KIDNAPPED: PART 2

Wednesday, 8:00 a.m.

Detective Maria LaTralla looked around the Van Horns’ den with envy.  The room was larger than her entire apartment.

Dr. Van Horn was having a mini-tantrum.  “Do you know how much we pay this woman?  A thousand bucks a week.  No taxes, no nothing.  AND she gets a car to and from Brooklyn on holidays, instead of taking the subway like everyone else.  So what does she do?  She lets some sicko take off with my kid.”

“Calm down, please, Dr. Van Horn,” LaTralla said calmly, while making a mental note of the crime to which he’d just admitted.

“Don’t tell me to calm down.  This is my house.”

“OK, then, rant and rave,” LaTralla said without inflection.  “Waste as much time as you like.  Every minute you carry on is another minute your son stays lost.”

Nicholas Van Horn didn’t apologize, but he did stop snarling.  Kwan sat quietly taking notes, while Spence Dryden, Nicholas’ lawyer, observed.

“Dr. Van Horn, I need you to help me understand something.”  LaTralla flipped through her notepad, a trick she’d learned from Tagliotta.  The best detectives had the most important details of the case in the forefront of their brains; they didn’t need to flip through pads to locate them.  But flipping through a notebook gives suspects the sense that you’re just a blue-collar schlub, using your limited brain power to piece together the details of an unsolvable case.  Playing dumb is the best thing a detective can do; the smart criminals assume you’re stupid, and they get careless.

“From what I understand, you run a very successful chiropractic practice on…”—she flipped through her notes again—“Madison Avenue.  So how can an important voice mail like Katrina’s go unlistened to for an entire afternoon?”

Nicholas snorted.  “Of course I have an office manager, Sonia Litchfield, who answers the phone during business hours, and an answering service after hours.  But yesterday afternoon I had my quarterly meeting with my accountant.  Sonia does my billing and paperwork, so she’s part of those meetings.  So we put the office phone on voice mail and left a colleague’s phone number in case of emergencies. The meeting went much later than any of us expected.  Around nine p.m. I called my colleague, Dr. Konyar, and he told me he hadn’t heard from any of my patients.  We were all tired, so we locked up and went home.  We didn’t even think to check for messages.”

They’d talked to the accountant, to Sonia, and to Dr. Konyar, all of whom had verified the story.

“But what about your cell phone?  Why didn’t you check your messages there?”

“Unlike most people in New York, Detective LaTralla, I don’t keep my cell phone on 24 hours a day.  I was in an all-afternoon meeting with an accountant I pay by the hour.  I turned my cell phone off when the meeting began, and I forgot to turn it on again.  That’s how I missed Katrina’s second message.”

LaTralla didn’t believe one word of it.  She’d found that people’s relationships with their cell phones were directly related to their sense of self-importance.  The more self-important they were, the more likely they were to leave their cell phones on at all times, having loud conversations on buses and trains while others tried to read or nap.  Dr. Van Horn was very self-important, and she highly doubted that his cell phone was ever turned off.

That meant he’d chosen to ignore Katrina’s call, and then her message.  But why?

“Dr. Van Horn, do you have any enemies or disgruntled patients who’d want revenge on you?”

Van Horn shook his head: No.

LaTralla wasn’t surprised in the least.  Dr. Van Horn was the type to think he didn’t have any enemies.

*  *  *

When LaTralla and Kwan left the room, Nicholas had a quick consultation with Spence Dryden, who advised him not to worry.  Spence would have known if the police were treating him as a suspect, and from their questions and their demeanor, it was clear that they weren’t.

Nicholas wondered if he should confide in Spence regarding the outcome of yesterday’s meeting.  If things didn’t go according to plan, he was going to need Spence’s help.

But why mix that situation with this situation?  They were completely unrelated.

And he’d told the truth, after all.  Except for the part about the cell phone.  Yes, he’d seen a 718 number on the caller ID, but he hadn’t recognized the name or number and had therefore ignored it.  And he’d retrieved Katrina’s message about fifteen minutes after she’d left it, but he’d had other, more important, things on his mind.  Let Marius walk home if Greta wasn’t around.  He was big enough, and old enough, to walk a few blocks by himself.

 

Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.

The apartment phone rang.  LaTralla and Tagliotta jumped slightly and hurried to put their headsets on.  Tagliotta signaled Nicholas Van Horn to pick up the receiver.

“Oh, Dr. Van Horn, I just got your message now.  Is everything OK?”

The room heaved a collective sigh of disappointment.  The caller wasn’t the kidnapper.  It was the housekeeper, Jamaican-born Cassandra Lutes.

“Cassandra, where the hell have you been?”

“Don’t you remember, Dr. Van Horn?  I was visiting my mother in Boston.  I just got back.”

“I didn’t know you were away.”

Tagliotta hadn’t known, either.  According to Greta Van Horn, Cassandra had simply not reported for work on Monday or Tuesday, which had led them to classify her as a suspect and issue an APB.  In the meantime, just in case Cassandra’s “disappearance” was legit, they’d asked Nicholas to leave a message asking her to call them as soon as she could.  Now, as the Caller ID box attested, she was back in Astoria, Queens, calling from her home phone.

“But I told Mrs. Van Horn about it back in February, and I reminded her last week.”

All eyes turned to Greta, who began to fidget.

Tagliotta took the phone from Nicholas.  “Ms. Lutes, this is Detective Tagliotta with the NYPD.  Marius Van Horn is missing, and we’re hoping you’ll be able to help us find him.  Please stay at home.  I’m going to send some officers down to bring you to our station, just so we can ask you a few questions.”

“I’ll wait right here, Detective.  I pray Marius is safe!”

Tagliotta replaced the phone receiver in its cradle.  Without a word, Murphy and Kwan left the apartment to fetch Cassandra.

“Mrs. Van Horn,” Tagliotta said slowly, “Did Cassandra tell you about her visit to her mother?”

Greta Van Horn began sobbing.  “I juggle a busy life, and maybe I forget things once in a while!  Is that a crime?”

 

Wednesday, 1:00 p.m.

It had been a busy morning.  A team had been dispatched to P.S. 41 to talk to the faculty, staff, and kids about any suspicious activity they might have observed near the school in recent weeks.  None of the faculty reported seeing anything amiss.  Marius’ teacher was visibly shaken.  “His nanny usually comes to get him.  She waits by the tree.  Marius ran to her yesterday, the way he always does.  At least I thought it was her.”

Their first lead.  Was the kidnapper a woman?

Cassandra Lutes’ story had checked out completely.  Cassandra, it turned out, had driven to Boston in the passenger seat of her cousin Cyril’s Cadillac—Cyril, who was a beat cop in Brooklyn, and therefore quite a reliable alibi.

Cassandra also answered their questions about the Van Horn household with alacrity, using the forum to air long-held grudges.

“Lord, what goes on in that house!  The mother never there, and when she is, she’s sleeping!  The father with his money, money, money all the time!  They don’t deserve that little boy, I can tell you that.”

LaTralla and Tagliotta looked up to see Murphy at the window of the interrogation room, a grim look on his face.  “Excuse me, Ms. Lutes,” Tagliotta said, then met Murphy in the hallway.

“Looks like our friend Miss Lebchenko lost another little boy,” Murphy said.  “In Russia.  Three years ago.”

 

From the Corner of a Mysterious Universe

Thus begins my first blog entry, ever. Exciting? Intimidating? Will anyone read it or show any interest whatsoever? That’s the most intimidating question of all.

Back in my grad school days, I was forever reading 18th- and 19th-century English novels, many of which had undergone serial publication. Who can forget Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, so ably lampooned later in Henry Fielding’s Shamela? When the virtuous Pamela finally marries Mr. B. in the final installment, church bells throughout England rang in celebration.

And it does seem to me that  today’s readers enjoy “episodes” just as much, looking forward to the next installment of their favorite TV show or series character.

So, here on the Greenfields blog (named for Greenfield, Connecticut, the setting of my first cozy mystery, The Outsmarting of Criminals), I thought I might try my own effort at serializing a novella that was complimented (but ultimately rejected) by the editor of  Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. One thing I’ve learned is that editors don’t give compliments unless they really mean them, so I feel confident in putting this out there.

I’ll update with a couple of installments per week until readers get to the surprise ending. (I’m a sucker for a surprise ending, myself.)

So with that, I present KIDNAPPED: the tale of a boy kidnapped in New York City’s Greenwich Village – and the secrets harbored by everyone in his family.

KIDNAPPED: Part 1

Tuesday, 11:22 p.m.

 

If she’d read the notes, picked up her voice mail, or answered her cell phone, it never would have happened.  As she said to the police, when she could speak in coherent sentences.

*  *  *

He left the running of the household to his wife and the endless supply of help she hired to manage their lives. He had a practice to run, and that’s what he’d been doing while other people were supposed to be taking care of his kid. 

 

*  *  *

It was her fault.  Where was her little man?  And what would happen to her?  Would they deport her back to Russia?  Living on the streets, eating garbage and sleeping on sewer grates, would be better than that.  Execution would be better than that

It was only a matter of time before they found out about Vassily.  Should she volunteer the information?  No.

Miss Lebchenko, when you picked Marius up at school, did you ever see anyone waiting around the schoolyard?  Any cars with people sitting in them, watching the kids?  Any men wearing sunglasses?

No, I see nothing.

The policemen frowned.  They didn’t believe her. 

*  *  *

Back at the 6th Precinct, Detective John Murphy asked his boss, “What did you think of the nanny?”

Chief of Detectives Rich Tagliotta set his mouth in a hard frown.  “Lying.  You running her file?”

“Should have it in a couple of hours.”

Tagliotta huffed.  “The kid could be dead by then.”

Who was he kidding?  The kid was probably already dead. 

Unless a ransom note showed up, or a ransom phone call was received, soon.  Usually that happened with 24 hours of a snatch.  If they were lucky, the kid would have been grabbed by a money-desperate drug addict instead of a murderous pervert.

“Kwan and LaTralla are there manning the phones?”

Murphy nodded. 

Tagliotta threw himself into his rickety chair.  “Jesus Christ.  Losing your kid like you lose your car keys.  This is a first.”

 

Wednesday, 7:45 a.m.

“Mrs. Van Horn, we need to go over the details of yesterday again.”  Tagliotta surveyed the living room of the Van Horns’ spacious duplex on Washington Mews, which had probably cost more than he’d earn in twenty years.

“How many times are you going to put me through this?” Greta Van Horn wailed dramatically.

“As many times as I need to.  So let’s start from the beginning. What time did you wake up yesterday?”

“About noon or 12:30.”

Must be nice, Tagliotta thought.

“Anyone in the apartment when you finally woke up?”

“No, just me.”

“Katrina Lebchenko brings your son to school each morning?”

“Yes.”

“And yesterday she took Marius to school as usual?”

“That’s what she says.”

“What did you do after you woke up?”

“I took a bath and then went for my tennis lesson.”

“Did you go into the kitchen?”

“No.”

“So you didn’t see Katrina’s note.”

“No.”

Tagliotta pulled a Xerox copy of the note from a pile of papers.  The original note was undergoing a thorough forensic examination.

“Is this Katrina’s handwriting?”

Greta looked at the note:

 

Mrs. Van Horn:

There is emergency in Brooklyn.  My uncle has had heart attack and may die.  I must go to Brooklyn after I bring Marius to school.  Please, you pick him up.  Also I will ask Cassandra to pick up Marius.  If she can get Marius, she will tell you.

I will return this evening as early as I can.

Katrina

 

“Yes, that’s her handwriting.”

Katrina had written the same note twice, leaving one on the kitchen table, where Greta usually drank her early afternoon coffee, and one tacked to the door of the master bedroom.

“You didn’t see the note on the bedroom door, either?”

“No, I was rushing to get ready.  If Katrina wanted me to see the note, she should have left it in the exercise room.  That’s where I keep my tennis clothes, and she knew I had a lesson.”

That’s right—blame the nanny because you spend your life in a drug-induced haze.  Tagliotta’s quick search through the master bath had confirmed the suspicions raised by Greta’s dilated pupils and hesitant speech. The medicine chest was stuffed with enough amphetamines to keep all of NYU awake during finals week, and enough barbiturates to tranquilize every hysteric in New York City.

“You didn’t check the answer machine, either?”

“No, I was running late.”

The evening before, Tagliotta had heard the message Katrina had left on the Van Horns’ answering machine the previous morning:

 

Mrs. Van Horn, this is Katrina.  I want to make sure you receive note I leave.  I am in Brooklyn now, my uncle is very sick.  Please, you get Marius from school.  I cannot find Cassandra.  Thank you so much, I am sorry for problem.

 

The message had been time-stamped 11 a.m., and the Caller ID box had confirmed that the call had been placed from the home of Katrina’s aunt in Brighton Beach.  But Greta hadn’t picked up the message.  The message indicator light was still blinking at 7:30 p.m. when Greta arrived home, and she hadn’t thought to check messages until 10 p.m., when neither Katrina nor Marius had arrived home.  That was when she’d listened to the message and her husband had called the police.

“What about your cell phone?”

“When I turned it on, it didn’t say I had any messages waiting.  You know how unreliable cell phones are.”

And, indeed, the conscientious Katrina had left not one, but two, voice mails on Greta’s cell phone, the first time-stamped 12:30 p.m. and the second 2:10.  In both, Katrina reminded Greta to pick up her son at school, indicating that she hadn’t been able to reach Cassandra.  Two similar messages had been left for Nicholas Van Horn, one at his office and one on his cell.  Like his wife, Nicholas hadn’t picked up either message until late Tuesday evening, long after Marius had been abducted.

Tagliotta flipped through his notepad.  “Your tennis lesson was at 2:00 at the Gotham Racquet Club.  The lesson lasted until what time?”

“Three.”

“Then what?”

“I went shopping.  First Barney’s, then Ann Taylor.  I have receipts from both places.” 

A red flag shot up from the ground and unfurled itself.  What sort of distraught mother would think to offer store receipts as an alibi to prove she’d been shopping?

“Did anyone go with you?”

“No.”

“What time did you get home?”

“About 7:30.”

The Barney’s receipt indicated a purchase at exactly 4 p.m.  The Ann Taylor receipt showed a purchase at 4:46 p.m.  That left approximately two hours and 45 minutes unaccounted for.

“Did you find it strange that Katrina and Marius weren’t home when you got here?”

“No.  Sometimes they go to the movies or the bookstore.”

“So, when you got home, you didn’t see the notes or check your messages then, either?”

“No, I was tired.  I laid down on the couch and ended up falling asleep.”

“When did you wake up?”

“About ten, when Nicholas got home.”

“And that was when you started to get worried about Marius?”

“Yes.”

“Mrs. Van Horn, do you have any idea where he might be?”

Greta burst into tears.  “Why would we be having this ridiculous conversation if I knew where he was?”

*  *  *

It was true, she hadn’t see those notes, at least not in the morning.  She had seen the answering machine light blinking when she’d been rushing around to get ready, but she’d made a conscious decision not to retrieve the waiting messages. Ditto for the messages on her cell phone. 

She’d been looking forward to Tuesday afternoon for weeks.  The voice mails awaiting her might be from people with emergencies, which might require her to change her plans.  No, it was better not to listen to the messages.

When she’d finally listened to Katrina’s messages on her home phone at 8 p.m., she’d known something was terribly wrong, and that she was likely to get caught.  So she’d called the apartment line from her cell—with its private, blocked number—and hung up when the machine picked up.  That way, the indicator light would be blinking when Nicholas got home, and she could act as if she’d never heard the message at all.

Of course, she’d had to place another call from her cell phone immediately afterwards.