Now, I seen a lot of stiffs in my day and learned that one is pretty much like another. This one was splayed out face up along the fine leather couch.
He wore an expensive penguin suit - classic black - but his once snow-white pleated shirt with the fancy French cuffs was now stained more than a few shades darker than his red cummerbund.
I could tell immediately cause of death wasn't gonna be a problem on this one. Heck, if that's all she wanted to know, my job was already done. Because sticking out of his chest, glittering in the afternoon sunlight that poured through the large windows, was the fanciest-ass knife I ever seen.
Its gold handle was festooned with dozens of blue and red and white stones - diamonds and sapphires and rubies. I thought for just a moment if it was in the cards I go out that way, this was the sort of knife I'd want used for the job. A real first class shiv, all right.
It took some effort, but after a while I was able to take my eyes off the fortune in jewels and focus a little attention on the stiff.
He musta been a real fancy boy in his day – the last of which was yesterday, near as I could tell. He wore his jet black hair slicked back to reveal a high forehead. He had a pencil thin moustache that even in death made me dislike him. I hated that pencil thin look. It always made me wonder what they were trying to hide.
Out of habit I checked his shoes. Frederico Leone blunt-toed Palermo's. I knew their leather was as genuine and supple as the couch the guy died on. Yeah, he was a real fancy boy all right. I took one last look at his face before deciding I'd seen enough.
Turning slowly, I walked back across the room. After taking my seat, I reached over and poured myself another cup of java before remembering my manners and pouring Mrs. Stark a warmer upper.
I saw another one of those eclairs on the fine silver platter and reached across and plopped it in my mouth. Murder always makes me hungry. I washed down the last of the éclair with a long slug and then began to ask questions.
"Who's the stiff?" I asked, real matter of fact.
It may sound heartless, but it's the way I operate. These first moments on a case sometimes make all the difference
She managed to pull her head out of her hands and look over at me, obviously surprised at the tone of my question. She wasn't used to being talked to that way, that much I could tell.
I watched those slot machine eyes start spinning again while keeping my own expression impassive. The look she finally settled on was somewhere between resignation and helplessness. It looked like she was about to get something off her chest.
"I don't like your tone, Mr. Londergan, but I guess that's neither here nor there. I'll have you know, however, that I am not accustomed to coming down for my morning tea and finding . . ." she gestured toward the long couch. ". . . that sort of thing. You can imagine how shocked I was!"
She put on a kind of plaintive look that mightta melted some men's hearts. Not this one.
"Who's the stiff?" I asked again.
She blew out a long sigh as she realized I was the type of guy who wasn't gonna put up with her just blowing smoke. That thought had me reach into the inside jacket of my slicker and pull out my deck.
"Mind if I smoke?" I asked. She shook her head no.
I lit up a pill and drew the smoke deep into my lungs. Blowing it out, I watched the smoke waft upward and turn into a blue cloud two stories above my head. I was gonna wait her out. I had all the time in the world. And after a while, she started to spill.
"His name is Enrico Fermini. He's a . . . business associate of my husband. There was a party here last evening. It was a benefit for the natural history museum. We're always having parties and benefits here for one thing or another. My husband is on the boards of dozens of museums and charities."
When she paused a moment, I asked, "What kind of business your husband in?"
She thought a moment about her answer.
"Well, he doesn't have to work, not really. His ancestors saw to that. So he keeps himself busy with his charity work and also serves on some corporate boards. I guess the closest thing he does for a living is antiquities. He is a collector of fine things, my husband is."
Looking across at her, I couldn't argue the point. She went on
"I suppose his passions are things from ancient times, from Babylon and Sumeria, cradle of civilization type stuff. But lately . . ." She paused.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It just seems that lately, this hobby of his has brought him into contact with some . . . shall we say . . . unsavory characters. The world of antiquities like those favored by my husband is shadowy and filled with intrigue. There is a huge black market in the stuff, although I refuse to believe that my husband would ever deal in that particular world."
I took advantage of her pause to throw in a question I thought pertinent.
"And our Mr. Fermini over there – the guy on the couch with a stick in him – remember him? Was he one of those 'unsavory characters' you spoke of?"
It was harsh, I know, so shut yer yap. But I needed to keep her off balance, see. I wasn't sure yet if I was buying anything she was selling so I laid it on a little thick. The jury was still out on this one as far as I was concerned. She gave me a look that could kill.
I couldn't help but wonder whether that same look was also the last thing our unfortunate Mr. Fermini had seen.