38

“Where is my money, Victor?” said Gregor Trocek.

The question was rhetorical, I supposed, what with me flopped on my back and the point of Sandro’s switchblade digging into the soft flesh beneath the point of my jaw. If I had tried to answer, my flapping jaw would have been impaled like a speared fish. So I kept quiet as Gregor wandered around my apartment, raising his hands in mock exasperation.

“Where could it be? Where, where, where? What?” he said, turning to stare right down at my face. “No answer for me?”

I guess the question wasn’t so rhetorical after all.

“I don’t have it,” I tried saying through gritted teeth, my words sounding less like English than a Neanderthaloid grunt.

“But, Victor, how can I believe anything you say?”

“I’m telling the truth,” I tried again.

“Speak more clearly, please,” said Gregor. “I can barely understand a word.”

“There’s a knife.”

“Yes, I’ve had enough, enough of your lies, your thievery, the baubles in your apartment.” He walked up to the flat-screen television bolted onto my wall. “Nice. High def?”

“Yes,” I said.

“It is quite gratifying to know my money paid for such quality merchandise. I would have hated for it to be wasted on junk.”

“I didn’t buy it with your money.”

“What? I still can’t understand you. Maybe a little more persuasion will clarify your words. Sandro, cut off his nipple.”

This wasn’t going well. This wasn’t going well at all.

When I realized that it was Gregor and Sandro coming through my door instead of two cops, I figured I was in trouble, and I became ever more certain when Sandro, instead of hesitating tastefully once inside, charged right at me while Gregor locked the door behind them both.

I grappled to my feet. Sandro socked me in the eye with a forearm shiver. I reeled from the blow and slammed into the floor.

Swish-click.

And just like that, Sandro was on top of me, the point of his switchblade pricking my flesh.

That was bad enough, that was enough to swell my eye and roil my stomach and leave me clenching my teeth to stop from being impaled. But now, with a simple imperative from Gregor Trocek, it was getting far, far worse.

Sandro began undressing me with his knife.

“Such an ugly tie,” he said as he looped the blade between the knot of my loose red tie and my shirt. With a jerk of his wrist, the tie was sliced in two.

I tried to scuttle backward, but Sandro grabbed my shirt.

“And now these annoying buttons,” he said.

A flick of the knife and a button flew off. Flick went another.

I let out an involuntary wail of fear.

Flick, flick, flick. The front of my shirt drifted open.

I tried again to get away, but he grabbed my T-shirt, pulled me forward, and in a quick move plunged the knife into the fabric, ripping upward with the blade until the metal edge snapped by my cheek and nicked my ear. As he jerked the shirt once more, it ripped in two, leaving my chest bared.

I stared up at Sandro’s face as he grabbed my hair with one hand and pointed his knife at my chest with the other. His eyes were bright, his lips twisted somewhere between anger and delirium. He was enjoying this entirely too much. Yet another lesson that I was not made for prison.

“Oh, look,” said Sandro. “A tattoo. Is that your lover’s name? Maybe I deal with her after I deal with you.”

“She’s already dead,” I said.

“Too bad.”

On the coffee table, my cell phone rang. Sandro stopped and turned his face toward it. It rang, rang again, and then went to voice mail.

“Enough of your games, Sandro,” said Gregor, standing to the side of us, his hands behind his back as if examining nothing more alarming than a mediocre piece of art. “Make your mark.”

“Can I take the tattoo?”

“As you please,” said Gregor.

“Gracias,” said Sandro as he used the point of the knife to painfully scrape a wide circle around my left nipple, which included the tattoo. I tried to pull away, but Sandro held me tight as he worked. Blood began rising through the slices, welling and dripping down my chest, across the shallows of my abdomen.

“What is he doing?” I yelled.

“Marking where he will slice when he cuts off nipple. He needs be sure there is enough flesh, so after shrinking in smoke, it will still look like something.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Sandro saves pieces he cuts off. He has quite lively collection. Fingers. Ears. The nipples dry nicely with smoke and turn same brown as tobacco.”

I fought to catch my breath. “Sick” was the only word I could grunt out.

“Agreed, but I don’t value Sandro for his sanity. We could end this right now, Victor. You could emerge with your measly chest intact, right now. If you are ready to tell me what I need to know.”

“We made a deal,” I whined as I stared at the blood. “We had an arrangement. Twelve point five percent.”

“That was before I learned that you have it all. All is better than an eighth in everything but shrapnel.”

“I don’t… No… I don’t have… your money.”

“Ah, Victor, you are making Sandro very happy.”

The knife dipped down, the edge pressed into the bloody circle.

“But I know who does,” I said hastily as I tried again to pull away. “I know who has it.”

Gregor tapped Sandro on the shoulder. Sandro dug the knife in deeper and then, with a sigh, lifted it from my chest. He wiped it on my pant leg, one side, then the other, before snapping it closed and rising to his feet.

I shut my eyes, opened them again. The pain was still there, along with the blood. I touched the wound, the red smeared sickly.

“Get up now,” said Gregor. “No need to wallow.”

I pushed myself to a sitting position and then stood, un-steadily. My chest burned, my stomach shifted, a line of vomit climbed up my throat and burned its way down again. I staggered a bit before collapsing onto the pleather sofa. I put the remnants of my T-shirt against the bleeding wound and then modestly clutched my buttonless shirt closed. I might have sobbed.

My cell phone rang again. Derek, I assumed, calling to tell me where Julia had gone, calling to read to me my future.

“You want to pick that up?” said Gregor.

“No,” I said, and the truth was that I really didn’t. In the midst of the blood and the torture, I didn’t need another blow.

“Okay, Victor. Now tell me what you know.”

My breathing was crazed with fear, like a raccoon on the run. I took a moment to try to get it under control.

“Come, come,” said Gregor. “Don’t leave me hanging.”

“Remember how we were on the track of Miles Cave?” I managed to say. “Well, he doesn’t exist.”

“Really,” said Gregor. “No Miles Cave. Interesting. He’s ghost, but ghost who writes letters.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and began to read in his dark Russian voice. “‘Dear Wren, As our recent conversations have not gone well, and you have lately been refusing to take my calls, I am having this letter hand-delivered in hopes – ’”

“It’s a fake,” I said.

“But of course you would say that. It has your address. And it looks like your signature. And I have it on good authority that you wrote it.”

“Whose authority?”

“Someone I trust.”

“He’s lying.”

“It’s not a he.”

“Who? Julia?”

“Victor. Let us start again. Where is my money?”

“I don’t have it. And I didn’t write that letter. I am being framed. By the very person who does have the money.”

“So talk.”

“Wren Denniston was broke. He saw a way of getting out of the Inner Circle disaster with some money in his pocket by playing his old business associate for a sucker. So he concocted a way for you to invest with an imaginary partner. He took your cash and credited the investment in the books, but he never put the cash in the bank. Instead he gave it to someone to hide, in case you or the feds came looking for it. Then, later, he credited the withdrawal and, wallah, one point seven million in cash ready to soften his fall. His golden parachute.”

“So Wren has my money.”

“He did, but he was murdered, murdered for reasons that had nothing to do with the money. By an addict named Terrence Tipton, whom Julia has been in love with since high school. But the murder left the cash with the person Wren had hidden it with. The person who had been involved with Wren in the plan, the person who had drafted up the partnership agreement between you and the fictional Miles Cave. When you showed me the agreement, I thought I recognized the author.”

“And you didn’t tell me? I am hurt.”

“I wanted to be sure.”

“And are you?”

“Yes.”

“So, Victor, who is this man who conspired with Wren, who took advantage of his murder to steal my money, and then who framed you? Who is this mastermind of crime?”

“You’re not going to believe this.”

“You better hope that I do.”

And just as I was about to tell him, there was a scrape of feet at my door.

Knock, knock.

Gregor’s head whipped around. Sandro bolted to standing as he straightened his arm. Swish-click.

I clutched my shirt tighter.

“Victor Carl,” came a voice I recognized from the other side. “This is the police. Open the door. We have a warrant.”

Click-swish. Sandro put his hand in his pocket.

Gregor turned his face from the door, grabbed hold of my head with both hands, pulled me close enough so I could smell the cumin on his breath. “Who?” he said, quietly but urgently.

I thought it through as quickly as I could, thought of Sandro and his dancing knife, thought of what fun he would have. I thought of it all, and then I let the lesser angels of my nature have their way. Sure, why not, and didn’t he deserve to be the quarry that got Gregor off my back? But if it was going to work, if a single name was going to send Gregor off to do his part on this brutal night, I needed him to trust me. How could I get Gregor to trust me with two cops banging down the door? How indeed?

“Twenty-five percent,” I said.

“You’re being greedy,” said Gregor. “We had deal.”

“That was before you sliced up my chest like a London broil.”

“Fifteen.”

“Twenty.”

Another knock.

“Yes, fine,” said Gregor. “Agreed. Who?”

“Clarence,” I said as I jerked my head out of his grip and stood up, clutched my now-bloody shirt tight. “Clarence Swift.”

“No. Can’t be.”

“Yes it can,” I said. “That little eel has it stashed away, mark my word. Now, if you boys don’t mind, I need to talk to my friends in the constabulary.”

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