Since he got fired in spectacular fashion from his newspaper job last year, former investigative reporter Liam Mulligan has been piecing together a new lifeone that straddles both sides of the law. He's getting some part-time work with his friend McCracken's detective agency. He's picking up beer money by freelancing for a local news website. And he's looking after his semi-retired mobster-friend's bookmaking business.
But Mulligan still manages to find trouble. He's feuding with a cat that keeps leaving its kills on his porch. He's obsessed with a baffling jewelry heist. And he's enraged that someone in town is torturing animals. All this keeps distracting him from a big case that needs his full attention. The New England Patriots, shaken by a series of murder charges against a star player, have hired Mulligan and McCracken to investigate the background of a college athlete they're thinking of drafting. At first, the job seems routine, but as soon as they begin asking questions, they get push-back. The player, it seems, has something to hideand someone is willing to kill to make sure it remains secret.
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The Dread Line
By Bruce DeSilva
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Bruce DeSilva
All rights reserved.
He was a serial killer, but I didn't hold that against him. It was just his nature. The way he killed irked me some. His victims were all missing their heads. But what I couldn't abide was his habit of using my porch as a dump site.
The first corpse appeared on a cool, damp September morning. I'd just carried my second cup of coffee out the back door and settled into my Adirondack chair with the daily newspaper. As I read, I was vaguely aware of the cries of the gulls and the slap of the waves against my dock. Then something red fluttered in my peripheral vision.
Even without a head, the victim was easy to identify. A northern cardinal. Either that or a scarlet tanager, but I hadn't spotted one of those in Rhode Island in years. This killer, I thought, preferred to slaughter things that were beautiful. But his next two victims were moles. Then a wren, a starling, and a field mouse.
Like most predators, he clung to the shadows, but today I finally caught a glimpse of him as he fled down my porch steps. A big tabby with a torn left ear and a matted coat. People on the island take care of their pets, so this one had to be a stray. Or maybe it was feral. He'd left me his latest victim, a full-grown rabbit.
Cat the Ripper was escalating.
I didn't figure I'd be able catch him, and reforming him was out of the question, but perhaps I could nudge him into choosing another disposal site. It was time to get a dog.
* * *
I was on my laptop, checking out the offerings from the Animal Rescue League of Southern Rhode Island, when Johnny Rivers belted out "Secret Agent Man," my ringtone for Bruce McCracken, the boss man at McCracken & Associates Confidential Investigative Services. "Associates" was an exaggeration because I was the only one — and I was part-time.
"You busy?" he asked.
"Shopping for a dog."
"Yeah? I got an ex-con pal who needs a new home for his two-year-old Rottweiler."
"Says he's getting too aggressive."
"No thanks," I said.
"Don't tell me you want a damned punt dog."
"What's a punt dog?"
"A little shit you can dropkick fifty yards."
"Oh, hell no," I said. "I want a pooch big enough to knock me down when I come home. But I'd prefer one without a record."
"I don't think Bandit's bitten anybody yet."
"Maybe so, but with a name like that, he's destined for a life of crime."
"Speaking of crime," McCracken said, "we've been retained to look into a major one."
"Seems somebody knocked over the Pell Savings and Trust branch on the island."
"When was this?"
"Three weeks ago."
"What? How come I haven't heard about it?"
"Because armed robbery is bad for business," he said. "The bank's trying to keep it under wraps."
"They did call the police, right?"
"And they're not happy with the lack of progress from the, quote, hick Jamestown PD."
"Bank robbery is a federal crime," I said. "Isn't the FBI involved?"
"An agent from the Providence office took a report, but you know how it is these days. If it's not terrorism, the feds aren't much interested."
"How much did the bank lose?"
"I don't have any details," he said. "Mildred Carson, the branch manager, wants a face-to-face."
"Did you say Mildred?"
"There are still people named Mildred?"
"At least one, anyway. So can you handle this or not?"
"Gonna reimburse me for mileage?"
"Mulligan, you live in Jamestown."
"So the whole damn island is only one mile wide."
"Yeah," I said, "but it's nine miles long."
Jamestown, population 5,405 in winter and about twice that in summer, is the lone municipality on the island of Conanicut, which basks like a harbor seal at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. I was keeping house this year in a five-room cottage situated on two acres of meadow along the island's north shore, just a ten-minute drive from Newport's mansions and forty-five minutes south of McCracken's office in downtown Providence. I'd bought the place last spring, about nine months after I lost my job as a reporter for the dying Providence Dispatch. The little house needed work, but it was a step up from my old digs in a squalid Providence triple-decker.
My new job with McCracken seldom paid enough to meet the mortgage, and the loose change I picked up freelancing for The Ocean State Rag, a local news Web site, barely covered my cigar and Irish whiskey habits. But for the first time in my forty-five years of life, I had a little money left at the end of the month. Before he retired to Florida last year, my old friend Dominic "Whoosh" Zerilli had taken pity on me and made me a silent partner in his bookmaking racket.
After two decades as an investigative reporter for Rhode Island's biggest newspaper, it felt odd to be living above the poverty line. It felt even odder to be a lawbreaker. But the way I saw it, I wasn't breaking any important ones.CHAPTER 2
Mildred Carson sat behind a glass–top desk in an office the size of a motel bathroom. I put her at thirty-five years old, with watery blue eyes and a Viking helmet of straw-colored hair. A pair of eyeglasses with purple frames hung by a chain and fell between swollen breasts draped in a violet maternity dress. She looked to be about fifteen months pregnant.
"I was expecting Mr. McCracken," she said.
"Really? I was thinking it might be twins."
She frowned and drummed her fingers on the desk. I waited a beat for any sign of amusement. Seeing none, I added, "I am Mr. McCracken's associate."
"May I see your credentials?"
I opened my wallet, slid out my PI license, and dropped it on the desk. She put on her glasses and took half a minute to examine it.
"Mr. Mulligan," she said, "what I am about to share with you must remain strictly confidential."
"So I've been told."
She removed the glasses and took another half minute to study me. "May I count on your discretion?"
"Sure thing. Long as I can stay sober."
She arched one painted-on eyebrow. "I do hope that was another attempt at humor."
"That makes two of us," I said, and flashed a grin that could charm the bloomers off a Bible-thumper. She returned it with a scowl.
"I have no patience for banter, Mr. Mulligan. Can I trust you with this or not?"
"Your secrets are safe with me."
"Your firm came highly recommended," she said, "so perhaps I can make allowances for your lame comedy routine."
"Lame? Perhaps I should fire my writers."
The corners of her mouth twitched as if she were fighting off a smile. Maybe I was growing on her. "Then let's proceed," she said. "Where would you like me to begin?"
"As the King said to Alice, 'Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.'"
She furrowed her brow at the allusion. Then it came to her. "Lewis Carroll?"
"My, my. A gumshoe who reads."
"I'm full of surprises, Mrs. Carson. I can even count to ten."
She did smile this time, displaying a row of small bleached teeth. "The beginning would be quarter past nine on the morning of September eighth, when one of our most valued customers, a gentleman who lives in an estate off Highland Drive, entered the bank."
"You mean one of those mansions on the island's south shore? The ones with a view of the Castle Hill Lighthouse?"
"Yes. One of those."
"What's the gentleman's name?"
"I'd prefer not to identify him unless it becomes absolutely necessary."
I chose to let that pass for now. "So what happened next?"
"He crossed the lobby to the desk of our assistant manager, Belinda Veiga, and requested access to his safe deposit box. Miss Veiga had him sign and date the signature card, and together they stepped into the vault. They located the correct box number and inserted their keys. As Miss Veiga removed the tray, a man entered the vault, pointed a handgun at them, and ordered them to remain silent."
"Hold on," I said. "Did you witness any of this?"
"No. I am merely repeating what the gentleman and Miss Veiga related to me and to the police."
"Then if you don't mind, I'd prefer to hear Miss Veiga tell it."
Carson nodded, picked up the phone, and asked her to join us.
Belinda Veiga stood about five feet four, with black dreads that bounced on the shoulders of a pearl-gray business suit. She looked to be in her mid-twenties. Judging by her brandy-colored skin and Portuguese surname, she was among several thousand Rhode Islanders whose ancestors hailed from the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. The woman I'd been getting naked with had taken a temporary out-of-state job this year, but that didn't mean I was in the market. Still, I glanced at Veiga's left hand out of habit. No ring. As she slid into the office's other visitor's chair and crossed her legs, I tried not to stare. I was not successful.
The bank manager handled the introductions and explained why I was there. Veiga sighed audibly.
"Tired of repeating the story?" I asked.
"Uh-huh. And tired of reliving that day."
"You must have been very frightened."
"I'm sorry to put you through this again Miss Veiga, but I assure you it's necessary. Can you start with when you first sensed something was amiss?"
She paused for a few seconds to gather her thoughts. "As I turned to hand the safe deposit box tray to the customer, I saw him stiffen. That's when I turned toward the vault door and saw the man with the gun."
"Did he speak?"
"Not at first. He just put a finger to his lips and went shhhhh."
"Can you describe him?"
"Not really. He was wearing a ski mask."
"What color was the mask?"
"Could you tell his race?"
"White, I think."
"I don't know."
"About a foot taller than me."
"Not obese. Other than that, I couldn't say."
"He was wearing a loose-fitting sweatshirt."
"I didn't notice a hood."
"What color was the sweatshirt?"
"Yellow mustard or brown mustard?"
"Any lettering on it?"
"I don't think so."
"What else did he have on?"
"Blue jeans, I think."
"Hard shoes? Sneakers?"
"I didn't look at his shoes."
"Any visible scars or tattoos?"
"Not that I could see."
"Rings on his fingers?"
She shrugged. "He might have been wearing gloves, but I'm not sure. It was hard to take my eyes off the gun."
"What kind of a gun was it?"
"I don't know anything about firearms."
"Was it a big hand cannon like Dirty Harry carried? Or a small one that fit neatly in his hand?"
"A revolver or an automatic?"
She gave me a blank look.
"Mrs. Carson," I said, "could you please type 'images of handguns' into Google, click on the first listing, and show the results to Miss Veiga?"
She did, turning the computer screen so the assistant manager could see it.
"Like this one," Veiga said, pointing to a revolver. "But shorter, I think."
"Okay, then. What happened next?"
"The man told me to put the tray down on the metal table we have in the vault. Then he handed me a roll of duct tape and ordered me to bind the customer's hands."
"In front or in back?"
"He didn't say."
"So what did you do?" I asked.
"I bound them in front."
"Did the customer say anything or try to resist in any way?"
"No. I think he was even more afraid than I was. His hands were trembling."
"What did you use to cut the tape?"
"He ordered me to put tape over the customer's eyes. When that was done, he put tape over my eyes, too."
"Did he bind your wrists?"
"Huh. ... I wonder why."
"I have no idea."
"Perhaps he didn't consider you a threat."
"Sure," she said. "That makes sense."
"What did his voice sound like?"
"I never heard him speak normally. He just whispered."
"Then what happened?"
"I heard some rustling and clinking sounds. I assume that was him removing the contents from the box."
"He told us to remain in the vault and count slowly to one hundred."
"And when you were done?"
"I peeled the tape off of my eyes. The masked man was gone."
"Along with the contents of the box?" I asked.
"How long would you say the whole thing lasted?"
"Maybe three or four minutes."
"What had been inside the box, Miss Veiga?"
"I never saw, but I understand the customer has provided a list to the police."
"What did you do next?"
"I rushed into the lobby to sound the alarm. Then I fetched a pair of scissors from my desk, returned to the vault, and cut the tape from the customer's hands."
"Thank you, Miss Veiga," I said. "We're done for now."
When she was gone, I asked Carson why the "gentleman" had wanted access to his safe deposit box that morning.
"He was returning a diamond and emerald necklace that he normally stores in our vault. He had taken it from his box the previous Friday afternoon so his wife could wear it to a weekend society event in Newport."
"What event would that be?"
"I don't know."
"Was there a bank guard on duty in the lobby on the morning of the robbery?"
"Really? Most small branch offices don't have them."
"Wealthy clients who summer on the island seem to find their presence reassuring."
"The guard's name?"
"A retired cop?"
"Did he notice anything suspicious?"
"He didn't see an unauthorized person walk into the vault?"
"He wasn't watching the vault. He was at his post by the front door, keeping an eye on the teller windows."
"Because bank stickups normally happen there?"
"We'd never been robbed before," she said, "but I've been told that is the case."
"Think McGowan was hungover?"
"Why on earth would you ask that?"
"September eighth was the day after Labor Day," I said. "The holiday is one of the booziest of the year. I for one got totally wasted."
"I believe Mr. McGowan was in full command of his faculties."
"Then why do you suppose he failed to notice a man in a ski mask?"
"The gunman didn't pull it on until he stepped into the vault."
"You know this how?" I asked.
"From our surveillance cameras."
"Did they capture the guy's face as he passed through the lobby?"
"No. He knew how to turn his head to avoid them. And when he passed directly in front of one of them, he held a handkerchief over his nose as if he were fighting a cold."
"May I review the surveillance video?"
"The police have it," she said.
"Is there video from inside the vault?"
"No. There aren't any cameras there."
"Safe deposit box customers expect a measure of privacy. Would you care to speak with Mr. McGowan?"
"Maybe later." I sat silently and thought for a moment.
"Doesn't this robbery strike you as awfully high-risk?"
"How so?" she asked.
"What if another employee had stepped into the vault when it was going down?"
"It's against policy for anyone else to enter the vault when a safe deposit box is being opened." She paused for a beat, then added, "I guess the robber must have known that, too."
"Maybe so," I said. "What did he manage to steal?"
"Jewelry. Very valuable pieces, as I understand it. The customer has provided a list, along with photographs of each item, to the police."
"Including the necklace the customer was returning to the box?"
"Yes," she said. "The robber removed it from the customer's suit jacket pocket."
"Interesting. That suggests he knew it was there."
"So it would seem," she said.
"And the customer's name?"
"Obviously I need to talk to him."
"I'm not at liberty," she said, "but I can ask if he would be willing to meet with you."
"Could you call him now, please?"
"If you would step out for a moment," she said.
So I did, taking a seat in one of the visitor's chairs in the bank lobby.
It felt good to finally have an interesting case. Until now, my work for McCracken had consisted of delivering summonses in civil suits, investigating employee pilfering at a Walmart, doing background checks on a handful of Raytheon Company job applicants, and tracking down a couple of sad sacks who were delinquent on their child support payments. I was still reveling in my good fortune when Mrs. Carson stepped out of the office and tapped me on the shoulder.
"I'm sorry," she said. "The customer declined your request for an audience."
"An audience? Is that your word or his?"
"Who the hell does he think he is, Prince Charles?"
Excerpted from The Dread Line by Bruce DeSilva. Copyright © 2016 Bruce DeSilva. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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