Class Act

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Stone Barrington takes down old and new enemies in the latest thriller from perennial fan favorite Stuart Woods.
 

After a rocky jaunt in Maine, Stone Barrington is settling back in New York City when an old client reaches out for help with a delicate matter. A feud they thought was put to rest long ago has reemerged with a vengeance, and reputations—and money—are now on the line.
 
As Stone sets out to unravel a tangled web of crime and secrets, his mission becomes even more complicated when he makes an irresistible new acquaintance. In both the underbelly and upper echelons of New York, everyone has something to hide—and if Stone has learned anything, it’s that history has a way of repeating itself…
 
 

Excerpt

1

Stone Barrington hipped his way out of a cab (the Bentley was being serviced) and found a discreet doorway with a polished brass number. He rang a bell, which was answered by a silken female voice. "How may I help you?" She made it sound more like a bordello than what he was looking for.

"Stone Barrington to see John Coulter."

"Please come in." A buzzer gently sounded.

Stone entered the doorway, which led him to another doorway, that led to a comfortably furnished sitting room-Chesterfield sofa, wing chairs, etcetera-which made the place seem more like an exclusive gentleman's club. A young woman in a Chanel suit sat behind a large, mahogany desk. "Good morning," she said, identifying herself by her voice as the person Stone had heard on the intercom. "Mr. Barrington?"

"Yes."

"Will you follow me?"

That turned out to be an unexpected pleasure, as the suit was snug and its contents shapely. She led him to a door bearing a brass-plate placard: lark was imprinted upon it. She knocked gently, but firmly. There was a muffled response, then she opened the door and stood back for Stone to enter first.

The room was akin to a junior suite in an upscale boutique hotel. Once the door had closed behind him, he found that even the hospital bed was made of mahogany, as was the rack beside it, from which a pair of IV bags were draped. The lighting was pleasant, without the usual glare, a cheerful conflagration burned in a gas fireplace and a silk dressing gown hung from a peg on the wall near the foot of the bed.

"Stone?" a man's voice asked. "Is that you? It hurts to open my eyes." The man was unidentifiable, because of a large bandage across the bridge of his nose.

"It is I, Jack. I hope you feel a good deal better than you look."

"They just gave me some morphine. It will kick in shortly, then I'll feel human again." Jack Coulter's voice was the well-modulated, upper-accented baritone Stone had expected.

"Ahhhh," Jack breathed.

"The morphine kicked in?"

"I'm probably going to become addicted before they let me out of here. Would you like a drink?"

"What, grain alcohol?"

"There's a bar in the cupboard over there." Jack waved a hand.

Stone opened the door and found a full wet bar-sink, ice machine, a row of Baccarat whiskey glasses, and a dozen choices of libation. He found a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon, filled a glass with ice, then filled that with bourbon. "I'm not offering you one, because I don't think you should mix booze and morphine," he said.

"I don't need it," Jack said contentedly. "Have a seat."

Stone pulled up a well-padded, burnished leather armchair and sank into it. Jack seemed to doze for a moment. Stone took the opportunity to reminisce about his first encounter with the man who had walked into his office, in his Turtle Bay townhouse, a few years back. He was maybe six-four, 250, wearing a dated suit that he could barely button. He had had a haircut that had been inflicted entirely with electric shears, and had been carrying a large suitcase and a smaller, non-matching duffel. He was frightening, until he spoke, in a voice much like the one he used now. He was also a good storyteller.

His name was John Fratelli, he said, and he had been a guest at an upstate hostelry called Sing Sing, until early that morning. He had spent the past twenty-three years there and had served all his time, without application for parole.

That explained the haircut, Stone thought, and the twenty-three years explained the suit. Stone inquired as to why he had not accepted parole. Fratelli explained that he had had an obligation to protect a fellow resident, who was smaller and weaker than he, and who had been in increasingly delicate health for the past three years. A few days earlier, he had died in his bed. His name was Eduardo Buono.

Fratelli's name meant nothing to Stone, but Buono's rang a loud bell. He had been the mastermind behind the heist of fifteen million dollars from a currency-handling operation at John F. Kennedy Airport, after which he had distributed half the take among a half dozen abettors, then vanished into the mists with the other seven and a half million, after instructing them not to spend a penny of the money for a year. They had, of course, paid off their bookies, were fitted with new wardrobes, and drove shiny new Cadillacs off dealers' lots-all this in the first two weeks after their score. When arrested and confronted with their misdeeds and the sentences they would probably draw, they had ratted out, as the expression goes, their benefactor, Eduardo Buono, who thereafter never said a word to anybody until he met John Fratelli, on the bus from Rikers Island to Ossining.

The two men had bonded on the drive up, to the point where Buono had confessed to his new friend that he was terrified of being raped in prison and sought his help in avoiding that fate. Fratelli's mien was imposing enough that few challenged him, and Buono had served his time virginally. Late in his life he gave Fratelli a reward for his fealty, the name and address of a New York City bank and the number of a large safe-deposit box and its key, which had resided for better than two decades in the orifice he had been so anxious to protect.

Fratelli said he had just come from the bank.

Stone had looked at the man's tatty luggage with new respect and discovered what appeared to be two bullet holes. Fratelli said that someone had gotten there ahead of him and had been waiting when he left the bank.

For the next hour or so, the two men had conducted a wide-ranging discussion, under the protection of attorney-client privilege, on the means of disappearing from New York City, arriving in a place where Fratelli could be more anonymous, change his identity and make more secure banking arrangements. Stone had also directed him to Brooks Brothers, where he could find apparel more suitable to the current quarter of the century.

Stone had heard from Fratelli sporadically, piecing together his story from their chats over the years. Fratelli had lost weight, grown hair, opened an offshore account, and met a very nice woman and her family, who were people of means. A few months later Stone had attended their wedding, and they had settled down in Hillary Coulter's Fifth Avenue apartment. The next time Stone had seen them was at a large dinner party in that apartment, during which men with shotguns had entered and relieved all present of their jewelry. Jack Coulter had thought people from his past had done it, but that turned out not to be true.

"Stone," Jack said, waking from his reverie. "I expect you want to know how I got here."

"If you'd like to tell me, Jack."

"Michael O'Brien," he explained.

O'Brien had been among the detectives investigating the robbery, and he thought he had recognized Coulter as Fratelli. Stone had disabused him of that notion, and they had heard no more about it, until now.

"Tell me how it happened," Stone said.

2

Jack Coulter said he had been walking up Lexington Avenue, alone. "I had just had a haircut and manicure at my regular barbershop, Nino's, in a hotel around the corner," he said. "I was shoved from behind. When I turned to look at the source of the aggravation, I caught a brief glimpse of O'Brien's face, then I was struck in the face by what I believe to have been a blackjack. The next thing I remember was my wife, Hillary, bending over me and saying that an ambulance was on the way."

"How did Hillary happen to be there?"

"She was walking down Lex in the opposite direction and saw a crowd of people hovering over someone, who turned out to be me. I passed out again and woke up in this hospital. Hillary knew the place, because she had a facelift here a couple of years ago. They specialize in facial work, and she wanted me to have the best possible nose man."

"I'm sure it will be fine, once you're healed," Stone said.

"The doctor says it will be better than fine. He worked from some old photos of me that Hillary had on her iPhone. He says people won't recognize me with my new nose."

"That sounds good. How long before it goes on display?"

"A couple of weeks or so," Jack said. "I'll have to wear a plastic cup over it for a while, so as not to frighten people. Right now, without the bandage, I've got two black eyes, and look like a raccoon."

"I look forward to meeting the new you."

"I thought, as long as I have to wear a disguise for a couple of weeks, I might as well find Detective Michael O'Brien and kill him."

"Whoa, there, Jack," Stone said. "That won't solve anything; you'd be in worse trouble than before. I take it O'Brien wants your seven million dollars."

"It's a lot more than that now. I invested wisely."

"I should consult you for stock tips," Stone said.

"I can introduce you to a friend from childhood who operates out of South Florida. If you've got a million to invest, he'll get you five percent a week."

"He must be one hell of a stockbroker," Stone said.

"He's a loan shark, who works for the biggest bookie in the state of Florida. The bookie feeds him a steady flow of borrowers."

"Well, that's interesting, but not for me. Do you think it's a secure means of investing?"

"Well, he doesn't know my new name or where I am. His organization sends couriers with cash to various offshore banks, then they wire my five percent to my offshore account."

"They have that account number?"

"There's one account number set up for deposits, and a different one for withdrawals."

"Suppose your, ah, lending friend or his boss should just decide to keep your million and not pay?"

"They know I can find them. Before I was incarcerated I had a mostly undeserved reputation for personal violence, mainly because of my appearance, which, you may remember, was more fearsome then."

"Fearsome it was," Stone said.

"I think it will be less so when I have healed."

"Then it might be a good idea to lie low until you do."

"We're going to spend a few weeks at Hillary's place in Northeast Harbor, Maine," Jack said. "We won't be going out."

"I think you know that I knew Michael O'Brien before his retirement from the NYPD," Stone said.

"I do."

"He was a very good detective, and was noted in the squad for his perseverance. Once on a case he was like a dog with a bone-he never, never let go."

"Then I may have to revert to plan A," Jack said. "Don't worry. I won't shoot him down in the street. I know people who know people who would take care of it."

"Jack, are you looking for a free ticket back to Sing Sing?"

"Don't worry about me, Stone. Come to dinner when we get back. I'll introduce you to my new nose." Then Jack dozed off again.

Stone and his old NYPD partner, Dino Bacchetti, now the city's police commissioner, were dining at P. J. ClarkeÕs, where the noise level covered their conversation. Since Dino was the only other person who knew about Jack CoulterÕs identity, with the possible exception of Michael OÕBrien and anyone else he might have told, Stone could speak freely. He told Dino about the sudden alteration of JackÕs appearance.

"It's ironic," Dino said, "that the only person who is hunting down John Fratelli is the one responsible for making him unrecognizable."

"Let's hope," Stone said. "We haven't seen the results of the surgery yet."

"Responding to your request, I got a report on O'Brien's behavior just before and after his, ah, retirement from the NYPD."

"Oh, good. I take it the retirement wasn't entirely voluntary."

"It was explained to him that he had two choices: he could go to trial on charges of abetting the robbery at Jack Coulter's apartment, or he could turn in his papers and live out his life with a decent pension."

"You're satisfied that O'Brien is the guy who tipped the robbers to the gathering of all that expensive jewelry?"

"By a process of elimination, yes. I'm not sure we would win at trial, but we could indict him, and that would ruin him in the department."

"What information do you have on O'Brien's existence since he turned in his papers?"

"He's been doing rather well, except for the part about being a degenerate gambler."

"Where's he getting all the money he's losing?"

"His mother."

"I somehow thought he was from a fairly poor family."

"He was, until his father died and his mother remarried, and rather well. She was the cashier at a good restaurant downtown. Her boss fell in love with her and, after she was widowed, they were married."

"How much of a gap between husband one and husband two?"

"Not much. And husband two was very well off when he died a couple of years later. She sold the restaurant to some of their employees and gave them a mortgage, so she has a fine income-at least, what she can keep out of Mike's hands."

"Has anybody explored the convenient death of husband one?"

"It has been suggested that she may have helped him along toward that goal, but there is insufficient evidence to charge her."

"I would imagine that her son could have been a great help to her in knocking him off, being a cop and all."

"We imagined that, too, but again, we couldn't prove it."

"Still that possibility might be something that could be dangled over O'Brien's head to keep him straight."

"Keeping him straight is important, I gather," Dino said.

"Suffice it to say that the Coulters are leaving town for a couple of weeks, until his new nose emerges. After that, he believes, he'll be harder to spot on Lexington Avenue."

"Good. Does that end the necessity of this conversation?"

"No. Jack has expressed an interest in removing O'Brien from the planet on a permanent basis."

"Then . . . Which one are we trying to protect?"

"Coulter, who, if he had his way, would endanger his personal freedom."

"You think Mike will forget about this while he's gone?"

"No. If you ever worked a case with O'Brien-"

"Several."

"Then you will recall his perseverance in pursuit of a suspect."

"Oh, yeah. Right."

"Also, if the reports you heard about his gambling habit are true, he is in perpetual need of money. And he may have worn out his welcome with his mother. I think he sees the downfall of Jack Coulter as the source of a windfall of funds."

“Well, there is the seven million Jack liberated from Buono’s safety deposit box, isn’t there?”

“Jack says it’s a lot more, now.  A loan shark of his early acquaintance is sending him 50 Gs a week in interest on the million bucks Jack invested with him.  And, as you know, Jack has been married to a very wealthy woman for some years, now.”

“And all that makes him low-hanging fruit for O’Brien?”

“Obviously.”

“And Jack is sure it was Michael?”
“Two things: a blackjack is a police weapon, albeit an illegal one in most circumstances; second, Jack caught a glimpse of O’Brien immediately before he was struck.”

“So,” Dino said, “what is it you want - or rather, want me to do?”

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