Thelma Goodnight continued to pack--running around the loft apartment, emptying dozens of closets, cabinets, dressers and armoires--armload after armload of garments and accessories. All white. Not a stitch of any other color. I hadn't seen so much white since that time I stumbled into a Ku Klux Klan convention in Biloxi. Boy, did I stick out like a sore thumb.
"You have some sort of white fetish?" I asked. I wondered if she'd rise to the innuendo.
"I'm colorblind," she explained, in all innocence. "If I don't stick to one color, I'm liable to leave the house looking like a roll of Lifesavers."
"Really?" I thumbed the lapel of my camelhair overcoat. "You don't know the color of the coat I'm wearing?"
Without looking, she said, "Some shade of grey. Just like all roses. And all the lines on subway maps. Needless to say, I don't ride the subway. I'd end up in Staten Island." She mock-shivered.
I'd never considered the practical ramifications of colorblindness before. Grey roses, and incomprehensible subway maps. Not to mention the odd catastrophic wardrobe faux pas. "Have you always been colorblind? I mean, have you truly never seen the red of a rose?"
She looked up from her packing. "Before the blast, my eyesight was perfect. So, I remember red, for all the good it does me. But even those memories are fading to grey. My Crayola box holds sixty-four shades of grey. And I think that would have made a marvelous title for a novel."
Blast? "What blast?"
"Didn't Aldene Simms tell you? I used to work for a certain nameless government agency."
I waited for her to continue.
"I defused, and, on occasion," she grinned her demented Chiclets, "detonated bombs for a living."
"And, one day, I snipped the wrong color wire. Fortunately, the bomb was more flash than bang. I sustained a concussion . . . and lost my interest in color TV."
I let that sink in for a moment. "Let me get this straight. When you could see colors, you snipped the wrong one--"
"The cosmos loves irony, Otis. I snipped one blue wire when I should have snipped red. Now, I'm demoted to black and white. You gotta love the poetic justice."
I didn't know what to say, but that rarely stops me. "I suppose it could have been worse."
She placed her hands on her hips. Her face turned to stone. "Et tu, Otis? What's next? You going to tell me you're sorry for my loss? If you're going to spout platitudes, get out of here, and run for office." She went back to packing. Only now, it looked more like cramming.
I waited a few seconds, then said, "You alleged Hy Runderstack is still alive."
She crammed harder. "I 'alleged' nothing, Counselor."
Suddenly, this interview had turned into a bomb disposal situation. I desperately wanted to defuse rather than detonate, but, as I faced the wires, I felt as colorblind as she.
"I'm sorry, Thelma. I didn't mean to come across as an unfeeling bastard. Your story about the blast moved me out of my comfort zone. When that happens, I circuit-break into some kind of default mode. Auto-pilot, you know? I'm back on-line now, and I apologize."
She didn't look at me, but she resumed folding instead of stuffing. I took that as a hopeful sign.
"Yes, Hy Rundertack is alive. But, before you ask, no, I can't prove it in a court of law."
"So, you haven't seen him since his alleged death."
She stared at me. If looks could kill, this one was laced with Semtex.
I jumped in with a flak jacket and damage control. "No, of course, you haven't." Since I didn't disintegrate in my wingtips, I figured I'd snipped the right wire. "What else can you tell me?"
She latched the last of the white suitcases. "This affair has nothing to do with Demerest or those awful WaSesame Rice Crackers. Your client just whistled his way into a long-brewing storm between the two reigning King Crackers--Runderstack and Crofton."
Where had I heard the name Crofton before?
She read the confusion on my face. "Sir Nigel Crofton? Croft Foods, International?"
Right! Tony Bland had mentioned Sir Nigel.
"Bad blood between Runderstack and Crofton?"
She favored me with one of her jumble-toothed smiles. "You're not very good at what you do, are you?" Before I could defend myself, she said, "Runderstack and Crofton make Hatfield and McCoy look like Laurel and Hardy."
This first thing a defense attorney learns is,
everyone knows more than you do . . .
and, they like it that way. - Otis Brown
Otis wasn't sure what he wanted most: to see Telma Goodnight, or hear what she knew about the missing Semtex. He decided he didn't have to decide.
As he dodged oblivious cell phone gabbers along Second Avenue, he mentally flipped through his case notes once again. His client, Fred Demerest, a corporate chef at Page & Spine International Headquarters and Gift Shop was rotting in Rikers for allegedly having blown Hy Runderstack, The Cracker King, to smithereens. No doubt his client had motive--Runderstack had stolen Demerest's recipe for WaSesames Rice Crackers . . . evidently, every caterer's new best friend. Contrary to popular opinion, there's lots of cabbage in crackers.
Aside from that vexing motive, Demerest also had opportunity. He'd visited Runderstack's penthouse just hours before the blast. Motive. Opportunity. In a normal investigation, all that remained to prove was means. That's why Otis needed to speak with Telma Goodnight again. If anyone would know the ins and outs of Semtex, it would be Thelma. If he could prove, within a shadow of doubt, Demerest had neither the means to acquire the explosive, nor the expertise to exploit it, that might be enough to gain an acquittal. But when a man's life swings in the balance, 'might' is not a very comforting word.
He let these thoughts play over and over in his head. But he couldn't shake the notion he might be better off basing his defense on a totally different strategy.
No identifiable part of Hy Runderstack's body was ever found in the rubble. DNA, sure. But the man had lived in that apartment for decades. You'd have to expect his DNA to be smeared like mayo on a BLT. But nothing else. Not so much as a toenail. The prosecution was bound to chalk that up to some cockamamie theory like 'Instantaneous Combustion'. Atomization. Was something like that even possible? Otis wasn't so sure. Telma would know.
Of course, there was always the 'Perry Mason Defense'. If you read Erle Stanley Gardner's mysteries carefully, you'll realize Attorney Mason never tried to prove his client innocent. Instead, his strategy was always to prove someone else guilty. A nifty trick--and a lot easier to pull off when the guy concocting the plot is on your side. Unfortunately, Otis didn't have Erle Stanley Gardner pulling the strings for him. He had Marci Toots and Raymond 'Peanut' Brittle. At that moment, Otis would have given his left testicle to be a foolproof fictional character. Casanova came to mind.
Telma Goodnight was in the process of packing several suitcases.
"Going somewhere?" I asked.
She didn't stop cramming white clothes into white suitcases. "You must be psychic."
Otis wondered why an ebony-black woman would dress exclusively in white. Because she wears it well, Numbnuts. "So, what happened?"
"Nothing. Yet. And that's the way I like it." She snapped the catches on one suitcase, and moved on to the next.
Otis took a few steps deeper into the room. "This has something to do with the Runderstack bombing, doesn't?"
She straightened up, took a deep breath. "Right now, it has more to do with me and my aversion to Semtex."
"Are you referring to the Semtex that went missing last July."
"Actually, I'm allergic to all Semtex, and those who use it. But, yes, it's that particular batch that has me seeking an alternative residence."
Otis tossed a spitball. "I have a couch I'm not currently sleeping on."
She grinned her chaotic smile. "Under other circumstances, Otis, I might consider your offer."
"What's wrong with these circumstances?"
Again, she took a deep breath. "I'm guessing you're in as much danger as I am. That's why I called you. Consider yourself warned."
Otis decided to process the warning later. "You know who stole the Semtex that killed Hy Runderstack?"
"Worse. I know who stole the Semtex that didn't kill Hy Runderstack."
"Let me get this straight. You mean Hy Runderstack is alive?"
She addressed me as if I were a slow child. "And dangerous."
Life has a way of running away just a tick faster than one can chase. -- Otis Browne
The trial date was fast approaching and all I had in my arsenal was a non-existent corpse and an elusive theory. Not exactly an iron-clad case for the defense.
I remained convinced my client was innocent. In a way, that's a defense attorney's worst nightmare. Sure, you fight just as hard for the scumbags who did it, but you actually worry about those rare birds who might really be wrongly accused. And you can usually spot the difference between the two.
I was stinking up Nikki's posh midtown office with my nervous perspiration when Tony Bland knocked on the jamb.
I motioned him to take a seat. "Please, tell me you've found the smoking gun."
He sat with grunt. I'm guessing the chair wasn't thrilled, either. "No guns, smoking, or otherwise."
"What? You came all the way up here to thumb your nose at me?"
He removed a notepad from his pocket. "Semtex," he said.
"God bless you," I answered and pushed a box of tissues his way.
"Very funny. Remind me to invite you to my funeral. Comedy relief is important at all solemn occasions regarding death and the bereaved." He paused a beat to change the tone. "Listen, Semtex is the explosive that made Runderstack's penthouse go kerflooey. Seems a fifty-pound block of that stuff went missing from an upstate armory last July."
This sounded promising. "Can it be traced? Was it the same Semtex used in the Runderstack bombing?"
"Preliminary chemical analysis gives it an eighty-percent probability. More testing is ongoing, but a perfect match is unlikely."
I made a note to call Telma Goodnight. Semtex might be right up her alley. Besides, her crooked smile beguiled me. "Can we narrow down the timeframe in which the stuff went missing? If Fred Demerest has a hermetic alibi, it can't hurt."
Bland consulted his notebook. "July 27th or 28th. Seems the armory experienced a partial power outage. Knocked out specific security systems without setting off any of the normal alarms. When the 'lights' eventually came back on, the Semtex was in the wind."
"Anything else missing? Automatic weapons? RPGs? Snickers Bars?"
"Just the Semtex."
"Sounds like a sophisticated operation. Single-minded."
Bland nodded. "Not your basic smash and grab."
I underlined Telma Goodnight's name on my note pad. "The Feds have any leads on the thieves?"
Bland scowled. "Feds don't talk to guys in shiny suits, Otis. Besides, given their current state of paranoia, Islamic Terrorism is the answer to every question."
I tapped my fingers on the desk. "What are your thoughts?"
"Terrorists need funding, too. Shaving off five pounds for profit still leaves them with forty-five pounds for miscellaneous mayhem."
The new info helped, but I still couldn't spring the trap door to free my client. "If I can separate Fred Demerest from the missing Semtex, maybe I can separate him from the explosion."
"Worth a try. Meanwhile, there's still forty-five pounds of Semtex to be accounted for."
I drew a second line beneath Telma Goodnight's name. "One disaster at time, Tony. One at a time."
She answered before the second ring. "What took you so long, Otis?"
I took a deep breath. "You knew about the missing Semtex."
"You're still playing catch-up."
"Well, catch me up."
"Not over the phone. Come."
Every investigation hinges on a single question.
Once the case is cleared, you might be able to recognize it.
- Otis Browne