Read The Lasko Tangent Online

Authors: Richard North Patterson

The Lasko Tangent (9 page)

Then there were Woods and Mary. And Woods was close to the White House. Which was close to Lasko. I would have to move carefully. Robinson wouldn’t help me with that. No one would.

Finally, I thought about Lehman. I felt a belated, worthless sympathy for the man who had been. Perhaps he had been pathetic, but he had been alive, and trying. Then he had chosen to meet me. Not about a stock manipulation, but something else. And now he was dead.

It came down to that. Maybe if I hadn’t seen it, or hadn’t been using him, I could have walked away. But I had helped get him killed. So I would try to find the reason. I needed to.

The empty room around me was strange and hostile. I couldn’t sleep.

Eleven

 

 

The next morning it rained, a bleak grey drizzle. I called room service for coffee, but skipped the paper. I didn’t want to read about Lehman. The cold print would remind me of what I had seen without telling me what I didn’t know.

I finished the coffee, showered, shaved, and packed. Everything I did seemed banal—rote skills learned in another life. I caught myself. The notion that Lehman’s death had made me unique was inane, as indulgent as self-pity. I waited for Gubner.

He called about 12:30. Lehman’s wife would see me. I felt relieved and unhappy at once. Barging in on new widows to riffle their husbands’ papers wasn’t appetizing work. Just necessary. So I rented a car and met Gubner in front of the Ritz. It was 2:15.

Gubner was less than cheery. He exhausted his supply of chit-chat by giving me the address. I picked my way out of Boston toward Lehman’s home.

Lehman had lived in a white frame two-story in an oak-lined neighborhood full of them. The affluent conformity spoke of executive good sense and sound property values. It seemed safe and very polite, right down to the green lawns, as flawless as astro-turf. Murder seemed as alien as crab grass. It jarred me that this insipid Valhalla was the pay-off for Lehman’s little Faustian bargain. I wondered how his wife would find it now.

Gubner and I parked in the asphalt driveway and followed the walk which cut through Lehman’s perfect lawn to the front door. Gubner paused glumly, then jabbed the door-bell. Lehman’s wife answered. Gubner embraced her silently, then said a few soft words. I watched them. The hug was stiff, more reverential than personal, as if done in honor of Lehman. Gubner disengaged, his arms hanging awkwardly at his side. I sensed that his affection for Lehman did not extend to the wife. I stepped in.

“Mrs. Lehman,” I said softly, “I’m Christopher Paget.”

She turned. “Hello, Mr. Paget. I’m Valerie Lehman. Please come in.” She extended her hand. Her eyes were hollow, but her hand was cool and dry, like the rest of her. Her neatly coiffed hair had gone silver grey. She had a fox-pretty face, and her trim figure spoke through the silk blouse and tailored slacks of exercise and self-denial. She was so put together it was spooky. She could have been going to bridge club.

“Mrs. Lehman, I’m sorry to be here and sorrier about your husband. Very sorry.” I spoke slowly, hoping my words would sink in. I gave them time. “I appreciate your letting me come with Marty.”

Her face had a curious blankness. “Thank you.”

I forged on, feeling useless. “If I can do anything for you, I’ll be happy to. Otherwise, I’ll just stay out of your way.”

I was hoping to disappear to wherever Lehman had kept his files. But her mannequin calm had turned to tautness. “You want Alec’s papers, Mr. Paget. Why?”

I picked my words. “Your husband was helping me with an investigation. Apparently he was aware of some things that concerned him.”

Her brows knit at the word “concerned.” “Alec never liked this job. He never liked this house.” Her voice had an odd accusatory tone, as if their disputes had survived her husband.

I preferred not to pursue it. We stood in the hallway, looking into the living room at the fruits of installment credit. The Lehmans had decorated at some cost. In one corner was a roll-top desk, antique. The rugs were a quiet expensive beige. An off-white couch sat behind a rich mahogany coffee table. I peered past it into the dining room. Under the crystal chandelier stood an ornate carved dining table. Probably Italian, minimum three thousand dollars. Not my taste, but costly. Lehman’s death gave it all a curious museum quality.

His wife had followed my inspection. Her low ashy voice carried abstract fury, anger at Lehman for his desertion. “This job saved Alec from being a failure. But I had to push him to take it, as if it were bad to be successful. He acted so resentful sometimes.” There was a submerged question in her voice, as if she were vaguely aware that she had gone wrong somewhere. But she would never quite figure it out. And it wasn’t my place to assist her.

“Perhaps if Marty could show me where your husband kept his things.”

But she wasn’t through yet. Her distracted mind skipped along the surface of things from one point to the next. Her eyes locked on me as if I were the answer to her confusion. “Was Alec killed, Mr. Paget? The police were so vague.”

Real grief lit the bewilderment. Her moods were quicksilver; she hadn’t decided how she really felt. After they buried him, the reality would hit her hard. I didn’t want to make it worse.

I shook my head. “All I know is that he was hit by a car.”

Gubner moved close to her. “I’ll show Mr. Paget to Alec’s study.” He nodded to me.

“Thank you, Mrs. Lehman,” I said. She stood, looking confused, as if life had moved too quickly. We left her there.

Gubner steered me through the hallway toward the stairs. On the way, we passed the family room. Two boys, about twelve and ten, were sitting with a stout grey-haired woman. They were staring at a color television, looking lost. I followed Gubner up the stairs, feeling a little like a B-52 pilot brought down to view his work. It was easier when you looked from a distance. I told myself that I hadn’t asked Lasko to do whatever he’d done, or Lehman to be weak. It didn’t help.

Lehman’s study was a footnote to affluence, hidden at the end of a long hallway which ran past the bedrooms and bathrooms. Apparently it had not been part of the family house and garden tour; it was a compact cubicle, with a scratched maple desk, one dingy green chair, and an old Royal typewriter. It was probably the most honest room in the place. Gubner surveyed it silently, standing with his hands shoved in his pockets.

“Show me his papers and you can go back down,” I said finally.

He gave me a sharp, reproachful look, as if I were a grave robber. “Valerie says that they’re all in his desk drawers,” he said in a flat tone. “Enjoy yourself.” He turned and left.

I switched on the metal lamp and eyed the drawers. There were four stacked on the left side and one over the middle, where the chair fit. I didn’t like it much. I was too late to save a life and too early to be a historian. So I felt like a Peeping Tom. I waited until the feeling was overrun by curiosity, then reached for the bottom left drawer and started.

It was a lot of junk. Stock prospectuses, financial statements, annual reports, and the like. Occasionally the task was brightened by an upbeat company bulletin, like the one on the annual management seminar weekend. Last year the boys had taken their wives to New Hampshire for three classes, two speeches by Lasko, a cocktail party, and a meeting of the wives’ club. The trip was memorialized by an eight by ten glossy of the management team and their ladies, wearing the discomfited looks of sixth graders corralled for the class portrait. Lehman had the sheepish grin of the kid who had been caught smoking in the boys’ room. She was looking great—good outfit and a bright picture smile. Their bodies leaned away from each other. Lasko was to their left, smiling broadly.

I checked the stuff carefully for markings and marginal notations. I didn’t find any. It was the same with the three other left-hand drawers. The last paper in the top drawer was another company bulletin, announcing that Lehman was joining Lasko Devices. The article praised Lasko’s drive to assemble a “permanent management team.” Apparently Lehman’s permanence had been revoked. I wondered how the writer would handle that little problem in the next bulletin. I jammed the drawer shut, frustrated.

The last chance was the middle drawer. I jerked it open. There was only one thing inside: a plain manila envelope, gummed shut. I grasped it with hasty, awkward fingers and ripped it open.

Inside was a handwritten note on a blank piece of paper. The writing was rough, strong, and somehow familiar. I made out the words “For A.L.” in the upper right corner. The rest was scratched out in the middle: “95—Move whole package across the street—J859020. Justice is blind.”

I figured “A.L.” for Alexander Lehman. The rest was foolishly cryptic, a child’s riddle. But it had probably meant something to Lehman—enough to kill him.

I stared at the writing. Then I reached into one of the left-hand drawers and pulled out an old annual report to stockholders. I turned through the glossy pages of bold print and colored pictures until I reached the one headed “Chairman’s Page.” It contained a three paragraph message of moral uplift, probably ghosted by Lasko’s PR firm. Below it was a replica of Lasko’s signature. I held the memo next to it. They looked the same. I combed the signature for a unique letter. I hit on the curious looped “k.” It matched the “k” in “package.”

I put the annual report back in the drawer, and the memo in its envelope. Then I slid the memo into my attaché case. I rose and left the room, closing the door after me. It felt as if I had just shut the door on Lehman’s life.

Valerie Lehman was perched on the couch, talking to Gubner. They both seemed uncomfortable, like actors at a first rehearsal. Her role of grieving widow was undercut by her fear that she might have to play it in rags. Her eyes moved around the living room, from piece to piece. Gubner’s supportive old friend part hung on him like a bad suit. I guessed that he had disliked her for years and now was trying to hide it from himself. The rain seemed reflected in the room’s gloomy pall. I stepped in.

“Mrs. Lehman, pardon me for interrupting.” She peered up with pretty blankness. Gubner seemed almost glad.

“What is it?” he interjected.

I spoke to her. “I’m almost through and I’ll be gone. I just need to talk to Marty for a second.”

She hesitated, head half-cocked, as if awaiting the English translation. The shock was showing in her reaction time. “Marty would like a martini,” she said with bright irrelevance.

That called for a response, I guessed. “No thank you, Mrs. Lehman. I appreciate your kindness.” I wanted to say something more, but nothing came out. Gubner rose and steered me into the hallway. I glanced back. She was staring around the living room, at nothing at all.

“Did you find anything?” Gubner asked.

“Nothing sensational,” I hedged. Gubner seemed too distracted to press it. “Are you staying or going?” I asked.

Gubner’s face was sober. “Staying. This is going to get worse.”

“I think so too.”

“About talking, Chris—I think I’ll take a pass on your company for a week or two.”

I could see it. “Fair enough, Marty. See you around.”

I let myself out. Then I got in the car and drove to the airport, through the rain, away from the white houses and the perfect lawns.

It was evening when I got there. I was tired. I checked in mechanically, thinking about everything and nothing. Then I went to a phone. I thought about calling the office, then didn’t. I had started to absorb the bleak idea that talking to the office was worse than useless.

Instead, I called Di Pietro. His voice on the phone was all parsimony. The cops had found the black Cadillac abandoned on a side street off Commonwealth, with a little bit of Lehman on it. It had been stolen from a shopping center and the license plate switched. No fingerprints. I suggested that meant it had been swiped to kill Lehman, then be untraceable. Di Pietro countered that maybe some punk had stolen the car and couldn’t afford to stop. He said it in less time than that. It was as if each sentence was being docked from his pay, at five bucks a word. I thanked him a lot and hung up.

I boarded the plane. I was in the taxi home before I remembered that I’d never paid the Ritz for my martini.

The taxi stopped at my place. I got out, still holding the memo that had killed Lehman.

Twelve

 

 

I walked slowly through the hallway to my door, dragging my suitcase. I put the key in, turned it, and pushed. I started to step inside. Then I froze in the doorway. A light was on, casting dim shadows on the wall. Someone was waiting.

Mary stood by the bookshelf, very still. “I heard about Alexander Lehman,” she said simply. “I’m sorry.”

Somehow I was angry. “So is Lehman’s wife. How did you get in?” My voice belonged to someone else. It was dry and scratchy. I realized how scared I had been.

“The manager gave me a key.”

We both waited for the other to speak. She looked at me directly, not stirring. I wanted her to move.

She stepped away from the books, and snapped the spell.

“I shouldn’t have come.”

“It’s OK.” I paused. “Would you like a drink?”

“Are you?” I nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Thank you. Scotch.”

I pulled a bottle of Scotch from under the bookshelf and went to the kitchen, suddenly glad to be doing something mundane.

“How did you hear about Lehman?” I asked over my shoulder.

“McGuire. He said it was pretty gruesome.”

“Gruesome” seemed arch, like “untidy.” “That’s a way of putting it. ‘Sickening’ is another.” I wanted to shake her; the man was dead.

I splashed ice in the drinks, suddenly alienated by the illusion of routine: “‘And how was your trip, darling?’ ‘Oh fine, dear, but poor Alec got squashed by a car.’ ‘Too bad, I liked Alec. But fine otherwise?’” Something about the scene was out of sync, like roses at an execution. I half-shook my head, as if trying to throw off a tangible strangeness.

I left the kitchen and returned to reality. She was sitting on the living room couch. Her shoulders were turned in and knees together, as if hunched against the cold. I handed her the drink. She clasped it against her lap with both hands and stared into it. I sat down.

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