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First, Do No Harm
The Midnight Special
Scamming the Birdman
The Music Box Murders
The Enchanted Ear
The View from the Vue

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A Mystery


Larry Karp


Chapter One



Blistering mid-August day, coming up on noon. New York's a cauldron of bubbling road tar. Hugh Curtis and I wait on the sidewalk in front of Goldfarb's Confectionery, directly across Broadway from the eight-story, gray stone Rigby Building. Shading my eyes, I squint up past a row of leering gargoyles to second-story windows where gold-block letters proclaim the location of LoPriore Importers, Inc.


I nudge an elbow into Hugh's ribs. "Don't forget, I've never seen this guy. Soon as you spot him, holler. We'll follow him up the street to Union Square Park; when he turns into the crowd at 14th we'll get right behind him. Be careful in case he looks around--he knows you, too. Keep the gun inside your jacket; when it's time, just shove the barrel square against the back of his chest. I showed you where the heart is, right?"


Hugh nods. "Yeah."


"Okay. Quick two shots, that's all, clean hit. He'll go right down on the sidewalk, not make a sound. By the time anybody bothers to stop and check him out we'll be halfway back to my place."


Another muttered, "Yeah." Hugh's voice is as grim as his gray eyes. In the ten minutes we've been at our watchpost those eyes haven't come off the entrance to the building.


I rock back and forth on my heels. Without relaxing his vigil Hugh works a cigarette out of his pocket, slips it into the right corner of his mouth, flicks a match into flame, lights up. He blows a cloud of smoke toward the street.


"Where's the gun?" I whisper.


Hugh pats his jacket pocket. "I know where it is," he hisses without moving his lips. "I know where to point it. I know how to pull the goddamn trigger. Now would you shut the hell up."


I clasp my hands behind my back, lean gently against Goldfarb's window. People move past, a steady stream along the sidewalk, their chatter a band of white noise. I check my watch. 11:54.


Hugh grunts. "There. White turtleneck, white pants. Vincent LoPriore, the fuckhead."


LoPriore the Fuckhead is roughly my height, an inch or so short of six feet, with olive skin and a small, dark mustache. Stocky, solid, a walking tree trunk. He turns out of the building entryway and starts uptown on Broadway, bowling along as if he were angry at someone. It occurs to me blood will show too well against that white shirt. What if Hugh has the same thought?


"Let's go." Hugh's voice is hoarse.


He drops his cigarette, stubs it out with the toe of his shoe. Not taking his eyes off LoPriore, he wings along the sidewalk toward 14th Street, keeping pace with his quarry across the street. I stay close at his side.


At the corner the lights are with us; we trot across Broadway, go west on 14th. LoPriore's curious white outfit makes it easy to keep him in sight. The noontime mob at the southern end of Union Square is horrendous, but that's part of the strategy. LoPriore needs to go down in the short block between Broadway and University because past University the crowd will thin out to the point where someone might notice the shooting. Or LoPriore might turn around and catch sight of Hugh.


It's no easy thing for two men to work their way through a surging mass of lunch-bound New Yorkers -- particularly when those men don't want to attract attention. Hugh and I angle toward the street and snake-hip single-file along the curb, taking care to avoid the swooping crosstown buses and zipping taxicabs.


My heart drums. With the back of my hand I swipe water off my forehead. University Street is coming up fast. Above his orange-red mustache, Hugh's face is scarlet, gray eyes like ice. The man in white is now just a step ahead and a couple of paces to the left.


Suddenly Hugh veers away from the street, into the thick of the pedestrian traffic. I have to struggle to stay with him. We can't get separated now, not unless I want to be face-to-face with a first-class disaster. I elbow my way past an elderly woman with a shopping bag on her arm. "Bastard!" she shouts after me. "Hoodlum!" I ignore her. No choice. University Street is less than three yards ahead.


Once again the New York traffic gods smile on Hugh Curtis and Thomas Purdue. The corner light goes amber, then red. A few pedestrians scurry across; the rest pile up backward from the curb. I set my feet against the reverse human wave.

LoPriore is directly in front of us; I smell his musky male cologne. He's not a man who likes to wait: back and forth he shifts, from right foot to left to right again, all the while running fingers through his slick, black hair. I edge past Hugh so if LoPriore happens to turn around he'll see a stranger, not a sworn mortal enemy.


I glance at Hugh.


Hugh nods, almost imperceptibly.


As I watch the traffic light I silently rehearse the upcoming scene. The instant the light goes green I need to shove to the right.


Then Hugh can come forward, take his shots. No way can we let LoPriore get into the street and become visible in the rapidly expanding crowd. He's got to go down right on the curb, as if he tripped or slipped. The mob of New Yorkers will just charge past and over him, trying to make up the ninety seconds they lost standing in wait for the light to change.


Talk about hair-trigger timing and split-second operations.


The light flashes green.


The crowd surges. As I shift my body to the right, Hugh moves up smoothly to fill the breach. His right arm bends at the elbow.


Right hand slides inside his jacket.


Waves of heat rise from the blacktopped street. The blazing sun sends streams of perspiration flowing behind my ears and down my neck. The crowd jostles me in every direction.


A huge delivery truck roars into life, starts across the intersection. Through a shimmering haze of exhaust I watch in fascination as Hugh pushes his hand forward toward LoPriore. Hugh's arm jerks rigid once, twice.


Vincent LoPriore, a.k.a. The Birdman. Big-time collector of things that go chirp in their flight. Odd duck, this Birdman: flew his own course; never seen in any flock. Everyone in NYMBCA -- that's the New York Music Box Collectors Association -- knew of him. But no one knew him. Myself included.


Considering how low a profile LoPriore kept, it's amazing how many people in New York hated him. I could have made my fortune selling lottery tickets for the privilege of pulling that trigger.


Edna Reynolds would've jumped at the chance. In New York's antiques circles Edna's known as The Doll Lady, but there's nothing doll-like about her. She's a large woman with steel-gray hair and eyes to match, and when she sets her feet and speaks her mind -- often in language salty enough to conduct electricity -- the earth trembles. Edna's nickname comes from the fact that she collects automata: elegant dolls and whimsical furred animals which move in charming and funny ways to musical accompaniment. Edna's also an accomplished repairer and restorer, even creates her own original musical automata.


One of Edna's friends was sweet, dotty, blue-haired Carolyn Marcus, who collected modern musical trinkets. A few pathetic bars of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" from the 18-note musical movement inside a little porcelain girl with an umbrella over her shoulder, and Carolyn was on the express train to hobbyist heaven. But strange things happen. A few years back, Carolyn was making her way through the Armory Antiques Show, and what should she stumble upon but a magnificent singing mechanical bird by Bruguier, circa 1830. Carolyn thought it was adorable. Even better, the dealer was clueless. As Carolyn handed him her check, who should dash up to the booth but Vincent LoPriore. One of his scouts must have tipped him. He turned on the charm full-blast, offered Carolyn twice, then three times what she'd just paid, but no deal. "No thank you, young man," Carolyn told him. "I appreciate your offers, but I'm going to keep my new birdie."


Don't try to picture LoPriore's face.


That evening he went to Carolyn's apartment, offered her what must have seemed like enough money to buy every singing bird ever made. Poor old lady, it made no sense at all -- but she just didn't want to sell. Finally, LoPriore lost patience. Carolyn's cat, a gray-and-white striped butterball as round and as old as its mistress, was snoozing on a chair. LoPriore snatched it up, wrung its neck, and tossed the corpse onto the floor at Carolyn's feet. "Bad idea to keep cats around birds," he sneered as he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket and thrust them into Carolyn's shaking hand. Then he grabbed the Bruguier bird off the table. Carolyn pushed the money back at him and started to scream. LoPriore slapped his hand over her mouth, told her if she didn't shut her yap and keep it that way, there were going to be two dead old pussies on the floor. With that he left.


Carolyn staggered to the telephone, called Edna and somehow managed to get the story out. Edna said sit tight, she'd be right over, but Carolyn must have been too scared and addled to think straight. East 72nd Street was sixteen stories down. By the time Edna pulled up, puffing and snorting, the area was cordoned off, cops all over the place. For nearly an hour she watched the blueboys do their thing; then when the Roosevelt Hospital meat wagon left with its bagged load and the doorman started hosing down the red grainy splotch on the sidewalk, she walked quietly away.


Edna didn't talk to the cops. Not that she was afraid -- perish that thought. But Edna was seventy, had been around every block in Manhattan. She knew what the outcome would be once LoPriore mobilized his team of lawyers. Better to wait. She wouldn't forget.


Neither would Frank Maar forget Vincent LoPriore. Frank owns Wind Me Up, a hole-in-the-wall shop on West 12th crammed with some of the finest music boxes, automata, clocks and phonographs to be found in the world. NYMBCAns know Mr. Maar as Frank the Crank, partly because of what he sells, partly because he's as striking a manic-depressive as you'll ever see. To Frank's singular mind, drugs are chemicals and chemicals are poisons, so he careens through his days unmedicated. Never mind that his own body chemicals rage madly out of control: at least they're his chemicals. He'd as soon swig a glass of Drano as swallow a lithium tablet.


Frank's best friend used to be Paul Burleigh, who ran the Londontown Antiques Shop up on the West Side and was a high-ranking officer in Vincent LoPriore's bird-scouting army. The two bachelor antiques dealers talked to each other by phone at least once a day, had dinner together three or four times a week, and directed endless lines of buyers and sellers to each other's shops.

One afternoon Paul called Frank to tell him he'd found a spectacular early-nineteenth-century mechanical singing bird in a hand-carved wooden case, and no, in answer to Frank's question, he hadn't yet called LoPriore. Frank told his friend he had a customer for such a treasure, a wealthy collector who'd pay a high price and would then be good for beaucoup followup sales.

At dinner that night Paul gave Frank a big cardboard box, not altogether willingly. "What if LoPriore finds out?"


Frank laughed. "How's he gonna find out?"


Frank's question was never answered but Paul's was. First thing next morning Frank called his customer, sold him the wonderful singing bird, then tried to call Paul to share his manicky joy. But no one answered the shop phone. No answer at Paul's home either. Later that morning a browser found Paul on the floor in the back of his store, a hole placed with surgical precision midway between his eyes. No merchandise seemed to be missing and the cash register was closed, so the cops signed it out as a botched holdup: perp must've got scared and run.


For more than a week Frank sat at his desk in his locked shop, a pile of money in his safe, the Ancient Mariner with the albatross hung 'round his neck. Frank knew he owed Paul Burleigh a lot more than half the dough from the sale of the bird. How the hell was he ever going to pay off that debt?


My friend Broadway Schwartz also had a major account to square with LoPriore. Schwartz, a small man in his fifties with intense dark eyes and a long pointed nose, is an antiques picker, earns his living spotting diamonds in mountains of coal. Like athletic ability or artistic accomplishment, Schwartz's talent is an endowment, the outcome of a fortunate ripple in the gene pool. It's definitely been fortunate for me: the best music boxes in my collection have come thanks to the little man with the ever-present black fedora and the unparalleled eye and ear for quality.


Not long ago Schwartz uncovered a particularly good estate: an old woman died in her East End apartment, leaving an only daughter to dispose of sixty years' worth of accumulated goodies. Schwartz spent hours checking and listing the items. Next day he made rounds among dealers, taking enough money down to cover his purchase price. The rest -- his profit -- would come on delivery of the goods. But when he went back to close the deal and pick up the merchandise, the daughter wasn't alone. There was a man wearing a white suit and a cruel smile. "I think maybe you oughta split," the man said to Schwartz, and pointed at a beautiful mechanical bird in a cage, all gold and enamel, with a porcelain-dial clock on the bottom. "Mrs. Orbach sold me this already."


Schwartz thought Mrs. Orbach looked frightened.


"And she sold the rest of the stuff to a dealer, a good friend of mine -- guy put me on to the bird here. I think he oughta get a good reward for that -- don't you, Shorty?"


Schwartz looked at Mrs. Orbach. No question, she was scared, and not just a little. He'd heard about this Birdman; now he'd met him. Great.


No one's more street-savvy than Schwartz. He knew in any business there comes a time when you're smart to cut losses. He didn't say a word, just tipped his hat to Mrs. Orbach and left. The rest of the day he spent returning money. Didn't make him look good, but what could he do? "Me and her had a definite deal," he said to his disappointed customers. "But somebody else got in, paid her a bundle, and cut me out." Over dinner that night, his companion, Trudy, told him not to worry. "What goes around comes around," she said. Schwartz nodded grimly, more in hope than faith.


How do I know these stories? One: the antiques circle is a tight little world. Two: people are accustomed to telling doctors what they'd never say to anyone else. Three: I'm a doctor who collects antique music boxes. Simple.


Then there's Mr. Espinoza, whom I did not meet until the game was already underway. Espinoza's a round little teddy bear with a shy smile, big brown eyes, and a softly-accented voice like a warm bougainvillea-scented breeze at dusk in his native Puerto Rico.


Espinoza had as much reason as anyone to wish poachers on The Birdman. He owned and operated a small hotel on Madison, next door to the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Life, which happened to be the sanctuary in which Vincent LoPriore worshipped God.


After LoPriore's mother died it occurred to him to give the parish a priest's house in Mamma's name, adjacent to the church. Not just a house -- it would be on a full lot, fenced off from the street, with gardens and a little central fountain. A place of repose for body and soul; a refuge where parishioners could find peace in quiet contemplation. That's how LoPriore's attorney explained his client's idea to the TV news reporter. But to build this boon to Manhattan's mankind, Mr. LoPriore needed to acquire the lot next door and demolish the hotel that stood on it. And the owner, Mr. Espinoza, didn't want to sell. Would, in fact, not sell, despite having been offered a very reasonable price, more than double what the place was worth.


Espinoza's refusals were courteous but firm. He appreciated Mr. LoPriore's generosity, but this was his home. He'd run the hotel for nearly a quarter-century, first with his wife and for the past four years since her death, by himself. Sure he could take the money and open a new place somewhere else in the city, but aside from sentimental considerations he had built up a large and loyal clientele over the years. They liked the accommodations, they liked the location; how many of them would follow him? "No, thank you, Mr. LoPriore, but I do not want to sell."


The TV reporter interviewed the priest. Picture the Army's newest second lieutenant being asked his views on a dispute between the Secretary of Defense and the dovish chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. The poor young man kept tugging at his collar and looking away from the camera as if hoping to spot someone who might rescue him from his inquisitor. Well, certainly, yes, it would be lovely to have such a facility, and it is very generous of Mr. LoPriore, and of course it would be a fitting tribute to his late mother ... but on the other hand, he could definitely understand Mr. Espinoza's feelings. Mr. Espinoza was also a member of his congregation; he would never want to see Mr. Espinoza coerced ...


Vincent LoPriore, though, seems not to have been quite so tenderhearted about coercion. Unpleasant things started to happen. In twenty-five years no one had seen a rat in Espinoza's hotel, but all of a sudden guests were finding large rodents in their rooms, some alive, some dead. Men with ugly scars and flaming tattoos stood on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, telling prospective customers they didn't really want to stay there. Then one afternoon two men checked in for overnight. In the morning Espinoza asked them how they'd enjoyed their stay. "Terrible," one of them said. "All the furniture's broken up, there's two smashed windows, the toilet's running water all over the place, and shit's smeared on the walls and ceilings. I think I'll register a complaint."


Whereupon he reached across the counter, grabbed Espinoza by the throat, and punched him in the eye. As the little man fell, his assailant said, "They shouldn't let crummy places like this stay open."


As usual, LoPriore had no public statement but his attorney expressed dismay when the TV reporter followed up with him after interviewing Espinoza in the hospital. "Mr. LoPriore still wants to acquire the property," the mouthpiece intoned. "But he deeply regrets this terrible act of hooliganism; in fact he asked me to convey his best wishes for a speedy recovery to Mr. Espinoza. It's a disgrace, how unsafe New York has become. Something ought to be done about it."


My wife, Sarah, sitting next to me, shouted, "Oh, what a liar!" Nurse-social workers go heavy on indignation.


I looked up from my book, studied the TV screen.


"That poor little Mr. Espinoza," Sarah crooned. "I think something ought to be done about people like Vincent LoPriore!"


Better lucky than good. Not only did Sarah mention LoPriore's name, but at the moment I focused on the TV the reporter was standing in the entry to Espinoza's hotel. THE REGINA, said the gold letters above her head; I chuckled. The Regina was a lovely disc-playing music box, manufactured a hundred years ago in Rahway, New Jersey. Doctors have good memories. When it came time to do something about Vincent LoPriore I remembered the Regina.



End of Chapter One