“In the early thirties, Lepke, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Vito Genovese, and a couple of others invented what became the New York Mafia. They wanted to protect their interests from rival gangs. They also grew tired of all the random killings that were taking place, especially those involving civilians, because it outraged the public, and that made it harder to bribe cops and judges and conduct business. So they created an enforcement arm that would bring organization to the killings, and they called it Murder Incorporated and put Lepke in charge of it.
“Murder Incorporated was basically a cadre of professional killers made available to every syndicate in the United States. How it worked, someone would ask that a bum—that’s what they called victims—be assassinated. If the Mafia approved, then Murder Incorporated would be given the contract. These guys would fly into a city, dispose of the bum—making sure that there was no collateral damage to civilians and cops—and then get out of town. Because they were strangers, they couldn’t be identified and they couldn’t be tied to the victim by motive. It was big business. A hit cost anywhere from one to five thousand dollars depending on the importance of the bum, and Murder Incorporated must have killed a couple of thousand people before it was exposed in 1940.”
“Kathryn certainly knew some interesting people,” Nina said.
“It’s more than that. What was the date on the letter?”
Nina glanced at the sheet of personal stationery. “August 17, 1936.”
“Brent Messer was killed on August 29. He was killed by a bomb that the St. Paul cops believe was planted by ‘eastern gunmen.’ ”
“You don’t think—?”
“What does the next letter say?”
Nina reached into the carton for the final letter that Kathryn sent to her sister.
Sept. 2, 1936
New York City
Rejoice for me, dear sister. We are coming home at last! James spoke at some length with his father over the phone. Afterward, he informed me that, if it meets with my approval, we will return to St. Paul, where James intends to start a construction firm dedicated to building homes for families. If it meets with my approval? Of course it meets with my approval. What a foolish, wonderful man! Yet this joyous news comes hard on the heels of such sadness. I have heard about the death of Brent Messer. If I had ever loved him, I stopped a long time ago, yet the news jolted my heart and sent tears streaming down my cheeks just the same. What a world we live in, sister. Still, nothing can dampen my happiness. I am taking my son home. Home! What a wonderful word …
“They arrived three weeks later,” I said.
“You think she’s responsible, don’t you?” Nina said. “You think Kathryn hired Murder Incorporated to kill Brent Messer.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences.” I drained the remainder of my wine and slapped the long-stemmed glass down on the tabletop with more force than I probably should have. “No wonder Tim Dahlin is so bent out of shape. It’s not his name he’s trying to protect. It’s his mother’s.”
We talked it over until the sun began to peek above the horizon. Nina decided to go home before Erica woke and began getting ready for school—so much for my forty-two-dollar investment in French wine. I went to bed, yet only managed a couple hours of sleep before the phone jolted me awake.
Heavenly spoke breathlessly, with genuine alarm in her voice. If she was acting, she was damn good at it. “McKenzie, two men … when I was getting dressed, two men … I saw them at the window. One of them tried to open my door. McKenzie, please help me.”
“Are the men still there?”
“I screamed. I screamed and yelled that I was calling the police and they left, but McKenzie—they didn’t run. Not like they were scared or anything. They walked away. They walked away like they were already planning to come back.”
“Did you call the police?”
“No … I … it’s about the gold, and I—”
“It’s not necessarily about the gold,” I said.
Heavenly hesitated for a moment, said, “Oh, God, I didn’t think,” paused again and said, “Will you come over? Please.”
I thought about how I had so cavalierly dismissed her fears the evening before.
“I’m on my way,” I said.