Now, the article breathlessly announced, the remains found the previous day—“buried in raw sewage” in Humboldt Kill and “locked in a bony embrace” with another skeleton—had been identified as Pamela Wisher’s. The second skeleton remained unidentified. An accompanying photo showed Wisher’s boyfriend, the young Viscount Adair, sitting on the curb in front of the Platypus Lounge with his head in his hands, minutes after learning of her grisly death. The police were, of course, “taking vigorous action.” Smithback closed with several man-on-the-street quotations of the “I hope they fry the bastard who did this” variety.
She lowered the paper, thinking of the grainy face of Pamela Wisher staring out at her from the numerous posters. She deserved a better fate than becoming New York’s big story of the summer.
The shrill sound of the phone again interrupted Margo’s thoughts. She glanced over at her terminal, pleased to see that the program had finished at last. Might as well answer it, she thought; she’d have to get this lecture over with sooner or later.
“This is Margo Green,” she said.
“Dr. Green?” came the voice. “About time.”
The thick Queens accent was distantly familiar, like a half-forgotten dream. Gruff, authoritarian. Margo searched her memory for the face belonging to the voice on the other end of the phone.
…All we can say is that a body has been found on the premises, under circumstances we are currently investigating…
She sat back in surprise.
“Lieutenant D’Agosta?” she asked.
“We need you in the Forensic Anthropology lab,” D’Agosta said. “Right away, please.”
“Can I ask—?”
“You may not. Sorry. Whatever you’re doing, forget it and come downstairs.” The line went dead with a sharp click.
Margo held the phone away from her face, looking at the mouthpiece as if waiting for further explanation. Then she opened her carryall and replaced the Post—carefully covering a small semiautomatic pistol in the process—pushed the chair away from the computer, and stepped quickly out of her office.
= 4 =
BILL SMITHBACK STROLLED nonchalantly past the grand facade of Nine Central Park South, a stately McKim, Mead, and White building of brick and carved limestone. A brace of doormen stood beneath the gold-trimmed awning that stretched to the curb. He could see a variety of other service people standing at attention inside the opulent lobby. As he’d feared, it was one of those ridiculously overstaffed parkfront apartment buildings. This was going to be tough. Very tough.
He turned the corner of Sixth Avenue and paused, considering how best to proceed. He felt in the outside pocket of his sports jacket, locating the record button of his microcassette recorder. He could turn it on unobtrusively when the time came. He glanced at his image, reflected among countless Italian shoes in a nearby shop window: he was the very model of preppiedom, or as near as his wardrobe would permit. He took a deep breath and returned around the corner, walking with confident step toward the cream-colored awning. The closer of the two uniformed doormen gazed at him imperturbably, one gloved hand on the great brass handle of the door.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Wisher,” Smithback said.
“Name, please?” the man asked in a monotone.
“A friend of Pamela’s.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said, unmoving, “but Mrs. Wisher is not receiving any visitors.”
Smithback thought quickly. The doorman had asked who was calling before telling him this. That meant Mrs. Wisher was expecting someone.
“If you must know, it’s about this morning’s appointment,” Smithback said. “I’m afraid there’s been a change. Could you ring her for me?”
The doorman hesitated a moment, then opened the door, leading Smithback across the gleaming marble floor. The journalist looked around. The concierge, a very old and very gaunt-looking man, was standing behind a bronze construction that looked more fortress than front desk. At the back of the lobby, a security guard sat behind a Louis XVI table. An elevator operator stood beside him, legs slightly apart, hands folded across his belt.
“This gentleman is calling on Mrs. Wisher,” the doorman said to the concierge.
The concierge gazed down at him from his marble pillbox. “Yes?”
Smithback took a deep breath. At least, he’d broached the lobby. “It’s about the appointment she’s expecting. There’s been a change.”
The concierge paused a moment, his hooded eyes checking out Smithback’s shoes, running up his sport coat, examining his haircut. Smithback waited, silently chafing under the examination, hoping he’d captured the look of an earnest young man from a well-to-do family.
“Who may I say is calling?” the concierge rasped.
“A friend of the family will do.”
The concierge waited, staring at him.
“Bill Smithback,” he added quickly. Mrs. Wisher, he was certain, did not read the New York Post.
The concierge looked down at something that was spread in front of him. “What about the eleven o’clock appointment?” he asked.
“They sent me instead,” Smithback replied, suddenly glad that it was 10:32 A.M.
The concierge turned around and disappeared into a small office. He came out again sixty seconds later. “Please pick up the house telephone on the table beside you,” he said.
Smithback held the receiver to his ear.
“What? Did George cancel?” said a small, crisp, expensive voice.
“Mrs. Wisher, may I come up and speak with you about Pamela?”
There was a silence. “Who is this?” the voice asked.
There was another silence, longer this time. Smithback continued. “I have something very important, some information about your daughter’s death, that I am sure the police haven’t told you. I feel sure you would want to know—”
The voice broke in. “Yes, yes, I’m sure you do.”
“Wait—” Smithback said, his mind racing again.
There was a silence.
He heard a click. The woman had hung up.
Well, Smithback thought, he had given it his best shot. Maybe he could wait outside, on a park bench across the street, on the chance she’d emerge later in the day. But even as he considered this, Smithback knew that Mrs. Wisher would not be leaving her elegant fastness for the foreseeable future.
A phone rang at the concierge’s elbow. Mrs. Wisher, no doubt. Eager to avoid a bum’s rush, Smithback turned and started walking quickly out of the lobby.
“Mr. Smithback!” the concierge called loudly.
Smithback turned. This was the part he hated.
The concierge gazed at him expressionlessly, telephone at his ear. “The elevator is over there.”
“Elevator?” Smithback asked.
The concierge nodded. “Eighteenth floor.”
The elevator operator slid open first the brass cage, then the heavy oak doors, depositing Smithback directly into a peach-colored foyer crammed top to bottom with flower arrangements. A side table was overflowing with sympathy cards, including a fresh stack that had not been opened. At the far end of the silent room, a set of French doors stood ajar. Smithback walked toward them slowly.
Beyond the doors lay a large drawing room. Empire sofas and chaise longues were placed at neat symmetric angles on the dense carpet. Along the far wall stood a series of tall windows. Smithback knew that, when open, they would afford a spectacular view of Central Park. But now they were tightly closed and shuttered, throwing the tastefully appointed space into heavy gloom.