Dark in death, p.32
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       Dark in Death, p.32
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         Part #46 of In Death series by J. D. Robb

  “She fits. Wealthy widow, late sixties, one son, one daughter. Big charitable foundation—family run—lots of committees and causes, and plenty of fancy-dress functions. She lives in a three-level penthouse rather than a freestanding mansion like the book vic, but three levels equals stairs. She fits.”

  “That’s good work by Callendar,” Peabody commented.

  “Yeah, it is. If we connect Berkle to Smith, we’ll set things up. Berkle contacts Smith. Needs some alterations, and fast. If she’s already got some on the slate, we get Berkle to move up the appointment.”

  “And if she’s not connected?” Roarke asked.

  “Berkle did some hefty shopping at Dobb’s, used Smith as her fitter. Berkle fits the fictional vic profile. They’re going to connect. Dobb’s is a long trip from the Upper East. Why go there to shop?”

  “I wondered that,” Peabody said from the back—between sips of hot chocolate. “I played around some. It turns out her sister-in-law lives in Brooklyn. They’re pretty tight. They probably go together, have lunch, that kind of thing. Girl day.”

  “She’s sixty-eight.”

  “A girl’s a girl,” Peabody said.

  Eve looked at Roarke. “Is she a sensible, steady sort of girl?”

  “I don’t know her particularly well, but my impression is yes. She has a reputation for being no-nonsense when it comes to business, and generous in her causes.”

  “Good. Steady would be good.”

  They pulled up to a pale gold tower, one that boasted a pair of doormen in dignified gray-and-silver livery.

  Eve stepped out even as they marched, in tandem, toward the offending DLE.

  “NYPSD.” She whipped out her badge. “That’s my ride, and it stays where it is.”

  “Miss—” At her fierce stare, the doorman on the left looked at her badge again. “Lieutenant,” he wisely corrected. “If you could use our private garage—”

  “Where it is,” Eve said and strode between them to the doors.

  Behind her, Roarke pulled out a couple of bills. “Ease the sting a bit.”

  Eve strode straight to the concierge desk in a deep lobby mirrored with the pale gold. The air smelled faintly of roses, and her boots sank into the red-and-gold carpet spread over the polished floor.

  At the desk, which held the roses in a fat, clear vase, a woman in a suit of bold blue smiled politely.

  “Good evening. How can I help you?”

  Eve held up her badge. “Natalia Durban Berkle. Is she in?”

  “Before I discuss a resident or guest, I’ll need to verify your identification.”

  “Do it.”

  From under the desk, the woman took a scanner, ran it over the badge.

  “Yes, Lieutenant, Ms. Berkle is at home. Is she expecting you?”

  “The badge makes that question irrelevant. Is she alone?”

  “Her daughter is with her, and her staff. No other outside visitors have logged in.”

  Eve lifted a hand for Peabody. Peabody handed Eve the photo of Smith.

  “Has this woman visited? Ann Elizabeth Smith.”

  “I believe so, but let me verify.”

  She turned to her comp, went to work. “I can verify that Ms. Smith has signed in to the visitors’ log. Her last visit was February third, at three in the afternoon.”

  “Clear us up.”

  “Lieutenant, I’m obligated to notify Ms. Berkle of requests to visit her private residence. If you could …” Her gaze shifted to Roarke. She blinked, twice.

  “No harm in that, is there, Lieutenant?” Roarke said easily. “If you’d let Ms. Berkle know that Lieutenant Dallas, Detective Peabody, and Roarke would like a few moments of her time?”

  “Of course. If you’d like to take a seat while I—”

  “We’re fine,” Eve snapped. “Tag her, clear us up.”

  “Absolutely.” She tapped her earpiece, waited a couple of beats. “Yes, Earnestine, it’s Paulette at the concierge desk. Would you see if Ms. Berkle is home to Lieutenant Dallas, Detective Peabody, and Roarke? Yes, I’ll hold.”

  Eve shifted to eye the bank of three elevators—mirrored gold like the walls.

  “Yes, thank you. I’ll be sending them up now.”

  After another earpiece tap, Paulette went back to her comp. “Ms. Berkle would be delighted to greet you. Please take Elevator Three. I’ll clear it for Ms. Berkle’s residence. Enjoy your visit.”

  Eve said nothing until they walked into the elevator and the doors shut—with soft, mindless music cuing on.

  “You tipped those snooty doormen.”

  “The snooty doormen were only doing their job,” Roarke responded.

  “And you tipped the tight-ass concierge.”

  “That I didn’t.”

  “With Roarke charm.”

  “Ah, that. Well now, that simply exudes when it’s called for, and is free for the taking.”

  Peabody unsuccessfully muffled a snicker.

  “But you don’t own the building, or we’d already be talking to Berkle.”

  “I believe Natalia owns it, or the majority portion of it. Would you like me to make her an offer?”

  “I’ve already dealt with a tight-ass, so I don’t need the smart-ass.”

  “But it’s such a good match with your own. Our lieutenant draws smart-asses like bears to honey, wouldn’t you say, Peabody?”

  “I don’t want her boot up mine, so I’ll take the Fifth.”

  “Wise, as is our lieutenant, as she’s already connected your suspect with Natalia.”

  “Coincidence is bollocks,” Eve said as the doors opened.

  A woman stood pin-neat in black pants and a creamy white sweater, her hair a short and glossy brown bob around a pleasant face.

  “Good evening, please come in. I’m Earnestine, Ms. Berkle’s personal assistant.”

  She gestured them through the private foyer decked with fresh flowers in a dozen slim vases and a tinkling wall fountain of a mermaid pouring water from a seashell into a small pool.

  The New York view dominated the living area through a wall of glass doors. Inside, a long, narrow fireplace snapped with light and flame under a large painting of a poppy field.

  A U-shaped sofa in pale, shimmery blue faced the fire.

  More seating—chairs, sofas—arranged in conversational groups picked up that shimmery blue and the poppy-red.

  More art—lilies, overblown roses, and something that speared in purple that Eve couldn’t name—turned the walls into a garden. Obviously Berkle liked flowers.

  A series of clear, floating shelves held what Eve assumed were expensive trinkets. In one corner stood a white piano with a trio of thick silver candlestands.

  “Ms. Berkle will be right down. Let me take your coats.”

  “We’re fine,” Eve told her.

  “Please, take a seat. Be comfortable.”

  Instead, Eve held out the photo. “Do you know this woman?”

  “Yes, of course. Ann. She’s Ms. Berkle’s seamstress.”

  “When did you see her last?”

  “The beginning of this month when she delivered some alterations for Ms. Berkle.”

  “How do you contact her?”

  “I … have a ’link number.”

  “I need that.”

  “I, ah … Ms. Berkle.” Relief pumped off Earnestine as Berkle descended a sweep of glossy white stairs.

  She didn’t look sixty-eight, Eve thought, but she did look rich.

  Diamond studs glittered at her ears, and a fatter diamond weighed down her left hand. She wore those flowy pants, silver gray with the sheen of silk, matched with a draping blouse that showed off the diamond heart around her neck.

  Icy blond hair swept back from a face with long-lashed blue eyes, a straight sharp nose, and a wide mouth dyed as red as the poppies on the wall.

  She let out a quick trill of laughter and held out both hands to Roarke.

  “What a lovely surprise!” She kissed both his cheeks.


  “And you, Natalia, lovely as always.”

  “You should’ve seen me three minutes ago.” She laughed again. “But I’ve had decades of practice in the art of illusion. And this must be your very impressive wife.”

  “Lieutenant Eve Dallas, Detective Delia Peabody, the always lovely Natalia Berkle.”

  “I’m simply delighted to meet both of you. Isn’t this exciting! Dru will be right down. You’ve met my daughter, Dru, haven’t you, Roarke?”

  “I have, yes.”

  “Wonderful. Let’s sit down, have some wine.”

  “Ms. Berkle,” Eve interrupted. “This is official police business.”

  “Yes, I assumed, which is part of the excitement. Oh, no wine then,” she said as she took Roarke’s hand and led him to the sofa.

  “I’d love some,” he told her. “But it would be coffee for the lieutenant and detective.”

  “Earnestine?”

  “Yes, Marsha’s already seeing to refreshments. Should I finish upstairs?”

  “I need you to stay.” Eve struggled not to snap. “I’m sorry to be abrupt, Ms. Berkle, but—”

  “Natalia, please. I’m sure this is all part of the official police business. And here’s Dru. Dru, join us. I think we’re about to be interrogated.”

  She looked like her mother—a younger version in stylish street clothes. And, like her mother, she walked to Roarke as he rose, kissed his cheeks. “So nice to see you again. And to meet you, Lieutenant Dallas, Detective Peabody. Mother and I both read Nadine Furst’s book, and saw the vid. We’re very big fans.”

  “We’re not here to interrogate you, but we do have some questions. About Ann Smith.”

  “Ann? Oh, thank you, Marsha,” Berkle said as a woman in a black dress wheeled out a cart. “That lovely Cab for the gentleman, Dru, and myself—after all, it’s from the gentleman’s vineyard. And coffee for the ladies.”

  “That’s black for you, Lieutenant Dallas?” Dru asked. “And cream and sugar for you, Detective?”

  “Thanks. Ann Smith,” Eve repeated. “I need her contact information.”

  “Certainly. Earnestine can get that for you.” Berkle fluttered a hand at her assistant. “Ann’s a genius with a needle—sewing needle. I’ve used her quite a lot in the past … I suppose it’s over a year now. She worked at Dobb’s in Brooklyn, but went out on her own. I hope she’s not in trouble.”

  “We have evidence making Ann Elizabeth Smith the prime suspect in three murders.”

  “Murders? Good God.”

  “Ann?” Dru lowered her wineglass. “We couldn’t be talking about the same Ann Smith. She’s the sort who’d run away from a fly if one landed on her.”

  “Still waters, sweetheart.” Berkle patted her daughter’s hand. “She’s, as I said, a genius in tailoring. Very short on conversation and social skills. Not awkward so much as … closed,” Berkle decided. “Exceedingly polite, but more like a droid who’s been programmed than genuine, if you understand me. I can’t say I sensed any violence in her—discontent, yes, but not violence. She’s been in my home many times.”

  “We believe you may be her next target.”

  “Me?” Berkle’s eyebrows winged up, and a faint flicker of alarm rippled across her face. But her voice, and the hand that lifted the wine to her lips, stayed steady. “Whatever for? We’ve never had a cross word between us.”

  “You fit the profile for her next victim. A wealthy widow with a son and a daughter.”

  As quickly as possible, Eve hit the salient points. The books, Smith’s obsession, the sightings and stalkings, while Earnestine gave Peabody Smith’s contact number.

  Berkle watched Eve calmly.

  “This particular book—and, Earnestine, let’s get those, I want to read this series—has me representing a woman killed by her son, who then attempts to frame his sister. He pushes me down the stairs?”

  “Yes.”

  “I should be safe in that case, as I have no intention of letting her back in my home. Added to that, my son left with his family this morning for our estate on Kauai. I, along with Dru and her family, leave in the morning. For two and a half weeks.”

  “Who knows your plans?”

  “A number of people, including Ann, as she recently delivered some of my vacation wardrobe.”

  “She could be waiting until you get back,” Peabody pointed out, but Eve shook her head.

  “No, she has to move quickly. She can’t wait that long now. She had contingencies with Loxie Flash. She’ll have one here, too. Regardless, Ms. Berkle—”

  “Natalia,” she said again. “We’re compatriots at this point.”

  “Regardless, you need to take precautions. If Smith attempts to access your home before you leave—”

  “She wouldn’t get past the lobby. You can be assured I’ll notify building security. And I won’t open that door.” The fat diamond on her finger winked light as she lifted her wine. “I like my life.”

  “Are you staying here tonight?” Eve asked Dru.

  “No, actually, I’m leaving shortly.”

  “I’m going to have you escorted. You’d open the door if she threatened your daughter?”

  “Yes, I would.” Berkle’s breath inhaled, exhaled—and shook. “Yes, I certainly would. You do exactly what Lieutenant Dallas says, Dru.”

  “We’ll have you escorted home. Engage your security, and keep your family inside. I’m going to have all of you escorted to your transportation in the morning if this isn’t resolved.”

  “I’m grateful,” Berkle said as Eve rose.

  “You don’t seem shaken or surprised.”

  “Truthfully, I’m a little of both. If you’d told me Ann had drowned herself in her own bathtub, I’d have been sorry, but unsurprised. This is just another way to destroy her own life.”

  “Natalia.” Roarke rose, took her hand and kissed it. “You’re a wonder.”

  “I’m a survivor,” she said. “And, Dru, we’re going to leave tonight. How much time do you need?”

  “I can get Renaldo and the kids up and running in an hour.”

  “Earnestine, change of plans.”

  “I’ll take care of it.”

  “Good thinking,” Eve commented. “I’ll arrange for the escorts. One more thing,” she said as a switch flicked in her head. “You said Smith is a genius—and you shopped at Dobb’s with your sister-in-law. Did she also use Smith?”

  “Occasionally, yes. But Sal’s married—three girls, no sons. And currently is in St. Kitts.”

  “I imagine both you and she might have recommended Smith to others.”

  “I can’t speak for Sal, but I certainly have.”

  “Can you think of anyone who fits the profile?”

  “I haven’t really thought …” She lurched to her feet, all the color in her face leaching away. “Oh my God. Oh my God, Dru!”

  “Aunt Felicity! Not my actual aunt, but—”

  “My oldest friend, godmother to my baby girl. Felicity Lomare. She’s a widow. She lost her husband six years ago. She has a son and a daughter, the same as I do. She uses Ann. I praised her to the skies and introduced them. Oh my God.”

  “The address.”

  “It’s—” Berkle pressed a hand to her temple. “I can’t think—”

  Stepping in, Earnestine rattled off an address a few blocks away. “It’s a private home, not a building,” she added. “It’s gated.”

  “I have to call her, call her right away. If anything happened to Felicity—”

  “Tell her we’re on our way,” Eve told Berkle as she walked to the elevator. “If she’s not at home, she should stay where she is until we get there. We’ll contact her.”

  Eve ordered the lobby.

  “She won’t be on the Dobb’s list. Smarter, smarter to go for somebody she didn’t work with while at Dobb’s. Berkle was more likely the contingency, and Lomare the prime target.”

  Her comm signaled. “Dallas.”

  “We found
her hole,” Santiago told her. “A flop in Brownsville a few blocks from that sighting. Fourth-floor unit. We’re outside it now, but we don’t think she’s in there. Nosy guy on the first floor saw her leave about an hour ago. LT? He says he almost didn’t recognize her because she’d changed her hair, gone all curly, and was wearing a man’s coat and hat. But she was carrying her big sewing kit. He recognized that.”

  “Get a warrant for entry, for search and seizure. Take down the door.”

  “Should we wait for you to take the door?”

  “Don’t wait for me. I have another line on her. Take the door, secure the flop. Record every fucking thing. Leave a watch on the street in case she comes back. If I’m wrong, take her down there.”

  Eve ran across the lobby, startling the concierge, then the doormen. She jumped into the passenger seat, hit lights and sirens.

  “Burn it,” she told Roarke.

  “Delighted.”

  As he burned it, Peabody clung to the seat with one hand, her ’link with the other. “Straight to v-mail, Dallas. She may still be talking to Ms. Berkle.”

  “Try Berkle.”

  As Roarke swerved around a Rapid Cab, streamed between a limo and a shiny sedan, Peabody’s grip tightened.

  “She says she can’t get her to answer.”

  Roarke screamed to a halt in front of secured gates.

  “No, don’t call through,” she told him. “Just open them.”

  He lowered the window, boosted himself up to sit on the frame, and pulled out some little device.

  “It’s a good system,” he said after a moment. “So it’ll take …” The gates slid open. “That much time.”

  He dropped onto the seat again, roared through the gates, up a short, straight drive to a three-story brownstone as regal as a queen. Lights shined in every window and around a grand entrance door under a portico.

  Eve jumped out, pointed at the door. “Now that. I don’t want her to know we’re coming,” she said as Roarke got to work. “The target’s not answering her ’link, may already be in distress. Or dead. When he gets it open, if the vic’s not lying at the foot of the damn stairs, clear the first floor. Roarke, head up to three. I’ll take two. Otherwise—”

  The door opened into a sparkling, quietly lit foyer. With no body at the foot of the wide double staircase straight ahead.

  At the sound of approaching footsteps, Eve swung her weapon toward the archway to the right.

 
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