MRS. OTIS TOOK an unexpected call the next morning. She stuck her head into the workshop and announced, “A Mr. Cornelius for you on the phone.”
I went into the store and picked up the receiver. “Thomas?”
“Yes, Calendar,” his voice made my heart beat faster, as usual, fear, hate, love or all of the above. “I had some late luck with your inquiry regarding that computer specialist.”
“Can you call 212-555-6572 in about two minutes?” I interrupted, “I don’t want my assistant to hear all about my love life.”
Click, Thomas hung up without hesitation or asking me to repeat the number. So nice to deal with professionals.
I went out, crossed the street and headed over to a row of public phones. And indeed, a minute later, the left phone began to ring. I sat down on a flower container and picked up.
“That was a very tough cookie. That guy knew how to vanish and cover his tracks.”
“I hope that your choice of words indicates the futility of his attempts,” I responded.
“Futile it was,” Thomas replied. “Hans Polter did some very nice double backs when he did his cross country tour to get lost in big anonymous America. He had several identities prepared, also stole some electronic money from bank and brokerage accounts of co-workers. My sources were able to learn his current identity and believe it or not, he is in your neighborhood.”
I found myself glancing involuntarily over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t sitting on the bench in front of the post office. I wrote down the new address and name of Mr. Polter, thanked Thomas without telling him any developments in our common case and hung up.
An hour later, Mundy and I drove east toward Orange County.
“You think it will be dangerous to talk to him? Maybe he is of the violent type?” Mundy was his usual tenderfoot self.
“I only want to find out what he knows about the break-in and the murder. If he cooperates and nothing comes out of it, we can leave him alone. If he smells fishy, we leave with an excuse and call the police.”
The map directed us to a nice apartment complex close to the Crystal Cathedral. I parked and we made our way toward unit number 25.
“You are very optimistic that Mr. P. is at home,” Mundy said.
“Half-full, that’s me,” I knocked on the door.
We strained to hear what was going on behind the apartment door. After some faint rustling and creaking, there was a voice, “Who’s there?”
“I want to talk to you about the break-in at the Altward Gallery,” I said quietly. Mundy flinched at my direct choice of words but they seemed to have the anticipated shock effect.
After a moment of stunned silence, “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I am… a private investigator,” I said as I made a face at Mundy, what can you do, that was the first thing that came to my mind. “… hired by the… insurance agency. I only want to talk to you, hear your side of the story. If everything checks out, no police will be needed.”
After another moment of silence, the door opened quietly. Hans Polter, or the new Hans Polter, was looking at us. He wore modern rimless glasses, stripping away his geek factor by one hundred. His formerly chubby face had lost some fat and looked leaner; his hair was dyed white blonde. Amazing.
“Come in, do I have a choice?” He stepped back and Mundy and I trotted into the apartment and peered after us, trying to spot police or surveillance.
His fugitive home was furnished nicely, maybe a little on the impersonal side. A big laptop with an additional flat screen display was whirring away in the corner. We stood awkwardly in the living room and after a soft drink offering, which we gladly took; we sat around the dining table.
“Insurance, eh?” Hans asked after a heavy sight. “How did you guys find me?”
“We have our ways, Sir. Even with fake identities, you leave tracks.” Mundy nodded toward the computer in the corner. “Like a computer expert buying a new high end computer first,” he improvised. Nice bluff.
“You guys must be good to find me. Took all the precautions, covered all my tracks, but obviously not all of them.” He looked wearily at me. “Do I have to fear that other guys will come after you?”
“Why should they?” I asked.
Hans shrugged resignedly. “What can I do for you, guys?”
“What happened the night of the Altward Gallery break-in?”
“Straight to the point, eh?” Polter gave a lame chuckle. “OK, if you did your homework, you know that I used to work for the company that did the alarm-system programming.” We nodded dutifully. “Good job, well paid, honest work and you had to think like a thief in order to keep real thieves at bay. I left the company some years back, took a new job at this special effects company. But I kept copies of the plans of the alarm systems I helped to design.”
“You visited your mother in Carlsbad on Thanksgiving.”
“I did, yes. It’s only a few hours’ drive and she cooks really well, Norwegian specialties.” A small smile. “OK, I am home at Mom’s place, Wednesday night, watching a European soccer game on ESPN, the phone rings and it was a guy I knew from L.A.”
“Altward’s gallery companion Faulkner,” it shot out of my mouth.
Hans looked surprised. “So you know.” Thank you for confirming my shot into the blue.
“How did you meet?” Mundy asked.
“The Getty Museum implemented the same alarm system as the Altward Gallery and we had met there previously, years ago. I tested the software on location and Paul coordinated the implementation on the museum side. It turned out that he was fascinated with all the possible ways to break into a safe.”
“He said that outright?”
“No, I mean, he made it look as if he was playing a ‘what if’ game with me in order to improve the security of the place. For example, like ‘what happens if the alarm control gets short-circuited by water and the horn gets foamed?’ I was always under the impression that he was some kind of thief under his bohemian façade.”
I was thinking, ‘Look who’s talking, buddy.’ But I asked, “He called. What did Faulkner want?”
“He wanted me to help him out. His San Diego gallery was in a bit of a spot and needed to fake a burglary.”
“How long were you out of touch with Faulkner before that night?” Mundy asked.
“About two years, three years. After Paul left L.A., we were only in loose contact.”
“And you weren’t surprised at his request. A guy that you haven’t seen for ages calls out of the blue, at your mother’s home, and asks you to stage a break-in?”
Hans looked a little uncomfortable. “I am giving you the short version here, OK? You wanted to know about the Altward Gallery break-in, not the story of my life. Let’s say that there were things before that night that made it not so unusual for Paul to ask me to do such a thing.” He spread out his hands. “But let’s limit this affair to the Altward hack.”
“OK, that is fine with us, we didn’t want to put you in a spot,” I soothed him. Jesus, are there any honest people left in this world? “Go on, Faulkner called…”
“Right, Paul explained that his gallery wasn’t going well and that they needed to enhance a certain situation in order to get some insurance money. All I had to do was stage a believable break-in to the safe room of the gallery. Altward himself would be my contact.”
“And you agreed?”
“Sure. After the conditions were settled, I drove down to San Diego to the gallery. I met Mr. Altward in the backyard and he explained the situation to me. I was to stage a break in. The safe had been opened earlier in the night; I had to remove the traces of that, too.”
“So it would appear that your break in was the first opening of the safe that night?” Mundy concluded.
“Exactly. Altward and I went up to the back-office; it was in the dead of the night. There were no cars and no people around. Altward let us in and I did my magic.”
“Hard to do?”
“Moderately, if you know the code and the protocols. I opened the door and reset the logs. It took about 30 minutes in all. Add ten more minutes to window-dress it.”
“The ripped out control panel, the crossed wires, stuff like that. You know, to confuse the cats from CSI and my old colleagues.”
“What did you do in the safe room?” Mundy asked.
“I never entered the safe room. I wrapped up my laptop and cables and Altward let me out. Drove back to Mom’s.”
“You didn’t even take one glimpse?” Mundy asked.
“No, the door opened a crack and Altward stopped the door right then. No light in the safe room anyway. No, Sir, didn’t see anything, not the dead night watchman… ” It must have been ages since someone had called Mundy ‘Sir.’
“Did that come as a shock to you the next morning?”
“You can say that. Had a late breakfast of Mom’s herrings and glanced up to see the local news channel and bang, there was the Altward Gallery and the police and the coroner’s van.”
“What did you do then?”
“Switched off the TV and started planning my exit.”
“That sounds very prepared.”
Hans shrugged. “I could see it coming. Did some minor crooked things before and had already prepared some getaways in case of cases. Like new ID, access to fast money… ”
“So you stole the money from the accounts of your former co-workers, closed your apartment and took a ride.”
“That’s about it. Took me about two days to settle everything, a little risky, but it worked out.” He grimaced. “Or so I thought.”
I reassured him, “Don’t worry, I played unfair in order to find you. The authorities will take longer. But you better start moving again, Polter.”
After we left Hans Polter’s hideout, Mundy said, “I don’t think we will meet the esteemed Mr. P. at this address again.”
“Me neither,” I supported his opinion.
“Don’t you think we should contact the authorities?”
The thought had never crossed my mind, probably because thieves honor prohibited it. But now that Mundy mentioned it. I bit my lip. “Think so?”
“Come on, he is a crook. I wonder how his former co-workers will manage with their savings looted, the name of the company discredited… ”
“Can we do it anonymously? Let’s give him until tomorrow, and then you send an e-mail to the police. OK?” Close to home.
Mundy nodded and looked unhappy.
“Maybe you can spring a story out of it? ‘A meeting with my murderer!'”
Mundy’slook stopped me from evolving further.