long lean legs that seemed to go on forever. She was wearing a couple of rings, which didn't match the coat. They were big, chunky pieces of costume jewelry, one with a heavy opaque green stone that drew attention to her small hands. These she folded in her lap.
“I saw your sign, and read your ad in the Yellow Pages?” she asked rather than told me. I was all at once gainfully employed, taking in every detail of her appearance and manner. What did she add up to? She was a cross between a burlesque queen, with her full figure and Betty Boop mouth, a mouth that cried out to be chewing gum, and a young middle-class matron with shopping list and golf scores at the bottom of her handbag. She caught me looking at her. There was an unembarrassed hitching up of an eyebrow, and we both grinned. I suddenly felt silly standing in front of her, when there was a whole uninhabited office for us to share, so I retreated around to my side of the bleached oak desk and settled into my squeaky chair in a manner that was supposed to inspire confidence. I tried to look grave. I didn't make a steeple with my fingers, but I considered it.
“I see,” I said seriously about nothing whatever. “And how may I help you, Miss â¦?”
“Falkirk. Muriel Falkirk. Do you mind if I smoke?” I pushed my pack of Player's her way, but she frowned at them, taking a package of menthols from her purse. I leaned across the desk with its accumulation of overdue bills and lit her cigarette. She smelled of perfume of the middle range: something shy of Chanel Number 5, a little over-spiced and cloying for my taste. The scent made me wonder where she'd picked up the fur coat.
“Thank you,” she said, taking another deep drag and holding on to the smoke like it wasn't just cigarette smoke before letting it go. “I don't know where to begin, Mr. Cooperman. I guess if knew that, I wouldn't be sitting here.” She stared at the big green ring on her right hand for a minute, then lifted her blue eyes level with mine.
“Do you know the name Johnny Rosa?” She opened her eyes astonishingly; I wanted to say, “Yes, yes” without thinking. I wanted to be able to solve all of her problems. When I unhooked my eyes from hers, I tried to think. The name was located, after a minute's reflection, swimming somewhere in the deep water out near the horizon of my memory. I tried to tow it home. It would have been harder if George Warren hadn't drowned in his pool before Christmas.
“Johnny Rosa,” I repeated. “Wasn't he mixed up in the Warren kidnapping some years ago?” She nodded, while flicking an ash into my overcrowded ashtray. I pulled a Player's from my pack and lit it, watching the blue smoke rise from the spent match. Muriel Falkirk crossed her legs and I privately seconded the motion. I tried to turn the light on what I could remember of the case. I continued quickly: “Warren's daughter was snatched, held for a couple of days and released when the ransom was paid. The police traced Rosa and a couple of friends â¦”
“â¦ and they all ended up sewing mailbags at Kingston. Rosa drew a fifteen-year sentence, I think, the others were hit less hard. The ransom money, I don't think that was ever recovered.”
“That's right. I don't believe it ever was.” She smiled at me as though we'd both accidentally stumbled over a crock of emeralds on the doorstep.
“Well, that exhausts me on the subject. If I'd known that was going to be one of your questions, I would have read up on the case. As I remember, the
was full of it, and the out-of-town papers sent in their hot shots. One of the Toronto papers brought in an airplane. The hotels were full-up, the streets crowded. We don't attract notice like that too often in twenty years.” I looked at her steadily, or as steadily as I could manage. “You knew Johnny Rosa?” She nodded.
“I first met him down in Florida about eight years ago.” She took a puff with her head tilted. “He was running a numbers scam in Miami Beach, and he came to my place every month to do his arithmetic. I ran into him again in Kingston. I was visiting a friend and recognized Johnny in that rinky-dink railway station. He'd just gotten out on parole, and we talked all the way back on the train to Toronto. I gave him my number here, and was surprised when he looked me up. But then he was at loose ends and so was I. We went over the river to Buffalo for drinks and dinner, and â¦” She turned her head in the direction of the traffic on St. Andrew Street. “And â¦ he moved in with me. That was about two months ago. Then, last month, still on parole, he disappeared. Vanished into thin air. I've had a parole board guy snooping around my place twice, and he thinks I know where Johnny's disappeared to. I'm worried, Mr. Cooperman. Johnny's a tough customer and all that, but he's been out of circulation for six years. And there are at least three guys who are sore at him because of that kidnapping.”