dress1

The Dress

by Bruce Levine

Claudine Bucknell set up her easel in what would have been the shadow of the north-west leg of the Washington Square Arch if there could have been a shadow at noon on the north side of the Arch.

It was a beautiful Sunday in June with the temperature just right and a gentle breeze drifting from the Hudson River to bring out the local residents, NYU students and an array of tourists.

In the 1950s Claudine would have been one of many artists who set up their easels around the sidewalks of Greenwich Village to ply their trade as portraitists doing charcoal sketches in a matter of minutes for anyone wanting a memento, in varying degrees of proficiency, in the form of an original piece of artwork representing their likeness either realistically or as a caricature.

Today, however, Claudine was the sole participant in a long-standing tradition and was less concerned about attracting potential clients than she was about finishing the pastel she was working on in time to develop it into an oil painting of 5th Avenue looking north before the September Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit, aka the Village Art Show, where she hoped to sell enough to pay for the next round of canvasses and paints. Today’s pastel was one of many she’d been working on, experimenting with various choices of perspective and vanishing points.

Over the past couple of months as she’d been working a couple of SOHO dealers had each expressed interest in her work and she’d gone to their galleries, but the meetings had ended nebulously without any commitment for a show of her own or even hanging any of her work in their galleries.

She attached a sign offering to do a charcoal or pastel portrait to the table next to the easel which she used to make handy the assortment of pastels and placed her work in progress on the easel itself.

Today she’d specifically chosen noon for the effect of the light shining directly down, like a theatrical “God-light”, on 5th Avenue and illuminating the buildings in interesting ways as she looked north toward Central Park.

“How ya doin’?” Andy Freemont asked casually.

She’d been focusing so intently that the simple question shocked her back to reality.

“Oh, Hi, Andy. How long have you been here?”

“About five minutes. Watching.”

“What?”

“You. I figured I’d find you here today.”

Andy Freemont was a free-lance musician who lived in Hoboken, New Jersey and took the PATH train into Manhattan daily whether he had a gig or not. Washington Square Park was one of his favorite places to read and people watch.

Claudine and Andy had met when he had her do a charcoal portrait of him as a present for his mother. They’d gotten talking during the time she worked and continued talking for the remainder of the day and over the past couple of months had become friends, but it had never crossed the line of friendship into anything more.

“Do you have a gig today?” Claudine asked.

“A Broadway matinee. Want to have some dinner later?”

“Sure. Sounds great. Where?”

“I don’t know yet. Why don’t I pick you up at your apartment at six and if neither of us has thought of something we’ll go to Restaurant Row and go to the first place we both agree on.”

“Perfect! I’ll see you at six,” Claudine said as she turned back to the picture and Andy began walking north.

“Bye,” he said, waiving over his shoulder in a way that exuded friendliness and an understanding between the two of them.

“Bye,” she responded absentmindedly, refocusing on her work.

Claudine lived in a fourth floor walk-up on West 43rd Street so it would be easy for them to meet after the show and walk up to 46th Street. She was glad Andy had come by and suggested dinner, but right now she was more interested in trying a new idea about adding an abstraction into the perspective.

She rarely had time during the week to do anything other than some preliminary sketches to develop.

Her day job required her to be on West 37th Street in the garment district as an assistant to an unknown designer where she spent her time more as a go-fer than an artist which was the guise under which she had been hired to do drawings of the clothes as they were draped on models by a designer who deserved her obscurity for her lack of talent even though she had connections and knew enough of the right people to get her collection into some of the most prestigious wardrobes.

“How’d the show go?” Claudine asked as they sat in the first Italian restaurant they came to with a table immediately available. The walls were painted green and covered with Commedia dell ‘arte characters. They both ordered lasagna and a glass of Chianti and were now enjoying dipping wonderful Tuscan bread in olive oil infused with herbs while they waited for their salad course.

“Nothing unusual,” he answered. “How about your work?”

“It would have been a wasted day if a whole group of German tourists hadn’t wanted their portraits done and they turned out to be a lot of fun, arguing about who looked the best in their drawing through a mixture of German and broken English that prompted more arguments about expressing their pleasure in a language that created confusion and hilarity. We all ended up laughing enough to make the whole experience memorable.”

****

“Good morning, Susan,” Claudine said as she handed over the Starbucks coffee she’d picked up on her walk from 43rd to 37th Street. It was a daily routine and worked out perfectly because Claudine waited on line, which Susan hated doing, and Susan paid for both coffees. “Have you seen Andrea?”

“Not yet,” Susan Gould answered cheerily as she sipped the hot coffee carefully to avoid burning her entire mouth.

Susan was Andrea Marconi’s gal-Friday and was always the first to arrive at the studio in the morning. She was only two years older than Claudine and in the six months Claudine had worked for Andrea the two girls had become friends and liked each other well enough for the coffee arrangement, an occasional lunch, but not close enough to share any real confidences.

One thing they did share was a belief that Andrea was a fraud. They even believed that Andrea’s name was a phony, made to sound like Versace or something equally chic and probably shortened from something long and unpronounceable.

“She left a voice-mail for you,” Susan added. “Told you to continue working on the wrap-around and that I could call in the model or you could work on the mannequin, whichever you wanted.”

Claudine had trouble keeping her jaw from physically dropping in astonishment from the fact that this was the first time Andrea had even suggested that she even came near a work in progress let alone be an active participant in its creation.

She sat at her desk and stared at the sketch she’d made of the partially completed dress on the model, Andrea never worked on mannequins, after Andrea had abruptly dashed out to meet a client yesterday afternoon. Neither girl believed it was a client, but rather some man she’d met at one of the infamous cocktail parties she was constantly attending.

“Claudine, are you listening?” Susan asked.

“Sorry,” Claudine responded, pulling herself back from her reverie of surprise. “I’ll just work on the mannequin.”

“Fine,” Susan answered as she took her coffee back to her own desk.

This was certainly a series of surprises. Last night, during dinner, she had surprised herself by thinking of asking Andy to come up to her apartment and stay the night, but as they were walking down 9th Avenue she thought better of it and decided to keep things on a friend basis rather than risk losing a good thing.

And now – this.

She studied the sketch again. It was all wrong. She’d have to start over.

“Susan, can you call Monique and see if she can come in at one o’clock? I’ll work on the mannequin and Andrea can take over whenever she gets here and have Monique around to abuse.”

Susan laughed at the thought because it was so accurate, but would never say it out loud. “Sounds like a plan,” she said.

Monique was Andrea’s favorite model to drape fabric because Andrea felt that Monique had a body that every woman should aspire to have so they’d look perfect in her clothes.

It was all a crock and the three girls often giggled behind Andrea’s back, but a job was a job so no one said anything to the great Andrea Marconi’s face.

When Monique arrived at one o’clock Andrea had still not made an appearance, but Claudine had managed to turn a twisted piece of cloth into a stunning afternoon lunch dress for the Upper-East-Side set at the club in the Hamptons.

“I love it!” Monique squeaked excitedly as soon as she saw the dress on the mannequin. “I can’t wait to put it on!”

An hour later Andrea had still not arrived, but, with, some final tweaking, the dress seemed perfect.

“It’s amazing!” Monique announced. “I always knew there was a designer buried in you, Claudine, but that fake…”

“I’m glad you like it,” Claudine said to cut Monique off.

“If it weren’t for Andrea’s social connections this place would be gone before the tide went out in South Hampton.”

“Which is why she spends so much time cultivating,” Susan added.

“Susan, is there anything on the calendar for the rest of the day?” Monique asked as the three girls stifled their laughter.

“Nothing important.”

“Good, then I suggest a girl’s night out.”

“It’s only two-thirty,” Susan responded, but the glee she exuded was obvious.

“When the cat’s away the mice will play,” Monique answered. “We can get an early start.”

“Why not,” Claudine agreed. “Let’s clean up and go.”

“Clean up tomorrow, let’s just go,” Monique added.

****

Within ten minutes of Claudine and Susan’s daily coffee routine Monique came in.
“Any word from Andrea?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Claudine answered. “We were just talking about calling the police.”

“Not yet. You know Andrea. She probably met somebody and is having a wonderful time somewhere.

The implication was clear and it was true that Andrea had been known to follow the call of the wild more often than Susan could count, but this time she agreed with Claudine that something didn’t seem quite right, but decided to keep her feelings to herself, at least for now.

Claudine looked from Monique to Susan and it was almost as if she could read Susan’s mind and she too had the same feeling. Plus she had never truly liked Monique. There was something about her that Claudine didn’t trust. It’s probably nothing, she thought, but it seems strange that Monique is taking so much interest in Andrea’s disappearance. And it’s not like her to even be awake this early, let alone arrive at the studio at this hour.

“Why don’t we wait until this afternoon and if we haven’t heard from her we’ll call the police,” Monique suggested.

“Sounds reasonable,” Claudine agreed half-heartedly.

“I’ve gotta run,” Monique announced. “I’ve got to get a manicure for a hand modeling shoot this afternoon.”

Well that sort of explains her being here, Claudine thought, but…

“Bye.” Monique was out of the door as abruptly as she’d arrived.

The silence in the studio once Monique was gone was palpable. Susan wandered around aimlessly putting things away and simply moving them from one place to another without any reason. Claudine went to her desk and stared at her drawings.

“What should we do with the dress?” Susan asked, breaking the silence.

“Put it back on the mannequin, I guess. Andrea will want to see it as soon as she gets back,” Claudine answered. And tear it apart, she thought.

“By the way, it really is beautiful! You did a great job!” Susan said as she started dressing the mannequin with the wrap-around.

“Thanks.” Claudine paused before asking, “Do you know where Andrea went after she got the phone call?”

“No idea. I assumed she went to meet some guy.”

“Any idea who?”

“Not a clue. It could be anyone. You know Andrea.”

She did. Claudine thought that it really could be anyone. Someone she’d known for a while or someone she’d just met at a party. If he were handsome enough and had the right connections she’d jump whenever he called. Claudine doubted it could be an actual client because meeting with clients lasted at most a few hours having drinks or a facial at a spa.

She watched as Susan finished dressing the mannequin and stood back to admire what was obviously the last creation to come from the studio before she picked up her phone and dialed.

“Hi. Andy. It’s me.” Pause. “Are you working today?” Pause. “Can we get together between shows?” Pause. “Great. I’ll meet you at the Shubert Theatre stage door at five-thirty.” Pause. “I just want to talk. How about getting a hamburger?” Pause. “Perfect. I’ll see you in Shubert Alley at five-thirty. Bye.”

“Are you and Andy moving beyond friendship?” Susan asked and smiled in a knowing wat at Claudine.

“Not yet,” Claudine responded then quickly corrected her answer, as if she’d betrayed herself, “we’re just friends. Andy’s got good instincts about people. If Andrea’s not back by the end of the day then, maybe, he’ll have some ideas. If she is then we’ll have a hamburger together and have a good time.”

“What about calling the police?”

“Technically she can be considered a missing person since it’s more than twenty-four hours. She hasn’t shown up, called and doesn’t answer her land line at home or her cell phone.”

“She hasn’t been home either,” Susan added.

Claudine looked at her questioningly.

“I went to her apartment. The doorman hasn’t seen her and she hasn’t picked up a package that was hand delivered.”

“Do you know who the package was from?”

“He wouldn’t say. All he told me was that he hasn’t seen Andrea since Monday morning and, as far as he knows, she hasn’t been home.”

Claudine stared into space for several minutes.

“Let’s wait until this afternoon to call the police. If she’s with a guy then she’ll be really angry if we interrupt her fun. And I doubt she’s in a hospital somewhere or anything like that because if she were she wouldn’t have left a message about the dress.”

“Knowing Andrea that message didn’t make any sense.”

“I agree. That’s why I want to talk with Andy.”

****

They stood at the counter and ordered two No. 1s, two extra Big Macs, two chocolate shakes and took their trays to a table as far away from anyone as they could find.

“Okay, tell me what’s going on,” Andy said.

Claudine told him everything that had happened from the phone call on Monday on and included every detail and, as best as she could, every inflection and unspoken innuendo from her conversations with both Monique and Susan.

Andy sat in silence, Big Mac poised mid-air between the table and his mouth, through the entire recital and continued the silence while he thought about everything he had just heard while Claudine studied his face for any indication of what he was thinking.

“The first thing I think you should do is call the police,” he said to break the silence and give himself a chance to take a bite of the Big Mac.

“Is that all?” Claudine asked incredulously.

“No, it’s my first thought though. My second thought is that there’s a lot to find out about mixed up in all that stuff you just told me.”

“So what do we do?”

“We?!?”

“You don’t think I can do this alone, do you?”

“Do what? Claudine, this is a matter for the police. Or maybe even the FBI.”

“Great! Let’s call them. But that doesn’t mean I can just sit back and do nothing.”

“I thought you didn’t even like her.”

“I don’t. But what if she’s been kidnapped or even killed?”

“All the more reason to let the police and the FBI handle it.”

They both sat in silence for several minutes and ate their now cold fast food.

“Okay,” Andy finally said. “I’ve got a show tonight, but I’m free tomorrow. If she’s not at the studio by tomorrow morning we’ll call the police and see what we can find out ourselves. Okay?”

Claudine smiled then leaned across the table and kissed him. “Thank you,” she added.

****

Andy was balancing the three cups of Starbucks coffee as Claudine unlocked the studio the next morning.

“Any word from…” which was as far as Claudine got before the sight of the three people already in the office cut her off.

“Claudine, there’s a voice mail from Andrea,” Susan said as she came toward Claudine and Andy. “I thought I’d better call the police. These are Detectives Mandi Czaikowski and Joe Ramos from Midtown South.

“Good morning, Ms. Bucknell,” Detective Ramos said.

“I think you’d better listen to this before we talk,” Detective Czaikowski added and pressed the play button.

“Claudine, I won’t be back for a while, but a new client needs a cocktail dress for a Gin Lane party. Start working on some drawings. Think size two…”

“Is that all?” Claudine asked.

“It certainly ended abruptly,” Andy commented.

“We noticed that,” Detective Ramos replied. “And who are you?”

“Andy Freemont. I’m Claudine’s friend.”

“Thank you, Mr. Freemont. Does it mean anything to you?” he added, turning his attention back to Claudine.

“Not really, but it sure doesn’t sound like Andrea,” Claudine said thoughtfully.

“Do you mean that it’s not Ms. Marconi?”

“No, it’s her talking, but she never asked me to do any designing before Tuesday.”

“What happened Tuesday?” Detective Czaikowski asked.

“There was a voicemail asking Claudine to finish a wrap-around,” Susan answered. “And now this. She didn’t think anyone could design a Marconi dress except the great Andrea Marconi,” Susan added sarcastically.

The two detectives looked at each other before turning back to Claudine.

“Ms. Bucknell, does anything else in the message mean anything to you?”

“Nothing in particular. Andrea is always meeting new clients. She sort of specializes in the Upper-East-Side set so South Hampton would be a natural part of their world. And a cocktail dress would also be natural.”

“Nothing else?”

“No,” Claudine answered.

“Has she gone off like this before?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Unless she met someone,” Susan interjected.

“Someone?” Do you mean a man?” Detective Czaikowski asked.

“It’s possible,” Susan answered. “Andrea’s always trying to cultivate new clients which means she goes to a lot of parties with the social set that buys couture clothes.”

“And there are men at these parties,” Detective Czaikowski added.

Susan nodded salaciously.

The detectives looked at each other before continuing for the next hour with routine questions about everyone’s background, connections, how long they worked for Andrea and how they felt about her and everyone’s itinerary for the past two days which revealed nothing that they didn’t know already.

“If it weren’t for those messages we’d treat this as a missing person case, but…”

“But what, Detective?” Andy asked.

“Nothing. It’s just that some things don’t seem to fit. Unfortunately there’s nothing we can do at this point, but if she shows up or you hear from her again please give us a call,” Detective Ramos said as he handed each of them his card. “Good-bye,” he added as they left.

“Susan, can you hold down the fort today?” Claudine asked as soon as they were gone.

“Sure, but what are you going to do? Aren’t you going to work on the designs?”

“I’ll work on them at home. Right now I think I’ll be able to think better away from here. Will you be alright?”

“Sure. I’ll just get some of the stuff done that I’ve been meaning to do. Plus I think I’d better wait and see if Andrea calls again.”

“Okay. Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Claudine said as she almost pushed Andy out the door.

“What’s going on?” he asked as soon as they were far enough away that Susan couldn’t hear.

“There’s something wrong. Andrea would never leave me a message like that. Somehow I get the feeling that she’s in trouble and she’s trying to tell me something.”

“You mean like clues?” Andy asked skeptically. “Claudine, you’re a lot of wonderful things, but you’re not a detective. Leave it to the police.”

“Or the FBI.”

“Why the FBI?”

“Because if she’s been kidnapped… Come on. Let’s go back to my apartment and I’ll make you some scrambled eggs. I need to think about this.”

****

They walked up 8th Avenue then across 42nd Street at the Port Authority then across and up to Claudine’s apartment on 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues in silence.

“You make the toast while I scramble the eggs,” Claudine suddenly said as they reached her door on the fourth floor. “And make a full pot of coffee; I think we’ll need it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Andy responded playfully, in a mock military response.

They’d remained silent while they prepared the breakfast.

“Something’s very wrong,” Claudine blurted out as soon as they sat down to eat. “There’s more here than meets the eye.”

“That sounds like a line from a bad murder mystery,” Andy responded, laughing so hard that he could barely get the words out and almost choking on the scrambled eggs he’d just put in his mouth.

Claudine gave him an annoyed look and added, “No, I’m serious.”

“I know you are. It’s just the way it came out,” he added as he fought to regain control of himself.

“There’s got to be something in those messages that Andrea was trying to tell us.”

“Look, if it bothers you that much I’ll make a call.”

“To who?”

“I have a friend who’s a Special Agent with the FBI. Don’t look at me that way,” he added after a short pause. “We met at a club where I was playing a jazz gig and we got talking after the set. He’s a really good guy.”

“Great! Call him,” Claudine responded enthusiastically just as the phone rang.

Andy ate while Claudine answered the phone.

“That was Susan,” she began a few minutes later. “It seems that about ten minutes after we left Monique showed up and she had a guy Susan’d never met with her.”

“Name?”

“Franklin Grant. She introduced him as her boyfriend, but Susan got this really creepy feeling about both of them. She said that Monique asked all the right questions, but something just felt wrong. And they both sort-a wandered around looking at things like they were sizing the place up for something.”

“Like a robbery?”

“There’s nothing there worth anything. It’s only a design studio. All the real stuff is in the work room a couple of blocks away. I told her to call the police and tell them everything and then lock up and go home.”

“Good idea. And I’ll call Gary. Finish your breakfast.”

“What did he say?” Claudine asked through a mouth-full of eggs.

“He agrees that it just doesn’t smell right. He’ll be here in about an hour. In the meantime let’s go through those messages again. Do you remember what Andrea said?”

Andy made a list of what he thought were key words as Claudine spoke:

Gin Lane

Party

Cocktail dress

Size 2

“We know that Gin Lane is one of the wealthiest areas in South Hampton, right on the ocean, and they have a lot of parties where cocktail dresses would be worn and size two probably refers to her client’s dress size so none of that tells us anything,” Claudine conceded.

“Yes, but she asked you to design it.”

They paused and thought about how odd that was.

“And she’d asked me to finish the wrap-around.”

“Is there a common denominator?”

“None that I can think of other than that they’re both a first for Andrea. And Andrea goes to a lot of cocktail parties in South Hampton,” Claudine added after a short pause.

“We can’t go out to South Hampton and drive up and down Gin Lane looking for cocktail parties,” Andy said sarcastically.

They sat in silence for a half hour until the door buzzer shocked them back to reality.

“It’s FBI Special Agent Gary Cutler,” Claudine said as she returned from buzzing him in.

Two minutes later she opened the door to a man who looked nothing like an FBI agent.

“I agree, something feels wrong,” Gary stated after Andy and Claudine had gone through every detail they could remember.

The interview had lasted over an hour and Gary had gone over points repeatedly and back-tracked several times, trying to piece some sort of scenario together. He kept looking at the range of possibilities from that it was simply that Andrea had met a man and gone off to have an affair to it being a kidnapping. But there was no contact from a kidnapper other than the possibility that Andrea’s phone messages were actually the kidnapper’s messages and she was making the calls under duress. She could have been reading a script written for her, but whoever wrote it would have to know the details of the unfinished dress and a new one.

“Susan,” Claudine suggested. “But she was in the studio so how could she get Andrea to make the calls.”

“She only told you that they were on the answering machine when she got there; you weren’t with her when the messages were left. Andrea could be anywhere, even down the block, so she could force Andrea to make the calls and then simply go to the studio and listen to them and tell you about them.”

“I don’t believe Susan had anything to do with it,” Claudine announced emphatically. “She doesn’t like Andrea, but she’d never do anything to hurt her.”

“You’re probably right, Ms. Bucknell, but we’ve all got to keep an open mind. If you think of anything else call me. And I’ll nose around and see what I can find out.”

“Thanks, Gary,” Andy said as he walked him to the door.

“I can’t just sit here waiting for the police or the FBI to figure it out!” Claudine nearly shouted in frustration as soon as Andy returned.

“What do you want to do?”

“Go to South Hampton.”

****

“Okay, we’re here. Now what?” Andy asked.

Claudine sat silently, thinking.

“Claudine, the light’s green.”

“Let’s go to Gin Lane.”

Andy pulled the car to the side of the road so he wouldn’t block traffic, especially as the season had already started and, even though a week day, South Hampton was already crowded.

“Claudine, are you serious? We can’t just drive up and down Gin Lane. Besides, what do you expect to find? Do you think Andrea will suddenly run out of one of the houses shouting ‘I’m here, come and take me back to New York.’”

Claudine laughed. It was a nice laugh, he thought. He hadn’t heard her laugh like that for a while.

She looked at him and he felt that he had no choice but to put the car back in drive and go to Gin Lane.

“Satisfied” he asked a half hour later after finally finding a parking space in town outside the Ralph Lauren store.

“At least it was a nice ride,” Claudine said. “And you have to admit the ocean was beautiful and the houses amazing… Duck!” she suddenly said, sliding down in her seat.

“What’s the matter?”

“That’s Monique coming out of Ralph Lauren.”

“So?”

“So, what’s she doing here? And who’s the guy she’s with? I thought she was in New York.”

“Probably her boyfriend. Didn’t Susan say Monique had her boyfriend with her when she came to the studio?”

“Right. I’m going to call her and find out what he looked like.”

Claudine peaked out the window before dialing Susan’s number on her cell phone. “It’s okay,” she said, sliding back into a sitting position. “They’re walking away.”

“They look like a couple,” Andy commented as he too sat up.”

“What do you mean?”

He laughed. “Nothing. But they are walking like they’re comfortable together.”

“You’re right,” she agreed and dialed Susan’s number. “Susan, it’s Claudine. Call me when you get this.”

“There’s nothing we can do until you hear from Susan. Let’s go get something to eat.”

“Good idea.”

“Claudine, is that you?”

Claudine and Andy stopped abruptly as they were walking back to their car to face Monique and the man they had seen with her earlier outside Ralph Lauren.

“What are you doing in South Hampton? I thought you were strictly a city girl,” Monique added disdainfully.

“I could ask you the same thing, Monique. I thought you were in the city.”

“I was, but Franklin insisted that we spend the week-end in his house.”

“Oh, you have a house here?” Claudine asked.

“Rented,” Franklin responded. “I’ve rented it for the season.”

“I guess you haven’t met. Claudine Bucknell, this is Franklin Grant, Claudine is Andrea’s assistant,” she added disdainfully. “She did do an amazing job on that wrap-dress.”

“Thanks, Monique. Coming from you that’s a real compliment.”

“What are you doing here?” Monique asked again. “And who’s this?”

“This is Andy Freemont and he thought I needed to get out of the city for a while because of the stress from worrying about Andrea and this is as far as we got before we got hungry.”

“Have you heard from Andrea?” Franklin asked.

“Not yet, but the police are looking into it,” Andy answered.

“And the FBI,” Claudine added.

“The FBI?” Monique quickly responded.

“Just a friend of Andy’s. We’ve gotta go,” Claudine added. “It’s a long drive back to the city.”

“Right,” Monique agreed, but there was a hint of thoughtfulness in her response.

It was nothing that Claudine could really define, but something she said had definitely touched a chord in Monique and it seemed sour.

As the two couples started in opposite directions Claudine glanced back over her shoulder and saw Monique and Franklin standing in place and watching them walk away.

“Let’s get to the car. We’ve gotta talk!” Claudine said as she quickened her pace.

“They’re hiding something,” Claudine said as soon as they were back in the car. “Drive around the block and see if you can find them.”

“Why?”

“So we can follow them.”

Andy gave her a look like she was crazy, but started the car, drove around the block and saw them still standing exactly where they had left them.

“What are they doing?” Andy asked as he drove slowly past.

“It looks like they’re arguing. Go slowly, but don’t lose them.”

As they drove around the block again they were just in time to see them get into the Mercedes parked a few feet away.

“What are they doing now?”

“Nothing.”

The cars honking behind him prompted Andy to move along, much to Claudine’s annoyance and by the time they drove around once more Monique and Franklin were gone.

“What do we do now?”

“Go back to New York and I’ll call Gary and see if he’s found out anything or has any ideas.”

“Good idea,” Claudine agreed.

By the time they’d gotten going traffic on the Long Island Expressway was already building up and by the time they reached the Queens border was crawling along at a snail’s pace.

As they inched their way toward the Midtown Tunnel Claudine felt her eyes closing, probably from exhaustion created by stress and anxiety over Andrea’s disappearance, and by the time Andy pulled into a parking space in the garage on 42nd Street, near Claudine’s apartment, she had been asleep, leaning on his shoulder, for nearly an hour.

“We’re here.”

“Where?”

“Home. You’re home, I mean.”

“Oh,” Claudine said as she stretched, waking up. “Sorry. How long have I been asleep?”

“Since Douglaston Parkway…”

Claudine laughed. “Let’s go up to the apartment and you can call Gary.”

“Absolutely.”

****

Just as they got to her apartment door Claudine’s phone rang. She listened as she fumbled to balance the cell phone with her shoulder as she got out her keys and opened the three locks of her apartment door.

“Tall, about six feet, long brown hair, almost to his shoulders, athletic looking, a real Hamptons type,” Claudine recited for Andy’s benefit as she listened. “Thanks, Susan. You haven’t heard from Andrea again, have you?” Claudine listened. “Okay. How are you doing?” Pause. “Okay, hang in there. I’ll call you if I hear anything. Try to get some rest, you sound like you could use it. Bye.”

“Sounds like the same guy we met with Monique,” Andy said as he took out his cell phone and scrolled through his contacts. “I’m calling Gary right now.”

Twenty minutes later the buzzer rang and Claudine pressed the button to open the front door of the building to allow Gary Cutler in.

She waited at her apartment door while he climbed the four flights of stairs then they all found seats in her living room.

“I made some calls to some friends in real estate who made some calls to realtors in the Hamptons and one of them remembered two guys coming in about renting a property on Gin Lane for the season a couple of months ago. She said it was Avery Simpson who was actually looking to rent a house and she didn’t get his friend’s name, but the friend exactly fit Franklin Grant’s description. The problem is is that there’s no record of either Avery or Franklin renting anything in the Hamptons.

“What about Monique?” Claudine asked.

“Not even under her real name.”

“Which is?” Andy asked.

“Marjorie Prescott.”

“Wait a minute,” Claudine suddenly broke in. “Andrea was giving us a clue. Think size two. Monique is size two.”

“And if that wasn’t part of the script and Andrea snuck it in at the end that would make sense that the call ended so suddenly; they probably grabbed the phone away before she said anything else,” Andy added.

“And why we haven’t heard from her again,” Gary agreed.

“If they were too afraid to risk calling again what are they going to do?” Claudine asked.

“Or what are they going to do to Andrea?” Andy added.

“But I still can’t see the point,” Claudine continued. “They haven’t asked for money.”

“That’s assuming she’s been kidnapped,” Gary stated skeptically.

The ensuing silence became nearly unbearable as the three of them tried to piece together every scenario they could conceive.

“I called Detectives Czaikowski and Ramos and the NYPD hasn’t come up with anything,” Gary said, breaking the silence. “As a working hypothesis, let’s assume Andrea’s been kidnapped.”

“I agree,” Andy said. “Besides, it pits it in your ball court.”

“Right.”

“Why would anyone kidnap Andrea?” Claudine asked, but it was more thinking out loud rather than a real question.

“Let’s list possibilities,” Andy said as he got a pad and pencil from Claudine’s desk.

“Love, hate, money, power, revenge,” Andy started listing.

“I don’t think it’s any of the basic motives this time. This one’s unique,” Gary interrupted. “Could it have something to do with Andrea’s business?”

“I don’t see how. We all agree that Andrea’s a fraud, but she’s a successful fraud,” Claudine answered.

“Precisely,” Gary said as they drifted in silence again.

“But what if it’s her success that’s…” Andy began.

“What if another designer is trying to move in and take over…” Claudine continued his thought.

“Or build on her client list…”

Or steal it…” Andy concluded.

They’d been bouncing ideas back and forth like a ping-pong match until it came to a screeching halt.

“I just thought of something Susan said,” Claudine began. “Do you remember she said that Monique and Franklin ‘sort-a wandered around looking at things like they were sizing the place up for something’?”

“And I thought of a robbery,” Andy agreed.

“What if they were checking the place out to see what they’d be getting?” Claudine suggested.

“If it were theirs,” Andy once again finished the thought.

“And if they kidnapped Andrea they could force her to turn over the business,” Gary concluded. “It makes sense. Which is why there’s been no ransom demand, the client list is the ransom.”

“And with Monique’s power in the fashion world as a model plus Andrea’s carefully cultivated clients who need to fill their wardrobe with the perfect couture ensemble or dress for South Hampton or the Upper-East-Side or Aspen and have the money to do it the well would never dry up.”

“Exactly. The problem is still where is Andrea?”

“I still say she’s in a house on Gin Lane,” Claudine stated as if it were a certainty.

“We can’t just go door to door on Gin Lane demanding to search everyone’s guest room,” Gary said in his best FBI manner.

“No, but we can keep an eye on Monique and Franklin and see if they go to a house…”

“South Hampton’s a big place plus we don’t even know if it is South Hampton, it could be East Hampton or Quogue or…”

“It’s South Hampton,” Claudine said defiantly. “Monique made reference to South Hampton several times. I thought they were normal examples in her lexicon, but now they seem more like Freudian slips…”

“Criminals always make a fatal mistake,” Gary agreed.

“Okay. Let’s take another ride to South Hampton,” Andy added.

“And I’ll make a call to the South Hampton Police Department and the Bureau.”

****

Claudine called Susan both to check that she was okay and ask if Andrea had turned up or left any new messages. She was certain Susan would have called, but she had to be sure.

“Without Andrea there doesn’t seem to be any reason to be here,” Susan said.

“I agree. Why don’t you go home?” Claudine suggested. “And why don’t you forward any office calls to my cell phone, that way I can pass them on the Agent Cutler.”

“I didn’t know you were talking with him.”

“He’s Andy’s friend so…”

“I didn’t mean it that way. Actually I don’t know what I meant. Sorry.”

Don’t be. Go home and get some rest. You deserve it.”

They took Gary’s car because they thought Monique and Franklin might have seen them in Andy’s.

Traffic on the Long Island Expressway was unexpectedly light and they’d made exceptional time, especially as Gary didn’t worry about the 65 mph speed limit and set the cruise control at 85. Claudine was glad she and Andy were sitting in the back seat so she didn’t have to watch the speedometer, but, in truth, they were only keeping up with traffic and she wondered if everyone was oblivious to the speed laws.

Once in South Hampton proper Gary thought it best to start on Gin Lane, but then to make a tour of the entire area before stopping at the SHPD to check in and compare notes. Gary didn’t subscribe to the usual antipathy between the FBI and the local PD and always tried his best to get along both for a good working relationship, but also to make it as pleasant as possible under the circumstances and help him prevent the ulcer that so many of his fellow agents felt was just another part of the job.

The SHPD had checked all the rental records and they visited the realty offices without any luck finding anything in Monique or Franklin’s name. Either Franklin had lied or whatever they rented or owned had been done in someone else’s name or someone did it for them. The realtor had confirmed that Franklin had been in with Avery to enquire about rentals from the photo they showed her.

By six o’clock they were about to give up after getting some dinner. Walking along Main Street they were suddenly rewarded for their effort.

Gary pushed Claudine and Andy in the nearest open store just as Monique and Franklin passed carrying a huge bag of what looked like take-out food.

“You stay here so they don’t see you. I’ll follow because they don’t know me or my car. I’ll call the SHPD to pick you up and bring you wherever I end up and then we’ll figure out our next move. Okay?”

All of this was said and done in an amazingly short amount of time and Gary was gone.

“We’d better look like tourists browsing around so they don’t think we’re shoplifters,” Andy suggested as he walked further into the shop.

About ten minutes later a car pulled in front of the store and double-parked while a tall, but over-weight man in khaki pants and an open-collared blue and white striped shirt got out, came into the shop and walked directly toward Claudine and Andy. In a matter of less than a minute he’d explained who he was and the three of them walked out and got into the double-parked, unmarked police car.

“That’s the house,” Gary said as soon as they arrived and pointed toward a house further along Gin Lane. “How good an actor are you, Claudine?”

“As good as I have to be,” she responded.

“Okay. I want you and Andy to ring the bell and pretend to simply be paying a visit because you got into a conversation with some people at dinner who said they thought there was a famous model in town and when you described Monique they told you where Monique was living because they also live on Gin Lane. In fact they’re really excited to live so close to her. Unfortunately you’re going to have to play it by ear once you get in, but you won’t be alone, we’ve got your back. Are you okay with that?”

“I don’t care what we have to do as long as we find Andrea.”

“Me too,” Andy added.

A couple of minutes later Claudine and Andy rang the bell and the door abruptly opened to reveal a surprised Monique.

“Hi, Monique,” Claudine said.

“I thought you went back to New York.”

“We drove out to Montauk for the afternoon and ended up back here when we got hungry again. We heard you were staying here so we thought we’d visit and see how the other half lives on Gin Lane. Can we come in?”

“Sure. I’m sorry. Where are my manners?” Monique replied nervously.

Once inside Claudine told Monique the story Gary had suggested about the people living down Gin Lane. As Claudia expected it worked perfectly because it appealed to Monique’s ego.

And then she saw it, the huge bag of food and she knew exactly what to say next.

“I’m sorry. Are you expecting company? That food really smells good.”

“No, it’s just for Franklin and me.” Monique’s nervousness was increasing and she called Franklin who immediately joined them.

“Hi, Franklin,” Claudine said. “We always hoped to get a chance to actually see the inside of one of these houses and actually knowing someone actually living in one was more than we could resist. I hope you don’t mind if we look around.”

By the time Franklin responded Andy had already moved, looking into rooms and trying doors.

Franklin followed Andy while Claudine moved in the opposite direction with Monique following her closely.

“What’s that?” Andy asked.

“I don’t know,” Franklin answered as casually as he was able.

“It sounded like it came from in here,” Andy said as he tried turning the locked doorknob.

By the time they heard the second crash Claudine had slipped away and opened the front door to reveal Gary and four SHPD who quickly moved in and got Franklin to unlock the door which led to the basement where Andrea had been held captive.

With Monique and Franklin in handcuffs and having been read their Maranda Rights Andrea explained that she heard a lot of movement upstairs and thought that it was worth a try to knock a few things over and make some noise.

“It apparently worked, Ms. Marconi,” Gary said before Monique and Franklin were led out to the waiting SHPD cars. “Let’s get you back to New York,” he added to Claudine and Andy.

“I want to call Susan.”

“In the car,” Andy said. “Let’s go.”

“Take my car,” Gary said. “The SHPD will take them to the Bureau’s field office, but I have a lot of paper-work to do. Thanks to you two… We really didn’t have probable cause so we couldn’t get a warrant, but once you opened the…” He broke off before adding, “I’ll call you tomorrow once I know what’s really going on.”

“What’s happening with Andrea?”

“They’re taking her to the hospital and then she’ll be brought back to New York.”

“Okay,” Claudine and Andy said in unison.

****

“It seems that Andrea’s company was the ransom,” Gary began as he poured himself a second cup of coffee sitting with Claudine and Andy in her living room the next morning. It’s almost as if she had heard you recite your entire explanation about wanting the company because Andrea is a successful fraud with a huge, very wealthy, client list who will continue needing the clothes they were used to getting and, as you know, they expect to get what they want.

The plan was to hold her in that basement until she signed over the business. They actually had the paperwork drawn up and ready for Andrea’s signature.”

“Then the motive really wasn’t so unique after all,” Claudine began. “Money, a splash of revenge and her jet-setting life style.”

###

Bruce Levine is a native Manhattanite who now lives in Florida with his wife and their dog Daisy. He’s spent his life as a writer and a music and theatre professional and his works have been published in a variety of media, including Brimfield Publications, Heuer Publishing, Rodale Press and soon to be released stories in Visitant and Foliate Oak Literary Magazines and his shows have been produced in New York and around the country.