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.”

 

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