CHAPTER FOUR HUNDRED AND SIXTY-THREE
Wednesday night — 9:05 p.m.
New York City, New York
“Seth!” Ava yelled into her cellphone.
“Ava?” Seth asked. “Just a second.”
Seth told the orchestra to take a short break. There was a heavy wind in the background for a few minutes and the sound of Ava walking. A door opened and the wind ended.
“Ava?” Seth asked. “Where are you?”
“That’s just it,” Ava said. “I can’t tell you. They’ve sequestered my whole team. We’re working on this project. Top Secret. I was only allowed to call because of your message.”
“What are you working on?” Seth asked.
“That’s just it,” Ava said. Her voice became very pointed. “I cannot tell you.”
“Got it,” Seth said with a shrug.
“Where are you?” Ava asked. “Sounds like the orchestra.”
“We decided to work a bit this afternoon,” Seth said. “I’m behind from all of the Big Daddy stuff. We have one last run through before we break for the night. Should I call you back?”
“Right, right,” Ava said, with a distracted air.
A sharp male voice spoke in the background.
“Listen,” Ava said. Her attention back to Seth. “I’m specifically not allowed to speak to you.”
“Oh?” Seth asked, but Ava spoke to quickly for him to ask why.
“I am calling because of your phone message,” Ava said. “You received an envelope with information about the Cigarette Killer?”
Seth didn’t respond for a moment. He scowled.
“Really?” Seth asked.
“What did you receive?” Ava asked.
“It’s complicated,” Seth hesitated.
Ava was clearly sequestered to go through the Cigarette Killer case. Seth swallowed hard.
“Yes?” Ava asked, in a hard tone.
Seth realized that someone must be listening. As if she could hear his thoughts, she continued speaking.
“Our conversation is recorded,” Ava confirmed. “If I don’t get it the first time, it will be on the tape.”
Seth felt a wave of relief. He had thought that somehow she was angry with him. Clear communication was the only thing that made the separation and the bullshit that was always a part of their relationship work. He nodded.
“I woke up this morning to R.J.,” Seth said. When she didn’t respond, he began to understand the pressure she must be under. “You’ll remember that R.J. was my driver before I had a driver’s licence. He worked for Big Daddy until he moved to Denver to drive me. When I went to Vietnam, he drove my mother until she died. Even though he lived in Denver, he remained a part of Big Daddy’s extended family and business. He came to New York City because he had heard through his contacts that my life was in danger.”
Betraying her feelings, Ava took a quick in breath. She didn’t respond.
“Anyway, we drank a lot of coffee, ate a few burritos, and then went to talk to Claire,” Seth said. “Of course, Bernice is staying with Claire until her apartment is completed.”
“Who is Bernice?” Ava asked, slipping into interrogation mode.
He heard other people in the background and realized that they must all be listening. Unintimidated, Seth waited a moment to focus his mind before he continued.
“Bernice is Big Daddy’s wife,” Seth said. “Her mother, Susan, was best friends with Big Daddy’s parents, Dinah and Bud, uh, his name was Art, Arthur, probably, but I’ve never heard anyone say it. Everyone called him ‘Bud.’ Bernice grew up around the Savoy and then eventually in the projects there.”
“Bethun Towers?” Ava asked.
“That’s right,” Seth said. “Where Di and Bud lived after Bud stopped traveling. It’s also where I went to learn jazz piano. From Bud, that is.”
“When was that?” Ava asked.
“Years? 1965 to 1969,” Seth said. “But Bud and Di both died around the end of the year, 1968. I was ten when I met them.”
“Go on,” Ava said. There was a jostling sound as Ava moved the phone. “Sorry, I was just given a note to ask you who Claire was and why Bernice was staying with her.”
“Claire is my longtime friend and the manager of my apartment building,” Seth said. “I’ve known her since I was ten years old. Her mother was very kind to me when I moved to New York to go to college. I was ten. I guess I’ve already said that. Uh … Claire and I met Big Daddy and Bernice at the same time that we met Bud and Di and Susan. R.J. knocked my front teeth out.”
Seth stopped talking for a moment. Familiar with interrogation, he wanted to give them time to come up with another question.
“Why is Bernice staying with Claire?” Ava asked.
“As you know, Big Daddy died last week,” Seth said. “Bernice had to move out of her apartment because the Feds took all, well most, of Big Daddy’s money and possessions. Bernice needed a place to stay and didn’t want to move in with her kids. They live in the suburbs, and Bernice has always lived in the city. We — that’s Claire and I — felt like it would be too hard for her to leave the city. Claire’s daughter is finishing her residency and is in the process of setting up her new apartment upstate. She’s only here like one or two nights a week. So, she moved into my apartment, the daughter that is, to give Claire an extra room. Bernice moved in with Claire for whatever it is — a week or two. We’ll have a vacant apartment at the end of the month. The building is something I bought when I was ten. Claire’s lived there all of her life so it’s hers too.
“Why is this a problem of yours?” Ava asked. “You’ve retired as a detective and write music or some such. Just quoting.”
“I am not longer employed by the Denver Police Department, that’s true,” Seth said. “I still help people who have mysteries to solve. I most recently worked on a puzzle for the director of the NIC — that’s the director of the National Intelligence Center. I also write symphonies sometimes and other things. Right now, I’m working on someone else’s music to make it fit a movie that’s already been filed. Well a couple of them.”
Ava didn’t respond.
“A series,” Seth said. “There’s five of them”
He had no idea why they were asking him these things. He shrugged.
“Why is this a problem of yours?” Ava asked, again.
“That’s a harder question,” Seth said. “Big Daddy was really good to me. Kind. His father taught me how to play jazz piano, but more than that they … Bud was an amazing performer. He’d spent most of his life on the road. He taught me how to survive a life in music. I was just a little kid. Between Claire’s mom and them, they practically raised me. Believed in me. Set me on the road to being who I am today. I haven’t seen either Big Daddy or Bernice for a few years, but we talked on the phone at least every other month. They talked to Maresol more than that.”
“And Maresol is?” Ava asked.
“My housekeeper,” Seth said, quickly.
“I guess the question is why are you so close to this,” Ava asked.
“Because I am,” Seth said. “There’s no explaining the human heart. My friend Big Daddy died. His widow needed help with his complicated estate. I knew some of the players on the Federal and local level. I’m known by reputation by most of the criminal element so I was able to ease the transition there. I was able to find a resolution that satisfied most of the people involved, although someone grabbed me last night, no yesterday.”
“Grabbed you?” Ava asked.
“I was held captive for a while after I dropped you at the airport,” Seth said.
“By whom?” Ava asked.
“No idea,” Seth said.
“Good,” Ava said. “Let’s go back to waking up with R.J.”
“Okay, I woke up with R.J.,” Seth said. “We went to see Claire. Bernice is staying with Claire until her apartment is done. We were talking about who might have held me captive and all of that.”
“How long were you held captive?” Ava asked.
“I’m actually not sure,” Seth said. “I woke up there about one or two in the afternoon and I was there until that evening sometime.”
“How did you get out?” Ava asked.
“When I was able to get out of the restraints, I turned off the surveillance camera,” Seth said. “I figured that would bring someone but no one came. I went to the toilet and looked around a little.”
“Where was this?” Ava asked.
“I was held in the interview rooms under the Worth Street Station,” Seth said. “I figured that someone went to a lot of trouble to collect me. I figured that they would be back. I waited for someone to come. I haven’t had much sleep since Big Daddy died, just too much to do, so I fell asleep. I woke up and got home. It’s not that far from my apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen.”
Seth let the conversation lag. He felt incensed that they were using his precious Ava to interrogate him. From what he knew of Ava, she must be furious.
“So you were held hostage yesterday,” Ava said, picking up the thread. “Woke up with R.J., your old driver. Does R.J. have a name?”
“James,” Seth said. “That’s the ‘J.’”
“I see,” Ava said. “And the ‘R’?”
“Reginald,” Seth said. “He’s gone by R.J. all of his life. It’s on his driver’s license. His tax forms.”
“Got it,” Ava said. “Now, you left a message for me?”
“I received an envelope from Bernice,” Seth said. “She found it when she was moving. It was put together by Big Daddy’s mother, Dinah. She collected a bunch of information on a man who was beaten to death in 1955 outside the Savoy. His sister was also beaten to death. Mitch and I consulted on that case when the NYPD opened a cold case division. That had to be a dozen or so years ago. There was no mention of the sister in the NYPD file. Bernice said her name was Delilah. She was a dance hall girl who worked under the name ‘Raven.’”
“We have no record of Delilah or ‘Raven,’” Ava said.
“They probably didn’t think she was important enough,” Seth said. “Dead prostitute and all.”
“Likely,” Ava said, in a voice that reflected her disgust. “The envelope?”
“It looks like stuff that Dinah, Big Daddy’s mother put together,” Seth said. “Newspaper clippings, a list of the people who were at the Savoy that night, a cocktail napkin with some lip prints on it. You know, stuff that you’d like to have.”
“Why would I like to have it?” Ava asked.
“Because you’re the queen of forensics?” Seth asked.
When she didn’t respond, he wondered if maybe she was actually in trouble and not working a case.
“What’s in this envelope?” Ava asked again.
“Uh,” Seth said.
“I guess I just asked you that,” Ava said. “Can you send it to me? Maybe Claire can add that Kodak she was going to send me.”
Ava was telling him to take pictures of everything in the envelope.
“I’ll FedEx it to the CBI,” Seth said.
“That works,” Ava said.
“One more thing,” Seth said.
“Yes?” Ava asked.
“Bernice said that the man who was beaten to death was the father of the Cigarette Killer,” Seth said. “The woman, Delilah, would have been his aunt.”
“Yes, I am aware of that,” Ava said. “What does that mean to you?”
“This is likely his first killing,” Seth said. “What else?”
“I see,” Ava said. “Can you hold?”
The line went completely silent as if she’d put it on mute. Seth looked around the orchestra. They were returning from the short break. He wanted to get through this piece one more time before they went home. Everyone had worked so hard and they were close to finishing this piece.
“Seth?” Ava asked.
Seth had completely forgotten that he was on the phone with her.
“Ava?” He asked trying to smooth over his surprise.
“Forgot about the phone?” Ava asked.
Her natural fondness for him came through. He smiled.
“I’ve been authorized to tell you what’s going on,” Ava said.
“Okay,” Seth said.
“My team and I have been asked to review the forensics on the Cigarette Killer murders,” Ava said. Seth was about to ask why when she continued speaking. “As you know, I followed the case at the time, and have looked into the forensics previously. Myself and my team was selected due to our in depth knowledge of the case. However, because I am your wife, I have been asked not to communicate with you during our investigation. I’ve also been asked to tell you that you must stay in New York City until we’ve completed the forensic review.”
“That’s easy,” Seth said. “I’m going to be here at least another month.”
“The project that we’ll be working on this for the rest of the year,” Ava said. “We are to have no contact for the next month while we redo all of the forensics. A determination will be made later as to what will happen next. We are not the only lab doing this work. Our sister lab at the FBI are also reviewing the material.”
“A year?” Seth asked. “What is going on?”
“The Cigarette Killer has filed an appeal. On Friday,” Ava said, emphasizing the word Friday. Seth scowled. “The defendant has requested a new trial. He says that you pressured him into confessing.”
“But the bodies!” Seth said. “He led us to three bodies! Gave us all of the details of what he did to them! There are videotapes, audio. DNA! His DNA was all over the bodies!”
“His lawyer says that you made all of that up,” Ava said. “His client was so afraid of you and Detective Delgado that he agreed to whatever you said.”
“He never even filed an appeal!” Seth said. “He was damned proud of everything he did, especially since it took us so long to find him. He bragged about everything he did! There are two or three books out on the crimes because he couldn’t stop talking about how great of a murderer he was!”
“That may have been the case,” Ava said. “He is now saying that he is innocent of these heinous crimes. He says he’s only in prison due to corrupt law enforcement — meaning you and Detective Delgado. He’s also filed for compensation for his false conviction.”
“Don’t you need a new trial first?” Seth asked.
“He’s confident that he’ll be found innocent,” Ava said.
Seth didn’t respond. He felt a wave of fear that he’d missed something or maybe Mitch had done something nefarious behind Seth’s back. This killer had killed women and men, one of each at the same time, all over the state of Colorado. There were at least twelve bodies which he claimed he’d killed but didn’t “remember” where he’d buried them. These bodies were still out there in the world. Seth shook his head. While he could never be one hundred percent sure, he simply couldn’t conceive that this man was not the Cigarette Killer.
“His lawyer is from the Innocence Project?” Seth asked.
“Freelance,” Ava said. “Believed to be the son-in-law of the Cigarette Killer’s wife.”
“He’s married?” Seth was so surprised that he jumped up from his conductor’s stool.
“It’s recent,” Ava said.
Seth was struck with a thought. It hit him so hard that it knocked the wind out of him. He must have made a sound because Ava seemed to realize what was going on.
“What is it?” Ava asked. “Seth?”
“It’s nothing,” Seth said. “I’m okay.”
“If he’s able to overturn this conviction, that means that every case you’ve ever worked on will be up for review,” Ava said. “Every case. Nationally.”
“That’s why the Feds are involved,” Seth said.
“Exactly,” Ava said.
Seth fell silent, and Ava didn’t say anything.
“When will I speak to you again?” Seth asked.
“Because I am your wife, we had to receive special approval from the defendant and his lawyer for me to work on this case,” Ava said. “In that agreement, I am not to speak to you in this first month.”
“A month,” Seth said.
The idea was inconceivable. Seth blinked. Of course, this was simply another way for the Cigarette Killer to manipulate him. It was just as likely that this entire thing was an attempt for the killer to exert control over another man and woman — Seth and Ava.
“His wife has family in New York City,” Ava said.
“Oh?” Seth asked.
“Key emphasis on family,” Ava said.
She was telling him that the Cigarette Killer’s wife was a member of New York City crime family.
“I see,” Seth said.
“Watch your back, O’Malley,” Ava said. “I’ll be in touch if we have any questions. In the meantime, stay in New York. Work on the symphonies. Don’t talk to anyone about this, particularly not any of the people who you saw last weekend.”
He nodded. She’d just told him that his phone conversations were now being monitored.
“Got it,” Seth said. “I’ll get this envelope to you.”
“Please do,” Ava said. She took a breath. “I …”
She sounded so young and alone that Seth’s heart ached for her.
“I was requested by name,” Ava said. “The request included an image of me from my time in the courtroom.”
“This whole thing revolves around you?” Seth asked.
“No, O’Malley,” Ava said. “This whole thing revolves around you. Turns out that I’m not the only person who will remember you.”
“Love you, O’Malley,” Ava said.
“Love you, Ava,” Seth said. “I’ll miss you.”
“Yes,” Ava said. “Talk to you later.”
Ava hung up the phone. For a moment, Seth looked at the ground. He took a breath and looked out at the orchestra.
“Can I borrow your phone?” Seth asked the young violin player sitting near him. “Mine’s being monitored.”
“Sure,” the young man said. “You want my actual phone or my burner?”
“You have a burner?” Seth asked.
“Can’t be too careful,” the young man said.
Seth took out his wallet and gave the young man a couple hundred dollar bills. The young man gave him the phone and returned on one of the hundreds. Seth nodded his thanks. He went out of the orchestra room and into the hallway. He placed a call to what he knew was R.J.’s throw away phone.
“I only have a minute,” Seth said. “And I need a big favor.”
“What’s up?” R.J. asked.
“The Cigarette Killer has reopened his case,” Seth said. “Filed the day after Big Daddy died.”
“You think that’s connected?” R.J. asked.
“I do,” Seth said. “I think Big Daddy knew something about the Cigarette Killer that kept that sick fuck quiet for all of these years.”
“What’d you need?” R.J. asked.
“Go and ask Bernice about the killings,” Seth said. “Ask her for everything she knows. Ask her what Big Daddy knew that might not be in the envelope. Think about everything you know about the killing and ask Claire too. We’ve got figure out what Big Daddy knew about the Cigarette Killer. So, try to get everything she knows.”
“Sure,” R.J. said.
“Can you tape everything she says?” Seth asked.
“I’ll go get a recorder,” R.J. said. “Something not connected to the Internet.”
“Good,” Seth said. “There’s cash …”
“Shit, Seth, I know where you keep your cash,” R.J. said with a laugh. “I taught you that.”
“Yes you did,” Seth said.
“Is that going to work?” R.J. asked.
“Perfect. Make sure to tell Bernice that her life is in danger,” Seth said. “Mine, yours, and probably Claire’s.”
“You’ll explain everything later?” R.J. asked.
“I will,” Seth said. “I’ll be done in an hour and a half.”
“Why don’t I come to get you?” R.J. asked.
“That would be great,” Seth said. “See you soon.”
Seth went back inside the orchestra room.
“Okay,” Seth said. “Let’s see if we can get through this.”
Forcing himself to shift gears, he nodded to the orchestra. The violins started the piece. A few minutes later, he joined in.
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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