Coming in February 2024!
The Skyscraper Killers
by I. James Bertolina
Dom settled the Porsche next to shoveled mounds of snow in front of his L-shaped building. The Monroe Road property was once a retail center one of the previous owners converted into offices. When they entered the reception area, Winnie looked up from her computer screen. She’d kept her dark-blonde-dyed hair short after the last round of chemo.
Dom introduced Angie.
“Jock’s in,” Winnie said.
“He make any headway with Johannsen?” Dom said.
“He only yelled once.”
“Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Dom gestured down the hall. “Let me show you the place.”
They passed a conference room where a slender older man with tight silver hair stood on a stepladder. He spackled a sheet-rock crack above a window with a rear courtyard view of a tiny house in a snow-veiled stone garden.
“Who’s Jock?” Angie said.
“Among his other duties, my part-time bookkeeper.”
“And Johannsen he yelled at?” she said.
“A Stockholm bank chairman who brought us on to find out who embezzled money from his US branch office. We found out his son, the branch’s manager, financed his mistress with depositors’ money. Now he’s under the impression we should agree to a lower fee because his boy was involved.”
Dom opened a door to an office with a desk telephone, metal file cabinets, a couch, and a bathroom with a shower. “Here’s an office you can use.”
“I prefer my apartment,” she said.
He ignored the apartment reference. “The couch is a pull-out bed. Your neighbors in the next two offices are former Mexican marines who operate a dignitary protection firm.”
“Mexican marines in Charlotte?”
“They like the weather and the airport over New York or Washington.”
“Today’s weather notwithstanding,” she said.
A man with slicked-back silver hair walked up to Winnie’s desk.
“Franco.” Dom called, and motioned for him.
Franco pulled off his leather gloves and came their way, a beige silk scarf tucked around the collar of his camel overcoat.
“My wardrobe isn’t prepared for Siberia,” Franco said.
“I told Franco Paris receives more snow than Charlotte,” Dom said to Angie.
At a few inches over six feet, his urbane comportment went with the distinguished French accent.
“Meet Angie Crete, a Coast Guard investigator who’ll be in the spare office.”
“I will?” Angie said.
“Franco Babineaux, the pleasure’s mine.” He shook her hand with both of his.
“I’m only here on a temporary basis,” she said.
“She’s here to assist me with a job,” Dom said.
“Perhaps, when you have time, you can tell me all about the Coast Guard.” Franco said. “I reside around the corner.”
He withdrew his cell phone, glanced at the screen, and indicated he needed to take the call. He answered in French and went toward his office.
“French film-star looks,” Angie said.
“Franco has a colorful past. An architect by trade, he saved the lives of France’s president and her family while they vacationed in Martinique. He was on the island to lift jewels from the hotel room of a wealthy Lebanese couple two floors below the president’s penthouse suite. Instead of jewels he found military-grade explosives connected to a timer. He cleared the hotel when he pulled the fire alarm. He’s our resident cat burglar with a lucky streak.”
“I can’t wait to hear the lucky part,” she said.
“After his fence turned him in, a grateful president offered him a choice. Prison … or, with his unique skills as an architect and cat burglar, work for her on special assignments from time to time. He’s here on loan to Homeland Security.”
An Asian guy the size of a sumo wrestler filled the exit door when he came in from the rear courtyard.
“Moved in?” Dom said.
“Except for the internet,” he said.
“Deuce, Angie Crete,” Dom said.
The big man gave her a modest head bow. Half of one pinkie finger was gone and tattoos appeared above his plaid shirt collar.
“Deuce has moved into our rear building,” Dom said.
Deuce sauntered into the lobby and out the front door.
“What kind of name is Deuce?” Angie said.
“Takeo Kouda’s his name. We call him Deuce because he’s the size of two people.”
“Those are Yakuza tattoos,” Angie said.
“Like Franco, he caught a break and left Japan after he saved the life of his boss’s daughter and was granted his request to leave.”
“He choose Charlotte for the weather too?” She pulled out and checked one of the desk drawers.
“Went to San Francisco’s Japantown to live with a relative in the bank-security business who I worked a job with a few years ago. She called me to see if I knew of anyone who needed an extra hand.”
“He works for you?”
“I keep him busy.”
“How many employees do you have?”
“Deuce, Jock, Winnie, and Hector, in the conference room on the ladder.”
“He another master criminal too?”
“Hector de Losa from Miami, thanks to the Mariel boatlift. A gunrunner recruited by the Cuba’s DGI, directorate general of intelligence, to run guns back to the island from South Florida. He’s here thanks to a referral from the United States attorney for the southern district of Florida.”
They went back toward Winnie, where Dom opened a door near the reception desk. “Here’s the smaller of our two conference rooms. Feel free to use the computer. Why don’t you pull together a list of Palmer’s clients from the bag? We might have time to visit one or two after your one-thirty appointment.”
He left for Jock’s office before she could protest to tell him she wanted to go back to her apartment.
Ninety minutes later Dom found her in the conference room. An empty to-go box from Winnie’s take-out lunch order and papers from the bag were strewn across the ten-seat table. “You’ve been busy,” he said.
She pointed to numbers she circled with an orange marker on the white board. “Palmer’s financial affairs appear to be in order. He left a thirty-eight-thousand-dollar balance in his business checking account and fifteen grand in his personal checking account. Ninety-two K was the total of his IRAs. His business line of credit was never touched and there was zero to no balance on both his credit cards.”
“Any real estate debt?”
“The Cherry house mortgage balance was two hundred sixteen grand with another forty-two on the home equity line.” She looked at a note. “East Boulevard was four hundred and three thousand. He never missed a payment.”
“Some might consider six hundred thousand enough motivation to keep late office hours,” he said.
She went back to another group of orange-circled numbers. “His one-man environmental business generated, on average, between two and a half to three hundred thousand each of the last three years. Take out Karen’s salary, expenses, and payroll taxes and he made a decent living.”
Dom saw the time. “If we leave now, you’ll be early.”