Vanishing Act, page 1
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 1993 by Seth Margolis
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition June 2015
Also by Seth Margolis
For Laurie, Jane, Dan, and Kate
Joe DiGregorio tripped over a body submerged in the whirlpool at the New York Health Club, but that wasn’t really the most extraordinary thing to happen to him on the second Tuesday in April.
It began with a phone call to his office, which was shoe-horned into one corner of Alison’s not-very-large-to-begin-with living room. He’d moved in with Alison nearly six months ago.
“Investigations,” he remembered to say into the phone.
“This Joe DiGregorio?”
He affirmed that it was, omitting to add that friends called him Joe D. The caller sounded anything but friendly.
“Can you meet me in half an hour?” The voice was deep and authoritative, with that slightly impatient edge that often signified a person used to having his requests obeyed.
Joe D. looked down at his calendar, which was virginal except for a Saturday morning bar mitzvah of a second cousin of Alison’s in three weeks. “Who is this?”
“That doesn’t matter. You want a job?”
“I need to know who I’m working for.”
“Forget it, then. I’ll call Discrete Investigations, right after you in the yellow pages. Right after DiGregorio.”
Joe D. weighed his annoyance against his desperation for a job. Desperation was heavier. “Okay, but what kind of job are we talking about?”
“Ten-thirty, southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-sixth. Wear a Yankees hat so I’ll know you.”
“I’m a Mets fan.”
“What I’m paying you, you’ll learn to love the Yankees. Ten-thirty.”
Joe D. checked his watch. It was, indeed, 10:00. He’d have to take a cab to the garment district, probably a six dollar ride from Alison’s place—no, from their place on the Upper East Side. That six dollars would put him solidly in the red for the week—business wasn’t exactly booming. What was the opposite of booming? Joe D. wondered, as he debated whether to meet Mr. X in half an hour. Busting? Deflating? Slumping? He tried this last one out: Business was slumping. No, that implied that it had once been booming.
Actually, business was comatose.
His only work since leaving the Waterside police force consisted of a few small employee theft cases he’d handled for Alison’s father and a few of his rag-trade cronies. They left him feeling more indebted to Alison than before, despite the fact that they enabled him to contribute his share of the mortgage and maintenance for a couple of months.
“Don’t worry, darling. Things will pick up. Every new business takes a while to catch on.”
“That’s different,” she had said with an equivocating shrug, and neither had been anxious to continue the conversation. Alison had been laid off by Bloomingdale’s during the bankruptcy, and had decided to pursue a long-held dream of owning her own store. She’d borrowed money from her father and opened Many Fetes, about the same time Joe D. moved in. Alison’s years as a buyer paid off. She had a knack, apparently, for choosing exactly the right mix of clothes for women like her: Hardworking professionals in their thirties who liked to dress up once in a while and didn’t mind paying through the teeth for the privilege. The only bad part of her success was that she worked six days a week from morning till night. Perhaps if Joe D. hadn’t been so underworked it wouldn’t have bothered him, but he found himself bored and restless, and had to resist the urge to stop by the shop eight times a day, offering his services as stock boy or gofer or whatever.
He missed Alison too, some days, even after six months of living together. Sometimes just the sight of her after even a brief absence caused him to catch his breath. She was beautiful, which partly explained this, but she also had a very changeable face—she never looked exactly the same to him twice. “It’s my nose,” she’d once explained to him.
“Charlie Firestein threw a softball at it in the third grade. Deliberately.”
“Unprovoked?” Joe D. had said with mock horror.
“Completely unprovoked. And the worst thing was, when the school nurse wrote her report, she said that I’d stepped in the path of a flying ball. It still makes me crazy to think about it.”
“Ever thought of taking a contract out on Charlie Firestone?”
“Firestein. Very funny. Anyway, my nose wasn’t broken, but it grew kind of funny after that.”
“Doesn’t look funny to me.”
“From the left, it looks straight.” She turned to the left to show it off. “But from the right it kind of bows out, with a bump.” She showed him her right side. “Every time I see my right profile I think of Charlie Firestein and that nurse’s report and I still feel angry.”
Joe D. thought she should be grateful to Charlie Firestein, for he had helped provide Alison with a face that no man could ever grow tired of, in his humble opinion. Her penchant for harboring grudges, on the other hand, was a less attractive if equally salient quality.
Joe D. felt uneasy about the mysterious phone call, but he couldn’t muster any excuses for not keeping the appointment, and if Alison found out he’d turned down a job she’d hit the ceiling. It was Alison who had urged him to open his own agency, and now he could sense her impatience with his progress. It wasn’t just the money. It was the fact that he worked out of her—no, their apartment. It was the way he lingered in bed in the morning, rousing himself only to kiss her good-bye as she left for the store at eight. It was the sense of hopelessness that he couldn’t conceal at the end of a long, vacant day, waiting for the phone to ring in an apartment in which he still didn’t feel comfortable, in a city that still didn’t, probably never would, feel like home. Only Alison, his feelings for her, felt totally right to him.
Joe D. got out of the cab at Times Square and found a tourist shop on Forty-third Street. He bought a Yankees cap for $2.95, bringing his investment in this case to over nine dollars. He walked the rest of the way to Thirty-sixth Street and then waited on the southwest corner for someone to make his day.
Standing still on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-sixth Street is a lot like trying to tread water in a grade-three rapids. After being broadsided by several irate pedestrians he took shelter behind a mailbox. At 10:30 precisely a black limousine the size of his childhood home pulled up. A back door opened and Joe D., sensing that he was making the biggest mistake of his life, got in.
It was like entering a dark cave, except that the limo was all soft edges, plush. The man sitting next to Joe D. was soft too, with copious jowls and pink, puffy hands dusted with dark liver spots. He was wearing large sunglasses and was facing away from Joe D., as if to shield his identity. The driver was invisible to them, thanks to a darkly tinted screen over the front s
“I’m prepared to offer you fifty thousand dollars for what I have in mind,” the man began.
“Maybe we should introduce ourselves,” Joe D. said in an effort to retain some control of the situation. Outside, he could see people on the sidewalks gawking at the tumescent limo, but he knew they couldn’t see him behind the tinted glass. Oddly, this made him feel more vulnerable, more at the mercy of the man sitting next to him.
“I know who you are, and you needn’t know who I am,” the man said with perfect composure, as if this was self-evident. He was still facing away from Joe D. “Are you interested?”
“Fifty grand is fascinating. What’s the job?”
The man shifted in his seat, practically squirmed, as if he were proposing an especially devilish prank.
“I want you to kill me.”
Later, at his health club, Joe D. rehashed that limo ride as he plied the Nautilus machines and other, equally convoluted devices designed to work even those tiny, obscure muscles with no discernable practical purpose.
“Kill you? I hardly know you,” Joe D. had replied with what he thought was an appropriate level of flippancy. But the man was serious. Dead serious, Joe D. was tempted to think.
“Of course I don’t intend to actually die,” the man said. “It will only appear as if I’ve been killed.”
“An insurance scam,” Joe D. offered.
“I have no life insurance. I’m too rich for life insurance.”
“Yours, Mr. DiGregorio, is not to reason why.”
“Yeah, mine is but to do and die. If you want me to, uh, kill you, you better at least have the courtesy to tell me why.” Actually, Joe D. had no intention of taking this guy up on his offer, but he was undeniably intrigued.
The man turned contemplative for a few moments as the car sped down Seventh Avenue, gliding across potholes with cushioned scorn. He was still facing away from Joe D., shielding his identity. “I’ll tell you this much. I am in love with someone with whom I intend to spend the rest of my life. I also have a wife. The latter will think I’ve been killed, while I live out my days with the former. I have more than enough stashed away to live more than comfortably.”
“Divorce might be simpler.”
“Not for me. When I die, my company will pass into a trust, the proceeds of which will benefit my wife, and one or two others, during their lifetimes. If I divorce my wife, she’ll ask for half of my wealth. I think she’ll have a good case. If she wins, the company will have to be sold or dismembered in order to pay her. I couldn’t stand to see this happen. I have no children, Mr. DiGregorio. Only my business.”
“But you’re willing to walk away from it…”
“That won’t be easy. But every morning I can pick up the Wall Street Journal and reassure myself that it is still running smoothly in my absence. Part of the pleasure of raising children, I understand, is watching them become independent.”
“How do you intend to kill yourself?”
“I don’t intend to kill myself. I intend for you to do it.”
“I didn’t accumulate nearly a billion dollars by giving things away for nothing. Are you in or aren’t you?”
Joe D. was thinking about the nearly-a-billion-dollars part. A billion dollars.
“Are you in or aren’t you?”
“I investigate fraud. I don’t commit it.”
“Seventy-five thousand then.”
“You just told me you’re a billionaire. Do you think I’d settle for seventy-five thousand?”
“How much, then?”
“Forget it. I’m not interested at any price.”
“One million dollars.” A slight desperation was evident in his voice.
Joe D. hesitated. A sum like that demanded a certain respect. A million dollars would put him in the black for quite awhile. Maybe forever. It killed him that he wasn’t even tempted. “Sorry.”
The man sank back into his seat. “I’ll find someone to do it, you know.”
Joe D. had no doubts on this score.
“You’re a fool, Mr. DiGregorio. You’re a fool to turn down more money for a few days’ work than you’re likely to earn in a lifetime.”
“It’s against the law to…”
“Fuck the law,” the man exploded. He started to turn to Joe D. but restrained himself. His right hand clenched and unclenched on his right knee. “The law is for union members and civil libertarians and welfare mothers. People with real power, people like me—for us the law is irrelevant.”
He said this without irony or bitterness, as if it were self-evident. “People like you?”
“Men with wealth and power beyond your imagining. Men who got that way because they weren’t imbecilic enough to turn down a million dollars for a few days’ work.” He rapped on the window behind the driver, and the limo pulled over and stopped. “This is where you get off,” he said, still not looking at Joe D. He appeared to be breathing heavily after the tirade.
Joe D. got out and squinted in the late-morning sun. The limo already seemed like another world, a climate-controlled land of soft edges and absurd propositions. He made a point of memorizing the license plate number. Disappointingly, it was a z-plate, a daily rental.
Joe D. changed into a bathing suit and headed for the Jacuzzi, his way of appeasing his body after putting it through motions it had never been designed to execute. Despite the exercise, he felt keyed up, on edge. It was turning down all that money that was doing it. A million tax-free dollars would take a lot of pressure off him. A lot of pressure off Alison too, who, after all, was footing both their bills. The money thing was a big issue between them; like a hyperactive child, it tended to disrupt more than a few of their meals and spoil many an otherwise peaceful weekend.
It was the body in the Jacuzzi that finally managed to distract him from the events of that morning. The club was quiet that afternoon—only one person was in the adjacent swimming pool—and Joe D. had the whirlpool to himself, or so he thought. He stepped slowly into the scalding water, which took some getting used to. Gingerly he made his way across it to an underwater bench. But after just two steps his right foot came down on something that was definitely not concrete. It gave under his foot in a way that made his stomach lurch. He hesitated for just a moment, then plunged his arms into the churning, opaque water and pulled up, with some effort, the limp, puckered body of an elderly man.
Finding the body had at least rescued him from an idle afternoon in Alison’s…in their apartment, waiting for the phone to ring. He’d shaken awake the lifeguard and stood by while he went through the motions of resuscitating the dead man. Then he’d waited for the police to arrive, then someone from the coroner’s office, who said it looked like a heart attack. “You jump into the Jacuzzi from the cold swimming pool, you take your chances,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve seen half a dozen of these cases.”
Joe D. didn’t think he’d be using the Jacuzzi anytime soon. In fact, as he left the club at 7:30 that evening, he thought he might take up jogging, which was Alison’s favorite pastime. It was cheaper, for one thing (joining the club had been a splurge to begin with) and the chances of stepping on a body were very slight, as long as you avoided certain parts of Central Park.
The next day, Wednesday, Joe D. called a former colleague on the Waterside police and persuaded him to trace the license plate of the limo. Joe D. had made it to lieutenant before resigning last fall to join Alison in New York. The Linda Levinson case had put him off police work, anyway, though it had had one positive result: He’d met Alison Rosen the previous summer, while investigating the homicide on Fire Island. It took some mental gymnastics to savor a new relationship while blacking out the circumstances under which it had begun. The Linda Levinson case had been Joe D.’s first homicide, and though he’
He’d taken a lot of heat, quitting the Waterside force. Though Waterside was only an hour east of New York City, moving to Manhattan was viewed as the equivalent of moving to Beirut, only New York was more expensive. And giving up a secure, practically tenured spot on the Waterside police force was seen as the financial equivalent of investing your life savings in S&L stock. He hadn’t bothered explaining that he was in love, nor that the Linda Levinson case had soured him forever on being a Waterside cop, perhaps on Waterside itself.
At least he still had a friend or two on the force he could call on for the occasional favor. It took less than an hour, but the news wasn’t worth even that wait. The limo had been rented from King David Limousine Service, and when Joe D. stopped by their offices on Amsterdam Avenue, he was told by someone who was probably not the King that it had been rented, for cash. Joe D. managed to contact the driver that afternoon, who said he never even got a look at the man. “I pulled up to the corner of Seventh and Forty-fourth, like I was told. Before I could get out this guy jumps in and shoves five hundred bucks through the window, tells me to head downtown, pick up a guy on Thirty-sixth. That was you, right? Then you get out downtown and he tells me to keep driving. Coupla minutes later, we hit a red light and he jumps out, not a word to me, just like that.”
Case closed, Joe D. thought, feeling relieved. He’d been uneasy walking away from this fraud in the making but figured he’d done all he could to prevent it.
Alison’s hours were so long, and Joe D.’s cooking skills were so underdeveloped, that most nights they ordered something in. Chinese, chicken, burgers, you name it—in Manhattan, you could always find someone to bring anything to your apartment as long as you were prepared to pay extra for it. In Long Island, you were pretty much stuck with pizza, unless you were willing to get in your car.
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