Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain Chapter 17
I drove the old-mustard Dodge through winding roads.
"If Beezil hired someone to shoot Richard the day after Kristin's death," I said, "it might've been someone already working for him."
"Let's look for a tall butler," Ann said.
We cruised beyond the Terrigs' home, U-turned, and approached it from the other direction. The alabaster-white mansion would have been impressive as a wing of the Taj Mahal. I parked in the shadows of a white marble fence. We got out and walked through the main gate. Somewhere nearby, a dog barked.
Ann strolled next to me, our shoulders nearly touching. I imagined how nice it would be to hold her hand.
A marble fountain of what looked like an angel peeing stood near the front patio. I punched the bronze button by the door. The chimes were still bonging when a butler appeared and crinkled up his nose.
"What can I do for you?" He used the same tone of voice he would have used to say, "What the hell do you want?"
"We have an appointment with Mr. and Mrs. Terrig."
He sniffed very loudly when he offered to take my baseball cap. I told him I didn't trust him with it.
He ushered us into the living room, its walls shaded in quiet colors and enriched with enormous paintings. The ceilings were rimmed with moldings crafted with skills unsummoned for generations. Oriental carpets, warm woods, and polished brass basked in the soft glow of recessed lighting.
Mrs. Terrig stood in the middle of the room wearing multiple strands of pearls and a blue velvet gown. She didn't look as pale as she had on television, maybe because she was wearing enough makeup to paint the side of a barn. She was cradling a toy poodle.
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Terrig," I said. "This is Ann Berlin. I'm Clark Baker."
"Welcome. This is Mitzi." Mrs. Terrig exchanged glances with the poodle, then gave us the best smile she could manage without moving the muscles around her eyes. A well-bred lady of uncertain age, certain surgery. "Mitzi is good-natured." She leaned forward so I could scratch Mitzi's ear. Mitzi yawned.
"We're terribly sorry about Kristin's death," I said.
"A sad, sad loss. We're about to enjoy dessert." Death and dessert sharing equally in her thoughts, she turned and walked down the hallway as if she expected us to follow her, which we did; across a hand-painted tile floor, past formal portraits of stern-looking Terrigs in charcoal suits and ruffled shirts, up a marble staircase with a window that looked over a twenty-acre yard, and into a dining room lit by three gold candelabras on an immense dining table.
Beezil Terrig sat at the far end wearing a dark suit and a dirty look. Something seemed to be gnawing at him. What do they say? Yeah, "bon app�tit" whatever you are inside Beezil.
Mrs. Terrig seated Ann and me to the left side of the table. Two servants hovered around five men seated to the right. Although the men wore immaculately tailored suits, it was easy to picture them stalking children with night vision goggles.
The butler reappeared with a tray of crystal glasses and two decanters. He poured red wine into the glasses and extended the tray to Beezil. Beezil frowned then pointed at two of the glasses. The butler handed one to Ann, the other to me.
The wine tasted unusual. Probably expensive.
Everyone drank and chatted. While I didn't engage in the full width and breadth of the conversation, I agreed that the Terrigs' recent ailments were painful, their investments brilliant, the education system declining, and the lack of good stockbrokers baffling. During the conversation, Beezil seemed to be watching Ann and me with a compulsive interest, as if wondering how we could act like decent, solid citizens, and yet manage to keep straight faces. Raising his glass high, he proposed a toast.
"Here's to punk rock and all the bloody damage it's done to society."
I was polite. I said, "Absolutely," instead of "you're daft."
"I have to tell you that when I agreed to let you come here, I did so to please my wife--"
"--Nonsense," Mrs. Terrig said. It didn't seem like she'd meant to speak. It came out like an involuntary belch.
I made the appalling blunder of starting to laugh, then had to pretend I was choking. There seemed a general decision to let me choke, but Mrs. Terrig's maternal impulses got the better of her and she patted me on the back until I was breathing normally.
Beezil continued, "I wanted to kill you. You, the scum who sent my innocent, ingenuous daughter to her death. And yet, at the same time, I feel compelled to know what species of scum you are. Do you understand what I mean?"
"Absolutely," I said again.
"I wish I could explain my loss to you. But no words can explain it. So, what did you want to tell me?"
"You have my deepest sympathy. I do understand the untimely loss of family. But it's not too late to understand what your daughter believed in--believed was important enough to die for."
Ann handed Beezil a videotape.
"Kristin's face is electronically blocked out, but I think you'll recognize her by her clothes and body language."
Puzzled, Beezil took the videotape and turned it over several times.
"You document your own crimes?"
"We document illegal animal testing."
His tiny black eyes gleamed with enough hate to make me determined to stay in well lit, populated places. Before he could explode, I assuaged his hostility by telling him that Kristin was one of our finest, most trusted members. Dedicated, with a great talent for organization. The more I praised her, the more Beezil smiled. I needed him relaxed so I could catch him off guard when I told him that I had proof he'd hired someone to shoot Richard. It was a bluff. But I wanted to watch his reaction.
If I guessed right, he might freeze. He'd have a profusion of possibilities to analyze in a short time. Had someone witnessed the shooting? Had one of his staff been bribed? If I had evidence, how solid was it? Should he smile and bluff, or just throw us out? With all this swirling through his head, he might slip up and tell us something. As I talked and kept an eye on Beezil's five swanky thugs across the table from me, for the first time I realized a flaw in my strategy: if Beezil did slip up, he might want to shoot us a little.
With an occasional downward glance at my reflection in my wineglass to make sure I wasn't blurring with alcohol consumption, I kept up an enthusiastic stream of praise for Kristin. "She taught A.L.F. members, if arrested, not to be tricked by police into thinking another arrestee had already confessed. She taught them never to doubt the commitment of the others. Kristin had credibility and was a strong natural leader." I shifted my gaze from my glass to Beezil's eyes. "Your daughter would have been upset to know we have proof you hired someone to shoot Richard."
Mrs. Terrig pushed herself up out of her chair, knocking over her glass of wine.
"You're crazy!" She looked at me as though I were strolling through a shopping mall with a vacant stare and a chain saw.
Across from me, the five men in suits looked to Beezil for an attack command.
In Beezil's eyes was a lethal calmness. "If you have any evidence I had anything to do with any damned murder attempt, it's simply false. Sure, I had a motive: you robbed me of my only daughter. But hiring a hit man isn't exactly my style. I prefer a quieter, less messy approach--"
"--Poison?" I looked down woefully at the last two ounces of my drink. It did taste peculiar, now that I think of it.
"Hell no," his mouth twisted wryly. "More vicious than poison--"
The butler passed me a plate of crumb-size pieces of dessert. I passed it to Ann. They looked good, but I wanted to leave my mouth clear in case I had to talk, or in case I had to, for instance, beg for my life.
"--I'd hire lawyers. Lawyers who go for the throat, like the lawyer married to your ex-wife." A smile spread across his thin lips. "And lawyers with passion for their work, like Ms. Berlin."
I was impressed. Beezil had done his homework. Or, more likely, he'd had someone else do it and copied from their paper. However he'd gained knowledge of us, it deepened my concern about Bill sneaking onto a hunting trip with him.
"Lawyers," Beezil continued, "who ensure me that I'll be spending every penny you will ever make in your life, including social security. Lawyers who couldn't even start until I provided them with some evidence against you." He patted his breast pocket where he'd stored the A.L.F. tape.
"We'd like to negotiate," Ann said. I would have said it first, but the shock had made me swallow my tongue, and it took a moment to finish turning purple and suck a bit of air back into the old windpipe. "It's too late to return the dogs we took from your lab, but we'll promise to leave your lab alone--if you give us Brett Tarbatz's address, and if you promise never to reveal the names of any A.L.F. members."
"I can destroy you." Beezil spat out the words. "You damn well better return my dogs and you'd damn well better stay away from my buildings. I'll give you nothing--except a promise not to annihilate you until I feel like it."
Perhaps Beezil was entitled to his opinion of what constitutes generosity, but I felt he lacked certain qualities essential in a good host.
On Ann's face was a fiery, angry look unfamiliar to me: a hardened anger that aged her by ten years. She blurted out a word that I never even figured she knew.
"If you hurt the A.L.F., we'll go public with videos filmed in your lab before it burned. TV. Newspapers. Internet. The entire planet will see a daughter raid her daddy's test lab and know she died setting fire to it. It may mean nothing to you that Kristin died fighting against the work you do, work that supported her, but a lot of people will ask a lot of personal questions."
I expected an explosion from Beezil, but none came. He brought his hands together in front of him, clenched them together and squeezed. Then he pressed his lips against the knuckles of his thumbs.
"Okay. I'll forget what I know about the A.L.F. I'll even stop all animal testing in my lab, if you tell me who was responsible for my daughter's death? Who was with her? Who left her behind to die?"
"It's a deal," she said.
She's going to give away the driver?
"Wait," I said.
She didn't wait. "The fire wasn't part of the A.L.F.'s plan at all. Only one other person knew about it ahead of time, the same person who was supposed to get her out of there. Brett Tarbatz."
Beezil's face sagged like somebody had let the air out.
"That doesn't make sense. She was going out with Brett, he's heartbroken. . . ."
As Ann stood up, she said, "No one told her to start a fire."
Mrs. Terrig walked us to the front door. Ann put a hand on her arm.
"Please watch the tape. Call me if you have questions."
Mrs. Terrig smiled, but said nothing.
"Would you ask your husband to do one last favor for Kristin," I said. "Call off the attack on the organization that was closest to her heart."
Mrs. Terrig's expression gave perspective to the situation. It was like Forrest Gump looking at you saying, "You idiot. . . ."
"Good-bye," she said, "and be very careful."
* * *
I checked the rearview mirror. Ann tapped her fingers lightly on the dashboard.
We weren't being followed.
"What do we do now?" she asked.
"I think Ransacker will return to my room. Especially if we bait him."
"I was thinking I'd start a rumor at the Lobster tonight that the guy who shot Richard left behind a key that we're turning over to the police tomorrow."
"Did I miss something?" Ann asked. "What's the connection between the Ransacker and the Lobster?"
Through the windshield I watched the highway unfolding in our headlights.
"The timing just seems strange. Ransacker broke into my room while we were breaking into Richard's office. Maybe he knew somehow."
"You mean he sees us in the Lobster, then races to your room?"
"Or calls someone else. Unless he's a psychic."
"Then why was he still there when you got back?"
"He couldn't have anticipated our getting caught and going home. And he wouldn't have left until he found whatever he was looking for."
"But why would he come back and search in the same place twice? Is it possible you believe this because you were recently clubbed over the head?"
I laughed hard and realized my ribs still ached.
"He may have shot Richard for something he thought Richard had with him, like the list of A.L.F. members."
"You're making some pretty fantastic leaps here."
"Maybe. But we know he was looking for something small because he poked into every cubbyhole. Small enough I might've had it with me when he broke in. So, if he knows we're away again tonight, he may return, hoping this time I left it home. If so, we'll catch him."
Ann pointed to the clearing sky. Stars were visible for the first time in days.
"I doubt this is going to work, Clark."
"Would it help if I told you that it did on an episode of Columbo?"
Ann rolled her lovely green eyes. I had a daring thought. I wondered how she would react if I put my arm around her.
* * *
I folded a flap from a Cracker Jack box and closed it between the door and jamb just below the bottom hinge. It would be nice to know if anyone went into my hotel room while I was gone.
Ann deposited Hoover on the back seat of the Dodge, got in, and opened the window enough for him to stick his nose out. I slid behind the wheel. At the Lobster, Hoover stayed in the car, wrapped in his blankets.
Petey greeted us at the door and shared a hug with Ann. Over Ann's shoulder, Petey said, "It's tough, with Richard in the hospital and all."
I nodded. "Chas here tonight?"
Petey shook her head.
Mervyn had assumed command of the Lobster.
Wandering through the capacity crowd, mingling, groping about here and there, were three policemen pretending they weren't looking for Chas.
I ordered a diet soda and tried to look comfortable, as if I were staying a while. If Ransacker were present, I wanted him to think the coast was clear at my room. I was friendly and loud and did everything possible to draw attention to myself, short of tap dancing on a table.
A lot of people, many of whom looked suspicious, left during the first break. I found Ann and told her I'd pick her up at ten minutes before closing. On my way out I cornered Petey in front of the nativity scene.
"You remember that guy who climbed up on the stage the night Richard was shot?"
"That was Brett. He must've flipped out. He's been a quiet regular for years."
"What about the two guys who were egging him on?"
"Same friends he's always come in with. Chas might know them."
"Speaking of Chas, do you know why he went to jail?"
Petey's face stiffened. With anger, I think. "Six years ago he broke into a lab doing heart surgery on monkeys without anesthetics. He didn't know that one mad scientist was working late. The guy threw acid in Chas's face. That's how he got those awful scars. Plus a ten year sentence for breaking and entering."
* * *
I parked across from the Suite Night where I could see the window of my darkened room and half of the fire escape in the rear.
"It might be a long wait," I told Hoover, "but that's the nature of sleuthing." He put his front paws on my thigh and wagged his tail, clearly impressed. Although I had told him several times I was sleuthing, I'd never actually explained what it was.
The skies darkened again and steady drizzle misted the buildings into a single gloom. Rain dripped off the car, gurgled in gutters, and splashed beneath the tires of passing cars. To help me stay awake I turned on the radio. The music stopped and a commercial told me about an industrial-strength bran cereal.
"I ate that stuff once," I told Hoover. "I don't mind being regular. But I was unstoppable." Hoover yawned. Apparently my revelation didn't alarm him.
Soon, I wanted to shut my eyes. I'll just rest one eye at a time, so I won't fall asleep . . .
Suddenly the car shook. I snapped my head up and reached into my pocket for the Luger replica. A cold gust of wind rocked the car again. I showed the Luger to Hoover, who sniffed it skeptically.
Sometime later I closed one eye again.
From out of the darkness a violent banging on the roof made me go cold with fear. Twisting, I saw a shadow peering intently at me from under the hood of a cape.
I fumbled with the door handle, trying to lock the door, but instead it popped open.
The shadow leaned inside. Hoover lunged forward, lapping at Ann's cheek.
I looked at my watch. "You left early."
"I was getting worried."
"How'd you get here?"
"Taxi." She held out her hand to help me climb out of the car. My legs wobbled, as though I had been asleep.
"You fell asleep."
"Very well. Then tell me, what time did the light in your room go on?"
I looked up. It was on. "I might've left it on."
"You turned it off. Now it's on. Somebody's been inside." We crossed the street.
"I'll bet I accidentally left it on."
"Bet? With what? What do you have, not counting your talking license-plate-holder?"
Let's see. I have a dryer-lint keepsake album. A wicker bowling ball. A Betty Rubble inflate-a-date. . . . I opened the door to the Suite Night. Ann asked the desk clerk if he'd seen any strangers pass. He yawned, and assured us he hadn't.
Ann swept past me with Hoover.
"I'll bet you a fancy dinner . . . wait. I've got a better idea. If I win, you tell me what you did that caused your marriage to end. What you take responsibility for."
"Why do you want to know that?"
"Because you'd rather gargle dirt than tell me."
Oh, please. I'd rather be dead in a ditch. "Okay. It's a bet. If I lose, I'll tell you about my divorce. If I win, you tell me something personal about your life."
"Whatever I ask."
Ann started up the stairs.
"That's not fair."