The killer came to us in the trunk of a Lincoln Town Car, and stayed just long enough to wreck the house. By that I mean the pile of brick that Naomi Nantz uses as her personal residence as well as for the business of solving unsolvable cases, assisting the helpless and generally amusing herself by being difficult, if not impossible.
My name is Alice Crane, and I serve as Ms. Nantz's recording secretary and chief factotum. In case you don't knowI had to look it up when she hired mea factotum is an employee or assistant employed in a wide range of capacities. I mean, come on, this is the twenty-first century, who uses fusty old words like that anymore?
My boss, Naomi Nantz, that's who.
The Nantz residence takes up most of a block in the Back Bay area of Boston. Don't bother trying to find us, we're camouflaged as twoor is it three?typical Victorian brick town houses located somewhere between Storrow Drive to the north, Boylston Street to the south, Arlington Street to the east and Charlesgate to the west. Check your map and you'll see that pretty much covers the neighborhood. On the outside we're staid and rather ordinary, the kind of staid and ordinary that only money can buy. On the inside, which was gutted and rebuilt a few years before I entered the picture, it's clean and sleek and modern, except for the Zen sand garden that takes up part of the ground floor. Boss lady often meditates in the garden, drawing what look to me like meaningless lines in the sand, saying it helps her to think.
Like several of the staff, I live in. At the time of hire, it wasn't a choice for me because my adorable husband had suddenly vanished along with all of my money, and it was either the Nantz residence or my sister's place in Malden. The choice was Back Bay, with twelve-foot ceilings, an exquisitely furnished suite, or Malden, a paneled basement with a cat-scented futon. Not a tough decision. There are days when boss lady drives me nuts, but my sister has the same ability, and she doesn't pay. Whereas Naomi Nantz pays very well indeed, with benefits that include room and board, full medical and dental, as well as the occasional opportunity to right wrongs, dodge bullets, tilt at windmills and rescue kidnapped children.
I'd like to say there's never a dull moment, but that wouldn't be true. There are many dull moments, for which I'm thankful. Twenty-nine years on this planet have taught me that dull moments are to be savored. Dull moments fortify the soul, because without them life would just be one thing after another, blurred together like the windows on a passing subway car.
In my opinion the best dull moments occur around the kitchen table. In this case a ten-foot-long pickled-white oak table situated in the southeast corner of Mrs. Bea-sley's basement kitchen. If Beasley has a first name, she's not inclined to share it, nor any information about what might have happened to Mr. Beasley, if ever he existed. She's not much for conversation, preferring to let her food do the talking. Her food, be assured, is eloquent on many subjects. For most people "fruit plate" suggests a cafeteria serving, but then most people have never had the experience of a Beasley Breakfast Fruit Plate. Farm fresh local strawberries dusted with one of her secret ingredientscould it be some exotic formulation of cinnamon? Perfectly ripened peaches that have doubtless been airlifted in from Georgia (Beasley has many connections) and sliced into mouth-size morsels. A single Medjool date stuffed with diced pecans. A chilled pear compote, lightly gingered. Honeyed bran muffins straight from the oven, slathered with hand-churned apricot butter that will make your eyes roll back in pleasure. And Mrs. Beasley's famous French press coffee, which makes your favorite Starbucks taste like thin dishwater.
There are only three at the table this morning because young Teddy Boyle, our spiky-haired live-in computer guru, has not yet emerged from his dungeon. Too much late-night fun, apparently. Well, he's of a late-night age, either twenty-one (so he says) or eighteen (so Naomi thinks) or barely sixteen (my theory). Whatever, he's missing the muffins, so to speak.
For the better part of half an hour there are no more than a dozen words exchanged between us. Naomi, never a casual conversationalist, concentrates on her morning papers: the Boston Herald, Boston Globe, New York Times
and Wall Street Journal,
which she studies in exactly that order. Nothing casual about it, although she seems to enjoy the process as she scans and absorbs the text. Among her many talents, virtual retention of everything she sees, hears and reads. Not word-for-word, but the essence thereof. On many a case her remarkable memory has dredged up some small, useful item of information from weeks or months or even years ago. A notice of alternate parking on a particular street in the South End. Who was third runner-up in a celebrity fishing tournament in Nantucket. A warehouse fire in Jamaica Plain. A hit-and-run in Chelsea. Lives have been saved because of what she remembers, villains apprehended. In one very disturbing case a prominent sociopath took his own lifeand if you knew the circumstances, and the unspeakable crime he committed, you'd undoubtedly agree he made the right choice.
While Naomi reads, uploading data, Mrs. Beasley, silent as usual, methodically fills in Sudoku squares using a felt-tip pen, never lifting her eyes from the page. Left to myself I'd probably have the TV on to one of the morning chat shows, but there are house rules about television, so I content myself with the Globe's
entertainment section, improving my cultural awareness about the hottest new reality show.
"Beasley, do you mind a question?"
Beasley looks up from her puzzle, shrugs.
"Okay, here goes. Say you're a celebrity chef who has to prepare tarantula for eightyou're in a Central American jungle, campfire but no stovecould you make it taste good?"
"No," she says, after giving it some thought. "Not tarantulas. I could do something with jumping spiders."
I'm pretty sure she's kidding, but can't be certain because that happens to be the moment when dapper Jack Delancey, our chief investigator, strolls in and makes the request that will soon result in us being invaded and the house, or part of it, being wrecked.
"Sorry to interrupt, but this is an emergency situation," he announces, his lean, athletic figure ramrod straight in a gorgeously tailored dark gray suit, a look that gets him dubbed "Gentleman Jack" in the tabloids. "I need your help."
"You, specifically?" Naomi asks, instantly alert.
Naomi's eyes drift back to the Journal.
"Go through proper channels," she says. "Being an employee doesn't mean we drop everything to assist some crony of yours, Jack, certainly not before we've finished coffee. Run it by Dane, that's the way it's done."
Jack, normally a very cool customer, responds with an unexpected edge to his mellifluous baritone. "In about three seconds you'll be removing your foot from your mouth. The man in trouble is Randall Shane."
The name is not familiar to me, but evidently it is to Naomi because she pushes back her chair and goes, "Why didn't you say so? Where is he?"
Jack grins handsomely. "Little problem there."
The Nantz residential garage is located on one of the so-called "public alleys" that bisect the blocks here in the Back Bay. The idea was that tradesmen would approach from the rear, skulking through alleys, rather than contaminating the formal entrances of the main streets. Nowadays there are more green Dumpsters than tradesmen in the alleys, but those town houses fortunate enough to have garages typically face them on the alley. It's all part of being discreetthere's no good coming from advertising where the BMWs are hiding. Also handy for smuggling in witnesses or suspects when you don't want them to be seen entering your domicile.
There are three narrow bays in the Nantz garage, and one of them is filled to overflowing by Jack Delancey's nearly new Lincoln Town Car. To my way of thinking, Townies have that airport limo look, but Jack favors them for ride and size, and the dapper investigator would never be mistaken for a limo driver, not unless you want to find yourself cuffed to the bumper, admiring his chrome.
Supposedly he hasn't done that to anyone since he resigned from the FBI and went to work for Naomi, but I wouldn't advise testing the guy. My read on Gentleman Jack is that he can be charming when he wants to be, and dangerous when it suits him, as many a bad actor has discovered to his or her own chagrin. "Bad actor" is Jack talk for criminal. Most of the time he talks like a cop, except on those rare occasions when he's relaxed enough to discuss the fine points of professional baseball, when he sounds like just another statistically obsessed Red Sox fan from the North Shore. Jack's a Gloucester boy, in accent if not at heart. Gloucester being more famous for craggy fishermen in slickers than lightly tanned investigators who favor two-thousand-dollar Italian suits and metrosexual manicures. Probably pedicures, too, although his fourth wife will be happy to hear I've never seen him with his socks off.
"There's a good chance that we're already under surveillance," Jack tells Naomi as we enter the garage. "So I did the trunk thing."
Trunk thing? I start to ask what that means, exactly, when Jack presses his key fob and pops the lid, and out from the voluminous trunk unfolds a man who towers over us all. It's a very neat unfolding, limbs and knees deployed, a muscular torso rising, and turning into the light a large round head with close-cropped hair and deep-set eyes in need of sleep. A head that keeps rising until it brushes the ceiling.
Randall Shane. Yards of him.
"I really messed up this time," Shane says, looking forlorn. "I may have killed an innocent man."
"We'll see about that," Naomi says. "My office. Now."
What Naomi calls her office is really our command center. Think mission control, without all the giant screens, but with a similar sense of purpose, and the ability to communicate with just about anybody, anywhere, over any system, as well as extract data, voluntary or not. The style is spare and cool. Lots of dark laminates, cove lighting, discreetly recessed panels, stacks and servers hidden away. There's never any doubt about who is in command, either. You can tell because she gets the pivoting seat behind the big curved desk with all the touch screens and gizmos, and we peons get the straight-back chairs with the wide unpadded armrests that are adequate for a laptop or a notebook, or in my case an unfinished cup of Beasley's coffee and a legal pad.
Randall Shane wouldn't fit in the peon chairs without a very large shoehorn, so he roams the big high-ceilinged room and finally, at boss lady's insistence, parks on the far edge of the command desk, his long chino-clad legs crossed at the ankle and his large, muscular arms folded across his very substantial chest. Not a weightlifter type, from the lean-waisted look of him, just built to a larger scale than most. Making all six feet of Jack Delancey seem short and slight in comparison. The neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper Van Dyke beard gives Shane the look of a supersize jazz musician. The watery blue eyes are soulful, but pure cop, always watching.
"Heard of you," the big man says, focusing on Naomi. "Jack says you're the best, and that includes me."
Naomi smiles, shrugs. "We do different things. Or do things differently. Probably both." After a moment's pause, she begins again. "Normally when interviewing a potential client I'd wait for the rest of my team to be assembled and then record a formal statement, but since this is hardly a standard situation, please go ahead. We'll do the legal stuff later, when our attorney is present."
"There isn't much time," Shane responds, fidgeting, his big hands busy making fists. "This won't be a normal arrest," he cautions. "Once they take me, I'll likely be transferred to an undisclosed location for interrogation. A form of in-country rendition. No lawyers, no communication. That's how they do it."
"Who are 'they,' Mr. Shane? Please be specific."
"Randall, please, or just plain Shane."
"'They'?" Naomi persists. "Explain. Elaborate."
"Sorry. Whatever covert agency is about to frame me for the murder of my client."
He nods, looking mournful. "Joseph Keener, MIT professor. His son, Joey, is missing, that's why he contracted me. In all likelihood I'm responsible for Professor Keener's death. I didn't kill him, but they'll make it look that way. The evidence will be rock solid."
"What covert agency?"
Shane shakes his head. "I'm not sure," he begins, "but my best guess is an agency associated with the Department of Defense. Or possibly Homeland Security. My client was working on a top-secret project, and it's possible that"
And that's when the windows explode, covering us all in diamonds of shattered safety glass. The security alarms start to whoop but there's no time to react, let alone flee to the safe room. Through the sudden breach swing half a dozen gun-wielding thugs wearing black ski masks. In less than a heartbeat there's a second explosion and somehow a wire net engulfs Randall Shane, and they take him down like a wild animal, hitting him with several tranquilizer darts through the net, until he sighs and stops struggling.
Unconscious, maybe dead.
That's all I can see from under my little desk, face burrowing into the thick carpet. That and the shiny black boots standing an inch from my head.