M A K I N G L E M O N A D E
by Barbara Paul
Published in Sisters in Crime 4, edited by Marilyn Wallace, Berkley.
Copyright © Barbara Paul 1991
The dead man was Japanese, dressed in a Ralph Lauren suit that had amazingly little blood on it. Mid-forties, dapper even in death. His second-floor apartment reflected an almost stereotypical love of order, of serenity, of delicate objects, at the same time avoiding any chauvinism in its decoration: the clean-lined sofa was a German design, the lighting fixtures were from Sweden. But the ambience remained unquestionably Japanese -- the expanse of open floor space, the lack of clutter, the exact positioning of one perfect bowl on the reflecting surface of a table. The normally bull-voiced uniformed cops who'd invaded the dead man's sanctuary spoke in muted tones, unconsciously adjusting to their environment; designed to soothe, the apartment could also intimidate.
Sergeant Marian Larch knelt on the floor and examined the three small bullet holes in the dead man's chest. What a waste, she thought. His name was Tatsuya Nakamoto, and he was with Sony Corporation; that much she knew. A wedding ring said there was a Mrs. Nakamoto. The owner of the ground-floor apartment directly under Nakamoto's had called the police; he'd heard the shots and had even caught a glimpse of the killer from the back as he ran out of the building. Thin, Caucasian, brown hair, under six feet. Scruffy-looking. Only about a million people in New York who fit that description.
A pane in a glass door leading to the second-floor balcony had been broken from the outside. Next to the balcony grew an elm tree, graceful and decorative and, apparently, climbable. The building itself was on Second Avenue in the East Village; fully renovated and almost lavishly decorated, it was a four-story home to four upscale families who were doing their part to help gentrify the part of Manhattan that fell within the city's Ninth Precinct. Three blocks away were slums; five blocks away were the project houses. Haves unwittingly daring the have-nots to prey upon them; the have-nots frequently taking the dare.
"A doper," said Foley. "Thinks the place is empty. Shinnies up that tree to grab what he can carry in one trip and out again. But Nakamoto surprises him. The doper pops him up close three times with his little twenty-two and hightails it outta here."
Marian nodded; her partner probably had it right. No billfold on the body...but an expensive watch and ring were left; the killer must be new at this. She went out onto the balcony. No leaves, no twigs or little pieces of bark. She reached up and touched the nearest branch of the elm; two leaves detached themselves and drifted to her feet. Marian went back in and gestured to one of the uniformed offi- cers; she asked him to go down and see if he could find any signs that the tree had been climbed. Then if he couldn't, find out if the tree could be climbed.
"You want me to climb the tree."
"All the way, if you can."
The officer didn't quite roll his eyes as he went out. Marian followed him to the door and checked the lock. No sign of a forced entry. She went into the kitchen looking for a back door and found one; the lock had not been forced there either. Slipping on a pair of latex gloves, she grasped the base of the knob and opened the door; on the other side was a landing in the service stairway.
On the landing she spotted a white plastic card of the size meant to be carried in a billfold. Marian picked it up carefully by the edges. On one side was a calendar in print so tiny as to be virtually unreadable. On the other side were the name, address, and phone number of a local pharmacy. 24-HR DELIVERY, it said. Marian put the card in a plastic evidence bag.
"Shit!" came Foley's voice from the living room. The only environment that ever intimidated Foley was the precinct captain's office. Marian went back in and found him bending over the body. "He's still wearing his wristwatch. And a ring."
Glad you noticed, Marian thought.
"We got a amateur here," her partner complained. "This one's gonna be a bitch."
"Amateurs make mistakes." She held up the plastic bag.
Foley turned his head sideways to read the print. "Markham's Pharmacy? Where'd you find it?"
"Service stairway outside the back door. Technically off the premises? But close enough."
Foley snorted. "It fell out of a package being delivered. And the delivery coulda been for another floor."
"True. But how does a card 'fall out' of a package? We'll have to check if Markham's Pharmacy made any deliveries here today."
Foley grunted assent. "And we better find out the last time that stairway was cleaned."
"Good idea." Marian wandered through the rest of the apartment. The bedroom was spacious and masculine-looking, with separate dressing rooms and closets. Still wearing her latex gloves, she opened one of the closets. About three-fourths of the space was taken up with men's suits and shirts; the rest was filled with kimonos. So Nakamoto dressed the part when he was out in the world, but at home he liked the old ways. Marian opened the other closet and found just the opposite proportion: Mrs. Nakamoto had a few suits and dresses, but kimonos made up the bulk of her wardrobe. You didn't have to be a genius to figure that one out.
Marian found no other beds in the apartment; evidently the Nakamotos never entertained overnight guests. She did find a separate dining room, a home office complete with computer and filing cabinets, a room filled with electronic equipment in which a large-screen Sony dominated, several sitting/thinking/whatever rooms; one looked like a small art gallery. And everywhere the décor was pronouncedly masculine. Or maybe it only looks that way to me, Marian thought. The difference could be one of culture, not of gender.
She went back into the living room where Foley stood with his hands in his pockets, scowling at the body on the floor. They were limited in what they could do until the Crime Scene Unit arrived; the CSU almost always beat the detectives to the scene, but not today. The officer Marian had sent down to check the elm tree came back and said, "Sergeant Larch? There was leaf litter all over the ground, but I couldn't see any marks on the bark or broken-off twigs or anything like that. Didn't look to me as if anybody'd been climbing that tree."
"Did you climb it yourself?"
"Tried to, but the damned thing started bending over before I got all the way up to the second-floor balcony. I thought it was going to break. The only one who could climb that tree is a monkey or maybe a small child."
Marian cast an appraising eye over the officer.
"Hundred seventy-six pounds," he said.
She gave him a smile and a thank-you and turned back to Foley. "The glass in the balcony door was broken to make it look as if that's the way the killer got in. But he came in through one of the doors."
Foley scowled. "Nakamoto let him in."
"Or he had a key."
"Either way, it's still no professional hit. The killer's a first-timer."
Marian thought so too. "The Crime Scene Unit's here," she said.
The team of Larch and Foley split up for the time being, a procedure they opted for as frequently as possible. Foley stayed to interview the neighbors and check with the medical examiner; Marian went to break the news to Mrs. Nakamoto. After dusting for prints and taking pictures, the Crime Scene Unit had found two things of interest. One was Nakamoto's billfold in a bureau drawer; it held over four hundred dollars. The other was an appointment calendar that said Mrs. Nakamoto would be at the American Red Cross headquarters on Amsterdam Avenue the entire day. "I'll stop off at Markham's Pharmacy on the way back," Marian said to her partner. "See if you can find out when the service stairs were last cleaned."
Foley grunted the grunt that Marian had learned meant "Okay." She took the car and headed across town to the West Side Highway, which she followed uptown to Amsterdam. Then she got lucky and found an illegal parking place. Inside the Red Cross offices, a man named Greg Seaver told her Mrs. Nakamoto was in a fund-raising committee meeting. "May I help you? Or would you like to wait?"
Marian showed him her badge. "Sergeant Larch, NYPD. It can't wait, Mr. Seaver. I need to talk to her now."
Either her tone of voice or her badge convinced him. "I'll get her. Wait here, please."
"We'll need a private place to talk."
"You can use my office."
He returned immediately with a small Japanese woman wearing American clothing easily and even with flair. She had her hair cut short and was carefully made up -- model-pretty, in fact. "Mieko, this is Sergeant Larch of the police." When he'd finished his half an introduction, Seaver withdrew from his office and left them alone.
"Yes?" Mieko Nakamoto said with that strong upward lilt that made the word sound like a challenge even though it was not intended as such.
Marian had her sit down, and as gently as possible she explained what the police had found in the Nakamoto apartment. She told the new widow that her husband had almost surely died immediately and did not suffer. Mrs. Nakamoto's eyes grew bigger as she listened while her mouth seemed to grow smaller. In her lap her small-boned hands clasped and unclasped themselves. Finally after an extended silence she stood up and excused herself. Through the glass wall of the office Marian watched her walking rigidly toward the ladies' room. She made no move to follow; the woman needed privacy.
Greg Seaver was hovering anxiously outside the office. With a sigh Marian motioned him in and told him that Tatsuya Nakamoto had been murdered.
"Oh my god," he gasped. "What a dreadful -- oh, poor Mieko! Murdered? Who...?"
"It's too early yet," Marian said. "Mr. Seaver, did you know Mr. Nakamoto?"
"I met him once. A very formal, traditional man. I don't think he entirely approved of Mieko's working here. Damn -- what a godawful thing to happen!"
"He didn't approve?"
"Well, he asked me if I thought it was gracious to importune strangers for money," Seaver said with an annoyed laugh. "Gracious! But he'd disapprove of any place Mieko worked. I remember thinking at the time that he probably wanted her to stay at home and wear a kimono. I know he looked offended when I addressed her by her first name."
"Does Mrs. Nakamoto have a salaried position here?"
"Oh no, she does volunteer work. Mieko has a real talent for fund-raising -- we're lucky to have her."
"I'd have thought the Red Cross used professional fund-raisers."
"National Headquarters does. We're just the local chapter here."
"Ah. Tell me, what time did Mrs. Nakamoto come in today?"
He gave her a strange look. "Is it true, you always suspect the spouse first? Mieko came in around ten this morning, and she's been here ever since." They both looked at their watches; it was 11:50 A.M. "Sergeant, if Mr. Nakamoto was killed any time after ten this morning, there's no way Mieko could have done it."
Marian didn't mention that the police had been called around nine-thirty. Mrs. Nakamoto came back, minus much of her make-up; she'd probably washed her face with cold water. Greg Seaver tried to tell her how sorry he was, but it was an awkward moment. He obviously wanted to put an arm around her and comfort her, but Mrs. Nakamoto's entire demeanor said Don't-Touch-Me. Finally at a look from Marian, Seaver edged out and left them alone again.
"Where is my husband?" Mrs. Nakamoto asked in a high voice. Marian explained about the medical examiner and the law's requirement that autopsies be performed in all cases of violent death. In response to Marian's questions, Mrs. Nakamoto said her husband had been working at home today, in preparation for a meeting tomorrow morning. No, his working at home was not unusual; he had done it several times before. No, he was not expecting anyone, as far as she knew. The widow could have been an automaton, answering precisely and briefly, volunteering nothing. Marian said she'd like her to check the apartment to see if anything was stolen.
"Yes. I will do that now." Without another word, Mrs. Nakamoto rose and walked out. Marian watched her go, stiff-backed, taking small steps, head not moving. She marched past Greg Seaver without a glance.
Marian walked over to him and asked, "Is it the bad news, or is she always that withdrawn?"
He sighed. "Most of the time she's friendly in a shy sort of way, but sometimes she's exactly the way you saw her. With Mieko, it's hard to know what's going on."
It is indeed, Marian agreed.
It was close to four o'clock before Marian and Foley got together in the Precinct Detectives Unit room on the second floor of the Ninth Precinct stationhouse. Foley reported that the neighbors had nothing to tell him about the Nakamotos; the Japanese couple were quiet people who kept to themselves. They'd bought the apartment about two years ago and were on courteous speaking terms with the other three families in the building. And that was it.
"The outfit that does maintenance for the building was there yesterday," Foley said, "and they cleaned the service stairway as well as the main entry and the elevators. I asked 'em what they'd do if they found a cheap plastic billfold calendar, and they said they'd toss it."
"What time were they there?" Marian asked.
"Late afternoon. So that calendar was dropped either last night or earlier today. What about Markham's Pharmacy -- did you talk to 'em? Any deliveries?"
"Not within the past two weeks. They do deliver regularly to the building, though, to the Nakamotos and to the family living on the fourth floor. Markham is the pharmacist and owner, and he told me they put some sort of promotional material in every package they deliver -- this month it happens to be billfold calendars. But get this, Foley. Every package is sealed with tape before it leaves the pharmacy so nothing will get lost. There's no way the plastic calendar could have fallen out of a package, even if there had been a delivery this morning."
"Hah. So chances are good it did belong to the killer. Maybe he tried to use it to force the lock."
"It wouldn't have worked. Too much overlap by the door frame."
"I know it wouldn't have worked, Larch," Foley said irritably. "I said maybe he tried to use it. This is a fuckin' amateur we're dealing with, remember?"
"All right, all right. But I did get something from Markham. I asked him if his delivery boy was thin, brown-haired, scruffy-looking, and he said no, he was plump and had curly red hair. But then he said the description did fit his former delivery boy, whom he'd had to let go just a couple of weeks ago. Seems the kid was good on the job but he had a way of not showing up for work a lot, and Markham needed someone he could rely on."
Foley grinned. "Name and address?"
"Derek Brown. He lives in the projects. So what are we waiting for? Let's go."
"First thing tomorrow morning," Foley said, getting up and putting on his coat. "It's five after four -- we're off duty."
Marian made a noise of exasperation. "Foley, sometimes I don't believe you! Here we have the name and address of a probable killer, and you want to let it ride because we're off duty?"
"Better say that a little louder, Larch," Foley scoffed. "I'm not sure the captain heard you." And with that he was gone.
Marian slapped at her desk in frustration. Then she too got up and put on her coat; she could no more let her curiosity about Derek Brown go until next morning than she could do without food for a month. She left her car in the lot across the street from the stationhouse on East Fifth and walked the two blocks to the Lillian Wald project houses between Columbia Avenue and FDR Drive.
Derek Brown lived on the third floor of his building; Marian took the stairs rather than risk the elevator. The smell of spicy cooking mingled with the odor of urine and stale marijuana; the din from televisions and boom-boxes was formidable. A more different atmosphere from the one in the Nakamoto apartment Marian couldn't imagine. The dirty walls were covered with graffiti; gang signs adorned most of the doors. Two black boys of about eleven or twelve raced noisily down the hall, banging on doors as they passed. One of them tried to give Marian's backside a squeeze, but she stiff-armed the kid and sent him on his way.
She came to the door she was searching for and knocked. After a moment it opened the width of its restraining chain and the suspicious face of a little girl peered up at her. Someone was coughing in the room behind the child. "Hi, I'm here to see Derek," Marian said. "Is he home?"
The girl disappeared without a word and her place at the barely-opened door was taken by a thin-faced young man with deep shadows under his eyes. "You want to see me?"
Marian held up her badge. "Derek Brown? I need to ask you some questions. May I come in?"
"Look, I'm not feeling so hot. Could you come back another time?"
"It won't take long. Let me in."
He did, reluctantly, turning his head aside to cough. Marian stepped into a dark room that held only a few pieces of shabby furniture; except for a pillow and a rumpled blanket on the sofa, the place was as neat as the people living in such a dump could make it. Marian turned and faced Derek Brown; he fit the neighbor's description of the killer exactly, even to the scruffy-looking part. Brown looked about thirty, maybe a little older. And it was clear he felt rotten.
He sank down on the sofa and pointed to an aluminum kitchen chair against the wall. Marian sat down and introduced herself; she asked the girl her name. The child didn't want to answer at first, but Brown murmured something and she said, defiantly, "My name is Alison -- all right?" A big chip on that small shoulder.
"Your daughter?" Marian asked Brown.
He managed a laugh that turned into a cough. "Alison is ten. I'm nineteen. Even if it were possible, at nine I hated girls. No, Alison's my sister."
Nineteen. She'd thought he was thirty. Before Marian could start on her questions, a woman's voice called out from the apartment's only other room. "Derek? Who is it?"
A woman in a wheelchair maneuvered her way through the doorway separating the two rooms. Late forties, heavy arms and shoulders, shriveled legs. Bifocals, fading brown hair. She looked straight at Marian and said, "If it's about that Hernandez boy, we didn't see anything."
"No, ma'am, I'm not here about that." Marian would have preferred to interrogate Brown alone; but the apartment was so small that even if she did ask the other two to go into the bedroom, they still would have heard every word that was said. "Where's Mr. Brown?" she asked the woman in the wheelchair.
"Gone." She added no explanation.
Marian turned back to the young man on the sofa. "You used to work at Markham's Pharmacy?"
He nodded. "Up until a couple of weeks ago."
"Until old man Markham fired him 'cause he got sick," Alison spoke up belligerently.
"Alison," Mrs. Brown said firmly. "Keep quiet."
"Did you ever make a delivery to the Nakamoto apartment on Second Avenue?"
"Yeah, and to the Wyatts, too," Brown said. "Fourth floor, same building."
"When was the last time you made a delivery to the Nakamotos?"
"Oh, uh, about a month ago, I guess. Why?"
"Mr. Nakamoto was murdered earlier today."
All three of them reacted differently. Mrs. Brown looked shocked. Alison's eyes narrowed and she moved to put the sofa between herself and Marian. Brown closed his eyes and turned his head away. After a moment he looked back at her and said, "I'm sorry to hear that."
"How well did you know Mr. Nakamoto?"
"I never met him. Mrs. Nakamoto took all the deliveries. Nice lady."
"Were you in their building today?"
Mrs. Brown gripped the arms of her wheelchair. "Are you accusing my son of murder?"
"I'm not accusing anyone of anything. I just want to know if he had any reason to be in that building today."
"What reason could he have? He lost his job, you know that. Besides, he hasn't been anywhere. Look at him! Can't you tell he's sick?"
"Mom." Brown cleared his throat. "I've been here all day, Sergeant."
"Yeah, and we'll swear to that in court!" Alison piped up.
Funny thing for a ten-year-old to say. "The killer was seen leaving the building," Marian went on, "and you answer the description."
"It wasn't Derek!" Alison screeched. "He was here!"
"Would you be willing to participate in a line-up?" It was a test question; a line-up would be of no use since the neighbor never saw the killer's face. Brown passed the test...almost. "Sure, why not? Only not right now. I really don't feel well, Sergeant."
"It's time for you to go," Mrs. Brown said abruptly. "Go on -- leave him alone. Get out."
Alison left her safe place behind the sofa and ran to open the door. Marian stood up. "Have you seen a doctor?" she asked Brown. He nodded weakly.
"Go away!" Alison commanded.
Marian went away.
At eight o'clock the following morning Marian and Foley were sitting in Captain DiFalco's office, all three of them wanting another cup of coffee before getting on with the day's work. "Of course they'd alibi him," DiFalco growled in response to Marian's report. "His mother and his sister? You didn't believe 'em, did you ?"
"No," Marian said. "But it's a tough situation, Captain. Derek Brown is the sole support of a crippled mother and a ten-year-old sister, and he's just lost his job. The Browns are a family that's obviously come down in the world. They're well-spoken people and still civilized, in spite of living in the projects for god knows how long. The girl's starting to turn, though. They need money to get out of there, and Brown could be desperate enough to kill for it."
"Did Mrs. Nakamoto let us know if anything was stolen?"
"Not yet. I thought I'd go talk to her when we finished here."
"Why bother?" Foley asked. "She don't know anything."
"I want to ask her about Derek Brown, for one thing -- if she's seen him in the last couple of days, like that. Besides, she wasn't very communicative yesterday, understandably. I just want to wrap it up."
"Okay," DiFalco said, "but one of you ought to go to Sony -- they haven't been told yet, have they?"
Foley say, "Not unless Mrs. Nakamoto called them. I'll go. You don't need two of us to talk to the lady." So once again the team of Foley and Larch would be able to split up.
"Any reason to treat this as anything other than a straight shoot-and-grab?" the captain asked.
"No," said Foley.
"Maybe," said Marian. "What about the faked entry? An ordinary shoot-and-grab wouldn't try to make it look as if he'd entered one way when in fact he'd come in by another. Why bother? The killer must have had a key -- Nakamoto wouldn't have let a stranger into his home."
"He was their drugstore's delivery boy, for Christ's sake!" Foley snorted. "Nakamoto would let him in."
"Derek Brown told me he'd made all the deliveries to the wife. The husband wouldn't have known who he was."
"If Brown was telling the truth."
Captain DiFalco was scowling. "Still, it's a loose end. Foley, nose around a bit while you're over at Sony. Find out if Nakamoto had any problems, see if he confided in anyone. You know what to look for."
Foley grunted. "Anything else?"
"Both of you call in when you're finished. The lab report should come through sometime this morning. And take tape recorders with you -- see if you can get some statements."
Mieko Nakamoto opened the door to Marian's ring; she was dressed in an American blouse and skirt, and she admitted Marian courteously but with no show of either resentment or welcome. Marian asked if anything had been stolen.
"Oh yes," Mrs. Nakamoto said in her high voice. "Two things. A thirteen-inch television we kept in the kitchen, and a compact disc player."
"Where was the disc player?"
"It was in the room with the big television." Mrs. Nakamoto swallowed. "Do you think he takes only what he can carry under each arm?"
"Either that," Marian said, "or that's what we're supposed to think. Why didn't he take the computer? That's worth more than the TV. And the watch your husband was wearing was worth more than both of them together. There was cash in the apartment -- four hundred dollars in your husband's billfold. But the killer didn't touch that." Marian looked around her. "As far as that goes, there are any number of things he could have taken from right here in the living room. But instead he goes into the kitchen for a small TV set and into a different room for a CD player. Why the kitchen at all? Doesn't make sense."
Mrs. Nakamoto started to say something, but then pressed her lips together and kept quiet.
Marian took a deep breath and said, "Mrs. Nakamoto, I want you to let me take a look at your husband's papers -- bank statements, that sort of thing. I can get a warrant, but you'd save me time if you just give your permission."
The Japanese woman's face was blank. "But what do bank statements have to do with the burglar?"
"Maybe he wasn't an ordinary burglar. Please, Mrs. Nakamoto -- it's better if you give permission."
She assented, although it was clear the request disturbed her. She led the way into her husband's home office, where Marian was surprised to find the bank statements already spread out on the desk. "I was trying to understand my financial situation," Mrs. Nakamoto explained.
Marian nodded and sat down at the desk, determined to make it fast; the woman obviously felt invaded. The bank records proved what Marian had suspected. The various accounts were all in Tatsuya Nakamoto's name. There were health, auto, and home protection insurance policies, but no life insurance. Nakamoto had accumulated extensive stock holdings, also in his name alone. Mieko didn't have a cent of her own.
Mrs. Nakamoto's face finally showed some expression when Marian left; it was relief. Down on the street, Marian found a phone and called in, as instructed. She told Captain DiFalco what she'd learned.
"Uh-huh. This one's sounding phonier by the minute," he said. "He passed up that roomful of electronic equipment except for one CD player, but he checked out the kitchen before he left? Something going on there, but for now just bring Derek Brown in -- I've already asked for a warrant. I got the lab report, and his prints are on that plastic calendar you found, clear as daylight. He was there, all right."
"Hm. How'd we happen to have his prints?"
"He once tried to hold up a liquor store -- get this -- with a baseball bat. But the owner had a gun. Chased him off with no trouble at all. The charges were eventually dropped because the owner didn't want to close the store long enough to come in and testify."
"Yeah. Foley hasn't called in yet. Stay where you are, and I'll send you a couple of uniforms for back-up."
"Not necessary, Captain. Derek Brown is sick, and he's stick-thin anyway. I could pick him up and carry him in."
"And so he's not dangerous? For god's sake, Larch, the guy's a killer! You know better than that."
Marian sighed. "Yes, sir." She told him where she was and waited.
In less than five minutes a Radio Motor Patrol car pulled up to the curb. Marian climbed into the backseat and learned the two uniformed officers sent to back her up were called Washington and Esposito. She explained that she was to arrest a sick nineteen-year-old, and that their main function was to stand there and look authoritative. Washington and Esposito allowed as how they could handle that, and Esposito headed the RMP back toward the project houses.
Esposito found an unused fire hydrant to park by, and the three headed inside, automatically bypassing the elevator in favor of the stairs. Marian knocked politely on the Browns' door, and then less politely, and finally ended up pounding with both fists and yelling "Police!" At last the door opened a crack and Mrs. Brown looked up at her from her wheelchair.
"Mrs. Brown, I'm Sergeant Larch. I was here yesterday."
"I remember you." She didn't sound happy about it.
Marian didn't blame her. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but I'm here to arrest Derek. Please open the door."
"You can't arrest him! He hasn't done anything!"
"Open the door, Mrs. Brown. We have to come in."
"Derek isn't here!"
"Let us come in and see for ourselves."
"He isn't here! Go away!"
Marian turned to the two officers, none too fond of this part of her job. "Break it down," she said.
"No! Wait, wait!" Mrs. Brown closed the door long enough to slip off the chain and then let them in. Washington and Esposito immediately searched the two-room apartment, a task that took all of ten seconds.
"Nobody here," Washington said.
"Where is he, Mrs. Brown?" Marian asked.
The woman in the wheelchair started crying, making Marian feel even worse than she already felt. The two uniformed officers shifted their weight uncomfortably and exchanged a look; suddenly they were the heavies.
"Mrs. Brown?" Marian nudged gently. "Where's Derek?"
The older woman took several deep gulps of air and blurted, "He's in the hospital! Now will you leave him alone?"
Marian knelt down by the wheelchair so her face was level with the other woman's. "Mrs. Brown," she said softly, "your son has AIDS, hasn't he?"
All the fight seemed to go out of the crippled woman. She dropped her face into her hands and her whole body began to shake with great wracking sobs. She didn't make a sound, but the three cops in the room heard every cry.
They were able to track down the overworked doctor at Bellevue who'd seen Derek Brown when he was admitted. The doctor told them bluntly that Brown wouldn't be leaving the hospital, ever. It was a matter of days, perhaps hours. He should have been in the hospital long ago, the doctor complained; they could have at least made him more comfortable. No more than one visitor at a time, please. The doctor hurried away without a backward glance.
Marian turned to Washington and Esposito. "I guess I won't be needing you anymore. Thanks for your help." The two men mumbled something and left, eager to get away from the place.
The ward where Derek Brown was to spend his last hours was depressing and a little scary, with its run-down look and its battered metal carts of Dr. Frankenstein medical equipment and its rows of curtained-off beds -- dying-places, Marian thought. A nurse directed her to Derek Brown's bed; Marian opened the curtain and slipped inside.
In spite of thinking she was prepared, she was shocked by his appearance. He looked ten pounds lighter and twenty years older than yesterday; she wondered how he managed to keep breathing. After a moment he opened his eyes and saw her standing there. He twisted his thin lips into a wry smile. "I thought I'd be seeing you again," he rasped.
There was no chair and no bedside table. Marian gritted her teeth and took out the tape recorder; she identified herself, Derek Brown, the time, the place. Then she put the machine on his pillow and asked if he understood he was being recorded. He said he did.
She hated what she had to do. "You know why I'm here, don't you?" she said slowly. "You left your calling card for us to find. We know who killed Mr. Nakamoto, and we know why. We don't have the gun yet, but we do have your prints at the scene. And we know why you let yourself get sucked into such a scheme. But it was all for nothing. It's over, Derek."
A long silence followed. Then a raspy sigh floated up from the bed. "Yes, it's all over." He breathed noisily for a moment or two. "I'm not sure I ever believed it would work."
"It was part of the deal you made," Marian went on, "that you leave something behind to incriminate yourself. You knew you weren't going to live long enough to be prosecuted -- you'd never go to prison. So you agreed to take the blame in exchange for...security for your family? How was that supposed to work, Derek?"
There were tears in his eyes. "A trust fund. For my mother and my sister."
"And you trust a murderer to keep her word?"
"It was already set up. All she had to do was sign one paper, as soon as Mr. Nakamoto was dead and the money was hers." A look of pain crossed his face. "That man never did anything to me. I'm sorry he's dead." He was quiet a moment. "It was the only chance I had of getting my family out of the projects. Do you know Alison carries a knife? A ten-year-old girl carrying a knife. And Sergeant, I couldn't tell her not to." A long spasm of coughing overtook him.
"Take your time," Marian said.
When he'd recovered a little strength, he actually mustered up a smile. "You know what they say you're supposed to do when life hands you a lemon...well, I tried. I did the best I could."
He probably had, at that. "Where's the gun?"
"Pushed down between the sofa back and the seat...you know, that sofa where I sleep. You'll find only my fingerprints on it." He coughed again. "I got that gun for her -- not hard to do, where I live."
"Were you there when she shot him?"
"In the kitchen." He had to wait until he had the breath to go on. "I heard the three shots, and then she brought the gun to me. I dropped the little calendar with my fingerprints on it and stumbled down the back stairs making as much noise as I could."
"How did she get out of the building without being seen?"
"Out the front way, while the guy downstairs was busy gawking at me." Another pause. "Sergeant, what's going to happen to my mom and my sister?"
"They won't be abandoned," Marian promised. "I'll call Social Services today. They'll work out something -- don't worry about your family. They'll be taken care of."
He closed his eyes. "It was Social Services that put them in the project house."
There was nothing she could say to that. The Social Services Department would do the best it could -- but it was never enough. Never.
His breathing seemed shallower. "Sergeant," he whispered, "I did the best I could."
"I know," she said.
A few minutes of silence passed and Marian began to fear he was dead. But then she saw his chest rising slightly and falling again; only sleeping. Grateful that she wouldn't have to watch him die and ashamed for being grateful, she turned off the tape recorder and made her way out of the depressing ward.
She barely saw where she was going. The mother in a wheelchair, the son with AIDS, and the ten-year-old daughter carrying a knife to protect herself. You know what they say you're supposed to do when life hands you a lemon. And a small Japanese woman had provided him with the means for doing it.
Marian took a cab back to where she'd left her car parked near the Nakamoto apartment on Second Avenue. She should phone for Washington and Esposito, but she wanted to handle this alone. She'd worry about Captain DiFalco later.
Mrs. Nakamoto answered the door with the same expressionless face she'd shown Marian earlier. "Sergeant Larch. This is the second time you have been here today."
"It will be the last. May I come in?"
The Japanese woman stepped back and allowed her to enter -- an important legal nicety, since Marian didn't have a warrant. Standing just inside the door and without offering a word of explanation, she took out the tape recorder and started it playing.
As Mrs. Nakamoto came to understand what she was listening to, her shoulders began to slump and her head bowed. Already small, she seemed to shrink to child-size as Marian watched. The small-boned hands clasped each other so tightly the knuckles were white. When at last she lifted her head, it was to show Marian the face of despair. "It was my chance," she whispered. "It was my only chance."
Marian turned off the tape recorder. "No, it wasn't," she said, more harshly than she intended. "You didn't have to kill him. There were other ways."
The small woman flared, the first sign of passion she'd shown. "You know nothing of my life! You know nothing of our ways!"
"Perhaps not," Marian said, "but I do know the laws of this country. You didn't have to kill him, and you didn't have to bribe that poor sick boy to take the fall for you. You have the right to remain silent -- "
"It was the best I could do!"
Marian continued reading her her rights, and then told her to get a coat. "You can call your lawyer from the station," she said, "as soon as we book you."
Mrs. Nakamoto asked permission to bring a purse; Marian told her all right, but it would be taken away from her once she was booked. The Japanese woman moved slowly, so slowly, trying to postpone the inevitable. At last she was ready, and Marian waited while she locked the front door. The cop handed the prisoner a set of handcuffs and told her to put them on.
In the car, the silence stretched out painfully. Then Mrs. Nakamoto said, in a voice even higher than usual, "I wish to honor my commitment to Mrs. Brown and the girl."
Marian took her eyes off the traffic for a moment to stare at her; could she truly be that naive? "The law says you can't profit from a felony. You're not going to get one cent of your husband's money."
"I understand that." Her hands were clasping and unclasping again. "But all that is required to make the trust fund legal at this point is my signature. I have not been, ah, booked yet, and the money is mine right now. Right now, at this moment, it is mine. I can sign it away to Mrs. Brown if I wish."
"That's crazy. Once you're booked, the trust will be invalidated."
"Perhaps...but perhaps not. How is the law to know of the arrangement? The bank officer will not wish to lose the administration of the trust. Neither Mrs. Brown nor I will speak of it. Only you, Sergeant Larch, stand in the way. But if you take me to the bank before you book me, then Derek's mother and sister will be taken care of."
"Crazier and crazier. Even if your bank officer were willing to turn a blind eye -- and I think you're assuming a hell of a lot there -- too many other people at the bank will know about the trust. You think they're all going to break the law just to help you ease your conscience?"
Mrs. Nakamoto's breathing was becoming shallower. "People... do not wish to trouble themselves, on the whole. I understand there are many ways the trust may fail. But if there is even one small chance it will succeed...then I must try, do you not see?"
Oh, Jesus! "Mieko, do you have any idea what you're asking me to do?" Marian said miserably.
"I understand. And I ask."
They rode in silence, for one city block, then another. At last Marian said tightly, "Which bank?"
"The Chase Manhattan on Madison."
Marian turned the car uptown. One man was dead, another was dying, and a woman was going to prison. But maybe Alison Brown wouldn't have to carry a knife anymore. "This isn't going to work," she muttered.
"Perhaps not." Mrs. Nakamoto stared straight ahead. "But I am doing the best I can."
"Yes," Marian said, and pressed down on the accelerator.