فصل 10

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فصل 10

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Chapter ten

Witness

It was now just over a week since Alexei Romanov had been found murdered. People’s memories tend to fade once events become part of the distant past. We needed to find witnesses while their memories were still fresh. Maybe the presence of Kamenev would help the bartenders at the Odessa Steps to remember more about Wednesday night.

I left Stella to do some phoning to set up a meeting with Kamenev and Mrs. Romanov. I suggested somewhere like a good restaurant in the Brighton Beach area, but I left the choice up to her. I had received another Coast Guard press release. Another body washed up on Jones Beach. The details were similar to those of the other victims: a male, in his twenties. No form of identification on the body. No definite connection could be made with the previous fatalities on Jones Beach.

But if there was a connection, just how many people had been on board that lifeboat when it left the ship for the Long Island shore? With the information about deaths of innocent Russian boys, I didn’t anticipate too much difficulty in gaining the cooperation of the citizens of Brighton Beach.

I had just finished reading the press release when the phone rang. I recognized the elegant English accent - Edie Tilden.

“Mr. Marley, I’ve seen a very suspicious incident, on Fire Island.”

Had I been wise to encourage that eccentric old lady to play the investigator?

“Tell me all about it,” I said.

“I spent yesterday beachcombing along the eastern tip of Fire Island. And I saw this man who didn’t look like he really belonged on a beach,” she said.

“What do you mean by ‘didn’t belong’?”

“He wasn’t dressed properly. Too formal. He was wearing an overcoat over a gray suit. Shiny black shoes. He was looking out at the ocean through binoculars, but I don’t think he was watching the wildlife.”

“Could you describe him?” I asked.

“Well, he was tall, six feet plus, with a big build. But, you see, Mr. Marley, I saw all this from a distance. As soon as I got closer, he left.”

Perhaps he was frightened by the sight of Edie Tilden. What she had witnessed could be relevant or could have been entirely innocent. Fire Island is the next narrow strip of land off the Long Island mainland, to the east of Jones Beach. Anyway, I stored away the information, thanked her, and returned to our immediate concerns.

Stella had made the necessary arrangements: a midday meeting at Cafe Paris in Brighton Beach. A table had been booked, and Kamenev was on his way to pick us up. It would be a pleasant change to travel to Brighton Beach by car instead of the subway.

Things with Kamenev were now more relaxed, so we were able to get to know one another a little better. Victor Kamenev’s family, we learned, left Russia and settled in America many years ago. Like many in the Russian-American community, Russian was his first language, and he and his relatives had remained true to their cultural roots.

The car was now leaving Manhattan, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Below, the wind was whipping up the waters of the East River into white-tipped waves. Above us, on the footbridge, people were walking into Manhattan, well wrapped-up against the cold. Soon we were cruising along Flatbush Avenue, with the skyscrapers of Manhattan fading into the distance.

The conversation turned to recent events. “Mr. Marley,” Kamenev started, “I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation yesterday. I’ll ask whatever questions you want me to. I can put pressure on people and ask for favors. There are people around Brighton Beach who owe me money. The prospect of negotiating a debt should encourage someone to talk.”

The car was now rolling through the suburbs of Brooklyn. The rest of the journey passed sociably. On arriving at the Cafe Paris, we met Mrs. Romanov, who was waiting in the reception area. We were taken over to our table where I made the introductions.

“Mrs. Romanov. You’ve already met Stella and this is Mr. Victor Kamenev. Mr. Kamenev is as anxious as you are to get justice for your husband. Mr. Kamenev sent the warning note to your late husband.”

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Romanov looked extremely tense. After ordering, Mrs. Romanov questioned Kamenev. A long conversation in Russian. To begin with, Mrs. Romanov’s voice was sharp. I held my breath and crossed my fingers, but soon she sounded much friendlier. I breathed out. Then, they shook hands warmly. Mrs. Romanov addressed everybody. “I’m sorry about that. I needed to be absolutely sure about Mr. Kamenev. Now, I feel I can trust him. This is a very difficult time for me. It’s little more than a week since poor Alexei was so cruelly murdered. I want to thank you all very sincerely for coming here. Mr. Marley, I know you said your interest in this case was personal. Naturally, mine is too. I know you must have other work you should be doing, and this investigation must be a considerable expense.”

“Well, not really, ma’am…” I began.

“Mr. Marley, you’re a very poor liar. I’m hiring you to find my husband’s murderer. Whatever the cost.”

I could certainly use the money. I hadn’t done any other work since I’d heard the news about Jose. And there was still the office rent, taxes, and salaries to pay.

“Thank you, ma’am, I accept. Stella will draw up a contract.”

After a discussion over lunch, there seemed to be two clear avenues of investigation. One was the Odessa Steps. Having a member of the Russian community with us could help to make some progress there. The other avenue was Alexei Romanov’s computer files, particularly those concerning the Immigrant Welfare Society. Computer skills were Stella’s specialty, so she left with Mrs. Romanov to examine the computer, while I paid a visit to the bar with Kamenev.

When we arrived, the lunchtime crowd was building up. I took Victor over to the display of sports souvenirs. I showed him the baseball bat Jose had grabbed. The bat was now securely fixed to the wall with metal bands and strong screws. I gave Kamenev all the background information he might need about Jose’s night out in Brighton Beach.

I recognized the bartender I’d spoken with on my previous visit. He was laughing and joking with the regular customers. His face dropped as soon as he saw me holding up Jose’s picture.

“Remember me?” I asked. “I was asking you about this guy who’d been drinking here last Wednesday night. His name’s Jose and he’s in a lot of trouble. I got the impression you were suffering from a little memory loss. Or maybe you were just confused. I’ve brought a friend along to help you remember.”

The bartender stood there silently. Sweat started to form on his forehead. He looked like a frightened animal, nervous and vulnerable.

“I didn’t see nothing. I swear I didn’t see nothing,” he repeated.

Meanwhile, a smartly dressed guy, who I took to be the manager, joined the bartender.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. “I’ll have no harassment of my staff.”

The moment he made eye contact with Kamenev, the manager froze and lowered his head. Victor spoke to him in Russian. It sounded like a heated argument at first, but tempers soon cooled. The manager waved to the bartender who poured drinks for Kamenev and myself.

“Mikhail, the bar manager, has just remembered how much in debt he is to me. I’ve offered to be flexible about the repayments, provided we get some information. Shall we move into your office, Mikhail?”

The bartender told us that Jose had woken up in the bar alone. He was sleepy and confused. He stood up, reached out an arm, grabbed the baseball bat, fell over and just lay there. The regular customers at the bar were very offended. Who was this guy damaging the sacred bat? Before anyone could lay a hand on him, someone else had got involved and protected Jose from the furious regulars. This guy had taken pity on him and said he’d help get him home.

I was getting very interested indeed. There were a whole lot of questions I needed to ask via Kamenev’s interpreting.

“The guy who helped Jose. Name?” I asked.

The bartender paused and looked fearfully toward his boss, who nodded his permission.

“He’s called Nick Zernov. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay clear of him. He’s a real bad guy.”

That explained why he had the power to protect Jose from an angry crowd. Zernov had seen the opportunity to use Jose as the fall guy to make Jose appear guilty for a murder.

“Give me a full description of Zernov, will you,” I asked.

“Tall, over six feet, and muscular. Black hair cut really short. Thick black eyebrows. His nose looks like someone broke it. Likes to wear expensive suits, shiny material.”

I experienced that thrill you get when you realize some parts of the puzzle might at last be fitting together. I recalled Edie Tilden’s description of the guy she’d seen on Fire Island. I had to remind myself not to get over-excited. We still had nothing concrete yet. I continued with the questioning.

“How drunk was Jose? Could he stand up?”

“He was a bit unsteady after Zernov picked him up, but otherwise OK. He had a few more drinks and then Zernov took him outside. That’s all I know,” the bartender said.

“You know this guy Jose is facing a murder charge. They think he killed Alexei Romanov. Jose was just a harmless drunk. I don’t believe he is the killer,” I said.

The name Romanov meant something to the bartender. His face brightened. “Mr. Romanov helped me and my family. Such a good man.”

I had a final question. “Would you be prepared to tell the police what you’ve just told us?”

Another discussion in Russian between Kamenev and the bartender. The bartender frowned and shook his head. Then he said something, almost in a whisper. Before I got the translation, I knew it meant ‘No’. The bartender was clearly terrified.

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