Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.
“You Mr. Jones?” the driver asked.
“That’s what they tell me,” I said. I looked back through the plate-glass at Alice, her mein a combination of hope and fear. One way or another, her employment prospects would be resolved by tomorrow. I got in the car. The upholstery was worn and stained, with what I didn’t want to know. It smelled of old cigarettes and stale desperation. “Where we heading?”
He didn’t answer; he just put the cab in gear and headed out into the twilight.
Traffic was light but it still took us a while to get there; we went by way of Central Park and the garment district. Not a particularly direct route. Eventually the driver satisfied himself we weren’t being followed and we headed down to the wharves, not far from where Vittorio Fanutti’s last ride had ended at the bottom of the East River. The cab pulled up next to a small warehouse. There were no markings; just a door lit by a solitary bulb. “End of the line, pal,” the driver said.
I nodded and got out. The car sped away as I regarded the door. Not much to do but knock.
I approached slowly, regarding the faces of the buildings staring back at me impassively. A dog barked somewhere, and others answered. Silence reasserted itself; my footsteps sounded like gunshots as I stepped into the pool of light. My knock on the metal door echoed like a 21-gun salute at a funeral. There was a pause, then the slit opened and a pair of dark eyes looked out at me. They regarded me unblinking for three seconds and the slit closed with a snap. I heard a bolt being pulled back and the door swung open silently. It was dark inside.
“You comin’ in or not?” a gruff voice asked.
I was on rails; there were only two directions to go: Forward and back. Back, the outcome was certain, and not good. Forward, though not certain, could be much worse. I stepped into the shadow.
“Got a gat?” the voice asked again. When the door shut behind me I could make out the outline of a man about my height but much wider.
“Yeah,” I said. I prepared to surrender it.
“Ever shot anyone?”
I stopped. “No.”
The gorilla snorted. “Her highness is over here,” he said. As my eyes adapted to the dimness I was able to follow the man across the warehouse floor between nondescript crates on one side and rolls of fabric on the other. We ended at an office door. “Don’t be stupid,” he said to me as he opened the door. Too late for that, I thought.
The office was lit by a lamp on the desk and was almost as dark as the warehouse outside. She sad behing the desk, a trail of smoke streaming up from the neglected cigarette dangling from her languid right hand, forming a gray halo around her. She was dressed in a black and white number that enhanced her already considerable assets. She didn’t seem to notice my arrival at first, though she was looking directly at me. Gorilla closed the door and I made myself comfortable in the the other chair.
“I’ve had some bad news,” she said.
“First you should know Cello paid me a visit,” I said.
“Of course he did.”
“He wants me to double-cross you.”
“Of course he does.”
“I’d be stupid not to.”
“I’m not known for that. You should probably find another guy.”
“Why are you here, Mr. Lowell?”
“I need the money.”
“If you need the money, why are you telling me to hire someone else?”
“You’re paying me to come here tonight. That’ll let me square a couple of debts, and it gives me a chance to step out of this gracefully.”
“Mr. Lowell, I don’t want ‘another guy’, as you put it. That you are straightforward with me simply convinces me that you are the one I need. May I tell you a story?”
I leaned back in my chair. “It’s your dime, sweetheart.”
“Your transparent attempts to repel me won’t work, Mr. Lowell.” I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. She continued, “Do you enjoy wine?”
“I’m not what you’d call a connoisseur.”
She produced a bottle and a cork-puller. “If you could do the honors?” While I struggled with the gizmo she hauled out two glasses, elegant and graceful, and set them on the desk in front of me. I got the cork out with a minimum of bloodshed and began to pour. The wine was deep red and moved slowly. I stopped myself from filling the first glass to the brim.
“You’re supposed to smell it or something?” I asked.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” she said. I topped off the glass and filled the other one. She picked hers up and swirled it around carefully, but didn’t drink. I held off tossing mine back. “Wine and blood,” she said, holding her glass to the light. It felt like we were finally getting to the point. “The wine you’re drinking, Mr. Lowell,” — I hadn’t had any yet — “comes from Spain. It is a tiny village, known only for two things: This wine and an odd painting. Both are called ‘The Blood of the Saint’.
I dared to take a sip. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t feel like I was in church.
“The painting was stolen some time ago. My husband was the thief.”
“Seems like that would be tough to fence.”
“He did not have it stolen to sell it again. He was interested in the work itself. There were stories that the painting held clues to the location of a tremendous treasure. Staggering amounts of gold and ancient artifacts, hoarded by a Moorish king. My husband paid experts to study the painting, but, as many before them, they could not find a pattern. Vic thought perhaps there were clues not visible as the painting hung on the wall. So he had it stolen so his experts could examine the portions hidden by the frame. He was right. A team of historians under his pay removed the frame and found more around the edges that helped them. All those men are now dead.”
“They found the treasure?”
“They drew a map. Vic died before he could do anything about it. I assume they told you I killed him?”
“That is ridiculous. Had I killed him, I would have done it in a way that put the secret into my hands directly. Instead I’m left to scavenge for it, as my only hope for survival. I wanted to run, Mr. Lowell; you convinced me of the futility of that. They think I have the map. They will not rest until they have it.”
“Where is it?”
“That is where I need your help. Mr. Lowell. Charles.” She reached across and touched my arm. “I just want to live. If I can offer Cello the treasure in exchange for my life, he would take it. You can help both of us, without betraying either, and we would both reward you handsomely. Please.” Her voice was a little more desperate, and a lot more Kentucky. “I’m frightened.”
“You said you had bad news.” That seemed to be the only kind of news lately.
“Yes. I had the painting in what I thought was a safe place. It is gone. In its place was letter saying if I continued to look for the treasure I would be killed. Someone doesn’t want it to be found.”
“Or else they don’t want the competition. So if you don’t find the treasure Cello will eventually kill you, but if you look for the treasure someone else will kill you.”
She caught me with her eyes, deep and black and mysterious. I saw the reflection of the lamp in each one, sparks of fire in an infinite sea. There was fear there as well. She set her glass down and leaning forward took one of my hands in both of hers. Her dark hair flowed over her shoulder in shimmering waves. “Will you help me?”
I was doing my best to say “no” when gunfire rang out in the warehouse. The sharp reports of a pistol were answered by the rattle of a tommy gun. Gorilla appeared in the doorway. “You’ve got to—” he was interrupted by another burst from the tommy gun and went down, spraying blood. More pistol shots rang out behind him. I dove behind the desk. Staying low I took Mrs. Fanutti’s arm and hauled her out the door opposite, wondering who I might meet on the other side.
Tune in next time for: Trapped!