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The Christmas Mystery
 

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The Christmas Mystery


  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  PROLOGUE ONE

  TWO

  The Christmas Mystery Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  EPILOGUE

  An Excerpt from “Hidden”

  About the Authors

  Newsletters

  Copyright

  PROLOGUE

  ONE

  Chaos and confusion reign in New York City’s most glamorous department store, Bloomingdale’s.

  A dozen beautiful women—perfect makeup, perfect clothing—are strutting around the first floor, armed. No one escapes these women. They are shooting customers…with spritzes of expensive perfume.

  Enough fragrance fills the air to create a lethal cloud of nausea. The effect is somewhere between expensive flower shop and cheap brothel.

  “Unbelievable! This place is packed,” says K. Burke.

  “Yes,” I say. “You’d think it was almost Christmas.”

  “It is almost Chris—” Burke begins to say. She stops, then adds, “Don’t be a wiseass, Moncrief. We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”

  K. Burke and I are police detective partners from Manhattan’s Midtown East. Our chief inspector, Nick Elliott, has assigned us to undercover security at this famous and glamorous department store. I told the inspector that I preferred more challenging assignments, “like trapping terrorists and capturing murderers.”

  Elliott’s response?

  “Feel free to trap any terrorists or capture any murderers you come across. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for purse-snatchers and shoplifters.”

  K. Burke, ever the cooperative pro, said, “I understand, sir.”

  I said nothing.

  In any event, K. Burke and I at this moment are standing in a fog of Caron Poivre and Chanel No. 5 in Bloomingdale’s perfume department.

  “So, how are we going to split up, Moncrief?” asks Burke.

  “You decide,” I say. My enthusiasm is not overwhelming.

  “Okay,” Burke says. “I’ll take the second floor…women’s designer clothes. Why don’t you take high-end gifts? China, crystal, silver.”

  “May I suggest,” I say, “that you take women’s designer clothing on the fourth floor, not the second. Second floor is Donna Karan and Calvin. Fourth floor is Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Valentino. Much classier.”

  Burke shakes her head. “It’s amazing, the stuff you know.”

  We test-check the red buttons on our cell phones, the communication keys that give us immediate contact with each other.

  Burke says that she’ll also notify regular store security and tell them that their special request NYPD patrol is there, as planned.

  “I’ve got to get out of this perfume storm,” she says. She’s just about to move toward the central escalator when a well-dressed middle-aged woman approaches. The woman speaks directly to Burke.

  “Where can I buy one of these?” the woman says.

  “I got the last one,” Burke says. The woman laughs and walks away.

  I’m completely confused. “What was that lady asking about?” I say.

  “She was asking about you,” Burke says. “As if you didn’t know.”

  Burke walks quickly toward the up escalator.

  TWO

  Within three minutes I’m standing in the Fine China and Silver section of Bloomingdale’s sixth floor. If there is a problem with the economy in New York City, someone failed to tell the frantic shoppers snapping up Wedgwood soup tureens and sterling silver dinner forks. It’s only ten thirty in the morning, yet the line at gift-wrap is already eight customers deep.

  My cell phone is connected to hundreds of store security cameras. These cameras are trained on entrance areas, exit doors, credit card registers—all areas where intruders can enter, exit, and operate quickly.

  I keep my head still, but my eyes dart around the area. Like Christmas itself, all is calm, all is bright. I make my way through the crowd of wealthy-looking women in fur, prosperous-looking men with five-hundred-dollar cashmere scarves.

  Then a loud buzz. Insistent. Urgent. I glance quickly at my phone. The red light. I listen to K. Burke’s voice.

  “Second floor. Right now,” she says. She immediately clicks off.

  Damn it. I told her to go to the fourth floor. Burke makes her own decisions.

  Within a few seconds I’m at the Bloomingdale’s internal staircase. I skip the stairs three at a time. I burst through the second floor door.

  Chaos. Screaming. Customers crowding the aisles near the down escalators. Salespeople crouched behind counters.

  “Location Monitor” on my cell notifies me that Burke is no longer on the original second floor location. Her new location is men’s furnishings—ties, wallets, aftershave. Ground floor.

  I reverse my course and rush toward the rear escalator near Third Avenue. I push a few men and women out of my path. Now I’m struggling to execute a classic crazy move—I’m running down an escalator that’s running up.

  I land on the floor. I see K. Burke moving quickly past display cases of sweaters and shirts. Burke sees me.

  She shouts one word.

  “Punks!”

  It’s a perfect description. In a split second I see two young women—teens probably, both in dark-gray hoodies. The pair open a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. They go through. The door closes behind them.

  Burke and I almost collide at that door. We know from our surveillance planning that this is one of Bloomingdale’s “snare” closets—purposely mismarked to snare shoplifters and muggers on the run. This time it works like a Christmas charm. We enter the small space and see two tough-looking teenage girls—nose piercings, eyebrow piercings, tats, the whole getup. One of them is holding an opened switchblade. I squeeze her wrist between my thumb and index finger. The knife falls to the ground. As K. Burke scoops up the knife, she speaks.

  “These two assholes knocked over a woman old enough to be their grandmother and took off with her shopping bag,” Burke says. “They also managed to slash her leg—the long way. EMU is taking care of her.”

  “It ain’t us. You’re messed up. Look. No shopping bags,” one of the girls says. Her voice is arrogant, angry.

  “Store security has the shopping bag. And they’ve got enough video on the two of you to make a feature film,” Burke adds.

  It’s clear to the young thieves that they’ll get no place good with Burke. One of them decides to play me.

  “Give us a break, man. It probably isn’t even us on the video. I know all about this shit. Come on.”

  I smile at the young lady.

  “You know all about this shit? Let me tell you something.” I pause for a moment, then continue quietly. “In some cases, with the holidays approaching, I might say: give the kids a warning and
release them.”

  “That’d be way cool,” says her friend.

  K. Burke looks at me. I know that she’s afraid my liberal soft spot is going to erupt.

  “But this is not one of those cases,” I say.

  “Man, no. Why?” asks the girl.

  “I believe my colleague summed it up a few minutes ago,” I say.

  “What the hell?” the girl says.

  I answer. “Punks!”

  The Christmas Mystery

  Chapter 1

  Almost Thanksgiving

  When Dalia Boaz died a few months ago, I believed that my own life had ended along with hers.

  Friends suggested that, with time, the agony of the loss would diminish.

  They were wrong. Day after day I ache for Dalia, the love of my life. Yet life rattles on. Unstoppable. Yes, there are moments when I am joyful. Other times are inevitably heartbreaking: Dalia’s birthday, my birthday, the anniversary of a special romantic event. Holidays are a special problem, of course, because I am surrounded by celebration—Easter baskets overflowing, fireworks erupting, bright lights hanging from evergreen trees.

  Thanksgiving Day is a unique problem. There is nothing remotely like it in France. When Dalia was alive, if I was not on duty, we stayed in bed and streamed a few movies, whipped up some omelets, topped them with beluga caviar, and were thankful that we did not have to eat sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows.

  This Thanksgiving proved a challenge. A few detective colleagues generously and sincerely invited me to join them. No, that wasn’t for me. So I volunteered for holiday assignment. But Inspector Elliott informed me that Thanksgiving was well-staffed with both detectives and officers (mostly divorced parents who traded seeing their children on Thanksgiving Day for seeing them on Christmas Day).

  For a moment I wondered how my partner would be spending her holiday. Although my knowledge of K. Burke’s private life was sparse, I knew that both her parents were deceased.

  Casually I asked her, “Where are you going for Thanksgiving?”

  “The gym,” was her answer.

  In an unlikely explosion of sentiment that surprised even myself I said, “Come to my place. I’ll fix Thanksgiving dinner for both of us.”

  “Yeah, sure,” was her sarcastic reaction. “And I’ll bake a pumpkin pie.”

  “No. I’m serious.”

  “You are?” she said, trying to hide her surprise.

  With only a hint of confusion she spoke slowly and quietly. “Oh, my God. This feels like a date.”

  “I assure you, it is not,” I said.

  Both Burke and I knew that I meant it.

  Then I added, “But please do not bake a pumpkin pie.”

  Chapter 2

  Thanksgiving

  “This place is…well, it’s sort of unbelievable,” K. Burke says. She stands in the entrance gallery to my new apartment and spreads her arms in amazement.

  “Merci,” I say. “I had to find a new home after Dalia died. I could not stay in her place. I could not stay in mine. Too many…” I pause.

  Detective Burke nods. Of course, she knows. Too many memories. I take her on a brief tour of the place. A loft on Madison Square, a single three-thousand-foot room with a view of the Flatiron Building to the south and the Empire State Building to the north. The huge room is sparse—purposely so. Steel furniture, glass side tables, black-and-white Cartier-Bresson photographs of Paris.

  We eventually move to the table for Thanksgiving dinner. The small black lacquered table is set with my great-grandmother’s vintage Limoges.

  As we begin the main course of the dinner, K. Burke says, “The only thing more impressive than this apartment is this meal.”

  Another Merci.

  “Moncrief, I’ve known you almost a year. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with you. I’ve been on a police case in Europe with you. I…I never knew you could cook like this. I just can’t believe you can make a meal like this.”

  “Well, K. Burke. I cannot make a meal like this. But fortunately Steve Miller, the senior sous-chef at Gramercy Tavern, was happy to make such a meal.”

  And what a feast it is.

  Burke and I begin with a truffled chestnut soup. Then, instead of a big bird plopped in the middle of the table, Miller has layered thin slices of turkey breast in a creamy sauce of Gruyère cheese and porcini mushrooms. Instead of the dreaded sweet potatoes, we are dining on crisp pommes frites and a delicious cool salad, a combination of shredded brussels sprouts and pomegranate seeds.

  “This is what the food in heaven tastes like,” K. Burke says.

  “No, this is what the food in Gramercy Tavern tastes like.”

  I pour us each some wine. We clink glasses.

  “What shall we toast to?” she says.

  I say, “Let us toast to a good friendship during a difficult year.”

  She hesitates just for a moment. Then K. Burke says, “Yes. To a good friendship.”

  We drink.

  She holds up her glass again.

  “One more thing I want to toast to,” Burke says.

  “Yes?” I say, hoping it will not be sentimental, hoping it will not be about Dalia, hoping…

  “Let’s toast to you and me really trying to see eye to eye from now on.”

  “Excellent idea,” I say. We clink glasses again. We begin to devour the wonderful food.

  And then her cell phone rings. Burke quickly puts down her fork and slips the phone out of her pocket. She reads the name.

  “It’s Inspector Elliott.”

  “Don’t answer it,” I say.

  “We’ve got to answer it, Moncrief.”

  “Don’t answer it,” I repeat. “We are having dinner.”

  “You are a lunatic,” she says.

  I roll my eyes and speak.

  “So much for trying to see eye to eye.”

  Chapter 3

  Of course, K. Burke triumphs. She takes Inspector Elliott’s call.

  Fifteen minutes later we’re in the detective squad room of Midtown East watching Elliott eat a slice of pie. K. Burke later tells me that it is filled with something called mincemeat, made out of beef fat and brandy. Incroyable!

  “This could have waited until tomorrow, but you both told me that you wanted to work today. So I assumed you’d be free,” Elliott says.

  Then he looks us both up and down closely, Burke in a simple, elegant gray skirt with a black shirt; me in a navy blue Brioni bespoke suit.

  “But you both are dressed like you’ve just come from the White House.”

  Neither Burke nor I speak. We are certainly not going to tell our boss where we were dining fifteen minutes earlier.

  “In any event, I decided to come in and do some desk work. My wife packed me some pie. And I figured I could watch Green Bay kick the Bears’ ass on my iPad instead of watching it on TV with my brother-in-law.”

  Then he gets down to business.

  “I thought this problem might go away, but it’s real. Very real. Potentially dangerous. And it involves some New York City big shots.”

  Elliott swallows the last chunk of his pie. Then he continues speaking. He’s energetic, anxious. Whatever it is, it’s going to be a big deal.

  “You two ever heard of the Namanworth Gallery up on 57th Street?”

  “I think so,” says Burke. “Just off Park Avenue.”

  “That’s the one,” says Elliott. “You know the place, Moncrief? It sounds like something you’d be down with.”

  “As a matter of fact, I do know that gallery. They handled the sale of a Kandinsky to a friend of mine a few months ago, and a few years back my father was talking to them about a Rothko. Nothing came of it.”

  “Well, your dad might have lucked out,” says Elliott. “We’ve got some pretty heavy evidence that they’ve been dealing in the most impeccable forgeries in New York. A lot of collectors have been screwed over by them.”

  I speak.

  “Namanworth hasn’t owned that place f
or thirty years. A husband and wife are the owners. Sophia and Andre Krane. I think she claims to have been a countess or duchess or something.”

  “We don’t know about her royal blood. But we do know that Barney Wexler, the guy who owns that cosmetics company, paid them thirty-five million dollars for a Klimt painting. And he thinks it was…”

  I finish his sentence for him. “…not painted by Klimt.”

  Elliott says, “And Wexler’s lined up two experts who can back him up.”

  “Although the case sounds really exciting…” Burke says, “there’s a special division for art-and-antique counterfeit work.”

  “Yeah,” says Elliott. “But with these big players, there may be more to it than simple forgery. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. And where there’s valuable artwork, there’s possible fraud, possible money-laundering—ultimately, possible homicides. So they want us to stick our dirty noses in it. We can call on counterfeit if we want.”

  I speak. “I don’t think we’ll want to do that.”

  “That’s what I thought you’d say, Moncrief.” Then he taps a button on his computer. “There, I’ve just sent you all the info on the case. You’ll see. It’s not just Wexler. These are the money-men and the money-women who rock this town.

  “By the way, there’s a special pain in the ass about this case.…”

  “Isn’t there always?” Burke says.

  “This is particularly painful,” says Elliott. “The Kranes aren’t talking. They’re comfy in their eight-hundred-acre Catskills estate.”

  “The hell with that,” says Burke. “We’ll get an order from justice.”

  “No, you won’t, not when the attorney general of the state of New York says they don’t have to cooperate.”

  “What the hell is that all about?” I say.

  “Exactly,” says Elliott. “What the hell is that all about?”

  He lets out a long breath of air and swivels to face his PC.

  As we walk away from Elliott’s desk, K. Burke lays out her plan to download all information on the Namanworth Gallery, all information on Barney Wexler, all information on Sophia and Andre Krane, and all classified insurance information on important international collectors.

 
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