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Hostile Witness Part 12

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"I've noticed that. They get very picky if you miss a payment."

"They learn that in landlord school," I said.

"That must also be where they learn to turn the heat on in the summer."

"And that sixty-two degrees is plenty comfortable in the winter," I said. "And how much money they save by turning off the water periodically for mysterious repairs."

"Maybe you should come over and see what you can do," she said.

"Now?"

"I told you," she said. "My landlord is trying to evict me."

"Did he leave an eviction notice on your door?"

"No, that's not what he left. He's an old Greek, he doesn't know about eviction notices."

"So what did he leave?" I asked.

"A dead cat," she said.

13.

OLDE CITY PHILADELPHIA is one of those strange, hybrid places that could only have been conceived in the fevered imagination of some Senate subcommittee charged with finding tax loopholes for the financially deranged. It started out two hundred years ago as a residential district, where our founding fathers wors.h.i.+pped at Christ Church during their deliberations over the Const.i.tution, but swiftly devolved into a manufacturing and distribution area where the sugar s.h.i.+pped to Philadelphia from the Caribbean was refined and the iron ore s.h.i.+pped down the Delaware River was smelted and the wood s.h.i.+pped from the South was turned on a lathe into fine and not so fine furniture. Fifteen years ago it was a tidy little area of small factories and wholesalers and restaurant supply warehouses filling the whole of the suburban restaurant market with bar stools and formica tables and huge copper pots. But then some senator slipped a loophole into the tax code allowing tax breaks for renovations of historically significant buildings, and a whole new real estate scam was born.

The clever guys bought up all the old and rotting industrial buildings in Olde City and syndicated them in a series of limited partners.h.i.+ps in which the limited partners badly overpaid for the opportunity to get a piece of the tax break. With the limited partners' money in hand, leveraged with high-interest mortgages, the clever guys converted all these decrepit buildings into fancy condo units, setting high enough prices for the units so that the limiteds could get a decent return. It all would have worked just fine except that no one wanted to live in an industrially zoned corner of the city with no restaurants or stores or nightclubs and the clever guys couldn't unload their high-priced condos at a high enough price to pay the mortgages. One by one the partners.h.i.+ps collapsed into insolvency, including the partners.h.i.+p owned by Dr. Saltz and his fellow investors, and with insolvency came tax recapture and sheriff sales of the buildings. After the clever guys had run off with their commissions and fees, what was left were the lawsuits and hundreds of luxury units interspersed among seedy wholesale outlets, serenaded daily by the rumbling of factory machines coming through filthy block windows.

I found a spot outside a shoe store with a hand-lettered sign, WHOLESALE ONLY, in its sooted window and parallel parked my little Mazda between a van and a pickup truck. Like all men, I believed I was the world's greatest parallel parker, and I banged the pickup only once as I squeezed into my s.p.a.ce. Veronica had said she lived in one of the rehabbed Olde City buildings on the same street as Christ Church, so I followed the tall white spire to Church Street and continued on through the narrow cobblestone alley to her building. It had been a sugar refinery in its more authentic days, but now windows had been knocked into its high brick walls and an elevator rose up and down a large steel and Plexiglas tube appended to the side. There was a parking lot and a courtyard in front and stores had been planned for the lower level, but the plate-gla.s.s windows were papered over. The whole look of that empty plaza and its vacant stores was one of desolation. I found her number on the security board and she buzzed me up.

The cat lay on the carpet in front of her door, its head sodden with blood.

I kneeled down beside the corpse like a homicide detective in a bad movie and dipped two fingers in the puddle of blood around the cat's head. I don't know why I did that, it is just something that homicide detectives who lean over corpses in bad movies always seem to do, and I regretted it immediately. The blood was still damp. I was just about to wipe my fingers clean on the cat's fur when she opened the door.

"It's still dead, I suppose," said Veronica.

She was leaning face forward against the partly open door, her thin pelvis resting against the edge of the door so that I could only see half of her. Her brown hair spilled forward, lightly, like a veil, giving her simple, pretty face an air of mystery. She was wearing blue jeans and a gray ribbed sleeveless T-s.h.i.+rt. Her feet were bare. Wearing jeans, with her hair loose and flowing forward like it was, she looked more the artist than the mistress. There was something sharp and bohemian about her that was very different from the finely dressed society woman she had seemed that night in the limousine with Jimmy Moore and at the museum.

I looked at her longer than I had intended to before I turned back to the cat.

"It looks like its throat was slit," I said. "Did you know this cat?"

"Can anyone ever know a cat?" she said and then opened the door wide and turned to go back into her apartment.

Quickly I wiped my still wet fingers on the dead cat and rose to follow her, closing her door behind me.

Her apartment was a huge brown duplex with heavy splintering beams overhead and a varnished floor of thick, uneven slabs of wood. There was one wall of brick, the rest were white, and there were huge, sliding-door windows on the far wall. The main area was furnished with a wraparound couch and a projection TV, and there was a long dining room table covered with piles of papers and unopened envelopes. The kitchen was filthy, dishes stacked haphazardly in the sink, and the living room furniture was covered with pants and s.h.i.+rts scattered here and there. A sweats.h.i.+rt leaned back comfortably over the edge of a chair. To the side of the entrance was a flight of heavy stairs that reached a wide loft open to the living area. It was a large, masculine s.p.a.ce, that apartment, even the mess that covered it was masculine, and when Veronica sat down on the sofa and curled her legs beneath her she seemed small and foreign there.

"Nice place," I said, looking around.

"What about the cat?"

"The cat, the dead cat," I said, trying to figure out exactly what I was doing there. "Have you called the police?"

"About a cat?" she said. "I don't think so."

"This is not just any dead cat," I said. "This cat was murdered."

"I'm not going to call the police about a cat," she said. "What I think we should do is get rid of it and then figure out how to get my landlord off my neck."

"How do you know it's your landlord?" I asked.

"Who else would it be?" she said.

"All right," I said. "Let's first get rid of the cat."

"There are some bags in the closet," she said. "And paper towels somewhere around in the kitchen."

"You're not going to help?"

"Do I look like the kind of girl who messes with dead cats?"

There was a bright yellow Strawbridge & Clothier bag in the closet and a roll of paper towels on a cluttered kitchen counter. I wadded up one of the paper towels and used the wad as a mitt as I grabbed the cat's tail and lifted. It was surprisingly light. While placing it in the bag I kept it as far from me as possible, as if the d.a.m.n cat could suddenly come to life and swat at my face with its claws. When the cat was in the bag I did what I could to wipe the excess blood from the carpet. It was a pale red carpet, which helped hide the blood, but when I was through there was still an ominous stain. Strangely, the stain didn't look like a cat's head; it looked like a fish. Maybe the final wish of a dying cat directed the flow of blood from its incised throat. Maybe not. When I was finished wiping I dumped all the bloodied towels in the Strawbridge bag and rolled it up tight and dropped it down the trash chute in the hallway.

Then I bundled all the resentment that had spilled upon the floor as I cleaned up the dead cat and headed back to the apartment. What is it about me, I wondered. Is there a KICK ME sign on my forehead that can be seen only by women? Do they have a club and pa.s.s around my name as a dependable sucker who can be counted on to clean up dead cats in emergencies? I mean, if I was sleeping with the woman, then, sure, it would be okay to be on my knees with paper towels, cleaning up the blood from some dead feline on her doorstep, but when it's someone else's girl, why am I the one doing the cleaning? I went back to the apartment angry as h.e.l.l and fully prepared to tell Veronica that I was a lawyer, dammit, not a janitor and that I was leaving and that the next time she had a problem with a dead cat she should call her friend Jimmy Moore.

She hadn't moved from the couch but in the short time I had been gone she had grown more beautiful. "It's taken care of," I said, my anger balling up like a wet paper towel in my throat.

"What did you do with it?" she asked.

"Down the garbage chute."

"That's cold."

"What was I going to do, bury it in the hallway? Look, I have to go."

"What about my Greek landlord?" she asked.

I shrugged. "Pay your rent."

"He wants to kick me out anyway. I have a special deal because of Jimmy, but now with Jimmy in trouble he figures he can kick me out and rent it for twice as much."

"How much do you pay for this?" I asked.

"A hundred a month."

"Jesus," I said. The apartment was worth ten times that. I wondered what Jimmy had done for the old Greek to get such a deal for his girlfriend.

"What should I do? He wants me out. He killed a d.a.m.n cat to get me out."

"And you're sure it's him?"

"He's crazy. He slit the cat's throat."

"Look. I'm a lawyer, not the SPCA. I don't know what I can do for you. I have to go. I have a lot of work tomorrow."

She stood up and walked toward me, her hands clasped and to her side. "Can you at least look at my lease?"

"Why isn't Jimmy here?" I asked. "Isn't this cat thing and this landlord thing his problem?"

"Jimmy doesn't want to know my problems. He has a wife with enough problems to keep him busy till Memorial Day. He's at some political dinner with her tonight, so I'm on my own."

I stared at her, trying to keep hold of my anger, but she smiled nervously. She looked very young for a moment and I wondered how old she was. She looked like a college kid, a sweet pretty college kid, suddenly very needy and soft. Why wasn't she in college? I lifted my hands and said, "Where can I wash up?" She pointed me to a bathroom up the stairs.

I was was.h.i.+ng my hands in the sink, scrubbing violently with a thick lather of soap, trying my best to get the cat off my fingers, when I noticed, between the toilet and the bathtub, a litter box. It was filled with clay pellets. The ends of neat little cat t.u.r.ds poked above the surface.

I agreed to look at her lease. I cleared a s.p.a.ce at the dining table and examined what she gave me while she went upstairs for a moment. It was not the standard form filled with paragraph after paragraph of tiny print giving the landlord all the power to screw the tenant that the law allowed. Instead, she had given me a two-page, double-s.p.a.ced doc.u.ment, signed by Veronica Ashland, lessee, and Spiros Giamoticos, lessor, that provided she could stay there as long as she wanted for $100 a month and that the landlord could never raise her rent or kick her out. The only rule was that she couldn't sublease without Giamoticos's consent. Noticeably absent were provisions about late payment or eviction. From the face of the lease it was apparent that Jimmy Moore had done a whopper of a favor for Spiros Giamoticos, in return for which Spiros had given the apartment to Moore's girlfriend for next to nothing. It was little wonder that Spiros wanted out of the lease.

While sitting at the dining room table I noticed her mail arranged in rough piles. While she was still upstairs, I took the liberty of looking through it. There was a final notice from the electric company, an overdue notice from the water company, a letter from the American Record Club threatening her with a lawsuit if she didn't pay for the compact disks she had ordered, a MasterCard bill showing a balance owed of over three thousand dollars. Her mail looked much like my mail. I searched through other piles until I found a letter from her bank. It had already been ripped open. I glanced around to make sure she hadn't quietly come back down into the room or was looking from the balcony, and then took out the statement. It was a checking account, in her name and in Chester Concannon's name, with a grand total of $187.92, down from $1349.92 the month before. She had written a $62 check to her credit card company to pay the minimum balance. The rest of the entries were cash withdrawals from different ATMs around the city. I stuffed the statement back into the envelope.

"Your landlord here can huff and puff all he wants," I told her when she came back down, "but there is nothing he can legally do to kick you out as long as you pay your rent."

"What about the cat?"

"Call the police or file for a restraining order. I could file a motion for you, but other than that I don't know. Getting Jimmy to talk to him would be your best bet. What did Jimmy give this Giamoticos, anyway, to get you this lease?"

"A street," she said.

"A street," I said, shaking my head. "He gave away a public street just like that?"

"It wasn't a big street," she said with a shrug. "More like an alley. I needed a place, so Jimmy introduced a bill or something." She stood before me with her arms crossed, s.h.i.+fting her weight from one leg to the other. She wanted something, but she didn't know how to ask.

"Listen, Veronica," I said. "I don't mean to pry, but I couldn't help noticing all your overdue bills. Are you going to be able to pay them off?"

She laughed nervously and leaned over me at the table, turning her papers facedown. She smelled terrific and fresh, like a cherry tree in full blossom. "No," she said. "Who can pay all their bills now, really? Bad times all over, right?"

"What are you going to do?"

"I'll do what I always do. When I get a big enough pile I give them to Jimmy who gives them to Chet who takes care of them." That was why Concannon's name was on her account, I figured, to make it easier for him to supply her with the councilman's cash when her money got low.

"Don't you work?"

"I'm thirsty," she said, looking down at me as I sat by the dining room table. Her breath was minty, as if she had just been upstairs gargling. "Are you thirsty? Finding a dead cat in the hallway always makes me thirsty. Let's get a drink."

I was tired and I had work to do tomorrow and there were a lot of things I needed to be doing, but the mintyness of her breath, her long slender arms, the way she leaned over me at the table, it all sent my stomach afluttering. My throat tightened on me, so that when I said, "Sure," it came out in a raspy whisper.

Outside her building, as she held onto my arm and led me off to a bar she knew near Independence Hall, I glanced behind us on Church Street. I caught the glint of the streetlight off the cobblestones and then, farther back, the s.h.i.+ne of a boomerang hovering over the tail end of a black limousine. The car's lights were off, and I couldn't see inside, but whatever s.e.xual charge had been within me dissipated immediately, grounded by the sight of that car. It was too dark to make out the license plate, but I had no doubt at all as to who the owner was. That was Jimmy Moore's limousine and whoever was inside was staking out the councilman's girlfriend. And there I was, my arm linked in hers, stepping out with her into the night. It was a warmish fall evening, the air thick and humid like in springtime, but by the time we had turned from Church Street onto 3rd I was s.h.i.+vering.

14.

FROM THE OTHER SIDE of the door I could hear the m.u.f.fled sound of a busy office, typewriters clacketing, phones ringing, voices shouting from one desk to another. Inside the small, battles.h.i.+p-gray room it was just me and Detective Griffin.

Detective Griffin was a pasty-faced, donut-shaped man with deep dark swaths beneath his eyes. He grunted as he paged through the Daily News, occasionally throwing out bits of gossip he seemed to take great delight in. "Hey, can you believe this stuff?" he would say before he'd read to me from the lurid middle pages of the tabloid. Then he would let out a great, noisy groan of weariness. I was in that small, stuffy room in the DA's office to examine a stack of files and two large cardboard boxes of physical evidence, the whole of the basis for Sloc.u.m's indictment in Commonwealth v. Moore and Concannon. The evidence had been signed out from Room 800 in the attic of City Hall by Detective Griffin, personally, and he was there to make sure I didn't walk away with any of it.

"Hey, can you believe this stuff? Listen," said Detective Griffin. "That guy Bobbitt, whose wife sliced off his peter, right, he's stripping now in some gay strip joint. His new girlfriend, some Penthouse Pet, is ripping off his G-string with her teeth while the guys all cheer. He says he's getting sensation back a millimeter a month. It's like he's proud it got wacked. Can you believe that guy?"

I could, yes.

The detective stretched his arms out wide and yawned. "Geez, I'm tired."

This is what the evidence I was looking at showed. On the night of Bissonette's final beating a young homeless man, only slightly psychotic, while digging in a dumpster for a late-night snack, had seen a black limousine pull up to the back of Bissonette's. He didn't see who got out of the car, but Michael Ruffing did. Ruffing and Bissonette were alone, closing the club, when, through a window, he saw the limo pull up and Concannon and Moore get out. This had all happened on Henry's night off, and Henry's alibi had checked out, so it was apparently Concannon who had been driving. Before the two could come in the club Ruffing left through the front door, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Inside there had been some sort of discussion, a few drinks had been poured, and then a fight broke out. Bissonette had gone behind the bar, supposedly to reach for a gun taped beneath the counter. His fingerprints were on it. One of the two visitors had grabbed a Mike Schmidt autographed bat from off the wall and knocked Bissonette down with it before Bissonette could grab the gun. He had proceeded to beat Bissonette with the bat all across his body, fracturing bones in both his arms, his fibula, his patella, his c.o.xae, five ribs, and his skull, leaving a five-inch dent in the side of his head. The medical records were voluminous and ugly. Even through the technical jargon, the savagery of the beating was clear. When the paramedics found Bissonette he was covered with blood and vomit. They intubated him immediately and put him on a respirator the moment he arrived at the emergency room. He never regained consciousness.

A tough way to go for such a nice guy, I thought. Even if he couldn't hit a slider.

The a.s.sailants had apparently not rushed to leave after the beating. The bat had been cleaned of fingerprints, the gla.s.ses from the drinks had been rinsed. Everything had been sanitized while Bissonette was undoubtedly moaning and breathing with difficulty through the blood and vomit. In my mind I saw Chester Concannon casually wiping the bar with a rag as Bissonette struggled to stay alive behind the bar, his breath rising and falling in a horrific slurp. That would be just like Chester, I thought, not wanting to leave a mess, such a polite young man.

The two men had left no fingerprints, not even on the doork.n.o.bs, all wiped clean, but one of them had stepped in the blood and vomit by accident and so the freshly mopped floor had revealed his stride from the bar to the back door. Forensics hadn't been able to get a shoe size from the partial markings, but the stride was consistent with a man the height of Chester Concannon. A security guard in a nearby store had noticed a long black limousine pulling out from Bissonette's about twenty-five minutes after Ruffing had reported Moore and Concannon arriving. It had been a brutal twenty-five minutes.

Along with the evidence of the murder were the same reams of financial doc.u.ments that the feds had given Prescott and Prescott had given me, records supposedly showing the flow of money from Ruffing to Concannon to Moore to CUP, half a million dollars pa.s.sed around like pastries. And then the flow abruptly stopping. This was motive evidence, to show why Moore and Concannon had deigned to beat Bissonette into his fatal coma, and the pattern was d.a.m.ning. There was money, then the money stopped, then there was the murder. Only about half the $500,000 supposedly delivered was accounted for in the doc.u.ments, but that didn't seem to matter much, really. Especially with those phone conversations between Moore and Ruffing, all on tape, all recorded in high fidelity, the most d.a.m.ning carefully transcribed by the DA's office.

Moore: You listen, you s.h.i.+t. You talk to Concannon, right? I ain't no hack from Hackensack, we had a deal. A deal. This isn't just politics. We're on a mission here, Mikey, and I won't let you back down from your responsibilities. You catch what I'm telling you here? You catch it, Mikey?

Sloc.u.m thought he had caught it perfectly.

The boxes filled with the physical evidence were most interesting to me because they weren't in the materials given me by Prescott. The Mike Schmidt autographed bat, an Adirondack Big Stick with the sharp red band just above the handle, was safe in a large plastic sack. I gripped it through the plastic, stood, and took a swing. Detective Griffin looked to be drowsing to sleep into his paper, as if he wasn't watching me, but when I swung he ducked. It was a little heavy but perfectly balanced: a Hall of Fame bat.

"What's a Mike Schmidt autographed bat worth these days?" I asked Detective Griffin. "Three, four hundred dollars?"

"Don't even," he said as he turned the page of his paper and yawned.

In the label, where Schmidt's name was burned into the wood, there were still flecks of blood. The laboratory had confirmed that the blood was Bissonette's. The rinsed gla.s.ses were also there, as well as the rag that had been used to clean the bar. It was stained the dull maroon of dried blood. Bissonette's bloodied clothes, sliced to shreds when removed in the ER, were in one bag; his Gucci loafers, stained with blood and vomit, were in another. His wallet had $230 in ten dollar bills. His key ring was heavy with keys of all shapes. There were four empty crack vials found in his pocket.

So the second baseman was no boy scout after all. I immediately checked back with the medical records but found that there was no cocaine in his blood when he came into the hospital.

And then there were the photographs. The first looked like a pizza where the cheese and sauce had kind of slid off to the side. With a quiet shock I realized it wasn't a pizza at all, it was Bissonette's face after the beating. The rest weren't any more pleasant.

I was starting to open the second box when Sloc.u.m came into the room. He swung a chair around and straddled it so that his powerful forearms rested on the chair back. "Don't go racking your brain over who did it, Carl," he said. "We already know and we got them nailed."

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