Book I: Charlie Novak and the Dead Pigeon
Tampa, Florida, Saturday, December 15
Just like a normal person, Charlie Novak was digging into his breakfast of steel cut oatmeal, English muffin and French roast coffee when the phone rang. Not his house phone, which never rang except for robocalls; this time it was his burner phone, the phone reached by only one person: Owen Waite, his partner in crime.
Eyeing his cooling oatmeal with regret, he let the device ring a few more times before he answered.
“Did you kill my wife?”
Charlie blinked. “Which one?” He propped the cell phone between his shoulder and his ear and continued buttering his muffin. “What’s this about?”
“Vanessa was murdered near San Francisco.”
“Murdered.” He set the knife down. “Who says so?”
Owen’s wireless voice came through a scrim of static. “A police detective was out here yesterday to question me. Robert Mazurski.”
“Huh.” Charlie paused, blinking, thinking. “She died way too early.”
“Six months ahead of schedule.” Owen managed to sound sorrowful. But he was an old hand at feigning emotions of any kind.
“You have my condolences.”
Charlie had liked Vanessa. Well, liked was overstating it a little. He knew better than to get emotionally attached to any of Owen’s wives. There was no future in it. “This cop flew all the way from the west coast to…. Where you at, Chicago?”
“I’m sure he wanted to see my reaction when he delivered the news.”
Charlie sat for a long moment, his disquiet growing. “Did he say how she died?”
“Her throat was slit. She bled out.”
“You know that’s not how I do things.”
“Then it must’ve been someone else,” said Owen.
“This murder. When did it happen?”
“Couple weeks ago. Saturday, December First. As it happens, I was in Cleveland that whole weekend. I have the receipts to prove it. I gave copies to Mazurski.”
“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Oh, I know. Still, her death was a shock.”
“Also a nasty coincidence,” said Charlie. He had to wonder: why did this killer, whoever he was, go after Vanessa of all people? In all their ugly history, this was the first time one of Owen’s many wives died of something other than Charlie’s meticulously planned accidents.
He leaned back. An ice-cold ache seized the ghost of his lower left shin. Like an arthritis flare-up that warned of rain, his missing part sometimes flashed pain signals when trouble was headed his way. It was an omen he couldn’t entirely dismiss.
He reached down with one hand and massaged his stump while Owen went on about how much he’d loved the girl. How sweet she was. How beautiful. How adoring.
Charlie had heard these sentiments expressed too many times. This relationship, like all Owen’s previous ones, had ended in separation. This one barely lasted a year.
He sipped his coffee and turned to business. “Listen, Owen. You’d best not file a claim just yet. Soon as you file, Little Rock Beneficial will contact the cops and tell them the victim was insured for almost a million dollars, with you the beneficiary. Alibi or not, you don’t want to hand anyone a reason to look harder at you.”
“Let them look.”
Charlie leaned forward. “You really want a bunch of homicide detectives poking around? Digging into your history? Putting one of your false IDs under a microscope?”
That silenced Owen. They both knew the IDs Owen bought were only meant for casual inspection. They weren’t designed to withstand the rigorous scrutiny of a homicide investigation. Any loose thread could end up unraveling Owen’s entire marital record. A record that covered years and years of dead wives and more than twenty million bucks in insurance payouts.
Charlie added, “I’m not saying we give up on the money. Let’s just give this Detective Whatsit--Mazurski time to clear the case. Nail the killer. How did he strike you? Competent?”
“Very much so.”
“I’ll check him out.” Charlie jotted notes. “Anyway, even if you did file now, the money would be held up during the investigation.”
“Which you could be monitoring. As a senior investigator and all.”
“R-r-right. Listen, Owen. I don’t want to go anywhere near it. I’m not comfortable with the both of us tromping around in the net.” All he needed was to get himself tangled up with a bunch of homicide cops, letting his ugly fire-scarred face pop up on Mazurski’s radar. No thank you. “Don’t worry. Just go on about your business. But Owen? Be sure to check for messages every day. Where you heading next, Ohio or Pennsylvania?”
“Youngstown. Keely’s expecting me.”
Owen’s other current wife, a cutie with short hair, a boyish figure, and about ten months left before her terminal visit from Charlie Novak. “Tell her ‘hey’ for me.”