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.



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