May 6, 2:47 p.m.
It all started not-so-innocently enough.
Ida Beene from Forest, Ohio, who called herself Ida French, knew exactly what she was doing when she slid into the backseat of the parked limo in her preoccupied manner, pretending it was a mistake and she'd thought it was a different limo, one that was waiting for her.
Craig Clairmont, Ida's current love interest, watched her from a nearby doorway. He could make out her pale features inside the limo's tinted rear window. Watched her mouth work as over and over she said how sorry she was, how she'd made a terrible mistake by entering the wrong car. Her active, shapely form was never still as she jabbered and waved her arms, pretending to be a bit zany but at the same time apologetic. All the while, he knew she was substituting the gray leather Gucci purse on the seat with her almost identical knock-off Gucci bag she'd bought on Canal Street for thirty dollars.
An embarrassing mistake, that was all. She kept repeating that as she reversed her trim, shapely derriere out of the limo, yakking, yakking all the time, overplaying it, keeping Alexis Hoffermuth distracted and confused. Her words drifted to Craig: “Oh, my God! So sorry, sorry. I'm such a goofball. Never did this before ... should have been paying attention ... please, please forgive me. Never, never ... Such an embarrassing mistake.” All the time gripping the gray leather Gucci purse by its strap.
Only it wasn't
Gucci purse. It was Alexis Hoffermuth's. And inside Alexis Hoffermuth's purse was the little item Hoffermuth had bragged in the society columns that she wanted dearly and was going to purchase at auction. The item for which she'd kept her public word and outbid everyone, including a pesky telephone bidder who kept running up the bid.
Ida slammed the limo door behind her with a solid
and strode quickly away, showing lots of ass wiggle, clutching the purse tight to her side. The limo driver, a burly man in a dark uniform with gold buttons, got out and stood on the other side of the car, looking after her. Obviously wondering.
Craig tensed his body, knowing he might have to act. This could go either way. Nonviolent would be best, but Craig and Ida could play it rough if they had to.
Fortune was precariously balanced here.
It teetered, leaned, and fell Craig and Ida's way.
The chauffeur made no move to follow Ida, and lowered himself back into the gleaming black limo, behind the steering wheel.
The limo dropped a few inches over its rear wheels and glided out into Manhattan traffic, like a shark released into the sea.
But the sharks were behind it, on land.
Craig walked down to where Ida was waiting outside an electronics store. She was near a show window, pretending to gaze at the various gizmos: thumb-sized cameras, video game players from China, and cell phones that incorporated every imaginable capability. She looked like an actress who could play a ditsy blonde on TV, maybe missing a card from the deck, barely smart enough to lose at tennis. Craig knew that look was deceptive. Ida was wicked smart. And right now she was thinking hard, waiting for Craig.
He stood next to her, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. “You make the switch okay?”
“This is a genuine Gucci,” she said, clutching the purse tighter.
“I'm only interested in what's inside.”
“So let's go home. I know you don't want to look at it here on the sidewalk.”
“It deserves more careful treatment than that,” Craig agreed.
Ida smiled. “Fifty cents on the dollar treatment.”
That had been the dealâfifty percent of the bracelet's bid price. It didn't seem like such a good deal, but it was safe and came to almost a quarter of a million dollars.
Craig took Ida French's arm. They made a striking couple, the slim blond woman and the tall, classically handsome man with steady blue eyes and wavy black hair. They both dressed well and expensively. They could afford it. Especially now.
Home, in the small den off the apartment's living room, they rooted through Alexis Hoffermuth's purse. There was, somehow surprisingly, the usual women's items: makeup essentials; a comb; wadded tissue with lipstick stain on it; a wallet that, disappointingly, held nothing but credit cards; a cell phone (which Craig would get rid of soon, along with the purse, in case it was one of those phones that could be electronically traced if it got lost); a Sotheby's auction catalog; and, of course, the Cardell diamond-and-ruby bracelet, that for a brief time had been the Hoffermuth bracelet.
Craig smiled. Now it was the Craig and Ida bracelet.
They dumped the rest of the purse's contents out onto a tabletop. Not even a dollar in cash. The rich lived large and traveled light.
Craig opened a drawer and drew out a paste bracelet that was a duplicate of the real Cardell bracelet they had stolen. He dropped it in the Hoffermuth bitch's purse then scooped all the other contents in on top of it. Before closing the drawer, Craig got out another paste duplicate of the bracelet and laid it on the table away from the genuine one. The fake bracelet in the purse was for fooling Alexis Hoffermuth for at least a little while. That was the second duplicate Cardell bracelet. A third one, the one Craig placed on the table, was for fooling someone else.
They held hands as they went into the living room. Craig poured them each a flute of champagne.
They toasted each other.
“You'd better get rid of the purse with that cell phone soon,” Ida said, placing her glass on a paper napkin.
Craig agreed, but he wasn't worried. It would be a little while before Alexis Hoffermuth noticed the leather of her purse wasn't its usual softness, and the brassware was a bit bright and tacky looking. And the clasp didn't quite hold.
Then, with a plunging heart, she would realize that it wasn't her purse.
But it was exactly like her purse
She would open the purse and see that it contained only wadded white tissue.
And it would dawn on her like a nuclear sunriseâthe Cardell bracelet, for which she'd just paid $490,000 at Sotheby's Auctionâwas gone.
Spirited away by a thief!
Or had it been?
She would try to recall the features of the woman who looked and acted like a flustered young Lucille Ball. Alexis would realize the woman had switched purses and left her with nothing but wadded tissue.
But there'd be something else in the purse ... Alexis Hoffermuth's fingers would jab and dance through the tissue, then close on a familiar object and draw it out.
Relief would course through her. But not without some reservations.
Craig Clairmont smiled. Alexis Hoffermuth wouldn't understand. The bracelet somehow had been removed from her purse and then found its way into the substitute bag. Had the thief made some sort of mistake? She certainly was the type to do so.
Alexis might wonder that again, when her real purse was recovered with the bracelet still in it. A bracelet like it, anyway. It might be a long time, and a lot of wishful and confused thinking, before it occurred to her that the recovered bracelet was yet another not-so-cheap imitation. That the thieves were simply playing for time.
The very clever thieves.
Ida and Craig each took another sip of champagne.
That was when Ida's eight-year-old daughter, Eloise, flounced into the room.
May 6, 4:35 p.m.
They thought at first he'd been struck by the sanitation department truck, one of those behemoths with the huge crusher in back.
But the man in the alley seemed unhurt except for the fact that he was bending over, holding one hand folded in the other.
When the trash truck had left the narrow passageway and turned a corner, Otto Berger and Arthur Shoulders exchanged glances. They were both bulky men in cheap brown suits. Otto was slightly the taller of the two. Arthur was slightly wider. Otto made a motion with his head, and the two professional thugs swaggered toward the lone figure in the shadows. The man looked up at them, and Otto smiled, not parting his lips. This was who they were expecting.
“Bingo, bango,” Arthur said.
“Gee, what happened to your hand?” Otto asked.
The man, whose name was Jack Clairmont, grimaced. “I got it caught in the trash truck's mechanism when they used that damn grinder.”
“That's a lotta blood you're losing,” Arthur said.
“I'm goddam afraid to look.”
“What was you doing,” Otto asked, “tossing something into the truck?”
“Didn't I see you get something from one of them guys who sling the trash bags?” Arthur asked.
“Like making an exchange,” Otto said.
The injured man squinted painfully at them.
Otto, though huge, was quick. He stepped forward and kicked Jack Clairmont hard in the side of the knee. Clairmont yelped and dropped to his elbows and knees on the concrete.
“Don't make no noise now,” Otto said
Arthur was holding a knife. “He makes noise and it'll be the last time,” he said.
Otto gave Jack Clairmont a wide grin. His teeth were in need of thousands of dollars worth of dental work. “Very good, Arthur. This gentleman can't make noise if his vocal chords are flapping around.”
“If vocal chords do that,” Arthur said.
Otto kicked Jack in the buttocks, not hard this time. “Crawl over there into them shadows,” he said.
Jack Clairmont craned his neck and stared up at them. He looked as if he were about to cry. “Who are you guys?”
“I'm Mr. Pain,” Otto said.
Arthur's turn to smile. Perfect teeth. “And I'm Mr. Suffering.”
“And you better become Mister Crawl,” Otto said. “Right now would be a good time to startâWhat the hell was that?
“Only a cat,” Arthur said.
“Thing was jet propelled. And black.”
“Not for us, Arthur.”
“What'd it have in its mouth?”
“Who gives a shit? We got business here, Arthur.”
“Then business it is.” Arthur looked down at the injured man and grinned. Sometimes he loved his job.
Otto stared hard at Jack Clairmont and motioned with his head, as he had earlier to Arthur, indicating direction.
Jack Clairmont began to crawl.
Then he stopped. “
Oh, my God! My hand!
Otto sighed. What the hell was this about? He remembered the black cat.
“I'm missing a finger!” Clairmont moaned. “That goddam crusher on the trash truck cut off my finger!
Otto shrugged. “It ain't as if anybody's gonna be asking you for directions.” He kicked the man again and pointed with
Moaning, sobbing, Clairmont resumed his crawl toward the shadows, favoring his right hand.
Still holding the knife, Arthur stood with his beefy arms crossed and stared at him. “He ain't very fast.”
“Yeah,” Otto said. “That missing finger, maybe.”
“You think it could affect his balance? Like when you lose your little toe?”
“I never lost a little toe, Arthur.”
Arthur said, “Hey, that cat! You don't suppose ...”
“We ain't got time to look and find out,” Otto said. He glanced around. “This is far enough,” he said to the crawling Clairmont.
“Yeah,” Arthur said. “Time for you to rest in pieces.” He laughed. No one else did. “I was referring to the separated finger,” Arthur explained. But a joke never worked once you deconstructed it.
“This guy's kind of a wet blanket,” Otto said, shoving Jack with his foot so he turned and was leaning with his back against the wall. “We been here too long already. Stick him, Arthur, so we can leave this place before somebody happens by.”
? You must watch the BBC.”
“Pip, pip. Do stick him, Arthur.”
Arthur stuck him.
May 6, 4:58 p.m.
Ida and Craig were sitting in the living room, watching cable news on the TV with the sound muted. There was no news yet about the Cardell bracelet theft.
“Where's Boomerang?” Eloise asked.
Craig looked at her, this annoying child that came with Ida as part of a set, half of which Craig loved. Loved enough to use, anyway.
“Who's Boomerang?” Craig asked, without real interest.
“Her cat,” Ida said. “You know Boomerang.”
“Only in the way you can know a cat,” Craig said.
“I think he ran away again,” Ida said.
Eloise shrugged. “He doesn't
away. He always comes back. Like a real boomerang.”
“Usually with a gift,” Ida said, cringing at the thought of some of the grisly trophies Boomerang had left on the kitchen floor as offerings. Everything from dead sparrows to rat heads. The more horrific the better. Boomerang would reenter the way he'd left, through the kitchen window, always open a crack to the fire escape, and deposit his offering on the throw rug. Then he'd be demonstrably proud. Cats seemed to think that way. At least cats like Boomerang.
“He's probably out doing it to the lady cats in the neighborhood,” Craig said.
“Craig!” Ida warned.
Craig smiled. Maybe he and Boomerang weren't all that different from each other.
“Trash pickup happen yet?” he asked.
Ida gave him a stern look. They weren't supposed to talk about this in front of Eloise. Craig's brother Jack was going to make the switch of the Hoffermuth bracelet for cash to one of the sanitation workers. Over $240,000. A bargain for the fence, Willard Ord, considering he would remove the bracelet's jewels and sell them separately for more than twice that much. A steal for Willard. Except for the fact that Jack was going to give Ord's emissary the remaining duplicate paste bracelet patterned on the Sotheby's catalog illustration.
Jack was supposed to call brother Craig on his cell phone when the switch was completed.
Only he hadn't called.
Craig stood up from the sofa. “Goin' out for a smoke.”
“Don't let anyone see you,” Ida said. “The mayor's given the cops orders to shoot smokers to kill.”
“Funny, hah, hah,” Craig said. He picked up Alexis Hoffermuth's purse and folded a sheet of newspaper over it. “Might as well drop this in a mail box.”
“Not one too close. And bring that damned cat in if you see him.”
“He's not a
cat,” Eloise said.
Ida pulled a face. “No, honey, he's not. I'm sorry I said that.”
“Anyway, he won't go far. And nobody'll think he's a stray, 'cause I put his collar on him.”
Craig looked at Eloise. “Collar?”
“That pretty collar with the jewels in it you brought for him,” Eloise said. “The one you left on the table. I put it on him and fastened the clasp. It fits perfect.” She grinned. “Makes him an even handsomer cat.”
Craig and Ida stared at her, comprehending but not wanting to believe, stunned.
“Good Christ!” Craig said. He walked in a tight circle, one foot staying in the same place.
“You put the bracelet on Boomerang?” Ida asked.
“Collar,” Eloise corrected.
Craig doubled his fist.
“Eloise, go to your room!” Ida said.
Aware that something horrible was going on, and somehow she was the root of it, Eloise obeyed without argument.
“I wasn't going to hit her,” Craig said.
“We knew that, but she didn't.”
Craig sighed. “Yeah ...” He stared helplessly at Ida. “What are we gonna do?”
“Cats don't like playing dress up. Especially tomcats. But if Boomerang didn't work the colâbracelet off right away, it probably doesn't bother him and he'll leave it alone. When he comes home, he should still be wearing it.”
“So we do nothing?”
“Seems the thing to do.”
“You mean not to do.”
Ida looked slightly confused. Still in character from earlier that day.
Craig strode toward the door. “I need a cigarette.”
Ida would have gone with him; she could use a cigarette herself. Only there was Eloise. Ida didn't see herself as the kind of mother who'd leave her guilt-stricken kid alone for a cigarette. “Don't light up till you get outside,” she said to Craig. They'd gotten the landlord's notice that smoking was no longer allowed in the building.
“I'm not going out only for a smoke,” Craig said. “Jack was supposed to switch the other fake bracelet for cash with the sanitation guy, then call me. I wanna find out why he never called.”
Ida told Craig good-bye and counted to ten. She knew she wasn't as ditzy as the role she played. And she understood what had to be done in this situation even if Craig didn't. He'd argue with her, and forbid her to do it. That was why it had to be done before he had a chance to disapprove.
The cat, the bracelet, simply had to be recovered. Craig wouldn't understand that there were times when your enemies could become your best friends.
Ida picked up the phone and called the police.
Craig Clairmont walked over to Amsterdam through a warm May mist before dropping the purse in a mailbox. Then he retraced his steps until he was half a block away from the passageway where the switch was supposed to have taken place.
Jack was almost invisible in the dark. Craig had to squint and stare hard to see his brother. Jack was down at the far end of the passageway, sitting on the ground as if he might be exhausted, his back propped awkwardly against the brick wall.
Jack saw Craig, but dimly. He raised his right hand, tried to crook a finger to summon Craig.
But Craig saw the movement and jogged toward him, fearing the worst.
When he got near his brother, Craig saw all the blood.
Jack had so much to tell Craig.
Things Craig had to know.
He struggled to speak but couldn't translate thoughts into words.
Craig said something to him he didn't understand.
The light was fading.
Jack was barely alive. He rolled his eyes toward his brother Craig. His face was damp from the mist, his breathing ragged.
“What the hell happened?” Craig asked, bending down next to Jack. He saw a lot of blood, but no injuries, though Craig was holding his stomach with both hands.
“Double-cross,” Jack said. “Bastard took the bracelet, then instead of giving me the money he started beating on me. I fought back and he hopped in the truck and it started to pull away. I grabbed onto it and that big trash crusher thing came down. My hand got caught in the machinery and it cut off my finger.” Jack hadn't been gripping his stomach; he'd been clutching one hand with the other and keeping them both in close to his body. He held up the mutilated hand. “Cut the damned thing right off, Look at this, Craig! For God's sake look!”
Craig looked and felt his stomach lurch.
Jack whimpered. “You gotta get me to a hospital.”
Craig didn't like this at all. Things would get even more dangerous when the thugs who stole the bracelet realized it was another fake, a paste duplicate, like the one he'd slipped into the Hoffermuth bitch's purse before dropping it in a mailbox.
“What're we gonna do?” Jack asked his older brother, who usually had all the answers.
Craig grinned to lend Jack hope and courage. “We're gonna call the police. Get you an ambulance.”
When Jack didn't answer, Craig was surprised.
He looked down and saw that his brother was dead. He hadn't noticed the mass of blood around Jack's chest and stomach.
“Christ, Jack! Somebody stabbed you in the heart!”
Of course, Jack still didn't answer.
Craig stood over his brother, emotions rushing through him, over him, anger, grief, fear, panic.
But the panic, and then everything else, passed. Reality had to be faced. Manipulated.
Craig knew he was something Jack never really wasâa survivor.
He also knew that now wasn't a good time to bring in the police. For any reason.
There wouldn't be another trash pickup for several days. Probably nobody would wander down this shadowed passageway. Nobody who'd contact the police, anyway, if they came across a dead body.
Still, Craig knew that to feel safe for even a short length of time, he'd have to at least partially conceal the body.
Down near the far end of the alley a Dumpster squatted like a tank without treads. They didn't empty those Dumpsters very often. And when they did empty this one, there was always the chance Jack wouldn't be noticed.
Craig bent over and gripped his brother beneath the arms. Digging in his heels, he began to pull the dead weight that had been Jack.
If Jack were still alive, he'd understand.
By the time he'd returned to the apartment, Craig thought he was as depressed as possible.
That was when Ida told him she'd called the police. About Boomerang the missing cat, not the bracelet, she assured him.
She thought he took it well.