It was seven-thirty on a cold wet December evening, six days before Christmas. As usual, I was in McFadden's Bar, on the corner of East 42nd Street and Second Avenue. Most of the early evening Christmas shoppers had gone home, and the people left in the bar weren't the types who had nice homes and families to go to. Maybe that was why they were still drinking. But I liked it there. It was somewhere to relax with a few beers after a long day in the office doing nothing in particular.
My office is just around the corner from McFadden's Bar on East 43rd Street and just a block away from the Chrysler Building. If I ever make a success of my business, that's where I'd like to have an office. Seventy-seven stories of the most beautiful skyscraper in New York City. New York isn't all skyscrapers, though. 220 East 43rd Street is just eight floors and nothing much to look at.
The sign on the door looks important: «Nathan Marley — Licensed Private Investigator,» but it didn't make me feel any more important right then in McFadden's Bar.
I didn't feel like talking to people that evening and nobody tried to talk to me. That suited me fine. I looked around. There was a new face in the bar. Someone very different from the usual tired office workers. An expensive — looking woman. People turned and stared as she walked to the bar. She ordered a bourbon, then took off her coat. She was wearing a short black dress which showed a lot of leg.
Not the legs you normally see in McFadden's. Thirty something, with long wavy blonde hair and cold blue eyes. Around her neck was a diamond necklace — the diamonds looked like the real thing. So did the matching earrings. She was dressed as if she was going to a party. But this lady wasn't enjoying herself.
She ordered another bourbon and took out a pack of Marlboro Lites. I could feel the coldness in her voice from where I was sitting. Nobody offered to light her cigarette. She looked in my direction. I thought for a moment that she was trying to catch my eye. But then she turned away with a bored expression on her face. Why should a woman like her give a second look to an overweight bald guy in his mid-forties?
McFadden's Bar was quiet now. I stayed and watched from the corner. I didn't have anything better to do that evening. For a change, something interesting was happening. I was curious and watched every move she made. She took an envelope out of her purse and opened it. I could see a short note and a couple of photographs. As she read, her expression changed. That hard look was gone. Now she looked like someone who really did have problems. Suddenly she threw a bill on the bar and rushed out. The bartender called out, «Hey, Miss, don't you want your change? This is a hundred bucks!» She ignored him and kept walking. Now I was very curious. I followed her.
Outside, the rain was turning to snow. On Second Avenue, the signal had changed to «Don't Walk,» but she ran across just before the lights changed. The street was suddenly a sea of yellow cabs racing downtown.
When I finally reached Grand Central I saw her for a moment — disappearing behind the information center — but then I lost her in the crowd. I waited and watched for a while, but it was no good. My excitement for that evening was over.
The next morning I woke up late, as usual, and walked to the subway. If someone gave me a dollar for every morning I'd taken the number seven train from Queens to Manhattan, I'd be a rich guy now. As usual, I looked through the Daily News on the subway. A woman had been mugged on 42nd Street just around the corner from my office. All her money and valuables had been taken. There were no names, no details. I didn't think anything of it. These things happen in a big city.
When I got to the office on East 43rd Street, Stella Delgado, my receptionist and secretary, had already arrived. She knows how tough life can be in this city. From a Puerto Rican family, she grew up in East Harlem. I've told her she should move on and get a better job. The strange thing is, she wants to work for me. The truth is I depend on her. She knows how to use all the new office equipment and she speaks Spanish, a useful skill in this city.
«Nat! It's nearly ten o'clock and you look awful. What happened to you?» Stella asked.
«Too many beers in McFadden's Bar last night,» I replied. «Anything in the mail?»
«The usual. Bills.»
«Guess I'd better earn a few bucks,» I said.
«You could start right now. There's a client waiting. She looks interesting, but wouldn't give me her name.»
I went through to my office. There she was, sitting in the client's chair. Beside her was a large black bag. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke, I could make out long wavy blonde hair and cold blue eyes. She crossed her legs. I'd seen those legs before, the previous night in McFadden's Bar. Legs like those are hard to forget. Then she looked straight at me. I could feel the ice in her eyes. I was getting very curious.
«Good morning, Mr. Marley. I've already been waiting half an hour. You don't believe in starting your day early,» she said.
«I start work when I'm good and ready,» I replied.
She looked around her. «This office looks like something out of the 1950s.»
The office computer, fax and photocopier were in reception with Stella. I just had my old-fashioned desk, a reading lamp with a green shade, an ancient typewriter, and a couple of filing cabinets. On the wall, a 1990 calendar. A good year for me: that was when I left the NYPD, the New York Police Department.
«So I'm old-fashioned. I like it that way,» I said.
«Don't you have any manners, Mr. Marley?» she asked.
«I lost them a long time ago.»
«Don't you take your hat off in front of a lady?»
«I'm going bald so the hat stays on. Keeps my head warm. I'm a very busy man,» I lied. «Let's get down to business. Who are you and what can I do for you?»
I've seen a lot of life in my time. Often the wrong sort. Fifteen years with the NYPD doesn't make you feel very positive about people. Then another ten years trying to make a success of being a private investigator. This woman had class and money. Why was she seeing an investigator like me? And why had she been in McFadden's Bar the night before? In my experience, women like her usually mean one thing — trouble.
«The name's Angela Lake,» the woman said.
She showed me her card. A Park Avenue address. Apartments don't come cheap in that part of town. Neither do cards with gold letters. Then she took an envelope out of her purse and passed me a note. Was it the same note I'd seen her read in McFadden's? Expensive notepaper. The handwriting was neat and careful.
Angela, life was sweet with you. But now I realize you were only interested in one thing — my money.
I've informed my lawyers I want a divorce.
I hope you remember the written marriage agreement you signed. Let me remind you about paragraph 15:
«Any gift received by Mrs. Angela Lake from Mr. Robert Lake above the value of $10,000 shall be returned to Mr. Robert Lake in the event of a divorce.»
You looked very lovely in all that jewelry, my dear. But sadly, it's not yours to keep. I expect every item to be returned to me within seven days. If the jewelry should not be returned to me, you will lose everything, including that beautiful Park Avenue apartment that you now have all to yourself.
Your future ex-husband, Robert
«This is what Robert's writing about,» she said.
She laid two photographs on the desk. Both were of items of jewelry. But what jewelry! Enough rocks there to open a store on Fifth Avenue.
«So what's the problem? He's divorcing you and wants the rocks back. Why do you need me?» I asked.
«You have to help me. The problem is… I don't have all the jewels.»
Suddenly the ice was gone from her eyes. She just looked like a woman with a lot on her mind. She told me the story of how a girl from Coney Island had met the man of her dreams. Robert Lake was rich, successful, and the president of a software corporation. It all sounded like a dream come true, He was ten years older, but the age difference didn't seem to matter. They were married in six weeks and set up home on Park Avenue.
«Robert asked me to sign all these documents. I didn't understand anything about written marriage agreements. I was in love and trusted him. I was happy to do anything for him.»
«So what went wrong?»
«At first everything was wonderful. But then he began to have problems with the business. He spent more and more time at the office. When he came home he was depressed and wouldn't speak to me. He became violent. Look.»
She rolled up the sleeve of her dress and showed me her right arm. It was covered in ugly black and yellow bruises.
«Oh! He did that to you?»
She nodded her head. «He's moved out now. Something to be thankful for! The corporation owns an apartment uptown on Fifth Avenue.»
«What happened to the jewels?» I asked.
«My family has money problems. I had to help them and I needed the cash quickly. I couldn't take money out of the bank. You see, it's a joint account and Robert would have noticed. So the only way I could raise the money was by selling some of the jewels. The rest of the jewelry is in a black briefcase in the Parcel Room at Grand Central. That's the claim ticket. I want you to get the case and return the jewelry to Robert — personally. I don't dare do it myself. I'm terrified of him.»
«Why do you want me to do it? Couldn't you get a friend to do it? Seems simple enough,» I said.
She handed me the yellow claim ticket from the Parcel Room and a small key. «Don't you understand? I don't want anybody to know. People would talk. If I give back most of the jewels, then I might be able to keep the apartment. Otherwise, I lose everything.»
«Once I've got the briefcase, what do I do?» I asked.
«Take it with the key to Robert's office at 1 World Trade Center, floor 105. Don't leave it at reception. Remember, give it to Robert personally. Understand?»
I didn't understand, but it wasn't the right time to say so. Then she did something that I understood very well. She took out her wallet and counted out ten thousand dollars in new thousand-dollar bills. I hadn't seen so much money on my desk for weeks.
«Is that enough?» she asked.
«More than enough. My fee is one thousand dollars a day plus expenses. Just leave me two thousand dollars now. I'll call you as soon as I've delivered the jewelry.»
«No, whatever you do, don't try to call me. It's too dangerous. I'll get in touch with you.» She pushed two thousand dollars across the desk to me. «Thank you so much. You don't know how good it feels to have someone I can trust,» she said.
«Well, thank you. If you wait a moment, Stella will give you a receipt,» I replied.
But Angela Lake was gone. All there was to show she had been there was the mixture of perfume and cigarette smoke in the air.
I put my head around the door. Stella looked at me in amazement.
«What did you do to her, Nat? I've never seen a client leave so fast.»
«She just offered me ten thousand bucks to pick up a briefcase full of jewelry from Grand Central,» I said.
«Well, she's either stupid, or knows exactly what she's doing. Either way, I wouldn't trust her, Nat.»
A yellow claim ticket, a key, and two thousand dollars lay on my desk. No business card, though. Angela Lake wanted to make sure I didn't call. Why hadn't she waited to get a receipt from Stella? Normally, anybody who's just paid me two thousand bucks needs a receipt. That's standard business practice. Everything seemed unreal: the way she had produced ten thousand dollars and the way she had left so quickly. Why did it all have to be so secret? And why had she tried to attract my attention in McFadden's Bar?
I had an idea and picked up the phone to call Gloria at reception, downstairs in the lobby.
«Hi, Gloria. Marley here.»
«Morning. What can I do for New York's toughest private eye?»
«Thanks. I didn't think you'd noticed. But seriously, Gloria, a client has just left my office. She's on her way down to the lobby. She's tall, blonde, and looks like a million dollars. I want you to take a close look at her. Just tell me what you think of her.»
«That's funny. I can't remember anybody of that description coming in this morning,» said Gloria.
Fifteen minutes later, Gloria called back.
«I've been watching people leaving the building, but I haven't seen this lady. Just how slow is she?»
«Thanks anyway. You've been a big help,» I replied.
«How have I helped? I don't understand,» said Gloria.
I didn't understand either. I started thinking about the previous night. How I had followed Angela Lake to Grand Central Station and lost her in the crowd. This lady seemed to be good at making people notice her. She also seemed to be good at disappearing. What was she up to?
The question was: what to do next? Before I followed Angela Lake's instructions, I needed solid information. I could smell money, but I could also smell trouble. There was nobody at Police Headquarters who I could ask to help me. But I knew some other people who might. One advantage of drinking in McFadden's is the number of journalists you meet. My first call was to Ed Winchester of the Daily News.
«Ed? It's Nat Marley.»
«Nat! How are things?»
«Can't complain. Listen, I need some information. Have you heard any talk about the Lake Software Corporation? Any inside information?» I asked.
«I'll ask around. Why the sudden interest?»
«I can't explain right now. I'm not even sure myself,» I said.
«You're a man of mystery, Nat. I'll see what I can find.»
My next call was to an old NYPD colleague, Joe Blaney, an old-fashioned, Irish-American cop, now retired. A fit active man in his early sixties, Joe was always available to help out with any investigation work I was doing. I gave him instructions to go to Macy's and buy a black briefcase. Nothing too expensive, but it had to have a lock and key.
«Sure,» said Joe. «Are you going into business?»
«Funny guy!» I said. «Then put the receipt in it, lock it and take it to the Parcel Room at Grand Central. Check it in, then bring me the claim ticket and key.»
«You crazy, boss? Why check in an empty case?»
«Trust me, Joe. Just do it.»
Now I wanted to hide Angela Lake's key and claim ticket. If these items meant possible trouble, I thought it would be safer if they were out of anybody's reach for a while. What better hiding place than the U.S. mail? It can take a day or two for a letter to get from the east side of Manhattan to the west. And the Christmas mail wouldn't make it any quicker. I asked Stella to put the key and claim ticket in a small package and address it to me, General Delivery, General Post Office, Eighth Avenue, NY 10001.
Just then Stella put a call through. It was Ed Winchester from the Daily News.
«Nat, I've been asking around. I don't have anything definite yet, but I've heard talk. People say that Lake Software has money problems. We're talking millions of dollars here. They put a lot of money into the development of a new product: a completely secure Internet trading system. You know the sort of thing I mean? A system that guarantees the security of your credit card numbers when you buy something through the Internet. That way you don't wake up to find someone's cleaned out your bank account. Anyway, another company — a competitor — Osaka Net got there first with a cheaper and better system, leaving Lake Software with a new product nobody wants to buy.»
«You don't need to give me all the details, Ed. What I want is the big picture. Lake Software is in trouble, right?»
«People are saying deep trouble, but we don't know how deep,» replied Ed.
Stella came in and was all smiles. She had just been out to mail the package.
«Guess what I've remembered, Nat?»
«Surprise me,» I said.
«Anybody coming in or out of this building is taped by the security cameras. The film is stored on the security computer system. If you have permission from security, you can download it from the internal network and watch it on your own computer.»
«Well, what are you waiting for, Stella? Find me Angela Lake...»
An hour later Stella came back with a puzzled expression.
«Nat?» she asked. «Describe Angela Lake to me again.»
«Difficult to forget her. Thirty-something, slim, blonde, tall, wearing a black coat.»
«The funny thing is, there's nobody of that description on the videotape,» said Stella. «Gloria didn't see her enter or leave. But I've found something. Come with me and have a look.»
Stella rewound the video until the clock on it read 9:20 AM, and pointed at a tall woman with long black hair and a backpack, wearing jeans and sneakers. She then moved the video on to 10:30 AM. The same woman with the backpack was leaving. Each time, the woman was looking down at the floor, as if to avoid the camera lens. And each time, Gloria was busy with people at reception.
«That could be our woman,» continued Stella. «She looks about the right height and build. And our client got to the office at nine-thirty and left at ten-twenty.»
«So if that is her, that would give her time to find the ladies' room and change. And she had that bag with her. Big enough to take a change of clothes and a backpack, maybe?»
While we were talking, Joe Blaney arrived. Even after living in America for fifty years, he still had a soft Irish accent. In his time, he had been one of the best patrolmen in the NYPD, and one of the toughest. An ex-NYPD boxer. The sort of person you wanted on your side in a fight. He had taught me all I needed to know about staying alive on the streets when I first started with the NYPD.
«Boss, I got a black briefcase from Macy's just like you said. With a lock and key. And I checked it in the Parcel Room at Grand Central, with the receipt inside. Here's your claim ticket. What are you up to? It doesn't seem like your regular line of work.»
«I guess it isn't. Joe, what would you say if I told you an expensive-looking lady offered me ten thousand dollars to pick up a briefcase full of jewelry from the Grand Central Parcel Room and take it to her husband's office?»
«I'd say that was trouble. Oh, I see, now. You're not as stupid as I thought you were, Nat.»
«Thank you, Joe.»
I told Stella and Joe what had happened the previous evening. How I had followed this mysterious woman from McFadden's Bar to Grand Central Station and lost her. I told them the full story of my talk with Angela Lake that morning and what she'd told me about her family and husband. The loveless marriage, the violence, how she had sold some of the jewels to help her family, and finally, how she wanted me to pick up the briefcase from Grand Central and deliver it to her husband.
Stella looked happier. «So that's why you asked Joe to check in another briefcase at the Parcel Room,» she said.
«Yeah. I pick up the briefcase and see what happens. So far we haven't broken any laws. I want to find out what this woman is doing.»
«Be careful, Nat,» warned Stella.
«Trust me. Maybe I need a little excitement. Anyway, it'll make a change from doing divorce work and finding missing persons.»
From East 43rd Street, it's no more than a ten-minute walk to Grand Central on 42nd Street. After the Chrysler Building, it's my next favorite building in New York. Amazing to think they almost knocked it down in the 1960s. But I wasn't there to admire the building. I had work to do.
In the entrance, there must have been about a dozen guys dressed in Santa Claus suits collecting money. I suddenly remembered Angela Lake's two thousand dollars was sitting in my wallet. Possibly dangerous. If I was walking into some kind of trap, the money could connect me with her.
«Hey, buddy,» I called to one of the Santa's. «What are you collecting for?»
«Inner-city children in the South Bronx, Mister. If we raise the money this Christmas, we're gonna build a neighborhood center. It'll keep those kids off the streets. Give them a better chance in life.»
«That's good. I like it. Doing something for the community. Look, take this and keep quiet, will you?»
«Hey man, that's two-»
«I said keep quiet! Do you want a community center or don't you?»
«Thanks. You're a great guy.» I didn't feel like a great guy. I'd just said goodbye to two thousand dollars. Maybe some kid in the Bronx would thank me some day.
I made my way through the crowds and went down to the Parcel Room on the lower level. It was a small office next door to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Office. The time was noon and everything seemed quiet and normal.
I walked up to the counter and handed the claim ticket to the clerk. He took it and looked around the shelves. He returned with my new briefcase and looked up as he handed it to me. He stared at me and his mouth dropped open.
«What's the matter? You having a bad dream or something?» I asked.
He didn't reply but reached down under the counter. An alarm bell rang. He must have pressed a panic button. The Parcel Room was suddenly full of police officers. There were two guns pointing at me. Not very sociable.
«Police! Raise your hands! Turn around, real slow! Lean against the wall! Spread those legs!»
I knew what they were doing. I'd used the same words many times when I was a patrolman. I was quickly searched. The key and my wallet were handed to the plainclothes cop in charge, along with the briefcase. Unfortunately, we knew each other.
«So who have we got here? Well, well. If it isn't Marley, the private eye!»
«How do you do, Officer Oldenberg. I just love meeting all my old buddies from the NYPD. Tell your boys to release me. I haven't done anything wrong. I'm just collecting my personal property.»
«Oh yeah? We'll see about that, Mr. Private Eye,» said Oldenberg. «Sergeant, give me that key. And for your information, it's Captain Oldenberg now.»
Oldenberg put the briefcase on the ground. The officers gathered around, expecting to see something big. But they were disappointed with what they saw inside. Just a receipt from Macy's, with today's date.
«Is that what you guys are looking for? It seems an awful waste of time and money. Three officers to arrest me and one empty briefcase. An expensive operation.»
Captain Oldenberg was not happy. «Shut it, Marley! You're in big trouble. I want to have a little talk with you. A woman was mugged in a doorway on 42nd Street last night, after leaving McFadden's Bar. You were seen leaving the bar shortly after this woman and you fit the guy's description. Sergeant, take Marley to Headquarters.»
It was the first time I'd been in Police Headquarters for ten years. But they weren't treating me like an old friend. They left me to cool off in a cell for an hour or so before I received a visit from Captain Oldenberg.
«Good afternoon, Captain. It seems like only yesterday that we were patrolling the Bronx together.»
«Enough small talk, Marley. I need answers. And if you don't play straight with me, I'll make sure you never work as a private investigator again.»
«Sure. You always did know how to make friends.» Oldenberg handed me a photograph of Angela Lake.
«Do you recognize this woman?» he asked.
«Of course. I saw her in McFadden's Bar last night — about seven-thirty. And she was in my office this morning.» «Don't play games with me, Marley!» shouted Oldenberg.
«It's the honest truth, I'm telling you,» I replied.
«So you admit you were in McFadden's?»
«I just said that. Are you deaf or something?»
«A witness saw you leave shortly after this woman left the bar,» Oldenberg explained.
«So what?» I asked.
«This woman later reported a mugging on 42nd Street. You fit the description of her attacker. Her bag was stolen with ten thousand dollars, jewelry, including a diamond necklace and matching earrings, a claim ticket for the Parcel Room and a briefcase key. What exactly were you doing at the Parcel Room, Marley?» demanded Oldenberg.
«Just collecting my personal property. With so much crime in this city, the Parcel Room is the best place to leave your briefcase. I wouldn't want to lose my lovely new case. Cost me over a hundred bucks,» I replied.
Oldenberg gave up questioning me and walked out angrily. I knew, and he knew, that the police had no real evidence. I must give money away more often. It would have been difficult if they'd found those two beautiful new thousand-dollar bills in my wallet. I couldn't have explained them.
Coincidences were the only evidence they had. It was a coincidence that Angela Lake and I had both been in McFadden's Bar and that I had left the bar shortly after she did. It was also a coincidence that we both had claim tickets for the Parcel Room. The police had nothing that could stand up in court. However, as far as I was concerned, Angela Lake arriving in my office was one coincidence too many. Whatever she was doing had been planned carefully.
I spent the next couple of hours reading what people had written on the walls of the cell. It didn't do anything to improve my education. I thought about my situation. They couldn't hold me without charging me. But what crime could they charge me with? Not being polite enough to Captain Oldenberg?
Eventually, at five o'clock, Oldenberg and a sergeant returned.
«There are a few things we need to check out. Marley, you say the Lake woman was at your office. Why?»
«Sorry, Oldenberg. Anything between me and a client is private. And naturally, I respect that special relationship between client and investigator-» I replied.
«Marley, give me a break and shut up. And don't leave town. I'm going to ask Mrs. Lake to look at a line-up. I think you'll enjoy the experience,» said Oldenberg.
«What, so soon? I was just beginning to enjoy myself. It's been a pleasure to be your guest. We must do it more often.»
«Cut it out! The sergeant here is going to take us to East 43rd Street. A Crime-Scene Team is searching every bit of your office now.»
Back at the office, Stella was calm but looked as if she was under a lot of stress. I didn't yet understand why.
«Nat, thank goodness you're here. I tried to stop them but they've got a search warrant,» she said.
«Relax. We haven't got anything to worry about. And by the time I finish with the NYPD, I'll be getting a personal apology from the Chief of Police,» I said.
The Crime-Scene Team had finished emptying the desks and filing cabinets.
«Found anything?» asked Oldenberg.
«Nothing much except empty bourbon bottles. There's nothing here. The place is clean, sir,» replied the sergeant.
«You've checked the filing cabinets and the computer files?»
«Yes, sir. We've been through the lot. Routine office records.»
«So we've been wasting our time?» said Oldenberg.
«Not exactly, sir. Look at this in the appointments diary.»
In the diary, Stella had clearly entered the name «Mrs. Angela Lake, 9:30 AM to 10:20 AM.» Oldenberg turned to Stella.
«Ms. Delgado, could you describe Mrs. Lake?»
«Tall and slim, with long wavy blonde hair, blue eyes, expensive clothes — a beautiful black coat.»
«Sounds like Mrs. Lake. Sergeant, is Mrs. Lake on the security video?» asked Oldenberg.
«Nobody of that description entered or left the building between nine and eleven o'clock this morning, sir.»
«So, looks like you both have lively imaginations. The lady wasn't here,» said Oldenberg.
«I'm telling you she was. I spoke to her,» I replied.
«And what did you talk about?»
«I'm sorry, but that's private.»
«Marley, what sort of game are you playing? We've checked with Mrs. Lake. She was at her desk at the Lake Software Corporation all morning, and she has witnesses to prove it. I don't know what's going on here, but I don't like it. Once I find out, I'll have you in Sing Sing so fast that your feet won't touch the ground.»
I didn't like the sound of that. Sing Sing isn't a place where you go sightseeing. It's a jail in upstate New York.
«Captain Oldenberg, that's no way to talk to innocent people. What does it say on the doors of every NYPD patrol car? 'Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.' You've been rude to me, you're acting like amateurs not professionals, and have shown me no respect. You'd better get out of here before I complain to the authorities.»
Once Oldenberg and the Crime-Scene Team had left, Stella poured us both a drink. One bourbon later she was looking more relaxed. Then she reached into her blouse and produced a diamond necklace — the same diamond necklace that I'd seen Angela Lake wearing in McFadden's Bar.
«Ow! It's not comfortable with those rocks in my bra.» Now I understood why Stella had looked so stressed. «Stella! Where on earth did that come from?»
«It was in the filing cabinet. I was filing the bills that came this morning when I saw something shiny at the back. I found it just before the police arrived,» she explained.
«Stella, you've saved my life. The cops would have had all the evidence they needed if they'd found that necklace. Angela Lake had half an hour alone in my office. That gave her plenty of time to hide it.»
«Nat, this is horrible. What's happening?»
«I don't know for sure myself. The Lakes are trying to make it look as if I mugged Angela Lake and stole the jewels. They thought I'd be the fall guy. A poor innocent guy to take the blame. I may be fat, bald, and fortysomething, but I'm not stupid. I was suspicious from the moment I saw Angela Lake in the office. There's one thing I do know for sure — were involved in this, like it or not.»
«What do we do with the diamond necklace?»
«Same as you did with Angela's key and claim ticket. Mail it to me at General Delivery, General Post Office on Eighth Avenue. Once it's in the U.S. mail, not even the NYPD will be able to find it.»
«Nat, do me a favor. Once this is finished, just stick to divorce and finding missing persons, will you?»
Meanwhile, we had to do some fact-finding. And do it quickly before Captain Oldenberg invited me to Police Headquarters for another neighborly chat.
My first call was to Ed Winchester at the Daily News. He told me that the Lake Software story would be in the business pages in tomorrow's newspapers. At close of business on the New York stock exchange, the Lake Software stock price was dropping fast — or as Ed put it, «going through the floor.» Ed promised to get me recent photos of Angela and Robert Lake from the newspaper's photo library.
Stella agreed to work late, and I called Joe Blaney and asked him to come over early with the next day's newspapers. We needed to do some thinking. It was time to fight back.
When Joe Blaney arrived, we looked at the newspapers. Lake Software was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The corporation had put millions of dollars into their new Internet trading system. Those people who bought stocks had been optimistically expecting the product to make a huge amount of money for them and the stock price on the New York stock exchange had risen higher and higher. Now it was dropping sharply.
Just days before Lake Software were ready to put their new Internet trading system on the market; Osaka Net had beaten them to it. The Press had interviewed the presidents of both corporations.
Robert Lake, President of Lake Software, had told reporters that there was no truth in the talk that the corporation was in trouble, and was confident that their new product would be a success. Akira Takahashi, President of Osaka Net, promised reporters that their new product would, without doubt, be the market leader.
When questioned by reporters about the recent attempts to hack into their research and development center in Long Island, Mr. Takahashi commented that a competitor was behind a campaign of dirty business tricks, aiming to delay work on their Internet trading system.
When asked if there was any connection between Lake Software and the computers being hacked into at Osaka Net, Robert Lake had simply commented:
«Absolutely not. What is it they say?»
«No smoke without fire.» Reading between the lines, Lake Software was in deep trouble. While Joe and I were talking, the photos from the Daily News arrived. Ed had done well. He had also included the latest Hello! magazine which included an article about a society dinner the previous Saturday night at the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street. The sort of hotel where you could kiss goodbye to a hundred bucks with a few cocktails, even before you started thinking about food. Angela, in an elegant evening dress, looked like she'd walked off the cover of Vogue magazine. The same wavy, blonde hair and diamond necklace and earrings. She must like those rocks. Angela was hand-in-hand with her husband — small, thin and bald, with diamond-shaped glasses. He looked like the typical computer expert.
«I need another point of view. What do you think of them, Stella?» I asked.
«They're an odd couple. She's so beautiful, but he's such a- „Such a boring-looking guy. What's the attraction — his money?“ I asked.
»I guess so, but I can't believe he could be violent. Remember the bruises?" said Stella.
«He wouldn't have the strength,» I commented.
«There's something about her eyes. An icy-cold blue. I wonder what she's really feeling,» Stella continued.
She had picked up the magazine and was looking through it. Her eyes widened as she turned page after page.
Suddenly she pointed at a picture with the caption underneath: «Corporation President Robert Lake relaxes with his elegant wife, Angela.»
Stella spoke: «I thought she told you she was terrified of her husband. She doesn't look too terrified there.»
The photographers had caught them inside the hotel, on their way up the stairs into the ballroom. Angela was waving. Her long evening dress was sleeveless. The skin of her right arm was smooth and white, without a single mark anywhere.
«Would you believe it!» I said. «Not a bruise on her arm. Either Mr. Lake hit her after this photo was taken or Angela Lake is a fine actress. This is where we need your help, Joe.»
«You want me to follow the Lakes?»
«I want twenty-four-hour surveillance. I want to know everything about them. Watch where they go, what they do, and who they see. We'll need photos for evidence.»
There was a knock on the outside office door. Stella left to see who was there and for a few minutes, all I could hear was the sound of conversation in Spanish. Stella was probably talking to Mrs. Suarez, the office cleaner.
«What was that all about?» I asked when Stella returned.
«Mrs. Suarez told me she'd found this in the ladies' room. She was wondering if it was anything important. I lied and told her it was my make-up bag and that I'd been looking for it all day. Nat, I think we have a Lake connection.»
Stella shook out the contents of the bag onto my desk. «Mmm, Chanel! Nice lipstick but nice price!»
«Good work, Stella,» I said. «This could be evidence.
The woman we saw on the security video looked plain. Women in jeans and sneakers with backpacks wouldn't usually go around wearing one-hundred-dollar lipstick. That could explain the make-up bag. Maybe she changed and put on and removed the make-up in the ladies' room. There are hair clips here. She'd have to put up her blonde hair before putting on a black wig. Angela Lake had to get out quick. In her hurry, she might have dropped the bag.»
After Stella and Joe had gone, I took the subway home to Queens. I'd had more than enough for one day. I needed my home comforts — some takeout food, TV, then bed.
The next morning was miserable and cold. It had snowed during the night. Dirty snow was already piled up along the sidewalks. Cross-town traffic was moving slowly on 42nd Street. Steam escaping from underground heating pipes rose thick and white into the freezing air. Today, there seemed to be an army of people in Santa Claus suits collecting money outside Grand Central. One of the army stopped me.
«Could you spare a dollar to help poor inner-city kids?»
«Would that be the South Bronx neighborhood center project?» I asked. «I hope this helps.»
«Twenty bucks! Thanks, Mister.»
I was feeling generous. I could still be in a police cell if I hadn't given them those two thousand-dollar bills. What's another twenty bucks when you've already lost two thousand?
Stella was already at the office when I arrived at eight- thirty. Unlike me, she looked bright and cheerful.
«I've been thinking about those security videos, Stella. Can you enlarge a picture?»
«Easy when you know how, Nat.»
«We need photos of the woman we think might be Angela Lake. Some close-ups of her entering and leaving the building. It's the face I'm interested in. And print out any good pictures.»
Stella had checked through the video and had two shots of the woman's face. As the woman entered the lobby she looked up at the security camera. For a second, her face was almost clear. Another shot showed the woman leaving the building. She was looking down at the floor and long dark hair covered most of her face. At the last moment, she looked around, as if to check if anyone was following and for a second, the camera caught part of her face.
«Enlarge the first one, will you?» I asked.
Stella enlarged the photo again and again but the picture was poor quality and out of focus. What could you expect from a black-and-white security video?
«Is there any way you can improve the quality?» I asked.
«Don't be too optimistic. What about that?»
«I can see it now, but not enough to prove that Angela Lake was at the office. So we've still got nothing to show Oldenberg.»
«Hold on, Nat. That lipstick might have her fingerprints on it,» suggested Stella.
«Sure it might. And Oldenberg could say I stole it when I mugged her. Don't worry, Joe might find something. Now it's your turn to go shopping.»
«What? Christmas shopping?»
«I want you to visit some jewelers in real expensive stores like Saks on Fifth Avenue. You remember the diamond necklace? Find out what rocks like that would cost. The Lakes have — or had — big money. I want to know how big. Take that picture of Angela wearing the diamond necklace from Hello! magazine. Make up some kind of story. Say you've got a millionaire boyfriend who spoils you, and wants to buy you a necklace just like Angela Lake's.»
Before Stella left, Joe Blaney reported back to the office. Joe had made several calls to Lake Software, pretending to be a journalist wanting an interview with Robert Lake. The response was the same each time — Mr. Lake was unavailable. In any case, surveillance of the Lake Software Headquarters at the World Trade Center was almost impossible with their offices being up on floor 105. You needed a security pass just to get through to the elevators. And if you succeeded in getting through, any stranger hanging around the corridors of a corporation headquarters would certainly attract attention.
Instead, Joe was concentrating his efforts on the Lakes' apartment, which he had discovered was at 86th and Fifth Avenue. There were no records of a Lake apartment anywhere on Park Avenue — another lie from Angela Lake. Joe promised us some photographs by late afternoon.
Stella was back after an hour or so. She had spoken to a jeweler at Saks, who told her a similar necklace would cost about half a million. The Lakes knew we had the necklace somewhere and someone would come looking for it.
Joe came by later with some photos he'd just taken outside the Lakes' apartment, then developed. The photos showed a long black stretch limousine arriving outside the apartment and three Chinese guys entering the building. In some of the photos, Robert Lake was with them. Joe pointed at an elegant man in his mid-fifties.
«See this guy? He looks like Mr. Big. He doesn't carry his briefcase or umbrella — the other guys do that,» he said.
«Most businessmen carry their own briefcase,» I said.
«Now look at these pictures of the three guys entering the building,» Joe continued. «Each time Mr. Big is between the other two guys. I wouldn't like to meet them on a dark night.»
«They look like bodyguards. Stella, take a look at them. What do you think of their clothes?»
«That's interesting,» she said. «These two guys are wearing exactly the same clothes. Armani by the look of it. An expensive uniform. Nat, I don't know if it's just a coincidence, but there were a couple of Chinese guys hanging around by the front entrance when I came back.»
«I don't believe in coincidences,» I said.
I called Gloria at the lobby reception to ask if she had noticed any Chinese guys around during the afternoon, in the lobby or in the street. In fact, she had noticed a couple of guys across the street from time to time.
«If they set foot in this building, get security to question them and find out what they're doing,» I said. «They could be watching me.»
«Really, Mr. Marley!» said Gloria.
I was now fairly sure that something was going on between the Lakes and our Mr. Big in the photographs. That meant that I was involved too. I thought I might visit my old journalist friend, Ed Winchester. The time was approaching six o'clock, and I thought I knew where to find him — McFadden's Bar.
Ed was at the bar, where I expected him to be. There was a group of young reporters around him. Ed was doing what he liked best. Telling stories about the good old days of crime reporting. Or should I say the bad old days? Despite his sixty-five years, he still looked fit and active. And he had a full head of white hair. Some people have all the luck.
«Nat, good to see you. As you're nearer the bar, same again, please,» asked Ed.
«OK, Ed. Still as thirsty as ever,» I replied.
«I'm worried about these young reporters. Do you know, some of them drink water?» said Ed.
«I'm deeply shocked!»
«You know, there's no future for a crime reporter in this city. Not enough crime since the mayor cleaned up the place. Only one murder on the subway this year,» Ed said.
«I see what you mean. I walked through Times Square last week. I felt perfectly safe. I thought I was in the wrong city. Not like the old days.»
«What can I do for you, Nat?» asked Ed.
«Look at the guys in these photos taken outside Robert Lake's apartment on 86th and Fifth today.»
«Hmm. They don't look like they're paying a social call.»
«The same people called twice today. Take a look at Mr. Big in the middle. He looks like the boss man,» I said.
«I think this guy's called Tommy Lam. I'll see what I can find out,» said Ed. He walked off and began talking to a junior reporter. Ed asked him to get some information from the Daily News Building and the young reporter left the bar. I sat down and tried to enjoy a drink, but I felt too anxious to relax. When Ed came over to where I was sitting he noticed me turning my glass round in my hands. «What's up, Nat? Have you got something on your mind?» he asked.
«I've got too much on my mind. I may be involved with something big and possibly dangerous.»
«Dangerous? That doesn't sound like the Nat I know.»
«It isn't. I should stick to finding missing persons.»
I knew I could trust Ed. I told him what had happened during the last two days. He looked thoughtful.
«What I don't understand, Nat, is the Lakes' motive. Why exactly do they need a fall guy to take the blame?» asked Ed.
«I wish I knew,» I said. «The story's much the same, whatever newspaper you read. Item one, Osaka Net and Lake Software were both developing a similar product. Item two, Osaka got their product on the market first. Item three, the Lake Software stock price falls. Item four, talk of a competitor being involved in the hacking into Osaka Net. End of story — so far.»
The reporter returned, out of breath, from the Daily News Building.
«Your Mr. Big is a guy by the name of Yee Ho Lam. People call him Tommy. He's the boss of an organization called Shanghai Computer Commerce. They've been operating in the United States for about five years. Their office is in Chinatown on the Lower East Side. Now here's the interesting bit. It's difficult to say exactly what their business is.»
«Yeah? Go on,» said Ed.
«The Daily News did a feature on the Chinese-American business connection last July,» the young reporter continued, «and visited a number of businesses in Chinatown. Most people were only too happy to talk and pleased about the free publicity. Tommy Lam didn't want to talk or cooperate with anyone. The business could be a front for something else.»
Things were starting to make sense. I thanked Ed and the junior reporter and walked back to the office. It was beginning to snow again. Maybe it was going to be a white Christmas. As I made my way along the corridor to my office, I could hear the phone ringing. Joe and Stella had gone home and it didn't stop ringing. I didn't want to answer it, but knew I had to. I soon wished I hadn't.
«Marley? Oldenberg here. Don't leave town.»
«What a disappointment. I'll just have to cancel that Christmas vacation in Florida,» I said. «Give me the bad news.»
«Be at Police Headquarters, two o'clock tomorrow afternoon. I'll send a car for you.»
«Forget it. I prefer the subway. It's cleaner and cheaper.»
«We've arranged a line-up. We're going to find out who mugged Angela Lake. Sweet dreams, Marley!»
The next morning was colder than ever. It must have been well below freezing. The top of the Chrysler Building was lost in heavy snow clouds. Snowplows were still out on the streets clearing the previous night's snow, holding up all the midtown Manhattan traffic. At least the subway was running normally. Stella was already at her desk. She was surprised to see me there at eight o'clock.
«Stella, would you call Joe? We don't need to continue the surveillance. I know who our Mr. Big is.»
I told Stella what I had found out from Ed Winchester at McFadden's Bar. She frowned.
«What happens now?» she asked.
«We need help. Ask Joe to come to the office. You need protection.»
«What about you?» Stella asked.
«I can look after myself.»
«I wish you would look after yourself,» she said.
«Now for the bad news,» I said. «Oldenberg called to say I've got to take part in a line-up at Police Headquarters. Two o'clock today.»
«Oh no, Nat! That's exactly what the Lakes want.»
The phone rang. Stella answered in her best telephone voice.
«Marley Investigation Agency. How may I help you?» As she listened, her expression changed. Then she placed her hand over the phone and whispered, «It's Robert Lake. He wants to speak to you.»
I took the phone.
«What do you want, Lake?»
«Really! Such bad manners.»
«Get on with it!» I shouted.
«I need to talk,» Lake said. «It's important, but I can't discuss it on the phone. I would like to see you at my apartment. It's-»
«I know where it is. 86th and Fifth. Give me half an hour.» I put the phone down slowly.
«What does that man want with you?» asked Stella.
«He wouldn't say. Wants to see me at his apartment. Says it's important.»
«It could be a trap, Nat. Just keep cool.»
«I'll be my usual sweet self.»
I'm a great believer in public transport, especially when it saves time and money. I took the subway uptown to Lexington Avenue and 86th. Then a short walk across to the Lakes' apartment.
I stepped inside the lobby. It must have cost serious money. Deep carpets and expensive wood. The doorman was standing in front of a huge antique desk, as wide as my office. He gave me a cold look when I said I had an appointment with Robert Lake. He phoned the apartment.
«I'm sorry, sir. Mr. Lake doesn't have any appointments with a Mr. Marley this morning. A mistake, perhaps?»
«Look, I spoke to him less than half an hour ago. He told me to come up here,» I said.
«Mr. Lake's a busy man. He gave me instructions not to allow anyone up to the apartment without his permission.»
«Now look here, buddy. I'm losing patience. Just call him again, will you?»
«Don't call me 'buddy,' Mister!» said the doorman. «If you don't leave right now, I'll call 911.»
I was angry now. People in the lobby turned and stared.
«I want to see Lake,» I shouted. «And when I've finished with him, he'll be sorry he ever tried to mess with Nat Marley.»
The elevator door opened behind the desk. It was Lake, a small, bald man with ridiculous diamond-shaped glasses. Angela Lake had to be deeply in love with his bank account.
«Ah, Mr. Marley, so pleased you could come,» said Lake.
«You could have told the doorman!»
«A breakdown in communication. These things happen,» said Lake.
The doorman smiled unpleasantly at me. It had been planned. Lake took me up to his apartment. Through the windows there was a view of Central Park and the frozen lake. It was snowing again, and kids were throwing snowballs and building snowmen. Just like a scene from a Christmas card. It didn't feel like Christmas in the apartment though.
Lake looked even smaller than he did in the photographs. How could this little guy be worth millions?
«You're a failure, Marley. That's why we chose you to be the fall guy,» he said.
«You set me up, Lake. You and Angela planned this all together. She might be a good actress, but the two of you are just amateurs. You made it all too complicated. You couldn't keep it simple.»
«Sure, we made mistakes, but we'll be the winners in this game and you'll always be the loser. I'm looking forward to this afternoon, when Angela picks you out from the lineup.»
«Why me, Lake?»
«Nothing personal. I needed someone with a small business. The type of guy who had trouble paying the bills. I heard about you from a colleague who was going through a divorce. He'd hired you to follow his wife. You were just perfect. Though you're not as stupid as I'd imagined. That trick with the briefcase. Very neat.»
«Just tell me one thing. What's your motive?» I asked. Lake couldn't stop himself. He was enjoying every moment.
«Running a corporation by the rules gets boring after a while. I want to play in the big game for the money, power, and excitement. The game is for real, and I get a kick out of it. I enjoy the sense of danger. I wanted to be the major player. Osaka Net was the only corporation that stood between me and control of the world markets. I didn't care what methods I used, or who helped me to achieve my aims. The rules are there to be broken.»
«You've lost, Lake.»
«It's not over yet. I'll be up there again, with the best of them and I'm not particular about how I do it.»
«In real life, Lake, people get hurt.»
«Exactly, Mr. Marley.»
Lake paused and closely examined his right hand. On each finger, there was a ring with a stone set in it. Then, Lake took me by surprise. Suddenly he raised his arm and hit me hard in the mouth. Hard enough to hurt me with the rings. I could taste blood in my mouth and felt a tiny piece of broken tooth. I don't like being hit by guys like Robert Lake. I especially don't like being hit by guys wearing rings. I lost my cool and punched him hard on the nose. I felt breaking bone and plastic. It hurt my hand, but I hope it hurt him a lot more. I think I broke both his nose and those silly glasses. Then he surprised me again. As he got up from the floor, with blood pouring from his nose, he grinned.
«As I said, Marley, you're still the fall guy. We'll always be one step ahead. It's all exactly as I'd planned.»
Lake pressed a button on his desk. Two of the largest security men I had ever seen walked in and picked me up as if I were a child.
«Everything on camera, boys?» asked Lake.
«Sure thing, boss. The fool fell for it.»
«Excellent! Captain Oldenberg will enjoy watching it,» said Lake with a satisfied smile.
I couldn't believe what was happening.
«You hit me first, you bast-» I began.
«Such bad manners! Haven't you heard of film editing? Captain Oldenberg will have all the evidence he needs. A videotape of you attacking me, and me trying to protect myself. The camera doesn't lie.»
«Is this how you normally treat your guests?» I asked.
«Don't bother seeing me to the door. I'll find my own way out.»
Downstairs in the lobby at 86th and Fifth, a smartly dressed Chinese man was waiting for me. I knew the name and face. Yee Ho or Tommy Lam. His suit was so shiny that I could almost see my face in it. There was a large yellow diamond in his tiepin. The same guy I'd seen in the photographs.
«How do you do, Mr. Marley?» he said.
«I was wondering when I'd meet you, Mr. Lam. What can I do for you?»
«You've done your homework. I'd like to invite you for a drive around the park,» he said.
I noticed the two bodyguards in Armani suits and dark glasses.
«An invitation I can't refuse?» I asked, looking in their direction.
«Of course. I'm glad to see you're a professional. Come this way.»
The black limousine was parked outside. Inside the car, it was all warmth, comfort, and luxury. The two bodyguards sat across the back seat and took off their dark glasses. Their faces were expressionless. Tommy Lam invited me to sit in one of the leather armchairs beside a mini bar. The car headed downtown along Fifth Avenue toward Central Park South.
«I'm very grateful you agreed to come for an informal chat, Mr. Marley. I believe a host should honor his guest. It's an old Chinese tradition. So first a little drink.»
«Large Scotch,» I said.
Lam pointed at one of the bodyguards, who prepared the drinks. The Scotch was better quality than anything in McFadden's Bar.
«The park looks so attractive in the snow. Enjoy the view and your drink, Mr. Marley. Pleasure before business.»
We sat in silence while I drank the Scotch. Lam didn't seem to be in a hurry. The huge car turned right at Columbus Circle, and continued uptown on Central Park West. Finally Lam spoke.
«I understand your interest in the Lakes. I dislike the Lakes with good reason. They're amateurs playing games. We've been watching the Lakes. And I think you have, too.»
«What's your interest in the Lakes?» I asked.
«Money. They owe me a lot of money.» Lam took out a calculator and punched the buttons. «Five million dollars. The agreement was payment in cash or jewelry. Mrs. Lake has some valuable items of jewelry which I am very fond of. I've always been careful with money. You see, Mr. Marley, we are both involved with crime. You solve crimes and I'm the criminal. I did some work for Robert Lake. Skilled work,» Lam continued. «It involved hacking into computers at a development center.»
«Would this be the Osaka Net center?» I asked.
«Again I see you've done your homework, Mr. Marley. I carried out my side of the deal, but Lake has accused me of hacking into the wrong systems at the center. The fault was not mine. I carried out his instructions exactly. We hacked into their computers twice — a professional job I could be proud of. Now the payment is late. I need to protect my interests, so my people have been watching them.»
Lam paused. «So, Mr. Marley, why did Angela Lake visit your office building on Tuesday morning with that silly change of clothes and hair?»
«You know about that?» I said, surprised.
«An obvious trick. She was easy to follow. And I also know about your visit to the Parcel Room at Grand Central through my friends in the police. Tell me everything I want to know and I'll treat you right. But if you don't… my colleagues have ways of persuading people.»
I realized Lam was not the sort of guy to take chances with. He was dangerous. Lam continued in the same polite voice as the car continued along Central Park West.
«Violence is unpleasant but sometimes necessary. You wouldn't want anything to happen to Ms. Delgado, would you?» Lam said.
The bodyguards suddenly smiled unpleasantly. Then their faces became expressionless once again. I had no choice but to tell Lam everything — or nearly everything — staring with McFadden's Bar on Monday evening. Lam listened carefully as I told him how Angela Lake had tried to set me up.
Lam looked thoughtfully out of the window. «Well, there could be some truth among the lies,» he said. «The Lakes wanted you to be their fall guy. That doesn't worry me in the least. You're a minor player in this affair.»
«It's good to feel valued,» I replied.
«What does worry me is the jewelry which Mrs. Lake claims was stolen. I'm not so sure about that. I also want to know what's inside her briefcase in the Parcel Room at Grand Central. I suspect that the Lakes may be trying to escape their responsibilities toward me. What did you do with the key and claim ticket?» asked Lam.
«Put them in a safe place. The U.S. mail.»
«Clever move. The address, if you please?» Lam said.
«General Delivery, General Post Office, Eighth Avenue,» I replied. I didn't have a lot of choice.
Lam spoke into the intercom. The car made a left after the American Museum of Natural History then headed downtown on Columbus Avenue. I was hoping the Christmas mail was as slow as usual. I sat in silence and kept my fingers crossed. After 57th Street, Columbus Avenue becomes Ninth Avenue.
«Stay on Ninth for General Delivery,» I said.
«I thought everything was on Eighth?» said Lam.
«It's the only department that isn't.»
The General Post Office takes up a whole block. The front on Eighth Avenue is like an ancient Greek temple. The back of the building on Ninth is quite different. Lam didn't know everything about New York. They put General Delivery on Ninth for a very good reason. Many homeless New Yorkers use it as a safe address. The respectable customers entering by the front entrance don't see the down-and-outs. Maybe that's why the Post Office Police Office is next door to General Delivery.
Inside the General Delivery office, two lines of sad-looking people waited their turn. Mine was the only white face in the room. Lam and his bodyguards in their Armani suits didn't look as if they belonged there. Lam wasn't used to waiting. He walked straight up to the window, tapped on it and demanded a package for Nat Marley. There were angry shouts from the lines.
«Hey, man! What do you think you're doing?»
«Who do you think you are? There's a line here.»
The U.S. Post Office has its rules and not even Lam could break them. The clerk believed rules were there for a reason.
«I don't care who you are, Mister. Get in line like everyone else or I'll call security.»
We waited ten minutes on the line. I showed my ID to the clerk who took down a pile of letters and went through them.
«No, sir. Nothing for Marley.»
Perfect. I could have kissed the clerk. That would have been difficult with a glass security window in the way. I'd never complain about the U.S. Post Office again. I needed that claim ticket and key. I particularly needed the diamond necklace, and I didn't want to give Lam all my evidence. Lam, understandably, was not pleased.
«I'll be watching you, Marley. You try to collect anything from this office, and I'll know about it. Be at your office at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. We'll try again and again until I have that package,» said Lam. «Take a walk to your office. The exercise will do you good.» I didn't mind. I preferred the subway to Tommy Lam's limo. I caught an uptown E train from 34th Street. I felt more comfortable in a crowded subway car with ordinary folks.
By the time I got back to my office it was almost noon. Stella was anxious.
«Where have you been all this time?» she asked.
«Just riding around Central Park in a limo, drinking good Scotch,» I answered.
«No, seriously, Nat.»
She looked concerned as I told her what had happened in Lake's office.
«Oh no, Nat. He wanted you to punch him.»
«I know. More evidence for Oldenberg. It's all on video. Where's Joe?» I asked.
«He's just gone out to get some lunch.»
«Tell him I want him with you all the time. Lam is dangerous. Lake owes him money and Lam's not going to wait. He knows about the first package to General Delivery. In fact, he took me there to pick it up.»
«Let me guess. It hadn't arrived,» said Stella.
«Correct. Thank you, Post Office.»
I had to be downtown for my appointment at Police Headquarters with Captain Oldenberg. When I arrived at reception, I was taken downstairs to where Oldenberg was waiting. He was enjoying himself.
«The famous private eye again! You're a busy man. What made you visit the Lake's apartment?» asked Oldenberg.
«I had a personal invitation,» I replied.
«Not according to Mr. Lake. He's made a complaint.»
«He's lying,» I said.
«We have you on security videos. Shouting at the doorman and then punching Lake. I never knew you could be so aggressive. And that poor guy trying to protect himself. But we'll talk about that later. We've got a line-up ready. Sergeant, take Marley to the line-up room.»
There were no windows in the room. It was painted a depressing dirty green. Waiting there were half a dozen of the saddest-looking guys you could imagine. Fat, bald and forty-something. All wearing cheap suits. The frightening thing was I looked just like them. They were here just to earn a few bucks, but I could be in jail for a long time. I was given a number five to hold.
We were facing a two-way mirror. Nothing happened for a couple of minutes. Then an order came over the intercom: «Number five, step forward.» Silence again. I was told to step back in line. Two other guys were asked to step forward. Angela Lake must have been doing some good acting behind the mirror. Finally another order came over the intercom: «Number five stay, and thank you everybody for taking part.»
Oldenberg entered. He looked even more cheerful as he arrested me. «Nathan Marley, I am arresting you for the robbery of Mrs. Angela Lake on East 42nd Street. Also, for the assault of Mr. Robert Lake in his apartment on 86th and Fifth. Take him away, Sergeant.»
«Oldenberg, I know my rights. I need to speak to my lawyer,» I demanded.
«OK. Sergeant, let him make his phone call.»
The situation couldn't have been worse. I needed a good lawyer to get me out of this mess. I had done several jobs for Rosenthal and Rosenthal, a firm of criminal lawyers on Lexington Avenue. Lena Rosenthal was one of the best. Fortunately, she wasn't in court that afternoon.
«Lena, it's Marley.»
«Nat, how are things?»
«Not good. I'm at Police Headquarters. I've been charged with robbery and assault.»
«This is serious, Nat.»
«It's a very long story. Some very powerful people want a fall guy,» I said.
«I'll be right with you. Don't say anything to anyone.» Lena was there within the hour. I told her the full story, including my visit to Lake's apartment, and my meeting with Tommy Lam and our trip to the Post Office.
«You're smart, Nat. If you'd taken the real claim ticket to the Parcel Room, there wouldn't be much I could do. But the situation isn't hopeless. As you know, a positive identification doesn't mean you're guilty. People get confused. It's easy to make mistakes with line-ups.»
«Apart from the identification, the police don't have much evidence against me, Lena. There's the security video from the Lakes' apartment. You'll need a copy from Oldenberg, and you can have it examined, go through it carefully. You might be able to prove it's been edited.»
«Right, Nat. I'm going to try and get