I have been made privy to some disturbing information regarding Freddie Bain, information that makes me more anxious than ever for the safety and well-being of Diantha. As I was sitting in my office this morning in a practically deserted Museum -- everyone who can has already officially or unofficially taken holiday leave -- Lieutenant Tracy called and said he wanted to drop by with Sergeant Lemure and Agent Jack Johnson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I said certainly, and not long afterwards they arrived. Dressed in a plain, but sharply pressed dark blue suit, Agent Johnson evinced the practiced no-nonsense demeanor of a veteran law enforcement officer. He took in, I noticed, some of the more outri items decorating the office but said nothing. He gave my hand a short, brisk shake and sat down in one of the three chairs I had pulled up before my desk for our meeting.
Flanked by Sergeant Lemure in rumpled suit and Lieutenant Tracy in tweed jacket and holiday tie, Agent Johnson started right in. "Mr. de Ratour," he said, getting my name right, "I hope you understand that the Bureau seldom shares information with a private citizen regarding an on-going criminal investigation ..."
"Or even with local police departments," Sergeant Lemure put in.
"That's right. But it seems the Bureau, the Seaboard Police Department, and you have a keen common interest in the activities of one Freddie Bain."
"Could you tell me why?"
"For several reasons. But one of them involves confidentiality and the others remain conjectural."
"If it involves criminal activity, Mr. de Ratour, I'm afraid I won't be able to comply with any request for confidentiality."
I nodded. "I don't believe it is criminal. But I will leave it to your judgment." I waited for him to nod and then continued. "A couple of months back one of our professors, or I should say, one of Wainscott's professors who was affiliated with the Museum, undertook a highly dangerous expedition to South America. Given the nature of the trip, we here at the Museum refused to fund any substantial part of it. We did underwrite his medical supplies and his insurance for medical evacuation."
"How was it dangerous?" Agent Johnson, a man in his forties, regarded me steadily with cool hazel eyes.
"It was very remote to begin with. A lot of outsiders have disappeared in exploring this territory. The situation, apparently, has been exacerbated recently by road-building and logging activities near tribal lands. The Yomamas are reputed to be cannibals as well as very fierce. Indeed, Professor Chard went there with the express purpose of witnessing an anthropophagic ritual."
"That's cannibalism," Sergeant Lemure put in.
Agent Johnson ignored the Sergeant. "And he got eaten instead?" There might have been the slightest touch of ironic humor in his tone.
"How do you know?"
"We have it on tape."
"I see. And how does Freddie Bain fit in to all this?"
"Mr. Bain funded most of Professor Chard's expedition."
The agent nodded. "Well, there's nothing illegal in that, is there? At least on the surface." He paused for a moment as though considering. He shifted in his seat. "And your other conjectures?"
I must say I felt a bit self-conscious detailing for this experienced FBI agent what amounted to little more than hunches. I had a sense as I reviewed my suspicions regarding the "love potion" deaths and Korky's kidnapping that Lieutenant Tracy and Sergeant Lemure wanted me, for professional reasons, to do the speculating for them.
Whatever the case, Agent Johnson listened with unnerving attention. When I finished, he said, "First off, Mr. de Ratour, I would advise you to be very careful in any dealings you have with Freddie Bain."
"Yeah, he ain't called 'The Bear' for nothing," Sergeant Lemure put in. Agent Johnson betrayed only an instant of irritation at the interruption. "It may help you if I fill you in on some of his background."
I nodded, waiting.
He glanced down at a notebook. "Freddie Bain was born Manfred Bannerhoff in the city of Omsk in the former Soviet Union. According to Interpol, Israeli police intelligence, and other sources, his father, Gerhardt Bannerhoff, was an officer in the Wehrmacht in World War II. He was taken prisoner when von Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad. He survived the Gulag, stayed in Russia and married a Russian woman by whom, though well into his forties, he fathered Manfred. When he came of age, Manfred Bannerhoff changed his last name to Bannerovich. Then came Glasnost. Gorbachov opened the Soviet borders during the eighties to Jewish emigration, Bannerovich had himself circumcised, changed his name to Moshe ben Rovich, passed for a Jew, and made his way to Tel Aviv. Apparently a good number of Gentile Russians found themselves to be the sons and daughters of Israel during that time."
"Yeah, a lot of Aryan-looking guys were walking around with sore dicks right around then," Sergeant Lemure said, as though this time to deliberately irk the agent.
"History," I murmured, "is full of ironies."
Agent Johnson went on. "What Russia also exported to Israel was a criminal culture so cynical and cold-blooded in its operations, it makes the Cosa Nostra look like a gentlemen's club. Anyway, Moshe wanted bigger fish to fry than what was available in Tel Aviv. And besides, the Israelis are not that easy to exploit."
"Yeah, they've all got guns and know to use them," Sergeant Lemure said.
"So he emigrated to America?" I asked.
"How could he do that? I mean if he was a criminal."
"He's also a businessman. He had accumulated substantial capital, enough to make himself respectable. His papers were in order. He didn't have a record. He landed in New York and changed his name to Freddie Bain, all-American boy. Along the way, incidentally, he picked up fluent German, Hebrew, French, English, some Tibetan, and his native Russian, of course."
"He still has no record, officially," Lieutenant Tracy put in.
Agent Johnson leaned back as though to give the floor to Sergeant Lemure.
"Right," the Sergeant said, "no priors, but he's got a rap sheet as long as your arm. Extortion, armed robbery, prostitution, drug dealing, murder. But no convictions and no outstanding warrants."
"Amazing," I said.
The Sergeant shrugged. "He has a slew of Ivy League lawyers working for him. Anyway, he got in thick with the Russian mob in Brooklyn. Got right in up to his neck. The word on the street is that he crossed Victor "Dead Meat" Karnivorsky on a million-dollar drug deal. Karnivorsky put out a contract on him. He's called Dead Meat because once he says you're dead meat, you're dead meat.
"But he's still alive," I said, stating the obvious.
"Right. Freddie made a deal from what we've heard. He was allowed to live once he paid Karnivorsky twice what he owed him and agreed to disappear."
"So he came up here."
"Eventually. First he took off for Tibet for a couple of years. I mean he disappeared."
Agent Johnson had the floor again. "Right. Then he landed here and quickly took over the Seaboard mob."
"Seaboard has a mob?" I asked with some amazement.
"Every place has some kind of mob," the Agent said with weary cynicism. "Anyway, we can't pin anything on him, but we think he's mixed up in narcotics, prostitution, extortion, and probably quite a few legitimate businesses. He's a very shrewd operator. He knows who to pay off and who to scare off. We suspect he may run a major pipeline for drugs moved around here and up and down the East Coast. We think he uses spices as a cover, but we haven't been able to prove anything."
"But why would he bother with Corny's expedition?"
"He's that kind of guy, Mr. de Ratour. He likes getting involved with things, weird things."
"He certainly has Nazi leanings," I said.
Agent Johnson nodded. "That's been noted. But he's also been a rabid Buddhist, an advocate for alien abductions, and a devotee of astral travel."
"And now cannibalism," Sergeant Lemure said.
"One other thing, Mr. de Ratour. Would you mind telling me how you know for sure that your professor is dead?"
"I was sent a tape. It's quite graphic."
The agent nodded. "I figured as much. And given that Freddie Bain paid for the expedition, don't be surprised if he doesn't come looking for that tape if he gets wind of it."
"He already has," I said. I hesitated and then said, "I know him personally. I've even been out to his place, it's in the Hayes Mountains, west of here."
"The Eigermount," Agent Johnson nodded, very interested in what I had to say. "Could you describe the interior for me?"
I did so in some detail. I also told him about the shady characters and how there seemed a lot of coming and going for an ordinary household. I admitted that my stepdaughter Diantha Lowe was out there with him as we spoke.
Agent Johnson nodded as though he already knew. Of a sudden I realized why he was here, why he was telling me all this, and what he wanted. "Is there anyway you could get in touch with her?" he asked.
"She has one of those pocket phones," I said. "Why do you ask?"
The Agent appeared to muse to himself. "Perhaps she could look around for us."
"That could be very dangerous," Lieutenant Tracy put in.
"Too dangerous," I said. "I don't want her exposing herself like that. I want her home."
The FBI man nodded, not at all rebuffed. "When she comes home, I would like to talk to her if that's possible. She might have learned something. She might be able to provide us with a pretext for a search warrant." He took out a card and put it on the desk.
They left a short while later, the federal agent mixing banalities of caution with those of reassurance. I wasn't reassured in the least. To me it seemed a sump hole of evil had opened up right under my feet. I wouldn't have been surprised if Freddie Bain had had something to do with Elsbeth's death.
So I sit here now, in my own little eyrie, on the longest night of the year, resisting an overwhelming urge to take my father's gun, drive out to that ridiculous stone bastion, make that gangster listen to my rebuttals, and rescue my step-daughter. But I fear that, upon arrival, Diantha would answer the door, laugh at my intentions, and invite me in for a drink by the fire.