by J. David Liss
“There was a group of people sitting in a room. A package was delivered. They all left.”
“Is that all we know, Jack?”
“That’s it, detective.”
“That’s all he’ll say?”
“Those are the only complete sentences he’ll say. And he’ll only answer questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Nothing more.”
“What do you mean?”
“He can’t answer open questions. If your questions aren’t phrased to be answered either yes or no, he just stares at you and says nothing.”
“Has Goldberg seen him?”
“Dr. Goldberg said to tell you that trauma does funny things to the mind and that it might take a while before the victim will be able to recount what happened. Right now, he’ll only answer Yes/No questions.”
“Then I don’t know why the chief had to wake me up at 3:00 am to get on this case. It could have waited until 9:00.” Of course, I did know why. Peter Hannon was the orthopedic surgeon for the mayor and for the Yankees. He was known as New York’s top bone cutter. This would be in the newspapers. Anyway, the Chief likes waking me up early.
Being awake at 3:00 and needing little time to shower and dress, I searched for images and videos of Dr. Hannon. It wasn’t hard to find them. He’s a rock star. He’s the surgeon that everyone said Mehmet Oz used to be like. Tall, slim, athletic, his silver hair and icy blue eyes inspired confidence. He moved his hands with coordinated grace when he gave speeches. Used to move his hands.
Jack continued, “Take a look at the guy. You’ll be glad you haven’t had breakfast. You know he was a surgeon? Looks like that’s over with.”
“I was briefed. Thanks for the heads up, though.” The officer was Jack Dunne. He didn’t have to warn me that the victim was mutilated and would be hard on the eyes. Many of the other cops wouldn’t have bothered. Jack is a decent guy.
There was a group of people sitting in a room. A package was delivered. They all left.
That’s what I had to work with. It reminded me of those existentialist one-act plays that were popular in the sixties, when every college student tried to be the next Sartre.
Actually, those plays were never popular except among a handful of English majors right before the munchies hit them.
I started formulating yes/no questions in my head as I walked into the ICU at the Hospital for Special Surgery. The ambulance had taken him to the hospital where he himself worked as a surgeon.
The Intensive Care Unit is a place that bounces between frenzy and stasis. But the ICU I walked into felt like neither. It felt like a battlefield right before the attack. People were looking for something to do, going through drug lists, checking machinery, reading patient records, anything to give themselves the sense that they were doing something.
But there was nothing for them to do. So the nurses and doctors stared at me as I came in and walked to Dr. Hannon’s room, silently screaming “Stat” as I went passed.
“Dr. Hannon, I’m Detective Frank Scott from the 19th Precinct. Do you understand who I am?”
He looked at me with eyes that were pale blue and utterly lost.
Okay. My first Yes/No question came up affirmative. I was off to a good start.
“Doctor, do you know who did this to you?”
“Tell me who.”
Silence. Lost stare. I knew that wasn’t going to work but I wanted to see what would happen.
“Do you know why this was done to you?”
“There was a group of people sitting in a room. A package was delivered. They all left.”
“Does that group of people have something to do with what happened to you?”
“Do you know who those people are?”
Do they know each other?”
“Were they together for a reason?”
“What was in the package?”
“Do you know what was in the package?”
“Did the package contain your arm?”
The new round of anesthetics was starting to take hold. His eyes were closing. His doctor, standing next to me, said, “Detective, you’ll have to leave and let Pete sleep. We’ll call when he’s awake and able to answer more questions. We all want you to solve this, to get the guys who did this to one of our best.” As the doctor spoke, he was holding a scalpel, twisting it between his fingers.
I waited for the elevator and gave myself some time to indulge in self-pity. Some people in the precinct think that the brass always gives me the highest profile cases because I’m the smartest detective on the force. That’s not it at all. I get the high-profile cases because I’m the most expendable detective on the force. I’m everybody’s choice for the sacrificial lamb when something goes wrong on a case that’s important to the mayor or another big shot. There’s lots of reasons why. One: it was a mistake to raid the illegal gambling parlor in the garment district when Councilman Annunziato was there. How many years was I going to pay for that?
But that wasn’t the real problem.
Of course, the real problem was my father.
So, I didn’t get the high profile cases because I was smart. I got smart because I kept getting cases that could get me fired.
I went to get coffee and eggs, curse the chief, think of more binary questions. But I wasn’t going to have breakfast alone. I called Daisy and suggested that she meet me at the Stanhope. The disadvantage of having my father is that the brass would boot me off the force in a second. The advantage is that I can have breakfast at the Stanhope every morning of the week if I wanted to, in spite of earning a detective’s salary. I would buy Daisy’s breakfast, not the department, which was one small reason she was willing to meet me. I don’t tell Daisy anything. I suggest things to her that are in our mutual interest. After all, she is the Daily News’ star crime reporter and I’m New York’s own Sherlock Holmes, according to that august paper. Anyway, they do something at the Stanhope with bagels, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and caviar that makes it worth getting up early.
It was about 1:00 pm when the on-duty officer called to let me know Dr. Hannon was alert enough for questioning. I chuckled to myself because I had just finished an early lunch and was in a good mood. Usually these calls came right after I had ordered lunch and I had to leave before it was brought.
I could see in his pale, gated eyes that Hannon was in pain. But he wasn’t pushing the button on the infusion pump to deliver more narcotic; he wanted to talk.
“Good afternoon doctor.” Silence back.
“Are you ready for more questions?”
“Good. Were the people in the room gathered there for a common purpose?
“Yes. There was a group of people sitting in a room. A package was delivered. They all left.”
“Was it to wait for the package they received?”
“Were they from the area or did they travel from far away?” Of course that got no answer. I tried again. Did these people travel from many places to be in that room?”
“Did it matter where they came from?”
“Did it matter what kind of room they were in?”
“Did they know what would be in the package?”
He didn’t answer. I was confused. I had posed a yes/no question; he should have been able to answer it. Maybe he didn’t know the answer. I thought of another approach.
“Did they believe they knew what was going to be in the package?”
He quickly answered, “Yes.”
“Did they receive what they expected?” There was a pause and I thought that I would have to take another track when he hesitatingly answered, “No.” He seemed confused.
What did hesitation mean?
“Do you know who the package was from?”
“Did the people waiting know who the package was from?”
“Was the package from you?”
“Yes,” said Hannon in his flat and shell shocked voice, and he unconsciously inclined his head toward his ragged, bandaged shoulder where someone had hacked off his entire arm with what the forensic boys said was probably an ax. He looked like he was going to cry. Then his eyes got kind of blank and he stopped focusing on me. He was retreating.
Whatever it was, his mind wasn’t ready to deal with it.
“Was the package a bomb or something else that could hurt the people in the room?”
“Detective, I’m going to have to ask you to stop questioning Dr. Hannon,” said one of the residents. But I said, “I’ve been here for less than 20 minutes. I can’t solve this case in 20-minute increments. I turned to Hannon.
“Dr. Hannon, please focus on me.” I could see him struggle to stay with me. That kind of ability to concentrate is what made him a great surgeon. He was exerting his will.“Dr. Hannon, did the people in the room have anything in common besides knowing each other?”
“Were they part of an organization of some kind?”
“Were they related?”
I realized the term ‘related’ was too broad.
“Were they from the same family?”
“Did they meet for the first time in that room?”
“Does it matter where they first met?”
“Did they meet in a religious institution??
I was getting desperate and blurted: “A boat, a plane, a train?”
He said yes.
They met on a plane.
But Hannon’s eyes were closing now. He couldn’t hold on any longer. The doctor said, “Detective Scott, time’s up.” I thanked him and left.
I needed to look up Dr. Hannon’s travel itinerary.
I don’t do forensic computing.
I can use e-mail. I search the Web. I have a Facebook page because the nine people I keep in touch with are on Facebook, though honestly I never look at it.
So I went to Matty, the geek that Central lends to the Precinct when we’re on a high profile case. I think Matty’s real name is Martin, not Matthew, but everyone calls him Matty because he doesn’t shower much and his hair is usually kind of matted.
“Detective Scott! Looks like you’re about to lose your job again. I hear this case involves the Mayor’s barber.”
“Matty, Dr. Hannon is a prominent surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery and he heals the Mayor’s aching shoulder. But he’s suffered a terrible accident and won’t probably work again. So your genius is again required… don’t hold out your hand to be shaken Matty. It just tells me you didn’t wash your hands after taking a crap. Save the fecal coliforms for your keyboard.”
“What makes you think I wipe my ass after crapping, Detective? That’s the surest way to get your hands dirty. Now what can I find for you? The doctor’s credit card history?”
“Travel history, Matt. Dr. Hannon was on an airplane and I want to know which one, where it went, and who was on the plane with him.”
“What can you give me? Flight number? Airline? Dates?”
“None of the above Matt. If I had that, I wouldn’t need a genius; I would simply need an app, or a bot, or a Trojan worm virus. But you will have to start with his name and find me the details.”
Matt began searching. “Francis, it wasn’t one of the commercial lines. If he flew in the last year, it must have been a private charter and that’s going to take me more time. I’ll have it for you tomorrow.”
I believed he would. Matt boasted about his ability to substitute caffeine, sugar, and animal fat for sleep. He said he didn’t sleep when his mind was engaged with work, and since, if rumor were true, he had no life outside of work, he would continue at his keyboard until he had an answer. Or died of the toxins in his own filth. Though he seemed immune to them, as well as to his own body odor.
“Use the cell to reach me. I won’t be at my desk the next couple of days.”
“Tomorrow,” said Matt. “I won’t call you in a couple of days. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I was having dinner with my father that night.
I always liked my dad. I liked him when he was Governor. I liked him when Maurice Brody, the NYC Police Commissioner became NYS Attorney General. I liked him when Brody led the crusade that sent my father to prison for six months on corruption charges. I liked my dad when, on the strength of prosecuting my father, Brody became the Governor. I liked dad when he got out of jail.
Then something interesting happened. All sorts of information about Brody, the sitting Governor, former Police Commissioner and AG, came out that made it clear he was spending public dollars on his own sex life. And it was an ugly sex life indeed. The Daily News never revealed who fed them the information that led to the story, which forced a prosecution that drove the Governor from office. The girls and boys who were abused by Brody brought criminal and civil charges against him. The criminal charges sent him to jail for three years and the civil charges cost him his wealth and his marriage. No one asked the question: how could these young people afford the kind of high-powered legal representation they brought to the court? Governor Brody became listed on the State’s sex offender registry, where he remains to this day and probably always will, thanks to the law he himself signed making it almost impossible to get off.
My father did something that was completely out of character. He sent an e-mail to the shamed former Governor that said: I know exactly what you are going through, each step, each shame—the look in your wife’s eye as she wonders how this can be, the shock in your children’s faces as their world is overturned. As the cards were overturned, I empathized completely with the dismay you must have felt as if I were there with you, watching each card turn face up.
Dad is not empathetic. And he rarely commits anything to writing. He said when the e-mail was reported, “I really felt like writing to sympathize with the man who ended my Governorship and lost his own.” After that, I found I liked my father a little bit less.
There was no connection found between my father and anything that happened to Brody—and believe me, the cops looked. Brody was a popular figure among law enforcement both for having served on the force and for always taking the position that the police were right, the accused wrong. Dad was a liberal. Brody a conservative. Brody Sees Blue was the saying on the force.
But that e-mail hung out like a bright red warning light and there wasn’t a cop in the City who didn’t think my father wasn’t responsible for Brody’s downfall. I became the most unpopular man on the force and would have lost my job four years ago if I hadn’t been the only detective who was able to solve the New Legend murders. That was a public triumph for the Department and I became a citywide hero. The News, which must have figured it owed one to the family (though there was no connection to the Brody story, of course) made me out to be a bigger hero than I should have been. I became hard to fire. For the last four years, the Department had been looking for a way to make it easier in the form of really hard cases. That was a double-edged sword. If I failed, I failed in a very public way. But when I succeed, it makes me the City’s “Great Detective” and completely untouchable by the brass.
No, I don’t need to work. Dad made his money before he was Governor, and paying for lawyers did not come close to using it up. I just like being a detective. And I like hard cases.
My father follows the news closely, particularly anything that has to do with me. “That’s quite a case you’re on, Frank. I met Dr. Hannon a number of years ago when we awarded the money for the genomic institute on the East Side. He was very compelling. Any idea on what happened?”
“Can’t talk about the case, Dad. Meaning no.”
It was a presidential election year and because there were tight races in both party primaries, the New York primary elections had the unusual circumstance of actually mattering. In such a year, it was almost impossible to get my father to speak about anything except politics, and that used up much of our night.
As I was getting ready to leave, my father said, “About that case. One thing I remember about Hannon. When he accepted the money for the institute as part of a coalition of hospitals and research centers, he made it all about himself. On a stage full of very big egos, he managed to make sure everyone in the crowd, including Governor Me, knew or believed it was his project. He seemed above it all. But nobody is above it all; I know that better than anyone. I felt glad he was a surgeon and not a politician, because sure as anything that physician is a Republican.”
My father always has such interesting insights.
The City garbage trucks were banging cans outside my 14th floor window at 6:00 that morning, and with the same predictability my cell phone was carrying Matty’s scratchy voice to my irritated ear.
“While you were sleeping Francis, I was working and have some really, really good shit for you. Last year Hannon was on one of those high-priced adventure charters that was going to the Aleutian Islands in the spring for a month of pretend scientific shit. They don’t really do science on those trips. It’s really about having a luxury vacation in a setting that these rich bastards can be the first to spoil. You may have been on one or two of those.
“The plane crashed and the 14 passengers were lost. Coast Guard searched for three weeks before they were found.”
“How is that possible, Matty? I would have heard about a plane of big shots going down.”
“That’s what makes this so unusual. The tour company was the exclusive Cecil Bradford Travel. I don’t know why, but they paid a fortune to hush this up. I don’t mean just to lawyers and flacks. I saw millions of dollars transferred to the accounts of the individual passengers in a very quiet way. Using a bunch of dummy accounts, CBT paid off what must have been half their corporate treasury to those passengers. Furthermore, they never put in an insurance claim. They just paid.”
“What were they hiding?”
“Don’t know. Couldn’t find any paper trail. Not a single e-mail. It’s like listening to a choir of lawyers performing the famous melody, “Ain’t Nobody Here Gonna Sing”—nobody’s making a sound. I was able to see a huge jump in phone calls but couldn’t get any content. Whatever they were paying to keep quiet, they got their money’s worth. But here’s another interesting thing. Only one of the 14 passengers did not get a dime. Wanna guess which one? Fuck, I’ll tell ya. It was Hannon.”
“My, my. Matty, that is interesting. Send me the passenger manifest. Was there anybody we know on board?”
“No one we’ve dealt with. There’s a guy with a disturbing psych background. Lot’s of treatment because the docs think he could be dangerous, but absolutely no criminal record. Apparently the nut job has no conscience, but no initiative either.”
“Hmm. While we’re breaking into Protected Health Information, were there any medical expenditures for those passengers after they returned?”
“Wait just a few minutes.” I waited about 10 minutes while Matty grunted and clicked his fingers. “Here we go. No insurance claims. They must have been healthy when they returned to civilization.”
“Or well taken care of.”
“It just seems like everything was taken care of when they got back. I have a question that I need answered and I don’t know if it can be found in the passenger health insurance claims. In the past year, have these individuals changed their doctors? Is that something you can check?”
“I told you: no insurance claims.”
“Did any of them have their driver’s license revoked?”
“That will take me a couple of hours to check, Francis. I’m going to have to hack into the DMV records in at least seven states. What am I looking for?”
“Yes you are. You’re just not talking.”
“Thank you Matty. This is good stuff.”
The Daily News had scooped the other NY rags on the case and had blasted it on the front page. By today, the Post had followed suit. It was the only thing playing on the local TV and radio stations. The NY Times had put it on the front page of the Metro Section. But this case was national news fodder; it was too spectacular. NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs, Mickey Moran, was in his total glory, which meant that the was cursing his head off, blaming me for the apocalypse, chain smoking in the office against the rules of God, man and Mayor, demanding that I get fired, and begging me to do media interviews.
He spoke softly. “Nice of you to come to the fucking office, Sherlock. I guess that long, luxurious morning shower takes time. You do need to be well coiffed if you’re going to talk to the ladies and gentlemen of the press.” Then at the top of his lungs: “How often do I have to tell you not to talk to the media! You solve the fucking crime; I deal with the reporters. It’s called ‘division of labor.’ Is that so hard for a genius like you?”
“Good morning Deputy Commissioner. I hope and pray that you are protecting me from the rapacious New York media.”
“Oh, this goes well beyond the New York media, Frank. Forensic Files, The First 48, Dateline NBC, I got fucking Lester Holt and Anne Curry calling. I got John Walsh calling. I got the fucking Journal of the fucking American Medical Association calling about the fair-haired Doctor Hannon. You’ve really stirred the shit with this one.”
“I didn’t chop his arm off, Mickey. I’m trying to figure out who chopped his arm off. You’ve got role confusion again.”
“Enough shit, detective. I’m going to need three hours today for interviews.”
“Once again you exhibit role reversal syndrome. I think you should spend some time with Dr. Goldberg. Mickey, it’s your job to talk to the media. I’m working the case. None of these guys want to tell the story unless they know the ending. Tell them you’ll call when we know how it ends. I’m not talking to reporters today.” That wasn’t entirely true. I might have dinner with Daisy. First though, I would stop off at the hospital and see if I could make more progress with Hannon. I had two questions I wanted to ask him.
No one expects trouble on sunny mornings. I showed my badge at the security desk in the front lobby, though the guards knew who I was. Why antagonize anyone? Reporters were waiting outside the front of the hospital, but Security didn’t let them past the front door, so once I was in, it was nice and quiet. I took the elevator to the fourth floor, to the ICU.
I stepped off the elevator as a blast came screaming through the unit like a siren without its ambulance. An alarm went off. A tensed-up man’s voice said over the loudspeakers with too much amplification, “Code Black. Alert. Code Black. Fourth floor ICU, Code Black.” I was on the fourth floor ICU. Code Black. That meant an intruder was in the hospital. I ran to Hannon’s room and suddenly it seemed like half the hospital was doing the same.
Hannon’s door was closed. On the floor in front of the door was a cop, collapsed, covered in blood, spurting blood from the right back side of his head. It was Jack Dunne.
The stat team was already there with a crash cart. I stepped past them and opened the door. Hannon was in his room looking terrified. He was unharmed. I didn’t know if Jack was going to live, but he did his job, he protected Hannon. Before he hit the floor, he sounded his alarm. I could hear the sirens of the squad cars arriving. Hospital security were all over the floor. I had no doubt that whoever attacked Jack had disappeared in the confusion, but whoever it was never got passed the closed door into Hannon’s room.
Jack was one of the smartest cops on the force. I would have bet money that no one could sneak up on him when he was on guard. But someone did and hit him on the head with something hard and blunt.
Everyone’s attention was focused on Jack. I walked over to Hannon and spoke to him very quietly, almost directly into his ear. “Dr. Hannon, I need you to focus on me. Focus!” He turned and looked at me. “I am going to ask you only two questions. I think we can solve this case, but I need you to stay with me and focus. Are you ready?”
“Did the people waiting in the room all have only one arm?”
“Were their arms removed with great surgical skill under very difficult conditions?”
His answer was the single word that I expected. How could one, small word be so infused with pride, shame, sorrow, triumph?
I learned later that they did save Jack’s life, though he was in no shape to serve on the force after that and left on disability. I still see him now and then when I visit the deli he owns with his wife and brother-in-law.
It was two days later and Matty had delivered. I was ready to solve the case in a way that would make it ever harder for the Commissioner to fire me, and frankly, that meant high drama. The brass hated my sense of drama.
“Good morning, Dr. Hannon.”
No answer. The stenographer and videographer were prepared to capture his answers, simple as they may be. The psychiatrist Dr. Goldberg was there too.
“Are you ready for more questions?”
“Were the people waiting in the room your fellow passengers from the lost CBT Flight 590 to the Aleutian Islands?”
“Were you in the room with them?”
“Were they expecting you?”
“But they were expecting the package from you?”
“Did they believe the package was going to be your left arm?”
“But it wasn’t, was it?”
“Was it an arm that you removed from one of the patients at the hospital who had come in for the purpose of having it removed?”
“Did your fellow passengers think it was your arm?”
“Did you tell them it was your arm?”
“Dr. Hannon, I will tell you what I think happened to your arm and to the passengers of Flight 590. At any point, you can interrupt me and say ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’ When I’m finished, if I got it right, please say ‘yes.’ If I’m wrong, please say ‘no.’ Do you understand?”
“When the flight crashed in the Northern Atlantic, you all thought it was the end. You were woefully unprepared because you expected to reach the Aleutians and be treated like royalty at a resort hotel. You all felt lucky that the plane landed in the ocean right next to one of the smaller Islands and everyone made it to shore except the pilots.
“But it didn’t take long for you all to get hungry. Things got desperate. Help seemed distant. Then you had a suggestion. You, an orthopedic surgeon, would remove everyone’s arm of least use. The order in which the passengers would give up their arms would be determined by drawing lots. Only you would be exempted for the obvious reason that you needed both hands to perform the surgery. Hopefully, help would come before everyone had to sacrifice a limb. But it didn’t. So one passenger at a time, you surgically removed everyone’s non-dominant arm. And you all shared the protein along with anything else that was edible on the island until you were rescued.
“But you weren’t going to be let off the hook. You agreed to have your arm removed if you ever made it back to civilization. And you did get back and realized at that moment what kind of Devil’s bargain you had made. It’s not just the disfigurement. You would never be able to work again. You would not be able to save lives. It was wrong.
“So you corresponded with the others and told them you had the surgery done and were having trouble with the recovery. You instructed them to meet in a hotel room in LaGuardia Airport and you would have the arm delivered so they could see it.
“Somehow, someone figured out that the package didn’t contain your arm. And they came after you and did this to you.
“Am I right?”
There were tears in Hannon’s eyes, falling silently, unwiped.
“It was Newark Airport.”
“Dr. Hannon, you’re speaking!”
“It was Newark. They met at Newark Airport, not LaGuardia. Otherwise you got it right. I actually thought about having my arm removed, but none of my colleagues was willing to remove a healthy arm, especially not mine.”
“You were attacked by two of the passengers who figured out it wasn’t your arm, and they mutilated you. One of them was Reinhold Biner, correct?”
“Yes. He was insane and would do anything Patricia Niesmith asked.” Hannon started to cry for real. “When they realized that I hadn’t sent my own arm, they wanted revenge.” Hannon was totally losing it now; he was getting hysterical. “Biner cut off my arm with an ax.”
“I wondered how they were able to sneak up on Jack Dunne. But if he saw two people missing arms, he would have assumed they were patients. After all, this is the Hospital for Special Surgery. So he turned his back on them.”
I had to ask a final question. “Dr. Hannon, how did Niesmith know it wasn’t your arm?”
“There was a band of pale skin around the ring finger. The arm had belonged to someone who was married and wore a ring long enough that his ring finger had a permanent, white band. I’ve been divorced for years. Patty knew that. We came from the same circle here on the Upper East Side. Had even dated for a while. She is unstable; I saw that when we dated twenty years ago. When we met to train for the trip, the first thing she had done was look at my left hand and note that I was no longer married.”
“Doctor, you’ll be pleased to know that Biner has already been picked up. I’m putting out an All-Points Bulletin for Niesmith. We’ll have her soon.”
Her picture in The Daily News would also help us catch her. Just behind a doorway to the room we were in, Daisy Stein, was scribbling away. I think it must have been she who had called the newspaper and told them to find a picture of Patricia Niesmith for the front cover. I wonder if my name would be in the headline. Couldn’t wait to see the Chief’s face.
In 1984 J. David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing, inclined to politics, he worked as a speechwriter and lobbyist for causes that allow him to earn a living but are worthwhile. Liss published poetry and fiction in a number of places, including a recent anthology from Between the Lines Press.