Nothing gets by Dora Conti. Her latest case brings the tough-as-nails claims adjuster to the mean streets of New York, where Lewis Starrett, a wealthy society jeweler, has been fatally stabbed. Though the killer was apparently an amateur, there was a lot of power behind the knife’s thrust. The victim lived in an eighteen-room duplex on Fifth Avenue with his wife, daughter, son, and daughter-in-law. Conti must look into the lives of this privileged clan before deciding whether to pay out Lewis Starrett’s life insurance policy. As it turns out, their family affairs are a seething viper’s nest of lust, adultery, and escalating violence. The body count rises—along with Conti’s growing desire for burnt-out cop John Wenden.
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The Seventh Commandment
By Lawrence Sanders
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Lawrence A. Sanders Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
IT WAS A SWELL year. In January, her boss, Mike Trevalyan, sent Dora up to Boston to look into a claim on a homeowners' policy. This yuppie couple had gone to New York for the weekend and returned Sunday night to find their condo looted. They said. All their furniture and paintings had disappeared. They had made a videotape to record their possessions, and wanted the Company to fork over the full face value of the policy: $50,000.
It took her two days to discover that the yuppies were bubbleheads with a fondness for funny cigarettes. Every piece of furniture in their pad, every painting, had been leased; they didn't own a stick. They thought all they'd have to do was take out an insurance policy, pay the first year's premium, sell off their rented furnishings, and file a claim. Hah!
In February, Dora went to Portland to investigate a claim on a quilt factory that had been totaled by an early-morning fire. The local fire laddies couldn't find any obvious evidence of arson, but the quilt company was having trouble paying its bills, and that two-mil casualty policy the owner carried must have looked mighty sweet.
It took her a week to figure out how it had been done. The boss had pulled a wooden table directly under a low-hanging light bulb. He had heaped the table with cotton batting. Then he had draped the 150-watt bulb with gauze, switched on the light, and strolled away, humming "Blue Skies." The heat of the bulb ignited the gauze, which fell onto the batting, and eventually the whole factory was torched.
In April, she went to Stamford to look into a claim for the theft of a Picasso pencil sketch from a posh art gallery. The drawing was valued at $100,000. She was in Stamford less than a day when the Company got a phone call from a man claiming to be the thief and offering to sell the artwork back for twenty-five grand. Trevalyan called Dora and told her to liaise with the FBI.
After several phone calls, she set up a meet with the crook in a shopping mall parking lot. She handed over the marked cash, received the drawing, and the FBI moved in. The artwork turned out to be a fake, and the thief turned out to be the lover of the art gallery owner who had filed the claim. He had engineered the whole deal and had the real Picasso sketch in his safe deposit box.
In May and June, every claim Dora investigated was apparently on the up- and-up. Everyone seemed to be honest, and it worried her; she feared she had overlooked something.
But things got back to normal in July.
It happened just outside of Providence at the summer home of a Wall Street investment banker. His wife said there had been a power failure shortly before midnight. The banker stumbled around in the darkness, found a flashlight, and started down the basement stairs to check the circuit breakers. The wife heard him shriek and the sound of his fall. A few moments later the lights came back on, and she had hurried to the basement to find her husband crumpled at the foot of the stairs. Broken neck. Very dead.
Dora got there a day after it happened, and the wife's story sounded fishy to her. It took on a more profound piscine scent when she noted, and pointed out to the investigating detectives, that although all the electric clocks in the house showed a loss of about twenty minutes, corroborating the wife's tale, the timing clock on their VCR hadn't been reset and showed the power had gone off at 9:30 P.M. that evening.
Questioning of neighborhood yentas suggested that the wife had been having a torrid affair with their part-time gardener, a husky youth who studied the martial arts and frequently competed in karate tournaments. The gardener might have been physically strong, but there was little between his ears. He broke first and admitted he had taken part in a murder plot devised by the wife.
She had smuggled him into the basement late that afternoon while her husband was out playing croquet. At 9:30 P.M., the lover cut the power at the main switch. The banker came cautiously down the basement stairs. The gardener caught his ankle and after he fell, broke his neck. Power was restored, and they let the electric clocks show a lapse of twenty minutes. But they forgot about the VCR timer. Their motive?
The banker's life insurance, of course. And love, Dora supposed.
In September, she went to Manhattan where a local politico claimed his Hatteras 37 Convertible had been stolen from the 79th Street boat basin. It took Dora less than a week to discover he had given the yacht to his ex-mistress, a vengeful woman who had threatened to talk to the tabloids about his bedroom peccadilloes. These included, she said, a fondness for wearing her lingerie—and she had the Polaroids to prove it.
Dora found the boat moored at City Island. The ex-mistress had changed the name on the transom from Our Thing to My Thing.
October was filled with a number of routine cases, but in November Dora investigated the claim of a wizened dealer in autographs and signed historical documents. He said the gems of his collection, several rather raunchy letters from Samuel Clemens to his brother, had been stolen from his shop. The Worcester police told Dora that the store showed every evidence of a break-in, but they couldn't understand why other valuable items on display hadn't been taken, unless it was a contract burglary: The thief had been paid to lift the Mark Twain items and none others.
Dora came close to okaying the claim until she noticed ("You're a pain in the ass," Mike Trevalyan had once told her, "but you're observant as hell.") that the office walls in the dealer's musty shop had recently been repapered. It seemed strange that the dealer would spend money to brighten his private sanctum while the remainder of his store looked like the loo in the House of Usher.
She hired a local PI with more nerve than scruples, and one dark night they picked the front door lock of the dealer's shop. It took them less than a half-hour to find the Samuel Clemens letters, in plastic slips, concealed beneath the new wallpaper in the back office. It turned out that the dealer was suffering a bad case of the shorts, having conceived an unholy passion for a tootsie one-third his age whose motto was "No pay, no play."
Dora returned home to Hartford to find her husband, Mario Conti, planning their Thanksgiving Day dinner. He had been a long-haul trucker when she married him, but had since been promoted to dispatcher. However, his real kingdom was the kitchen. He loved to cook and had the talents of a cordon-bleu, which was why Dora, who stood five-three in her Peds, usually weighed 150 pounds (or 145 during semimonthly diets). But Mario had never called her "dumpling" or "butterball," the darling man.
"Tacchino di festa!" he cried, and showed his shopping list.
"Salami?" she said, reading. "And sweet sausage? With turkey?"
"For the stuffing," he explained. "Trust me."
"Okay," she said happily.
They invited twelve guests, family and friends, and the dining room of their snug cottage was crowded. But everyone praised the turkey as Mario's masterpiece, and the numerous side dishes and gallons of jug wine made for a real festa.
There was enough food left over, Dora figured, for two more dinners, but it was not to be. Trevalyan called on Friday morning, although it was supposed to be a holiday.
"Better pack," he said, "and get down to the office. I'll brief you here."
"Where am I going?" she asked.
"For how long?"
"As long as it takes."
"How much is involved?"
"Three million," he said. "Whole life."
"Whee!" Dora said. "Natural death?"
"Not very," Trevalyan said.CHAPTER 2
HELENE PIERCE WATCHED HIM dress. He had a good body—not great, but good. Flab was beginning to collect on his abdomen and his ass was starting to sink, but for a guy of forty-six, what did you expect?
"I wish you could stay," she said. "I could order up some food. Maybe that chicken you like with rosemary and garlic."
He was standing before the long mirror on the bathroom door, flipping his tie into a Windsor knot.
"No can do," Clayton Starrett said. "Eleanor wants me home early. Another of her charity bashes."
"At the Plaza. For children with AIDS. I had to buy a table."
"A party so soon after the funeral?"
He turned and shrugged into his vest. "You know Eleanor and her charity bashes. Besides, all the clichés are true: Life really does go on. He's been dead—how long? A week tomorrow. People used to mourn for a year. Women wore black. Or, if they were Italian, for the rest of their lives. No more. Now people mourn for a week."
"Or less," she said.
He stood before the mirror again, adjusting the hang of his jacket. Everything must be just so.
"Or less," he agreed. "You know who's taking it hardest?"
"Your sister?" Helene guessed.
He turned to look at her. "How did you know? Her eyes are still swollen. I've heard her crying in her room. I never would have thought it would hit her like that; Felicia is such a fruitcake."
"What about your mother?"
"You know her: strictly the 'God's-will-be-done' type. Since it happened, she's practically been living with that guru of hers. I'd love to know how much she's been paying him. Plenty, I bet. But that's her problem."
"Have the police discovered anything new?" Helene asked.
"If they have, they're not telling us. They still think it was a mugger. Probably a doper. Could be. Father was the kind of man who wouldn't hand over his wallet without a fight."
"Clay, he was seventy years old."
Starrett shook his head. "He could have been ninety, and he still would have put up a struggle. He was a mean, cantankerous old bastard, but he had balls."
He took up his velvet-collared chesterfield. He came over to sit on the edge of the bed. He stared down at her. She was still naked, and he put one hand lightly on her tawny thigh.
"What will you do tonight?" he asked.
"I'll call my brother and see if he's got anything planned. If not, maybe we'll have dinner together."
"Good. If you see him, tell him everything is going beautifully. No hitches."
"I'll tell him," she promised.
He leaned down to kiss a bare breast. She gasped.
"You're getting me horny again," she said.
He laughed, stood up, pulled on his topcoat. "Oh," he said, "I almost forgot." He fished into his jacket pocket, took out a small suede pouch closed with a drawstring. "Another bauble to add to your collection," he said. "Almost three carats. D color. Cushion cut. A nice little rock."
"Thank you, Clay," she said faintly.
He started to leave, then snapped his fingers and turned back.
"Something else," he said. "The claims adjuster on the life insurance policy is in town asking questions. A woman. I've already talked to her, and she's planning to see mother, Eleanor and Felicia. It's possible she may want to talk to our friends. If she looks you up, answer all her questions honestly but don't volunteer any information."
"I can handle it," Helene said. "What's her name?"
"What's she like?"
"Red-haired. Short and plump. A real butterball."
"Doesn't sound like an insurance snoop."
"Don't let her looks fool you," he said. "I get the feeling she's a sharpie. Just watch what you say. I'll call you tomorrow."
She rose and followed him into the living room. She locked, bolted, and chained the door behind him. She brought the little suede pouch over to her corner desk and switched on the gooseneck lamp. She took a jeweler's loupe from the top drawer, opened the pouch, spilled the diamond onto the desk blotter.
She leaned close, loupe to her eye, and turned the stone this way and that. She couldn't spot a flaw, and it seemed to be an icy white. She held it up to the light and admired the gleam. Then she replaced the gem in the pouch and added it to a wooden cigar box, almost filled. Her treasures went into the bottom desk drawer.
She knew she should take the unset diamonds to her safe deposit box. She had been telling herself that for a year. But she could not do it, could not. She liked their sharp feel, their hard glitter. She liked to sit at her desk, heap up the shining stones, let them drift through her fingers.
She called Turner Pierce.
"He's left," she reported. "Going to a society bash at the Plaza with his wife. How about dinner?"
"Sure," he said. "But I'll have to split by ten. I'm meeting Ramon uptown at eleven."
"Plenty of time," she assured him. "Suppose I meet you at seven at that Italian place on Lex. The one with the double veal chops."
"Vito's," he said. "Sounds good to me. Don't get gussied up. I'm wearing black leather tonight."
"You would," she said, laughing.
They sat at a table in a dim corner, and three waiters fussed about them, knowing he tipped like a rajah. They both had Tanqueray vodka on ice with a lime wedge. Then they studied the menus.
"What did you get?" Turner asked in a low voice.
"Almost three carats," Helene said. "Icy white. Cushion cut."
"Nice," he said. "But you earned it."
"He said to tell you everything is going beautifully. No hitches."
"I'm glad he thinks so. I have a feeling Ramon isn't all that happy. I think he wants more action."
"I thought the idea was to go slowly at first, get everything set up and functioning, and then build up the gross gradually."
"That was the idea, but Ramon is getting antsy since his New Orleans contact was charged."
"Will he talk?"
"The New Orleans man? I doubt that very much. He had an accident."
"Oh? What happened?"
"His car exploded. He was in it."
She raised her head to stare at him. "Turner," she said, "watch your back with Ramon."
"I never drive my car to visit him," he said, grinning. "I always take a cab."
They had double veal chops, rare, and split orders of pasta all'olio and Caesar salad. They also shared a bottle of Pinot Grigio. They both had good appetites and finished everything.
"Not like Kansas City, is it?" Turner said, sitting back.
"Thank God," she said. "How many hamburgers can you eat? Listen, Clayton said there's an insurance claim adjuster in town asking questions. A woman named Dora Conti. He thinks she's a sharpie and says she may want to talk to Lewis Starrett's friends."
"No sweat," he said. "You know, I liked the old man. Well, maybe not liked, but I admired him. He inherited a little hole-in-the-wall store on West Forty-seventh Street, and he built it into Starrett Fine Jewelry. They may not be Tiffany or Cartier, but they do all right. How many shops? Sixteen, I think. All over the world. Plenty of loot there."
"There was," Helene said, "until Clayton brought in those kooky designers. Then the ink turned red."
"That was last year," Turner said. "He's on the right track now. Let's have espresso and Frangelico at the bar; I've got time." They sat close together, knees touching, at the little bar near the entrance.
"Felicia phoned me again," Turner said.
"Oh? What did she want?"
"Clayton called her a fruitcake."
"That she is. In spades. But she could be a problem. So I'll play along."
"Dear," she said, putting a hand on his arm, "how long have we got? A year? Two? Three?"
"Three, I hope. Maybe two. I'll know when it's coming to a screeching halt."
"Off we go into the wild blue yonder. You know what my cut is. We'll have enough in one year, plenty in two, super plenty in three. And you'll have your rock collection. We deserve it; we're nice people."
She laughed, lifted his hand to her lips, kissed his knuckles. "Dangerous game," she observed.
He shrugged. "The first law of investing," he said. "The higher the return, the bigger the risk."
"Busy tomorrow?" she asked casually. "I'm meeting Felicia for an early lunch. The afternoon's open."
"Sounds good to me," she said.CHAPTER 3
THE COMPANY KEPT A corporate suite at the Hotel Bedlington on Madison Avenue, and that's where Dora stayed. She called Mario to tell him about the sitting room with television set and fully equipped wet bar, the neat little pantry, and the two bedrooms, each with a king-size bed.
"Great for orgies," Dora told him.
Mario lapsed into trucker talk, and she giggled and hung up.
Excerpted from The Seventh Commandment by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1991 Lawrence A. Sanders Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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