It's All in the Delivery
A Joe Angello Story

by Peter A. Parmantie


......"Where is he?" I asked Torelli as soon as I arrived. The alley was swarming with officialdom, conferring, checking for evidence or just hanging around. I ignored Lieutenant Kauders, the city hall straw boss in charge of the investigation. He looked harried, meaning someone was riding him, hard. An intellectual lightweight with animal smarts, he at least knew enough to keep his nose out of my business. We'd bumped heads a few times when Maud was alive and he wasn't sure what I knew about him, but since he figured I might have something I could use any time, he hated me. The feeling was mutual. I could be nasty and make him talk to me, but what the hell. Besides, it was Torelli, not Kauders, who had phoned me that Sunday morning.

......Torelli's eyes were red. He gestured at a dumpster. "Manuel was shot. They say tortured." He raised clenched fists to his face in a spasm of grief. He gulped once and lowered them. His hands remained clenched at his side.

......I evaded officials and garbage and stepped over to the dumpster. What remained of Manuel lay behind it, shielded from the street. He'd been tortured and killed there in the alley. Someone squeamish had covered his face with a fold of dirty newspaper. Torelli told me he'd found Manuel and phoned the police, then me.

......What little else he'd got from Kauders before he phoned me he stated in a few words. As far as the medical examiner could determine after a quick on-site examination, marks on the corpse indicated that Manuel had been tortured, maybe interrogated. At some point in the proceedings, the interrogator, if that's what he was, gave up and inquiry morphed into sadism. Tongue and eyes ended the work, then the final blessed bullet. There couldn't have been much blood left in Manuel when he died; it was on the filthy pavement beneath him.

......We moved down the alley to keep clear of the policemen swarming around the scene. Kauders glanced over at us--more in my direction--spouting orders as he did so. He's the nervous type, doubly so today. He waved his arms, semaphoring the troops. They pretty much ignored him. They knew the real power lay at city hall, with whoever pulled Kauders' strings.

......I said what seemed logical, seeing that Torelli had phoned me after he called the police, "You told me you'd turned in that attaché case Friday."

*****

......I'd dropped in that previous Friday morning for breakfast. I sat at my usual place at the counter, three stools down from the door, ignoring the other customers but watching them nevertheless.
A man in a store-bought business suit almost as cheap as mine sat to my right drinking coffee and communing with the morning cars streaming by. He wore a cap that made him look like a taxi driver. Once or twice he glanced at his watch. To my left, two young women were finishing up their meal and swiveled around to dismount the stools. It wasn't easy in hip-high skirts. They giggled nonstop to the checkout, every other word like and you know. Beyond them a gray-haired man with an athletic build and a starter's jacket curled his lip in scorn. He shook his head as if to call attention to the inanity of the younger generation. He poured more syrup on hotcakes already almost submerged in the stuff.
Manuel, the only name I knew him by at the time, mopped off my place at the counter. As he set down my coffee, the guy by the window motioned him over. I nodded for him to go ahead and take care of the other guy. I could place my own order.

......Down the counter Torelli looked up from an account ledger and waved at me. I signaled the usual, three eggs over easy, a double order of bacon, with hash browns and toast and coffee, plenty of coffee. That's the breakfast I dreamed about when I didn't have the money to buy it. Now that I have the cash I eat what I want. I'm a regular here.

......As for cholesterol, at my age, who's measuring? Look at Maud--she was always careful about her diet.

......Torelli waved okay, made out the ticket and snapped his fingers. At the precise instant his hand reached out, an arm snaked from the kitchen to snatch the ticket, like a choreographed comedy routine. My breakfast would be on the way in record time.

......Torelli returned to his ledger.

......Torelli's is a meeting place for downtown officials of all shades--used-car-salesman honest, lawyer-honest, and corrupt to the core. It had just begun to recover from the morning breakfast crowd, which is why I was there. I hate crowds and city officials. It's Torelli I like, not his patrons. He extended me credit once or twice. He attended Maud's funeral.

......Manuel walked by with the carafe. I held up my hand and he topped off my cup. "Where's Carol?"

......He had a pleasant south of the border accent. He indicated Torelli with a toss of his head. "Sick, the man says." Sick was a generic term that could mean anything in the restaurant business.
"Hope she's better soon." I like Carol; she doesn't make the small-talk waitresses think gets them a tip. She takes my order, brings it, and keeps my coffee cup filled. She never waits until my mouth is full to ask me how the meal is. She never asks. A nice tip is her reward.

......While I waited for my order, I looked around. Torelli's, a former bar, was longer than it was wide, making it a problem to navigate its length when crowded.

......In back of the counter and a bit to my left, the kitchen. Ahead of me, the coffee urns. To my right, cashier, entrance and a plate glass window with a menu taped to the glass. Outside, people hustled back and forth. Cars and buses honked and revved their way down the avenue jockeying with one another. To my left, two columns of tables sat along the walls, empty now and cleaned off for the next wave of customers. Way in the back the toilets, and beyond them a locked door to the alley.

......That door cost, Torelli told me. It had no exit sign and shouldn't be locked, said the building inspector. Torelli retorted that when it was a bar it had been robbed twice, and each time they got in through the back door, as the widow of the previous owner let slip when they were dickering for the place. The last incursion had made her a widow. Torelli was about to back out of the deal when the lady, desperate to leave the city, made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Torelli bought the place and financed part of the remodeling with the money the widow saved him.

......He refused to unlock that back door, and it still had no exit sign and remained locked with a lock Torelli purchased--a good lock. The inspector was richer by four hundred dollars, which bought two years of looking the other way. A bargain, Torelli said. Cheaper than being robbed, and it cut down on the number of customers who skipped without paying.

......He had a month to go on the locked-door lease. Already he had the four hundred dollars waiting. Anyhow, he said, there was another exit through the kitchen leading into the alley so he put an exit sign above that. And a double lock on the door.

......In a few minutes Manuel set my breakfast down with a flourish and a smile. I nodded thanks and dug in. I'd seen the papers so I contented myself with eating. The eggs were fresh and the coffee hot. The hash browns were dark and flavored with onion and paprika. However Torelli's cook did it, the bacon tasted greaseless.

......The patrons on either side of me drank coffee and got in touch with their inner selves. Since I don't especially want to know my inner self, I ate.

......About halfway into my meal, I figured I could use a pit stop courtesy of the coffee. When you get old, you don't wait for nature to call, you anticipate her arrival. I was barely ahead of her schedule as I stood and hurried to the rear. Inside I relieved myself.

......I washed up, rinsed and dried my hands. I balled up the paper towel and tossed it toward the basket and missed. "Damn," I muttered. It landed near the far stall and rolled inside. I pushed opened the door. The wad had come to rest next to a cheap attaché case behind the toilet bowl, smack up against the wall.

......From its weight, it had to be filled with paper. It was locked.

......Honesty is the best policy when nobody's looking. When someone is, it can go either way. Torelli's patrons knew where I'd gone, and someone probably knew how long I'd been here, roughly three minutes.

......I took the case out front, held it up to any interested patrons. "Torelli, somebody left this in the crapper. You see anyone come in with this?"

......Lost in figures for the moment, he stared blankly at me, then at the case. He came down to earth. "Never saw it before."

......"Didn't you see anyone come in with this?"

......He pointed to the ledger and shook his head. He signaled Manuel. I held up the case. Torelli said, "Manuel, you see anyone come in with this?"

......Manuel, pouring coffee at a table shook his head no, and moved on to the back, straightening tables, cleaning up, starting to get ready for lunch.

......"Here, take it down the block to the hall. You're going that way. Give it to the lost and found at reception. I don't want it here. I don't want any responsibility for it. Let them deal with it."

......City hall, a three story art-deco building, housed the entire city bureaucracy. It was roofed over and its walls plastered with twenties and fifties, used and numbered out of sequence. Inside, factions jockeyed for precedence and preference--and cash. The escort services and streetwalkers performed more honest work--at least the girls exerted themselves. I shook my head.

......"You won't even walk by the place."

......"Not if I can help it. I go there strictly on business and that's all she wrote." By intention, I have almost no business there.

......Torelli shrugged, and I went back and finished my meal. As I paid and left, I saw Torelli and Manuel in conference, Torelli gesturing at the case. The two men on either side of me had left the restaurant and five women entered, pushing past me, heading for tables. The pre-lunch crowd.

*****

......From where the cops had pushed us back, we couldn't see the body. The dumpster was half hidden by an Everest of smashed boxes, discarded appliances, and plastic bags of garbage, some secured with ties, some not. Dogs, cats, and rats preyed on one another and devoured the garbage. Torelli's pleas for more frequent pickups were shouts into the Grand Canyon.
We stood aside for an ambulance that pulled into the alley, smashing boxes and egg cartons and scaring vermin.

......"Where's the case?"

......Torelli said, "I swear, Angello, I gave it to Manuel and he took it to city hall. He said he gave it to a receptionist and told her where it came from. She had him wait a minute and fill out some sort of a form. Then she said it was all right and he could go."

......"What sort of form?"

......"He said just his name and the place where he worked and where he found the case."

......"No receipt?"

......"No. She took the case. Manuel said she put it down under the desk, by her feet."

......"Do you know if he mentioned my name?"

......Torelli shook his head. "I told him not to."

......"Good."

......"Angello, do you think that that," he gestured down the alley, "had anything to do with the attaché? I swear I didn't open it and told Manuel not to."

......"How long was he gone?"

......"Twenty minutes."

......The morgue attendants had loaded what was left of Manuel, no middle initial, no last name, nothing. They pulled past us. No siren.

......I shrugged. "What's Manuel's full name?"

......"Manuel Cederno."

......"Married?"
"Wife somewhere. Guatemala, I think. He's legal."

......I nodded. "You called me," I said.

......"You working now?"

......"I can be."

......"Find out who did this." A pause, Please?"

......For Torelli, it was a matter of honor. He and Gina were childless and he considered Manuel less an employee than a member of the family. Even the cooks were adopted into Torelli's clan. "Need a retainer?"

......"Gimme a buck."

......"What?"

......I snapped my fingers impatiently and stared down the alley. Kauders' men were stringing crime scene tape; he was about to wind up the investigation. "A buck."

......Torelli handed me four quarters.

......"I'll see if I can find out something. If I do, I'll charge you then. Just don't tell Kauders you've hired me."

......It looked like Kauders wanted to talk to me. I waved at him and clapped Torelli on the shoulder, sealing the bargain. I moved down the alley, away from the crime scene and Kauders.

......I was following the odor of money, a lot more than Torelli could afford to pay me.

*****

......She was a pleasant young woman, head infolady smack in the central hub of city hall. Other ladies controlled various departments, but she was the first among equals. To get to anyone, you had to go through her first. For that reason, she had a bright, impersonal Monday morning smile for everyone. When I reached the head of the line she smiled. I waited and she smiled. I looked at her name tag. "Miss Carpentier."

......"Yes, may I be of assistance?"

......"Perhaps. You were on duty here Friday?"

......"Yes, I was." She smiled brightly, head to one side.

......I smiled.

......I said, "Did a young man turn in an attaché case to you about ten-thirty or so? He would have brought it here to you, right?"

......Her face clouded.

......"It was dark brown, scratched up, inexpensive. It was locked."

......She digested this bit of information. I waited.

......I said, "The man who turned it in filled out a form. May I see the form he filled out?"

......Miss Carpentier brightened. Forms she knew. She reached into the bottom tier of a stack of plastic caddies on her desk and pulled out a pad. "You must mean this."

......"I don't want a copy of the form. I would like to see the form this person filled out and turned in. Do you have a file I could look at? If they're by date, Last Friday's is all I need." With luck I would find a time slot properly filled in.

......"Well--" She glanced behind me. A lady joined the line holding a sheet of paper. A man took his place behind her.

......I hated to do it, should have done it before. I didn't want my name bandied about city hall but there was no help for it. For whatever reason the lady was growing uncertain. "My name is Angello, Joseph Angello." I pronounced the g hard, as in rogue. "I'm a private detective and I'm on a job. My client asked one of his workers to turn in the case. His worker brought it here and told his boss he turned it in at this very reception desk." The warmth of her smiled vanished while I was speaking. I followed her frosty glance. The man standing behind the lady upped the ante: he had a thick file folder held like a shield in front of him as though he expected a bullet in the chest.

......Miss Carpentier replaced her professional warmth with the bureaucratic persona, a glance of howling winds off Antarctic snowfields. In the land she now inhabited rules replaced reality and responsibility is always two steps upward and blame three steps down. "I'm sorry, but such information is confidential." Bureaucrats are sorry a lot, too.

......I said, "What information, a name and address?" I smiled an engaging smile and repeated, "I would like to see the form that the person filled out when he turned in the case. May I?"

......A decisive shake of the head. "I'm sorry, but such information is confidential." She looked in back of me. In a moment she'd be staring through me and holding out her palm to the next person in line. I would become an unperson. She tapped impatiently. Chill wind whistled down the Antarctic slopes.
I moved aside and the lady with the single sheet of paper stepped up to the desk. The man behind her held the folder at knee height. Another man, prosperous to gauge by his charcoal suit and matching accessories, made it three deep in front of Miss Carpentier. She'd be exercising that smile a lot. The well-dressed man would earn the widest smile from Miss Carpentier.

*****

......My office was a hole in the wall when I was mourning the death of Maud. Now I have moved up a notch, into a better building, a fancier office, but a single room is still all I need. That and a toilet and a coffee machine.

......I let myself in. The phone was blinking. Whether here or at home, I take calls only after I am certain who is on the other end. My message is simple and to the point. First, my number. Then, "Leave your message and a number where you can be reached. I'll contact you later." No name. I can pick up or not as I prefer.

......Who says technology is stifling?

......I pressed play. A mechanical voice announced the time, roughly after Miss Carpentier dismissed me, 12:15 PM. I waited. Heavy breathing and a whispered "Angello" and more heavy breathing and a click.

......This Angello was the g in angel.

......Nice, a dumbass who didn't mind his voice being recorded. I removed the tape and put in a fresh one. Kept the old one. For the record.

......I sat at my desk and adopted my detective posture, feet on desk, swivel chair back. Deep thought.
Time to call in a favor. A few people owe me, or I own them, depending on how you look at it. I reached for the phone.

*****

......"I don't know anything about a briefcase," the thin man sitting across from me said. Nervously he peered around my new office--new to him. He was a city hall accountant. He was wondering how a discredited detective, a pariah with no connections, could have been bankrolled. More especially, he was wondering who. For all he knew I might have important connections.

......I broke in on his thoughts, "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me." I smiled a politician's smile. "Just think this, Sammy, it's someone big. One hell of a lot bigger than you. Or me." That was true. Let Sammy assume it was a Mr. Big at city hall. "How's the kid?"

......"Angello, the kid is fine." The g came out hard. It wasn't Sammy on the phone anyhow; his voice is high and nasal. The other was more cultured, what little I heard.

......"Good. Nice to know the little family's doing well. But that's not why I called you."

......Sammy tossed a nervous glance my way. Blackmail he could understand, being a city hall gofer. Payoffs he could understand. Numbers he knew. Sammy could cook books as chefs cooked steak, to taste and to order.

......What he couldn't understand and would never understand was Joe Angello. All he knew about me was what I had on him.

......I liked it that way.

......I leaned forward. Sammy leaned back. "A man was killed back of Torelli's." I described the body, dwelling on the details of what I'd been told, embellishing it a bit. His eyes told me he'd already heard of the incident.

......Sammy was nervous. "Tongue cut out, you say." The killing of Manuel was standard gossip; the torture was making people nervous.

......I nodded. "Kauders is investigating. I want to know what Kauders knows about the murder, and I don't want him to know I'm getting the information. Also, I want to arrange a meeting with a Miss Carpentier. She's the head receptionist at the hall."

......"That's a big order."

......"Do it, Sammy." I toyed with a pencil. "Have you been bothered by me the last few months?"
Reluctant shake of the head.

......"So do it."

......Blackmail does have its uses.

......Sammy left, still ogling my office.

*****

......Lunch crowd. Torelli had another waiter working the tables. Carol was back. It had been the flu. I gave her my order and motioned Torelli down the counter.

......"Did you recognize any of the people sitting around me Friday?"

......He shook his head. "Sorry, Angello. We were busy before and right after you left. I remembered the five women."

......"City hall workers?"

......"Right. Also the two girls who left while you were ordering."

......"Did either of those men sitting at the counter go to the john before I arrived, or at any time you can recall?"

......Another negative.

......"Seen either of them before?"

......"The guy to your left drops in from time to time. He runs a sports equipment shop down the next block. Can't say as I've ever seen the other."

......"When did they leave?"

......"When you went to the toilet."

......Carol brought my lunch and Torelli moved down the counter.

......Partway through my meal I got up, moved through the patrons to the back. Toilets down a short corridor and to your right, ladies' first then men's and beyond them, inset about a foot and a half and two steps down, the four-hundred-dollar door. You couldn't see it from the restaurant proper.
I checked the door. Locked with a quality, heavy-duty lock. No push-bar on the inside. Window a sandwich of glass and heavy wire mesh.

......As I returned to my meal, a hand tugged at my sleeve.

......"Joe Angello?" Hard g.

......I jerked my arm away. "Like you didn't know."

......"We need to talk."

......"Chico, I have nothing to say to you. If Kauders wants to talk to me he can damn well go through my answering machine. It has a better memory than you or your handlers."

......Charles "Chico" Moran was a low-grade detective, promoted, like Kauders, for his ability to say yes and follow orders. He was a messenger boy who could repeat a message. Like Kauders, his animal smarts were well developed, and preservation of Chico Moran was the first law of his nature. He didn't owe me.

......I finished eating, my back to Chico in a display of contempt. Things were beginning to pick up. Chico was used for unimportant contacts. His tugging at my sleeve was one step up from heavy phone breathing.

......I finished lunch, paid, and left Torelli's. I paused outside then turned to the right. I went down two doors, in front of a plus-size women's dress shop. I waited, back to the displays. In ten minutes by my watch Chico emerged.

......Just as I figured. Chico knew I was working and he needed information. That meant Kauders had an inkling of why I was in the alley. Kauders knew I'd found the attaché case. Torelli would have told him that much, since the case would have come out in the process of interrogation.

......Chico stopped next to me. He inspected the displays. Having seen too many B-movies on television during his formative years, he talked out of the corner of his mouth. He was even chewing on a toothpick.

......"Money's missing," he said. We both knew he referred to the case.

......"My, my," I said, "know where it is?" He could guess whether I meant the money or the case.
"Why'd you give that case to the spic?"

......I turned to him. "The deceased gentleman has a wife in Guatemala. Treat his memory with respect, scum, or you can go back to your boss empty."

......For the first time Chico looked at me. It was the quick inspection one gives to someone whose sanity you doubted. "The gentleman," he said with heavy sarcasm, "is dead. Who killed him?"

......Not the original question, which wasn't good to begin with. Chico is no intellect. When he interrogates a suspect I'd lay book he writes out the questions beforehand.

......"You think I know."

......"Somebody does."

......I shrugged, "Right. Whoever killed him. When you shithead Sherlocks find out, let me know." I began to walk away.

......Quick as a whip, "We don't know, and that's the truth."

......If a city hall pol said it and added a phrase about truth, the next problem was how much of a lie was involved. "Manuel Cederno was tortured. Any idea why?" I asked.

......"An execution, it looks like."

......I stepped closer to him. He was three inches taller than I but he stepped back. I took another step. "It wasn't to execute him. One clean shot would have done that. He was tortured for information which he didn't have. All he did was turn in a case I found in Torelli's crapper. I gave it to Torelli; he told Cederno to turn it in to city hall. Why torture him at all? If money is missing from the case, he couldn't have taken it."

......"Lieutenant Kauders says he could have been interrogated before he was killed."

......"Makes more sense than interrogating him after he's dead. And it's the medical examiner who thinks he was interrogated, not Kauders." I took a breath. "Why is Kauders so nervous, anyhow?"

......Chico looked blank.

......I snapped, "Where's the attaché case?"

......Chico blinked. So that was it. I said, "Take a walk, dummy."

......I had what I wanted. All my hunch needed was confirmation.

*****

......Sammy comes when I call. He was seated across my desk, still wondering where I got the money. "Someone at city hall wants what was taken from that case."

......"Who owns it?"

......He shook his head, "Not as easy as that. We got contractors and they pay off, and now we got drug dealers and they make bigger payoffs, like you wouldn't believe. What with drug payoffs and contractor payoffs and the druggie faction going for all they can get and the contractor faction with its group, the place is getting crowded with payoffs. The buzz is the attaché had drug money. And the druggies think the contractor crowd got a chunk of it."

......Interesting. "The case got to city hall, I heard."

......"Sure, but about a quarter of it was missing."

......I sat back. Manuel copped part of the stash before he turned in the case?

......No, not right. Torelli told him to go there and come right back. He was gone for twenty minutes, five of those minutes standing in line waiting on Miss Carpentier. Torelli was positive about the time.

......"Who told you money was missing?"

......"Rumor. Just try pinning down something like that, Angello."

......"Anyone seen the case?"

......"Disappeared. Belonged to a drug dealer and probably was emptied real quick."

......And no, he didn't know if the cash was going or coming, just that it was drug money.

......"So what happens to it, someone set it outside an office door like a milk bottle going back to the dairy?"

......Sammy shrugged. "Who knows? You stay away from stuff like that or you end up like Cederno."

......He made a wry face. "Medical report says he was tortured." He shivered. "His heart gave out as they worked on him. They shot him anyway, and dumped him in the alley."

......I closed my eyes for a second. Manuel set my breakfast in front of me with a flourish and a smile. Manuel in the alley. I hoped he knew nothing, that he died innocent. Certainly he'd had no opportunity to open a locked case, steal part of the cash, lock it back up, and stand in line. For all I knew, he could have been followed from Torelli's to make sure the case got to where it was going. If it did, why kill him? If he'd been followed, someone knew he'd had no time to open the case, let alone take out money.

......"What does Kauders know?"

......"He ain't saying, that's for sure." He thought for a moment. "Story is, he got pressure on him."

......"To solve the murder, naturally."

......"Yeah, sure."

......"How do I figure in this?"

......"Don't know, Angello."

......Maybe so, maybe not. Sammy didn't get all the scuttlebutt. All he knew about me was I'd found the case and given it to Torelli, who gave it to Manuel, who turned it in at city hall. Somewhere along the line someone took a portion of the payoff, enough to make certain people angry.
Someone knew enough about me, enough to phone me--knew I'm barely on the line of legality and can cross over. Someone stupid. And Chico wanted to know what I know. Which is nothing. My only contact with the attaché was to find it and give it to Torelli in open view of anyone interested. And ask about it at city hall.

......I dismissed Sammy and reached for the phone book.

*****

......Miss Carpentier's first name was Yvonne. Sammy convinced her to see me.

......We sat in Hank's Coffee Shop, three blocks from her apartment building. She was on time, relieved that I'd followed her from her apartment and that she hadn't been followed. We were in a booth to the rear.

......I finished detailing how Manuel died. She was uncomfortable.

......I said, "He did turn in that attaché case, I assume?"

......She managed to recover from my bald description of the murder. She'd heard a bit about the torture, but not about the eye gouging. She swallowed and took a sip of coffee. She nodded.
"Yes, and he filled out a form."

......"What was on the form?"

......"Name, address, things like that. Where he can be contacted in case there's a reward."

......"Is there a place to put down the time?"
"Yes."
"Can you recall the time he turned it in?"

......She could. Torelli was right. Twenty minutes.

......"Someone used that information to kill him. Is that why you wouldn't let me see the form he filled out?"

......She shook her head. "No. It was your name." She looked at me speculatively. She was a brunette with blue eyes.

......I nodded. "So here you see me, a short, overweight investigator with a big nose that I stick in everyone's business."

......"They said you're a crook."

......"They?"

......Her eyes probed the depths of her coffee cup. With that single pronoun I had thrust her back into the bureaucratic pigeonhole where she worked.

......"Miss Carpentier," I said, "I'm a private detective. I get results for my clients and sometimes I don't get paid. I do my best to get results for my clients. I want to find out who killed Manuel Cederno."

......It was too late to help Manuel. But he had a wife.

......I let her think about what I said while I sipped decaf.

......She had a faintly pretty face. "Mr. Angello," she said, "you have a reputation at city hall."

......"When did you find that out?"

......"A year ago, when I got this job."

......"Am I the only one with a reputation?"

......She shook her head. "No, but you're near the top of the list."

......"Sure, my name begins with A."

......"Another name begins with Ab. You're above him. They say you can't be controlled."

......How nice to be notorious.

......She hesitated. "I was told not to mention the attaché case."

......"You just did."

......"I'm not on duty."

......"Well?"

......"Drug money was missing."

......Confirmation of what Sammy told me. Someone witnessed me coming out of the crapper with that case, probably timed me in there too. If I'd kept it, I'd be in the alley dead. I couldn't call in enough favors to get out of that one.

......"Any talk on how much money was in the case?"

......"No, but the amount missing was four hundred thousand, at least that's what they say."

......"Who says?"

......"Berringer, my supervisor."

......"Who's Berringer?"

......Berringer, she said, was a young upwardly mobile political hack with a taste for keeping himself in the background. Yvonne's eyes sparkled as she spoke of him.

......"Did you have your eyes on that case the entire time it was at your desk?"

......"Well--"

......"Tell me about it."

......"I had to go on an errand for--" Here she named another politician.

......"Who took over for you?"

......She named a friend of hers.

......"How long were you gone?"

......"Almost half an hour."

......"Did you leave the building?"

......"No."

......"Was the case there when you returned?"

......"Yes, it was."

......"This errand, were you with other people all that time?"

......She shivered. She understood what I was getting at. "Yes."

......"Anything else you can tell me?"

......"No, Mr. Angello. Sorry."

......Before she left, I told her how she could get information to me. She said all right. We shook hands and she left. I sat for a few minutes waiting for her to get partway down the block. I tailed her to her door. She wasn't followed and nobody was following me.

......I walked and I mused. An attaché case with who knows how much cash, city hall payoff for a drug deal, or a drug payoff to city hall, left in a toilet stall and nobody knows how the case got there. It arrives at city hall with a sizable chunk missing. Manuel winds up dead. Either Manuel took the money or he did not.

......I decided to assume he had not, not having had the time. Inclination? Maybe. But inclinations don't have to translate into action. Good people fight bad inclinations all the time.

*****

......"Get the key to the back door."

......Torelli shrugged. "I don't know where it is, Angello. That door hasn't been opened in years. I don't want it opened."

......"How do you get the garbage out to the back?"

......"Xavier takes it out the kitchen door." Xavier was another employee, African-American, a college kid working for his meals, who spent part of his lunch hour studying mathematical formulae on flash cards propped in front of him.

......"That's part of his job?"

......"Besides washing the dishes and cleaning up the place. Sometimes I have him do food prep."

......"How often does he take out the garbage?"

......"Depends. After lunch and before we close. Maybe oftener if we have a busy day."

......"And he lugs it out the kitchen entrance."

......"Right."

......"The kitchen is always busy."

......"Believe it. And the door is locked. Always."

......"Find me the key to the other door."

......Torelli rummaged in kitchen drawers. He went back to a cluttered store room and looked around. I followed and helped him look. We even checked the walk-in refrigerator. No key.

......"Give me your keyring."

......He handed it over and I went outside. None of the keys fit the shiny lock. Inside, I tossed his keys to him. "You ever going to use that door?"

......"Angello, I pay those bastards so I don't have to use it."

......"You have a thing about that door."

......"I know. Nobody sneaks up on me, or skips without paying. Front door and kitchen door is all I need."

......"When did you last see the key that opens that door?"

......"The first payoff to the city inspector, about two years ago, maybe less. He wanted to know if the door opened, if I had a key, and I said yes. I showed him the door worked and I locked it again."

......"Where did you put the key?"

......Torelli shook his head. "Look, it's been two years, Angello." He lifted both arms in a what-can-I-do gesture. "I think I put it in the desk."

......"Sure?"

......He pointed at the desk. He went through it again. I went through it.

......No key. I thanked him and left.

*****

......"Yvonne," I said under my breath.

......She looked up. She looked around.

......"I have no intention of saying anything to you, anything." She pointed a finger at me. Her voice was loud and decisive. A few bystanders turned to us then away.

......The cavernous reception hall was circular, resembling the hub of a half-wheel, corridors leading off into the labyrinth where the Minotaur lurked eager to devour you, body and soul. "I need a name," I said without moving my lips. I identified the department and the approximate date.

......Yvonne stared at me. I made a gesture of disgust. I shook my fist, pounded it on the desk and turned to the exit. A man was standing there with a red self-carbon ticket, a duplicate. "Damned dumb broad," I snarled. "Doesn't know jack shit." I paused in front of him. "Damn, I'm pissed. You won't get a thing from her, must be new on the job." I looked back angrily and made another downward gesture with the flat of my hand. I made a show of inspecting the ticket. "Traffic fines down that way," I said, pointing down one of the radiating corridors. I gestured at another receptionist at a very small desk and stamped out.

......Within the hour I would have the name I needed.

*****

......"Mr. Vincent?"

......Richard Vincent exuded political presence. He looked down at me and nodded. He was seated and I stood, but still he looked down at me. He had the regal stare of men who dispensed money and had plenty more where that came from. Tailored charcoal suit and leather trimmed office yelled money. Contractor money.

......His office was, I guessed, about midlevel in the city hall hierarchy. He was not too big not too small. Like the story of the Three Bears, he must be just right for some jobs.

......And I'd seen him before.

......I'd made an appointment. I said, "My name is Joseph, Joseph--" I paused as though I'd forgotten.
"Angello," he said. The g was soft.

......I shook my head, "I'm no angel."

......He smiled as one would at a punchline coming up.

......"I beat you to the crapper, didn't I?"

......Both hands out, innocent ignorance. He said, "I don't know what you're talking about."

......"That's all right. I do. You were sitting to my right at Torelli's." Uninvited, I sat,. "Trouble is, you don't want to know. Knowing could get you in trouble. But no, you're already in trouble."

......"See here. You wanted to see me on a matter of life and death, you said."

......"Correct, Manuel Cederno's death, and your life." He was left handed, and I was sitting so that he was obliged to turn to his right to speak with me. I leaned closer, became confidential. "You don't know who killed him, do you? No, let me correct that. You don't want to know."

......"Just who do you think you are?"

......"Angello with a hard g. The breather you hired to intimidate me pronounced it as you did--was that you, by the way? No? Yes? Anyhow, someone phoned me, thought better of it, and hung up." I leaned back, watching his eyes and his hands. He didn't look like the violent type, but you never know how a person will react on his own turf.

......I said, "It's too late to give back the money you skimmed." I held up a warning hand. "Don't call anyone. This is between us two; you wouldn't want it to get out, would you?"

......A bit of the regal air had deserted him. He sat back.

......"Where's the case?"

......He was silent. I watched his hands.

......"Manuel Cederno has a wife in Guatemala."

......"What is it you think you know?"

......I shrugged. "Stuff that may or may not be true. For instance, you seem to have come a long way from building inspector." I glanced around the office. "I'd say that you met Torelli--" A frown creased his face as if he were trying to remember. "Cut it out," I snapped. "You inspected his restaurant two years ago, took a kickback from him for keeping a rear door locked because he was terrified of being robbed. I believe you stole the key to the back door and gave it to someone to make cash transfers easy. You were in Torelli's Friday morning hoping to pick up that brown attaché case. You tested the waters, dressing down and checking to see if he recognized you. He didn't because he hadn't seen you in two years and he was busy with the morning crowd. Even when the crowd thinned out he still didn't recall you."

......I stood. Now I was taller. "Why were you there? Talk to me or I'll talk. I have contacts with the dealers in this town. I could call them off." That was a bald lie, but I wanted the money. I didn't know how much was in the briefcase, but a missing four hundred thousand dollars would anger any dealer. Besides, whether it was drugs or contract money, ethics was the thing. Be honest with the payoff money, or be dead. And Kauders was nervous. Sending Chico Moran to contact me hinted at desperation. All he knew about me was I found the case and gave it to Torelli. Still, he assumed I was a player--or that I knew something.

......All very confusing, but that's city hall, our tax dollars at work.

......"You got wind of a deal, when someone not in your circle wanted the key to that back door. Am I right?"

......Reluctant nod. So, a bit frightened, too, and not of me. After a minute of silence, "We used Torelli's as a drop for contractor payoffs."

......"How many times in the last two years?"

......"Not many."

......"Give me a number."

......"About five." He added, "It's easy to be seen going in."

......Made sense. Probably the pols had their drops all over town, their gofers shuttling among them like pack rats, here picking up, there depositing. Safety in numbers. The problem at the Torelli drop would be for the courier to slip into the restaurant unseen and make it the few feet to the men's room. Very chancy.

......"You stole the key when you took the first payoff because your bosses wanted another drop."

......"Yes. At the time the city was going through a spasm of reform." He spoke contemptuously of reform, as would any politician. "We were changing our drop locations."

......I nodded. "Was Torelli in on it?"

......"No. I figured he'd never miss the key since he wanted to keep that door locked anyhow."

......"To make the drop someone entered by the back way; the door can't be seen when you're walking down the hallway from the restaurant. It was an easy matter to leave the case somewhere in the crapper, right?"

......"As long as there was no one in the alley."

......"Kept filthy on purpose, no doubt?"

......He nodded.

......"And a rigid time schedule shaved down to the minute?" With my luck and my bladder I found the case and could have ended up in the alley except for my own survival instinct, which counseled honesty.

......"Yes."

......I resumed the tale. "One of the scum here was taking drug money--or paying off a dealer, your choice. He needed a new location for one reason or another and asked you to recommend a drop--for a fee, of course."

......I waited for agreement. It came: Vincent's eyes searched the desk, rested for the briefest possible moment on the drawer to his right.

......A clock on his desk said eleven-fifty.

......I rose and stretched elaborately. I positioned myself and continued, "You got greedy. You found out where the drop would be, and even the day and approximate time, though you couldn't be sure that your informant wasn't stringing you along, setting you up for something.

......"You assumed it was a contractor payoff. So you went to Torelli's Friday, near the time of the transfer, to see if he recognized you dressed down. When he didn't--after all, it had been almost two years--you sat and drank coffee and wondered if you were brave enough to take the stash, wondered if it were even there, wondered if you were on a fool's errand." His eyes were fixed on the drawer. I said softly, "Wondering if someone would kill you."

......The intercom buzzed, a female voice said, "Lunch break, Mr. Vincent. Do you need anything?"

......He looked at me. I shook my head and made a cutting motion across my throat.

......Vincent said, "No, Maxine, I'll go to lunch later."

......In a bit, the outer door closed.

......We were alone. "Now," I said, "tell me the odyssey of that case. You took the four hundred thousand, of course."

......The regal look metamorphosed into a ferret-glare as he nodded. He glanced down and to his right, a flick of the eyes. I continued, "One thing your informant left out--maybe on purpose, not too many people you can trust around here--he didn't say whose was the money or which way it was going, in or out. And you didn't know it was drug money." I smiled, "So that morning at Torelli's you were working up your courage--you would have been out the door in a second if you knew it was drug money, those boys are vicious--but then I had to pee in a hurry and beat you to the crapper." I took a breath. "Let me guess. The courier was late for some reason, and you thought you could identify him in plenty of time, but he didn't show and you were getting nervous. When I went to the can and came out with the case, you took off."

......The ferret turned hateful.

......I rose on the balls of my feet.
Richard Vincent, in more trouble than I knew or wanted to know, swiveled to the right hand drawer. He was left-handed and pulled the drawer open with his right hand. He reached in with his left, but I was waiting for it. I reached over the top of the desk and grabbed the edge of the drawer and slammed it shut on his gun hand. He let out a muted howl of pain. He rose, clutching his hand to his stomach. I pushed him back down.

......A left-handed man keeps a gun in his right-hand drawer? Amateurs....

......I inspected my prize. A thirty-eight. Suddenly I'm with Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. I hate guns. They make me nervous, but this one I decided to keep. I opened the drawer and took out a box of shells.

......"Starting a war, are we?" I held the thirty-eight by the trigger guard. It was a short, snub-nosed revolver. Ugly. About three hundred dollars' worth of ugly.

......No reply.

......"Self-defense?"

......His glare was poisonous. And afraid.

......"Whoever arranged for that case got it?"

......He nodded.

......"Where's the money you skimmed?"

......He shook his head in a quick negative, "I never--"

......"Bullshit. How did you get to the case?"

......Vincent was nursing his hand. I put the pistol under his nose and up came his head. "Tell me."
"You won't kill me."

......"I don't have to. Others will as soon as they figure out what you did." I smiled. "I believe you have a day or two. Let me suggest Europe."

......Ferret vanished. Hate vanished. Fear held center stage.

......"Me, I won't tell anyone, for a price. Four hundred thousand dollars. I keep half. The other half goes to the widow of Manuel Cederno, the man who died in your place." He winced. "Take a long vacation. Change your name."

......Vincent's eyes flicked to one side, to the wall.

......"Get it," I said, "now."

......He did. And he talked.

......When I left, I had the thirty-eight, the shells and the cash. I reminded him that if the gun was legal and he owned it, he'd better hope I didn't need to use it. He understood.

*****

......"Your place was a drop. Did you know?"

......Torelli and I were sitting in back, he at his desk, I in an uncomfortable folding chair.

......"Angello, I swear I didn't know." He looked at the stacks of bills, twenties and fifties, mostly the latter. I told him what I suspected, that Vincent had either been set up by someone at city hall who wanted him out of the way, or he was the receiver of bad information. He didn't know, he told me before I left, that it was drug money.

......So much for informants. That's why I keep Sammy at arm's length and cross-check his information.

......It was Vincent himself who phoned me, and not for purposes of intimidation. It seems my name floats in certain circles as an outsider, way outside. After he saw me come out of the john with the case and turn it over to Torelli, he had thoughts of asking me to help him before his ferret-sense got the better of him and he rang off.

......He waited outside the restaurant that morning and the case came out the front door, with Manuel in charge. Vincent followed him to city hall and got in line. As Fortune tossed the dice, he was able to appropriate the case when Yvonne left her desk to go on an errand. The reception desk was deserted for a minute. Showing more courage than he ever had before in his life or ever would again, Vincent hustled the case back to his office, took out a sizable sum, and returned the case to another receptionist filling in for Yvonne, sliding it under the desk while she was away from the desk busy with an inquiry.

......He wasn't observed.

......Key? He had one, to a case he himself owned. But it was a cheap case-he probably could have used a penknife or even a paperclip.

......It was all a crapshoot.

......Circumstances like that never repeat themselves in a thousand years. The odds of that case being unguarded under a desk at city hall for that long were more than the odds against Fleming's discovering penicillin.

......And no witnesses. Luckily for Yvonne and the girl who spelled her off, the eyes of whoever manipulated the killer were on Manuel, and neither girl had left the building.
And lucky for Vincent.

......"So," I finished up for Torelli, "the case was unguarded and then your old building inspector had drug cash he was afraid to do anything with. He found out it was drug money only after he'd skimmed it. But by now the case had been delivered, the cash missing, and someone wasout looking for it."

......"And poor Manuel died for that."

......I nodded. Whoever had the key to that back door slipped in, stashed the case, and took off the way he'd come, locking the door. We'd never know who had made the drop or who was supposed to pick it up, or who thought Manuel had skimmed the cash. Whoever ordered the killing resided high in the bureaucratic hierarchy, unaware of the time factor. Manuel had had no time to appropriate a slice. Or maybe the kingpin didn't care. Money was missing and somebody had to talk or die.

......"I wonder who was supposed to pick up the case," I said. Not that it mattered to us.
I pulled a small packet of bills off the top. "Here's my fee," I told Torelli. "You know where this money goes?"

......He nodded. "I'll see she gets it."

......"A nice Fed-ex package."

......"Done." He paused. "Angello, who killed Manuel?"

......"Stay away, Torelli. Whoever it was, he's just a gofer, a man who likes his work." I guessed that he wanted information from Manuel, accosted him outside the restaurant--it must have been late--and inquired about the missing money. All Manuel knew was that he turned in a case to city hall.

......"They wanted information?"

......"Yeah. They were looking for the missing cash. Manuel honestly didn't know. So whoever was asking the questions tortured him somewhere, and finished the job in the alley. Probably as a warning. The killer was a low-level sadist. Find him, and you've found air. Whoever is in charge of him separates himself by at least four layers of bureaucracy. Someone ordered him to find the missing money was. Manuel didn't know, and he died."

......I was about to leave when Torelli, who was looking for a box to contain the money said, "I wonder who was supposed to pick up the case?"
I shrugged.

*****

......Kauders, apparently. He turned up a few days later, shot and left in a dumpster across town. Like Manuel, his tongue had been cut out.

......Kauders often ate at Torelli's. He seemed nervous at the crime scene.

......Or maybe it was Chico Moran. He's disappeared, too.

......Vincent is vacationing in Europe, the last anyone heard.

......Sometimes I wake up at night when I dream of Manuel lying in the alley, that newspaper over his face. Sometimes he rises up and presents me my breakfast, trying his best to smile and I wake up, my heart thundering against my ribs.

......I still have Vincent's thirty-eight. Possession of it gives me a certain sense of security. And a case of nerves.

Copyright (c) 2000 Peter A. Parmantie



Peter A. Parmantie is a retired teacher who has decided to write. He is a compulsive reader, starting almost from birth. He cut his teeth on thrillers as an adolescent, kicking his regular studies overboard and educating himself by reading what adults then considered trash. They were wrong. Now he wants to try his hand at the genre. His first Joe Angello story appeared here in the pages of our July 1999 issue, and he promises more for the future...

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