Magic Eight Ball








Chapter 1, Scene 2

So County Chief of Detectives Michelangelo Giamonte sucked in a chestful of air and spoke as if reading these facts off a police-department press release for the thousandth time: "On New Year’s, an hour after midnight, Emma Hartt, a well-known fashion model only ten years old, goes missing." He took another breath. "The father, Joel Hartt—widower, prominent local real-estate developer—allegedly searches the house and finds a ransom note, but no daughter. Note says to keep the cops out of it, so he does, for a few precious hours. Instead, he calls his best friend-slash-business partner, and they go over the house again, hoping to figure out what happened or who took her. Friend discovers a broken window in the basement, looks around some more and finds the little girl. Stuffed in the water-heater closet. Strangled with a length of heavy chain. Looks like a kidnapping attempt gone bad. Father finally calls in the locals at 6 a.m. By the time my boys get there, the crime scene is compromised and Hartt is only talking through his lawyer."
    The recital seemed to drain him. "Nothing like starting a murder investigation with a holiday hangover."
    So far, Mickey hadn’t told me anything I couldn’t have read in any paper in the country by now. "So why didn’t Joel find his daughter’s body when he was first looking?"
    "Claims he wasn’t looking for a body. Claims he’d found the ransom note on the hall table and never got down to the basement."
    "Pretty strange that he lawyered up so soon."
    "Joel’s a pretty strange guy—you must remember that much."
    I thought of the boy I’d known, long-limbed, with a slender, pinched face and constant scowl—the dark side of Dick Van Dyke. You could have carved a full-size replica of Mount Rushmore from the chip on his shoulder. "Yeah, but not the kind of strange the media’s been accusing him of. He was annoying, but not sick. I don’t see him killing his own child. And molesting her? You know that for sure?" At least Mickey might be straight with me there.
    "Nothing definite." Mickey sighed heavily. "He lost his wife two years ago and from what I’d heard, that nearly drove him nuts. Who knows what a guy goes through after that? Plus he’d had an auld-lang-syne party in the house, lots of expensive booze. Champagne—Veuve Clicquot, by the way. Though I prefer Cristal, if you’re thinking of getting me a present. Anyway, the guys who responded to the call that night, said Hartt looked like he’d been run over by the Budweiser Clydesdales."
    "But you have no evidence that he did it."
    His anger flashed. "Do you think if we did, we’d suppress that? That his money could buy that kind of silence? You’re like everyone else—thinking cops are a bunch of animals!"
    I leaned away from his disgust. "Not me, buddy. I’m just asking what the public wants to know. Consider this your chance to set the record straight. And you seem to have no other suspects."
    He simmered. "No fingerprints, no nothing, except what you’d expect. Just those who lived in the house. The break-in looked staged. The shards of glass, most fell outside under the window, like it had been smashed from inside the room. That warm spell right before Christmas melted the little bit of snow we had the week before, then the cold snap right after froze the ground too hard to take a footprint. If there were any to be found."
    "You’re thinking it was an inside job?"
    Mickey shrugged. "Someone had to have a pretty good idea of more than just the layout of the house. The so-called kidnapper hadn’t come prepared’he wrote the ransom note with a pad and pencil from a kitchen drawer. How’d he even know where to find it? Didn’t make sense then and it still doesn’t."
    "No handwriting match?"
    "Nothing conclusive. But then, the note was all in perfect block capitals—just like the nuns taught us in kindergarten penmanship."
    "But Joel is Jewish. He went to Lincoln."
    "Hey, thanks for reminding me, Rinaldi! That clears him absolutely." Mickey gave me a look. "The bottom line is, his story doesn’t wash, but we can’t shake him on it and can’t turn up anyone or anything that contradicts it."
    "You said he had a party that night. Maybe someone stayed behind in the house, then faked the break-in to divert suspicion."
    "You don’t think we thought of that? But it wasn’t a crowd, just three couples." Mickey looked at me, as if expecting a question I didn’t ask. He shrugged. "They all left around the same time. Joel saw each one out the door and they saw each other drive off. And don’t say they were all in on it together. You may be hung up on old movies, but this isn’t Murder on the Orient Express."
    "I can’t imagine a ten-year-old would have that many enemies."
     "But her father does. Or at least people who might want to see his life effed up. He’s into a lot of shit in this town, developing the waterfront. Many millions to be made if you have a piece of it. Some of those deals could have turned nasty and he’s got more pending, once the economy turns around. There’s a lot at stake for a lot of people. That’s what’s made this a nightmare to look into. But then again, it was New Year’s Eve. The obvious contenders were toasting 1992 in full view of their nearest and dearest well into the morning."
    "But if someone paid somebody else—"
    "Man, you have a devious mind! Remind me not to double-cross you again." Mickey drained his glass while waving at Georgie again. He took a swig as soon as Georgie set down the new pilsner. "Yeah, there’s that, and, sure, we’ve been working the underground pipeline. There may not be much honor among thieves, but a lot of them might have had second thoughts when they heard a kid died. Nobody likes that. Plus there are the usual suspects—lowlifes who think they can get rich quick kidnapping a millionaire’s daughter, then something goes wrong. But no one’s heard anything."
    "Maybe just somebody passing through."
    "Naw, it would have to be someone with more contact with Hartt. He’d just gotten some foreign financing for a megashopping center on the South End. The ransom asked for the exact figure of the deal, one-point-two million. Who’d ever come up with that figure out of nowhere? It can’t have been a coincidence and news of the signing didn’t hit the papers until after the murder. Someone had to know beforehand."
    "Then that narrows it." But my head was spinning
    Now Mickey looked annoyed. "That narrows it to Joel Hartt, and we’re right back where we started. Given the time frame, it’s hard to see how someone from the outside could have done what he—or she—would have had to do, without Hartt knowing about it."
    "What time frame?"
    "Joel claims his kids were safe and asleep when he checked around twelve-thirty, and that a noise got him out of bed to look in on them again a few minutes before one. That leaves no more than a half-hour for someone to come in after being sure all his guests had left, make it from the basement to the second floor—stopping in the kitchen to write a lengthy, rambling ransom note, mind you——grab the girl, get her down to the basement, find a chain to strangle her with, dump her and flee. All without leaving a telltale sign. Not impossible, but not probable."
    "The noise that woke Joelwas it the breaking window?"
    "Couldn’t have been, if that was the entry point. Hartt would have caught whoever in the act."
    "So someone was already in the house and was breaking the glass to get out?"
    "Why bother? You can open the window from inside. Or better yet, why not go out the front door? Forget it, Rinaldi. The broken window means nothing, a red herring. And you have to assume that what Hartt told us was the truth anyway. Which I doubt."
    I was stuck on a killer in the house. "And no one else was staying over?"
    "Hartt says it was only him, his boy and the girl there that night. His housekeeper-slash-nanny doesn’t live in."
    "He has a housekeeper?" Someone else I should talk to.
    He smiled then. "You don’t know?"
    "Know what? And why should I?"
    His smile widened. "I think I’m going to leave that to you to find out. I gotta get some fun out of this." He checked his watch. "And I have to go back to the courthouse. I assume you know Joel still lives in his parents’ place. So, you going over there now?"
    "Yeah, but I thought it best not to call ahead."
    "The element of surprise? If you make it past the dragon, I’ll be surprised."
    "Now you intrigue me."
    "And you intrigue me." He took a last swallow of his beer, grabbed my still half-full glass and sniffed it. "What’s this? Chocolate milk?"
    I shrugged. "We maturing gals do need at least a thousand milligrams of calcium a day."
    "So now I know you’re not a drinker. Do you eat?"
    "Whenever I can. I’d have thought that was obvious."
    "Well, it seems to have settled in the right places." He stood up, and I saw that his own baby fat had disappeared. If he weren’t careful, though, it would soon be replaced by a beer gut. "Next time, if I decide there’s a next time, we meet inside the restaurant, The Stone’s Throw. It’s through that door," he pointed to the left of the bar, "where the grocery store used to be. Great steaks."
    "I’m practically a vegetarian."
    "One bite of the seventeen-ounce T-bone will cure that."
    "It’s very civic-minded of you to promote local businesses."
    "You think I’d bother? I own it. And this place." Mickey laughed at my expression. "Somebody’s gotta be sure that Georgie keeps his snot out of the beer."


Click on the book Turn the page to turn the page.

CheSol Home
|| Web-site design and content copyright © 2009 Cheryl Solimini
Book jacket photo by Chris Lupetti, copyright © 2009 Chris Lupetti
Cover design by Cheryl Bochniewicz