I decided to let him lie there, since he was not likely to bother anyone, and I went to the kitchen and made coffee. As the stuff gurgled, I lit a cigarette. The police had to be notified, of course. But since very few people know when my alarm goes off, I figured he could be allowed to get a bit stiffer. I sat there in my old blue robe, stared out at the gray morning, nursed my hangover.
It had been a very pleasant party, and I was certain that he had not been present.
It was a long knife—Gurkha—that had been hanging on the wall. Now it was in his chest.
I smoked and thought about it.
Carl Bernini. That was his name. I don’t really know where he came from. We had worked together once, years ago. Had a falling out. Hadn’t seen him in ages. It was puzzling to me, our coming together again this way. I hadn’t done it, though, and I sought after ways to uncomplicate matters as quickly as possible.
I poured a cup of coffee, sipped it, thought, then went and knocked on the door to the back room.
After some coughing and kicking around, Bill Mailer opened it. He and a varying number of guys and gals lived in the back. I put them up, fed them. In return, he and his crew kept the place clean and waited on customers when I was out of town. He was well over six feet in height, dwarfing me, built like a stack of steel-belted radials, and his harem changed by the week. He was ruddy, and he presented a bullet-like appearance because of his cleanly shaved head. I’d never seen him without a white shirt or failed to smell pot when he was around. He occasionally cracked his knuckles, and he was much more intelligent than his blank, blue-eyed expression seemed to indicate. Also, he tended to be completely honest with me.
"What is it?" he asked, buttoning his cuffs.
"Come have coffee with me."
He rubbed an eye, followed me. I poured him a cup, set the sugar bowl before him. He sugared, stirred and sipped.
After a time, he repeated his question.
"Okay," I said. "Come and look."
He rose. He was barefoot, the same as me. We walked into the side room, the one where I keep two Picassos.
"Christ!" he announced, moving to Carl’s side.
"Dead, all right," I said.
"What happened?" he asked, dropping the stiffening wrist he had raised.
"I don’t know. Thought you might."
"Uh-uh," he said. "If I’d done this, I’d be gone, long and far."
"One of your people maybe?"
He shook his head.
"No, I’d know. One of them would run, too—and they’re all there."
"Do you know him?"
"I met him years ago, in Europe, when I was a student. We worked together for a time, had an argument, parted on less than friendly terms. If someone were to look far enough for a connection, they’d find one."
"Are you going to buzz the uniforms—or...?"
I nodded at the first part. He cracked his knuckles.
"Take your people and clear out," I said. "Call me in a month or so, and if I’m still here I’ll let you know whether it’s safe to come back."
"Anything I can do to help you?"
"No. Thanks. Don’t get involved."
"Okay. Give us half an hour?"
"Take it. He’ll stay where he is."
He left the kitchen and I went up, showered, shaved and got dressed. There was fog hanging all over the other side of the window. A light drizzle made noises somewhere overhead.
I waited a while longer before I phoned the cops.
I was shunted about for a time, till I said I had a corpse in my gallery. Then the guy on the other end got interested and told me not to go away, a car would be there shortly.
I went and put up a sign saying CLOSED FOR THE DAY, then stepped outside and wondered: what. I stood there under the awning. I blew smoke back at the fog. I wondered what the hell Carl Bernini was doing in New York. Damned fool. He deserved to be dead. A good man when it came to the Renaissance, though.
Not much of a place, I guess, but it cost me my whole wad. Called Taurus Gallery, after my birth sign. Used to be an old warehouse. I cleaned it up, called it home. Have some nice stuff. Mostly on a commission basis, of course. There’s even a Dali back in the vault. He used coded lacquer patterns, and he trusted me with some of the codes. Put a raking light on a Dali canvas and you can see what he did. That is how you can authenticate one, if you know the code. Whatever, I had been quite respectable for years, and now Carl had to show up and get dead.
Together, we had been able to steal a couple of Tintorettos, lots of Flemish works, ikons and expensive jewelry. My parents had sent me to Europe to obtain an education in art history, as well as to put as much distance as possible between us. I was not too popular in our small community. It was in Florence that I met Carl Bernini, who—learning of my background—had suggested an excellent way to supplement my allowance. So it came to pass that when I was not studying art history I was obtaining it.
I quit that sort of thing some time before I came back to the States. Upon my return, the first thing I mentioned to my parents was going into town on the following day, to enlist and serve a hitch in the military. They said they were quite happy to see me back.
I enlisted because I wished to continue my vacation from responsibility, and also because of a certain curiosity as to whether the trail of accidents which had followed me for much of my life would pursue me into a military organization.
That is the story of the Taurus.
The rain rained.
Lieutenant McInery said my name slowly, frowning somewhat.
"That’s right," I told him.
"Ovid?" he repeated. "Ovid Wiley?"
I spelled the first one for him and he jotted it in his notebook, then, "Never heard a name like Ovid," he said.
"He was an old poet my father liked. I got named after him."
"Was he any good?" he asked.
"I think so."
"Well...What happened here?"
"I don’t know."
"What do you mean? Do you know this guy or don’t you? —Wait! Don’t answer that! We have to take you in, whatever. We can let the guys at headquarters tell you all that crap about your rights. But if you do want to have an attorney with you, you might as well call him from here and have him meet you there. Save time."
"I don’t want an attorney. I didn’t do it. All I did was find him."
He shrugged, partly to his partner who was standing by the door seeming not to watch me, and partly to me.
"Why don’t you make yourself comfortable?" he said. "We have to wait for the homicide crew."
I nodded, moved to a small sofa, seated myself.
"Listen for the radio," he told the other guy, a short, dark man who hadn’t even nodded at me; then, "Mind if I look at some of your pictures?" he asked me.
"Not at all."
As the lieutenant moved off, his silent partner seated himself in a chair near the now opened door and watched me.
After being watched for several minutes, I asked him, "Care for a cup of coffee?"
"No," he said.
I had one myself, and as I drank it I considered what my reply would be when I was finally asked whether I knew the dead man. I decided to deny it.
When the crew arrived some of the men set up lights and began taking photos. Others started dusting things. First the knife, of course.
"What time did you find him?" a captain asked me.
"I didn’t really look at the clock." I told him, "but it was right before I phoned.
"By the way," I added, "please be careful about the paintings."
He gave me a go-to-hell look and no reply. As he turned to walk I drew my key ring from my pocket and removed a spare key for the front door.
"Here," I said, "I wish you would take this and lock the place up when you go."
There came a tightening of brows, followed by a faint smile.
"And where do you think you’ll be?" he asked.
"Down at headquarters," I said. "Lieutenant McInery told me he was taking me in for questioning as soon as you arrived. He had some sort of message to that effect a little while ago."
He turned and looked at McInery.
"Those were my orders," the man told him.
He shrugged, turned back to me and held out his hand.
"Okay, I’ll take the key," he said, "and we’ll lock up when we leave. If I don’t catch you to give it back downtown, it’ll be dropped off here later."
I handed it to him. He turned away then and regarded the late and punctured Carl Bernini.
"Come on," McInery said then. "Let’s take the ride."
He escorted me out to the car.
As we moved through traffic I puzzled over the implication that something involved in the situation was not exactly standard procedure. Could it be that something had already turned up concerning my past? It didn’t seem too likely. It was too deeply buried and there was no reason to look. But even if something had drifted to the surface, what then? I had never committed a criminal act in the States.
I watched the traffic, the unwashed buildings, the rain, the fading fog, the umbrellaed pedestrians, the occasionally back-lighted, shaded windows. I listened to the sounds of the half-awake city.
My main concern as we drove was that nobody dust fingerprint powder on the Chagall that hung above the body.
We arrived and I was formally informed as to all of my rights. I told them that I was not guilty, that I did not desire an attorney and that I would give them a statement free and clear.
So, "Why did you do it?" inquired a man in uniform to whom I had not been introduced.
"I didn’t," I said, and I began the long wait.
After any number of below the belt questions, I said, "Look, I’ll be glad to take a lie detector test if you want."
That seemed to soften them somewhat.
"That is neither required or necessary," the first man said. "Just give me a statement as to your knowledge of what happened."
So I did.
"Do you know the man?" he asked then.
"No," I said.
We exchanged a straight-in-the-eye look. Then, "Are you certain?" he said.
"There was an anonymous phone call earlier, saying that you knew the man when you lived in Europe."
"I give up," I said. "I don’t understand what’s going on."
"We certainly don’t either," he said. "But of course we will have to pursue the acquaintanceship business."
"I don’t care," I told him. "Don’t you think it odd that I’m the one who turned in the report? If I actually am the one who did it, I mean?"
"I don’t know," he said.
McInery and his buddy were called away. My interrogator, a thin, heavily wrinkled man with a jaundiced complexion, had been introduced to me as Del Masters. I was seated across from him in an uncomfortable chair, and the light from the window hit me in the eyes.
"I did not do it," I said. "That’s all I can tell you—and it’s true. I’m upset."
"Understandable," he said, "considering the circumstances."
"...And I have no way of proving it," I added.
"Did you make any other phone calls than the one to us, or talk to anybody afterwards?"
"I see. I am afraid we are going to have to hold you for a while."
He got to his feet.
"Wait a minute!" I said. "How long are you going to hold me and what are the charges?"
"Suspected homicide," he said, and he left the room.
I cursed silently. With all the things I had done, it would be rotten to take a fall for something I hadn’t.
A couple of guys came in and escorted me to a cell. They took away my matches and my belt and my shoestrings.
"I’m not suicidal," I said.
"Procedure," they answered.
I waited. For three days. I was strangely puzzled when I finally asked to be allowed to phone an attorney and they ignored me. They didn’t even question me during that time. It was as if I had been completely forgotten, except at mealtime.
Then the man showed up.
Black suit and plastic briefcase, the latter also black.
He asked me just one question.
"You’re Ovid Wiley?"
"Yes," I said.
"We can remove you from this place," he stated.
"Who’s ‘we’, and where to?" I asked.
"I was thinking of McLean, Virginia."
"Great," I said. "What’s there?"
"CIA," he said.
"Oh? What’s going on?"
"I don’t know," he told me. "My Section Chief will have to explain it to you."
"What effect does this have on this homicide business?"
"I couldn’t say."
"Could your boss?"
"Then let’s go."
...And that is how the whole, mad vista began its very slow clearance before me.
I was released, and my still-nameless escort nodded to a larger version of himself who was standing beside a car smoking. This man opened the side door and nodded to me. I entered. We were never introduced.
After a time, I cleared my throat and inquired, "Mind my asking where we’re headed?"
"I already told you," said the first man, who had taken the wheel and was now studying traffic.
The other sat somewhere out of sight behind me. I guess he wanted it that way.
"I meant," I said, "our immediate destination."
"Exactly," he replied.
"Can’t I at least stop at home to clean up, change clothes?"
"No," he said, and he was right.
So I bummed a cigarette from the man in the rear seat, felt scroungy and watched the taxi drivers pursue their daily duel with everybody. I needed a shave, my clothes were wrinkled, I smelled bad, my muscles ached. I was more puzzled than irritated, however. What could a government agency concerned with security want with a now respectable art dealer, want badly enough to take him away from local homicide people and bring him to their central office? My one connection with their sort of business had been in a small non-war contained by a damp jungle, some tiny farms, frightened villages, stinking swamps and slippery, rocky places sometimes called hills. But there, though, the intelligence people had pulled me back and given me a job filling out forms and yanking folders solely because of my performance in the field. I would get them the information they desired, but I lost so much in the way of aircraft on my reconnaissance runs that I began getting the impression that they would rather have the copters and light planes back than my reports. So I was considered a poor choice when in the field, and I did nothing of any interest when not. I did not feel that the CIA would have any special desire for my skills in the intelligence area.
I pondered this all the way to Kennedy Airport, where the car was left with the rental service, where no one noticed the dented fender and cracked taillight from a small accident on the way over.
All along the line to the ticket counter, I pondered. Then I said the hell with it and told my escorts I wanted to go to the men’s room and wash up. They agreed, and on the way there I bought a small throwaway razor and a tube of shaving cream. When I was finished scraping my face I saw them watching to see that I did indeed dispose of the instrument.
I offered to spring for coffee or a beer, since a heavier than usual mixture of fog and air pollution had delayed the scheduled departure. They decided that coffee sounded like a good idea but they paid for their own.
I dislike crowded, busy places, and when a place’s busy crowds are laden with luggage, briefcases, parcels, cameras, bags, hat boxes, umbrellas and God knows what all, garbed for every clime, babbling, rushing, waiting, standing, sitting, harassed by children and looking lost, with half-comprehensible announcements crackling above their heads, with sonic booms and growling engines somewhere without—all enacted before backdrops of flashing numbers and symbols and words that most ignore, I seldom fail to think of Breughel. It disturbs me, too, as I am rather fond of the mad Dutchman.
We finished our coffee, made our way to our gate and waited through another delay. Four sleepy sailors, a family group, perhaps a dozen students and a number of men with briefcases waited with us. I returned to pondering.
I tuned and focused on the big question again, the one that had occupied most of my thinking while I was in custody. Why did Carl Bernini die in my gallery? He might have gone there to steal something. He was a trifle too far along in years to be learning a new profession. On the other hand, he might have learned that the place was my home and have wanted to see me in a hurry. That didn’t wash, though, as there are plenty of other ways of getting in touch with someone. Whatever, though, he had apparently picked the lock neatly, entered, looked about a bit, gotten knifed, died where he fell.
I reviewed my knowledge of the man: Carl was, or had been, somewhere in his middle fifties; height, about five feet, eight inches; his weight varied within the hundred-fifties; he wore glasses when he read or worked on locks; he seldom indulged in other forms of criminal activity than art theft; he did not drink much other than an occasional glass of wine; he was a heavy smoker; he never spoke of any relatives, though he had had a pretty steady girlfriend named Maria Borsini when I had known him; he was wearing a dark, somewhat shabby suit when I found him. Simple, basic facts, representing nearly everything I knew concerning him. And none of it seemed of use to me now. I felt as if I were trying to seize a fistful of water.
At about this point we were allowed to board. As we did so, I reflected that I had not thought to ask either of my escorts for identification. That way, I might at least have learned their names. I had no doubts as to their authenticity, but it is nice to know who, specifically, is spiriting you away.
They gave me the window seat, the larger fellow depositing himself beside me, the smaller man on the aisle. So I fastened my seatbelt, folded my hands and sighed. Above me, the air jets hissed sympathetically.
May you burn in hell, Carl Bernini! I thought. Then I chuckled as I recalled how much he had loved Dante.
After a time we taxied, turned, waited, then raced through fogs along the runway, were airborne, flew.
Copyright © 2008 by Amber, Ltd.