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Madame Karitska, leaving the shabby brownstone on Eighth Street, gave only a cursory glance at the sign in the first-floor window that read madame karitska, readings. It was ironic, she thought as she stepped into the bright noon sunshine, how a talent that had earned her whippings as a child, and for which she had never before accepted money, had led her so firmly to this street a year ago, and to this brownstone, to place the sign in the window that at last admitted her gift of clairvoyance.
On the other hand, her life had always been filled with surprises, and among them, here in Trafton, was her blossoming friendship with Detective Lieutenant Pruden, whose suspicions and skepticism had long since been obliterated by the help she’d been able to offer him in his work. The shoddiness of the neighborhood neither bothered nor depressed her; after all, she had known poverty in Kabul, and wealth in Antwerp, and poverty again in America, and in spite of Eighth Street’s flirting with decay it no longer seemed to deter her clients, which amused her. She was becoming known.
At the moment, however, she was between appointments and free to venture uptown for a few purchases, and she was in no hurry; she walked slowly, drinking in the sounds and colors along the way as if they were intoxicating, as for her they were. Reaching Tenth Street she saw that the warmth of the sun had brought Sreja Zagredi out of his secondhand furniture store to sit in the sun, and she greeted him cordially.
His eyes brightened. “Ah, Madame Karitska, you have the step of a young girl!”
“And you the heart of a brigand,” she told him. “How is my rug today?”
“Still here,” he told her, pointing to it displayed in the window. “I have a very good offer for it the other day, from a man uptown who appreciates the finest of old rugs, I assure you.”
“Nonsense,” said Madame Karitska crisply, “it’s a poor copy of an Oriental rug, and shabby as well.”
“Shabby! A good rug ages like wine,” he told her indignantly. “You want garish colors, God forbid? A hundred dollars is still my price, but only for you.”
Madame Karitska smiled. “The colors were garish,” she pointed out amiably, “but you’ve had it hanging in the sun all winter, spring and summer to fade it. My offer remains eighty-five dollars.”
“Eighty-five!” He pulled at his considerable hair in anguish. “What a fool you make of me to tell this stranger from uptown I save it for a friend! With five children to feed you speak starvation to me, Madame Karitska.”
She observed him critically. “Scarcely starving. I think you could lose at least twenty pounds, Mr. Zagredi, if you cut down on the brînz?a and the raki.”
“This is a rug worth at least one hundred fifty uptown!”
Madame Karitska shrugged. “Then take it uptown, Mr. Zagredi.”
He blew through his mustache and eyed her shrewdly. “For you I have already come down to one hundred.”
“And for you I have already gone up to eighty-five,” she reminded him.
They eyed each other appreciatively, and he laughed. “There is no one like you anymore, Madame Karitska; you know how to haggle like in the old country and it does my heart good. Like the knife—sharp!”
“Very sharp, yes,” she told him cheerfully. “In the meantime it is good to see you, and say hello to your wife for me, Mr. Zagredi.”
“Come for a dinner of m?am?alig?a,” he called after her. “Come soon—you are the only one who can put sense into my son’s head about school.”
“I will,” she promised, smiling, and they parted with perfect understanding, their minds pleasantly exercised and soothed by the exchange.
Reaching the subway station at Eleventh Street she paid her fare and was pleased to find a seat available. In the moment before the doors slammed shut, two men entered the car, one of them young, with a hard, suntanned face that almost matched the color of his trench coat, and who took a seat some distance away. The other, older man wore a dark, somewhat shabby suit and carried a small attaché case, and he sat down opposite her; glancing at him she gave a start, for she recognized him. Leaning forward she was about to call across the aisle to him when he lifted his head and looked directly at her and then through her, with not a trace of expression on his face.
At once Madame Karitska covered her movement by leaning down and retying a shoelace. When she straightened again she studied the man briefly and glanced away, but she was alert now, and thoughtful.
The train stopped at the next station and the man opposite her half rose, as if to leave, and then sank back. When he did this Madame Karitska noticed that farther down the car the man in the trench coat also made a move to leave and then aborted it. Seeing this she returned her glance to the impassive face across the aisle, and this time he met her gaze, and without expression they gazed at each other for a long moment.
At Fifteenth Street her friend in the shabby suit stood up, carrying his attaché case, and walked to the door to stand beside it as the train swayed to a halt. He was followed by the young man in the trench coat, but Madame Karitska saw him adroitly step aside to allow a woman to precede him, which placed him next to the younger man instead of in front of him. The doors slid open; the man with the attaché case walked out, hesitated and then stopped, allowing others to swarm past him.
Just as the doors began to close behind him he turned, looked back at Madame Karitska, and lifting his arm he threw his attaché case to her; she caught it in her lap just as the doors slammed shut. The last she saw of its owner he was hurrying toward the stairs to the street while the man in the trench coat stared back into the car, mouth slightly open, his eyes fixed on Madame Karitska. As the train picked up speed he turned and ran after the older man.
No one in the subway car appeared startled that Madame Karitska had been tossed a small attaché case by an apparent stranger. At the next station she left the train, and once above ground she signaled a cruising taxi: this was one time, she felt, when it was expedient not to be walking the streets, for unless Georges Verlag had changed his occupation since she had known him in Europe, he had just tossed her an attaché case filled with diamonds.
Ten minutes later she regained her apartment and drew a sigh of relief. Placing the attaché case on her square coffee table she examined its several locks and nodded, reasonably sure now that Georges was still a diamond salesman, and that the case contained a delivery of jewels worth a hundred thousand dollars, if not more. Georges had always been one of the best, as well as a good friend of her late husband, who had been a diamond merchant, and they had frequently entertained Georges in their Antwerp home. It had been a long time ago, but since she herself was now in America was it really so surprising that Georges, too, was here?
She thought a moment and then went to the phone and dialed police headquarters, asking for Lieutenant Pruden.
“He’s out,” said the desk sergeant. “Is this Madame Karitska?”
“Ah, Margolies,” she said, “what a good ear you have for voices. Yes, would you ask him to call me, please, when he returns? It’s quite important.”
“Righto,” said Margolies. “Your ESP working again? He’s out on a hit-and-run case, but— Hold on, he’s just walked in.”
A second later Pruden was greeting her warmly.
“Something has happened,” she said calmly, “so that I wonder if you could stop in here today at your convenience. I would have gone directly to the precinct if I could have been sure you were in, but—”
“That bad?” he said lightly. “Actually I can come right now, I’m leaving in a minute and will be passing your street. Serious?” he added in a lower voice.
“Not precisely a criminal matter—not yet,” she explained.
“Be there in five minutes,” he said, and hung up.
In precisely five minutes a police car drew up to her building and Pruden was at her door. Entering her apartment he gave a quick glance around the room and then a look at her face as she brought out the tray of Turkish coffee and placed it on the table. “Thank you for stopping, this won’t take long,” she told him.
His level brows lifted over his slate gray eyes. “I thought at the very least you were being held captive here. Margolies said it was important?”
She nodded. “I think so,” and pouring out the lavalike brew she handed him a cup and began describing to him her experience on the subway train. “You see,” she explained, “when Georges first moved to go—and then didn’t—he was very definitely showing me that he was being followed. When he did leave at the next stop”—from beneath the table she drew out the attach case and handed it to Pruden—“he threw this to me just as the doors closed behind him.”