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Lawrence Sanders

The Fourth Deadly Sin

The November sky over Manhattan was chain mail, raveling into steely rain. A black night with coughs of thunder, lightning stabs that made abrupt days. Dr. Simon Ellerbee, standing at his office window, peered out to look at life on the street below. He saw only the reflection of his own haunted face.

He could not have said how it started, or why. He, who had always been so certain, now buffeted and trembling… All hearts have dark corners, where the death of a loved one is occasionally wished, laughter offends, and even beauty becomes a rebuke.

He turned back to his desk. It was strewn with files and tape cassettes: records of his analyses. He stared at that litter of fears, angers, passions, dreads. Now his own life belonged there, part of the untidiness, where once it had been ordered and serene.

He stalked about, hands thrust deep into pockets, head bowed. He pondered his predicament and dwindling choices.

Mordant thought: How does one seek "professional help" when one is a professional?

The soul longs for purity, but we are all hungry for the spiced and exotic. Evil is just a word, and what no one sees, no one knows. Unless God truly is a busybody.

He lay full-length on the couch some of his patients insisted on using, though he thought this classic prop of psychiatry was flimflam and often counterproductive. But there he was, stretched out tautly, trying to still his churning thoughts and succeeding no better than all the agitated who had occupied that same procrustean bed.

Groaning, he rose from the couch to resume his pacing. He paused again to stare through the front window. He saw only a rain-whipped darkness.

The problem, he decided, was learning to acknowledge uncertainty. He, the most rational of men, must adjust to the variableness of a world in which nothing is sure, and the chuckles belong to chance and accident.

There could be satisfaction in living with that-fumbling toward a dimly glimpsed end. For if that isn't art, what is?

The downstairs bell rang three times-the agreed-upon signal for all late night visitors. He started, then hurried into the receptionist's office to press the buzzer unlocking the entrance from the street. He then unchained and unbolted the door leading from the office suite to the corridor.

He ducked into the bathroom to look in the mirror, adjust his tie, smooth his sandy hair with damp palms. He came back to stand before the outer door and greet his guest with a smile.

But when the door opened, and he saw who it was, he made a thick, strangled sound deep in his throat. His hands flew to cover his face and hide his dismay. He turned away, shoulders slumping.

The first heavy blow landed high on the crown of his head.

It sent him stumbling forward, knees buckling. A second blow put him down, biting at the thick pile carpeting.

The weapon continued to rise and fall, crushing his skull.

But by that time Dr. Simon Ellerbee was dead, all dreams gone, doubts fled, all questions answered.

By Monday morning the sky had been rinsed; a casaba sun loomed; and pedestrians strode with opened coats flapping. A chill breeze nipped, but New York had the lift of early winter, with stores preparing for Christmas, and street vendors hawking hot pretzels and roasted chestnuts.

Former Chief of Detectives Edward X. Delaney sensed the acceleration.

The city, his city, was moving faster, tempo changing from andante to con anima. The scent of money was in the air. It was the spending season-and if the boosters didn't make it in the next six weeks, they never would.

He lumbered down Second Avenue, heavy overcoat hanging from his machine-gunner's shoulders. Hard homburg set solidly, squarely, atop his head. Big, flat feet encased in ankle-high shoes of black kangaroo leather. A serious man who looked more like a monsignor than an ex-cop.

Except that cops are never ex-.

The sharp weather delighted him, and so did the food shops opening so rapidly in Manhattan. Every day seemed to bring a new Korean greengrocer, a French patisserie, a Japanese take-out. And good stuff, too-delicate mushrooms, tangy fruits, spicy meats.

And the breads! That's what Edward X. Delaney appreciated most. He suffered, as his wife, Monica, said, from "sandwich senility," and this sudden bonanza of freshly baked breads was a challenge to his inventiveness.

Pita, brioche, muffins, light challah and heavy pumpernickel. Loaves no larger than your fist, and loaves of coarse German rye as big as a five-inch shell. Flaky stuff that dissolved on the tongue, and some grainy doughs that hit the stomach with a thud.

He stopped in a half-dozen shops, buying this and that, filling his net shopping bag. Then, fearful of his wife's reaction to his spree, he trundled his way homeward. He had a vision of something new: smoked chub tucked into a split croissant-with maybe a thin slice of Vidalia onion and a dab of mayonnaise, for fun.

This hunched, ponderous man, weighty shoes thumping the pavement, seemed to look at nothing, but he saw everything. As he passed the 251st Precinct house-his old precinct-and came to his brownstone, he noted the unmarked black Buick illegally parked in front. Two uniformed cops in the front seat.

They glanced at him without interest.

Monica was perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, going through her recipe file.

"You have a visitor," she said.

"Ivar," he said. "I saw his car. Where'd you put him?"

"In the study. I offered a drink or coffee, but he didn't want anything.

Said he'd wait for you."

"He might have called first," Delaney grumbled, hoisting his shopping bag onto the counter.

"What's all that stuff?" she demanded.

"Odds and ends. Little things."

She leaned forward to sniff. "Phew! What's that smell?"

"Maybe the blood sausage."

"Blood sausage? Yuck!"

"Don't knock it unless you've tried it."

He bent to kiss the back of her neck. "Put this stuff away, will you, han?

I'll go in and see what Ivar wants."

"How do you know he wants anything?"

"He didn't come by just to say hello-that I know."

He hung his hat and coat in the hall closet, then went through the living room to the study at the rear of the house.

He opened and closed the door quietly, and for a moment thought that First Deputy Commissioner Ivar Thorsen might be dozing.

"Ivar," Delaney said loudly, "good to see you."

The Deputy-known in the Department as the "Admiral'-opened his eyes and rose from the club chair alongside the desk. He smiled wanly and held out his hand.

"Edward," he said, "you're looking well."

"I wish I could say the same about you," Delaney said, eyeing the other man critically. "You look like something the cat dragged in."

"I suppose," Thorsen said, sighing. "You know what it's like downtown, and I haven't been sleeping all that much lately."

"Take a glass of stout or port before you go to bed. Best thing in the world for insomnia. And speaking of the old nasty-it's past noon, and you could use some plasma."

"Thank you, Edward," Thorsen said gratefully. "A small scotch would do me fine."

Delaney brought two glasses and a bottle of Glenfiddich from the cellarette. He sat in the swivel chair behind his desk and poured them both tots of the single malt. They tinked glass rims and sipped.

"Ahh," the Admiral said, settling into his armchair. "I could get hooked on this."

He was a neat, precise man. Fine, silvery hair was brushed sideways.

Ice-blue eyes pierced the world from under white brows. Ordinarily he had a baby's complexion and a sharp nose and jaw that could have been snipped from sheet metal.

But now there were stress lines, sags, pouches.

"Monica had lunch with Karen the other day," Delaney mentioned. "Said she's looking fine."

"What?" Thorsen said, looking up distractedly.

"Karen," Delaney said gently. "Your wife."

"Oh… yes," Thorsen said with a confused laugh. "I'm -sorry; I wasn't listening."