Two Pittsburgh homicide detectives, Liz Jennings, an attractive, thirty-two year old brunette, and Herb Hobbs, a balding, pot-bellied, twenty-year veteran, parked their car in front of an antique shop on Carson Street on the city’s South Side. Before entering the shop both detectives paused in the cold and in the light snow to admire the variety of items on display in the large front window. They saw plates, clocks, dolls, and porcelain figurines brought from Eastern Europe over the years by immigrants. Etchings of sunflowers, the flower of the Ukraine, adorned blue paneling on a sliding back wall.
“What did you say this guy’s name is?” Hobbs grunted.
“Alec Korda. He’s from Lviv in the Ukraine.”
“The Ukraine is in Russia somewhere, right?”
”No. The Ukraine is a country all by itself.”
The detectives entered the shop where soft Ukrainian instrumental music played from a tape. Paintings for sale by Pittsburgh area Ukrainian and Russian artists decorated pale blue walls. The smell of sweet vanilla trailed through the shop. On a yellow floor a slender man with black hair, six feet tall, wearing dark slacks and a blue turtleneck wool sweater stood with his back to them. Being careful, as if her were handling glass, or hand grenades, he unloaded Ukrainian Easter eggs with symbolic designs, “pysanky”, from a small wooden box carpeted with straw.
When the man turned the detectives glimpsed a lean triangular face and piercing blue eyes. His age was early forties.
”Police,” Hobbs said. He flashed a badge. “Are you Alec Korda?”
The man, Alec Korda, nodded. His lips parted over even white teeth in a leer that proffered a message of contempt.
“A cop hater,” Hobbs mumbled.
Jennings frowned. She lifted her shoulders and shifted her weight, left foot to right foot. “We’re here about a woman we believe you know, Gloria Shay,” Jennings said.
Korda’s body tensed. He seemed like a spring coiling. A fluffy white cat with eyes like small orange pumpkins appeared all at once on a cherry-wood counter top. A dozen Icons, small religious paintings, adorned the wall behind the counter.
“When’s the last time you saw her?” Hobbs asked. He nearly knocked over an antique lamp on a spindly antique stand as he brashly pressed forward.
Korda glared at Hobbs. Jennings bit into her lower lip. From outside the grinding sound of a passing truck intruded.
“I last saw Mrs. Shay two nights ago,” Korda said in a firm yet soft voice. His English was clear and crisp. “We went to the ballet together.”
“You were her paid escort,” Hobbs said, his tone rough. “Isn’t that so? Her escort and who knows what else.”
As Korda scowled Jennings cleared here throat. Korda’s clear complexion reddened.
“What’s this about?” His voice had sharpened. A vein throbbed in his neck.
“We’re homicide detectives,” Hobbs growled. “What do you think it’s about?”
“A witness saw you loitering in front of Gloria Shay’s apartment building last evening,” Jennings said.
The corners of Korda’s lips twitched. “That can’t be so. I wasn’t there.”
“About that time, when the witness saw you, Gloria Shay went out for a jog,” Hobbs said.
“She never came back,” Jennings said.
Korda’s upper lip curled. “I wasn’t there,” Korda repeated.
“A dog walker found her body a few hours ago in a park near her apartment building,” Jennings snapped. “She’d been beaten, punched in the face, and strangled.”
Korda lowered his eyes. He formed his hands into fists.
“If you weren’t in front of that apartment building last evening,” Hobbs said, “say about six, where were you?”
Korda’s eyes flicked upward toward and through a yellow ceiling. The building had three floors. The top two held apartments. “In my room. Eating my supper. Alone.”
Jennings eyes narrowed. Hobbs shuffled his feet. “Maybe we should all just take a ride,” Hobbs threatened in a gruff voice.
Korda shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. “All right. But let me have my sister or my brother- in-law come down to mind the shop.”
Hobbs made a sweeping motion with a big hand. “Who all lives up there?”
“My sister, her husband, and their two young daughters live on the second floor. I live on the third, ” he paused to arrange a thought, “with two friends.” Korda shoved the cat aside and picked up a phone resting on the counter top.
“Wait,” Jennings said, raising a hand. Korda crossed his arms and eyed her up and down. The touch of his eyes sent a warm current through Jennings. She cleared her throat. “Why not help clear this up here by just telling us why you were waiting outside of Gloria Shay’s apartment building last evening.”
As Korda replaced the phone he continued to appraise Jennings with his all encompassing gaze. He obviously liked what he saw because he smiled vaguely. “I’ve already cleared it up. I wasn’t there.”
“We’re trying to cut you a break,” Hobbs said.
Korda sneered. “Either that or your witness, if there is a witness, isn’t very sure about seeing me. How do you know your witness didn’t follow Mrs. Shay into that park and murder her?”
Against Korda’s persistent admiring gaze Jennings blanched before her smooth features hardened. “We’re considering all of that but we’re starting our investigation with you.”
Hobbs pushed himself between Jennings and Korda. “That’s because we put you at the top of our list of suspects,” Hobbs snarled.
The cat seemed to float lightly, like a cloud or a ghost, from the counter top to the floor and glide silently through pale blue curtains leading to a back room.
Jennings watched the cat disappear before focusing again on Korda. “Was Gloria Shay your only client?”
Korda’s lips stiffened against his straight teeth. “What difference does it make?”
“We want to know, that’s what difference it makes,” Hobbs snapped.
“I have a few others.”
“All good-looking and all with lots of dough I bet,” Hobbs said.
Korda glowered. “I’m selective. I’ll leave it at that.”
Hobbs leered. “Having one of the broads your escorting around getting murdered should be great for business,” Hobbs said.
“I didn’t murder Mrs. Shay.”
“Maybe we think differently,” Hobbs said, pressing forward. He tapped Korda roughly on the chest with a blunt forefinger forcing Korda back. “When you see us again it will be to put the cuffs on you.”
At noon Alec Korda and the day doorman, Gil Mesh, stood in the falling snow in front of the apartment building where the murdered Gloria Shay once lived.
“How do you know I’m the one who talked to the cops, Mr. Korda?” Gil asked. His eyes darted around as they refused to make contact with Korda’s.
“You being the one makes the most sense,” Korda said. “Anyone could have followed that lead.”
“I’m sorry about getting you in trouble, Mr. Korda,” Gil said. He was late twenties, thin, with light-colored hair cut short , and a pockmarked complexion. He rubbed his gloved hands together and locked and unlocked his fingers. “But you know how cops are. They kept pressuring me. Who did this guy look like? And I’d say, I’m not sure, and they’d say, take a guess, and I’d say it was dark and he was standing by those big trees way over there, and because he looked about your size and because he was wearing a dark overcoat like the one you wear I finally said, to get them off my back, it might have been Mrs. Shay’s friend, Mr. Korda. I feel bad for how this turned out because of all the people who go into this place you treat me the best.”
Lost in thought, Korda nodded. In front of him on the street a city bus hissed by, its big
tires spraying slush onto the sidewalk. Above, the gray sky loomed low and ominous. The frosted air smelled clean.
“And I’m not just talking about the tip, Mr. Korda,” Gil went on. “I’m talking about how you never act like you’re better than me, how you never treat me like I’m some flunky. You treat me with dignity. You’re the sharpest guy I ever met in my life but I’ve only had this job for six weeks and I needed to get them cops off my back.”
At the corner the bus stopped and two women, one young, one old, and two small children, a boy and a girl, got off.
The sight of the women and children brought a sudden deeply etched sadness to Korda’s expression. His legs buckled as if he’d been struck hard. With his body trembling he slumped against the cold wall of the building and muttered with bitterness, “How long in this unpadlocked prison shall I live out my life?”
Gil asked, “What did you say, Mr. Korda?”
“I said that there are times when I can’t stand being alive in this world. Times when I want to be dead.”
“You’re kidding, Mr. Korda, right?”
Korda quickly regained his composure. “It was a line from a poem by Taras Shevchenko. The women and those children who got off the bus made me think of people I once knew, of people I miss dearly” He stood erect. The toughness returned to his face.
“Did Mrs. Shay see the man you saw, the man you told the police about?”
“Yeah,” Gil exclaimed. ”I know she did because she looked at him for a long time and then started toward him. That’s when I went inside.”
“Did she seem glad to see him?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Can you think of anyone, other than yourself and me, who might have known Mrs. Shay’s routine?”
Gil sniffled and ran a gloved hand under his leaking nose. “I don’t understand.”
Korda grew impatient. “Someone who knew when she jogged and on what days. Someone who could have been waiting for her last night, with the intention of going into that park after her, to kill her?”
Gil shook his head. “Just you and me I guess. Or the doorman I replaced but he moved to Florida after he had that heart attack.”
Suddenly the crux of Korda’s question struck Gil. “You don’t think I murdered her, do you?”
Korda peered with hard eyes at Gil. “You lied about seeing me, that’s what I’m thinking.”
Korda shoved past Gil and entered the apartment building.
The fat-faced building manager gazed covetously at the stack of 100-dollar bills Korda had place on the desk top in front of him.
“Five hundred dollars is a lot of money, Mr. Korda,” the manager said. “But I don’t know if it’s right to reveal what’s in an employee’s personnel file.”
“You want this murder to go away, don’t you?”
“Of course I want the murder to go away. Everyone who lives in this building is scared silly. This is high rent and nothing bad is supposed to happen here.” He lifted his eyes away from the money and peered at Korda whose expression was harsh.
The building manager squirmed. He smoothed the sweat on his forehead with an unsteady hand. “But you’re a suspect so I shouldn’t even be talking to you.” he bleated. “In fact, and don’t take offense to this, but everyone thinks you killed her.”
Korda scowled in disgust. “Make up your mind. I can always find out about Gil Mesh without you. I’m trying to save time.”
The building manager licked at the beads of sweat glistening on his thick upper lip and greedily covered the money with a chubby hand. A cheap ring he wore flashed in the overhead light. “I’ll give you what I think you’d be most interested in. How’s that?
“All right, that’s a start.”
“Mesh’s girlfriend had him arrested once for domestic violence. Later she dropped the charges.”
“In the job interview, what did Mesh say about it?”
“He said he never hit her. He said he’d never get physical with a woman. He said she made the story up to get even with him for catching him cheating on her with another girl.”
“Did you believe him?”
“I guess I did. I hired him.”
Korda took a moment to reflect on what he had just heard.
The building manager sighed and said, “I could get fired over hiring Mesh, wouldn’t you say?”
Korda merely nodded.
“For all we know, maybe Mesh does get off beating up women,” the building manager said. “Maybe he killed Gloria Shay?”
“Maybe, but the police will be looking at you too.”
“Me?” His look blared astonishment.
A solemn Alec Korda went outside where the snow now fell in heavy sheets. He shoved his hands deep into his overcoat pockets and trudged away, head down.
At their desks in the precinct Jennings and Hobbs stared into space reflectively.
Hobbs slurped tepid coffee thick with cream and laced with sugar. “What I can’t figure out is how a sharp broad like Gloria Shay, and worth five million, thanks to her second husband who conveniently died in a car wreck, could have been such a lousy judge of men. Five months ago she ditches husband number three, a nice guy from what the old couple in the neighboring apartment said, and right away latches on to a punk like Alec Korda. I want to nail that guy.”
Jennings smoothed her hair. “I think he’s sexy,” Jennings said.
“You said what?”
“You heard me. I think Alec Korda is sexy. I’d go to bed with him.”
Hobbs frowned. “Women. You’re all nuts.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
Hobbs stirred the coffee and cream with a pencil. “While you’ve been licking your chops I did some checking up on your Mr. Sexy.”
Jennings’s brown eyes widened. She leaned forward. “Well, let’s hear it.”
“First off, the two friends who live with him are girlfriends.”
“A mélange de trios,” Jennings purred. “How exciting.” For an instant her eyes became dreamy.
“A mélange de what?”
“I’ll explain later.”
“Here’s the skinny on these two mélange broads. The younger one calls herself an actress and a model. She bounces back and forth from here, New York City, and South Palm Beech. Korda has an apartment in the East Village and another one in Miami. His other broad runs an upscale dating service downtown for men with cash who want to meet and marry attractive Ukrainian and Russian dames.”
Jennings’s chin jutted out. “They’re women, not broads or dames.”
“Whatever. Both of Korda’s squeezes, I mean women, are knockouts.”
“As one would expect. The more beautiful the woman the more she’s drawn to a bad boy like Alec Korda.”
Hobbs bristled. “Korda’s worse than bad, he’s an frigging murderer.”
“Probably. But he sure is special looking.”
Hobbs shook his head in consternation. “You’re goofy.”
“Se la vie.”
“Stop it with that foreign language crap.” He ran a beefy backhand over his lips. “You need your estrogen changed girl.”
“I’m satisfied with it the way it is.”
Hobbs gritted his teeth. “And there should be a law against what Korda is doing.”
“If he’s a murderer there is a law against that, remember?”
”I’m talking about being an escort.”
Jennings grinned bemused. “I think you’re jealous because you aren’t doing it.”
Hobbs raked his fingers through his thinning hair. “Anyway, Korda came to America three years ago with lots of dough and his crew which includes the girlfriends, the sister and her family, the husband, get this, was once a priest, and two cousins and their wives and kids. Quite a load. The cousins are into that judo and weightlifting, real tough guys. They have a big grocery store in the Strip District. My guess is that the whole bunch of them is Russian Mafia.”
“If true,” Jennings corrected, “it would be Ukrainian Mafia.” She tapped her fingertips together. “Was Korda a gangster in Europe?”
Hobbs slurped more coffee and shook his head. “He coached tennis and taught poetry in a university in Lviv until the early nineties. Even had a book of his own stuff and some short stories, literary garbage, published.”
Jennings nodded. “What do you read?”
“The sports page.”
Jennings smirked. “I never would have guessed. After Lviv, what happened to Korda?” She stood and in a lazy motion stretched making her seem taller than her slim 5’ 9”.
“I don’t know yet. I contacted Interpol to get fill-in on his missing years.”
Alec Korda’s cousins, Yeri and Nick Reszik, would have gone to an orphanage if Korda’s mother hadn’t raised them. They were her younger sister’s boys. Both were six feet plus and weighed close to 300 pounds. They’d die for Alec Korda, or kill, if he asked them to. The store, smelling of cheeses and spicy meats, was noisy and jammed with customers. The Resziks sold delicious ethnic food.
On a rough wood floor covered with sawdust Korda weaved through the crowd and went around the deli counter where the two cousins hugged him affectionately. Their wives came over and did the same. The older cousin, Yeri, wiped his hands on his white apron and went with Korda into a private back room. The conversation was terse.
Korda said simply, “I need a gun.”
At her desk, Liz Jennings stared pensively at a photograph. “Gloria Shay’s third marriage lasted a little over a year,” Jennings said. “Her ex is a hair stylist and by all accounts a nice guy. By chance one day, after the divorce, Gloria wandered into Korda’s antique shop, took an instant liking to him, kept coming back, and ultimately hired him as her escort. Apparently Korda is well versed on cultural stuff: symphonies, the ballet, plays, the opera.”
Hobbs stood by a smudged window watching the snow falling. “Culture is out of my league. I’m more baseball, football, and beer.”
Jennings snickered. “How gauche. I kind of like reading poetry and literary short stories and going to a play once in a while.”
Hobbs grinned. “I’ve been telling you all along you’re nuts. Why’d you ever become a homicide cop?”
“I have a dark side.”
Hobbs pulled a box of cough drops from his suit jacket pocket. “While you been working that cultural angle I dug up some juicier tidbits on Alec Korda,” Hobbs coughed and spit into a wastebasket. “Gloria Shay isn’t the first person he’s killed.”
Korda entered “LARRY’S”, an upscale Shadyside hair styling salon, and told the pretty blond-haired receptionist he had a four o’clock appointment with Larry. The girl touched her hair and smiled.
“Would you like to take off your coat?” she offered.
Korda said, “No thanks.”
The girl led Korda to the back, past a line of three stylists, one man and two women, and customers, all women. The décor was rich. The air reeked stubbornly of scented mousse and expensive dye. Mellow jazz played from a sound system.
A good-looking man, Korda’s height and weight, but a few years younger, with long dark hair tied in a ponytail greeted Korda with a stiff handshake. He wore a black silk shirt and loose fitting black slacks. His eyes, bloodshot and weary, betrayed that he knew Korda who eased into a chair. Korda kept his right hand, it gripped a Marazov, a Russian made 9 mm handgun, in his overcoat pocket. Larry instinctively picked up a comb and sharp pointed scissors.
“You won’t need those,” Korda said, gesturing with his eyes to the comb and scissors. “A lady friend cuts my hair.” The ridge of muscle in his jaw line tightened. “I’m here to talk about you ex-wife.”
“Gloria.” He sounded confused. He blinked his eyes.
“Don’t waste time. You know who I am and you know she’s dead because you murdered her.”
“You’re crazy. I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”
Activity in the salon ceased. Korda scraped the edge of his upper row of teeth over his lower lip. “You, better than anyone knew her jogging schedule. You waited for her and she unsuspectingly went into that park with you and you strangled her.”
Larry inhaled and exhaled with a loud heavy heave of his chest. He dropped the comb in front of a mirror on a cluttered counter but held tightly onto the scissors. His wild expression made Korda flinch.
“You couldn’t stand it any longer losing that five million, could you?” Korda pressed.
“Shut up or I’ll put these in your throat.” Larry raised the scissors.
The suddenly terrified-looking woman in the next chair made a gasping sound. The male stylist shouted in a high-pitched voice, “Larry, is everything okay?”
Korda kept his voice calm. “I have a gun in my pocket and trust me I’ll use it. Put the scissors down.”
Larry’s hand holding the scissors shook. He glared at Korda. The color drained from his face. His lips trembled. “I killed that skank and I’m glad. I deserved a share of her money for marrying her. If I can’t have any of it, now she can’t have it either.”
Keeping his hands in his pockets, Korda rose from the chair. “Put the scissors down.”
Larry’s shoulders sagged. Another woman in the salon made a slight shrieking noise. A plump middle-aged woman two chairs down started to sob.
Korda’s upper lip curled. “You won’t be the first person I’ve shot.” He smiled without mirth. “It doesn’t matter to me if you live or die. If I have to kill you I’ll do it.”
Larry groaned and his eyes rolled back.
Korda said,” If I figured it out that you murdered your ex-wife the police will too. Your smartest move is to turn yourself in.”
Larry turned as if to set the scissors on the counter and then wheeled and lunged at Korda, the point of the scissors aimed at Korda’s throat.
Korda’s hand holding the gun leaped from his coat pocket. He pulled the trigger once. The gun made a sharp cracking noise. The bullet went into Larry’s forehead between his eyes. Blood, bone, and brain splattered the mirror. One of the female customers fainted.
“Korda quit the university,” Hobbs said, “after the Commies blew up a church, killing his wife, his two small children, and his mother. Speculation is that he went to work for our C.I.A., as a hitman. He stayed on the job for something like ten years, his territory being Eastern Europe: Moscow, Odessa, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Warsaw. That’s how he earned all of his dough.”
Hobbs paused to catch his breath. Jennings tapped her fingertips together.
Hobbs continued. “Korda’s C.I.A. connections got him and those close to him into the United States. All of it might be true and it makes a terrific story, the kind you can make a movie out of, but I still want to nail his arse.”
Jennings grimaced. “I don’t. I think we’re trying to match all of that forensic evidence we gathered at the crime scene to the wrong guy.” Jennings handed Hobbs the photograph she’d been studying. “That’s Larry Shay, Gloria’s most recent ex. I think it’s time we focused on him. I have a gut feeling he’s our murderer.”