The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton by Dave Thomas and Max Allan Collins: New Excerpt

Smalltime Boston thief Jimmy Leighton stumbles into a perilous quantum experiment – and a bullet – propelling him down the multiple paths his life might have taken in The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton, an exciting, innovative thriller by Dave Thomas and Max Allan Collins. Read an excerpt here!

CHAPTER 4

Taylor Farr liked a lot of things about being a police officer in Cambridge, but the headquarters building on Sixth Street was not one of them.

The six-story brick building was distinguished by a new façade with large LED lighting fixtures on the roof tied directly to the emergency dispatch computer. Electronic cues from dispatch would prompt the roof lighting to flash the red and blue of police emergency colors — to show Cambridge citizens their police force was always responding to their calls.

Her partner, Detective Neer, would say to her, “When HQ starts flashin’ those red and blues, every car in East Cambridge pulls over. It’s fuckin’ ridiculous.”

And on this chilly Tuesday, as a trenchcoat-clad Taylor entered HQ on Sixth Street, bathed in the flashing lights of the roof, she thought, Neer and I agree for once — that is fucking ridiculous. Inside, she hung her coat up in the communal closet and checked the time on her phone, hoping her partner wouldn’t be in yet and she could get some work done.

But when she entered the largely unpopulated third-floor Criminal Investigations bullpen, there he sat at his desk, in shirtsleeves and tie, chowing down on a disgustingly runny breakfast sandwich, hunkered over a sports section that was spread out like a tablecloth.

“Late again,” Sam said as Taylor dumped her oversize purse onto the desk adjacent; she was in a navy suit and baby-blue silk blouse.

“How is five minutes early ‘late’?”

“After you make your herbal tea and check Instagram and Twitter, it will be.”

Taylor just looked at him, then said, “I’m off to the little girl’s room. Try to finish your abortion of a breakfast before I get back, unless you wanna see mine all over your sports stats.”

A roar came from the audience of detectives who had come to enjoy this recurring fencing match. “So Neer and yet so Farr!” a nearby card called out. Not for the first time: their dislike of this recurring witticism was another of the few things Sam and Taylor agreed upon.

Sam called out, “Hold up there, Sunshine!”

Taylor stopped and ambled back. “What?”

He licked yolk off his lips. “I know you’re lookin’ forward to another fabulous morning with me…”

“It’s what keeps me going.”

“…but how ’bout a division of labor? You do a knock ’n’ talk on the absent-minded professor, since you two big brains just love swapping science-fiction stories. And I’ll take Jimmy’s mysterious girlfriend, Bernice.”

“Bernadette.”

“Yeah, who’s been going with him forever but doesn’t know where he lives. Splitting up might be a quicker way to find our shooter.”

And with that, Sam took a particularly big bite of his sandwich, splattering yellow onto the newspaper’s Boston Bruins vs. the Winnipeg Jets coverage (6-2, Bruins).

About 10 AM, Taylor hung a right off Massachusetts onto Vassar Street, in search of a parking spot near the physics building at MIT. She almost hoped Goldman wasn’t in — he wasn’t likely to be any more forthcoming today than yesterday. Talking to people who knew him might make more sense — his secretary, his colleagues.

Vassar Street was a narrow two-way with metered parking on a single side. Taylor got lucky and found a space, pulling a tight U-turn and sliding her little Taurus in. She got the “Police Investigation Vehicle” sign from the glove box and set it on the dash.

She was in her trenchcoat again, the day just short of outright cold. As she locked the car, a couple of female students in MIT jackets and jeans paused and gawked at her. One was short, stocky and dark-haired, the other about Taylor’s size, blonde and anorexic-looking.

“Are you really a cop,” the stocky one said, “or is that your scam to avoid a ticket?”

Taylor’s purse hung on a shoulder strap; she got her badge out and shared it.

The student, who was maybe twenty, wore an expression that said she’d seen everything twice. “You’re not above the law, just ’cause you’re a cop. Students need these places…and if we don’t feed the meters, lady, we get a ticket.”

Taylor didn’t love being called “lady,” but could tell these two wanted nothing more than to initiate an argument — the skinny blonde, swimming in her sweatshirt, had her phone out. Within minutes, a video of a cop abusing the system would be all over social media….

Worse, Taylor was a Cambridge police officer and, strictly speaking, Boston was not her jurisdiction. So she dug into her purse for her credit card and paid for the parking spot.

But the blonde was already capturing the little drama on her phone.

Her short-haired companion was saying, “Only reason you’re paying is I called you out. You work for us, remember. Our taxes pay your salary.”

Your parents’ taxes, maybe, Taylor thought, almost amused by a speech every cop had heard over and over.

The detective walked up to the student and glared down at round eyes in a round face. “I showed you my badge, identifying myself as a police officer. Your little street theater performance is interfering with official police business. Continue to harass me, you’ll be arrested under section 2A of the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — attempting to intimidate an officer.”

Taylor opened her coat, revealing the Glock holstered on her hip, then took a pair of handcuffs from her bag and grabbed the strident student by the wrist, poised to apply a silver cuff. The young woman tried to pull away, but Taylor held fast.

The detective asked, “Do you understand the verbal warning I have just given you?”

“Yes.” All the bluster was gone now and the kid was shaking.

“Good.” Taylor released her grip. “Now, might I go about my business without further interference?”

Surprised that Taylor let her go, the student was nodding as she backed silently away to where her lanky friend waited, no longer recording the encounter. They walked quickly off, as if propelled by Taylor’s gaze. How this had gone would not likely show up on YouTube now.

Taylor tucked the handcuffs back in place and got out a screenshot printout of the campus from Google Maps. She found her location relative to the physics building, crossed Vassar Street, cut down a little alley to a walkway on the MIT Campus.

Goldman’s office was in one of the Maclaurin Buildings across from the gigantic scroll-topped columns of the Great Dome building. The trees bordering Killian Court had lost their leaves by now, hovering skeletally. Must have been something in summer, she thought, and even now had an austere beauty.

By way of contrast, the building Taylor headed into was a big modern glass-fronted structure. The lobby felt very open, despite the bustle of students, as Taylor consulted the directory for the Department of Physics.

Taylor found Goldman’s office on the third floor where his assistant, Claire Whitton, quickly answered the knock at the professor’s door. About thirty, casually dressed in slacks and a crisp white shirt, the Whitton woman wore her long auburn hair in a ponytail, her attractive oval face home to big dark eyes, finely carved features, and not much make-up.

Once Taylor identified herself, Whitton invited her into a small office with walls haphazardly lined with shelved books, a cluttered desk with a computer station, and a window letting the gray day in. A couch under that window was also piled with books.

Quickly clearing the couch and gesturing for her caller to sit, the young woman asked, “Would you like me to take your coat?”

“No, I’m fine,” Taylor said.

“The doctor has a small closet here, but I’m afraid it’s not much better than the rest of this office. Of course, didn’t somebody say if a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what’s an empty desk a sign of?”

“Einstein, wasn’t it?”

A little surprised, Claire smiled and nodded at that — Taylor found herself already thinking of the pleasant woman by her first name — then joined the detective on the couch, leaving a professional distance.

“This must be about the break-in,” the young woman said, then perked suddenly. “Or is it about the hit-and-run driver who killed Mrs. Goldman?”

“You were right the first time. I didn’t know it had made the media yet.”

“I don’t know that it has. The doctor called me at home yesterday, and said he wouldn’t be in today.”

Taylor said, “What exactly did he tell you?”

“Just that the house had been broken into, including the lab. Nothing taken that he knew of, but he wanted to take an inventory today. I offered to go over there to help him, but he said to cancel his classes and cover for him here.”

Taylor noted that Goldman obviously hadn’t told Claire about the shooting victim and decided to hold back on sharing that. Better to keep this simple, she thought. Besides, maybe a motive for the break-in would reveal itself in this interview.

“What exactly do you do for the professor, Ms. Whitton? Or is ‘doctor’ more correct?”

“It is, although Dr. Goldman doesn’t stand on ceremony. I’m a grad student, finishing up my PhD, working to help cover expenses not included in my scholarship…and incredibly lucky to be working with a physicist of such stature.”

“A nice opportunity for you.”

Claire winced in thought. “Why would anyone break in at Cherry Street? It’s not like Dr. Goldman has a lot of expensive valuables lying around or anything.”

“You’ve been to his house?”

“Many times, delivering equipment for the basement lab. Helped with the set-up, even did some work there on occasion.”

“Could the lab have been why someone broke in? To gain access to what he was working on down there? He’s into some fairly cutting-edge stuff.”

Claire seemed surprised. “Uh…Dr. Goldman told you about his experiment?”

“In broad strokes. Testing the dual states of electrons, decoherence — spooky quantum stuff that’s outside the box of classical Newtonian physics.”

Claire was smiling, and kind of looking her over. “What sort of police officer are you?”

Taylor returned the smile and said, lightly, “Not a stupid one, I hope.”

“I’d already figured that out.” The young woman seemed reassured that the professor had already shared this much with Taylor.

“Anyway, Dr. Goldman may have also had a personal reason for his experiments.”

“Personal? For quantum physics research?”

Claire’s sigh was long. “I’m afraid…can this be off the record? Nothing you’d put in a report or anything?”

Taylor nodded. “I’m just trying to understand what it is we’re dealing with.”

“He…went kind of bonkers when his wife was killed in that accident. It was right after that, you see, that I helped him set up that lab in his basement. At first, everyone around here thought he was just doubling down on work as a way of coping with his loss. But, later I realized, from my conversations with him, that he might actually be…please be discreet about this…trying to find a way to…well, get to his wife.”

Taylor frowned. “Am I missing something? His wife is dead, right?”

“True. In this universe.”

And it was the professor who was bonkers?

“Okay, Detective Farr. I know what you’re thinking. Parallel universes are the stuff of science fiction, right? And in the world of physics, Dr. Goldman’s work was very controversial. He didn’t share much with his colleagues here.”

“Which explains the rather elaborate lab at home. But he does seem to’ve shared things with you.”

Claire nodded. “I had no idea what he was doing at first, but on my many trips to his house, delivering equipment, helping him set things up, he finally felt comfortable enough to tell me.” A bittersweet smile made the pretty face even prettier. “It’s really very…sad.But also…romantic.”

Taylor noted the young woman seemed to always refer to her boss as “Dr. Goldman.” That, and the way she described Goldman’s grief at the loss of his wife, probably precluded any romantic involvement between Goldman and Claire…but not necessarily. A man minus his beloved wife might turn to a lovely assistant for solace. And sex.

But Taylor doubted that, for another reason that she wasn’t quite sure of yet.

Claire asked, “Are you familiar with the Many Worlds Interpretation?”

“Not really. I mean, I took a couple of physics courses as an undergraduate, and I know it’s tied to Schrodinger’s famous cat-in-the- box experiment…”

“Yes. Good.”

“…and then, later, in the 1950s, Hugh Everett offered the idea that parallel worlds might exist.”

“You know a lot for a…”

“Police officer, even if she isn’t stupid?”

The two women smiled at each other again.

Taylor went on: “But my knowledge is more like a historical timeline of the ideas, not the real nuts and bolts of the physics. Strictly undergraduate stuff.”

The detective was deliberately combining her knowledge with a healthy dose of self-deprecation.

“Or,” Taylor asked, “am I embarrassing myself?”

Claire appeared impressed with Taylor’s intelligence and her honesty. So very impressed that a slight flush…blush?…had come to her cheeks.

Now Taylor felt certain her deductions about Claire were correct: the lab assistant found her attractive. That might also explain why she was being so cooperative. And, anyway, Taylor had a certain Spidey Sense in that regard.

“Well,” Claire said, “the Many Worlds Interpretation suggests we live in an infinity of universes, all superimposed in the same physical space, but mutually isolated and evolving independently.”

“Infinity — really, an infinite number?”

Claire nodded. “In many of these universes, replicas of you and me exist, all but indistinguishable from us, yet leading other, or at least variant, lives.”

“So, in one version of Goldman’s life, his wife is still alive.”

Claire smiled again, nodding gently. “At least one — according to the theory.” She held out open palms. “I admit I don’t really understand the details of it, but I think that’s what Goldman was working on in his basement.”

“Specifically, what? Proving the theory?”

“That’s part of it. But also I think…moving from one universe to another.”

“With what? A…machine?”

She shrugged. “A device.”

“With the goal of…?”

“Of going to a world where his wife was still alive. I told you it was romantic.”

Taylor had a hunch Claire was working a little self-deprecating angle, too. She probably knew plenty more about Goldman’s experiment, but didn’t want to get too deep into the physics of it — perhaps not wanting to embarrass her questioner.

“This seems like potential Nobel Prize work,” Taylor said, “with mindboggling applications, and way worthy of a break-in.”

Claire waved that off. “I don’t know about that, and only a handful of us here know what Dr. Goldman is trying to accomplish. And the more senior minds on staff — the professors — think he’s…”

“Bonkers.”

“Yep. They say he’s wasting his time, and university resources, tilting at scientific windmills on a personal quest.”

“But you don’t agree.”

“I don’t. I think it’s worthwhile, incredibly important scientific research and…”

“Romantic.”

Claire nodded, smiled.

“So,” Taylor said, “he has no rivals in this work, here at the university — no one else who might think what he is doing is possible and important?”

“There’s one person, maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“Someone I’ve heard him mention.”

“Who?”

Claire’s brow furrowed. “Dr. Walter Emmerich. Dr. Goldman worked with him in Switzerland before coming here. In Cern at the famous Hadron Collider.”

“When you say Goldman mentioned him — in what sense? As a rival? As an enemy?”

“Both, I think,” Claire said. She made a face and even that was attractive. “I can tell you there’s no love lost between them.”

“And where is this Emmerich character? Here at MIT?”

She shook her head and the ponytail swung. “No, no. He’s in Zurich. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Holds a post in the physics department there.”

Taylor wrote all that down. Finally, a lead. Not local — that was definitely a negative, budget-wise. But someone with a motive, anyway.

Maybe with a long-distance alibi.

Taylor rose. “Thank you for this. You’ve been very helpful.”

Claire was on her feet, too. “I’ll give you Dr. Goldman’s card with the office number. And, uh, I’ll write my personal information on the back — should you have more questions.”

“Please.”

Claire did that, then walked her to the elevator, where the two women shook hands…or rather, clasped hands. It lasted just enough longer than a normal handshake for the detective to confirm her suspicions.

And perhaps confirm Claire’s suspicions about her.

***

After half an hour in light traffic, Sam Neer reached the refurbished three-story building on West Broadway where Bernadette Barberra worked as an office manager.

Sam — in a fake-fur-collared black leather jacket over a white shirt and sharp tie — took a little elevator to the second floor and found Zimmerman Accounting at the end of the hall. The refurbishing hadn’t made its way inside; in here, it might have been the 1940s.

You had to push a buzzer to be allowed in, which he did. Bernadette herself answered the door and it was pretty obvious from her expression she wasn’t thrilled to see him.

“Sorry to bother you at work, Ms. Barberra.”

“That’s okay.” But it clearly wasn’t.

“Just a few more questions.”

Sam was well aware police showing up at work could make anybody uncomfortable…and he was counting on that. Maybe throwing Bernadette a little off-balance would get her to open up more than she had at the hospital.

“Come in, Detective. Please.”

He followed her down a cramped hallway, his Rocky-brand work shoes echoing; there’d been no receptionist — strictly a low-rent operation. The Barberra girl was in a tan blouse and a darker brown skirt, and the view was nice, which of course a skilled detective couldn’t help but note.

“My office is very small,” she said, “so why don’t we talk in here?”

“Fine.”

She ushered him into a compact conference room, all but engulfed by a scarred six-foot walnut conference table with four black vinyl high-back chairs. A glassed-in wall onto the hallway revealed two office doors and half of a third. The other wall had a large framed modern art print; Sam neither recognized it nor its appeal — a repro of something famous, probably.

Bernadette closed the door and pulled the little chain on the vertical blinds to give them some privacy. She sat at the head of the table, which Sam thought was a nice move, and took the chair next to her, between them and the door. He knew how to play control games, too.

“I’m glad to try to help,” she said, her hands folded as if about to say grace. “But I’m fairly sure, at the hospital, I told you everything I know.”

Sam took out his notepad and pen. “You’re probably right, Ms. Barberra. But follow-up interviews are standard. Nothing to worry about.”

Which was just the kind of remark from a cop that made people worry.

Sam went on: “Couple more questions about James Leighton.”

“All right.”

“The first responders found these on your boyfriend.”

Sam took the bump keys and tension wrench out of his pocket and laid them on the table with a clunk. That she didn’t react, or even look at them, seemed a tell.

He asked, “Do you know what these are?”

Bernadette gave them a glance. “Keys? And that other thing, what is it — a dental pick?”

“These are bump keys,” Sam said. “And this…” He pointed. “…is a tension wrench. Lock-picking tools. We figure Mr. Leighton used them to break into the Goldman house. You have to know your stuff to use these. So I was thinking, this might be something that Mr. Leighton does all the time.”

She viewed him with half-lidded eyes. “What are you asking for? An opinion?”

Sam flashed a half-smile. “Maybe a little more than that. You and Mr. Leighton have been dating for — what did you say back at the hospital — three years? A lasting relationship like that, I’d think you’d know if he broke into houses.”

Bernadette had never said how long she’d been dating Leighton — Sam just took a shot, hoping to make her think she’d given away more than she actually had. Might rattle her into admitting she knew Leighton was a thief.

But she said, coolly, “I didn’t say how long Jimmy and I’ve been dating. I haven’t really kept track. Two years, I’d say. And some start-and-stop before that.”

“Stop-and-start?”

Her shrug took its time. “When we first met, Jimmy was doing some things I didn’t approve of.”

“Like breaking and entering?”

“I’m not passing along conjecture, Detective.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Rumors. Things girlfriends would tell me. So maybe he was doing…what you said. But these last couple of years, he assured me he wasn’t doing anything sketchy anymore. And I believed him.” Another shrug came and went quicker. “But if you say he broke into that house, then I guess he wasn’t telling me the truth.”

Sam just looked at her — he chuckled, almost silently. The little Italian dish was pretty smart. Time to shift gears.

He said, “He may not have been breaking and entering in the sense you’d think.”

“What other sense is there?”

Sam opened a hand. “We’re thinking industrial espionage. The house Mr. Leighton broke into belonged to a professor who worked at MIT. Your boyfriend was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt when he was found. He’s no student, so maybe he was trying blend in with the university kids. Maybe Mr. Leighton was working for someone who’s after something the professor has in his house.”

She smiled a little. “I’m sorry, Detective, but industrial espionage is way above Jimmy’s pay grade….” She corrected herself. “Not the right choice of words, but I think you take my meaning.” Just a one-shoulder shrug this time. “I’m sorry. I don’t really know any more than that.”

Bernadette stood.

The girl was obviously trying to wrap this up and send Sam on his way. He rose as well, knowing he wouldn’t get much more out of this one. Southie girls knew how to handle cops.

“I’ll let you get back to work, Ms. Barberra. If you think of anything that might help us figure out who shot your boyfriend, do give me a call.” He handed Bernadette his card.

As Sam reached the door, a small firm hand gripped his arm. An urgency was in it that told him much more than this interview had.

She said, “You say that you think Jimmy broke into that house. Have you charged him with that yet?”

“Well, we can’t exactly read him his Miranda Rights when he’s in a coma now, can we? But, if he recovers and can’t explain what he was doing in that house, or why he was carrying burglary tools, we’ll charge him, all right. See you again, Miss Barberra.”

When the little elevator opened on the ground floor, Sam walked down a gloomy hall to see if there was a back entrance to the building. He opened the door and looked out. The small lot behind the building was EMPLOYEE PARKING — ALL OTHERS TOWED. The only way out of the lot was C Street, which intersected West Broadway.

Good.

If he parked on C Street, he could keep an eye on the parking lot.

He walked back through the building and out onto West Broadway, hoping he’d spooked her into going somewhere — anywhere — that might give him a lead.

He got in his car, found a place to park on C.

He watched.

This, he thought, is the boring part where they cut to commercial on TV.

***

Bernadette made an excuse with Mr. Zimmerman and before long was in her little Toyota, heading to Jimmy’s. Twice now she’d avoided giving the address of his apartment to that detective, but the cops were bound to find out soon where Jimmy lived. She needed to remove anything from his place that might get him in more trouble, even if he was in a coma with a head wound.

This was all Jimmy’s own damn fault! She squeezed back the tears.

The apartment was on West Third Street, a narrow little one-way street with parking on either side making it seem even more narrow. The four-story wood-frame structure — not the rathole she’d led the cops to believe — was modest but actually quite nice. She found a spot half a block down and soon was inside, climbing the stairs to Jimmy’s apartment.

Her keys still in her hand, she dropped them back in her purse as she noticed the door ajar. Jimmy would never leave his door unlocked, she thought, and backed warily away only to bump right into something.

Somebody.

A big Asian guy pushed her through the door and into Jimmy’s apartment, hard enough for her to stumble to the floor. The place had been thoroughly ransacked. The big guy yanked her to her feet and took her by a shoulder, hard. She squeezed her eyes shut and, when she opened them, a little Asian man was moving toward her through the mess of Jimmy’s living room with its cheap furnishings upended everywhere.

“Quan,” a high-pitched, gentle voice intoned, “please! Let us not hurt the lady.”

The small figure was in a natty gray suit and a pair of Jimmy Choo coarse glitter slippers. He flashed a toothy grin in the dark frame of a well-tended mustache and goatee. “She is going to help us. Aren’t you, dear?”

Bernadette didn’t say anything. The hand on her shoulder had eased up. But it still held her.

This was Deet. She had never met the notorious little gangster, but he had been pointed out by Jimmy several times when they were on dates in Southie.

Another brutish Asian man walked out of Jimmy’s bedroom and shook his head, then stood behind Deet, looking like a shaved bear in a nice suit.

“We have not been introduced,” Deet said. “Rude of Jimmy, as I’ve seen you in his company.” He briefly tipped his head in a mini-bow. “Đaminh Diệp. A business associate of your boyfriend. Bernadette Barberra, I believe?”

“Jimmy’s in the hospital,” Bernadette said, “where you put him.”

“The hospital?” Deet seemed genuinely surprised to hear this. “What hospital?”

“Massachusetts General.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Like you don’t know.”

“I do not. You assume wrongly. I came here looking for him.”

She sneered. “So, then — somebody else he owed a bunch of money shot him in the head?”

Deet’s eyes flashed. “Who shot him?”

Maybe he really doesn’t know! she thought.

“I told you,” she said, and wrested away from the brute behind her, giving him a glare, and taking a step closer to the gangster boss. “I figured you did. And he can’t talk, because he’s in a coma.”

Deet cupped his chin and propped his arm with his elbow. “Not dead. In a coma. And this is true?”

“It’s visiting hours. Find out for yourself.” She gave him the most awful smile she could manage.

“And how long till he comes out of this coma?”

“They don’t think he’s going to make it,” she said, though no one had told her as much.

Some long-ago part of her was afraid that pushing the truth like this might actually doom Jimmy. The nuns had etched such fears deep into her brain: Don’t say you didn’t do your homework because you were taking care of your sick mother. Because, if that is a lie, God may punish you and really make your mother sick.

Deet’s awful smile made a mockery of her attempt at one. “Jimmy owes me $5,000. I would not normally be so kind as to grant an extension. But under these sad circumstances, I feel pity.”

“Oh?”

“He now owes me $7,500 — the price of that extension. You can pay Jimmy’s debt for him and then he will have no further obligation.”

She hardened her expression. “Jimmy’s debts are Jimmy’s business.”

Deet assumed his cupped-chin thoughtful pose again. “You are his woman. He is your man. Do you deny that?”

“If I did,” she said defiantly, “would it do any good?”

“None. You will pay Jimmy’s debt or you will pay the same price Jimmy would for reneging.”

“And what’s that?” Her chin was up but the rest of her was trembling.

“The ultimate price, of course! You have one week.”

He signaled his thugs and they lumbered out while he followed with a certain liquid grace, leaving the door half-open, no need for the final threat of a slam.

Bernadette stood frozen in shock. Then, like a sleepwalker, she roamed the little living room, turning furniture right side up until her body began to quake and a sob came choking out of her and she collapsed onto Jimmy’s little sofa and burst into tears.

***

Sam sat up as he saw Deet and his henchmen exit the apartment building and climb into a black BMW — they must’ve been inside before he arrived!

He’d arrested that dangerous little S.O.B. a couple of times working Homicide in Boston. The charges never stuck; the gangster’s lawyers always sprung him within days, sometimes hours.

Alarmed for Bernadette, the detective got out of the unmarked Crown Vic and crossed through a chill breeze to the apartment building, where he’d seen Bernadette use a key to get in. So much for not knowing where her boyfriend lived. He was on the stoop, ready to buzz for the super, when another tenant came out, and Sam shouldered in, saying, “Police.”

Inside, he looked at the mailboxes, all but one labeled.

Jimmy’s place, he thought, and he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. He could hear a woman sobbing through the half-open door — Bernadette? He peeked in and confirmed as much — she was on a little couch.

She got up the moment she saw him and, as he came in, rushed to his arms, still sobbing.

He held her out by the elbows, gently. “Are you hurt?”

She swallowed and shook her head.

“This is about those charming Vietnamese gangbangers I saw leaving this place, right?”

She nodded, swallowed again.

“Please. Sit down.”

She did, as he closed the door and looked around. About half the room was topsy-turvy and the rest appeared to have been put right, but clumsily. If there was anything here that might be helpful, the gangbangers likely already took it.

He looked around and found a box of tissues, brought it back and gave it to her. Sat beside her. Risked putting a hand on her shoulder.

Bernadette blew her nose, obviously embarrassed she’d let her emotions get the better of her. “I didn’t tell you everything I know,” she admitted.

“Kinda guessed that,” Sam said, glancing around. “Jimmy’s pad, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Funny thing. People got no use for the police till the shit hits the fan. I’m guessing it just did.”

“That man, Đaminh Diệp? He threatened me. I mean, really threatened me. He said Jimmy owed him money and now, because Jimmy’s in the hospital, I owe him that money. Was $5,000 but now it’s $7,500. And if I don’t pay, he says he’ll kill me.”

“Did he actually say he would kill you?” Sam was looking for a charge that might stick.

“In so many words — I’ll pay the ‘ultimate price,’ he said. Same price as Jimmy.”

“Not going to happen. We’ll protect you. He makes threats. I keep promises.”

Sam locked the door as he ushered her out. He would come back later and really give the place a look, then bring forensics in.

As he walked Bernadette out to her car — this girl who’d had her life threatened — he was working hard not to smile.

At last he had something that made some sense — a notorious Vietnamese gangster had either fingered Jimmy for a shooting or shot the thief himself.

The motive was right there: Jimmy owed Deet money. Simple. Only…did it have anything to do with Goldman, or had the physicist been just a random robbery victim?

And if so, what scenario put a Vietnamese shooter in that basement on Cherry Street?

 

Copyright © 2021 Dave Thomas & Max Allan Collins. All rights reserved.

More: Q&A with Max Allan Collins on Masquerade for Murder

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