Extract: Win by Harlan Coben
Over twenty years ago, heiress Patricia Lockwood was abducted during a robbery of her family’s estate, then locked inside an isolated cabin for months. Patricia escaped, but so did her captors, and the items stolen from her family were never recovered. Until now.
On New York’s Upper West Side, a recluse is found murdered in his penthouse apartment, alongside two objects of note: a stolen Vermeer painting and a leather suitcase bearing the initials WHL3. For the first time in years, the authorities have a lead not only on Patricia’s kidnapping but also on another FBI cold case – with the suitcase and painting both pointing them towards one man. Windsor Horne Lockwood III – or Win as his few friends call him – doesn’t know how his suitcase and his family’s stolen painting ended up in this dead man’s apartment. But he’s interested – especially when the FBI tell him that the man who kidnapped his cousin was also behind an act of domestic terrorism, and that he may still be at large.
The two cases have baffled the FBI for decades. But Win has three things the FBI does not: a personal connection to the case, a large fortune, and his own unique brand of justice…
We hit a little bit of a wall. Young and Lopez want to take me someplace without further explanation. Sadie will have none of that. Eventually I intervene, and we come to an agreement of sorts. I will go with them. I will not be interrogated or questioned without an attorney present.
Sadie, who is wise beyond her thirty years, doesn’t like this. She pulls me aside and says, “They’ll question you anyway.”
“I’m aware. This isn’t my first run-in with the authorities.” Nor my second or third or… but Sadie does not need to know this. I don’t want to continue stalling or being “lawyered up” for three reasons: One, Sadie has a court appearance, and I don’t want to hold her up. Two, if this does involve Teddy “Big T” Lyons, I would prefer that Sadie not hear about it in this rather head-on manner for obvious reasons. Three, I’m curious about this murder and preternaturally overconfident. Sue me.
Once in the car, we travel uptown. Lopez drives, Young sits next to him. I am in the backseat. Oddly enough, anxiety is coming off them like tangible sonar. They are both trying to be professional – and they are — but under that, I can sense the undercurrent. This murder is something different, something out of the ordinary. They are trying to hide that, but their excitement is a pheromone I cannot fail to smell.
Lopez and Young start off by giving me the customary silent treatment. The theory is a rather simple one: Most people hate silence and will do anything to break it, including saying something incriminating.
I’m almost insulted that they are trying this tactic on me.
I don’t engage, of course. I settle into the backseat, steeple my fingers, and stare out the car window as though I’m a tourist on my first visit to the big bad city.
Finally, Young says, “We know about you.”
I reach into my jacket pocket and press down on my phone. The conversation is now being recorded. It will go straight to the cloud in case one of my new FBI friends discovers that I’m recording and opts for deletion or phone breakage.
I am nothing if not prepared.
Young turns to face me. “I said, we know about you.”
Silence from me.
“You used to do some stuff for the Bureau,” she says.
That they know anything about my relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation surprises me, though I don’t show it. I did work for the FBI immediately after I graduated from Duke University, but my work was highly classified. The fact that someone told them — it had to be someone on top — again informs me that this murder case is out of the ordinary.
“Heard you were good,” Lopez says, catching my eye in the rearview mirror.
Moving quickly now from the silent treatment to flattery. Still I give them nothing.
We drive up Central Park West, my home street. The odds now seem slim that this murder has to do with Big T. For one thing, I know that Big T survived, albeit not intact. Second, if the feds wanted to question me for anything related to that, we would be headed downtown toward their headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza; instead, here we are, traveling in the opposite direction, toward my own abode in the Dakota, on the corner of Central Park West and Seventy-Second Street.
I consider this fact. I live alone now, so it is not as though the victim could be a loved one. It could be that the courts had issued some sort of search warrant for my residence and found something incriminating that they wish to spring on me, but this too seems unlikely. One of the Dakota doormen would have warned me of such an invasion. One of my hidden alarms would have buzzed my phone. I’m also not careless enough to leave around anything that might implicate me for authorities to locate.
To my surprise, Lopez drives us past the Dakota without a pause. We continue uptown. Six blocks later, as we reach the Museum of Natural History, I spot two NYPD squad cars parked in front of the Beresford, another esteemed prewar apartment building, at Eighty-First Street.
Lopez is now studying me in the rearview mirror. I look at him and frown.
The Beresford doormen wear uniforms seemingly inspired by Soviet generals from the late seventies. As Lopez pulls to a stop, Young turns to me and asks, “Do you know anybody in this building?”
My reply is a smile and silence.
She shakes her head. “Fine, let’s go.”
With Lopez on my right and Young on my left, they escort me straight through the marble lobby and into an already-waiting wood-paneled elevator. When Young presses the button for the top floor, I realize that we are heading into rarefied air — figuratively, literally, and mostly monetarily. One of my employees, a vice president at Lock-Horne Securities, owns a “classic six” apartment on the fourth floor of the Beresford with limited views of the park. He paid over five million dollars for it. Young turns to me and says, “Any clue where we are headed?”
“Up?” I say.
I bat my eyes in modesty.
“The top floor,” she says. “Been there before?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Do you know who lives there?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“I figured all you rich guys know each other.”
“Stereotyping is wrong,” I say.
“But you’ve been to this building before, right?”
The elevator door opens with a ding before I bother not replying. I figured that we would be let out into a grand apartment — elevators often open directly into penthouse suites — but we are in a dark corridor. The wallpaper is a heavy maroon fabric. The open door on the right leads to a corkscrew staircase of wrought iron. Lopez goes up first. Young signals for me to follow. I do so.
There is junk everywhere.
Six-foot stacks of old magazines, newspapers, and books line both sides of the stairs. We need to go up single file — I spot a Time magazine from 1998 — and even then we have to turn our bodies to the side to slip through the narrow opening.
The stench is suffocating.
It is a cliché, but it is a cliché with merit: Nothing smells like a decaying human body. Young and Lopez both cover their noses and mouths. I do not.
The Beresford has four turrets, one atop each corner of the edifice. We reach the landing of the northeastern one. Whoever lives here (or perhaps more accurately, lived), up high on the top level of one of the most prestigious buildings in Manhattan, was a full-fledged hoarder. We can barely move. Four crime technicians in full garb with the shower caps are attempting to comb and climb through the clutter.
The corpse has already been zipped up. I’m surprised that they haven’t moved it out of here yet, but everything about this is odd.
I still have no idea why I’m here.
Young shows me a photograph of what I assume is the dead man — eyes closed, white sheet pulled up high on the body, right up to the chin. He was an older man with white-to-gray skin. I would venture to say in his early seventies. He is bald on top with a gray hair ring that’s overgrown by the ears. His beard is big and thick and curly and dirty-white, so that it looks as though he were eating a sheep when the photograph was taken.
“Do you know him?” Young asks.
I opt for the truth. “No.” I hand the photograph back. “Who is he?”
“Yes, I figured that, thank you. His name, I mean.”
The agents exchange a glance. “We don’t know.”
“Did you ask the tenant?”
“It is our belief,” Young says, “that he is the tenant.”
“This tower room was purchased almost thirty years ago by an LLC using an untraceable shell company.”
Untraceable. I know this all too well. I use similar financial instruments often, not so much to avoid taxation, though that is often a fringe benefit. In my case — as it appears was the case for our late hoarder — such actions are more about anonymity.
“No identification?” I say.
“We haven’t found one yet.”
“The building employees —”
“He lived alone. Deliveries were left at the bottom of the steps. The building has no security cameras in the upstairs corridors, or if they do, they aren’t admitting it. Co-op fees were paid on time from the LLC. According to the doormen, Hermit — that was their nickname for him — was a big-time recluse. He went out rarely and when he did, he would wrap his face in a scarf and leave via a secret basement exit. The manager just found him this morning after the smell started wafting down to the floor below.”
“And no one in the building knows who he is?”
“Not so far,” Young says, “but we’re still going door-to-door.”
“So the obvious question,” I say.
“Why am I here?”
Young seems to expect me to reply. I don’t.
“Come with us.”
As we start to the right, I can see the view of the Natural History Museum’s giant round planetarium across the street, and to the left, Central Park in all its glory. My apartment too has a rather enviable view of the park, though the Dakota is only nine stories high while here we are somewhere above the twentieth floor.
I am not easily surprised, but when I enter the bedroom — when I see the reason why they brought me here — I pull up. I do not move. I just stare. I fall into the past, as though the image in front of me is a time portal. I am an eight-year-old boy sneaking my way into Granddad’s parlor at Lockwood Manor. The rest of my extended family are still out in the garden. I wear a black suit and stand by myself on the ornate parquet floor. This is before the family destruction or perhaps, looking back on it now, this is the very moment of the first fissure. It is Granddad’s funeral. This parlor, his favorite room, has been over-sprayed with some kind of cloying disinfectant, but the familiar, comforting smell of Granddad’s pipe still dominates. I relish it. I reach out with a tentative hand and touch the leather of his favorite chair, almost expecting him to materialize in it, cardigan sweater, slippers, pipe, and all. Eventually, my eight-year-old self works up the courage to hoist myself up to sit in the wingback chair. When I do, I look up at the wall above the fireplace, just as Granddad so often did.
I know that Young and Lopez are watching me for a reaction.
“At first,” Young says, “we thought it had to be a forgery.”
I continue to stare, just as I did as an eight-year-old in that leather chair.
“So we grabbed an art curator from the Met across the park,” Young continues. The Met being shorthand for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “She wants to get this off this wall and run some tests, just to be positive, but she’s pretty certain this is the real deal.”
The hoarder’s bedroom, as opposed to the rest of the tower, is neat, tidy, spare, utilitarian. The bed against the wall is made. There is no headboard. The side table is bare except for a pair of reading glasses and a leather-bound book. I now know why I was brought here — to see the only thing hanging on the wall.
The oil painting simply called The Girl at the Piano by Johannes Vermeer.
Yes, that Vermeer. Yes, that painting.
This masterpiece, like most of the only thirty-four Vermeer paintings in existence, is small, a foot and a half tall by a foot and four inches wide, though it packs an undeniable punch in its simplicity and beauty. This Girl, purchased nearly a hundred years ago by my great-grandfather, used to hang in the parlor of Lockwood Manor. Twenty-plus years ago, my family loaned this painting, valued in excess of $200 million by today’s standards, along with the only other masterpiece we owned, Picasso’s The Reader, to the Lockwood Gallery in Founders Hall on the campus of Haverford College. You may have read about the nighttime burglary. Over the years, there have been constant false sightings of both masterpieces — most recently, the Vermeer on a yacht belonging to a Middle Eastern prince. None of these leads (and I’ve checked several personally) panned out. Some theorized that the theft was the work of the same crime syndicate who stole thirteen works of art, including works by Rembrandt, Manet, Degas, and yes, a Vermeer, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
None of the stolen works from either robbery has ever been recovered.
“Any thoughts?” Young asks.
I had put up two empty frames in Granddad’s parlor, both as a homage to what was taken and a promise that his masterpieces would someday be returned.
Now that promise, it seems, will be at least half fulfilled.
“The Picasso?” I ask.
“No sign of it,” Young says, “but as you can see, we still have a lot to look through.”
The Picasso is far larger — over five feet tall and four feet wide. If it was here, chances seem strong that it would have been found already.
“Any other thoughts?” Young asks.
I gesture toward the wall. “When can I bring it home?”
“That’ll take some time. You know the drill.”
“I know a renowned art curator and restorer at NYU. His name is Pierre Emmanuel Claux. I would like him to handle the piece.”
“We have our own people.”
“No, Special Agent, you do not. In fact, per your own admission, you grabbed a random person from the Met this morning —”
“Hardly a random —”
“This is not a big ask,” I continue. “My person is educated in how to authenticate, handle, and if necessary, restore a masterpiece like few people in the world.”
“We can look into it,” Young says, trying to move us past this topic. “Any other thoughts?”
“Was the victim strangled or was his throat cut?”
They exchange another glance. Then Lopez clears his throat and says, “How do —?”
“The sheet was covering his neck,” I say. “In the photograph you showed me. That was done, I surmise, to cover trauma.”
“Let’s not get into that, okay?” Young says.
“Do you have a time of death?” I ask.
“Let’s not get into that either.”
Shorter version: I’m a suspect.
I’m not sure why. Surely, if I had done this deed, I would have taken the painting with me. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I was clever enough to have murdered him and left the painting so it would be found and returned to my family.
“Do you have any other thoughts that might help us?” Young asks.
I don’t bother with the obvious theory: The hermit was an art thief. He liquidated most of what he pilfered, used the profits to hide his identity, set up an anonymous shell company, purchased the apartment. For some reason — most likely because he either loved it or it was too hot to unload — he kept the Vermeer for himself.
“So,” Young continues, “you’ve never been here before, right?”
Her tone is too casual.
Interesting. They clearly believe they have evidence that I have been in this turret. I haven’t been. It is also clear that they took the unusual step of bringing me to the murder scene to knock me off my game. If they had followed the normal protocol of a murder investigation and taken me to an interrogation room, I would be on my guard and defensive. I might have brought a criminal attorney.
What, pray tell, do they think they have on me?
“On behalf of my family, I’m grateful the Vermeer has been found. I hope this leads to the speedy recovery of the Picasso. I’m now ready to return to my office.”
Young and Lopez don’t like this. Young looks at Lopez and nods. Lopez slips into the other room.
“One moment,” Young says. She reaches into her binder and pulls out another photograph. When she shows it to me, I am yet again puzzled.
“Do you recognize this, Mr. Lockwood?”
To buy time, I say, “Call me Win.”
“Do you recognize this, Win?”
“You know that I do.”
“It’s your family crest, is that correct?”
“It is, yes.”
“It will obviously take us a long time to go through the victim’s apartment,” Young continues.
“So you said.” “But we found one item in the closet of this bedroom.” Young smiles. She has, I notice, a nice smile. “Only one.”
Lopez reenters the room. Behind him, a crime scene technician carries an alligator-leather suitcase with burnished metal hardware. I recognize the piece, but I can’t believe it. It makes no sense.
“Do you recognize this suitcase?” Young asks.
But of course, I do. Years ago, Aunt Plum had one made up for every male member of the family. They are all adorned with the family crest and our initials. When she gave it to me — I was fourteen at the time — I tried very hard not to frown. I don’t mind expensive and luxurious. I do mind vulgar and wasteful.
“The bag has your initials on it.”
The technician tipped the luggage so I could see the tacky baroque monogram:
“That’s you, right? WHL3 — Windsor Horne Lockwood the Third?”
I don’t move, don’t speak, don’t give anything away. But, without sounding overly melodramatic, this discovery has given my world a shove off its axis.
“So, Mr. Lockwood, do you want to tell us why your luggage is here?”
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