فصل 07

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فصل 07

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Chapter seven


Early Tuesday morning, on Main Street in Queens, the weather was just awful. It was pouring, with fat raindrops bouncing off the sidewalks. Car headlights were reflecting off the road surface, in places now inches deep in water. I splashed along the sidewalk. My hat and coat were soaking wet by the time I got to the subway station.

At East 43rd Street, it all seemed like a normal day. Stella was already at her desk going through the morning mail. She gave me her usual bright ‘Hi, Nat.’ But underneath that cheerful exterior, I knew she was deeply worried. As soon as I’d woken up, I’d phoned the hospital to get an update on Jose’s condition. I was simply told: ‘No change’.

The investigation into Jose’s evening at Brighton Beach had made little progress. I’d also had a call from Lena Rosenthal. Oldenberg had given all the relevant police information to Lena, our lawyer. This included the autopsy report on Romanov. We had arranged a midmorning meeting at East 43rd Street.

Over breakfast, I did some thinking. I recalled the basic points of police procedure which I’d been taught years ago at the NYPD Academy. In every investigation, always establish M.O.M., which stands for ‘Motive, Opportunity, and Means.’ Motive - why did the suspect commit the crime? Opportunity - did the suspect have the chance to carry out the crime? Means - did the suspect have the weapon to carry out the crime? But when you applied this system to Jose nothing seemed to make sense. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in a guy having too many drinks and waking up in a strange bar. But how and why could he suddenly come into the possession of a handgun, steal a car, and commit murder?

Later that morning, Lena was going through some of the details of Romanov’s autopsy report with me.

“What worries me Nat, is timing,” she began. “We know that Jose probably left the Odessa Steps at or around nine o’clock. According to this report, Romanov’s time of death was somewhere between 8:45 and 9:45 the same evening. Now, for a drunk who’d just woken up, Jose would have to have been one fast mover.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“There’s absolutely nothing to show how or where he came across Romanov,” Lena continued. “Did he just walk out into the street, wave a car to stop, and then rob and brutally murder the driver? As I see it, there’s no logic here. No supporting evidence apart from the forensics.”

“Anything more in the reports?”

“Cause of death, a gunshot to the head at close range. Romanov was on the ground when he was killed. According to the report, there was bruising on his upper arms which could indicate the killer was standing on his arms when the fatal shot was fired.”

Stella, who had been making some notes, suddenly interrupted.

“Ms. Rosenthal, I need to get something clear. The fingerprints that were found on the gun barrel. Right-hand or left-hand prints?”

“All right-hand prints, according to the report,” Lena replied.

Stella said nothing but just looked down at the notepad.

“Stella, is Jose right-handed?” I asked.

Stella nodded. Another setback. If only Jose was lefthanded. Another possible line of investigation closed.

Oldenberg had not followed official procedure after Dr. Ericson had reported the bruises on Jose’s neck. With some minor blackmail, I could ask a favor. I thought I might have a talk with Oldenberg. I knew a subject that would hold his attention: baseball. His mind is an encyclopedia of baseball history.

“Oldenberg? It’s Marley. Just called to tell you I’ve been admiring a bat used by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of the 1955 World Series.”

There was a low whistle of surprise from Oldenberg. I knew I had his full attention.

“It’s a valuable piece of baseball history,” I continued, “and you can see it for yourself at the Odessa Steps bar on Brighton Beach. They’ve got a whole museum of baseball stuff around the walls. But last Wednesday night, some guy pulled this bat off the wall.”

“Hey, that would be terrible. That guy would be lucky to…”

“Get out of the place in one piece?” I suggested. “That’s what people at the bar told me. And the guy is the accused, Jose De La Cruz. But he got out of the bar somehow. And then look what happened to him. Kind of strange, don’t you think? Especially when the bar staff went suspiciously quiet when I asked what happened after Jose grabbed the bat.”

“I don’t know what to say, Marley. This information might have an effect on the case.”

“Think about it. Now,” I continued, “it’s come to my attention that medical staff at Metropolitan reported bruising on De La Cruz’s neck, which couldn’t have been the result of the car crash. But you didn’t order a medical examination of my client.”

“How did you know about that?” demanded Oldenberg.

“Just doing my job,” I replied calmly. “I have my contacts. I’m prepared to ignore this failure to follow official procedure if you do me a little favor. I need an official introduction from the NYPD to Lockhart, Commander of the Coast Guard Group in Moriches. That’s the Long Island South section.”

“What’s this all about, Marley?”

“Let’s just say another line of inquiry.”

One o’clock. It had been a busy morning and I could hear a cold beer calling my name from McFadden’s Bar. McFadden’s Bar is just a block across town from the office, on Second Avenue, a favorite watering hole for New York journalists. I phoned the bar to check whether Ed Winchester was there. Ed’s an old friend and a wonderful source of information. He’d been chief crime reporter for the Daily News for years, and still did some part-time work for the paper, though he was now officially retired.

No sooner had I entered the bar than I heard my name being called. A tall elderly guy with silver hair and a deeply-lined face was waving an empty glass at me.

“Nat, perfect timing!” Ed said.

“That must mean your glass needs refilling,” I replied.

I took the beers over to an empty table and went though all the recent events with Ed: Romanov’s death, Jose’s night out at Brighton Beach, the wrecked lifeboat, and the bodies on Jones Beach.

“You see, Ed, there seem to be Russian connections everywhere. I was just curious whether you’d heard anything about crime among the Russian community.”

“Money laundering is the big one,” he replied. “In international terms, the Russian ruble is seen as little more than toy money. So much of the real business of crime is done in hard currency, in U.S. dollars. A lot of illegal dollars from that black economy are probably coming in to the U.S.A. from Russia. The problem then is how to integrate that money into the legal economy here without attracting attention.”

I’d heard about money laundering. Anybody running organized crime operations like drugs or illegal gambling receives huge amounts of cash. Thus the need for your friendly neighborhood money launderer to clean the dirty money by transferring it through a network of bank accounts until nobody can find where it came from. Once it reappears at the other end of the process, the money’s clean and legal.

Ed called the crime desk to see if they knew of any money laundering activity in the Russian community. He listened carefully for a couple of minutes, then turned to me with a broad smile.

“There’s a guy by the name of Victor Kamenev” he said. “It seems he was depositing regular amounts of cash, up to ten thousand dollars at a time, in a variety of banks around lower Manhattan. He’s got a business - Kamenev Finance. Of course, there was the usual gossip at the crime desk as to whether he was laundering money for the Russian Mafia but no concrete evidence.”

Ed had delivered the goods again, and cheap at the price of a beer. Another Russian name - but was there any possible connection between Romanov’s death and the wreck on Jones Beach? I walked across town to First Avenue and wandered through the United Nations Plaza over to the East River. Walking time is thinking time so I just ignored the rain. I needed a way to gain access to the Russian community. Alexei Romanov’s widow could be our entry key. But under the circumstances, we might have to be a little economical with the truth.

The initial approach to Mrs. Romanov would need tact and sensitivity - more Stella’s specialty than mine. Back at the office, after describing the plan to Stella, she made that all-important call. Her telephone manner was, as always, perfect.

“Mrs. Romanov? I’m very sorry to disturb you at this extremely sad time. I’m Stella Delgado. My employer, Mr. Nat Marley, is investigating a matter which is of deep concern to the Russian community…”

After Stella had completed the call, we had an appointment for the following afternoon.

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