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Mr. Evan Pugh April 3, 1967
Dear Mr. Pugh,
I concede defeat. Your $100,000 has been placed in your room at college, as stipulated in your letter of March 29th. I will ensure that my presence in college seems innocent if I am detected. Please do not attempt to obtain more money from me. My pockets are empty.
Yours sincerely, Motor Mouth
Evan Pugh’s hands were shaking as he read this missive, put in his pigeonhole in a plain white envelope bearing his name and address typed with a carbon ribbon, like the letter. The dark square aperture of his pigeonhole had been empty every time he looked between going downstairs for his breakfast and the end of lunch. Now, at two thirty, he had his answer!
The corridors were empty as he wended his way up one curving set of open stairs at his end of the foyer; Paracelsus was a new college, of gloriously clean and sweeping lines, and had been designed by a world-famous architect who was a Chubb alumnus. It suffered the bleak austerity of his style too: Vermont marble floors and walls, glass-enclosed pebble gardens too small to enter, white lighting, minimal ornamentation. Upstairs, where Evan’s dormitory was located, the white marble was replaced by grey-painted walls and a grey rubber floor—very practical, but airy and spacious. As were the rooms, for which reason Paracelsus’s inmates loved their architect dearly. Of course, he himself had suffered the horrors of sharing a cubicle in a college built in 1788, so he had endowed Paracelsus with big rooms and plenty of bathrooms.
Upstairs was deserted too. Evan sidled along the corridor and let himself into his quarters with a swift glance around to make sure that his roommate, Tom Wilkinson, was in class with the rest of the sophomores in this wing of a pre-med oriented college. You had to be sure: even earnest types like pre-meds sometimes cut class. But he was alone. He was safe.
Amazingly, the room wasn’t cluttered. Both young men owned cars, so no bicycles were in evidence, and the floor was free of the usual heaps of boxes students seemed to accumulate. A floor-to-ceiling bookcase separated their big desks, above which were the windows, and the oversized single beds stood one to either side of the entrance door. In each long wall was another door. Wilkinson, a joyous youth, had stuck posters of sexy movie stars on his walls, but Evan Pugh’s were bare save for a corkboard on which were pinned notes and a few photographs.
He went straight to his desk; its surface was exactly as he had left it all day. None of its drawers was locked. Evan opened each one in turn and went through it, debating how large the bundle of cash might be. That depended upon the denomination of the notes, he concluded as he closed the last drawer. No cash, no bundle of any size. He looked across at his bed, a tangle of sheets and blankets, then went to it and rummaged fiercely from top to bottom—no bundle of cash on it, in it, or under it.
Next he checked the bookshelves with the same result, after which he stood wondering how he had been such a fool. How would his quarry know which side of the room was his? Or even that there were sides? Tom was untidy, but a careful ransacking of every part of his side revealed no bundle.
Remained only the closets. This time Evan went through Tom’s first, without success. Then he opened the door to his own. In these walk-in closets the architect’s true genius showed best, for he was one of those men who never forgot any aspect of his past, nor failed to understand how much junk young men—and women!—could accumulate during the course of a year occupying the same room. The walk-in closets ran the full length of the room and were three feet wide; at one end were racks of drawers, then came open shelves, then, for a full half of the area, vacant space. Only in the matter of lighting were they poorly equipped, as a result of the Dean’s fear of fire in an enclosed area. Twenty-five-watt bulbs, no brighter! On springs, the doors closed after they were opened, yet another crotchet of the Dean’s; he abhorred disorder and deemed open doors and drawers a danger as well as a legal liability.
Evan flicked the closet light on and stepped inside; the door swung shut behind him, but he was used to that. He saw the bundle at once, hanging from the ceiling on a cord. He rushed to it eagerly, not surprised that his victim had chosen to secrete it inside an inside, nor that it hung in an area where there were no drawers or shelves. He didn’t look up at the ceiling; he looked no higher than the bundle, which even in the dim light he could see was bound tightly in Saran Wrap. The notes showed through clearly: hundred-dollar bills. They seemed new, their edges unswollen by the abuse of many fingers as they sat in a neat, flat brick.
Suddenly, his hands already grabbing at the brick, he stopped a moment to contemplate the magnitude of his coup, the triumph he couldn’t confide to anyone else as long as he wanted to blackmail Motor Mouth. Did he want to continue the blackmail? After all, he didn’t need the money; it was simply his choice of weapon. What he reveled in was the knowledge that he, Evan Pugh, a mere nineteen-year-old Chubb sophomore, had the power to torment another human being to the point of extreme mental torture. Oh, it was sweet! Of course he’d go on blackmailing Motor Mouth!
His movement resumed, he took hold of the plastic-wrapped packet. When it didn’t budge he yanked at it sharply, an impatient jerk that saw it come away, drop downward to his hips. His hands followed, unwilling to give up their prize.
In the same instant there was a loud sound incorporating both a roar and a swish. As the terrible pain invaded his upper arms and chest, Evan genuinely thought he had been bitten by a Tyrannosaurus rex. He dropped the brick of money and clutched at whatever was engulfing him, his fingers closing on cold steel fixed in his flesh—not one, but a whole row of daggers, deep in his flesh, down past the bone.
The shock had been too sudden for a scream, but now he began to scream shrilly, hoarsely, wondering why his mouth was full of foam, but screaming, screaming, screaming…
The noise percolated out of the closet into the room, but there was no one present to hear it. That it didn’t penetrate into the corridor was due to the architect, very much aware of soundproofing, and endowed besides with a bounteous budget. The Parsons wished something really first class if they had to part with a Rodin and some Henry Moores. Those couldn’t possibly be housed in or near rubbish.
It took Evan Pugh two hours to die, his lifeblood leaking away, his legs refusing to work, his breathing one distressed gasp after another. His only consolation as consciousness left him was that the police would find the money and Motor Mouth’s letter, still in his pocket.
* * *
“I don’t believe it!” Captain Carmine Delmonico exclaimed. “And the day isn’t even over yet. What time is it, for God’s sake?”
“Getting on for six thirty,” came Patrick O’Donnell’s voice from inside the closet. “As you well know.”
Carmine stepped through the door, with its spring now disconnected, and into a surreal scene that looked as if it had been posed for Major Minor’s waxworks horror museum. Patsy had put two small klieg lights in the closet to replace the gloom of the Dean’s twenty-five-watt bulb, and every part of the interior was ablaze. The body took his eye first, hanging limply from the low ceiling, its upper arms and chest cruelly gripped in the jaws of something akin to a great white shark’s business end, but made of rusting steel.
“Jesus!” he breathed, carefully walking around as much of the body as he could. “Patsy, have you ever seen anything like this! And what the hell is it?”
“A king-sized bear trap, I think,” said Patsy.
“A bear trap? In Connecticut? Except maybe for somewhere up in Canada or hillbilly country, there hasn’t been a bear this side of the Rockies in a hundred years.” He peered closely at the youth’s upper chest, where the teeth had sunk in clear to the metal giving rise to them. “Though I guess,” he added like an afterthought, “there might be a few people with one of these tucked away in a forgotten corner of a barn.”
He stood back while Patrick finished his examination, then the two men looked at each other.
“I’m going to have to take the whole thing,” Patrick said. “I don’t dare pry him loose inside this closet—that thing must have a spring capable of taking a hand clean off if it gets away on us halfway through being forced open. This ceiling is much lower than the room’s, but there’s got to be a beam. What fun!”
“It’s not screwed down, it’s bolted,” Carmine said, “so a beam there must be. Chain saw time? Collapse of building?” He saw the plastic-wrapped packet and bent to inspect it. “Hmm … Curiouser and curiouser, Patsy. Unless the interior is blank paper, this is a lot of money. Bait for the greedy. The kid saw it, made a grab for it, and literally sprung the trap.”
Having ascertained that, Carmine’s eyes took in the rest of the closet, which would have been a dream come true to a student, he reflected. Fifteen feet long, three feet wide, one end a bank of built-in drawers, next to them a series of open shelves, and the rest of the space given over to the storage of boxes, unwanted junk, the usual student impedimenta. The bear trap had been fixed over clear floor, not hard; the owner of the closet was neat and tidy.
“The guy who put the bear trap up knew his construction,” he said. “The bolts must be fixed in a joist or beam. The thing didn’t move a fraction of an inch when it was sprung.”
“Well, at least it is sprung, Carmine. My guys will be able to detach it. Have you seen enough?”
“I guess so. But do you believe this, Patsy?”
“No. This one makes twelve inside eighteen hours.”
“I’ll see you in the morgue.”
Carmine’s cohorts, Abe Goldberg and Corey Marshall, were standing by Evan Pugh’s desk looking dazed.
“Twelve, Carmine?” Corey asked as Carmine joined them.
“Twelve, and almost all different. Though this one takes the grand prize, guys—a bear trap. The victim’s a skinny milquetoast, so it crushed him hard enough to kill him.”
“Twelve!” said Abe in tones of wonder. “Carmine, in all the history of Holloman, there have never been twelve murders in one day. Four was tops when those biker gangs had a shoot-out in the Chubb Bowl parking lot, and that was simple, not even much of a surprise. You cleared it up in less than a week.”
“Well, I doubt I’m going to do the same here,” Carmine said, looking grim.
“No,” said both his sergeants in chorus.
“Still,” said Abe, trying to comfort his boss, “not all the cases are yours. I know Mickey McCosker and his team can’t be spared from their drug investigation, but Larry Pisano is already working the shootings. That’s three down, only nine to go with this one.”
“They’re all mine, Abe, you know that. I’m captain of detectives. What it’s going to mean is that each of you gets one victim to work—you know my methods better than Larry’s boys.” He frowned. “But not tonight. Go home, have a decent home-cooked feed and a good sleep. The Commissioner’s office at nine in the morning, okay?”
They nodded and left.
Carmine dallied, taking in the relatively spacious student room, and the rather glaring disparity between his murder victim’s side and the side belonging to the young man who had found him.
Tom Wilkinson was waiting in a room set aside by the Dean as his temporary quarters; one of Patsy’s technicians had escorted him into his own digs once a sheet was up over Evan’s closet door, and supervised his selection of clothes, books, oddments. After a look at the technician’s list, Carmine went back to examining the room. The two young men may as well have painted a line down its middle, so different were the two sides. Tom was haphazard and untidy, including the interior of his closet, whereas Evan Pugh was an obsessive. Even the notes pinned to his corkboard were squared off and neat. A quick perusal of them betrayed no hint as to why he had been murdered; they were just reminders to pick up his dry cleaning on such-and-such a date, shop for stamps, new socks, stationery. The photographs were all of a warmer place than Holloman—palm trees, brightly colored houses, beaches. And a mansion outside which a man and woman in their forties stood, clad in evening dress and looking prosperous.
When the desk yielded nothing further, Carmine went to see Tom Wilkinson, sitting miserably on the side of his new bed. He was very different from Evan Pugh, a single glance showed that: tall, handsome in a blond way, athletic, with wide blue eyes that stared at Carmine in a mixture of fear, horror and curiosity. Not the eyes of a bear trap killer, Carmine decided. The young fellow was cheaply dressed—no camelhair and cashmere here.
He tried not to babble his story of the blood leaking out of Evan’s closet, his calling to Evan, the lack of an answer, his opening of the closet door. After that he found it harder to be logical, but Carmine gave him time to recover, then learned that Tom hadn’t lingered to ascertain any details of the mess inside. Some pre-meds might have; a ghoulish tendency often went with the territory. If he had seen the money, he wasn’t admitting it, and Carmine was inclined to believe that he hadn’t. This pre-med student was scraping to find the money to stay at Paracelsus and would have been sorely tempted to filch the packet before anyone else knew it was there. He bore no blood on his clothes, and he had stepped around the puddle when he entered the closet. On his way out he hadn’t been as careful, but the path guy who escorted him back into the room had taken his sneakers, he explained, wriggling his toes through the holes in his socks. The sneakers were new, he’d miss them, so—um—? Carmine found himself promising to have the shoes returned as soon as possible.
“Did you like your roommate?” Carmine asked.
“No,” said Tom bluntly.
“Aw, gee, he was such a weed!”
“You don’t look like a judgmental type, Tom.”
“I’m not, and I could deal with a weed, Captain, if he was an ordinary weed. But Evan wasn’t. He was so—full of himself! I mean, he weighed about ninety pounds soaking wet and had a face like Miss Prissy out of a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon. But he didn’t believe he looked weird! To hear him talk, you’d get the impression that guys who weigh ninety pounds soaking wet and have faces like Miss Prissy are just what the doctor ordered. He had a hide so thick a naval shell couldn’t dent it!”
“That’s thick,” said Carmine solemnly. “What was he like in class? Did he get good grades?”
“A-pluses in everything,” said Tom despondently. “He headed the class, even drew better than the rest of us. We got sick of seeing his drawing of a dogfish’s cranial nerves or an ox’s eyeball being held up as examples of what anatomical drawing ought to be like! Man, he was a pain! It would have been okay, except that he rubbed it in, especially to guys like me on scholarship. I mean, I’ll probably have to go into the army or navy to get out from under debt, which gouges a hole in the years I’ll have left to practice for myself.”
“Did he socialize with his classmates?”
“Hell, no! Evan did weird things, like go to New York City to see an opera or some highbrow play. He never missed an avant-garde movie at the Chubb Film Society, bought tickets to charity banquets or those speech nights at country clubs when some kiss-ass politician was the speaker—weird! Then he’d bend our ears afterward as though the rest of us were peasants. I guess if anything surprises me, it’s that no one here at Paracelsus has ever beat the shit out of him.”
“Did he keep regular hours? Snore? Have unpleasant—er—personal habits of any kind?”
Tom Wilkinson looked blank. “No, but yes to the regular hours. Unless you call his conceit and bragging unpleasant.”
“What time did you discover him?”
“About six. I have a car because it means I can get back to college for lunch and dinner. Cafeteria meals on Science Hill are expensive, and my sister gave me her old clunker when she bought a better car. Gas is dirt cheap, and my meals here are part of my room and board. The food’s good too. I finished a physiology class in the Burke Biology Tower at five thirty, then drove home.”
“Are most of your classes on Science Hill?”
“Sure, especially for a genuine pre-med. We have a couple of—um—dilettantes in our sophomore year who take art history and crap like that, but they go elsewhere for classes as well. The closest thing to a classroom Paracelsus has is a lecture theater that the Dean saves for sermons on untidiness and vandalism.”
“Oh, that’s just the Dean. The freshmen get a bit restive and do things like chuck dirty old house bricks into Piero Conducci’s pebble gardens; they have to use a cherry picker to get them out. I wouldn’t call putting whore’s underwear on a nude lady’s statue vandalism, sir. Would you?”
“Probably not,” said Carmine, straight-faced. “I take it that all the students in your wing are sophomores, Tom?”
“Yes, sir. Four wings, one for each year. Evan and I have an upstairs room, but down below us are more sophomores.”
“So, given that the emphasis is on pre-med, that means the wing is deserted between lunch and around six in the evening?”
“Yeah, it is. If someone’s too sick to go to classes, he’s supposed to be in sick bay, where there’s a nurse. Sometimes a guy cuts classes to catch up on an important assignment, but there’s nothing like that on our schedule at the moment, sir.”
“What about mornings?”
“The same, only shorter. I think the Dean tries to get the tradesmen in during the morning, so he can keep a better eye on them.”
Carmine rose. “Thanks, Tom. I wish all my witnesses were half as candid. Go and have some dinner, even if you don’t feel like eating.”
From there it was off downstairs to see Dean Robert Highman. As Carmine descended the graceful but open staircase (he loathed stairs he could see through, like these), he stopped to take in the nucleus of Paracelsus College’s broad, squat X. Each wing was devoted to student accommodation, but the center contained the offices and apartments of the college’s senior faculty. The Dean and Bursar lived in commodious quarters here; though the four year Fellows each lived in a kitchenless apartment at the far end of the four wings, the four similar units adjacent to the nucleus were occupied by postdoctoral Fellows who had nothing to do with the college’s administration.
The offices were downstairs, the Dean’s and Bursar’s apartments upstairs. The foyer was relatively large and quite deserted at this dinner hour; the open counter where a clerk worked during office hours was unmanned, and the offices clearly visible through glass walls were equally empty.
Resuming his descent, Carmine stopped short of the counter and debated how he was going to locate the Dean. A cheerful buzz emanated from the opposite side of the nucleus, where the dining room and common rooms were located. Sighing, Carmine girded his loins for a sortie into the midst of four hundred eating young men, but it never happened. A short, fussy man in a three-piece suit emerged from the dining side entrance, took Carmine in at a glance, and walked toward him. He had the gait of a duck, though he wasn’t overweight. Just knock-kneed. His face was round and ruddy, his brown hair scant but assiduously brushed to hide as much scalp as possible, and his dark brown eyes held a flash that told Carmine he was capable of cowing most of Paracelsus’s inmates. No one could have called him handsome.
“Dean Highman,” said Carmine, shaking hands. Good, firm grip.
“Come upstairs to my apartment,” the Dean said, lifting the flap of the counter and unlocking a glass door. Once through that, they ascended to the second floor in a tiny elevator, a smoother ride than tiny elevators usually gave.
“Dean Dawkins—Paracelsus’s first dean and my predecessor—was a paraplegic,” Highman explained as they floated upward, “but his qualifications outweighed both his handicap and the cost of installing this.” A soft chuckle. “Princeton thought it had him.”
“Eat your heart out, Princeton,” said Carmine, grinning.
“Are you a Chubber, Captain?”
“Yes, Class of Forty-eight.”
“Ah! Then you were one of the young men who defended our beloved country. But you must have started before the war.”
“Yes, in September of 1939. I enlisted straight after Pearl Harbor, so I lost my credits for the fall of 1941. Not that I cared. The Japs and the Nazis came first.”
“A girl by a previous marriage, Sophia, now sixteen, and a son five months old,” said Carmine, wondering who was conducting this interrogation.
“Oh, dear! Is that a serious marital contretemps?”
“No, more an ongoing, good-natured argument.”
“She’ll win, Captain, she’ll win! They always do.”
Dean Highman settled his guest in a leather chair and went to the bar cart. “Sherry? Scotch? Whiskey?”
“You didn’t offer me gin, Dean.”
“You don’t look or act like a gin man.”
“How right you are! Whiskey will do fine, thanks. Soda and ice, and drown it.”
“Still on duty, eh?” The Dean sat down with his own generous glass of sherry. “Ask away, Captain.”
“I gather from Mr. Pugh’s roommate, Mr. Wilkinson, that the college is deserted during class hours?”
“Absolutely. Any student found wandering the corridors during class hours is certain to be queried. Not that it happens often. Paracelsus was built and endowed specifically for pre-med students by the Parson Foundation.”
Carmine pulled a face. “Oh, that bunch!”
“You speak as one who knows them.”
“I was involved in a case the year before last that had to do with one of their endowed facilities.”
“Yes, the Hug,” said Dean Highman, nodding wisely. “I do sincerely trust that the murder of Mr. Pugh does not embroil Paracelsus in that kind of disaster.”
“I doubt it, Dean, beyond what leaks to the press and other media about the circumstances of Mr. Pugh’s death. Rest assured that we’ll be trying to tone down our releases.”
The Dean leaned forward, his sherry forgotten. “I am smitten with fear, Captain. How did Mr. Pugh die?”
“Between the teeth of a bear trap rigged in his closet.”
The ruddy face paled, and the sherry stood in danger of slopping until the Dean lifted the glass to his lips and drank it off in a gulp. “Ye gods! Christ almighty! Here? In Paracelsus?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“But—but—what can we do? I swear no one saw anything odd today! I’ve asked, I do assure you!” the Dean bleated.
“I understand that, but tomorrow there will be detectives back to ask a lot more questions on the subject, Dr. Highman. For which reason, I’d like to make sure that every single member of your staff, including janitors, trash collectors, gardeners, maids and other nonfaculty be present all day. They’ll all have to answer questions. No one will be treated harshly, but every last one will be seen individually,” said Carmine, voice steely.
“I understand,” said the Dean, sounding as if he did.
“How well did you know Evan Pugh, Dean?”
Highman frowned, licked his lips, and decided to pour himself another glass of sherry. “Evan Pugh was a difficult young man,” he said, back in his chair and sipping gratefully. “I am afraid that no one either knew him—or, perhaps more important, liked him. I have dealt with youths and young men for many years, but the Evan Pughs of my acquaintance have been few. Very few. I am rather at a loss to describe his personality, except to say that it was—repugnant. I don’t claim to be au fait with modern science, but I have read of substances called pheromones. They are emitted, as I understand it, to attract others, particularly of the opposite sex. The pheromones Evan Pugh emitted repelled.” He shrugged, took a gulp of sherry. “More than that I cannot tell you, Captain. I didn’t really know him at all.”
Carmine lingered until he finished his drowned drink, chatting with the Dean about his college’s endowment by the Parson clan, whose charities—amounting to millions upon millions—were always oriented toward something medical. Roger Parson Sr.’s choice of Piero Conducci as architect did not surprise him; had the younger members of the clan had their way, he was sure Paracelsus would have gone to a more conservative designer. It must have hurt them hugely to have to give up their edition of the Burghers of Calais, but yield it they had; it stood at the junior/senior end of the X nucleus, ensconced in one of Conducci’s glass-walled, pebbled gardens, and it looked as stunning as a Rodin should.
“I imagine,” said the captain of detectives gravely, “that any cherry pickers in the vicinity of Paracelsus are stringently policed.”
“They would be, had any materialized, but I’m delighted to say that none ever has. There are many other works of art at Chubb far easier to steal than our Rodin.”
“And there’ll be still more, when the museum of Italian art goes up—lots of Canalettos and Titians will come out of the vaults. If, that is, the Thanassets can ever decide where their museum ought to go,” said Carmine.
“A great university,” said the Dean ponderously, “should swim in works of art! I thank God every night for Chubb.”
Thus it was a little after eight when Carmine strolled into the Medical Examiner’s segment of the County Services building on Cedar Street. The ME was his first cousin, though no observer would ever have picked up on the blood relationship from visual inspection. Patrick was blue-eyed and auburn-haired, with a fair, freckled skin; Carmine had dark amber eyes and black, waving hair that he kept disciplined by cutting it short. They were the children of the sisters Cerutti, one of whom had married an O’Donnell, the other a Delmonico. Though Patrick was ten years older than Carmine and the happily married father of six children, no difference could ever diminish the huge love that existed between them. An only son, Carmine had been rendered fatherless in his thirteenth year, the smothered darling of a widowed mother and four older sisters with no masculine leavening to help him survive until twenty-two-year-old Patsy stepped in to fill the breach. It was not a paternal relationship, however; they felt like brothers.
Coroner as well as Medical Examiner, Patrick had managed to pile most of his court duties on the back of his deputy coroner, Gustavus Fennel, who loved appearing in court and conducted a running feud with His Honor Douglas Thwaites, Holloman’s cantankerous district judge. Patrick was completely enamored of the new science of forensics, and kept his department absolutely up to date on all advances made in that captious discipline, with its blood types, serums, hairs, fibers, anything that a criminal might leave behind as a signature. His perpetual headache was lack of funds to buy analytical equipment, but in the wake of the dissolution of the medical research center known as the Hug, the Parsons had given him an electron microscope, a Zeiss operating microscope, several other specialist microscopes, new spectrometers and a gas chromatograph. These, together with the latest centrifuges and other, more minor apparatus that found their way from the Hug to him, had enabled him to assemble the best criminal pathology lab in the state, and—a curious side effect—had predisposed Hartford to consent to demands for further equipment. To be dowered so lavishly by the Parsons obviously gained anyone brownie points with the Governor, was Patrick’s explanation.
The morgue itself was stuffed with gurneys, something that happened only as a consequence of airline disasters or multivehicle road accidents. But not tonight. Each of these silent, still, draped figures was a murder victim. Added to them were the other bodies requiring a coroner’s attention: inexplicable deaths, those whose doctor refused to sign a death certificate, and any death the police considered warranted autopsy.
There were a series of stainless steel doors in one wall, a total of sixteen altogether, and the room was a hushed hive of industry as two technicians worked to clear autopsied bodies out of the drawers while not confusing them with murder victims and others as yet uninserted into drawers. Outside on the loading dock, Carmine knew, there would be vans or retired hearses sent from funeral homes to pick up released bodies, their crews grumbling at the ME’s insistence that they come right now, at once, no delay!
He walked through into the autopsy suite, where Patrick stood at the side of a long stainless-steel table fitted with a huge sink at one end and drain channels along either side. A pair of ordinary wholesale meat scales hung in a convenient spot, and several carts of covered instruments were arranged nearby.
Evan Pugh had been freed from the bear trap; it lay on a marble-topped bench some distance away, fenced off by carts. Carmine went to it first and stood staring at it, too wise to touch it. If Patsy had erected a fence around it, then it was highly dangerous. Spread out, as it was now, it was fully two feet wide at its hinged base, its stained, terrible teeth a good two inches long. Not barbed, not serrated, just knife-sharp. The base, which had been bolted to the closet ceiling, was wide enough for a man to put his feet on, one to either side of the hinge—the usual way, Carmine concluded, for its user to pull it apart and set it. There were six bolt holes, three in either side plate, marking the middle and each end. These had not been a part of the trap when it was made but had been added very recently. Every other surface was well rusted, whereas the holes gleamed with fresh metal. The killer had reamed them out himself.
“Don’t even breathe on it, Carmine,” Patrick said from the table. “It’s on a hair trigger, and I’m not exaggerating. Whoever cleaned it up for this exercise used naval jelly on the spring to remove the rust and adjusted the pressure on the plate to trigger it with any old kind of tug, even from a weakling like our victim. What fascinates me is the size of the killer’s balls, to handle his device so coolly that he was able to screw his bolts in all the way to their heads without setting it off. Jesus! I break out in a sweat just thinking about it.”
Carmine moved to the table. “Any clues, Patsy?”
“A couple of doozies, actually. Here, read this. It was in his pants pocket.”
“Well, it sure answers a lot,” Carmine said, putting the clear plastic envelope back among Pugh’s other possessions. “Among other things, it explains the money. Have you opened the package? Does it contain a hundred grand?”
“I don’t know. I thought I’d save that treat for you. I did wash the blood off it and remove the first layer of wrap, though I doubt I’ll find any prints on it apart from Pugh’s.”
Carmine took the brick and a pair of utility scissors and sliced the food wrap’s many layers down to bedrock. Expecting blank paper beneath an outer layer of real notes, he was astonished to find that every note was a genuine hundred-dollar bill. There had been an outbreak of counterfeit hundred-dollar bills a year ago and he had been shown what to look for, but these were genuine. What kind of blackmail victim could afford to drop a thousand C-notes in the course of a murder?
“The money only complicates matters,” he said, putting it in a steel dish and lidding it before peeling off his gloves. “There is a hundred thousand here, brand-new, but the numbers aren’t fully consecutive. I’ll have to hand it over to the Feds to find out its origins.” He leaned his rump on a wall sink and contemplated the money dish sourly. “Motor Mouth … I wonder what Motor Mouth said to warrant not only murder but the sacrifice of so much money? Whoever he is, he knew he had no hope of retrieving his outlay—or his letter. Which says he’s not worried, that he doesn’t think we stand a chance of discovering his real name or what the subject of the blackmail was.”
“Blackmail aside, Carmine, one motive is hate,” said Patsy, inserting a probe inside one vicious chest wound. “The object here is physical agony, a slow death.”
“But not a public lesson.”
“No. A private vendetta. Motor Mouth isn’t concerned about the details of his crime becoming public, but all his spleen was directed at Evan Pugh. Whoever he is, he’s not an attention seeker.”
“I’m guessing this was Pugh’s first attempt at blackmail. Man, I’d love to get my hands on Pugh’s letter of March twenty-ninth!” Carmine clenched his hands. “But Motor Mouth will have burned it. Say he got it on March twenty-ninth. That means he cooked up this incredible retaliation within four or five days. And he must know Pugh left no evidence of the blackmail behind. So it’s not pictures, letters, memos, anything visual or auditory. Pugh had no safety deposit key, even one he’d think was cunningly hidden. No bus or train station locker key either. Of course he might have sent something to his parents, but I’m guessing he didn’t.”
“Oh, come on, Carmine!” Patsy objected. “Where blackmail is concerned, there’s always physical evidence, even if it’s no more than a written description of an incident.”
“Not here,” said Carmine, straightening. “I’m convinced that Motor Mouth acted with total security. Now that Pugh’s dead, no threat remains. The blackmail evidence died with him.”
“Cop instinct?” Patsy asked.
Halfway to the door, Carmine paused. “How are you coping with the chaos?”
“First off, no outside referrals for the moment. The last of our already autopsied cases will have gone to their funeral homes by ten tonight, and that will give us room to accommodate the murder victims plus whatever I couldn’t deflect,” Patrick said. “I’m sending Gus and his boys to the North Holloman labs to do outside cases there until my crisis evaporates.”
“Poor Gus! North Holloman is a dump.” Carmine resumed his progress. “Meeting in Silvestri’s office nine tomorrow, okay?”
The lights of Holloman’s east shore were twinkling in and out of the wealth of trees for which Holloman was famous as Carmine parked his Ford Fairlane on East Circle shortly before nine that night. Strictly speaking, the vehicle was a police unmarked, with a souped-up V-8 engine and cop springs and shocks, but it didn’t look the part; since attaining captain’s rank, Carmine got a last year’s model every year, so it bore none of the stigmata of the usual cop unmarked. He took the sloping, curving flagged path down to his front door, tried the knob, and let himself in. Desdemona didn’t bother locking doors, correctly reasoning that it would be a very rare criminal who entered Captain Delmonico’s residence. Reasoning like that wouldn’t have held water in a larger city, but everyone in Holloman knew where Carmine lived, which had its disadvantages but also its advantages.
His women were assembled in the kitchen, a large one permitting them to dine in it if they had no guests, thus saving the formal dining room and Carmine’s exquisite Lalique table with matching chandelier for more festive occasions. The kitchen was pure white and clinically clean; in the matter of domestic decor Carmine’s second wife had deferred to his taste as better than her own, and never rued that decision.
She stood at the extra-high counter putting the finishing touches on a dish of lasagna, while her stepdaughter tackled the salad enthusiastically. The counters needed to be forty-six inches high, for Desdemona Delmonico stood six foot three in bare feet; that they were not even higher was a concession to Sophia, a mere five foot seven, and to the economics of offering something usable if ever the family decided to sell. Desdemona’s hair was a little tangled from running her hands through it, as she was a learner-cook who still suffered paroxysms of anxiety over her cuisine, though lasagna was fairly safe. Carmine’s mother and sisters had taken her in hand, so what she learned tended to be southern Italian. Very alien to Desdemona, English to her fingertips, but she had her occasional victories too. A visiting friend from Lincoln had taught her to make a traditional roast dinner and a Lancashire hot pot, both devoured by her husband and his family with great pleasure. Fancy never eating potatoes peeled and roasted around the joint! To Desdemona, it was a terrible omission. Not to mention gravy made on pan drippings.
When she turned to greet Carmine it could be seen that she was rather plain of face, between the overlarge nose and the prominent chin, but when her face broke into smiles it lit up most attractively, and the eyes were truly beautiful, big, calm, the color of thick ice. Motherhood had endowed her with a bosom, all that had been lacking to render her figure splendid, if hugely tall. As her well-shaped legs were proportionately very long, men tended to think her rather dishy. Not a verdict they would have delivered during Desdemona’s days managing the Hug; marriage had done wonders for her.
She went at once to Carmine and bent her face four inches to kiss him, while Sophia hopped from foot to foot, waiting her turn.
At sixteen going on seventeen, his daughter was undeniably lovely; she took after her mother, Sandra, who had aspired to a Hollywood career. Sophia was naturally blonde, blue-eyed, fine-featured, and her figure was everything a young girl could have hoped for. But while her mother was a cokehead still living on the West Coast, Sophia had a brain, considerable ambition, and more common sense than either her father or her stepfather, the famed producer Myron Mendel Mandelbaum, had ever hoped for in Sandra’s child. She had moved from L.A. and the depressing influence of her mother when Carmine and Desdemona married nine months ago, and occupied a teenaged girl’s idea of heaven: a square tower three floors high complete with a widow’s walk. Shrewd enough to realize that its location made it nigh impossible for her to sneak people in or sneak out herself, Sophia had decided that its advantages far outweighed such minor stuff, for she was not by nature a rebel. Though her suite had a little kitchen, she was almost invariably to be found eating with her father and stepmother, with whom she got on very well.
Desdemona enfolded in one arm, Carmine stretched out the other for Sophia, who came into it and kissed him smackingly.
“Lasagna!” he said, pleased. “Are you sure you don’t mind eating so late? I’d be happy with a plate warmed on top of the stove, honest.”
“Sophia and I are sophisticated women of the world” was his wife’s answer. “Eat too early, and one wakes up ravenous long before there’s a chance of breakfast. We have afternoon tea at four, and that lasts us.”
“How’s What’s-His-Name?” he asked, smiling tenderly.
“Julian is perfect,” said his mother. “Asleep, of course.”
“Give in, Daddy,” said Sophia, contributing her mite. “Julian is a great name.”
“It’s sissy,” Carmine said. “You can’t expect a son of mine to go to St. Bernard’s lumbered with a sissy name.”
Sophia giggled. “Go on, Daddy! He’s such a bruiser that he’s more likely to get ‘Big Julie from East Cicero, Illinois.’”
“Curse Guys and Dolls!” Carmine cried. “Sissy or gangstery, Julian isn’t suitable. He needs to have an ordinary name! I like John, after my grandfather Cerutti. Or Robert, Anthony, James!”
The lasagna was being sliced; how did Desdemona know the hour he’d appear for dinner? Sophia had dished salad into bowls and was pouring the dressings of choice over them, then filling the wine glasses with a good Italian red, save for her own, which got a third of red on the bottom and then was topped up with sparkling mineral water. They sat down.
“How about Simon?” asked Sophia in a spirit of mischief.
Carmine reared back like a striking snake. “Sissy going on faggy!” he snapped. “Look, what passes for normal in England is one thing, but this isn’t England!”
“You’re prejudiced against homosexuals,” said Desdemona, her sangfroid unruffled. “And don’t say ‘faggy’!”
“No, I’m not prejudiced! But neither have I forgotten how miserable his classmates can make a kid with a fancy name,” said Carmine, still fighting valiantly. “It’s not about whether I’m prejudiced, it’s about the kids our son will associate with at school. Truly, Desdemona, the worst thing a parent can do to a child is lumber him or her with a stupid name, and by stupid I mean sissy or fancy or idiotic!”
“Then Julian is the best of a bad bunch,” said Desdemona. “I like it! Listen to the sound of it, Carmine, please. Julian John Delmonico. It has a nice ring to it, and when he’s a famous man, think how good it will look on his letterhead.”
“Pah!” snorted Carmine, and changed the subject. “This is a very good lasagna,” he said. “It’s better than my mother’s, and getting up there with Grandmother Cerutti.”
She flushed with pleasure, but whatever she was going to say never was said; Sophia got in first.
“Guess who’s arriving tomorrow, Daddy?”
“When you speak in that tone, young lady, it can only be one person—Myron,” said her father.
“Oh!” Sophia looked deflated, then cheered up. “He didn’t say so, but I know he’s visiting to keep me company. The Dormer is on midsemester break, and I did drop him a hint.”
“Like a brick, huh? I’m kinda snowed under at work, so he couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Carmine, smiling.
“Bad?” Desdemona asked.
“What’s going on, Daddy?”
“You know the rules, kid. No police business at home.”
On his way to bed an hour later Carmine visited the nursery, where his nameless offspring lay slumbering blissfully in his crib. Sophia had called him a bruiser, and it was an accurate description; bigboned and overly long, he had his father’s muscular breadth too, though no one could have called him fat. Just a bruiser. His thick, curly hair was black, and his skin a rich tan like Carmine’s. In fact, he resembled his father in all save his length. Feet and hands suggested way over six feet when mature.
It was then, with the Dean of Paracelsus’s words about wives ringing in his ears, that Carmine Delmonico saw the light. This boy could bear any first name with impunity; no one was ever going to intimidate him or mock him. Maybe he needed the brake of a slightly sissy name to rein in his power, his size.
So when Carmine slid into bed alongside Desdemona, he turned to her and took her fully into his arms, body to body, legs around legs. He kissed her neck; she shivered, turned into him even closer, one hand in his cropped hair.
“Julian,” he said. “Julian John Delmonico.”
She emitted a squeak of joy and began kissing his eyelids. “Carmine, Carmine, thank you! You’ll never regret it! Neither will our son. He can carry any name.”
“I’ve just realized that,” he said.
© 2009 Colleen McCullough