KIDNAPPED: PART 7 (The Conclusion)

Thursday, 11:05 a.m.

Tagliotta’s cell phone rang as he was heading back to headquarters. 

It was Murphy.  “We got the call.  The kid’s at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.”

Tagliotta mouthed a silent thank you to the universe.  “He OK?”

“Don’t know.  Just got the call, from a pay phone in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  Can you meet us at the hotel?”

“I’ll be there in 15 minutes,” Tagliotta said.  “Get LaTralla there.  She’ll be good if the kid is traumatized.  What am I saying, if.”

He clicked the phone off and flicked the switch to turn the siren and bubble light on.

 

Thursday, 11:25 a.m.

The typical madness of the Marriott Marquis was multiplied a hundredfold by the police presence.  Curious onlookers were kept at bay by an army of uniformed officers.  To make matters worse, someone had tipped off the media.  Reporters were everywhere, yammering into cameras and giving minute-by-minute updates.

Tagliotta arrived only a couple of minutes after Kwan and Murphy.  The three men ducked into a corner for a quick debriefing.

“The call came at 11:03.  The kidnapper said something like, apology accepted and they’d better keep their end of the bargain.  Then he said the kid was here and to look in the big plant directly to the left of the registration desk.  There’s a metal box buried in the dirt.  We open the box, get the number of the room the kid’s in, and go get him.”

Tagliotta walked to the plant in question and began rooting in the dirt with his fingers.  When he didn’t strike gold after a couple of seconds, he called for some large serving spoons and buckets from the kitchen.  LaTralla showed up just in time to help them sift through the dirt. 

LaTralla had dug the serving spoon into the planter for the fourth time when she heard a metal clink.  She put gloves on and pulled a Cinnamon Altoids tin from the dirt.  Gingerly she opened it and extracted a small piece of paper that read:

 

1305

 

“Let’s go,” Tagliotta said.  Kwan was dispatched to call for backup as Tagliotta, LaTralla, and Murphy made their way to the elevator.  They didn’t pull their guns until they were inside the elevator. Why make people in the lobby panic?

It could be a set-up.  A lunatic could be waiting at the peephole of room 1306, directly across the hall, waiting to spray them with a shower of bullets.  When their backup showed up a few minutes later, they began quietly searching and evacuating each room in the hallway, one by one. 

Tagliotta set his mouth.  “Let’s do it,” he said.  “One,” he said, placing the electronic card quietly in the key slot of Room 1305.  “Two,” he said, pushing the card down to make contact.  “Three,” he said, as the little light turned green and the door unlocked. 

Tagliotta and Murphy burst into the room, guns drawn, followed by LaTralla.  They quickly fanned out into the suite.  Marius wasn’t in the living area or closet.  He wasn’t in the bedroom. 

LaTralla found him tied up, blindfolded, and gagged in the bathtub.  The kidnapper had kindly arranged towels, blankets, and other materials to make the tub as comfortable as possible for the boy.

LaTralla removed the gag and the blindfold while Tagliotta gently cut the ropes that bound Marius’ wrists and ankles.  The kid looked surprisingly calm.  Drugged?

“Boy, are we happy to see you,” LaTralla said, hugging the kid, who hugged her back.

“You doing OK, buddy?” Tagliotta asked. 

“Yes, I’m OK,” Marius said, sounding not the least shaken up.

“I know you probably don’t want to talk much, but we have to ask you some questions.  OK, buddy?” Tagliotta asked.

“OK,” Marius responded.

“The most important thing is, describe the person or people who took you.  How many were there?  A man, a woman, one of each?  How old?  What color hair?  How tall?  Just tell me what they looked like.”

Marius thought a moment.  “I don’t remember.”

Tagliotta blinked.  “You don’t remember?”

“No.  I’m sorry.”

“When you left school on Tuesday, who did you leave with?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t remember.”

“Please, Marius.  Tell us anything that you do remember.”

“Well, I remember being at school.  And I remember you guys taking off the blindfold and untying me.”

“But what about everything in between, Marius?  That’s what we need to know.”

Marius shook his head.  “I’m sorry, I just don’t know.”

“You don’t remember anything?”

“No.”

Tagliotta asked LaTralla to step into the other room with him for a moment.

“What do you think?” he asked her.

“Sounds awfully rehearsed to me.”

“Me too.”

“Dead end for now, Rich.  Let’s get him home and let the shrinks unlock the memories later.”

“I saw you looking at him.  Any sign of injury?”

“None.  Kid seems happy as a clam, healthy as a horse, fit as a fiddle.”

“Goddamn it.  This is messed up.

“We’ve seen a lot more messed up, Rich.  This one seems to be turning out OK.  Let’s be thankful.”

*  *  *

In the ride back to the Van Horns’ apartment, they debriefed each other on the morning’s events.  Tagliotta told LaTralla about Philippe’s drug den in the Village; LaTralla one-upped him by laying out the details of Dr. Van Horn’s Medicare scam. 

As usual, during the course of an investigation, they’d learned enough about half a dozen people to send them to prison—Katrina for tax evasion; Philippe for drug dealing and perhaps prostitution; Nicholas, Sonia, and the accountant for fraud; Greta for lying to the police—but they were no closer to finding the identity of the kidnapper.

But, as LaTralla had implied, they should count their blessings.  And, when a kidnapped kid shows up alive, in one piece, and seemingly healthy, that’s a very large blessing indeed.

 

Thursday, 12:15 p.m.

They knocked on the door.  Greta opened it to see Marius standing in front of Tagliotta and LaTralla.  She burst into tears, dropped to her knees, and hugged the little boy as racking sobs tore through her body.  Nicholas dropped to his knees, too, and folded his family into him as he cried along with Greta. 

Tagliotta noticed that Marius didn’t shed a tear or seem particularly fazed.

While the family continued to bond, Tagliotta stepped into the living room.  He called to Kwan, who gave him a full report.

“A woman rented the room.  Name of Elisabeth Von Helsing, supposedly a German tourist.  Dark straight hair, sunglasses.  I saw her on the security tape.  Maybe about 50 or 55.  Bellman helped her bring a couple of huge suitcases up to the room.  We can guess what was in one of them.

“She paid in cash, gave a phony home address in Düsseldorf.  Pretended not to speak much English, said she had no credit card.  Checked in around 9 a.m., so I guess she could have left the kid there and still made it down to Jersey to call at 11.  Prints all over the room, but I doubt if any of them are hers.  Front desk clerk noticed she was wearing gloves, but figured it was some weird German thing.”

 

Thursday, 4:30 p.m.

At 1:30, the Van Horns left the building briefly to make a statement to the press.  Their son was home safely, they said, and they wanted to thank whoever had taken him for bringing him back.  They intended to keep their promises, they said. 

At 2:20, Greta’s parents showed up and were allowed into the building; at 2:40, Nicholas’ mother arrived and was afforded the same privilege.

Of course, there were many questions still to be answered.  Tomorrow would bring more difficulties for the Van Horns; Tagliotta planned to send someone to arrest Nicholas for Medicare fraud first thing in the morning.  Sonia and the accountant were already in custody. 

Tomorrow, too, the child psychologists would begin their barrage of tests on Marius, and Tagliotta would have to continue pumping the poor kid for information that he probably would prefer to forget. 

But that was tomorrow.  Let the family enjoy a little peace and quiet for the rest of the day.  Let them eat the leftover lasagna they’d found in the refrigerator.  Let the parents appreciate their son.  Let the grandparents indulge and spoil him, and fight among themselves for the right to hold him and hug him.

“Marius, you seem sleepy,” Grandma Van Horn said.  “Would you like to take a nap?”

“I think I would, Grandma,” Marius said, yawning. 

“Come on, let’s get you into bed.” 

The two parents and three grandparents all stood simultaneously.  Marius said, “Just you for now, OK, Grandma?”

Grandma Van Horn glowed with pride that Marius should grant her—and her alone—the privilege of tucking him in.  If the others felt hurt, they knew better than to show it.

Martha Van Horn walked Marius into his room and shut the door behind them.

The boy grabbed his grandmother around the waist and hugged her.

            “We did it, Grandma.  Nobody knows.”

            “Shh, little man.  There are policemen out there.”

            “I bet they’re still looking in Camden, New Jersey.” 

            “You should have told me you were doing that!”

            “It’s called ‘throwing them off the scent,’ Grandma.  I used an IP hider to pretend the messages were sent from somewhere else.”

            “Very good.  Now shh!”

            Marius shushed and fell onto his bed.  In two minutes he was sound asleep.  As much as he’d enjoyed staying at Grandma’s house, there was nothing like his own bed.

 

Upper East Side

Thursday, 10:00 p.m.

What an exhausting couple of days.  Thank God it was all over.

Martha Van Horn decided she’d stay in her apartment in town rather than going to the house in Chappaqua.  Since she’d sold her business and retired, she divided her time between the two places.  Tonight, after all the drama of the day, she just wanted to crash in her place on York Avenue at East 84th Street.

One of the ways she’d managed to build her business and make more money than she’d ever expected was her ability to see an opportunity and seize it.  That ability had led to the events of the past days.

The knowledge of her son and daughter-in-law’s unsavory activities had come to her gradually over the past year.  She’d been helping Nicholas in his office while Sonia was on vacation, and she’d noticed the many anomalies in the books.  Nicholas had brushed her off, in his usual confident way—as if she, who’d run her own business for thirty years, wouldn’t be able to figure out exactly what he was doing.

She was horrified that the boy she’d raised to be ethical and moral was defrauding HMO’s and Medicare.  But how to get him to stop?  She couldn’t call the authorities and get her own son thrown in jail, could she?

And she knew exactly what Greta was doing, too.  After all, it was Martha who’d sponsored her son and daughter-in-law for membership in the tennis club.  She was quite well tied into the gossip network there, and when she began hearing rumors of Greta’s affair with Philippe, she’d known in her heart that the gossip was true.  And all the rumors of Philippe’s ability to provide Oxycontin and Percodan on demand matched up perfectly with Greta’s increasingly vacant look. 

But she needed proof.  So she’d rummaged through the medicine cabinets in her son’s apartment—to which she had a set of keys, of course—and found all the evidence she needed.  And by paying the doorman at Philippe’s building a nice sum in cash, she was able to look through the security tapes and watch as Greta and Philippe entered the building, got into the elevator, and started kissing furiously.

The fact that her son was a thief and her daughter-in-law an adulteress bothered her greatly, but what bothered her even more was their selfish behavior toward her sweet grandson.  All the boy wanted was a little attention from his father, who was always too busy to spend time with him, and a little affection from his mother, who slept most of the day and seemed oblivious to his existence. 

And then, suddenly, the chance to teach them a lesson had presented itself.

She’d made some wonderful homemade lasagna—Nick’s favorite—on Monday night, and since she was going to be in the Village the next day, she thought she’d stop by her son’s place and bring a nice big tray of the stuff.  She let herself into the building with her key, then knocked on the apartment door.  There was no answer, so she let herself in with her key and punched in the code to de-activate the alarm system. 

It was when she went to put the lasagna in the refrigerator that she saw Katrina’s note.  Had Greta seen it?  She’d better make sure; you never knew with Greta.  So she used her cell to call Greta’s cell, which went directly to voice mail.  Martha hung up without leaving a message.  Most mothers wouldn’t dream of turning their cell phones off for fear of missing an important call about their child.  Not Greta, though.

Martha thought she’d better swing by Marius’ school just in case no one was there to pick him up.  And it was a good thing she’d checked, because neither Katrina, nor Greta, nor Nicholas, nor anyone else was there to walk Marius home.

She arrived just as school was letting out.  Marius smiled in surprise when he saw her, and off the two went, walking happily down 11th Street as Marius told Grandma about his day.

They don’t deserve this child, she thought, and then it had hit her.  Maybe they needed a reminder of just how special he was.  And maybe she could use this opportunity to help them not only become better parents, but also turn their lives around in other ways, too.

She outlined her plan to Marius as they drove up the Henry Hudson Parkway, and then the Saw Mill Parkway, to Westchester.  He was mature beyond his years, and he agreed with Grandma that this could be quite a good trick.  He liked mystery stories and wanted to help all he could, which was why he’d posted those things on the Internet.  He didn’t want Grandma to get caught, so he figured he’d help confuse the cops.  He was a clever one, that boy.  She just wished he’d told her about it before he’d done it.

And what a little trooper he was, allowing himself to be bundled into that suitcase.  He’d also allowed himself to be left in the hotel room for a couple of hours while blindfolded (not too tightly) and gagged (he’d put the gag in himself at 11 a.m., when Grandma was going to make the phone call).  It was all part of the adventure.

KIDNAPPED: PART 6

Thursday, 9:40 a.m.

LaTralla stopped at the station to do a bit of research before making her way to Dr. Van Horn’s office on lower Madison Avenue.  This was the difference—actually, one of the many differences—between her M.O. and Tagliotta’s.  Tagliotta always went with his gut, with what “felt right.”  LaTralla, in contrast, liked to check out her hunches with old-fashioned research before she attacked.

Dr. Van Horn was still at his apartment awaiting the kidnapper’s call when LaTralla walked into his office.  The waiting room was comfortably and expensively furnished with cherry furniture and copies of Town and Country magazine.

Sonia Litchfield, sitting primly behind a desk, greeted LaTralla professionally.  “Good morning,” she said in her Teutonic accent.  “I’m sorry, but the doctor has a family emergency and won’t be in today.”

“Actually, I’m here to see you, Miss Litchfield.  Maria LaTralla, NYPD.”  She flashed her detective badge.

“Oh, I talked with your colleague—Detective Murphy?—yesterday.  I’m happy to tell you what I told him, but nothing has really happened in the last 24 hours….”

“Why don’t I just lock the door so that nobody barges in while we’re talking?” LaTralla asked rhetorically as she twisted the bolt on the office door. 

“I suppose that would be fine,” Sonia said, somewhat helplessly.

“Come, sit in here with me,” LaTralla said in her friendliest voice.  She needed to get Sonia out of her receptionist chair, a psychological move she’d learned at the academy:  To get people to talk, take them out of the environment in which they reign and reduce them to “regular people” with no power.  Then let them spill their guts as you smile encouragingly.

“Well, all right,” Sonia said, rising from her perch, bustling through the door, and sitting opposite LaTralla in the waiting room.  “What would you like to know?”

LaTralla dove in.  “I would like to know why Dr. Van Horn called you at your home Tuesday night, almost immediately after he learned that his son had been abducted.”

The bombshell had the desired effect.  Sonia lost her sang froid instantly. 

“I, uh, he, um….”

“Sonia, listen,” LaTralla said kindly.  “Can we talk, woman to woman?  I’ve been in this game a while, and I’ve met plenty of women in the same shoes as you.  It’s not worth protecting him.  They never leave their wives, and they throw you overboard as soon as you become inconvenient.  I’ve been there.  I know.”  The words slipped off LaTralla’s lips as if they were ancient truths known to all cultures since the dawn of time.

“What?  Detective, you’ve got the wrong idea completely….”

LaTralla laughed softly.  “Sonia.  A man’s son disappears, and the first thing he does is call his office manager?  In times of trouble, men don’t call their employees.  They call their mistresses.”

“Mistress?  I am not Dr. Van Horn’s mistress!  He’s never touched me.”

“Then why did he call you that night?  And there’s no sense in denying it.  I have the proof right here.”  She pointed to Sonia’s phone number on the bill.

“He wanted to let me know what had happened and to tell me he wouldn’t be in the office the next morning.  Dr. Van Horn is very devoted to his patients.”

Hmmm….the sympathetic girlfriend tack wasn’t working.  Perhaps it was time to try more Tagliotta-type tactics. 

“According to the IRS, Dr. Van Horn pays you a salary of $60,000 per year.  Is that correct?”

“Yes, plus a bonus at Christmas.”

“How much of a bonus?  Half a million?  A million?”

Sonia laughed.  “Hardly.  Usually a few hundred dollars.”

“But I’m confused, Sonia.  How does a woman who earns $60,000 a year save up a down payment of half a million dollars for a luxury co-op on the Upper West Side?”

“A relative recently left me some money.”

“Your bank records don’t show deposits of any extraordinary amounts over the last few years, Sonia.  So let’s start again, OK?  Why did Nicholas Van Horn call you the night his son was kidnapped?”

Sonia opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again without uttering a word.

LaTralla sighed.  “Sonia, I can’t believe you’re a bad person.  Maybe you’ve done some things you shouldn’t have done, but I can’t believe you’d want to go to prison for the rest of your life for the kidnap and murder of an innocent boy.”

The threat snapped Sonia out of her silence.  “What!”

“Every minute that boy stays missing, the odds of finding him alive shrink.  And I have to tell you, neither the NYPD nor the judicial system has much tolerance for people who hurt children.  If you don’t start talking, you’re going to turn into our number-one suspect very quickly.”

“I love Marius!  I would never hurt him!”

“What aren’t you telling me, Sonia?”

Sonia appeared to be struggling. 

“Sonia, I want to find that little boy.  That’s the only thing I care about.  What you know might help us find him.   Even if you think it doesn’t matter, it might.  Did you see the news last night, where the Van Horns begged the kidnappers to bring Marius back?”

Sonia nodded.

“The kidnapper made some very strange demands, Sonia.  He told Dr. Van Horn to stop taking on so many older patients.  He made that a condition of releasing Marius.  Why, Sonia?  What’s going on with the old patients here?”

Sonia continued struggling mightily.

“Tell me, Sonia.  We’ll look the other way at anything you did if you just help us find that boy.  You are the only person who can save that boy’s life.  Please, I’m begging you.”

Sonia burst into tears, and the story came flooding out.  For the last four years, she’d been helping Dr. Van Horn defraud four major HMO’s and Medicare.  Working with a friend from the city records office, each week Dr. Van Horn would get the names of recently deceased elderly.  He’d then file claims with the HMO’s and the government, charging them for dozens of office visits that had never occurred with patients he’d never seen.  Part of the profit went to the city records clerk; part went to Sonia; part went to the accountant, Fred Mylan, who helped launder the money; and most of it went straight into Dr. Van Horn’s pocket. 

The day before Marius disappeared, Dr. Van Horn had received a call from a high-ranking Medicare official who’d asked for an appointment.  He hadn’t made any accusations, but Dr. Van Horn had panicked.  The next day—the day Marius disappeared—Nicholas and Sonia had closed the office and had an all-afternoon meeting with the accountant.  They’d spent the entire day forging and destroying records, moving money around, and deleting computer files.

“When he heard his son was kidnapped, he panicked,” Sonia explained.  “He was afraid the police would start looking around here, that you would talk to me and Fred.  He wanted us all to have our stories straight.  And that’s the truth, I swear it.  I’ve been beside myself with worry for that little boy.  If anything happens to him because of me, I’ll never forgive myself.”

“Did you tell anyone about your scam?”

“No, no, of course not.”

“Would the accountant have told anybody?”

“Why would he?  He’s in the same boat we are.”

Someone had to find out.  Someone had to know what you were doing.”

“I didn’t tell anyone.  Not a soul.  You need to talk to Fred Mylan.”

Of course she did.  The night of Marius’ kidnapping, Nicholas Van Horn had called Fred Mylan immediately after calling Sonia.

*  *  *

It didn’t take much to get Fred Mylan to corroborate everything Sonia had said.  Fred also swore up and down that he hadn’t told anyone about the scam.  He wasn’t that stupid, he said, somewhat proudly.