The Siegel Dispositions

On September 30, 1997, in Düsseldorf, Germany, an old Jewish man named Emil Weisentrope is shot dead. That same day in Williamsburg, Virginia, Steve Stilwell hangs out his shingle after serving 22 years as a Navy “JAG.” Steve’s first assignment as a civilian attorney is to update the will of a 70-year-old Auschwitz survivor, Professor Felix Siegel. Accompanying the professor is his beautiful but surly adopted daughter, Michelle. Michelle will inherit, but there’s a catch. The first $1.5 million of Siegel’s fortune goes to three wartime friends … if they survive him. If they don’t, their shares belong to Michelle.

After Professor Siegel’s untimely and violent death, Steve begins his search for the beneficiaries, only to learn that two—including Emil Weisentrope—have already died under suspicious circumstances. Although the German police investigating the Weisentrope case are convinced Michelle is behind the killings, Steve needs to be sure. Determined to find the connection between the Siegel dispositions and the murders, he begins a frantic search for answers. His own life and that of the final beneficiary hang in the balance as he struggles to stay ahead of a cold-blooded and elusive killer.

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Excerpt from The Siegel Dispositions

Chapter 1

Tuesday, September 30, 1997–Düsseldorf, Germany

Emil Weisentrope clutched the brown paper package with both hands as he shuffled past the shuttered shops on Malpelstrasse. He had to get to a mailbox. Twisting old bones no longer able to move without pain, he looked over both shoulders, certain he was being followed. All he saw were the preoccupied faces of early-morning commuters hustling anonymously off to work. Still, something told him death lurked nearby.

He couldn’t report his suspicions. The authorities would hear nothing but the ramblings of a crazy old man. They might even put him in a home. But he knew. He’d witnessed death from every angle. In Auschwitz, though, there had always been others—some with names, some without—who held his hand whenever death drew near. Now he faced its foul presence alone.

He quickened his pace toward a mailbox up ahead. As he focused on his goal, a figure slammed into him, nearly causing him to drop his precious cargo. Gasping, he pulled the package close to his heart to shield it with his body.

“Watch out!” a young man yelled without bothering to look back or slow his stride. A commuter late for work couldn’t be bothered to make way for an ambling old man taking up more than his share of the sidewalk.

Emil exhaled in relief and trudged the last fifty steps to the mailbox. Yanking the flap to the drop shoot open, he paused. Could he be wrong? Once gone, his package could never be retrieved. It was so final, like death itself. Tears moistened weathered cheeks and his frail five-foot, eight-inch frame trembled to its core. He had no choice. Felix Siegel would take care of it. There was no one else he trusted more.

Gnarled fingers relaxed and the package slipped away into darkness. Feeling both profound despair and inner peace, he wiped away his tears with the gray wool sleeves of his overcoat and took a deep breath. It was time to go home.

Chapter 2

Detective Günther Belmar took the call at 9:47 a.m. on his way to the office. He made a quick U-turn and headed for the scene. A dead body in an alley, and it wasn’t even noon; what a way to start a day that was already blustery, threatening rain, and colder than usual for early autumn. Belmar turned onto Malpelstrasse, cruising barely faster than the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Just up ahead, the piercing shriek of a whistle and a policeman gesticulating with his arms moved a group of onlookers away from an alley cordoned off with yellow tape. A mobile news crew pressed forward, despite the officer’s protests.

“How do they always get there before me?” Belmar wondered as he eased his car toward the crowd. “Leeches, nothing but leeches.” He rolled down his window.

“Get out of here,” the policeman yelled, stepping toward Belmar’s vehicle while keeping a close watch on the crowd. “Can’t you see this alley is closed?”

“I’m Detective Günther Belmar,” Belmar shouted and held up his Polizei credentials.

“Sorry, Detective Belmar. I didn’t know it was you.” The policeman pulled aside the yellow perimeter tape and herded the onlookers out of the way so Belmar could pass.

Belmar slowly headed his car toward the alley and a knot of crime scene personnel and possible witnesses, stopping close to the policeman tugging on the tape. “What do we have?” he asked. The onlookers quieted. The reporter, with her cameraman in tow, worked at getting closer to finagle an interview or capture a sound bite.

“Pierdahl’s up there. An ambulance, too.” The policeman cast his eyes toward the reporter. “You better let Pierdahl fill you in.”

Belmar looked past the policeman down an alley darkened by the soot-stained backs of yellow brick three-story buildings on both sides. About twenty-five meters ahead in the shadows, he could see the ambulance. Neither its siren nor its lights were on—bad signs. He maneuvered his car past stacks of broken-down cardboard boxes and a puke green shell of a sofa with the stuffing popping out, stopping about ten meters behind the ambulance. He called his dispatcher to let her know he had arrived at the scene. It was 10:02 a.m.

He got out of his car and walked toward the ambulance. Beyond it was a trash dumpster, just in front and off to the left. Veering around the vehicle’s right side where there was more room to walk, he could see Officer Rolfe Pierdahl in his inspection-ready green Polizei uniform talking to a short, stocky man taking puff after puff of a cigarette. Of course anyone would look short next to the tall, gangly officer, only a few centimeters taller than Belmar himself. He looked down at his own rumpled clothing and smoothed the few remaining strands of light brown hair atop his otherwise barren forehead. Pierdahl’s locks, he noted, were still full and black, though neatly cropped. It reminded Belmar that he needed to get what little hair he had left trimmed, once he could find the time. He watched a couple of paramedics stringing yellow perimeter tape across the alley well in front of their vehicle. A dozen or so people on the other side of the tape watched as Belmar approached.

The body lay just beyond the ambulance’s cab. The victim was on his back with a dark red liquid halo radiating from his head. One arm was pinned beneath his lower back, the other folded across his stomach. As Belmar drew closer, he could see the entrance wound on top of the bloody, gray-haired head. It was a sickening sight, even for a veteran detective. He needed a distraction or he’d see oozing brains and splintered skull for days.

“Hey, Pierdahl,” Belmar called, “give me a minute, will you?”

Pierdahl made his excuses to the man he was talking to and sauntered over, wearing a grin incongruous with the scene. “It’s damn good to see you again, Günther,” Pierdahl said, shaking Belmar’s hand with a vice-like grip. “How long’s it been? A couple years at least.”

Belmar and Pierdahl were old friends. They’d started on the force together eleven years ago, but in their mid-thirties, their careers had taken different paths. The brass gave Belmar a detective’s badge after he snagged a high profile murder suspect and made the front page. Pierdahl’s ship had yet to come in.

“Too long, Rolfe, too long. How’ve you been?”

Pierdahl shrugged. “You know how it goes. Same shit, different day.”

Belmar laughed, slapping his friend on the back just as he’d done years before. “You always did have a way with words. So, how’s the family?”

Pierdahl shifted his weight away from Belmar and drew his smile back into his lips with a hiss. “Not so good, Günther. Marta left me six months ago and moved to Berlin. Took the kids and my damned dog with her. Guess she got tired of spending my big paychecks.”

Belmar wished he hadn’t asked. He didn’t know whether to grab onto Pierdahl’s halfhearted attempt at humor or show some sympathy. He decided to play it safe.

“Sorry to hear that. I didn’t know.”

“Shocked the hell out of me, too. Can’t blame her much, though. Buy me a beer and I’ll fill you in when we’ve got some time. Anyway, look what some asshole did to this old man.”

Getting back to business was a relief to Belmar. Murders he could deal with; relationships were a different story. “Do you know what happened?”

“Not much more than the obvious,” Pierdahl said, consulting his pocket notebook. “The man I was talking to, Peter Miller, knows the victim. Says it’s Emil Weisentrope—an old man who lived in an apartment building just up the street. Said the old man walked by his newsstand this morning at around seven carrying a package. That’s the back door there.” Pierdahl pointed to a reinforced metal door next to the brown dumpster. “He didn’t see the victim again until he found the body. Said he was coming out to throw away some trash when he saw him lying there. That was about 9:15.”

“Did he see who did it?”

“Didn’t see a damn thing. Just came out and found the body. He ran over to try and help, but when he saw the victim’s head, he knew there was nothing he could do. He called the old man’s name a couple a times, but the guy didn’t move. So he went back in and called us. He’s pretty shaken up. Said the old man was a regular customer of his and had been in the neighborhood a long time.”

Belmar’s eyes swept the area around the body, not finding what they were looking for. “What about the package? Did you find the package Miller saw him with?”

“No, and neither did Miller. He said it wasn’t out here when he found the body.”

“So what do you think, a robbery?”

“Could be. But the old man could have ditched the package before he got shot. Who knows?”

“You got anything else?”

Pierdahl shook his head then changed his mind. “The paramedics got here right after me and checked the victim out. You might want to see if they got something.”

“Thanks. We’ll also need to do a pass up the alley to see if anybody saw anything. Can you have the uniforms take care of that? And be sure they interview the gawkers behind the tape.”

“Yes, sir!” Pierdahl replied, tossing Belmar a mock salute.

Belmar shooed Pierdahl away. It was time to refocus his attention back on the crime scene. He stared at the cold, lifeless figure lying contorted on the pavement. Although it didn’t make sense, he felt responsible every time he saw a murdered corpse. Children and elderly victims were the worst. They seemed so innocent, so helpless, so defenseless. It was as if he’d failed to protect them by not preventing their murders, even though there was nothing he could have done. He tried to make up for his failing by tracking down their killers until they paid, and paid big. It was never enough, though, because in the end, the victims were still dead. But it was the best he could do. He vowed to do what he could for the old man.

“Günther, get your ass over here for a second,” shouted Pierdahl, this time peering into the dumpster just down from the door to the newsstand. “Look what I found.” Belmar hurried over to the dumpster and looked inside. His head recoiled from the stench of rotting God-only-knows-what.

“What is it?”

“Down in the corner. Looks like a wallet.”

“Good eyes,” Belmar said, giving Pierdahl another slap on the back. “How are we going to get it out of there?”

“What’s this we bullshit?” Pierdahl quipped. “You know damn well I’m the one who’s gonna have to climb in there and get it. You detectives can’t get your pansy-ass suits dirty.”

“It’s about time you realized that,” Belmar joked, but before he could say anything else, Pierdahl grabbed the top edge of the dumpster and started to climb inside.

“The least you can do is give me a boost.”

Belmar grasped his hands together and Pierdahl used them as a step to get into the dumpster. Belmar lifted a bit too enthusiastically and Pierdahl sailed over the top and in, landing on some garbage bags on the bottom.

“Pffffew. Does it ever smell like shit in here!” Pierdahl wheezed. He hooked the wallet using a pen from his shirt pocket and stood up, gasping for fresh air. Belmar couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Let’s do that again!” Belmar laughed a little louder, enjoying the sight of his friend standing in a pile of trash, gingerly balancing a wallet on a pen. Pierdahl looked like a contestant in some outlandish game-show stunt.

“Shut up, you fool, and get me something to put this wallet in. Do you want my uniform smelling like rotting trash for the rest of the shift?”

Smiling, Belmar reached inside his pocket for a plastic evidence bag. “I’ll have to think about that.” He held the bag open so that Pierdahl could drop the wallet inside. “Is there anything else in there?”

“No package, if that’s what you mean. Now, get the hell out of my way so I can get out of this thing.” Pierdahl stepped on some trash bags stacked in a corner of the dumpster and jumped out. It was about a five-foot drop, but the fresh air was worth it. “I’ll have the evidence team go through it more thoroughly in case I missed something.”

“Thanks. That was a good find. I’ll be sure your name is highlighted in my report.” With the dumpster in good hands, Belmar returned his attention to the victim. Four or five department specialists now combed the area, sifting for clues. A police photographer snapped away, lighting up the shadow-filled alley with his camera flash while the forensic technician stood by his side, giving directions.

“Anja, what does it look like to you?” Belmar asked as he walked toward the young platinum blonde forensic technician. He circled around the body to avoid disturbing anything Anja might need to see.

Anja’s fresh young face broke into a smile, revealing dimples and giving her blue cat eyes a more dramatic tilt. “Hello, Detective Belmar. It’s good to see you,” she said. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you much, though. Looks like it happened within the last hour, hour and a half; the blood hasn’t completely dried yet. There’s also a hat over there next to the dumpster. And he’s got a large bruise on his head where it looks like he was struck. My guess is just before he was shot.”

Belmar liked Anja. She was sharp and dedicated. He’d had trouble on a couple of occasions getting forensic people out to his crime scenes in the middle of the night. They took their time, knowing everything had to wait for them. Not Anja. When he needed solid, dependable work, he could count on her. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in attitude. If she kept it up, he’d be working for her someday. She didn’t act that way, though. She was all about helping detectives solve crimes. Belmar walked over to the hat lying alongside the dumpster and kneeled to look at it more closely. “Did you notice that one side’s pushed in?”

“Has to be the old man’s,” Anja answered. “I don’t see any holes or blood on it, so it probably got knocked off his head before the gun was fired. We’ll see if we can get a match with any hair residue.”

“You got anything else?”

“Looks like it was a nine millimeter. We found a shell casing in there.” Anja pointed to a large crack running through the pavement near the center of the alley, about six feet from the body’s head. “We’ll take it in and check it for prints. These guys may be careful with everything else, but they always forget to wipe the shells clean before they load their guns.”

“Do you think they were trying to be careful?”

“Can’t tell yet. What I can tell is, judging from the bullet hole in the top of his head, he was on his knees when they shot him. And then they rolled him over, probably to get the wallet you found in the dumpster.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Look at his arms. One’s behind his back and the other’s on his stomach. He wouldn’t have fallen that way, especially if he was on his knees. I’d say it’s a robbery. Just seems a little violent for this neighborhood.”

“Got to agree with you on that. Matter of fact, I can only think of one other murder occurring around here in the last few years. As I recall, it was a domestic dispute. Some woman got tired of her husband beating on her and she paid him back one night. But nothing like this, out in public and in broad daylight.”

“Maybe some punk thought he’d find easy pickings here.”

“Looks like he was right. How much more you got to do?” Belmar was ready to move on. He still needed to speak to the paramedics, but he’d follow them to the medical examiner’s office and interview them there. He’d also review the witness interviews when they came in. Maybe he’d get lucky and somebody saw or heard something.

“Not much. I’ll watch ’em load the body and we’ll finish mapping the scene. Then it’ll just be a matter of waiting for the autopsy and lab results. Anything else you need from me?”

“Only your report.” Belmar knew she’d have it on his desk as soon as possible. He didn’t worry about Anja.

“I’ll call you if anything comes up.”

Belmar gave her the thumbs-up. The forensic part of the case was in good hands. Anja smiled and turned toward the two paramedics waiting at the back of their ambulance.

“Go ahead and take him in,” she told them. She always watched the paramedics closely in case something fell from the body that she hadn’t noticed while it was lying on the ground. The two men pulled a collapsible gurney out of the back of the ambulance and rolled it near the old man. One of them also retrieved a black body bag from inside the ambulance. The body bag wasn’t something they liked the public to know they carried, as it would have a decidedly negative impact on a passenger’s confidence if he or she knew such a conveyance was so close at hand. The paramedic looked around to see who was watching before he started unfolding the bag. Satisfied the area was clear, he laid out the bag next to the body and unfolded it so it paralleled the old man. Unzipping it, he pulled the flaps back as far as they would go.

The paramedics had performed the task all too often. They worked silently, one lifting the feet while the other held the bag open. Once the feet were in position, each man grabbed one of the body’s shoulders and worked the corpse inside. They pulled the bag’s flaps back over the body and began to zip it up from the end closest to the feet. As the bag zipped closed, the last bit of daylight disappeared forever from Emil Weisentrope’s face.