The large Jamaican woman slowly made her way down the long brown and yellow corridor. She passed by the portraits of ancestors, not looking at them. She had seen the portraits on the walls a thousand times but she never knew who they were. She had never really cared. Now, more than ever, they were irrelevant to her.
She knocked nervously on the brown oak door. Three soft knocks.
"Come in," came a voice from inside.
She opened the door and walked into the room. She was trembling with nervousness and fear, which she couldn't have hid even if she wanted to.
"Ah, Valentina," the man said. "We've been expecting you. Please. Have a seat."
Valentina chose a chair close to the door. Her eyes went to the woman in the room, who stared down at the floor. That told Valentina all she needed to know about their answer.
The man spoke. He was tall and well built, sixty years in age, grey hair. He was wearing an expensive suit and tie. Valentina knew that they were attending a dinner that night.
"Valentina, we have given this matter a great deal of thought. After considering all of the options, we've come to the conclusion that it would be best for all of us….including your daughter….if we did not comply with the kidnapper's demands."
Valentina's head dropped. A tear slowly rolled down her cheek. He continued.
"Please understand that we're doing this because we truly believe it's in the best interest of the child. If we pay the money they're asking for there's no guarantee they won't harm her. In fact, it's more likely they would, seeing as she might be able to provide clues as to their identity. But if we don't pay them, then they have no reason to harm her."
"They said they would kill her if I did not get the money," Valentina reminded him quietly.
"Mere bluff. They want you to be frightened, so you'll do what they say. But if you don't pay them they'll realize that there's nothing to be gained by hurting your daughter. They'll return her safely and there won't be any inquiries as to who they are. Whereas if they kill her you'll have no choice but to go to the police and they'll be hunted down for murder. They won't want that."
The man spoke confidently, as if he'd been through this scenario a hundred times before.
"Please," Valentina said. "For more than twenty years I have served you well. Every Christmas. Every Thanksgiving. I have never asked for anything until now. I will repay the money. I give you my word."
The man scoffed. "A half a million dollars? You're going to repay it? How?"
"I will find a way," Valentina said. "She is my daughter. She is my world."
He shook his head. "Valentina, you must defer to my expertise in these matters. I know how these people think, I deal with their type every day. Giving in to them is the worst possible solution. They only respond to force. Now, I'm sorry, but our minds are made up. We cannot give you the money."
Valentina took a deep breath, nodded and started to rise.
"Tbere's one more thing," the man said.
"Please, Lloyd," the woman behind the desk spoke. "Must we do this?"
The man put his hand firmly on his wife's shoulder. "Now, Barbara, we agreed. In the end, it's the best for Valentina."
Lloyd Fleming walked from behind the desk and handed Valentina an envelope. "Here. Please accept this."
Valentina stared at the envelope, confused. "What is this?"
"Two months severance. More than generous, I'm sure you would agree. We think it best that you leave our employment. It's because of your relationship to us that this unfortunate event happened in the first place. Once you are no longer associated with this family, the kidnappers will realize that you have no access to the money they're asking for and you'll have your daughter back safe and sound."
"You are firing me?"
"For your own good," Fleming emphasized. "Everything we're doing is solely with the best interests of you and your family in mind. But don't worry. We'll give you an excellent letter of recommendation."
Valentina felt her blood rise and the room appeared to spin. She took the envelope from Fleming and threw it down to the ground.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," she said, her voice trembling. She turned and walked out of the room.
Lloyd Fleming turned to his wife in shock. "Well, I never…! This is what you get for being soft-hearted."
Barbara Fleming lifted her head. She took a heavy sigh and poured a drink for herself. "Lloyd, for the love of God, please shut up."
It had been three weeks since the billionaire Connor Phelps showed up at my office and made himself a partner in my small private investigating firm. The reason he gave was that he was both bored and starting to think of how little he had used his wealth to help people on an individual level. I believed neither of these but didn't push it. Initially Connor wanted to relocate the office to somewhere that had more of a Madison Avenue feel to it, with all the modern conveniences, but I convinced him that if his goal was indeed to help the less fortunate, we needed to do it from a place where they would not be intimidated to visit. Of course, those who were less fortunate than Connor Phelps took in the vast majority of human beings.
In those three weeks we had more than two dozen cases and succeeded in solving every one of them, sometimes within minutes. What Connor Phelps brought to the firm was access to information, at lightning speed. He had more than ten thousand people working for Phelps Industries and he used them as he saw fit. If that meant taking an IT genius from Singapore off of designing new microchips and instead directing him to track down the location of a stolen ATM card in the Bronx, well, so be it.
To be fair, there were certain cases we didn't take, either because the information was simply too sketchy or, more likely, we didn't believe their stories. Like the crystal meth addict who claimed Donald Trump's car ran him over on 53rd Street, leaving him with a permanent limp. While I think it would have pleased Connor to no end to investigate Trump, I also knew this druggie had tried this story before. Among the celebrities who had reportedly done him damage and owed him restitution were Jerry Seinfeld, Beyonce and the basketball player Walt Frazier.
Gloria, my incredibly buxom actress slash receptionist, brought two cups of coffee into the office. She giggled like a schoolgirl whenever Connor smiled at her, which he did often. She was wearing a low cut dress that showed off the 'girls', as she called her ample breasts. Oddly enough, she seemed to be wearing low cut dresses pretty much every time she knew Connor would be visiting the office. Her brief infatuation with me had obviously changed in a new direction, something I was grateful for but also, unreasonably, felt sorry to lose.
"How goes the acting career, Gloria?" Connor asked pleasantly, as if he really wanted to know.
"Oh, great. We're doing a wonderfully experimental new play by a brilliant young writer," she gushed. "I have the lead. Well, one of the leads."
"What does 'experimental' mean?" Connor asked.
"Generally 'experimental' means Gloria has to take her clothes off on stage," I said. She blushed a pretty beet red and stuck her tongue out but didn't contradict me.
"Really?" Connor asked, surprised.
"I haven't read the script all the way through, but there are a few tasteful nude scenes, yes," she admitted.
"Well, that's something we'll have to see," Connor said. "No one ever accused me of not supporting the arts."
It was about ten o'clock in the morning and the sun had started to pour in through the small window. I pulled the shade down. "Anyone in the office?" I asked.
"Yes, a woman just showed up. Valentina Ramirez."
"Jamaican, I think. Here's her sheet."
She handed the one page information page to Connor. He looked at it and frowned. "Jack, we're going to have to do something about upgrading our system. I can't read the handwriting of half our clients."
"I suppose instead of writing they could email us the vitals from their Ipads."
"There you go," Connor beamed.
"Except that most of them don't own Ipads. Or access to email. Or necessarily speak English."
Connor gave me a dirty look. "No need to be sarcastic."
"You can't always help the great unwashed by simply handing them a new bar of soap. Gloria, show Ms. Ramirez in, please."
Gloria turned and left the office. A few minutes later a short but stout dark skinned woman slowly stepped in. Her hair was wild and uncombed. She looked as if she'd been crying. A lot.
Connor stood up and offered her his chair.
"Mrs. Ramirez, my name is Jack Tanner," I said. This is my partner, Connor Phelps. How may we help you?"
She spoke low, so low we could barely hear her. "It is my daughter. Ariella. She is only four years old."
"Is she sick?" Connor asked.
Valentina Ramirez shook her head. "She was taken. Some men took came to the park and they take her. They say they will kill her if I do not do what they want."
"And what is it they want?" he asked.
"Five hundred thousand dollars."
Connor practically laughed out loud. "That's absurd. How do they expect you to come up with that kind of money?"
"They don't," she said quietly.
"I don't understand," Connor said. "Why would they kidnap your daughter if they knew you couldn't pay the ransom?"
"I work….until recently, I worked…..for Mr. Lloyd Fleming."
The name meant nothing to me but I could see Connor react immediately.
"Ah hah," he said.
"You know this guy?" I asked.
Connor nodded. "He's a business acquaintance of mine. Nothing major. He inherited a large sum of money and fancies himself a player. He's sort of a twit, if you want to know the truth. I actually know his wife more than I know him."
"Yes. She was a friend of mine many years ago."
"A close friend?" I asked.
He waved it aside and turned his attention back to Valentina Ramirez. "You went to Mr. Fleming and told him about this, no doubt."
"Of course. That's what the kidnappers would expect. But he wouldn't help you?"
Her face grew hard. "He fired me."
Connor shook his head. "Yes, that sounds like him."
"Mrs. Ramirez, how long has your daughter been missing?" I asked.
"Three days now."
I glanced sharply at Connor. I didn't want to say anything but it was well known that in ninety percent of kidnap cases if the person wasn't found in two days, the person generally wasn't found. At least, not alive.
"Perhaps you should start from the beginning," I said.
"Yes, sir. On Saturday afternoon Ariella was playing with her friends in the playground across from Holy Cross Church. The one on 43rd Street."
"Were you there?" Connor asked.
"No, sir," Valentina answered. "Mrs. Fleming was having a party that evening and I was helping to clean the house."
"So who was watching Ariella?"
"My neighbor, Josephine. She has a four year old girl as well. The children play together often. Sometimes she watches Ariella, sometimes I watch her child, sometimes we watch together. Because I had to work, she agreed to look after them both."
"You've had this arrangement for a while?" I asked.
"Since the girls were born. We cannot always afford babysitters so we work it out as best we can."
"Your husbands work during the day, I presume," Connor said.
Valentina frowned. "Ariella's father left when she was six weeks old. Josephine was never married."
"I see," Connor said quietly.
"When did Josephine notice that Ariella was missing?" I asked.
"There was a man blowing balloons for the children in the center of the playground. She says he was making balloon animals and handing out lollipops. All of the children went to see him. Many children. When he finished, Josephine looked for the girls. She did not….Ariella was not there. She asked everyone if they had seen where she went but no one knew anything."
The woman started tearing. It had no doubt been a terrible three days.
"When did you get the note?" I asked.
"That night. When she saw Ariella was missing, Josephine was afraid. She called me and told me what happened. We went home. We prayed that Ariella simply wandered off and would return home. She did not. That night I received this."
She handed me a piece of paper with typing on it.
"If you want to see your daughter alive you will have $500,000 in unmarked bills ready for us by the end of the week. Do not go to the police or your daughter dies. Wait to hear from us for payment."
I handed the note to Connor, who looked it over carefully. "Nice paper," he said. "That resume style paper. Stiff. Print could be from anywhere."
"Who gave this to you?" I asked.
"A boy who lives across the street. Bobby Taylor. He said a man handed it to him on the street and told him to give it to me. Bobby did not know the man, but he was paid fifty dollars."
"Did he say what the man looked like?"
"He said he was a well dressed European man. Blonde. With an accent."
"What sort of accent?" Connor asked.
"German, he thought. But he was not sure. Bobby is not a very bright boy, although he means well. He has babysitted for Ariella when I had no one else."
"I'm going to need his address and phone number," I said. She wrote it down for me.
I reached out and touched her hand gently. "Valentina, despite what the note says, you need to at least consider going to the police. This is what they do."
She shook her head furiously. "The police do not help people like me. Lloyd Fleming, yes. But not me."
Connor held the ransom note. "Ms. Ramirez, may we hold on to this? It's unlikely we can get any fingerprints off it, but one never knows until one tries."
The woman nodded and Connor put it in a manila envelope. "Do you have any pictures?" he asked.
Valentina handed us each a wallet sized photo. It showed a lovely child of four with long brown hair, big brown eyes and a toothy smile. She was holding a large teddy bear.
"You must know," Valentina said in halting English, "I cannot pay much."
"No, I don't think the kidnappers ever expected the money to come from you," Connor said thoughtfully. "Obviously they were hoping Lloyd Fleming would help you out there."
"She meant us," I told Connor. "She cannot pay us much."
Connor looked up in surprise. "Oh. Well, let us worry about that, Ms. Ramirez. We may have to tighten our belts a little, but we'll survive. It certainly won't kill Jack to miss a meal or two."
We spent another twenty minutes with Valentina Ramirez, gathering information on her and her daughter, taking in more pictures and generally trying to reassure her that things were going to work out. That last part was the toughest.
After she left, Connor stood for several moments staring out the window. "I can't believe a man would do that," he said, finally.
"For five hundred thousand dollars there's very little people won't do," I answered.
"Not that. I'm well aware of how money affects people. But how could you leave a child of six weeks? What kind of man, what kind of person does that?"
I took a sip of coffee. "Lousy as it is, if that were that the worst thing people were capable of, I'd sleep a lot better. We live in an ugly world sometimes, Connor. A world where mothers prostitute themselves to feed their families. Where children are born already addicted to heroin or crystal meth. Kids get shot over a pair of sneakers. Living as you do, with all the best things in life available to you….well, it's different."
"I'm beginning to see that," Connor said. "But we can't change the entire world overnight. First things first. Let's get Ariella back home."
"Terrific idea. How do you propose we do that? We've had a good success rate so far, but this is not a simple purse snatching."
"No, this is obviously more sophisticated," Connor acknowledged. "Here's what bothers me. The criminals were smart enough to realize that a direct assault on Lloyd Fleming would be too difficult. The man has security on top of security, stealing a half a million dollars from him would be like trying to steal it from Fort Knox. So they do an end around, as they say in football. They go after his servant, who is a much easier target. But anyone who really knows Lloyd Fleming knows he wouldn't give as much as a nickel under these circumstances. So there are two options. Either the criminals aren't as smart as they think they are or…."
It suddenly hit me. "Jesus."
Connor nodded. "We have to get to Fleming. Quickly."
It took us forty five minutes in midtown traffic to get from West 43rd Street to 75th Street and Fifth Avenue. It wasn't Rosa's fault; our beautiful Spanish limousine driver did as well as anyone could have, but sometimes the only way to get from the west side to the east side of New York efficiently is to travel by helicopter. An option which was open to Connor Phelps, but not considered until it was too late.
Phone calls to both Lloyd and Barbara Fleming went directly to voicemails. Connor got through to Barbara Fleming's personal assistant, who informed him in no uncertain terms that her employer's whereabouts were strictly confidential and that he'd have to wait until she contacted him herself. He thanked her politely and hung up. He spent another ten minutes on his Ipad and then redialed her number.
"Now listen closely, Miss Elizabeth Mary McGovern, otherwise known as Daisy Louise Parker from Needle Point, Nebraska, who left there eight years ago under very mysterious circumstances. Unless you want to wind up back in that charming littler holler from which you escaped, turning tricks at the Shady Acres Bar with your cousin Lulu, you'll give me Barbara's exact location by the time I count to three. One….two….thank you very much. You've been very helpful."
He closed his cellphone and sat back. "They're at the movies, that's why the calls went to voicemail. No sense in going there, we might lose them in the crowd. Let's wait at their home."
"Was that absolutely necessary? She was just doing her job."
"If what we suspect is true, then we don't have a minute to lose," Connor said evenly. "If I have to throw her and anyone else under the bus in order to prevent this from happening, then so help me, I will do it. Her pride is not worth an innocent child's life. I trust we're in agreement on that point."
"We're agreed on the goal. Not the method. I appreciate the power you have at your disposal and what it's capable of achieving, just so long as you keep one basic truth in mind."
"And what's that?" he asked.
"We're supposed to be the good guys. All things being equal, we don't prey on the weak, we protect them. "
Connor stared at me for a few dangerous moments, then nodded. "You're right, of course. I'm sorry. Barbara and I….well, we have a history. I don't want to see her hurt."
"Nor do I, and I haven't even met her. But just remember. Our client is Valentina Ramirez."
We reached our destination and got out of the limo. The block was lined with tall stone staircases leading up to three and four floor buildings. Trees made it shady and a number of people were walking their pedigree dogs. Connor stared past me. I turned to see what occupied his attention.
A couple was walking towards us. The woman was striking, even beautiful, probably in her late forties. She had long, flowing blonde hair, an hourglass figure that looked nice in the expensive jeans and blouse she was wearing, and sunglasses. She was smiling at Connor. The man on her arm was a tall, thin, narrow faced guy with grey hair. He wore expensive looking pants and shoes, incongruously matched with an LSU Fighting Tigers sweatshirt. He was not smiling, and I had the impression he rarely did. Connor walked up to them. Barbara Fleming broke away from her husband and hugged Connor closely.
"My God, Connor," she said. "It's been forever! Where have you been hiding?"
"Here and there," Connor shrugged. "Trying to stay out of trouble. Hello, Lloyd."
"Hello, Phelps," Fleming said as he held his hand out. Connor shook it but the two men barely glanced at each other.
"Barbara, I want you to meet Jack Tanner. He….we….well, it's a bit complicated."
Barbara's eyes narrowed. "Complicated? What are you saying?"
"He's a private investigator," Connor said quickly. "So am I, believe it or not."
"You've switched careers?"
"It's a long story. The point is we need to talk to you and your husband."
Lloyd Fleming stepped forward. "What is this about, Phelps?"
"Perhaps we can do this inside your apartment instead of here on the street. It's a bit sensitive."
"This is absurd. I want to know exactly what…."
Barbara cut her husband off. "Yes, of course. Let's go inside. You haven't seen the new place yet anyway."
She took Connor's arm and led him up the stone staircase outside, leaving me to follow with a confused and angry Lloyd Fleming.
The Fleming's apartment was stunning. Tall, oak colored walls stretching twice the height of a normal Manhattan apartment. Glass chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. Expensive artwork and knick knacks strategically placed on the walls and tables. My hunch was this had been designed by Barbara Fleming. Remove one article and the effect would be diminished.
"May we offer you a drink?" she asked as we made our way into what I assumed was called a parlor room.
"No, thanks," Connor said. "We're not here for long. I'm sure you have other things to do. By the way, how is Jonathan?"
He mentioned it casually enough, but Barbara's head turned quickly.
"He had the stomach flu yesterday. Kept him out of school. But he's much better now. In fact, he and his nanny should be home soon," she said. "Why?"
"No reason. It's been a long time since I've seen him."
"I hope this is not about that nonsense with Valentina," Fleming fumed as he sat down. "I made it clear to her that we had no intention of paying any ransom money. As far as I'm concerned it has nothing to do with us."
"Mr. Fleming, we believe the kidnapping has a great deal to do with you," I said. "No one is going after Valentina Ramirez for a half million dollars. Obviously they knew she would have to turn to you for the money."
"If that's the case, they were sadly mistaken."
Connor spoke directly to Barbara. "It's possible they were hoping that you would just give them the cash and the matter would be settled. By the end of the week they'd either have their money or they'd decide something else. But there's another scenario."
"Which is what?" Barbara wanted to know.
"Which is that Ariella Ramirez is a warning. It's possible they have another target in mind."
"Jonathan?" Barbara said fearfully.
Connor nodded. "If they go ahead and kill Ariella it will make you far more willing to pay a ransom for Jonathan."
"Oh, my God."
"That's ridiculous," Fleming exploded. "This whole thing is much ado about nothing. I'm sure it has nothing to do with us at all, just a wretched coincidence. You know how those people are, they can't stay out of trouble if their lives depended on it. For your information, Jonathan is perfectly safe. His nanny has been with him since he was born. No one would dare harm him."
"Are you sure?" I said. "Do you know where he is right now?"
"Well, I can sure as hell find out." Fleming pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. He waited. And waited. And waited.
"That's funny," he said. "She's not answering."
Barbara moved to Connor. "My God, Connor. What if they have Jonathan? What will they do?"
"We don't know they have him yet," Connor said. "Let's not panic until we know all the facts.
"Exactly," Fleming said in agreement. "It's one thing to abduct the daughter of an immigrant maid. It's quite another to take on Lloyd Fleming. You'll see. Jonathan is fine. No doubt Camelia is simply underground or something, which is why the phone doesn't work."
"Your nanny take a lot of subways, does she?" I asked.
"Well, no, but…."
The door opened and a tall, attractive, competent looking woman entered. I assumed this was Elizabeth McGovern, otherwise known as Daisy Louise Parker. She had a letter in her hand.
"Barbara, this came for you in the mail. It says 'Open Immediately'. I thought, with everything going on…."
Barbara frantically took the paper from her assistant and read it. She let out a small gasp.
"What is it?" Fleming demanded.
"Oh, my God…."
Connor moved quickly to Barbara's side and took it from her. "It's the same note that Mrs. Ramirez received, with Jonathan's name instead of Ariella's."
Barbara started to fall and Connor held her up. He looked sharply at her personal assistant.
"Who gave this to you?" Connor asked.
"No one. It was left in the mail."
"Get some brandy. Now."
McGovern ran out of the room. Fleming rushed over to Connor and snatched the paper from him. He turned nearly apoplectic. "How dare they?! How dare they??!! Do they have any idea who they're dealing with?"
"I think they know exactly who they're dealing with," Connor said quietly.
"Where the hell is Camelia? She was supposed to be watching Connor. She is fired. Immediately. Well, if they think I am going to sit by and just be blackmailed…."
Barbara turned furiously on her husband. "This is our son! This is not a business deal! We will do anything they ask, whatever they ask, to get him safely home. Is that clear?"
Lloyd Fleming moved away, looking abashed. "Of course. I'm not saying we won't."
Barbara held tightly to Connor's arm. She was trembling with fear. "Connor, please. What do we do?"
Connor looked to me. "What are the options?"
"Well, you could always pay the money," I said.
"Would that guarantee Jonathan's safety?" Fleming asked.
"Nothing will guarantee his safety. All cases are different. You can pay the money and the child is returned. You can pay the money and the child is not returned. You can not pay the money and see what happens."
"Of course we're paying," Barbara said. "I'd pay twice that for Jonathan's return. Oh, God, my little boy…."
Connor held her tight as she broke into sobs. Fleming paced back and forth.
"What else?" he wanted to know.
"You can go to the police."
"No," Barbara said quickly. "No police. It says they'll kill him if we go to the police."
Connor tried reassuring her. "They're going to say whatever they can to scare you. That doesn't mean they're going to harm him."
"I agree with Barbara," Fleming said. "No police. No publicity. My God, can you imagine the scandal? I'd be a laughing stock."
"Lloyd, shut up," Barbara said. "This is not about you."
Fleming turned away from her, his feelings obviously hurt. Barbara didn't care. She looked to Connor. "What happened to the other girl? Ariella?"
"We don't know yet," he said. "But so far we've had no word that anything's happened to her. We assume she's still all right."
"I don't understand. Why take both children?"
Connor glanced at me. "We have a theory. But we don't know yet."
"You said they may have wanted Ariella as a warning. What do you mean?"
"We're just putting together ideas."
"Jonathan and Ariella are about the same age," I said. "Did they ever play together?"
"Don't be absurd. Of course, not." Fleming replied.
The door opened and Elizabeth McGovern came in, without the brandy. Her face was white. She looked shaken.
"It's Camelia," she said.
Fleming wheeled on her. "I want her in here. Right now. She'd better have a damn good explanation…."
"She's dead," McGovern said.
Barbara cried out. Fleming stopped in his tracks. He sank into a chair, the color draining from his face.
"What happened?" Connor asked.
"They say it was an accident. She was crossing the street and she was hit by a delivery van. She died instantly. That's all they know. They're coming here to talk to you."
"Where's Jonathan?" Barbara cried.
"They don't know."
"So much for leaving the police out of this," I said.
"Yes," Connor agreed and he sat next to Barbara. "Listen to me. When the police arrive you need to tell them the truth. Everything. Ariella, Jonathan, everything."
"But they said…."
"You don't have a choice. Camelia was Jonathan's nanny. They're going to want to talk to him. If you try and deceive them it will just be worse. Only don't mention me or Jack. I'm going to do everything in my power to get Jonathan back. You know the resources I have. But it would be better if I worked on my own for now. I'll keep you posted every step of the way."
He kissed her softly on the top of the head. "It will be all right."
She nodded. Connor turned to me. "Let's go."
When we got out to the street we could see a cop car turning the corner and heading for the Fleming's address.
"This is getting very messy," I said as we walked away.
"Agreed. That's why we're going to need some reinforcements."
Rosa picked us up in the limo a block away. Max, the bulky ex CIA agent/bodyguard, was sitting in the back, reading the New York Post sports section. Connor and I got in.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Home," he said.
Rosa turned on to the FDR going south and headed for the midtown tunnel. Connor was typing away on his Ipad. Traffic was relatively light and we were heading away from Manhattan in just a few minutes. I knew better than to interrupt Connor while he was doing whatever he did on his devices, so I asked Max if anything was new.
"Jets suck, Giants suck, Mets suck, Yankees suck, Knicks suck. But the Nets looks good this year. So that's new."
"Here's the unofficial report on what happened to Camelia Harris, the late nanny of Jonathan Fleming." Connor said, reading off his Ipad.
"Where'd you get that?" I asked.
"From the police files, of course. What they lack in security they make up for in ease of access. According to this, Ms. Harris ran into the street on east 86th street, where she was hit and killed by a florists van. The driver claimed she flew out in between two cars and he never saw her. Witnesses verify his account. The deceased was dressed in a cardigan sweater, white blouse, tan skirt and heels."
"Who the hell runs out into the middle of the street in heels?" I asked.
"Exactly. She was either running away from something or to something. No one witnessed anyone chasing her, at least according to the testimony, so we can assume she saw something that made her panic."
"Like Jonathan being kidnapped."
Connor nodded. "That would be my guess. Well, that's about all we can do for now. The rest happens in Oyster Bay."
It took us forty five minutes before we reached the upscale Long Island neighborhood known as Oyster Bay, home to Teddy Roosevelt, conservative television host Sean Hannity and crime boss John Gotti. We passed one magnificent home after another until we came to the Phelps estate.
Rosa turned into a long driveway about the size of a football field and I could see the house up ahead. "I'm surprised there's no gate," I mentioned. "What's to stop the riff raff from just showing up and trying to sell you newspaper subscriptions or girl scout cookies?"
"The driveway is equipped with sensors," Connor explained. "The moment someone steps on our grounds the video cameras are enabled and a signal goes to our security, which I assure you, is suitably adequate. Of course, if worse comes to worse, then we involve Max."
Max lowered his paper and smiled. "You don't want that."
Rosa stopped in front of the front door and we got out. Connor walked briskly through as the doors magically opened for him, and I followed. We were greeted in the main hall by an elderly man dressed in a suit and tie. Connor removed his jacket and handed it to the man.
"Jack, this is Bates. He's been with the family longer than I have. If you need anything, he'll take care of you."
Bates nodded politely at me, then addressed Connor. "They're expecting you in the main study. The three of them. I should warn you, however. They're not in a good mood."
"Neither am I," Connor said.
The layout of the house was the strangest I'd ever seen. It resembled a maze more than anything else. There were at least three floors but there could easily have been more. No staircase went straight up and down, they all looped in semi circles. There were a dozen doors leading to a dozen rooms that I could see and I had the feeling there were a lot more I couldn't see. There were four clocks in the room, all showing different times, and it took me a moment to realize we were getting the hour from various parts of the world. On the floor was different colored tiles leading to separate doors. It reminded me of the brick road in "The Wizard of Oz".
Connor chose a maroon path and I followed, knowing I would be hopelessly lost if I strayed too far. We entered a large room with an oak table in the center. The walls extended several feet high, with books of all types sitting on shelves. A single glass chandelier provided the lighting.
At the other end of the room were three people, although it looked like two at first. That's because standing opposite each other were two men who looked exactly alike. They were the same height, the same build, the same hair color. They even wore the same clothes, which were brown pants and white shirts. The only differing feature at all was that one wore glasses and the other didn't. Otherwise it would have been impossible to tell them apart.
It was the other one who drew my attention, however. Sitting back in a yellow chair, her legs on the table, sipping a glass of red wine was the single most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. She had dark, raven black hair, gorgeous blue eyes, a spectacular figure highlighted by a more than generous bosom and spectacular legs. She was wearing a low cut V shaped dress which ended right above her knees. She was wearing sandals. Had she smiled I think I would have been a goner right then and there but she looked in no hurry to do that.
As we entered the room the twins were engaged in a heated discussion. "I don't understand how you can be so obtuse," the one with the glasses said, pointing to an equation on a blackboard in between them. "If you substitute X with four to the negative second power, you have sufficient enough energy to fuel the radium rods."
"No, no, no," the other yelled, almost slamming his fist against the board. "You cannot simply substitute x because it suits your purposes, you are completely overlooking the hydrogen particles which surround the unit."
"I'm forgetting nothing!"
The beautiful girl cleared her throat loudly and the two stopped. Everyone looked at us.
"Connor!" shouted the one with the glasses. "It is about time you got here! Father is quite livid with you."
"Good to see you, Emile," Connor said. "Speaking of father, where is he?"
"He is accepting an award for some honor or another in some country or another with a great deal of poor people. He mentioned it but I wasn't really listening."
"Good to see you take an interest," Connor mused.
"Well, that's funny, coming from you," said the other twin.
Connor introduced us. "Jack, believe it or not, here in this room are three of the smartest people on the planet. Together they have an IQ of more than 540. Their combined estimated worth is probably ten billion, give or take. They also happen to be, less interestingly, my siblings. My two brothers, Emile and Henrick. Emile is the one with the glasses. And my sister, Memphis. This is Jack."
Memphis nodded her head at me so quickly that if I'd blinked I'd have missed it.
"Well, I do hope you're coming back here to work," Henrick said. "Now that father is retired and you're off to parts unknown the entire company is in chaos. Utter chaos. No one will listen to us."
"For the love of God, you're billionaires," Connor breathed. "You have total power over people's fortunes, their livelihoods. Make them listen to you!"
Emile seemed hurt. "That's easy for you to say. No one ever bullied you. That's never been the case for me and Henrick. When we try and give orders they either laugh or yell at us. People can be so mean."
"I don't have time for this," Connor said. "I'm here because I need your help."
Henrick looked positively shocked. "You need our help? That's absurd. We know nothing about crime, or murder, or whatever it is you're into."
"Maybe not, but when you break it all down, I have a problem, and that you do know about. You know how to solve problems."
"I don't know, Connor," Emile said, nervously. "This really isn't what we do well at all."
"There are two children's lives at stake. The deadline is approaching fast. Jack and I need all the help we can get."
"And why exactly should we help you?" Memphis asked bitterly. "Or Jack, whoever he may be. You don't care about us, you don't care about the company. You left us to go indulge in your farcical whims. You knew we couldn't run Phelps Industries the way you could but you didn't care."
"The company still makes a nice profit, Memphis," Connor said. "How much money do you need?"
"That's not the point," Memphis shot back. "Whether I want to buy a blue Mercedes to match my eyes or five thousand malaria nets for people in Africa is not the issue. The fact is, the competition is catching up. We were number one on the Fortune 500, now we're number eight. Our stock is falling, our best people are defecting to other companies. Miller has left and so has Stevens. Two years ago people looked on us as invincible. Now suddenly we're vulnerable. Because of you and your foolish pursuits. So let me ask you again. Why should we help you?"
Connor took a deep sigh and placed his hands on the oak table. He looked down and his voice was steady.
"You should help, Memphis, because despite how you feel about me, it's the right thing to do. You should help because every once in a blue moon it feels good to do something for other people. You should help because each second we delay it becomes more and more likely that two innocent children will die. And there's one more thing."
He lifted his head and stared directly at his sister. "You should help because if you don't, so help me God, I will burn this company to the ground. I'll tear it down brick by brick. I'll send the stock spiraling. I don't care how many millions we go through, how many people lose their jobs or how many Vera Wang dresses you have to give back. That's how important this is to me."
There was a very uncomfortable silence in the room.
"And if all that isn't enough, then I'll try this. You should help because one of the children is Barbara's son."
Immediately the tension lifted.
"Well, Connor, you idiot, why didn't you just say so in the first place?" Emile exclaimed. "Of course, we'll help. We're family. That's what families do."
"Absolutely," Henrick agreed. "No need for threats, for hysterics. We had no idea it was Barbara you were talking about. Naturally, we'll drop everything."
Connor looked to Memphis. "What do you say, Memphis?"
For the first time since I arrived, she smiled. It was as enchanting as I thought it would be.
"Really, Connor, you should have been on the stage," Memphis said. "So much drama. Considering it's Barbara, obviously we're here for you. She was the only wife you ever had that we liked."
"I've only had one wife," Connor said.
"No, you've only been married to one woman. That is not quite the same thing. But I want something from you as well. If we help you get these children safely home, you have to come back and work a month at Phelps Industries."
"Two weeks," Connor countered.
"Three weeks," Memphis grinned. "And at least one Board meeting."
I slid up closely to Connor.
"Wife?" I asked, in a low voice. He shrugged as if it were something that simply slipped his mind.
"We're wasting time," Henrick said. "Let's hear the whole story, from beginning to end."
It took me about fifteen minutes to tell them what happened, starting with Ariella and finishing with the death of the nanny. Emile sat behind a computer and typed in notes while the other two listened without saying a word. Connor poured wine for himself, me and Memphis. Apparently, the twins were teetotalers. When I was done, Henrick rose and began walking about the room.
"What have you done so far?"
"We're monitoring the phones of both households, plus the cell phones for both Barbara and Lloyd Fleming in case they call that way," Connor said.
I was surprised. "We are? When did we do that?"
"I took the liberty of arranging it in the car while you and Max were discussing Derek Jeter's place in the list of all time Yankees."
"So what is your theory as to why the girl Ariella was kidnapped?" Henrick asked. "Anyone who knows Lloyd Fleming at all knows he wouldn't spend a dime unless it was in his own interests."
"It's possible she was abducted so she could be used to send a message," I said.
"I don't understand," Henrick replied.
Connor took a deep breath. "Let's say someone you love was kidnapped and the people who did it wanted a half million dollars. You may or may not take them seriously. You may hope that it's all a bluff, that they wouldn't really risk harming that person. You'd be on the fence as to whether or not to pay the money."
"I follow that," Emile said.
"But let's say these same people had already abducted another child. And that child came back dead. That would get your attention. That would send a very strong message."
"My God," Memphis said. "You're dealing with animals."
Connor nodded. "And time is running out. Barbara just got the ransom note an hour ago. They'll probably wait a day to let it all sink in. After that we're afraid that Ariella will be killed as a warning, to show what will happen to Jonathan if the money isn't paid."
"I hate to say it," Henrick said, his brow furrowed. "But that might be your best chance to apprehend the criminals."
"Explain," Connor said.
"Right now we have absolutely nothing to go on. No clues, no physical evidence. A dead body, while tragic, would at least afford us a place to look. A misplaced hair follicle, soil on the clothes, even the manner of death itself could provide some assistance as to who was behind this."
"I see your point," Connor said. "But the goal here is to bring both children back alive."
Emile shook his head. "This is difficult. We have two abducted children in a population of eight million, with no clues, no witnesses and time rapidly running out. Even with our considerable resources, the situation is close to impossible."
"If it were easy, I wouldn't be here," Connor pointed out.
Emile thought for a second. "An operation like this would have to entail some sort of reconnaissance, correct? The kidnappers would have to spend at least some amount of time studying the patterns and behaviors of the two children and the people who interacted with them, in order to know exactly when they could be taken. They'd have to be observed for weeks, possibly months."
"That makes sense," Connor conceded.
"That means they have to be local, or at least recently relocated. You wouldn't commute from Jersey to do this, you'd have to be on site."
Henrick nodded. "We could search the real estate records. Look for anyone who moved into those areas within the past six months. Use a ten block radius. They'd probably want to be no more away than that. That would narrow the field down considerably."
"Narrow it down even more," Connor said. "Focus only on rentals. This is a short term deal. And take away those who have families. You're not bringing the kids for this."
Emile typed furiously on his computer.
"What nationality was Ariella?" Memphis asked.
"Jamaican," I said. "Why?"
"Kids have to eat. Even abducted four year olds. Take the list, run the credit card receipts and see if anyone is buying unusual quantities of Jamaican food recently."
"Even more basic than that," Connor said. "Four year olds still wear diapers, or those pull up things. Cross reference that. A single man living in a rented apartment shouldn't be purchasing children's clothing."
"It's good," Emile murmured as he fed the information into the database. "We'll cut it down considerably, but it's still sketchy. What if they haven't moved in recently? What if they're subletting, or what if they come from the upper west side? What if they buy the food in Queens and bring it in to Manhattan? It's still the proverbial needle in a haystack."
"Here's what bothers me," Memphis said, pouring herself another glass of wine. "Given all the commotion in the playground with the balloonist I can see where people's attentions can be diverted, but what four year old girl runs off with someone she doesn't know?"
Henrick nodded again. "The curious incident of Ariella's cries of protest."
"But there were no cries of protest," I said.
"Indeed. And to borrow generously from Arthur Conan Doyle, that was the curious incident. Why not? Why weren't there cries of protest, if only from the little girl?"
"You're right," Connor agreed. "If you're a stranger you don't just pluck a child out of her own playground, there's too much chance that someone is going to notice you."
"Unless they've already noticed you," I said. "My God. It was someone she knew."
"Yes. How stupid we were. We should have realized it immediately. A stranger would attract too much attention. It had to be a friend. A relative. Someone who already fit in."
"Tell me again the description of the man," Memphis said. "The man who delivered the first note."
I opened up my notebook and searched back until I found Valentina Ramirez's original interview.
"She said the note was given to a boy who lived in the neighborhood. It was from a well dressed European looking man. Blonde. With an accent."
"Interesting," Memphis said quietly. "It sounds like a man you'd see in the movies."
Connor's head snapped up. "Yes. It sounds exactly like a man you'd see in the movies."
"You think the boy made it up?" Henrick asked.
"More likely he was told what to say."
"Told by who?" Emile asked.
Memphis smiled. "By someone who is not European, blond and has a German accent, I would imagine."
My cell phone rang. It was Valentina Ramirez. She was frantic, and talking so fast that I could barely understand her. I excused myself and walked into a corridor.
"Mrs. Ramirez, tell me what happened," I said.
"I get a call from people.&n