Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America, page 26
“Then we try a better one.”
“The problem is,” said Poe. “I can’t keep doing this all day. We’ve already gone back to Greenwich Village. If we go to Third Avenue in 1971 and it doesn’t work out, I’m done for at least twenty-four hours. Exhausted.”
“Okay. Let’s go so far back all the witnesses die of old age.”
“Ahead,” said Poe. “We go ahead.”
“They can’t come back for us.”
“Nice. Where? When?”
“Place I visited once.”
Stark followed Poe through the stone alley with a funny feeling that Poe had a plan. They emerged on the waterfront at the corner of Twelfth Avenue and Fifty-First Street facing Midtown skyscrapers ablaze in light, and their backs to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal piers. Disoriented, Stark looked up. Overhead, he saw only the night sky. “What happened to the West Side Highway?”
“They tore it down in ’89.”
Stark looked around. The shapes of the cars did not look familiar. “When is now?”
“Early two-thousands. Oh-five or oh-six. Before they changed the currency.”
“What are they doing to the currency?”
“Making it harder to counterfeit.”
Stark shrugged. Counterfeiting was indoor work. You might as well slave in a factory.
Poe said, “What we take here, now, we can still spend in ’81.”
Across the many lanes of car and truck traffic, a two-story stucco structure stretched a full block wide from Fifty-First Street to Fifty-Second. It managed to look vaguely Roman, an impression heightened by the stucco and a columned portico on its roof. It didn’t appear to have any windows, and Stark, who maintained a professional interest in buildings without windows, assumed it contained something valuable. Must have been a warehouse many years ago when the waterfront was still active, which meant a lot of big, open space inside. Might even connect to the tall loft building behind it. Which was also blank walled.
There was a single door on the street corner at the downtown end.
“That is where guys making fortunes on Wall Street spend it.”
Stark noted limos pulling up. Laughing men in suits reeled through the door. He said, “A strip club.”
“For the highest rollers. They call it a gentlemen’s club.”
“Cash,” said Stark.
“Mostly,” said Poe. “There’s some credit cards, but most use cash. Private from their wives.”
“How many girls?”
“At least a hundred, a busy night like tonight,” said Poe. “Plus hostesses, cocktail waitresses, and bar maids.”
“Did you case the joint, or were you just hanging out?” asked Stark.
“Research. I’m a writer.”
“Right,” said Stark, and ran the numbers aloud. “Five hundred customers spending five hundred a head. Quarter million in that one building. Minus a hundred grand stuffed in the girls’ drawers, we’re still looking at a hundred and fifty thousand.”
“Drawers these days,” said Edgar Allan Poe, “don’t hold that much.”
“They’ll find someplace to put it.”
Poe looked troubled. “You wouldn’t rob the girls, would you?”
Stark returned a look that would freeze vodka. “Even if we wanted to, can you imagine parting cash from a hundred women who worked that hard to get it? No, we’re not here to rob the girls. We’re here to rob the club’s cash room.”
“They have heavy security,” said Poe.
“I would, too, in their position.”
“I should tell you that the mob owns a piece of the business.”
“The mob controls a strip club?” asked Stark. “I am shocked.”
“I’m just warning you.”
“Where are you going?”
“We need chauffeur uniforms,” said Stark, and he stalked across Twelfth Avenue.
Poe waited anxiously, wondering whether he had underestimated or overestimated the heist man. But surely Stark couldn’t just rob the club and leave him stranded? How would he get back to 1981? An hour passed. A second crept by, and Poe reflected gloomily that the crook had decided to stay in 2005 forever and rob the club on his own.
A long limousine stopped at the curb. Stark was at the wheel, wearing a chauffeur’s uniform that fit perfectly and licking blood from a knuckle. “Get in back.”
Poe slid into the passenger compartment, and Stark steered the limo into traffic. On the seat were a chauffeur’s jacket, pants, and visored cap. They fit perfectly.
“Got a gun?” Stark asked once Poe was dressed.
“Good. Have you ever pulled a job like this before?”
“I’ve written it dozens of times.”
Stark glowered in the mirror.
“This is my first. In real life,” Poe said.
“Listen up. When we get in there, your job is to keep your eyes open and watch my back. You see trouble, tell me who to shoot.”
“Are we just barging in there?”
“No. We are entering on a mission to retrieve our criminal bosses, because the feds got the word they’re in the club. The feds are going to bust in in ten minutes. Our criminal bosses are armed. There will be gunfire and innocents will die, which means the cops will shut down the club for a very long time unless their loyal limo drivers get their bosses out quietly.”
“Security will ask what our bosses’ names are.”
“Our bosses use assumed names in strip clubs.”
“Security will ask why we don’t just text them.”
“It’s the year 2005. They have cell phones that receive voice and text messages.”
Stark digested this information and said, “We can’t ‘text’ them because the feds are wiretapping their cell phones.”
“The feds can’t exactly wiretap cell phones. They have no wires.”
“They can call it whatever the hell they want to call it, but I can guarantee you the feds are still tapping the phones. In your day, they would have netted homing pigeons.”
Poe said, “The club has security cameras covering the whole place. They’ll probably make us go to their office and look for our bosses on their video screens.”
“Now you get it,” said Stark.
Stark had driven down Twelfth Avenue while Poe put on his chauffeur uniform, and he talked the writer through the job. Now he turned the limo around at Fourteenth Street and headed back up toward Fifty-First. Two blocks from the strip club, he pulled to the curb and switched on the hazard blinkers.
“What?” asked Poe.
Patrol cars with flashing lights had converged on the corner of Fifty-First. A phalanx of men in blue charged in the door.
“Now what?” asked Poe.
“We wait ’til they leave.”
“What are they doing in there?”
“Whatever they want to.”
“Security won’t believe our story if the cops have already been there.”
“They’ll believe it more,” said Stark.
An ambulance pulled up. Men and women rolled a gurney across the sidewalk.
“Oh my God, it’s a shootout,” said Poe. “We better—”
“Just relax.” Stark thought that Poe was getting dangerously nervous for a man who was supposed to be watching his back. Yet another reason not to pull a job without rehearsing. He kept his eyes on the scene two blocks ahead and tried to distract the writer before he got too frantic to be of any use at all. “What kind of book will you write next?”
“Mysteries are coming back big time,” said Poe. “Best sellers, even. So, my agent thinks we can find a publisher willing to shell out big for the right book. He’s trying to talk me into writing one. I have an awful feeling I’m going to have to.”
“You don’t like mysteries?”
“I like them. But I kn
“What’s an Edgar?”
“MWA Edgar Allan Poe Award.”
“Mystery Writers of America. They organized to promote mysteries and protect writers. They’ve got a clever motto: Crime does not pay—enough.”
“Bull,” said Stark. “Crime pays top dollar. But you gotta put the work into it. Plan. Prep. Rehearse. If you don’t, you’re a two-bit stick-up artist broke and in the slammer—wait a minute. Did you say they named the award after you?”
“Writers think I invented the mystery genre.”
“Hell of an honor.”
“Suppose? They don’t call it a Herman or a Ralph or a—what was Hawthorne’s name.”
“They don’t call it a Nat. They call it an Edgar. How much dough is the prize?”
“No dough. Big honor, and you get a little statue of me. But I’ll never win one.”
“Why not?” said Stark, who tended to feel optimistic halfway into a heist.
“But genres come and go. You said so yourself. Sagas, gothics, bodice rippers. Perverse will come back, too.”
“I meant I’m personally perverse. I always write whatever I feel like writing. I never build on one thing. Which the winners tend to. The comedy guys do comedy, the hardboiled guys hardboiled, and they keep doing it over and over and over until someone notices. I’m all over the place—detective, science fiction, horror. Perverse.”
“Sounds more like feckless,” said Stark.
The ambulance crew and the cops trooped out of the club wheeling a gurney on which lay a bulbous shape covered with a sheet. A nurse was holding an oxygen mask to his face. Cocaine, thought Stark. Some things never change. Cute girls, martinis, coke, mortgage trader, no gym. “Okay, here we go. You up to this, Edgar?”
“I think so,” said Poe. “Can you give me any advice?”
“In quick, out fast.”
Stark parked the long black Lincoln precisely halfway up the block between Fifty-First and Fifty-Second. They walked the half block to the door of the strip club and skirted the line the bouncers had established behind a red velvet rope. The sharp-eyed doorman cracked a joke at their expense. “Yo, limo drivers! You forgot your limo.”
“Around the corner,” Stark said quietly, then he leaned in close so only the doorman could hear. “Our bosses are in there. The feds are coming for them. We’re supposed to get them out.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s their names?”
“Mine’s name is Smith.”
The doorman rounded on Poe. “What about yours?”
The doorman cast a dubious look on his reservations book. “I got eighteen Smiths tonight.”
“We only want our two,” said Stark.
“Text ’em you’re here.”
Stark said, “Text them? On what? You think they carry cells?”
The doorman gave a small nod and several bouncers, big men, larger than the doorman even, gathered around. The doorman said, “Your problem ain’t our problem.”
“It’s about to be,” said Stark. “Just ’cause they don’t carry cells, don’t mean they don’t carry.”
“I’ll paint a picture for you. In red. That’s going to be the color of your club when the shooting stops.”
“Nobody shoots at feds. Let the lawyers handle it and stop blocking my door.”
Stark took off his visored cap and said calmly, “Guys whose asses lawyers can’t save shoot at feds.”
The doorman spoke urgently into a shoulder mike, listened in his earpiece, spoke some more, and listened some more. Then he said to Stark, “I’m turning you over to the inside guys. Tell them your story. Do exactly what they tell you if don’t want your face broken. That goes for you too,” he said to Poe.
“We’ll be in quick and out fast,” Poe promised.
It looked like it might go just as well indoors, a huge room crowded with guys with their suit jackets draped over the back of their chairs and shapely naked women wearing high heels. They had arrived just in time for the March of the Ladies, where every woman in the joint formed a dancing line that snaked slowly about the room, accompanied by thundering music and flashing lights.
The head inside bouncer said, “I can’t let you go wandering around gawking at the customers. You’ll throw everybody off their game.”
“Is there someplace where we could look for them without bothering people?”
The bouncer snapped his fingers. “Right. Right. Good idea. Come on. We’ll scan the place. You can watch on the security monitors.”
“Let’s go,” said Stark. “The feds will be here any minute.”
“Got to clear it with the boss.” He spoke into his shoulder mike and listened to his earpiece. Stark remained expressionless. He was pleasantly surprised when the boss bought it.
Led, flanked, and followed by bouncers, Stark and Poe were hustled along the edge of the main room, up a back stairway to the second floor and down a hall toward an ordinary-looking door that swung open as they approached. Stark was thinking that security was pretty light up here. The head bouncer ushered them into an office that had a wall of video monitors. In one corner stood an enormous funnel.
The music from below shook the floor. Women wearing not much more than they were downstairs were wandering around, drinking and joking with a fit guy in a suit whom Stark pegged for the mobster who owned the strip club.
“Make it quick. Find your guys and we’ll send ’em out the back.”
Stark and Poe paced along the wall of monitors, pretending to hunt for their limo passengers. Stark stopped suddenly, signaled Poe, and pointed at a monitor. “Look at this, Ed. These our guys?”
“They all look the same,” said Poe.
“See the funnel?” Stark growled quietly.
“What’s it for?”
“That funnel is why winging it is for stick-up artists. That’s why they let us in here. That’s why girls are wandering in and out. Stuff you pour into the funnels goes straight down a pipe to the cellar.”
“Do you mean the room in the cellar is a vault?”
“You got it, Sherlock. So they don’t have to unlock the cellar room every time someone brings up a deposit, which they do regularly so there’s not a lot of cash on the floor to attract guys like you and me.”
“What do we do?” asked Poe.
“Stall until the next load of cash comes up here, and then grab it before they pour it.”
“But that will be only a tiny fraction of what’s in the vault.”
Stark stared. “You want a fraction or nothing?”
“Hey!” yelled the mobster. “Where are your guys?”
“Still looking, sir.”
The office door, which had been opening regularly, opened again, admitting two mostly naked women—a brunette who carried a canvas bank sack toward the funnel—and a beautiful bright-eyed blonde who walked straight up to Poe.
Poe, already paler than a bed sheet, turned white as snow.
The beautiful bright-eyed blonde looked confused. “Edgar? What are you doing in that uniform? You’re not a limo driver.”
“We were at a costume party,” Poe stammered, adding in a whisper through clenched teeth, “I didn’t realize you were working tonight.”
The owner crossed the office in a bound. “Costume party? What the hell are you talking about? Annie, you know this guy?”
“Sure,” said the beautiful bright-eyed blonde. “He’s one of my regulars.” She flashed Poe a dazzling smile. “My most generous regular. He’s promised to buy me a beach house right on the ocean. Listen, hon, when you’re done whatever you’re doing up here, I’ll be waiting for you in the Champagne Room.”
To Stark—who now understood why Poe’s Connecticut home was mortgaged to the hilt—th
“A Smith & Wesson,” said Stark, moving very close to the boss while shielding the short-barreled .38 from foolish attempts to grab it. “Edgar, grab that sack before she dumps it.”
Poe hurled himself toward the brunette as she threw the sack into the funnel. He caught it, and they ran out the door.
The head bouncer blocked the hall. He laughed. “I’ve been shot by a lot bigger guns that didn’t stop me.”
“It’s not only a gun,” said Stark. Before he had finished the sentence, the revolver and the bouncer’s head had collided. Stark grabbed Poe and jumped him over the bouncer’s body. He said, “Hang on to that sack,” and dragged Poe to the stairs.
“Not up,” cried Poe. “Down. Downstairs.”
“We’re going up.”
Somewhere behind them, someone fired a gun.
Women started screaming. More guns popped. Men yelled in terror.
Stark dragged Poe up the stairs, outdoors into a columned portico, out between two columns, and across the flat roof to the low parapet that rimmed the edge. The limo was parked where he had left it, thirty feet below.
“How do we get down?”
“Rope,” said Stark, uncoiling a heavy rope that was tied around a roof vent. He tossed it. The end fell within five feet of the sidewalk. “Where did that rope come from?”
“Plan. Prep. Rehearse.” Stark swung his legs over the parapet, grabbed the rope, lowered himself hand under hand to the sidewalk. “Throw me the money.”
Poe threw the money and slid down the rope. By the time he was darting across the sidewalk, blowing on his burned palms, Stark had the limo unlocked and the engine started. Poe jumped in beside him.
“Put on your seat belt,” said Stark, and he floored it, screeching into the late-night traffic, up Twelfth Avenue, and onto the Henry Hudson Highway, checking his mirrors repeatedly.
“All clear. Take us back to 1981.”
“I can’t from here.”
“We have to go back from the same spot we entered.”
“Fifty-First and Twelfth Avenue?”
“Right across from the club.”
“I wish you’d told me that earlier.”
MARY HIGGINS CLARK SERIES:
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