Authors: Barbara Paul
A Marian Larch Mystery
He was looking at a fortyish woman carrying a cheap all-weather coat over her arm and wearing a black-and-white polka-dot dress. Square neck, oversized shoulder pads, voluminous knee-length skirt â¦ the sort of thing his mother wore back in the fifties. This woman had what was once a good haircut; but she'd let it go too long between trims and now looked on the verge of messy. Campy and messy. Didn't the woman own a mirror?
Was she the one he was here to meet? He hoped not. All Virgil had said was to carry a copy of
prominently displayed and the courier would find him. He'd left the magazine lying out in the open on the small table in The Token Bar; now he signaled to the waiter. One more martini and he'd leave. He didn't like waiting for women.
Not that it had to be a woman; but Virgil typically did use women as couriers. Artistic types trying to make ends meet, girl graduates learning their brand-new degrees from Columbia weren't worth spit, mothers unable to take on full-time jobs. All Virgil demanded of them was that they be on time, do exactly as they were told, and ask no questions. For this they were paid promptly and in cash. What the IRS didn't know wouldn't hurt it.
The door of the bar opened and a young woman came in, alone, shrugging out of her coat immediately. The waiting man smiled in approval: short skirt, high heels, careful make-up, well-tended hair. But he knew this one wouldn't be Virgil's courier; too expensive, for one thing. For another: too noticeable.
The woman in the polka-dot dress slid into the chair opposite his.
“You're late,” he said coldly.
“I didn't spot you right off.” She glanced at the magazine lying on the table. “I thought you'd be holding it. Reading it, like.”
The man didn't answer. He held out his hand.
The polka-dot woman opened a purse the size of a saddlebag and extracted a large mailing envelope which she handed over. The seal on the back was intact. She didn't get up and leave, as she was supposed to, but instead sat waiting expectantly.
“Was there something else?” he asked shortly.
A look of mild disappointment crept into her eyes. She shook her head and stood up. He watched her go with barely concealed contempt. Damned if he'd buy a drink for that frump.
He broke the seal on the envelope. Inside were two five-by-seven glossies and a personal data sheet. Anthony Pasquellini, greengrocer, Mulberry Street. Someone was willing to pay Virgil's exorbitant fee to get rid of an Italian vegetable-seller? This Pasquellini couldn't be connected; the Mafia took care of its own problems. The man wasted no mental energy wondering about it; he never wondered about it.
He finished his martini and put on his overcoat. Outside, perhaps two hours of daylight left; the markets in Little Italy would still be open. If the crowds were big and noisy, he could take care of this one before dinner.
He hailed a cab and went to work.
The woman had to make an effort not to slump as she sat on the bus. She'd collect her fee and go home; maybe she'd have some time to herself before Hank got there and started making his demands. She just didn't feel like playing the admiring audience today. Today? Today, yesterday, the day before â¦ she was tired of Hank, tired of the role he'd cast her in, tired of listening to him brag about whatever deal-of-a-lifetime he was at that very moment putting together. She was tired of never having enough money. She was in a rut and didn't see how to get out.
Knowing that, she'd worn her new black-and-white polka-dot dress to make herself feel better. It didn't work. And then to top things off, that cold-eyed bastard in The Token Bar wouldn't even buy her a drink.
He was a new oneânew to her, at any rate. She didn't like the kind of people Virgil was sending her to meet lately; they were hard and dangerous-looking, men who made it impossible for her to go on pretending that Virgil was just an ordinary businessman doing nothing more than a little shady wheeling and dealing on the side. The men Virgil was sending her to meet made her uneasy, and she didn't know what to do about it. Virgil was not interested in employee complaints. But he paid in cash and he never wrote her name on any tax form. Still, it was just one more rut she was stuck in.
Virgil's man was waiting for her outside Cinema I on Third Avenue. Today he was wearing the long mustard-colored coat that made him look even more sallow than he already was. He handed her the familiar small brown envelope and turned away without a word. In the nearly thirty times she'd kept an appointment with the paymaster, he'd uttered only one word and that was the first time they'd met. He'd said: “Identification?” When she'd showed him her ID, he'd handed her her first envelope and established the routine they'd been following ever since.
No talk. No personal contact. Ever.
The polka-dot woman was out of his mind even before she was out of his sight. The sallow-faced man had one more pay-off to make, and he was a bit worried about it. Grad student at NYU, always late. Unreliable, in the paymaster's opinion. But Virgil picked them, he didn't. And Virgil didn't welcome suggestions.
They were to meet in a pizza parlor on West Fourth. The paymaster took the subway, pocketing the difference between that and cab fare from the transportation allowance Virgil gave him. If
had been running the show, he'd do away with the couriers altogether; but Virgil wanted a buffer of people between his paymaster and the Talent. Careful man, Virgil.
She wasn't in the pizza parlor. Swearing to himself, the paymaster ordered a cut and a Coke and settled down to wait. He stretched a second cut out as long as he could and then went outside to wait there, turning up the collar of his mustard-colored coat against the February wind. When his watch told him she was forty minutes late, he left. This time he took a cab back uptown.
The sign on the office door said
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY CONSULTANTS
; and underneath in smaller letters,
WE PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
. The office was deliberately nondescript, like thousands of other small offices scattered across Manhattan similarly doing business of a vaguely designated nature. The only person the paymaster had ever seen there was a woman who sat in the front office; the door to the back office was always closed. The paymaster had never met Virgil.
“My last contact didn't show,” he said abruptly. “I told you that girl was unreliable.”
The receptionist frowned. “How long did you wait?”
“An hour. I don't even know if she met with the Talent or not.”
She opened a drawer of her desk. “Leave the pay packet with me. I'll give you a receipt.”
The paymaster jerked his head toward the closed office door. “I'd better talk to Virgil.”
“He didn't come in today.” She wrote out the receipt.
That made the third time he'd asked to speak to the boss and been told he wasn't there. If he could be trusted to handle Virgil's money, then he sure as hell could be trusted to know what the boss looked like. Irritated, he stepped over to the closed door and threw it openâto find another nondescript office. Empty.
he didn't come in today!” the receptionist spoke sharply. “Here's your receipt.”
Defeated, the paymaster turned over his uncollected brown envelope. “Can I make an appointment to see him?”
“I'll ask,” she said noncommittally.
Sure, you will
, he thought sourly, and left.
She waited until she heard the elevator doors open and close; even then she looked out into the hall to make sure the man in the atrocious mustard coat had really gone. Then she went back into the office and locked the door. She powered up the computer and waited while the communications program loaded automatically. The only number in the dialing directory was hidden from her; she pressed the code number 1 and waited.
Two messages to pass on to Virgil today:
Contact 4 no show
Paymaster B wants a meet
. Usually she had to wait a day for a reply, but this time the answer came immediately:
. And that, she'd learned, meant Virgil would take care of the problem(s) himself and she was to forget about it.
She'd love to forget about it. She'd love to forget this damned office and what happened here. What the paymaster didn't know was that she had no more idea of who Virgil was than he did. But whoever he was, he was nothing more than a filthy murdererâand she was his unwilling accomplice.
It was the Social Security number that was holding her here. The lack of a new number for a false name forced her to stay in the job she'd been blackmailed into taking. How this, this
had found out what she'd done â¦ no one could have found out! But Virgil had, damn him, and he'd coerced her into coming in here and doing
work for him â¦ she could almost understand hiring a killer, when she thought of Virgil. No; don't dwell on that.
Think about getting out. All her spare time had been spent visiting outlying graveyards until finally she'd found what she was looking for in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn: the grave of a woman born only the year before she was but who'd been dead for eleven years. Using the dead woman's name, she'd rented an unfurnished studio apartment to give herself a mailing address. Then she'd gotten a driver's license under her new name; and with this form of legitimate ID in hand, she'd gone into the Social Security office claiming she'd lost her card and applied for a replacement. And as soon as the card came â¦ the scheme might work, might not. But it was the only way she could think of that would let her leave New York, find a new town, a new job. A new start.
Any day now that envelope would come, the one from the Social Security office with her new name and number. And then she'd be gone. Everything else was ready.
And when that monster Virgil goes down, I won't be here to go with him
. The thought gave her immense satisfactionânot only the thought of her own escape, but the thought that Virgil would, eventually, be caught. He had to be. In spite of all his precautions, in spite of the careful chain of command he'd built, Virgil just had too many people working for him for some weak link not to be in there somewhere. Her main regret was that she would not be here to watch it happen. But someday, some cop would figure out what was going on, and that was the day Virgil's murder-for-hire business would start unraveling.
Some day. Some cop.
Lieutenant Marian Larch picked up a report from the pile on the desk before her. An early-morning fire in the Lord & Taylor stockroom had resulted in no deaths or injuries. Good, for more than the obvious reason; none of her detectives would be needed to investigate. She finished the report and started to put it aside. But something teased at her, half-caught her attention; she went back and read it again. What was odd, what was different about this report?