Wrong number



            Breathing fast, I ran down the alley, my depleted snub nose revolve still dangling useless in my hand. I could here the older man's footsteps staggering ahead of me, one leg shuffling in his charge, his bad leg leaving a trail in the dust visible in the dim light of exit signs along the back store doors.

            "Verner!" I yelled. "Come back."

            I kept picturing his small pearl-handled automatic, a dainty thing designed for use by a woman, but deadly just the same.

            "Verner!" I yelled again, hoping my voice would bring back sense to him after the sight of his wife's body had driven it from him.

            I could almost hear his mumbling about the man in the blue hat and how he had to kill him, and I knew that if I didn't stop him, he would -- despite the fact that the blue-hatted man we had met might have had nothing to do with the murder.

            The voice wasn't the same one I had heard on the phone a few hours earlier: so cracked it might have come from any of the rough-neck crew from the West Side along Dunkin Avenue.

            I remember being stunned by the voice that called me out of the blue asking for an exhorbitant amount of money.

            "You want how much?" I'd asked, not bothering to mention that the man had called the wrong number, or how common a mistake that was with my impoverished office on the first floor of the Journal Square building and the billionaire developer's on the top floor, and both of us using the same last name.

            "Don't play stupid with me, Mr. Verner," the voice said, so sternly he might have been my principal in Dickenson High as a kid. "I want a million dollars in cash by tonight, and I want it delivered to the Communpa side of Lincoln Park and put into the trash can nearest the gate. Otherwise you don't see your wife again. At least, not alive."

            It was like I had stumbled into the middle of someone else's bad dream and was expected to pick up on his lines, expected to feel pain when all I felt was pity.

            "You can't expect me to come up with that much cash in so little time," I said, knowing that I had heard that line in some old movie, and hoped the voice on the other end had not.

            I certainly felt the part, a-largely impoverished ex-cop struggling to make a living as a private dick in one of the richest and poorest cities in the state. I kept wondering why I didn't move across the Hudson River to where the real action was in Manhhattan, and suspected it had mostly to do with the fact that I was too scared.

            "Don't give me that crap either, Verner," the voice said. "You rich people got plenty of cash or got lawyers that can get it for you."

            "Not this late in the day," I said. "Maybe tomorrow I can have it, but even then I might not."

            "By Tomorrow you're wife will be dead."

            "I'm telling you, I can't get cash with the banks closed," I said, glancing at the time, noting that the bank hours went well beyond the old days when they closed their doors at three. With ATMs and extended hours, a regular guy like me could cash a check or collect enough to tide me over for a night. But a millionaire? I doubted it.

            "You bring the money to the park by five," he said. "After that, you'll find her floating in the Hackensack."

            A click sounded. The conversation was over. I slammed down my phone and headed out my door to the street, then rushed in through the main door -- where the sleepy security guard eyed me like a curiousity, knowing perfectly well I belonged in the ground floor store fronts, but didn't give a damned about me wandering up stairs. At $10 bucks an hour, he got paid to watch people, not get into arguments or worse, fights with potential crooks like me.

            The other Verner had the Penthouse suite of officers so I took the elevator to the top floor. The doors opened onto a plush world of carpet and couches, instead of a hall, and onto the prettiest blonde-haired, blue-eyed secretary I ever saw.

            She eyed me like I was Atilla the Hun.

            "Can I help you?" she asked, the office needing no air-conditioning with the chill created by her voice.

            "I need to see Verner," I said, as breathlessly as if I had run up the eight flights of stairs, or climbed the elevator cables.

            "I'm afraid that's impossible, unless, of course, you have an appointment," she said, her voice losing some of its chill as she laughed at her own cleverness.

            "You know I don't have an appointment," I said.

            "Then you can't see Mr. Verner. He's a very busy man."

            "He'll want to see me," I said. "Believe me."

            "Many people say that, and it turns out they are wrong," she said.

            "Damn it," I growled, flapping out my identification the way I used to do when working as a plain clothes detective, hoping she would mistake me for a police officer without my having to break the law and say that I was. "I need to see him now."

            She bit her lower lip as she looked at my card. She glanced at the photo and then at my face, then fingered the intercom with the tip of her long nail.

            "Sorry to bother you, Mr. Verner, but there's a man out here to see you. He does not have an appointment. I think he is a police officer."

            The distorted report from the intercom told her to send me in, which she did with a reluctant wave. I hurried passed her and opened the heavy wooden door between me and her boss.

            "Let me make one thing clear," I said as I eased into the office that was even plusher than the area outside. A small, bald, pudgy man rose from behind a desk many times too large for him, to greet me. "I'm not a police officer any more and I never told your secretary I was."

            I shoved my identification under the bald man's nose and he read the details slowly, then laughed.

            "So you're my infamous alter ego," he said. "I've meant to look you up several times, but business being what it is, I've always been too busy."

            With a white beard and head of hair, and stuffed into a red suit, Mr. Verner might have passed for Santa Claus, he was so jolly.

            I must have looked a bit bewildered.

            "Sit down," Verner said. "You drink scotch straight, if I recall correctly."

            "I do," I said, even more baffled than before.

            "No, I'm not a mind reader," the little man said, crossing the room to a small bar, at which he fixed me a scotch and himself some sweeter liquor whose lable I didn't recognize. "I've received the note from your bartender down the street, who cut you off last week for not paying your tab. I've also received numerous collection notices for your car, your condo as well as a variety of other things. I've even received a letter from your ex-wife, asking for three months back allemony or else she goes back to court."

            He handed me my drink. I took a hasty swig, and then sighed. I had received as much of his mail as he had mine, taking advantage only of several local merchants' willingness to extend him credit. Those other pieces of correspondence, from his wife in Port Liberte who refused to give him a divorse, to his daughter in Georgetown University who wanted more and more money, I passed on discreetly, refixing them to hide the fact that anyone had opened them. I had also received some mail that suggested his business was not doing as well as appearances suggested, and that he, in his own way, was nearly as over extended as I was in mine. I suggested as much. We both laughed, sipped our drinks again, and then, with something of a startled stare he inquired why I needed to see him so urgently.

            "I certainly hope you haven't come to borrow money," he said. "I'm afraid you're a bad credit risk."

            His joke, however, only made me remember how serious a matter it was that had brought me here.

            "It's your wife," I said. "When was the last time you heard from her?"

            In a few moments, he was on the telephone frantically ordering his secretary to locate the girl, and during the wait, refilled and drank two more glasses of his expense liquor. When the secretary responded finally with her ill report, the man face went crimson for a moment, until he sagged back into his chair.

            "We have to call the police," he said in a voice as out of breath as mine had been a moment earlier.

            "And tell them what?"

            "What you just told me."

            "I suggest you hire me first," I said.

            "To do what?"

            "Bring the money to the park like the voice said for us to do. I can pretend to be you."

            "What about the police?"

            "You can call them if you want. But they might take too long to get things together, and you might lose precious time getting all the powers in place. The county prosecutor would take over for the moment, and would likely have to call the FBI or the State CID in."

            Half of it was a bluff, and he might have suspected as much. I was being opportunistic, hoping to get a retainer out of him before the proper authorities edged me out of the case or he had time to hire one of the meatier firms with their army of detectives.

            "I can get to work right away," I said, " sniffing around until everything else kicks into place."

            The man seemed to think for a moment, staring down at his unmarred cherry wood desk top before giving me a nod.

            "Maybe we shouldn't call the police at all," he concluded, drawing me up in my chair.

            "Now, wait a minute, I don't think we should go that far…"

            "We can head for the park ourselves and confront these people…"

            "Mr. Verner, I don't think that's a wise idea."

            "Yes, that's what we'll do. We'll go there ourselves."

            At that point, he pulled out the small pistol and stuck in his pocket. "Come with me. We've got work to do."

            Out of my brain, the idea of the retainer flew, as I jumped up and ran after the swiftly moving man with the sole purpose of stopping him from doing anything rash. Perhaps if I had been more clear headed I might have stopped him. He ordered his secretary to call for his car, which waited at the curb by the time his private elevator brought us down stairs.

            Verner made no move to go to the bank. He ordered his driver to take us the park, and then order the driver off after dropping us at Casino in the Park, a tavern near the drop off point.

            "We'll wait here," he said, and we both had several more drinks while watching the drop off point through the window, that trash can where he was supposed to have deposited the cash.

            That's when we saw the man in the blue hat, and Verner leaped to his feet. "Let's go," he yelped.

            "But that's only a bum…" I said, my words falling on the empty seat Verner had just vacated. By the time I vacated mine, Verner was out the door, charging down the hill waving his small pistol at the blue hated man. I rushed out, and then down the hill after him, pausing only at a point half way down the hill among a cropping of bushes, where Verner himself had paused. In the middle of the bushes, a girl's bloody body. He stared down at the face, then up at the blue-hatted, and clearly unsuspecting man fiddling around the trash can. Verner let out a howl and charged again, his right leg apparently flawed in some way so that he could only run with a slight drag to his leg. He actually fired a shot at the blue hatted man, who heard it and saw us, and ran like hell, back towards Communcpa Avenue, then across it into the parade of car dealerships there, trying to lose us in the string of allies. But the man apparently did not know these allies well, and picked on that I knew ended without exit.

            Verner made it across the street, I did not, caught half way across as the light changed and the reckless drivers charged up from Route 440, making a wall of metal I had to wait to pass to get across. When the deluge ended, both Verner and the blue hatted man were no longer visible, slipping up the deaded ended allie. Then, we were there, rushing in the dying light among the trash barrels and slick drippings of old motor oil, me calling Verner's name, Verner screaming for his wife's alleged murder to stop. Then, I heard the report of Verner's pistol and a cry that was not Verner's. When I arrived, I found Verner standing over the other man, his pistol putting two more bullets into the already dead man's face.

            "Put the pistol down, Mr. Verner," I said, approaching the man slowly.

            Verner glanced up, and seemed to smile a little. "Why would I do that, Mr. Verner?" he asked.

            "Because you may have killed an innocent man."

            "Of course, he's an innocent man," Verner said. "For that matter, so are you. But when I call the police from the public telephone down the block, you and this man will be conspiritors in a plot to kidnap and kill my wife, conspiritors I was forced to kill when you tried to kill me."

            "Kill you? For what?"

            "For refusing to give you the money you wanted."

            "I didn't want any money, I didn't…" I stopped, suddenly hit by the reality of what he was saying, catching onto how much similar his voice was to the voice I had heard on the phone, not as rough when speaking normally, but with the same slight high pitch even he could not disguise.

            "She was a lovely girl," the man said. "She was also heavily insured."

            The pistol rose. I kicked an oil can at him, striking him in the side of the head so that his first shot went wide. He had no time to get off another before I was on him, pinning him and his pistol to the pavement -- by which time, I could hear sirens wailing in the distance, suggesting someone else had heard the shots, even in this remote region.

            "Just sit tight," I told Verner who struggled to get free of my grip. "You'll only hurt yourself."

            He glared at me, full of the same distaste for me as his secretary had been, a secretary he apparently was supposed to go off with after all these dirty details were taken care of, a secretary that would no doubt turn state's evidence against him now that he was caught.


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