Police lieutenant Joe "Dart" Dartelli made one critical mistake in his police career. Three years ago, he chose to ignore a piece of evidence in a suicide case-a suicide that may have possibly been a murder-because the dead man was himself a vicious woman-killer who more than deserved his fate. And the evidence that Dart ignored could have raised difficult questions about his former mentor, the brilliant forensic specialist Walter Zeller.
But another suicide victim turns up-the body of a wife-beater-and Zeller has disappeared off the face of the earth. With nothing to tie the deaths together except some strange blood chemistry-and clear evidence that the death was self-inflicted-the case is officially closed. Dart knows that what's best for him is just to let things lie. There's no proof; only two unrelated suicides. Cleared cases. But Dart knows in his deepest heart that Zeller is on some twisted vigilante crusade. And it's going to happen again. And only Dart can stop it.
Release date: August 14, 2012
Publisher: Hachette Books
Print pages: 512
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Chain of Evidence
She roared at him as she dared to negotiate the stairs, suddenly a two-hundred-pound ballerina, one hand counseling the banister, one eye held shut to stop the dizzies. “You bring it to me, Boy!”
That was her name for him: Boy—the only name she had ever called him. They both knew what “it” was. The Boy got it from the neighborhood liquor store every day—or the days that she had the money to buy it. The old man with the white stubble beard handed him the brown bag out back in the alley, and the Boy carried it home dutifully. To him it was poison. To her, heaven.
She hadn’t had the money today, but she would have forgotten that by now, and she would have convinced herself that he was holding out on her, and when she became convinced of that then the world became a frightful place for the Boy. She possessed big, powerful hands, like paddles, and the stern will of a self-appointed tyrant. She knew nothing of forgiveness.
He lied about the bruises in school. Made things up. The school nurse had given up asking questions, hearing his inventive tales. People knew about his mother: This town, nestled in the Connecticut countryside, was a tolerant place.
He heard her swollen feet ticking off the eleven stairs. How many times had he counted down along with her descent? He shuddered. Would his reminders, his arguments, be enough today? And why did his feet always fail to run when she approached? Why did he stand there facing her, awaiting her, as if some magnet drew them together? He knew that his survival depended on her not seeing him, not getting that hold on him. He knew that he had to hide.
He stood frozen in place. He could tell what she was wearing just by the swooshing sound of the fabric: the Hawaiian colored housedress, worn like a giant zippered tent about her puffy white skin with its bright red blotches and unexplained black-and-blue marks. Whoosh, she descended. She cleared the bottom step and, faced with the choice of two directions to go, somehow attached to his scent and headed toward him—she, a person who couldn’t smell burnt toast placed before her.
That was all she had eaten for the past three months: one slice of toast that he left by her bedside in the morning before he headed to school. She awakened closer to noon, and then drank well past midnight, her television turned up too loudly, her glassy eyes fixed to it like the eyes on some of the Boy’s stuffed animals. Dead eyes, even when she was trying to slur through her words at him. Dead for years. But not dead enough, he thought, as she charged through the kitchen door, flinging it open with a bone crunching effort.
He passed through the laundry room door, backing up—always backing up, he couldn’t seem to run forward when she pursued him; he allowed her to control him. The cry of the hinges gave him away. A trickle of sweat slid coldly down his ribs and his throat went dry: When he ran from her she hit him harder.
Out through the laundry room window, the sun’s fading rays, muted by a stranglehold of clouds, washed the horizon charcoal gray. A pair of geese, their necks stretched like arrows, cut north over the hardwood forest where the Boy had a clumsy fort built high into a tree. In the summer he could hide in the fort, but this was not summer and he was running out of places to hide—she knew them all.
And here he was in the laundry room. A dead end. Worse: a huge pile of dirty clothes erupted from the plastic laundry basket, and despite the fact that he was in the midst of doing the laundry—as if she didn’t already have enough to be mad about—sight of this dirty pile was likely to add to the punishment.
He reached for the bleach because it occurred to him he might throw it into her face and blind her, though he didn’t have the heart to do so, and besides, he discovered the Clorox bottle was bone dry empty. He stared down the into the neck wishing that by some miracle it would suddenly fill and save him from her wrath.
He glanced around at a room that offered only a back door into the cold. And if he went out there, she would lock him out; and if she locked him out and anyone found out, then they would take her away from him—this had been threatened more than once. And that, in turn, would mean living with his uncle, and if the Boy had it right, the uncle was a drug dealer and small time hood—Italian and proud of it. He went to church twice a week. The Boy wanted none of that.
On the other side of the door, he heard his mother’s footsteps crunch across crumbs on the kitchen floor as she drew closer. Sometimes she forgot all about him a few minutes into the pursuit. Not today, he realized.
The bell to the dryer sounded—ding!—and it called magically to him. The dryer! Why not? he wondered. Without a second thought, he popped open the door and, with her footfalls approaching, frantically gathered the clean clothes and stuffed them into the blue plastic basket with the purple four-leaf clovers. He slid one leg inside the machine but burned his hand on touching the tumbler’s gray-speckled rim. He debated taking whatever it was she had in store for him, deciding instantly that any burn was better than that. He pulled himself into a ball, his knees tucked into his chest in a fetal position, his lungs beginning to sear from the dry, metallic heat. He hooked his fingers onto the filter’s gray plastic tab mounted into the door and eased it quietly shut. Click. He winced. Even in a fit of rage, she had the ears of a mountain lion.
He had inherited those same ears, or perhaps it was something that he had developed, but whatever the case, he heard her push the laundry room’s springed door open, heard it flap shut again behind her like the wing of a huge bird.
He could picture her then, as clearly as if he were standing in the room with her. Her soft, spongy body slouched and immobile, her dazed head swiveling like an owl’s, scanning the room dully, attempting to reason but too drunk to do so. His disappearance would confuse her—piss her off. If he was lucky, she would begin to doubt herself. She would forget how it was that she had found her way into the laundry room, like a sleepwalker coming out of a trance. Whoosh: the sound of her as she patrolled past the dryer, her movements heavy and exaggerated. His heart drummed painfully in his chest. His lungs stung from the heat. Whoosh, her dress passed by again. He grabbed hold of the door in an effort to keep it shut should she try to open it. If he frustrated her, she might give up.
A tickle developed in his lungs, stinging and itching at the same time. It grew inside his chest, scratching the insides of his lungs and gnawing a hole into the back of his throat.
“Where are you, Boy?” she called out hoarsely, the phlegm bubbling up from the caldron.
He swallowed the scratching away—attempting to gulp on a throat bare with searing heat—refusing himself to cough and reveal his hiding place. His chest flamed and his nostrils flared, and he thought he might explode his lungs if he didn’t cough.
“Boy?” she thundered, only a few precarious feet away from him.
Tears ran down his cheek. He exhaled in a long, controlled effort that denied his body any right to a cough. And when he drew air in again it attacked his throat as if he had swallowed burning oil.
But this pain was so small compared to what she might inflict that he gladly accepted it, even allowing a self-satisfied smile to overcome him in the darkness. He was indeed the “clever devil” that she often accused him of being. And as he heard her storm back out of the room, off to another area of the house where she would threaten her terror until blacking out in a chair, or on the sofa, or even on the floor, he debated where and how he might steal some money in order to placate her, and buy himself another night of survival.
Another one? he wondered, the sense of dread as great as anything he had ever experienced.
On his way back from his only trip to the beach all summer, Detective Joe Dartelli heard the call come over the radio and sat through the better part of a green light before someone had the good sense to honk and awaken him from his moment of dread.
The code was for a suicide—not that the codes did any good, the local press monitored these frequencies like sucker fish clinging to the belly of the shark, and they knew every code, could interpret even the slightest inflection—but it was the added word, “flier,” that caught Dartelli’s attention. A jumper.
By the time he reached the front of the downtown Hartford Granada, the patrol personnel had already run the familiar tape around the crime scene, holding a few morbid curious at bay, and two impatient news crews. They were lucky: At eleven-thirty at night the downtown core was virtually deserted; the insurance executive set stayed out of the city at night unless there was a function. Better, the late news had already ended, making this tomorrow’s news. Dartelli spotted an unmarked Ford Taurus cruiser clumsily parked near the front, and a black step van that Dartelli recognized immediately as Teddy Bragg’s evidence collection van. Stenciled across its back doors were the words: HARTFORD POLICE DEPARTMENT FORENSIC SCIENCES DIVISION. Calling Bragg’s detail a division was a bit of a stretch, given that it consisted of only two people. But maybe that made the public feel better about their tax dollars.
Dartelli double-parked the eight-year-old red Volvo 245 wagon and left the emergency flashers going, and flipped around the visor with the paperwork that identified the car as one belonging to an HPD detective, so that it wouldn’t be cited or towed. He climbed out of the air-conditioned comfort into a soup of nearly unbearable heat and wicked humidity.
He wore a pair of blue madras Bermuda shorts, loafers with no socks and a white golf shirt from Scotty’s Landing, a fish and chips joint in Coconut Grove, Florida, the souvenir of a vacation long in the past. The patrolman at the door didn’t recognize him and tried to shoo him away before Dartelli’s police ID gained him passage.
“Good evening, sir,” the patrolman said, apologetically.
Joe Dartelli nodded, though there was nothing good about it at all. An African-American spread out on the sidewalk, the media closing in. He clipped his ID to the collar of the shirt.
“Who’s on it?” Dartelli asked.
“Kowalski,” the patrolman answered.
The detective nodded again. Figures, he thought. When shit went bad it rarely hesitated to go all the way.
“Fifth floor,” the patrolman informed him.
He heard an ambulance’s approaching siren climbing in the distance, rising in both volume and pitch, as if it might arrive in time to save the cooling remains that filled the cheap suit spread out bloodied and disfigured on the sidewalk. A body bag and the coroner’s wagon was more like it, and even then a shovel and hose were going to be needed.
August in New England: He had never seen any tourist brochures bragging about it.
He approached the elevator with a sour stomach that had nothing to do with the hot dog and mustard that he had called lunch. His stomach was instead the result of a toxic combination of fear and guilt: Another one. He felt an unyielding pressure at his temples delivering an unrelenting splinter of pain that felt as if it pierced the texture of his brain.
He recalled the last suicide that he had attended, three years ago, and the resulting investigation, and he felt dizzy enough that when the elevator car moved he reached out for the railing to steady himself.
I did my job, he reminded himself, recalling the death that the paper had quickly dubbed the Ice Man. It had been a disgusting winter of seventeen ice and snow storms, two blizzards, and a ten-day period when the mercury never crossed five above zero. In March, a melting snowbank revealed a frozen John Doe—the Ice Man.
I followed procedure, he told himself. But he knew the truth: For the sake of a friendship he had looked the other way. He had investigated, written-up and filed some potentially damaging evidence, the facts of which, when linked one to the next, seemingly related to the Ice Man case—though indirectly, and circumstantially—electing not to bring the evidence to the attention of the lead investigator, Detective Roman Kowalski. For the past two years he had internally debated that decision—now, he questioned it.
I did not break the law. This, ultimately, carried the most weight with Dartelli. He had stretched the law, perhaps to its limit, but remained within its bounds. To be found out might cost him a reassignment or transfer, but it was a job filled with difficult judgment calls, and he had made his, like it or not. The discovery of this second such suicide, however, added a burden to that earlier decision. Had he misread that evidence? Had his decision to ignore the evidence now allowed a second killing?
Despite the air-conditioning, he began to sweat again and he coughed dryly and his lungs hurt. He blamed the Granada Inn. It was a decent enough chain, but this particular hotel was a piece of shit. Its nickname was the De Nada—”of nothing,” in Spanish.
There were two uniformed patrolmen guarding the fifth floor, and Dartelli attributed his Bermuda shorts for his being stopped for a second time. Kowalski, who thought the world revolved around him, sized up Dartelli’s garb and said in his heavy Bronx accent, “The only known witness is a stoned Jordon across the street. You want to do something, you could take a statement.”
Detective Roman Kowalski had too much hair—bushy, black, curly hair escaping his shirtsleeves and collar; his eyebrows cantilevered out over his tight-set dark eyes like a pair of shelves. Kowalski had five o’clock shadow before noon. He was too vain for a beard, but it would have saved him a lot of time and effort.
Kowalski chewed on the end of his trademark wooden match. A pack of Camel non-filters showed through the breast pocket of his polyester shirt. He carried the bitter odor of a chain-smoker. The man reveled in the image of the renegade cop. Dart had no use for him. When he cleared a case it was only because he got lucky or beat up a snitch. He had a horrible clearance record. He bent every rule there was and got away with all of it, the darling of the upper brass.
“I’m off duty,” Dartelli announced.
“So fuck me,” Kowalski said irritably. “You want to nose around, take the statement. You want to be off duty, go home and be off duty. What the fuck do I care?”
“I saw Bragg’s van.”
“He’s working the scene now,” Kowalski said, indicating the motel room. “Listen, you don’t want to help out on your day off, I got no problem with that. But then make yourself scarce, okay? I got no mood this time of night for no show-and-tell.”
“Across the street?” Dartelli asked. He wanted a look inside that room, and a chat with Teddy Bragg. He had to know what they had so far. He headed back toward the elevators.
“Nice shorts, Dart,” Kowalski called out down the hall, using his nickname. “You look like you’re ready for recess.”
Joe Dartelli, his back to the man, lifted his right hand and flipped the man his middle finger. He heard Kowalski chuckling to himself.
It was good—they were getting along tonight.
The witness wore his New York Knicks hat backward, the plastic strap across his forehead. His dark green, absurdly oversized shorts came down to the middle of his black calves. Dart displayed his shield to the patrolman keeping the kid under wraps and the boy’s face screwed up into a knot, and he shifted uneasily from foot to foot like a member of a marching band. Rap music whined loudly from a pair of fuzzy black earpieces stuffed into his ears. The smell of marijuana intensified the closer Dart drew to the kid. Dart indicated for the kid to lose the tunes. He introduced himself formally as Detective Joseph Dartelli, Crimes Against Persons Division of the Hartford Police Department. He did so within earshot of the uniform, and he noted the uniform’s name in the spiral pad alongside the date and time. He took down the kid’s name and drew a line beneath all the information, annoyed by what the courts put a person through.
“You don’t look like no cop,” the kid said.
“You don’t look like a reliable witness,” Dartelli countered. “You looked stoned out of your gourd. You want this patrolman and me to search your person?”
The kid shifted nervously. “Just making conversation, Jack,” he said.
It was true, of course, Dartelli looked more like a Disneyland visitor than a robbery/homicide cop, but it was important not to let his witness gain a sense of superiority or confidence. Walter Zeller, Dartelli’s mentor and former sergeant, had once schooled him to quickly judge the witness—right or wrong. A cocky witness was to be kept off guard, a reluctant witness nurtured and comforted.
Dartelli had the nervous habit of thrusting his tongue into the small scar that he carried on his lower lip where a tooth had once punctured through. The accepted explanation for this scar was that an out-of-control toboggan had met a birch tree when Dart had been a twelve-year-old with too much nerve and too little sense. The truth was closer to home. The old lady’s swollen claw had caught him across the jaw in the midst of one of her delirium-induced tantrums and had sent him to the emergency room for four stitches and some creative explaining.
Dartelli wore his curly head of sandy hair cut short, especially over his forehead, where the front line was in full retreat. He had gray eyes and sharp bones and fair Northern Italian skin that most women envied. In the right light, Joe Dartelli looked mean, which came in handy for a cop. The artificial street lamp light produced just such an effect, fracturing his features into a cubist, impressionistic image of himself, masking his otherwise gentle features. “Tell me what you saw,” Dart complained, irritated by the heat. He barked up another cough, his lungs dry despite the humidity. It was something he had come to live with.
“Like I’m parking that Buick over there, Jack, you know? And the suit has left his sunroof open, right? So I’m making it shut, okay?—looking right up through it—when that boy done dives out the damn window and smears his ass all over the fucking sidewalk. Blood everywhere.”
“Dives?” Dartelli questioned, doubting the statement immediately. There was no such thing as a reliable witness. No such thing.
“Right out the window, Jack: I’m telling you.” He arched his big hand with its long fingers and pink skin under the nails, and imitated a dive as he whistled down a Doppler scale to indicate the fall. “Bam!” he said when the hand reached the imaginary pavement. “Fucked himself bad.”
Dart was thinking about bed. About how it had been a long day, and that he had been stupid to stop and involve himself. A piece of shit witness. Some sorry piece of dead meat oozing from a suit across the street. Who cares? he asked himself, trying to convince himself to give it up.
But he knew that he couldn’t walk away. “Did he jump, or did he dive?” Dart attempted to correct for the second time.
Inside his painful head came that unwanted voice: I did my job.
“I’m telling you that the motherfucker dove.”
“Damn straight. Just like the fucking Olympics.” He raised his hand for the reenactment, complete with the sound track. He was definitely stoned out of his gourd. Shitty witness, Dart thought again.
But then there was the Ice Man, whose injuries also indicated a headfirst dive, though the body had been struck by at least one snowplow and moved several blocks before lodging in a snowbank for anywhere between four days and two weeks, making any positive conclusions about his sustained injuries a matter of conjecture. But he had taken a dive; and this guy had taken a dive. Coincidence? Shit!
What Dart had seen stuck to the sidewalk seemed to support this witness: The jumper’s head was caved in, most of his face gone, his upper body a broken mess. What had once been his left shoulder and arm were now folded and crushed underneath him. Doc Ray and Ted Bragg would have more to say about the exact angle of impact, though neither was likely to spend much time with the case. Suicides cleared quickly.
But Dartelli knew: Jumpers didn’t dive, they jumped—even off of bridges, where water presents the illusion of a soft landing. There were exceptions to everything, of course, he just didn’t want to have to explain them. He felt like tearing up the sheet of notepaper and burying this sordid detail right there and then. You did it once, you can do it again, the unwelcome voice inside of him claimed, punishing him, forcing him to do anything but.
Dartelli instructed the patrolman to take the kid down to Jennings Road and wait for either him or Kowalski in order to make the statement count.
“I can’t leave my crib,” the kid complained.
Dartelli told the patrolman, “He gives you any shit, search him and bust him and let him sort it out.”
“I can cut me some time,” the kid offered quickly.
Dartelli eyed him disapprovingly. Piece of shit witness, he thought. Piece of shit case.
Dartelli returned to the De Nada, passing his sergeant, John Haite, who was currently holding court with the smattering of media. Haite did not like the night shift—the two Crimes Against Persons squads rotated into the slot, and for those weeks, Haite was worthy of avoiding. Dartelli did just that.
By the time the detective reached the room, Teddy Bragg, the civilian director of the Forensic Sciences Division, was standing in the doorway smoking a cigarette and looking impatient. “Working with a girl can be a nightmare.”
“Woman,” Dartelli corrected. Samantha Richardson, the other half of Bragg’s team, was no girl.
“Whatever. She’s like my wife—always telling me what to do. Bossing me around. I mean who needs it? I get enough of that at home.”
“She’s in there?” Dartelli asked rhetorically, hearing the vacuum running on the other side of the door.
“Running the aardvark, treating this thing like we got the Simpson case or something. The guy decided to kiss the cement—so what’s to vacuum? What’s the big deal?”
Bragg was mid-fifties, short and lean with penetrating brown eyes and a top row of fake teeth. He had the disposition of a high school science teacher. His skin was overly pale and he looked tired. Dartelli knew that the man wasn’t feeling well, because Bragg was usually the first to demand thorough evidence collection.
“Some Jordon offs himself,” Bragg continued, smoke escaping his lips. “Who really gives a shit?”
Race, the detective realized. Half the department referred to blacks as “Jordons,” and although they left the Italians alone, they called the Latinos “Panics.” Four gangs controlled the north and south ends. There had been fifty-eight homicides over the last twelve months, in a city that five years earlier had seen fifteen. The gangs and their violence, divided along ethnic lines, had stereotyped their races in the minds of most cops; there were very few police operating without some form of prejudice. To make matters worse, the gang problem had become so severe that Hartford—prior to the task force crackdown—had been singled out on 20/20, a network prime-time news magazine, as being one of the worst cities in New England. Now the department had its own dedicated gang squad—although the territory wars continued, and the body count mounted weekly.
“You give a shit,” Dartelli replied. “I know you better than that, Teddy.”
“I don’t know, Ivy. I’m not so sure I do anymore.” He sucked on the cigarette, and the action drew the skin down from his eyes, and he looked half dead. “You been in those neighborhoods—the projects. I tell ya, maybe they’re better off dead.” He finished the smoke and looked around for something to do with it. “You could always take over for me.”
“No chance.” The only HPD detective with a master’s in criminalistics, Dartelli had long since established a professional rapport with Bragg. The detective took some heat from his colleagues for his educational background—most of the dicks had come up through the ranks, and some resented Dartelli’s fast track. Having taken his degree from New Haven University, he was mistakenly associated with Yale, and therefore lived with the nickname Ivy. But he had also won some attention and respect from other detectives for his longtime association with the retired Walter Zeller and the detail he afforded his crime scenes. His homicide clearance rate reflected his thoroughness—Dartelli regularly topped his squad’s clearance board.
Bragg rechecked his watch and said, “I am not going to spend all night at the stinking De Nada, damn her.”
At that same moment the room door opened and a tall, lanky woman sporting a pageboy haircut and flushed cheeks said, “Ready, boss.” She set down the aardvark, a canister vacuum cleaner, specially-fitted with a removable filter for hairs-and-fibers collection.
Kowalski appeared down the hall with an attractive hotel manager at his side—he was a skirt chaser of the worst order. He caught up to Dartelli and reported, “No sheet on the guy. His name is Stapleton—David Stapleton.”
No criminal record: The news came as a welcome relief to the detective. It was one less thing to connect him to the Ice Man “suicide.”
The four of them entered the room together, Kowalski leading the way followed by Bragg and Dartelli, with Richardson taking up the rear, camera gear slung around her neck. The female manager stood outside the room, watching them.
Sam Richardson had marked with Day-Glo police tape the lanes where she had vacuumed for evidence; these were the areas in which the men were permitted to move about. She monitored their movement closely. The room was not large enough for all of them, the result somewhat comic.
“The bed is unmade and appears to have been slept in,” Bragg recorded impatiently into a handheld tape recorder.
“Fucked-in is more like it,” Kowalski contributed in his usual display of tact.
Bragg reported his findings, dictating as he went along. Studying the bedsheets, and the area immediately around the bed, he said, “Red pubic hairs. Empty condom wrapper—a vaginal condom wrapper. Strands of red hair on the pillow. Evidence of sexual discharge.”
Richardson took photographs of the bed and then stripped the bedding and bagged it and marked the bag.
Kowalski, glancing out the open window, said, “Is any of this really necessary for a fucking flier?”
“Your call,” Bragg informed him, obviously hoping to be sent home.
Kowalski met eyes with Dartelli, who had been openly critical of Kowalski’s lax attitude at crime scenes. “What the fuck?” Kowalski said. “We’ll give it the five-dollar tour.”
The woman shot pictures of the bathroom, following closely on Bragg’s heels as the man’s voice rang out. “We’ve got some additional red pubic hairs on the toilet rim and also in the shower stall.”
Dartelli moved to the bathroom door. Bragg, down on his hands and knees, continued, “Seat to the toilet is down. Flecks of cosmetics rim the sink—mascara, maybe some base.
“We’ve got a damp towel in a pile on the bathroom floor, and a damp bar of pink hotel soap in the higher of the shower stall’s two soap holders, indicating someone took a shower, not a bath.
“The shower cap has been used, now crumpled into a ball on the shower’s surround. So the person taking the shower goes firmly into the Jane Doe column.” Stabbing a wad of tissue in the plastic trash can, Bragg announced, “One discarded vaginal condom.” He prepared a plastic evidence bag and picked the condom out of the wad with his gloved hands and studied it by holding it up to the light. He dropped it into the bag and labeled it.
“Semen?” Dart asked.
“We’ll test for fluids.”
Kowalski stated, “So the guy hires a hooker, has a little trouble getting it up and does a Louganis out the window. What’s the big deal?”
“Hooker?” Richardson questioned indignantly. “Why, because she practices safe sex? Do only the hookers that you run with wear vaginal condoms, Detective?”
Kowalski, openly verbal against women detectives, was not loved by the females on the force. He stuttered but didn’t get out a full sentence.
Bragg offered his opinion of what the evidence told them. “They do the business. She showers, maybe with him, maybe alone, and she leaves. Then for his own reasons our boy does a swan dive out the window. Nothing here indicating a struggle. No sign of foul play.” All this, he recorded into the tape recorder for the sake of his report. Dartelli welcomed this explanation as much as anyone, but that voice inside of him was unrelenting. He argued internally that there was nothing here linking this in any way to the Ice Man. And yet … And yet … He couldn’t let go of his own guilt; just the similarity of the jumps troubled him.
He suggested, “I’d like to have a talk with his visitor.”
“Yeah,” Kowalski agreed, “but it will probably cost you just for the conversation
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