When an old acquaintance reaches out to Stone Barrington requesting assistance, the job seems easy enough. She needs an expert in an esoteric field, someone with both the knowledge and careful dexterity to solve a puzzle. But the solution to one small problem blows the lid open on a bigger scandal going back decades, and involving numerous prominent New Yorkers who would prefer the past stay buried.
With this explosive information in-hand, Stone Barrington is caught between a rock and a hard place, his only options either to play it safe to the detriment of others, or to see justice done and risk fatal exposure. But when it comes to Stone Barrington, danger is usually just around the corner . . . so he may as well throw caution to the wind.
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Stone Barrington, breathing hard, arrived back at his house after a run with his Labrador retriever, Bob, to Central Park and entered through the ground-floor office door, stopping at the desk of his secretary, Joan Robertson. Stone was out of breath. Bob was not.
“Pee-ew!” Joan complained. “The shower is four floors up, in the master suite!”
“All right, all right. Any calls?”
She handed him a pink slip of paper. “Mary Ann Bianchi Bacchetti, whichever,” she said. “Her cell number.”
Stone went into his office and phoned Dino Bacchetti’s ex-wife.
“How are you, Stone?”
“You sound a little breathless. Maybe you should see a cardiologist.”
“I’ve been running.”
“An early death.”
“I hope you don’t have a heart attack on the street,” she said.
“We share that hope,” Stone replied. “How can I help you, Mary Ann?”
“Can you recommend a safecracker?”
Stone’s mind raced. Mary Ann, née Anna Maria, was the daughter of his late friend Eduardo Bianchi, a mysteriously powerful man reputed to have been near the top of the Mafia as a young man, but who later went respectable and served on the boards of major financial institutions and major charities and nonprofits, while living in the style of a Renaissance prince in the far reaches of Brooklyn, in a Palladian mansion on considerable acreage. Stone was executor of his estate.
“Dare I ask why you need a safecracker?” Stone asked.
“Why, to crack a safe,” she replied. “I’ve discovered a large old one concealed behind a panel in Papa’s library. I don’t think anyone else ever knew about it, not even Pietro, his butler, or the rest of the staff.”
“But you don’t know the combination?”
“How did you guess?”
“Mary Ann, people often conceal the combination of a safe, hidden away in a desk or a drawer somewhere, as a hedge against memory failure. Have you looked around?”
“I have, and I’ve found nothing. Now, back to my original question: Can you recommend a safecracker?”
“No, but I may know someone who can,” Stone replied. “What kind of safe is it?”
“Large and black.”
“Does it have a trade name on the door?”
“Oh, yes: ‘Excelsior.’”
“I’ve never heard of that one,” Stone said, “but I’ll make inquiries.”
“Today?” Mary Ann asked.
“Is it urgent?”
“I’m about to turn over ownership of the house to the board of the museum Papa founded to house his collections. I won’t own the place after today, so yes, it’s urgent.”
“I’ll call you back.”
“Of course. Goodbye, Mary Ann.” He hung up and called Bob Cantor, his source of tech of all kinds.
“Morning, Stone,” Bob said.
“Morning to you,” Stone replied. “Bob, I need a safecracker.”
“Well, I can open half a dozen different brands,” Bob said. “What kind of safe?”
“It says, ‘Excelsior,’ on the front.”
“British Excelsior or German Excelsior?”
“What’s the difference?”
“The British Excelsiors are cheap stuff that no one with the need for a fine safe would buy.”
“In that case, it’s German Excelsior.”
“Holy shit,” Bob said quietly. “Is it in New York?”
“Brooklyn, way out. Is there something special about an Excelsior?”
“You might say that. The last one was made in 1938, in Berlin. The maker was one Julius Epstein. He was in business for half a century, and his safes were in great demand, but he made them one at a time to order, with an assistant or two. So as you might imagine, there aren’t all that many in existence, what with the bombing of Germany during the war. Epstein himself didn’t get out of the country in time. He died in one of the camps and took his secrets with him.”
“Can you open it?”
“There are only three people alive who can open an Excelsior without the combination,” Bob said. “All of them were Epstein’s assistants, at one time or another.”
“And where are they?”
“Two are in an old folks’ home in Germany,” Bob said. “They survived the Holocaust.”
“And the third?”
“In an old folks’ home in Brooklyn. His name is Solomon Fink, and he owned a safe store on the Lower East Side from about 1947 until a couple of years ago. He’s pushing a hundred. In fact, he could be pulling from the other side of a hundred.”
“Is there any other way to get the thing open?”
“Not without destroying the contents, and maybe the building it’s sitting in.”
“Is Mr. Fink in a condition to be able to open it?”
“I can find out. You know, Sol once gave me a lesson in how to open an Excelsior, but that was more than twenty years ago, and I never had any call to open another one.”
“Can you remember how to do it?”
“Probably not, but let me find out if I can get Sol out of the home for a few hours. I’ll call you back.”
“Bob, the safe needs to be opened today. Otherwise it will pass into other hands.”
“Where, exactly, is it?”
“Do you know the Eduardo Bianchi estate?”
“Sure, I used to bicycle past it all the time when I was a kid, on the way to the beach.”
“There. Get back to me as fast as you can.”
• • •
STONE WAS JUST getting out of the shower when Cantor called back. “Hello?”
“It’s Cantor. I’ve sprung Sol Fink for the afternoon. He has to be back in time for dinner at five o’clock.”
“They serve the early-bird special every day at the home. I should be able to pick up Sol and make it to the Bianchi place by one o’clock.”
“I’ll see you there,” Stone said. “I want to witness this.”
“Wait a minute, Stone,” Bob said. “There’s a little more to this, and it would be better if you hear it now instead of later.”
“I’m listening,” Stone said.
“One of the characteristics of the Excelsior is that, if you attempt to open it and get the combination wrong, you get one more try. But if the combo is wrong again, it locks up and can’t be opened except by Julius Epstein himself, or one of his assistants, and Julius is unavailable. When he was alive he charged his clients five thousand Swiss francs, plus travel expenses, in cash, to open a safe. That made people very careful to remember the combination—or to hide it someplace.”
“Eduardo’s daughter, Mary Ann, is at the house, and she said she’s already looked everywhere she can think of for the combination, so don’t count on that.”
“Sol may not have opened an Excelsior for twenty years or more, so let’s hope he remembers how.”
“Shall I pick you up?”
“I’m working on the Upper East Side. I’ll come to you, and we’ll drive past the home and snatch Sol off the curb.”
Both men hung up.
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