by Hy Conrad
It was eight a.m. Special Agent Cullen had just sat down at his desk when the phone rang. “Agent Cullen? I made up my mind. Just this minute as I’m heading to work. I want to testify. Not that I know that much. Sal didn’t introduce me to many people. But it should be enough to put a few of them behind bars.”
Cullen nearly dropped the receiver. For the past four months, he’d been trying to talk Lana Salvatore into telling the F.B.I. what she knew about her ex-husband and the Boitano crime family. And now, out of the blue… “I want you to come down to my office.”
“I’m on my way right now.”
“What? You’re calling from a mobile phone?” Agent Cullen started to sweat. “Those things aren’t safe. I want you to drive straight here. Don’t stop anywhere. Don’t call anyone else. I’ll meet you out in front.”
Lana laughed. “Don’t worry. I’ve taken my own precautions. Be there in twenty minutes.”
An hour later Cullen got the report. Lana Salvatore’s compact coupe had been found off the side of a country road. It had broken through a wooden guardrail, plummeted down a ravine and smashed headlong into a massive oak tree. Ten minutes after Lana’s call, Hap Orleans, a computer consultant whose house faced the country road, heard the crash. He discovered her behind the wheel, not wearing a safety belt.
The car was equipped with a driver’s side air bag, but it hadn’t been enough to save her. By the time the ambulance arrived, the would-be witness was dead from massive internal injuries.
“I was just getting out of the shower,” Hap explained to the highway patrol. “I heard this crash. No squeal of tires, just a loud metallic crash. It took me no more than three minutes to get dressed and outside. Right away I saw the broken guardrail and the car smacked against the tree. There were no other cars or people in sight.”
Cullen rejected the highway patrol’s theory of accidental death and went in search of Sal Salvatore, Lana’s ex-. The cement company executive was tall and blond with an open mid-western face. Hardly the standard mob type. When asked for his alibi, he smiled. “At eight this morning? Sure. I just got off a plane. Business trip. I was driving in from the airport on the other side of town. You can check with my boss, Mr. Boitano. At a few minutes past eight I was on my car phone calling into the office. Here’s my plane ticket. I’m sure the phone company has a record of the call.” They did.
Big Tony Boitano also had an alibi. “I was in the office, like Sal said. We was having an early board meeting. Sal called in and I put him on the speaker. A dozen of my guys can swear Sal was on the other end. How many times I gotta tell you jerks. I run a legitimate cement company here.”
The last interview on Cullen’s list was Pauly Adidas, Lana’s boyfriend. He found the young man lying on a couch in their living room, covered with a blanket, looking pale and in great emotional pain. “We just got engaged,” he whispered. “Just yesterday. She drove off this morning while I was still in bed. I tell you, if I’d known what she was up to I would’ve stopped her. You don’t mess with these killers.”
Agent Cullen grew discouraged. Even if the mob had somehow overheard Lana’s cellular call, how could they have intercepted her car so quickly? He was almost ready to admit defeat when, that same evening, he got word of a break-in at Lana’s house. The dead woman’s fiancee had fended them off but had been severely beaten in the process.
Pauly was admitted to the hospital with two broken ribs, multiple bruises to the chest and stomach as well as a hairline fracture of the left clavicle. The attending physician was impressed by the symmetrical nature of the injuries. When asked if the wounds could possibly be self-inflicted, he replied, “No way. From their position and severity, I’d say impossible. One of them had already become infected. Mr. Adidas could have died if he hadn’t been brought in when he was.”
Pauly gave a statement from intensive care. “My car’s in the shop, so I guess they thought the house was empty. I was watching T.V. when I heard glass breaking down in the living room. There were two of them wearing masks. I grabbed a baseball bat, but they’re a lot more used to fighting than me. The neighbors heard all the noise and called the police.” Unfortunately, the neighbors never actually saw the intruders and Pauly couldn’t give a description any more detailed than to say they were large and male.
The F.B.I. agent pondered the information then smiled. “We still got a chance. If they broke into her house, it means there was something there they wanted. Maybe a diary naming names. This case isn’t over yet.”