Read The finishing school Online

Authors: Michele Martinez

The finishing school

Synopsis:

Michele Martinez, author of the critically acclaimedMost Wanted, which USA Today called “a breakout,” brings backsavvy, sexy federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas in a new case that pits her against a very clever, very scary killer

In a glittering penthouse high above Park Avenue, two beautiful teenagers, students at an exclusive Manhattan girls’school, lie dead under suspicious circumstances. Feeling pressure from the top to solve the high-profile case fast, Melaniebreaks all the rules and goes undercover. Teamed with Dan O’Reilly, a hard-to-resist FBI agent with a talent for makingher pulse race, Melanie embarks on a wild chase from the rarefied world of New York’s elite private schools to thedarkest recesses of the city’s nightlife. And, ultimately, into a fight for her life against a devious killer who has nointention of getting caught.

 

THE FINISHING SCHOOLMICHELE MARTINEZ

 

Copyright © 2006 by Michele Rebecca Martinez Campbell.

 

FOR MY HUSBAND,my partner in all endeavors

 

 

 

 

1

 

EVEN THE MOST dedicated prosecutor hates the sound of a pager shrieking at two o’clock in the morning. Melanie Vargas barely slept these days anyway. In the middle of a divorce, with a baby daughter who was spending the winter sick with one thing or another, Melanie hardly needed that terrible screeching coming from her dresser top. But duty called. She scrambled out of bed and immediately slammed her hip into the sharp corner of the bedside table.

“Shit.”

Just as the pager stopped wailing, her one-year-old, Maya, who’d fallen asleep in bed beside her after fussing half the night with a double ear infection, woke up and started to howl.

“Okay, okay, shush,” Melanie whispered, digging under the pillows surrounding Maya. Her fingers touched soft plastic, and she popped the pacifier into her daughter’s mouth, then raced across the room to grab the pager before it went off again. Squinting at the readout, she saw her boss’s home phone number glowing bright red in the darkness.Damn! This was only getting worse. Her boss gave her agita under the best of circumstances.

“Well, it’s about time!” Bernadette said, picking up on the first ring. Bernadette DeFelice, chief of the Major Crimes Unit of the New York City U.S. Attorney’s Office, didnotlike to be kept waiting.

“Hey, Bern, it’s Melanie?”

“Iknowthat, for God’s sake, I just paged you. Listen, I’ve got two dead rich girls in James Seward’s apartment on Park Avenue. You know who he is? That Wall Street guy running for Senate?”

“Of course. Didhekill them?”

“No, nothing like that. It’s his daughter and a friend of hers. They OD’d. Looks like heroin. Right before Christmas, too. Hah, teenagers. And people wonder why I never had kids.”

It was Monday night?strike that, Tuesday morning?and Christmas was a week away.

“Wow, the poor parents.” Melanie looked over at Maya snuggled under the covers and thanked God her own little one was safe and sound.

“Okay,” Bernadette said, “the plan is, find the drug supplier right away and make an example of him.” She chuckled cynically. “Some Dominican kid selling dime bags in the Heights isn’t gonna know what hit him. I need you to get over to Seward’s ASAP.”

“Bernadette, it’s two o’clock in the morning, and my daughter’s sick.”

“Is that my problem? This is arealjob, girlfriend, not the fricking DMV. You’re meeting up with Vito Albano from the Elite Narcotics Task Force. And you’d better damn well impress him. I’ve been trying to get business from him for a long time, but the Special Narcotics Prosecutor had a lock on him. This is our big chance. That squad does amazing cases.”

“Bern?”

“Do yourealizehow lucky you are to get this call? This case is gonna generate huge press. Both girls are from prominent families, and they went to?What’s that fancy girls’ school? Miss Holbrooke’s?”

Melanie tried to muster some enthusiasm, not easy to do at this hour. “It sounds really great, but?”

“Albanoaskedfor you by name, Melanie. All right, technically, he asked for Susan Charlton, but when I told him she was on vacation, he was happy to take you. Apparently he’s heard about your penchant for getting…shall we say ‘overly involved’ in your investigations. Which reminds me, no cops-and-robbers stuff this time. That’s an order.”

“Bern, I really can’t?”

“Do youunderstandwhat this means? Do I have to spell it out for you? You’re developing a solid reputation with the movers and shakers, so don’t blow it. I told Vito you’d be there in fifteen minutes. Don’t make me look bad.” Bernadette rattled off the tony address and hung up.

 

 

MELANIE HAD REACHED Steve Hanson—her ex-husband, or soon-to-be ex anyway—not at his apartment but on his cell phone at 2:00 A.M., with music and laughter in the background. Up to his old tricks, thedesgraciado. She tried not to think about it and just be glad that he agreed to come over and stay with Maya.

By the time she’d brushed her teeth and pulled on black pants and a turtleneck, Steve was at the door of the apartment. She turned on the light in the foyer and peered through the peephole. Seeing him gave her a jolt. Mmm, too bad he still looked so good. Tall, lean, blond in a rugged sort of way, always dressed like a million bucks.Watch out for this man, she reminded herself, unlocking the dead bolt.Plenty of other women like what you like.

Steve seemed to sweep into the foyer on a wave of fresh, cold air. Snowflakes still clung to his eyelashes and on the lapels of his charcoal gray cashmere overcoat.

“Hey, Merry Christmas, baby,” he said, grabbing her shoulders and kissing her full on the mouth. She couldn’t help it, she started to kiss back. The guy knew what he was doing, and she was kiss-deprived. But then she tasted alcohol and, beneath that, whomever he’d kissed last. He smelled of perfume, definitely. She pulled away.

Steve looked her in the eyes. “I’m glad you called, Melanie. I’ve been missing you. Families should be together at the holidays.”

She turned her back, opening the door to the coat closet so he wouldn’t see the emotion in her face. Steve knew how to push her buttons, knew about her own childhood Christmases, without her father. She saw through the manipulation. If they reconciled, like he claimed he wanted, nothing would be different. Just smell the man and you could tell that.

“Hand me your coat,” she said, holding out her hand, her voice neutral.

“Wow, look at that tree! How’d you do that?” Steve stood at the threshold to the living room gazing at the seven-foot-tall Douglas fir, which was decked with popcorn and cranberry garlands she’d strung herself late at night when she couldn’t sleep.

“Hector the doorman helped me get it up here. It looks nice, huh?” She felt proud of it, of how she’d managed without him.

“Yeah, it looks beautiful. So doyou, at two-thirty in the morning.” He walked over to where she stood and gazed down at her with sleepy hazel eyes. “I take that back. You lookhot. Like throw-you-down-and-jump-on-you hot.”

“I have to go.” She twirled away just as he grabbed for her.

Ay, de mí, the guy was good-looking, but she refused to let him get to her. He was drunk and horny after a Christmas party, and she didn’t even take him seriously sober. Her marriage, she’d decided, had been more about sex and stability than soul love. There was another man she dreamed of nights.

“Maya’s in our room,” she said, the “our” slipping out before she realized it. “She can have Motrin again at four if she needs it,” she said, opening the front door. At the sight of the elevator, her mind flashed ahead to the gruesome scene that awaited her at James Seward’s apartment. Two young girls, having died terrible deaths, lost forever to their parents.

She hesitated and turned back. “Christmas morning,” she said.

“What?”

“Christmas morning. It would be okay if you wanted to come over. Help Maya open her presents. I could make some scrambled eggs.”

His face relaxed into a smile. “Okay,” he said. “That would be nice.”

She straightened her shoulders and marched out the door.

 

2

 

MELANIE HAD TO FIGHT her way through a throng of reporters camped out in front of the Park Avenue building. Moments later, the mahogany-paneled elevator discharged her directly into the foyer of the Sewards’ penthouse. Her gaze traveled upward—taking in enormous oil paintings in gilded frames, ornately plastered thirteen-foot ceilings, and a glittering crystal chandelier—before settling back on the man standing in front of her. Dressed in slacks, a checked shirt, and a loud tie, he looked to be in his late forties, and he was in the process of finishing a cigarette. His thinning dark hair was carefully combed over his bald spot, and a small potbelly protruded like a melon from his tall, lanky frame.

“Vargas? I’m Albano. You’re late.”

“Sorry. I got here as fast as I could. I just—”

“All right, all right. You’re here now, let’s go.”

He took a deep drag, then crushed out his cigarette in a delicate-looking porcelain planter and took off through an archway to the left. Melanie hurried after him, down a wide hallway past enormous, darkened rooms, each more elaborately decorated than the last. They turned a corner and headed toward the back of the apartment, passing a gleaming kitchen, all white tile and stainless steel. A tuxedoed man sat at the kitchen table talking urgently on his cell phone. Melanie recognized him from having seen him on the news.

“Seward?” she asked Albano under her breath as she raced along beside him.

He nodded. “What’d your boss tell you?”

“That his daughter and one of her friends OD’d and that we’re supposed to track down the supplier and get a warrant for his arrest.”

“It was Seward’s stepdaughter, not his daughter. His wife’s kid from a previous marriage. But yeah. Seward calls the commissioner instead of 911, you believe that? Prick’s been on the phone nonstop since I got here, so we haven’t interviewed him yet. I’m gonna let you and the case agent do that, but come take a look at the bodies first.”

Albano halted before an open door at the far end of the hallway, turning toward her so her view was blocked. A hum of activity emanated from the room, and the faint perfume of decaying flesh sailed out to her on a blast of cold air.

“By the way,” Albano said, “your boss. Is she that redheaded girl with the nice, uh, the nice…voice?”

“She has red hair,” Melanie said, smiling. Not natural, of course, but undeniably red.

“Yeah, I think I met her at a conference last year.”

“Oh, is that why you called us? I know you usually work with Special Narcotics.”

“Ah, that’s just a money thing. Nothing personal. Special Narcotics has a budget for buying cops equipment, you know.”

“No, I had no idea.”

“Uh-huh. I’d love to take more cases federal. You get heavier sentences. But funding being what it is, I can’t afford to dis a prosecutor that wants to buy me cars and radios.”

“So why call usnow?”

“Seward insisted. He wanted the feds called in, and the guy has the juice to do it. The mayor, the commissioner, everybody’s bending over backwards. I’m under orders to solve this thing fast enough to squash the press coverage, you believe that? Like we can lock up the supplier by sunrise and go for pancakes.” Albano reached into his pocket and took out a pack of Rolaids, shaking his head, tossing three into his mouth at once.

“I get the sense you don’t think that’s likely,” Melanie said.

“You have any idea how many mopes there are in this town selling dime bags to high-school kids? Needle in a fucking haystack. You want my opinion, this case is a nightmare. Seward’s a major pain in the ass, and the press is watching our every move.”

“Yeah, the tabloids must be drooling. Seward’s stepdaughter OD’ing, and both girls went to Holbrooke. You know, the fancy finishing school? That’s news in itself,” Melanie said.

Miss Holbrooke’s School, known simply as “Holbrooke” among the initiated, was one of the oldest and most famous private schools in Manhattan. Melanie had grown up in the city in a rough neighborhood and gone to public school, but she knew Holbrooke all right. She’d learned about it when she got to Harvard and discovered that the lunch tables in the Freshman Union were ruled by a clique of Holbrooke girls with famous last names, wearing just the right expensive jeans. They looked like models, were mean as cats, and hadn’t gotten in on their SAT scores.

“Did you talk to the doormen?” Melanie asked Albano. “Any evidence of anybody in or out of the building tonight who could’ve delivered the drugs?”

“Useless. Four guys on duty duty —two doormen, two porters. Nobody saw a fricking thing. There was a holiday reception for a hundred people happening on the twelfth floor. They were so distracted with that, King Kong coulda walked in and they wouldna noticed.”


Page 2

“What about household help? These people must have a maid or something.”

Albano pulled a small notebook from his back pants pocket and consulted it. “Uh, there’s usually a live-in housekeeper, but she’s in Manila for the holidays. Rest of the staff consists of a day maid, cook, driver, and—get this—laundress–slash–ironing lady. Last person left at about six-fifteen tonight. None present on the scene when any events of interest occurred.” He put the notebook back in his pocket. “So…ready to take a look?” Albano asked.

Melanie drew a breath to steel herself for viewing bodies but just ended up with a noseful of death smell. As if an animal had died in a damp basement, except more so. No point in hesitating. Not like they would smell any better if she waited.

“Let’s go,” she said, and stepped through the door.

 

3

 

THE LARGE CORNER BEDROOM was crowded with cops and bitterly cold. The windows lining its two exterior walls had been thrown open to the freezing night air. Melanie clapped her hand violently over her nose and mouth. Even with the cross-ventilation, the room reeked of vomit, feces, and spoiling meat.

The ghoulish face of the girl on the bed drew Melanie’s eyes like a magnet. She’d collapsed half sitting against the headboard, her skin mottled and blue, her eyes open, bulging nearly out of their sockets. Vomit spilled from her slackened mouth, yet her long blond hair and classic features suggested she’d been beautiful in life. She was clad only in a skintight sweater and tiny thong panties, her long legs bare but rigid and inert.

“The other one’s here,” Albano said.

Melanie stepped around the bed. A pretty brunette lay splayed out stark naked on the floor near the bathroom door, her head turned sideways and her vacant eyes staring right at Melanie. Her cheek rested in a pool of congealed blood and white foam. Melanie took a step closer. A familiar-looking fleshy pink object lay in the pooled blood on the floor.

“What’sthat?” she asked through her fingers.

“Tongue,” Albano replied matter-of-factly. “She bit it off. You can actually see a perfect impression of her teeth if you look close.”

“Thanks, I’ll take your word for it.”

“The blonde on the bed is Whitney Seward, the bigwig’s stepdaughter. This one’s Brianna Meyers. Her mother’s some famous interior decorator,” Albano said, practically rolling his eyes. “Oh, lemme introduce you to the case agent. Ray Wong from DEA. Ray-Ray, c’mere.”

A short, muscular guy with close-cropped hair and a military bearing came over and shook Melanie’s hand. She forced herself not to wince at his powerful grip.

“Ray-Ray’s one of the best, if you don’t mind your people wound a little tight,” Albano said. “First guy through the door on every raid. Every now and then, we just take his gun away for a few days to make sure he don’t hurt nobody, right, Ray?” Albano punched Wong on the arm and chuckled, but Wong didn’t look amused.

“Do we know why these girls are undressed?” Melanie asked. “Is there some sexual aspect to this?”

“Did you talk to that black girl from the M.E.’s office yet?” Albano asked Wong, gesturing at a young woman in cornrows and funky glasses who was conferring with some Crime Scene detectives.

“She’s been occupied, sir.”

“Let’s ask her,” Albano said.

Shavonne Washington, the investigator from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, was speaking to Butch Brennan from Crime Scene, a cheerful old-timer whom Melanie knew from other cases. Melanie greeted Butch warmly, then turned to Shavonne.

“What’s your assessment?” she asked.

“I’m not allowed to certify cause of death without an autopsy unless it’s natural causes, but Icould,” Shavonne said. “This one’s a no-brainer. All the classic signs of narcotic drug overdose. You got vomiting, loss of control of the bowels. You smellthat, right? Nasal and lachrymal discharge. Severed tongue on the brown-haired girl, who’s also got white powder under the nostrils, indicating nasal ingestion. No visible track marks on the arms, but that’s no surprise. Kids in this socioeconomic bracket are squeamish. Shooting up’s too street for them—they prefer it up the nose. So I’m gonna say with ninety-nine percent certainty heroin’s the culprit here.”

“You’re sure it was heroin? Why not cocaine if there’s white powder under the nose?” Melanie asked.

“Cocaine ODs are pretty rare,” Shavonne explained, “and they usually happen because the victim had some undetected cardiac problem. With cocaine you never see people OD’ing simultaneously like this. Whereas with heroin, if the stuff’s powerful enough, it’s not uncommon to get a couple bodies at a time just from snorting. More, even.”

“One’s nude and the other’s half undressed. Any signs of sexual abuse?” Melanie asked.

“No visible trauma consistent with defensive wounds. But the autopsy’ll look for evidence of recent sexual intercourse, forced or consensual. If thereisevidence, we’ll take swabs and DNA-test the semen. That’s probably not why the bodies are naked, though. It’s normal for ODs to be missing some clothes. They rip ’em off while they’re freaking out.”

“Did we find the missing clothes?” Melanie asked Butch.

“The brunette’s are in a pile on the bathroom floor, so that looks consistent with what Shavonne’s saying. The blonde’s skirt and sneakers were in the kitchen. Why there, is anybody’s guess.”

“Did we recover any heroin from the scene?” Melanie asked.

“Looks like they snorted it all before they kicked off,” Butch said. “But we found the empty glassines, so the lab’ll test for residue. Take a look.”

Butch handed her two clear plastic evidence envelopes that had already been heat-sealed and dated. Each one in turn contained a tiny pouch made from waxed paper with a fold-over flap, precisely sized to hold an individual dosage unit of heroin. Known as glassines or “decks” in cop parlance, these particular pouches had been stamped with the word GOLPE, in bright red ink.

“The decks were found right next to ’em, like they snorted the junk one second and keeled over the next,” Butch said. “One was found on the bed next to the blonde’s right hand and the other on the floor next to the brunette’s right arm.”

“Hmm, that’s odd,” Melanie said.

“Why do you say that?” Butch asked.

“If the dark-haired girl snorted the heroin and fell over in a seizure the next second with the glassine still in her hand, why are her clothes all the way in the bathroom?”

“Maybe she snorted more than one deck,” Butch offered.

“Then we should’ve found another empty, right?” Melanie examined the glassines. “Golpe,” she intoned, giving the word its Spanish pronunciation.

“You recognize the stamp?” Lieutenant Albano asked.

“Stamps” were the brand names of the drug trade. Knowing the brand name would make tracking down the supplier a whole lot easier, since certain gangs tended to specialize in certain brands of heroin.

“No. Just that it’s Spanish. It means ‘slap’ or ‘punch.’ In this context it’s more like ‘hit,’ a hit of dope. The Spanish name is unusual, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Well, no offense there, Counselor, but the major heroin distributors in this town are all PR or Dominican. The Spanish sell the shit, so they put it in a language they understand.”

“Not true, Lieutenant,” Melanie said, struggling to keep her tone polite. “Spanish-speaking drug dealers typically use English brand names. They reach a larger customer base that way. To me the Spanish stamp means these drugs were intended for a Spanish-speaking market. That could help us narrow things down.”

“We’ll get on it, run the stamp through the databases,” Ray Wong said.

“What about fingerprinting the glassines?” Melanie asked.

“We’re dusting everything. We’ll need to print the bodies for comparison, though,” Butch said.

“No problem. The bodies are still fresh enough to get prints, especially with this cold air slowing decomp,” Shavonne said, gesturing toward the open windows.

Bodies. Melanie hated the sound of that. They weren’t just bodies. They were human beings, young girls with names and personalities, somebody’s children. Or at least theyhadbeen.

“How old were the victims?” Melanie asked.

“High-school juniors, so you gotta figure sixteen, seventeen. Everything ahead of ’em,” Albano said, shaking his head.

“Theyshould be our focus,” Melanie said. “Who were they? Who were their friends? Where did they go in the past few days? We need to get to know them. That’s the way to solve this case.”

 

4

 

THE OBVIOUS FIRST STEP in learning more about the victims was interviewing Whitney Seward’s stepfather, in whose apartment they’d drawn their last breaths, and who’d apparently discovered their bodies. Speaking to Seward’s wife, Charlotte, would have to wait, since she was under sedation and unable to talk.

Melanie and Ray-Ray found James Seward seated at a marble-topped table in the lavish kitchen, speaking to his campaign manager on a cell phone. His gray-blond hair, lashless pale eyes, and aristocratic nose were familiar to anybody who watched the six o’clock news. Seward was now in the process of trying to buy himself a Senate seat, which was turning into an expensive and messy proposition. He was one of many candidates in a crowded primary field. Allegations swirled around him—from questionable trading practices on Wall Street to fund-raising scandals during his tenure as state party chairman—and he was trailing badly in the polls. Melanie recognized that she had a preexisting impression of this guy as slippery and dangerous, so she warned herself to keep an open mind.

Seward ignored their presence for as long as he possibly could, then put his hand over the mouthpiece irritably. “Yes? What is it?”

“Melanie Vargas from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Special Agent Raymond Wong from DEA,” Melanie said as they both flashed their credentials. “We need to ask you some questions, sir.”

“I’m busy right now. Phone my campaign headquarters in the morning,” he said.

Melanie and Ray-Ray looked at each other. Was this guy kidding?

“Sir, we’re investigating federal narcotics violations that resulted in two deaths. If you don’t cooperate voluntarily, we’ll subpoena you to the grand jury and place you under oath,” Melanie said.

Seward’s pale eyes seemed to focus on her finally. Something in their expression changed subtly, and he got off his phone call.

“Do forgive me, Miss—What did you say your name was?” he said after hanging up.

“Vargas. Melanie Vargas from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

“I’m under terrible stress tonight, as you can imagine. My stepdaughter is dead. My wife is devastated. And the press is all over me, screaming for blood.”

“We’ll do our best to keep this brief.”

“Thank you. I would very much appreciate that. It’s been a difficult night.”

“You have my deepest sympathy. I’m a parent, too.” From what Melanie had observed so far, Seward wasn’t exactly overcome with emotion, but who knew? The guy was an uptight WASP. Maybe thiswasgrief-stricken on him. He certainly looked haggard anyway.

Seward took them to what he called his library to get away from the bustle of emergency personnel in the main part of the apartment. It was a large, paneled drawing room with lots of lavishly upholstered sofas and shelf after shelf of the type of gilt-edged books that decorators bought and nobody actually read. A desk sat in one corner, big and shiny as an ocean liner. Seward settled himself behind it in an imposing leather chair.

“Please, have a seat.” He nodded toward two high-backed, uncomfortable-looking wing chairs facing the desk, and Melanie and Ray-Ray sat down. Ray-Ray opened his notebook, pen poised.

“I’ll be happy to tell you anything I can,” Seward offered.

“Let’s start with the basics. What time did you discover the bodies?” Melanie asked.

“It wasn’t actually me who discovered them. It was the building super, Luis Reyes. He has a master key, and he’d come up here looking for his daughter, who’s a classmate of Whitney’s. I wasn’t home at the time. Charlotte and I were at a benefit at the downtown Guggenheim.”

“Oh! I was under the impression you’d found the bodies yourself,” Melanie said.

“The police may have assumed that, since I was here when they arrived. But I never said so. You’re the first person who directly asked me whether I discovered them or not.”

“But itwasyou who called the police?”

“Oh, yes. Not just the police. Thecommissioner.”

“I’m surprised Mr. Reyes didn’t just call 911 when he found the bodies. That’s the usual reaction.”

Seward hesitated for a millisecond. “Yes. Well. You see, I told him not to. Frankly, I didn’t trust Luis to handle things properly. Given the sensitive nature of the situation, I preferred to pursue it with my own contacts at a…uh,higherlevel. Many of the 911 dispatchers take money to feed tips to the tabloids, you know.”

“I see. All right, we’ll speak to Mr. Reyes also. He’s here?”

“No, he went downstairs to his apartment. In the basement. He was quite upset, so I told him to go lie down.”

“You told him to leave the scene before the police arrived?”

“Yes. I hope that’s not a problem. I can get him right back up here if you like.”

“That won’t be necessary. We’ll go downstairs and speak with him after we’re finished interviewing you. But I’m curious as to why you didn’t tell the police that Mr. Reyes was the one who discovered the bodies?”

“I guess I just didn’t realize it was important. I apologize if I’ve caused any confusion.”

Seward’s pale eyes gazed at Melanie steadily. There was nothing that odd in what he was saying. It hardly surprised her that someone like him would choose to pull strings rather than let the building custodian dial 911. He obviously felt 911 was for the little people. Still, she got a strange vibe from him.

“Do you know what time Mr. Reyes found the bodies?” she continued.

Seward drew a slim silver cigarette case from his jacket pocket and extracted a European-looking cigarette, lighting it with steady hands. He was neither uncooperative nor nervous, yet his pauses before answering were odd, as if he were buying time to think. Then again, give the guy a break. It was almost four in the morning, and his stepdaughter was dead.


Page 3

“I wouldn’t want to speak for Luis. Best you askhimthat,” Seward said finally.

“Your point is well taken, Mr. Seward. When did Mr. Reyes first callyou, then?” Melanie asked.

“I’m not exactly sure when he first called,” Seward said, exhaling calmly. “It was loud at the benefit. I didn’t hear my phone ring. When my wife and I were leaving, I realized I had a voice-mail message. I listened to the message, then immediately called Luis back. That’s when he told me Whitney and Brianna were dead.”

“What time was that?”

“Quite late. Perhaps midnight.”

“What did you do next?”

“I rushed home, naturally.”

“At what point did you call the police?”

“Once I got home. I met Luis at the door, checked in Whitney’s room to see exactly what it was we were dealing with, and then I called the commissioner. From this very phone, in fact,” he said, nodding toward the telephone on his desk.

Melanie saw that Seward was watching her reaction carefully.He’s worried his behavior looks fishy, she thought.

“Is there a reason you didn’t call the police immediately? As soon as Mr. Reyes told you he’d found the bodies?”

Again Seward paused. “Ye-e-es,” he said slowly. “I knew I wanted to deal with this through my personal contacts, and I didn’t have the commissioner’s number with me. It’s unpublished, you see.”

“But weren’t you worried that the girls might have needed medical attention, that perhaps they were—”

“Still alive? No. If I’d felt that was a possibility, naturally I would have acted differently. But Luis made it quite clear they weren’t breathing. I felt there was nothing I could do except try to minimize the fallout from the situation for myself and my wife.”

“How long did it take you to drive uptown?” Melanie asked.

“Holiday traffic was awful. All the tourists looking at the tree. It took half an hour at least.”

“You waited over half an hour after hearing that Whitney and Brianna were dead before you called the police?”

Seward sighed. “To an outside observer, I understand that might seem cold. But put yourself in my shoes. I knew the second the press heard about this, they’d descend on us like a plague of locusts, and I was right. You saw what it was like downstairs, didn’t you? My wife is a very fragile woman, and she’d just learned of her daughter’s death. I couldn’t subject her to a horde of flashbulbs in front of the building, especially not when it wasmypolitical career bringing them to our doorstep. So I did what I had to do to ensure our privacy. I knew the girls were already dead, so I didn’t think it would matter. Please. Try to understand.”

Melanie’s instincts were clanging like a fire alarm. She realized she suspected Seward of something. But what? When she thought about it, there was nothing here. Anything strange James Seward had done, he’d just told her about himself and provided a perfectly plausible explanation. Like most people, Melanie distrusted rich, arrogant politicians. She’d better be careful not to let that personal prejudice color her judgment.

“Look,” Seward continued, reading the ambivalence in Melanie’s expression, “I may not have done things perfectly, but I’m in a very difficult position. I’m trying to be as cooperative as possible. In fact, if we’re finished with the preliminaries, I’d like to tell you where Whitney and Brianna got the drugs that killed them.”

“Youknow?” she asked. Ray-Ray looked at her in astonishment.

“I can’t know definitively, since I wasn’t there. But I have my suspicions,” Seward said.

“Please, by all means, tell us what you think,” Melanie said.

“Carmen Reyes, the super’s daughter, is—or I should saywas—a classmate of Whitney’s at Holbrooke. She got in on a College Bound Kids scholarship. I had a hand in arranging that, and now I’m kicking myself. Because Carmen was here right before Whitney and Brianna died. The whole reason Luis used his passkey to get in is that Carmen hadn’t come home when she was supposed to, and he was looking for her.”

“You believe that Carmen Reyes gave Whitney the drugs, Mr. Seward?”

“Yes, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Carmen was here earlier tonight, right before this happened, and now she’s gone. Disappeared.”

“She hasn’t returned home?”

“That’s correct. And it’s…what? After four o’clock in the morning?”

“So you think Carmen—”

“Of course. She gave them the heroin, then she saw the terrible results of her actions, and she ran away. Carmen Reyes is the answer to this whole thing.”

 

5

 

FOR THE FIRST MINUTE after she woke up, Carmen was sure she was dead. Everything was black. Something was weird with her breathing, like she was choking. And her arms and legs were numb. She’d seen what he’d done to Whitney and Brianna. The terrible way they’d died. It probably felt like this. Maybe he’d done the same to her?

The next minute her brain started to function again. It interpreted the signals from her body more precisely. Carmen felt the pressure against her eyes and realized that it was dark because she was blindfolded. Her tongue told her that she was choking on a rag stuffed in her mouth. And the sparks that shot through her arms and legs when she moved let her know that she was tightly bound and stuffed into a confined space.

The minute after that, Carmen screamed. A hoarse sobbing sound through the gag. She screamed again and again, till her throat burned. She felt like screaming forever, until she lost her voice or suffocated on the rag or went totally insane. But at some point, when she drew breath, her mind registered utter quiet all around her. Wherever she was, she was alone. There was nobody to hear her screams, so she forced herself to stop.

Whereverhewas now, she knew, he’d be coming back. Probably soon. That thought immediately calmed her—the calm one feels on the verge of death. She wanted to live to see her family again. Papi and Lulu. Shehadto. The three of them were so close since Mami died. They wouldn’t be able to handle another loss, couldn’t go on without her. Right that moment she swore she’d make it, for their sakes. And, having seen what this man was capable of, she’d better conserve her energy. Surviving would take everything she had.

 

6

 

MELANIE’S NEXT STEP was to interview the super who’d discovered the bodies. She and Ray-Ray took the service elevator down to the basement of James Seward’s Park Avenue building. In contrast to the exquisite mahogany car that had ferried them to the penthouse, the service elevator was painted industrial gray and smelled like garbage. Directly across from where it let them out, a grimy door bore a small nameplate reading L. REYES, SUPERINTENDENT.

Ray-Ray pressed the buzzer. They waited. A darkening at the peephole told them someone was looking out.

“Yeah? Wha’ you want?” said a gruff voice from the other side of the door. The accent threw her back years, to her father’s English. Her father had lived in New York for two decades, but his English never made it beyond passable.

“Señor Reyes, Melanie Vargas. Soy de la oficina del fiscal.”

The door swung open immediately.

“Prosecutor? Yes, I been waiting!” The short, balding, coffee-skinned man who stood before them looked like he’d walked through hell. His eyes were puffy and red, his face haggard, yet he smiled at her and pumped her hand excitedly.

“This is Special Agent Raymond Wong from the Drug Enforcement Administration,” Melanie said.

“Good, come in, come in,” Reyes said, relief in his voice.

He led them into a sparsely furnished living room with concrete walls and floors. An electric heater in the corner did nothing to dispel the basement chill. Exposed pipes punctuated the ceiling, their sickly green paint peeling off in strips. Even the small Christmas tree pushed up against the far wall looked like it was struggling.

“Here. Sit down, and I get you her picture. You need that, right?”

Melanie and Ray-Ray exchanged uneasy glances. Should they tell Reyes they weren’t exactly here about his daughter? The fact was, theydidneed to find Carmen Reyes. She might know something.

“Well, actually—” Melanie began.

“I’m glad you change your mind. Three times I call the police, and they keep tell me missing-person report you can’t file for twenty-four hours. But Carmen is a very good girl. She never go out at night. She never goanywhereand not tell herpapi. Look at this picture. You see how good she is? This from Great Adventure last summer.”

He handed Melanie a framed photograph of a tall, skinny girl standing in front of the sign for the Nitro. She wore pink sunglasses and a huge grin that showed her braces. Her hair was pulled back into a demure ponytail, and her T-shirt read ROCK THE VOTE. No question, she looked like a dream teen, sweet and studious. On the other hand, appearances were often deceiving.

“Is this the most recent picture you have of Carmen?” Melanie asked.

“Yes. My wife die from cancer four years ago. Since then is only the three of us, and we so sad we don’t take too many pictures.” Tears flooded Reyes’s eyes. How could Melanie possibly tell this man that James Seward had just accused his daughter of supplying the heroin that killed her classmates? She decided she wouldn’t. Not yet anyway, not until she knew more.

“Mr. Reyes,” she said gently, “please, have a seat. I’d like to ask you some questions.” She nodded at Ray-Ray, who opened his notebook.

“Of course. Whatever you need, you tell me. What she wearing, when I last see her. I remember.”

“We’ll get to all that. But first tell me about Carmen going to visit Whitney Seward tonight.”

“Yes, I think it’s connected, right? Could be some drug dealer give Whitney the stuff, and he kidnap my Carmen so she don’t tell!¡Ay, Dios! ” Tears began falling from Reyes’s eyes, and he buried his face in his hands. “I don’t know what I gonna do if sonthing happen to her!” he cried. His stocky frame began to heave and shake with sobs.

“Let me get you a glass of water,” Melanie said.

She went into the adjacent galley kitchen and flipped on the overhead light. The shadows of dead cockroaches stood out in bold relief inside the plastic light fixture. New York was strange, the way extremes of wealth and poverty coexisted so closely, even in the same building.

After he drank the water, Reyes seemed calmer.

“About seven-thirty, Whitney call Carmen and say can she come upstairs and study for the math test. My Carmen a genius with numbers. They got her working in the office at Holbrooke because she so good with math. She could make a lotta money in business someday, but she say she wanna be math teacher instead, work with kids.”

“So it was Whitney who called Carmen, not the other way around?”

“Sí. I thought was strange, because Whitney never call here. Whitney and Carmen, they were not friends.”

“No?”

“Whitney is very fast. Carmen’s afraid of her. Besides, Whitney is very mean to Carmen, because she rich and Carmen is poor. You know, Carmen don’t got the right clothes, like that.”

“Why did Carmen go upstairs if she didn’t like Whitney?”

“How we gonna say no? Mr. Seward is thejefe. The boss. He run the co-op board in this building, so he hire and fire the staff people. And he get my girls in good school so they go in college. Not just Carmen but Lourdes, too. Lulu, we call her, my little one. So if Whitney ask for help to study, you bet Carmen gonna help her.”

“So Carmen went upstairs to the Sewards’ apartment?”

“Yes.”

“What time?”

“Right away when Whitney call. Maybe seven-thirty, seven forty-five.”

“What was Carmen wearing?”

“Her school uniform. Plaid skirt and navy sweater. She didn’t have no coat. I hope where she is now, she not too cold.” Reyes began to cry again, covering his eyes, his shoulders shaking. After a moment he pulled himself together and looked up.

“I know this is difficult, Mr. Reyes. You’re doing a good job.”

“I’m trying. Help my Carmencita.”

“Let’s stay focused on the details of what happened, okay? I think it’ll be easier that way. How long was Carmen upstairs before you discovered the bodies?”

“After maybe two, three hours, I say, Wha’s happening? Is taking too long. So I call up there, and nobody answer the phone. I wait little bit more. Then about maybe ten-thirty, I worried, so I go up and knock on the back door. No answer. I try front. Same. So I go in with my key and look around. And I find this terrible thing.” Reyes drew a ragged breath and looked up at the ceiling with reddened eyes.

“Tell me where you found the bodies.”

“Whitney on her bed. The other girl on the floor near the bathroom. Carmen nowhere.”

“What were they wearing when you found them?”

“Whitney got on a top and underpants. The other, nothing.”

“Did you touch or move anything in the room?”

Reyes looked alarmed. “No. I know better. You get in trouble for that, right? I see a lotta cop shows on TV.”

“Why didn’t you call the police right away, when you discovered the bodies?”

“I call Mr. Seward first, because it’s his daughter, his house.”

“And he told you not to call the police?”

Reyes looked alarmed. “Tell me? No. He never say nothing like that.”

“James Seward didn’t tell you not to call the police?” Melanie asked, confused. Hadn’t Seward already admitted that to her?

“No, I tell him, please,señor, you call. I don’t speak too good, you know. He never tell me not to call.”

“Okay.” Melanie paused, intending just to note this minor discrepancy and move on. Yet something about the timing here bothered her. “Mr. Reyes,” she couldn’t help asking, “your daughter was missing, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you’d found her two classmates dead?”

“Sí.”

“Well, I guess I’m just surprised you wouldn’t call immediately yourself.”

Reyes flushed red, his eyes leaking tears again. “Yes. Of course Iwannacall right away, because Carmen is gone. Iwantto.”


Page 4

“So why didn’t you?”

“You know, I very confused. Mr. Seward say he gonna call for me.”

“But I thought you just said it wasyourrequest that Mr. Seward call.”

Reyes started to sob noisily. “Yeah. I dunno. Is very confusing,” he choked out.

Jeez, this guy was a mess. Maybe there was nothing here. Anyway, she’d better get the basic facts down.

“Okay, I don’t want to get hung up on this detail. Mr. Reyes, please.” Melanie gave him a tissue from her bag. “Are you okay to talk?” she asked after he’d blown his nose and wiped his eyes.

“Yeah, okay.”

“Now, do you remember what time it was when you first called Mr. Seward?”

Again Reyes looked alarmed. “Time? No, I can’t say.”

“Any idea? You said it was probably around…” She paused, getting confused herself now. “Ray-Ray, what time do we have that Mr. Reyes entered the Sewards’ apartment?”

Ray-Ray flipped back to the preceding page in his spiral notebook. “‘Witness states daughter went upstairs around seven forty-five. Witness further states he became concerned when daughter had not returned after two to three hours.’”

“So at the latest it was ten forty-five when you entered the apartment,” Melanie said to Reyes.

Pain and panic raced across Reyes’s face. “I don’ know times, okay? I’m not looking at my watch. All I know is, I wanna find my Carmen. You gonna help me do that or not?”

“Yes, of course. We just need to hear what happened. We have to get the facts.”

“Look, I don’t know the time, okay?” Reyes snapped. “I call for a while and don’t get no answer. Finally I reach him, he say he gonna call the cops himself. So I wait for him to come home. Mr. Seward tell me do sonthing, I listen, because I need my job.”

Melanie nodded. Whatever Seward’s motives, Reyes’s motives for obeying seemed authentic. “So what happened next?”

Reyes sighed deeply, his face scrunching up. For a moment Melanie thought he might cry again. But then he began speaking very quickly, the words spilling out in a rush. “Around midnight Mr. Seward and the missus come home. He check the bodies, very fast. He call the police. The rest you know. So let’s talk about sonthing else.”

She looked at him searchingly, wondering why he was so determined to change the subject, but then decided to let it go. This man was obviously upset. She had enough to do to solve this case without imagining credibility issues where there were none.

“Tell me about Carmen. How she spent her time, where she went. Anything that might help us track her down.”

“Mostly she go in school, she work, she go in church. She very quiet girl.”

“What about her friends? Was there anyone Carmen associated with who might have been involved with illegal drugs?”

“A kid calling her a lot. Him, I don’t like. Maybe you gotta check him out, see if he know sonthing.”

“Of course. Tell us about him.” She looked over at Ray, who nodded and continued to take notes.

“Carmen meet him in church. A realcholo.”

“Cholo?”

“You know, a gangster. He’s from El Salvador.” Reyes scrutinized Melanie closely. “Youpuertorriqueña, ¿sí?”

“Yes, I’m Puerto Rican. So you don’t like the boy because you think he’s in a gang or because he’s Salvadoran?”

“He’s a gangster, and he don’t got no papers. I tell Carmen, La Migra gonna deport this one any minute. I complain to the priest about my daughter meetingilegalesin the church, and you know what he say to me? Jesus don’ care about papers!” He shook his head with disgust.

“Was Carmen dating this kid?”

“No, I never let her. She teaching him to read, from the church program. But he call her too much. So I tell him no call here no more.” Reyes shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe is sonthing. Maybe he get mad.”

“What’s the boy’s name?” she asked.

“Juan Carlos Peralta.”

“Do you know how to get in touch with him?”

“Carmen had hisnúmero de celularin her book.”

“We’d like to see Carmen’s address book.”

“Okay. Is in her room. You come.”

Reyes led them down a small hallway and pushed open a door at the end. Two narrow beds and a dresser filled the tiny room. A young girl sitting on the bed nearest the door looked up at them, startled. Presumably Carmen’s younger sister, Lulu. She’d been staring vacantly into space, fiddling with a silver peace sign that hung around her neck on a cowhide string. She was about thirteen or fourteen, with enormous brown eyes just like Maya’s and dark hair in a ponytail. And she looked scared.

Reyes took Carmen’s address book from a table between the twin beds and handed it to Melanie.

“Thank you. Is this Lulu?” Melanie asked, her eyes on the girl.

“Yes. Lulu, you be polite. Say hello to the prosecutor who gonna find Carmen for us,” Reyes said.

“Nice to meet you,” Melanie said.

Lulu stared back at her silently. Melanie couldn’t decide if the girl was sullen, in shock, or just sizing Melanie up before she decided to open her mouth.

Melanie sat down on the bed next to Lulu. “I can see you’re upset. I’d like to introduce myself and tell you what I’m trying to do, because maybe you can help me. Okay?”

Lulu shrugged. “Whatever.”

“You go to Holbrooke, too?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s in eighth grade,” Reyes said.

“You know two Holbrooke girls died tonight from snorting heroin?” Melanie asked.

She finally had Lulu’s attention. “No. Papi didn’t tell me that. Who?”

“Whitney Seward and Brianna Meyers.”

“Whitney was into drugs.” Lulu nodded, unsurprised.

“How do you know that?”

“Everybody knew.”

“Does your sister do drugs?”

“No way. Never.”

“Does she hang out with kids who do?”

“Carmen doesn’t hang out with anybody.”

“Do you have any idea where Carmen might have gone? Do you think she ran away?”

Again Lulu looked at Melanie with that strange, steady gaze. There was a lot going on behind her brown eyes. Melanie almost thought Lulu was weighing whether or not to talk. She seemed old beyond her years; yet there was something in her gaze that Melanie recognized from her own childhood, from that dark time after her father was shot in a robbery, after he went back to Puerto Rico and left them alone to face life in their bad neighborhood. It was fear.

“Who knows? Maybe she did run away,” Lulu said finally, sighing.

“No!” Luis Reyes burst out, slamming a fist against the bedroom wall. “That’s crazy, Lulu! What you saying? You making me very sad. Carmen no run away, never! Since Mami die, all we got is each other. Carmen never do that to us!”

Reyes began to sob again, and Lulu lay facedown on her bed and put her pillow over her head. This interview was going nowhere fast.

Melanie pulled a business card from her bag. “I’m leaving you my cell and office phone numbers, Lulu,” she said to the girl’s back. “If there’s anything else you think I should know, you call me. It could be a matter of life and death for your sister.”

Lulu just lay there silent as a stone. Melanie handed a card to Luis Reyes as well. Reyes then escorted them to the door of the basement apartment, crying the whole way. As Melanie was about to leave, he grabbed her by the arm.

“You gonna find her, right?” he asked urgently, eyes streaming tears.

Melanie looked into the man’s desperate face and found herself wishing her own father had cared this passionately abouther.

“Yes,” she said gently, vowing to herself to make it happen. “I will find your daughter. I promise.”

 

7

 

COLD PINK LIGHT from the rising sun bounced off windows on the west side of Park Avenue as Melanie and Ray-Ray emerged from the building and headed for his car. While the Crime Scene guys finished up, they’d check out leads on Carmen Reyes. Bernadette had called a team meeting for 9:00 A.M. sharp. Melanie planned to have some answers by then.

As he drove, Ray-Ray radioed Carmen’s description to the DEA dispatcher for relay to other law-enforcement agencies. Melanie kept her mouth shut when he called it in as “subject wanted for questioning” rather than as a missing person. Her goal was to find Carmen, and describing the girl as the subject of an investigation might actually generate a meaningful response. It was better than calling her a runaway, certainly. Teenage runaways were a dime a dozen. With no evidence of foul play, the most the cops would do was put in a few perfunctory calls to hospitals and the morgue.

Melanie went through Carmen’s address book and read out the location where they could expect to find Juan Carlos Peralta. This early there was practically no traffic, and they whizzed across the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. The East River below glittered cold and black, and the silver towers of midtown stood out like knives against the morning sky. In mere minutes they were cruising the mean streets of Queens looking for Peralta’s building.

“Okay, I have a gut feeling about this,” Melanie said, unable to keep silent any longer.

Ray-Ray said nothing, staring out at the street signs, fingertips drumming restlessly on the steering wheel. He didn’t seem the type to follow a hunch.

“Maybe Carmen’s getting a bum rap,” Melanie continued. “To me she reads like a nice, studious girl from a decent family. Plus, her little sister seemed really scared of something.”

“Think I like locking up Chinese people, ma’am?” Ray-Ray said, taking his eyes off the road long enough to give Melanie a disapproving look. “But I do it if I got the evidence. This girl is most likely involved. Or else why split?”

Ouch. Maybe he was right. On the other hand, maybe he was wrong. Imagination did not appear to be his strong suit. Melanie kept silent for a few minutes, leafing through Carmen’s address book, tiny, with a flowered cloth cover and worn, gilt-edged pages. There was nothing of interest in it other than the Salvadoran boy’s cell-phone number and address. Just a few relatives in Puerto Rico and a pen pal in Wisconsin named Heidi.

“Okay, forget Carmen. What about her sister? Didn’t she look scared to you?” Melanie asked.

“Scared?”

“Yes.”

“No. Not particularly.”

“Oh, come on, Ray-Ray, she definitely did!”

“She looked upset, ma’am. Natural reaction under the circumstances. You asked if she knew anything about her sister’s disappearance, and she replied negative. In fact, from what I observed, the younger sister believes this is a runaway situation.”

“She never said that.”

“She implied it. To my mind anyway. Granted, that doesn’t necessarily equal the Reyes girl supplying the drugs. There’s about a million reasons a teenage girl might run away. Maybe she just didn’t like being told not to date this Peralta kid.”

“What about Seward and Reyes? Didn’t you think there was something off in the timing there? Who called the police—and when?”

He shrugged. “Seward’s a rich asshole pulling strings. Reyes is your average member of any minority community. Doesn’t like the cops, worried about his job, so he lets Seward call. Nothing unusual as far as I can tell.”

“Yeah, well, I think there’s more here than meets the eye. We should look beyond the obvious.”

“Honestly, ma’am, I’ve never found much call to do that on this job. The obvious generally works pretty well.”

Ray-Ray slowed down and scanned the numbers on a series of rundown tenements. He pulled up across the street from one of them.

“That’s the place,” he said, jerking his head toward the building. “What do you advise we do?”

Melanie checked her watch. It was seven o’clock in the morning. “He’s probably inside. You knock and announce, then ask to interview him. If he says no, I run back to my office and type a quick subpoena while you sit on the house to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ray-Ray said.

They got out of the car and crossed the street. Plows had gathered last night’s snow into ugly gray mounds, now decorated with intermittent streaks of bright yellow dog pee. Ray-Ray tried the door, plate glass embedded with chicken wire, with a huge crack across it. It was unlocked. They climbed three flights up a steep, poorly lit staircase to Peralta’s apartment. It wasn’t lost on Melanie that Ray-Ray kept his hand on the gun at his waistband. Normally Melanie didn’t ride along like this. The agents went out, located the witnesses, and rendered them safe—translation: disarmed them—before bringing them back to the sterile sanctuary of her government office to be interviewed. But with an investigation this urgent, there wasn’t time for such niceties.

The door of Peralta’s apartment boasted a tattered poster of the blue-and-white Salvadoran flag. Ray-Ray raised his fist and rapped loudly with his knuckles.

“¿Quién es?” asked an old woman’s faltering voice after a pause.

“Drug Enforcement Administration. We’re here to speak with a Mr. Peralta, ma’am,” Ray-Ray said.

“La Dea! ” the old lady shouted.

From inside the apartment came the sound of pounding footsteps, followed by the screech of a window being thrown open. Ray-Ray lowered his shoulder to hurl himself against the door. Melanie grabbed his arm.

“Exigent circumstances!” he barked, looking at her accusingly.

He was right. They could hardly afford to wait for a warrant. A young girl was missing, and someone who might have information was escaping out a window.

“Go!” she yelled.

Ray-Ray threw himself against the flimsy door several times in quick succession until it burst open. Inside, curtains flapped in the wind as a dark head disappeared from view down a metal fire escape.

Ray-Ray blew into the room and out the open window. Melanie raced after him, leaning out the casement in time to watch him clamber down the fire escape in hot pursuit of his quarry. The dark-haired kid reached the end of the metal railing and jumped the remaining six feet or so, hitting the ground and rolling. Ray-Ray leaped right behind him, scrambled to his feet at the same instant the kid did, and lunged for his legs, yanking them out from under him. In a second Ray-Ray had the cuffs on him and looked up at Melanie with a huge grin on his face. She saw what Albano meant. Ray-Ray lived for this shit, you could just tell.


Page 5

Melanie turned back to the room. They were entitled to search anything in plain view, incident to what was, if nothing else, a lawful arrest on immigration charges. Unfortunately, the only things she saw were a gruesome painting of Christ on the cross, a table with a half-eaten breakfast of cold tortillas, and a squat, prune-facedabuelain a shapeless polyester dress.

The old lady glared at Melanie. “Why you bother my Juan Carlos? He no sell drugs. He good boy.”

If there was one thing marriage had taught Melanie, it was that you could live with a person for years and still not have a clue what they were up to.

“Well, if he’s such an altar boy,” she replied, “why did he just jump out the window?”

 

8

 

MELANIE RUSHED INTO the big conference room carrying her Starbucks and muffin, only to find she was stressing out for nothing. Ten past nine, and nobody else had arrived yet. Ray-Ray Wong must still be where she’d left him fifteen minutes earlier, when she decided she couldn’t possibly survive this meeting without caffeine—sitting in one of the interview rooms on the sixth floor with Juan Carlos Peralta. Peralta had signed a waiver of speedy arraignment and agreed to talk. And they had plenty to ask him about, starting with the twelve glassines of heroin found stuffed in his sock at the time of his arrest. That would be the first order of business as soon as the meeting ended.

Much as Melanie sympathized with Luis Reyes, maybe this whole thing was cut-and-dried, after all. She didn’t want to believe it. Carmen had looked so sweet in that picture, and Melanie couldn’t help identifying with her.La razaand all that, being a poor girl in a rich kids’ school. But facts were facts. Carmen’s boyfriend was undeniably a heroin dealer. Carmen wanted to hang with the cool girls, and she’d found the ticket. It made sense.

The second Melanie dropped into a chair, it hit her how much she missed that littleniñaat home. Maya would’ve woken up by now and found her mommy gone. Melanie glanced around the empty room, then jumped up and hastily dialed her house from the telephone on the credenza. Sandy Robinson, her baby-sitter, reported that Steve had just left and that Maya’s fever was down. The medication was working this time,gracias a Dios. Sandy held the receiver up to Maya’s ear, and Melanie talked baby talk into the phone. Bernadette glided in, caught her doing that, and looked at her like she was crazy. People with no kids didn’t get it. Or maybe it was just that Bernadette didn’t. Melanie hung up fast and took her seat before she got yelled at.

Bernadette was even more heavily made up than usual, wearing a tight crimson pantsuit with gold buttons that matched her brightly colored hair and showed off her chest. She sat at the head of the table.

“So, what do you think?” she asked. “Great color for TV, right?”

“You’ll stand out,” Melanie said diplomatically.

“You, on the other hand, look like something the cat dragged in.”

“Gee, thanks. Maybe you forgot, but I’ve been up all night.”

“Honestly, girlfriend, one late night and you’re toast. It takes stamina to play with the big kids.”

Ray-Ray Wong strode in and shook hands with Bernadette.

“By the way, two new agents are coming to this meeting,” Bernadette said as Ray sat down next to Melanie. “Vito and I agreed it’s worth staffing up so we can resolve this case quickly. One is a detective named Bridget Mulqueen, who’s on your squad already, I understand, Ray-Ray.”

“Jeez Louise! Not Gidget!” he exclaimed.

“That’s more emotion than I’ve seen from you since we met, Ray,” Melanie said. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Nepotism hire,” he muttered.

“Oh, come on, that’s an exaggeration,” Bernadette said.

Ray-Ray fixed her with a withering stare.

“Allright, maybe,” Bernadette conceded after a moment. Melanie was impressed. Not everybody could stare down Bernadette.

“Her one previous assignment was IAB,” Ray-Ray said, “andtheywouldn’t even keep her. We got her because the lieutenant owed Jimmy Mulqueen a favor. This chick is wicked connected.”

“Bridget does happen to come from a family that has quite a few members on the job, including Deputy Commissioner Mulqueen,” Bernadette conceded.

“Who’s her father,” Ray-Ray put in.

“If you want to be the one to tell him his little girl isn’t good enough for this case, be my guest. There’s a nice traffic post in Queens that needs filling. You want my advice, keep your mouth shut and give her some rap sheets to run. Meanwhile, I’m making it up to you with the other new team member.”

“Who’s that?” Melanie asked, taking a sip of her Starbucks.

“You’ve worked with him before, Melanie. Dan O’Reilly from the FBI.”

Ray-Ray and Bernadette both stared at her as she choked on her coffee, turning bright red, unable to catch her breath.

 

 

OF COURSE, Dan had always taken her breath away, from the very second they met. But that was something she’d been trying to put out of her mind.

The phone on the credenza rang, and Bernadette got up to answer it. Ray-Ray turned to Melanie, who was still wheezing.

“You okay?” he whispered.

“Yuh,” she managed through her choking fit.

“This guy incompetent, too?”

“No, no. He’s very good. It’s just…” She trailed off into another round of hacking.

Ray-Ray nodded as if he understood. “Got it. Hate the fuckin’ Feebs myself. I was hoping they were off narcotics permanently, post-9/11, but now they sleazed their way back in with this narcoterrorism BS.”

Bernadette returned to the conference table.

“Okay,” she said, sitting down, “they’re here. They’ll be up in a minute.”

Aminute? Melanie was nearly hyperventilating. Bernadette couldn’t know what she’d done by assigning Dan O’Reilly to this case. In fact, her boss probably thought she was doing Melanie a favor, had doubtless handpicked Dan precisely because she thought he and Melanie worked well together. What a disaster! Little did Bernadette know.

It was months since the two of them had seen each other, but Melanie still had it bad for this man. The second they met, she’d felt like something big was going to happen between them. And it started to, but then it got all mucked up. She sobbed herself to sleep some nights, regretting that she’d ever let him go, longing for him, wondering if she should try to call. Here she was divorcing Steve, the father of her child, and yes, she was sad about that. But it was Dan she cried for. And the worst part was, it was her own fault.

 

 

DAN HAD ARRIVED before the baby-sitter. It was their first real date, and he brought her flowers. Melanie took them, nodding her thanks, then put them down distractedly on the hall table. She was on the phone with the pediatrician, still in her bathrobe with hair wet from the shower. Maya was in her arms, burning with fever. Her ears again, the third time in a month. She screamed so loudly that Melanie could barely hear the doctor on the other end of the line.

“Sorry,” Melanie mouthed to Dan. “What can I do, Doctor? Please, she’s really bad right now.” Watching her daughter suffer, Melanie felt more helpless than she ever had in her life. Dan’s presence, which she’d been so looking forward to, now seemed like an unwelcome distraction.

“I don’t like to do it, but I’ll phone in a stronger antibiotic tomorrow. Give her the Motrin and the ear drops, and bring her in in the morning,” the doctor said.

Melanie hung up and turned to Dan, meeting his eyes desperately over Maya’s writhing body.

“I’m really sorry,” she said, “but I can’t go out. I already sent the sitter home.”

His face fell. “I’m so disappointed. I made a reservation at a real nice place. Italian—”

Maya wailed even louder, causing Melanie’s blood pressure to skyrocket. Melanie was about to lose it, big time. Amazing, the physiological impact of your child’s cries.

“This isn’t a good time,” she snapped. “You should just leave.”

From the expression on his face, you’d think she’d punched him. Okay, maybe her tone was a little harsh, but didn’t he understand that Maya had to come first? What kind of mother would she be if she left Maya sick with the baby-sitter so she could go on adate?

“Isn’t there some way we can work this out?” Dan said. “Maybe we just go for a quick bite to—”

“You’re not listening. Don’t you see how bad she feels? How can you ask me to leave her?”

“You want to postpone till tomorrow night?”

Melanie put her hand on Maya’s forehead. The poor little thing was burning up. “I can’t make any plans,” Melanie said flatly.

“Ever?” He was beginning to sound annoyed, which in turn annoyed Melanie.

“I don’t know. Don’t pressure me.”

Dan’s eyes flashed with anger. “I’m not pressuring anybody. You don’t feel the same way I do, fine. I can take a hint.”

“Dan, I have responsibilities you don’t! I have to put my daughter first. It’s notaboutyou and me. I don’t have room to fall in love right now.”

 

 

HE’D WALKED OUT, and that was the last she’d heard from him. Oh, she’d left messages, at first trying to make light of the situation, later apologizing profusely. But he’d never called back, so eventually she gave up. She had her pride. Now that she was about to see him again after so many months when he’d loomed large in her mind, she had to remind herself that nothing had changed. Underneath that all-American face, behind those crystalline blue eyes and easy smile, Dan O’Reilly was still a person of tremendous volatility. He wanted everything from her, wouldn’t settle for less, refused to compromise. If they had to work together, Melanie told herself, she’d better keep a safe distance. Or else she risked losing her balance completely.

She tried to pay attention to what Bernadette was saying.

“—upside of a big group in front of the cameras is, it looks like we’re devoting resources.”

“My personal opinion, ma’am. We could be getting real work done, instead of standing there like window dressing. We made an arrest this morning, and I for one would prefer to continue debriefing the prisoner,” Ray-Ray said.

“What? An arrest? Why didn’t you tell me this, Melanie?” Bernadette said.

“I paged you, but I never got a callback,” Melanie said. Which was true.

“So who authorized you to intake the arrest, miss?”

“Joe Williams. He’s acting deputy chief with Susan on vacation, right?”

Bernadette crossed her arms and opened her mouth to say something nasty. Melanie knew she’d done nothing wrong, but that never stopped Bernadette from reaming her out—especially in front of people, which was one of Bernadette’s favorite pastimes. Luckily, just then Lieutenant Albano strode into the room, wearing a satin Yankees jacket and trailed by a young woman carrying a tall stack of three-ring binders. Presumably Bridget Mulqueen. Melanie looked past her at the open door, but Dan was nowhere in sight. Bridget dumped the binders onto the conference table so haphazardly that their contents flew out and scattered everywhere.

“Evidence. Who needs it?” Ray-Ray said, deadpan, rocking back and forth in his chair.

Bridget threw him a nasty look as she bent down to clean up. “Everything I do, this one has to make a remark. Like you never dropped anything, knucklehead?”

Ray-Ray just smirked at her. Bridget looked like somebody’s bratty kid sister—mid-twenties, maybe, with short, scruffy blond hair, a pixieish face, and a flat-chested, powerfully haunched jock bod. She wore jeans and a down vest. Melanie felt sorry for the kid and thought about getting up to help her, but she just couldn’t muster the energy.

Albano walked up to Bernadette and pumped her hand warmly. “I haven’t seen you since…what? Fort Worth a couple years back on that Juarez cartel thing? You’re lookin’ good, lookin’ good.”

“Great to see you, too, Vito. I want you to know I’m very grateful that you brought us this case. We’ll justify your confidence in us, promise.”

“Make sure you give it your personal attention, huh, hon?” He winked at her.

“Absolutely. I justknowthis is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”

Bernadette smiled flirtatiously and winked back. Sex appeal was a perfectly legitimate tool for bringing in business as far as she was concerned. She’d even advised Melanie to dress sexier and keep a fresh box of doughnuts on her desk to attract the cops, and much as Melanie tried to laugh off the heavy-handed tactics, she had to admit they worked. There were so many prosecutors’ offices vying for the good cases in New York City—state, federal, special task forces, all divided up into different districts and boroughs with overlapping jurisdictions—that it took somebody with elbows as sharp as Bernadette’s to keep them at the forefront.

Melanie continued to watch the door. Where was Dan? Did she hallucinate Bernadette saying his name?

Then, suddenly, he was standing there, and she wasn’t ready for him. She probably never would be.

 

9

 

DAN O’REILLY WAS OUT running on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk at 6:00 A.M. when his pager went off. He decided to ignore it till he finished the route, despite the 811 after the callback number. The 811 code meant urgent; 911 you only used in life-or-death situations. But his boss was a little too free with the 811s, and Dan didn’t like to cut short his run for some bogus emergency. It was five below with the windchill and pitch-dark out, but still he stuck to his routine. That was how he kept going in life. He didn’t believe in sparing himself for weather, although he did let his dog sleep in today. Guinness was getting old. Poor guy’s paws couldn’t take the salt on the roads.

The pager went off twice more before he finally gave in and headed back.

Five minutes later he walked through the green door of the 100th Precinct building, told the girl behind the desk he was with the Bureau, and asked to use the phone.


Page 6

“Sure,” she said, following him with her eyes as he pulled off his knit cap and shook the sweat out of his dark hair. She was a beat cop, thirtyish, alone out front here. She flipped open the barrier and motioned to him to come back.

“Aren’t you gonna ask to see my shield?” he asked.

“Nah, I believe you. You look like a cop. Besides, I seen you running out there sometimes. I can’t believe you go in this weather.”

“You should be more careful,” he said, flashing the shield anyway. Accept a favor and next thing they were offering to cook you dinner. It made him feel bad, saying no all the time, so he tried not to let it get to that point. Life was strange. All these women beating down his door, and he couldn’t feel a thing. Instead he gets hung up on a woman who made it clear she had no room for him in her heart. Nothing he could do about it either. She’d reached him somehow, that one, so much that he just couldn’t shake her.

He dialed his boss from the nearest desk.

“Yeah, Mike, what’s up?”

“Danny Boy. Listen, I got a request this morning for one of my best men to sign on for a real quick TOD. Naturally, I thought of you.”

You could always count on getting a stroke job with this guy. Dan missed his old boss, who’d retired last year. This one was a headquarters flack who talked out of both sides of his mouth. Still, Dan was curious.

“Tour a’ duty?” he said. “Overseas?” Things in this town had been so bleak for him lately that the idea of going far away, someplace dangerous, had an appeal.

“Nah, nothing like that. We’d detail you to the Elite Narcotics Task Force just for a few days. They got a pretty straightforward case they want worked real fast by somebody with a background in retail heroin. I remembered you did those Blades cases a few years back.”

There had to be a catch. It wasn’t like his boss to be generous.

“What’s in it for you, Mike?”

“Political shit. You know this motherfucker Vito Albano?”

“Sure. Heard of him anyway. He’s supposed to be pretty good.”

“Yeah, well, he’s up my ass. Turf-battle crap. I got a bunch of targets with clear terrorism links, and he’s claiming they’re straight drugs so we gotta keep our hands off.”

“Does Albano have dibs? Who dexed ’em first?”

“Well, okay,hedid, but that was before we knew the background, see. Anyway, I’m engaging in a little bridge building, if you will. I’d really like your help, Dan.”

Mike walked on eggshells with him. He asked instead of ordered. Dan had the respect of the other guys on the squad. Mike didn’t, and they both knew that.

“What’s the case?” Dan asked, not committing yet.

“Two girls OD’d this morning. One of ’em’s the daughter of—”

“Yeah, that guy Seward. I heard it on the news. You want me to work an OD case, with the shit we’re juggling now? You got to be fucking kidding me. That’s just jerking off a rich guy, far as I’m concerned.”

“It’s only for a couple days. Develop a relationship with Albano, and it could really help us out in the long run. I’d owe you. They got a meeting set for nine over in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Dan felt suddenly short of breath, with a strange prickling sensation on the back of his neck. He knew, he just knew.

“Who’s the AUSA?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“Hold on, I got the roster right here. Uh, AUSA’s a female. Melanie Vargas is the name. Oh, and you got a Raymond Wong and a Bridget Mulqueen from ENTF. So whaddaya say?”

A minute went by, then another. Dan forgot that his boss was on the other end of the line, waiting for an answer. He couldn’t believe the coincidence: getting offered a case with Melanie, when she was on his mind from sunup to sundown and every minute in between. And the dreams. Those were the worst, because in his dreams he was with her again, and he was so fuckinghappyit was pathetic. Now all he had to do was say yes, and he’d see her.

He told himself he should leave things how they were. He’d ended it for a reason. He saw how it was gonna go, just like with his ex-wife, and he couldn’t handle another relationship where he cared more than the other person did. If he had any doubt, he only needed to remember what he saw that time he watched her house. Melanie’d been calling him, and he was wavering. She sounded sad, like she was really hurting over the way they’d left things. So he broke down. He went by, planning to ring the buzzer. Even had some flowers in the car. Then he saw ’em, coming back from the park. Her and the husband, Melanie pushing the stroller. Dan felt like he was gonna choke, the way they looked like a family. He read the guy in a second, from his walk, his clothes, the tilt of his head. An Ivy League smart-ass in a fancy suede jacket, thinking he ruled the world with his twenty-dollar words. And the worst part was, by the way she looked at the asshole, the way she laughed at what he said, Dan had to think there was something still going on between them. Not that he blamed her. Who the fuck was he to go after the likes of Melanie Vargas anyway? A woman like her, with those looks, those smarts, deserved better than a cop’s salary, better than some hack whose idea of the good life was a patch of lawn to mow, some pizza and a cold one in front of the TV on a Saturday night. Still, it killed him the way that asshole treated her. One thing Dan would say for himself, if she belonged to him, he’d be faithful till the day he died. He had no choice. He couldn’t look at another woman if he tried.

“Dan?” his boss said.

Hell, maybe he should just go for it. He’d been numb since the last time he saw her anyway. Felt nothing. Might as well be dead.

“Yeah. Nine o’clock, you said?” he asked.

“Yup. So you’ll do it?”

“I’ll be there,” Dan said, and hung up.

Moth to the flame. How fucking stupid could you be?

 

10

 

DAN HAD ACKNOWLEDGED MELANIE with a curt nod right when he first walked in, and now he wouldn’t meet her eyes. He sat at the far end of the table, with a few empty chairs between him and everybody else, flipping absentmindedly through one of the evidence binders Bridget had brought. Melanie made herself pretend he wasn’t there.

“Vito, were you aware these two made an arrest this morning?” Bernadette was saying.

“Yeah. Ray-Ray beeped me an hour ago.”

“Oh, so I’m the only idiot in the dark here? Thanks a lot. Good communicating, Melanie.”

“Take it easy, Bernadette,” Albano said. “Give the kids a break. This pinch looks real promising. Salvadoran kid. Grabbed ’im with twelve decks in his sock, right, Ray-Ray?”

“Yes, sir.”

Bernadette raised her eyebrows, seeming appeased. “Really? Well, thatisgood. It’s fabulous, in fact. We’ll have something to report at the press conference.”

“I don’t think you should announce this to the press yet,” Melanie said. She could imagine the headlines—the tabloids screaming that Carmen Reyes had scored heroin from her gangster boyfriend, given it to the other girls, watched them OD, and then fled. She kicked herself for not warning Carmen’s father of the possibility.

“Press relationships are my domain, Melanie, but I’ll hear you out. Why don’t you think it should be announced?” Bernadette asked.

Everyone turned to look at Melanie. She felt Dan’s eyes on her, but if she met his gaze, she wouldn’t be able to think straight.

“It’s premature, and it could burn the investigation,” she replied, looking only at Bernadette. “This Salvadoran kid, Juan Carlos Peralta, may have been dating the daughter of the superintendent in Seward’s building, whose name is Carmen Reyes. Carmen was a classmate of the two girls who died. She’s missing. We need to establish the link between the two of them and confirm that he gave Carmen the heroin.Thenwe’ll have a case.”

“But there’s a major countervailing consideration. With an arrest this quick, we look golden, don’t you see? Wait even one day and we lose that impact. Believe me, I understand how the media works.”

“Bern,” Melanie said, “there’s a strong possibility Carmen ran away last night. That she’s out there right now, cold and hungry, thinking about coming home. If she finds out her boyfriend is in custody, she may decide to keep running and not look back. Then we lose a critical link in the chain between Peralta and the dead girls.”

“We arrested him with twelve glassines. How is that not a case already?” Bernadette demanded.

“Right now all we can charge him with is those glassines, and they don’t even add up to federal weight. Plus, they aren’t the same stamp the girls ingested last night. Let’s do the legwork to tie him to the heroin that killed the girls. Then we can charge distribution resulting in death.Thathas teeth.”

“How long do you need to establish the connection?” Bernadette asked, crossing her arms and looking doubtful.

“Hard to say. If Peralta talks, or if we find Carmen this morning and she gives him up as the supplier, not long at all. If we have to pound the pavement, then a bit longer,” Melanie said. She paused for a moment, then added, “We should probably pound the pavement anyway.”

“No substitute for shoe leather,” Albano said, nodding.

“Whatever we come up with will be useful down the road if we take Peralta to trial,” Melanie noted.

“What steps are you thinking about, specifically?” Bernadette asked.

“We start with the victims,” Melanie said. “Whitney Seward and Brianna Meyers. We should subpoena their cell and landline telephone records right away. Who knows, maybe they called Peralta directly.”

“Okay, I see your point. But don’t lose the forest for the trees. Stay focused on charging the ODs, and don’t worry about pulling every last toll record. Oh, and I assume this is obvious, but skip the records on James Seward’s home phone. Too many political implications to that.”

“Bern, we need those!” Melanie protested.

“Nobody gets treated with kid gloves on my watch, Bernadette. Fair’s fair,” Albano said.

“You’re asking for trouble, Vito. Seward’s extremely well connected. I don’t need to get in hot water over pulling his tolls and finding some phone-sex line or something,” Bernadette said.

“Who gives a shit? Long as we don’t leak it, how’s he even gonna know?” Albano said.

“Of course he’ll know. Anybody in his position has spies. If I subpoenaed your phone, you think somebody wouldn’t snitch to you?”

“Okay, maybe, butso? It’s a normal investigative step to take. The dickwad gives you trouble, talk to me, and I’ll take it up with the commissioner,” Albano said.

“I can call the commissioner myself. That’s not the point. I want to keep you happy on this case, Vito, but I have to think of my other interests, too. Why stir up a hornets’ nest for nothing?”

“It’s not for nothing, Bern,” Melanie put in. “There’s something screwy about the timing of Seward finding out about the ODs and calling the police. I can’t put my finger on it, but it bothers me. I think we should take a closer look at him.”

“Please, spare me the far-fetched theories,” Bernadette said, rolling her eyes. “He’s the victim’s stepfather, and he should be treated with respect. Understood?”

“I follow the trail wherever it leads,” Albano insisted, puffing out his chest. “That’s the way I work. You and me need a private meeting to talk about rules of engagement here, Bernadette. Okay?”

Bernadette locked eyes with the lieutenant.Albano’s a dead man, Melanie thought, and waited for her boss to explode. But instead, after a long moment, Bernadette smiled girlishly.

“That’s probably a good idea, Vito. Maybe we can do it over lunch later.”

Albano flushed slightly. “Sure. Sounds good.”

“Um,” Melanie said after an awkward pause, “so I have the green light to pull Seward’s tolls?”

“All right,” Bernadette said. “But obviously grand-jury secrecy rules apply. No leaks.”

“Course not,” Albano agreed, still looking at Bernadette. “Code of silence. By the way, Melanie, we picked up the girls’ cell phones from the scene last night. You might be able to get the numbers right off ’em.” He nodded at Bridget Mulqueen, who sifted through the evidence binders and pulled out two heat-sealed envelopes, which she passed down the table to Melanie. The first contained a small silver Motorola flip phone, the second a shiny pink Nokia with a screen.

“The silver one was in Brianna Meyers’s backpack,” Albano said. “The pink one was on the bedside table, so we’re assuming it was Whitney’s.”

“The pink one is a camera phone, right?” Melanie asked, examining it.

“Yeah, that tiny hole there is the lens,” Albano said. “We haven’t checked the memory for stored photos yet, though. We wanted to ask you—”

“If you need a search warrant?” Melanie said, finishing his sentence for him. “It depends. If the phones are registered to the victims, no, because their privacy rights died with them. But these girls were minors, so the phones are probably registered to their parents. I’ll write up warrants this afternoon, just to be safe. While I’m at it, I’ll include their computers, too, so we can get their e-mails and the Web sites they visited.”

“All right,” Bernadette said. “Does anybody have anything else before we break?”

“One quick question,” Dan said, looking up from the binders. Melanie caught her breath. Those eyes. How was she going to get through this?

Dan pulled an eight-by-ten crime-scene glossy from its plastic sleeve and held it up for everyone to see. It showed Whitney Seward’s bedroom, looking toward the wall where her desk was, in the opposite direction from the bodies on the bed.

“What about it?” Albano said. “That’s just the Crime Scene guys documenting the room.”

“Just out of curiosity,” Dan asked, “anybody know who opened all the windows?”

 

11

 

ROUNDING THE CORNER after collecting a legal pad and her briefcase from her office, Melanie didn’t see Dan O’Reilly standing by himself at the elevator until it was too late. She stopped in her tracks, feeling unprepared for the encounter. But he turned and saw her, so she walked up to him as naturally as she could manage.

“Hey,” she said, forcing a bright smile, feeling like she’d been punched. Too many things came rushing back. The rough caress of his voice as he whispered in her ear, the taste of his mouth. She kicked herself for that time she’d made out with him in his car. If they’d never kissed, it wouldn’t hurt like this now.


Page 7

“Hey, yourself. How you been?” He smiled down at her with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, tinged with sadness. Who was she kidding? She’d be hurting no matter what. This wasn’t just a sexual-attraction thing, never had been.

She feigned a nonchalant shrug. “Hanging in. You?”

He nodded. “Same.”

“Okay. Good.”

“You cut your hair,” he said. Her raven hair, which just skimmed her shoulders now, had been longer when they last saw each other. Dan’s arm twitched, as if he wanted to touch her but wouldn’t let himself.

“I cut it a while ago. It’s easier to manage this way.” She smiled again, looking down at her boots, heart pounding.

“Your boss is in fine form,” Dan offered after a pause.

“Yeah. It’s called ‘Hello, I want to be a judge.’”

“Oh, is that it?”

“Definitely. You never know, Seward could be our next senator. The Senate approves appointments to the federal bench, so she’s beingverydeferential.”

“She’s always got an angle, that one,” he said.

They fell silent again. Looking at him was like staring into the sun, so she looked away. Her gaze settled on the elevator call button.

“You didn’t press?” she asked.

“I’m waitin’ on this Mulqueen chick. She’s in the ladies’ room.”

“Oh.” She felt a violent stab of jealousy. Dan had volunteered to team up with Bridget to go interview Brianna Meyers’s family. Who knew? Maybe he was attracted to the young detective. The thought made her ill, which in turn reminded her she was supposed to stay away from this guy. She should just decide she hated him. There was no excuse for how he’d cut her off. A normal person would not have done that.

“Here,” he said, and pressed the button for her.

“Thanks.” Her stomach sank. He didn’t want to talk to her. Then again, she didn’t want to talk to him either. She did and she didn’t. She looked down at the floor again. Why didn’t he just walk away if he didn’t want to be here?

“So what was that about Whitney Seward’s bedroom windows?” she asked, zeroing in on work. Work always made her feel better.

“Maybe nothing,” he said. “But I had a case a few years back. Some jerk-offs hijacked a tractor-trailer loaded with Colombian cocaine. Thought they got away clean, but the Colombians hunted ’em down and killed ’em, one by one, like dogs. Anyways, one of the hijackers met his maker in some godforsaken little tract house on the edge of the Everglades. Middle of August, no trees anywhere around. Hundred and ten at high noon. But the body wasn’t discovered until a week after the murder. You know why?”

“Air-conditioning?” she guessed.

He smiled. “Very good. You haven’t lost your touch. Brand-new, heavy-duty A/C unit. Killer cranked it up to maximum capacity. It was so cold inside the house it was like the body was refrigerated. Nobody smelled anything. Not only was the killer long gone by the time the body was found, but the coroner couldn’t even determine the date of death. We caught the guy and took him to trial, but he walked. Whitney’s open windows reminded me of that.”

“It was probably just the Crime Scene team airing the place out because it reeked, don’t you think? That’s not as suspicious to me as cranking the A/C. Besides, we have no reason to think the Holbrooke girls were murdered.” She paused for a beat, eyes searching his handsome face. “Do we?”

He shrugged in a way that said there was enough to make him wonder. Dan was third-generation cop. He had flawless instincts, almost like something in the blood. He was generally right about stuff like this. On top of which, she had suspicions of her own.

“You have a weird feeling about this, too?” she asked.

“The windows bother me,” he said.

“Sewardbothers me,” she confessed. “He took his time about calling the police. Says it’s because he was worried about the press. I don’t know, maybe I’m overreacting. But the building super was vague about the timing, too. It struck me as odd.”

“Did Seward have any reason you know of to want his stepdaughter dead?”

“She was obviously a wild girl. Maybe she was a campaign liability?” Melanie ventured.

“Not as much alive as she is OD’d. Think how badthatlooks.”

“True.”

“I’m with you, though. I’m raised up, too. I noticed another thing looking at the pictures of the bedroom just now,” Dan said.

“What’s that?”

“Kinda strange. Whitney’s computer was set up with the mouse on the left side, so I’m guessing she was a southpaw. But the empty glassine was next to her right hand.”

Melanie flashed on those dead girls’ faces, and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Could someone have done that to them on purpose?

“You think the crime scene was staged,” she said.

“I’m not saying definitely. There could be another explanation. Like Whitney rolled over the Baggie when she was dying or something.”

“She was found in a sitting position, so I don’t think that could account for it. But there was something else about the positions of the glassines that bothered me.” She explained her concerns about Brianna Meyers’s clothes being found in the bathroom, away from her naked body.

“If the ODs were faked…” Dan began.

“Then the girls were most likely murdered,” Melanie finished. “And what would that say about Carmen Reyes’s disappearance? I have my doubts she ran away. She just doesn’t seem the type.”

“If she didn’t run away on her own steam…” Dan began, and Melanie knew just where he was going. Man, it was great how theygoteach other.

“Exactly,” she said. “Carmen could be kidnapped or dead somewhere, Dan. We better figure this out ASAP.”

“Your boss ain’t gonna be too happy if we start looking into apparent ODs like they’re something else,” he pointed out.

“Oh, great. Justice should be sure and swift, unless it damages Bernadette’s career? That’s not what I signed up for when I took this job,” she said, shaking her head in disgust.

“I always liked the way you talked.” He grinned, his eyes lingering on her.

“We’re going to investigate these deaths right, Dan. You and me. We’ll just,youknow…”

“Keep it on the down low?”

“You read my mind,” she said.

“I’ll follow up on the crime-scene stuff right away, see if there’s anything else off,” he said.

“I’ll see what I can get out of this Salvadoran kid Carmen was hanging out with. We should follow up every last angle with Whitney and Brianna. Did they have secrets, enemies, anything?”

“Be careful, okay?” he said.

“I’m not worried. Look, if we find something, Bernadette will do the right thing. She always does in the end, if only to make herself look good.”

“She’s a pain in the ass, but she’s not stupid,” Dan agreed.

“And Albano seems like a decent guy.”

“Salt of the earth. He’ll keep her in line.” Dan nodded. He was about to say something, but then the elevator doors opened. Neither of them made a move to get in. Their eyes held. The doors began to slide shut, and Dan stopped them with his hand, still looking at her.

“It’s good to see you again,” he said.

“I’d better go,” Melanie said, her heart racing. “Ray-Ray’s downstairs waiting for me.”

“Oh, him. Right. I know that guy.” He shook his head.

“What? He seems fine.”

“If you like frickin’ SWAThead gun nuts.”

Melanie didn’t respond. FBI and DEA always hated each other, but Dan’s tone carried a whiff of more personal jealousy. He sighed and let go of the elevator doors, and she stepped inside.

“Catch you later,” Dan said.

Bridget Mulqueen came barreling down the hall. “Hey, wait! Don’t forget me!”

She plunged into the elevator, panting. Dan stepped in after her.

“So,” Bridget said to Dan as the doors closed, “long time no see.” She’d slathered on some hot pink lipstick, which stood out vividly on her pale tomboy’s face.

“Since you were in the bathroom?” Dan asked.

“No, I ran into you like two years ago at the Lion’s Den, that Super Bowl party? You remember? I told you I was Mary Alice Mulqueen’s sister? She went to Our Lady?”

“Mary Alice? Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Yeah, you went out with her one time.”

“I never went out with any Mary Alice. You must have me mixed up with someone else,” he said, shaking his head.

“No way could I mix you up, Dan. She used to drag me to watch you play ball through the fence at St. Ignatius when I was, like, ten. Mary Alice Mulqueen? She was the same year as you, with the sisters when you were with the brothers? You’re probably confused because I’m younger and I don’t really look like her. Wait’ll I tell her I’m working with you! She’s married now, to an Italian guy who does masonry. Makes a nice living. They’re doing real good, four kids and all.”

Dan flushed. “Couldn’t’ve been me. I had the same girlfriend all through high school.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Bridget said, nodding exuberantly. “Diane Fields. Nobody could believe the way you let her walk on you. Sure, she was so beautiful she was famous in all the other schools, but still! You could’ve had any girl you wanted, and they woulda treated you a lot better than she did.”

They reached the lobby, and it wasn’t until the doors opened that Melanie realized she’d forgotten to push the button for her floor, so riveted had she been by the conversation. She got off the elevator with them, still listening. Back when they first met, Dan had told her that he’d been married once and that his first wife had left him. Diane, he’d said her name was. It had to be the same girl. That was the sum total of everything Melanie knew about Dan O’Reilly’s personal life. It bothered her to no end that Bridget seemed to know more about Dan than she did, and she found herself feeling irrationally angry at the girl. Melanie wondered what Dan had looked like, all those years ago when Bridget was watching him play ball through the fence. Considering how he looked now, probably pretty damn good.

Dan grabbed Melanie’s elbow. “Come interview Brianna Meyers’s mother,” he said.

“I can’t. I’m supposed to be debriefing Peralta, remember? I just forgot to push my floor.”

“Yeah, you’re coming with me, Dan,” Bridget said. “I’m parked a couple blocks over. I’m low man on the totem pole, so I’ll drive. Let me go get my car.”

Bridget strode off and pushed open the glass door, letting a gust of bitter wind into the lobby.

“Jesus,” Dan said, watching her receding back. “What a wack job. I have no idea who she is, or her sister either.”

“She’s some bigwig’s daughter,” Melanie said.

“Oh, Jimmy Mulqueen? That makes sense. Explains how she got her detective’s shield anyway.”

“Don’t say that. Maybe she earned it legitimately.” Melanie felt compelled to defend Bridget, if only to reassure herself that she wasn’t succumbing to irrational jealousy.

“You don’t know the PD,” Dan said.

“Wedon’t know Bridget. People hold this family connection against her. Shouldn’t we give her the benefit of the doubt?”

“You’re very open-minded, Melanie Vargas. That’s a nice quality in a person.” He gave her a smile like the sun coming out on the first day of spring. It reminded her of old times, and she could hardly bear it.

“It’s freezing down here. I’d better go,” she said, and ran back into the elevator, moving too quickly to catch the hungry look in Dan’s eyes.

 

12

 

“EVERYTHING OKAY?” Ray-Ray asked, turning with a start as Melanie slammed the door.

“Fine. Sorry.”

She’d better calm down and focus. This was an important interview. Juan Carlos Peralta might admit to providing the heroin, which would lay to rest any speculation about foul play in the girls’ deaths. He might even be able to tell them where to find Carmen Reyes. Whatever information he had, Melanie wouldn’t get it if she didn’t control her emotions. Seeing Dan again had left her even more shaken than she’d anticipated, but she needed to put those feelings aside now.

She walked slowly and deliberately around the small conference table and sat down across from Ray-Ray and Peralta. Ray-Ray introduced her to a second DEA agent who was acting as a sentry, leaning against the wall near the door.

Juan Carlos’s right hand was cuffed to the arm of the chair in which he sat. He leaned forward, holding a massive cheeseburger in his left. It dripped gobs of mayonnaise and ketchup onto the congealed fries in the round foil container below. The overpowering smell of grease so early in the morning turned Melanie’s stomach.

A short, beefy kid with a crew cut, maybe in his early twenties, Juan Carlos wore baggy but perfectly creased khaki pants. The sleeves had been cut off his spotless gray sweatshirt, though you might not notice, since his buff arms were sheathed in elaborate tattoos from shoulder to wrist, mimicking the look of a garment. That much tattooing must cost a pretty penny, Melanie reflected. Juan Carlos obviously had a steady source of income.

“Where do we stand?” Melanie asked Ray-Ray.

“Juan Carlos here was just giving me some intelligence on MS-13. The big Salvadoran gang out in Corona?” Ray-Ray said.

“Sure. Is that why you’re wearing that do-rag?” she asked, nodding toward the blue-and-white bandanna arranged just so around Juan Carlos’s thick neck. Thesecholokids were very precise with their fashion.

“Yeah, this they colors,” he said, through a mouthful of burger. “I be initiated and shit. Know all aboutla vida loca. I got names, dates of meetin’s, anything you want. I ain’t never participate in nothin’ illegal, of course. I jus’ join for social purposes.”

Juan Carlos talked like any other gangbanger from the projects. You’d never guess he wasn’t born stateside. Luis Reyes had been right on the money about this kid.

“Intelligence on MS-13 is worth something, Juan Carlos,” she said, “but not enough to get you a plea deal. We need to hear about the heroin Agent Wong found on you, and we need to hear about Carmen Reyes.”

“Like I told your boy here, ma’am, those drugs ain’t mine. I be holding for a friend. I ain’t never sell.Mi abuela, she smoke me if she catch me scammin’ dope.”


Page 8

“Yeah? What’s your friend’s name whose dope it is?”

“I ain’t know his name. I just met him yesterday.”

“What does he look like?”

“I don’t really remember. He real average-lookin’.”

“Funny, I’ve heard of this guy before. That nameless, faceless guy who the drugsreallybelong to. You know about him, right, Ray-Ray?”

“Seems like he’s in on every bust I make,” Ray-Ray said, chuckling.

“So you’re really telling us with a straight face you don’t sell drugs?” Melanie asked Juan Carlos.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“They let you in MS-13 just because you’re a nice guy?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“They’re relaxing their standards,” Ray-Ray said, laughing.

“Word. That’s the truth.” Juan Carlos nodded vigorously.

“Are you enjoying that burger?” Melanie asked him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Because the food in the MDC sucks. Even with only twelve glassines, you’ll do time. After jail it’s immigration lockup, where the food makes the MDC look like Le Cirque.”

Juan Carlos put the burger down in the foil container. “Aww, shit! Come on, dawg, help me out here,” he said to Ray-Ray.

“Much as it pains me, Juan Carlos, I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself,” Ray-Ray said.

“What if I aks for a lawyer?”

“Then we’ll stop talking and get you one,” Melanie said. “You’re entitled to due process before getting locked up and deported.”

“Deported. Fuck! I step up and do my time, fine, but this my country. I live here since I’m five. God, apple pie, and the flag and shit.”

“Not much we can do about it if you don’t have papers, Juan Carlos. I hope you’ve kept in touch with your people in El Salvador so at least they give you a big hug when you get back,” Melanie said.

“Okay, okay!” he said. “I cop to the drugs. Theywasmine. But it’s the first time I ever sell. I ain’t even know it was heroin. Thought it wascocaine. That’s less time, right?”

Melanie sighed. She’d been through the same song and dance a thousand times. This kid had probably been pitching dope since he was eight years old, but he’d never fess up. No defendant ever admitted anything unless you had it on video, and even then they’d do their damnedest to convince you they were somewhere else at the time and the guy on the tape was their evil twin.

“Look,” she said, “we’re very busy. If you don’t want to talk, fine. I’ll get Legal Aid on the phone, we’ll arraign you and go about our day.”

“But then I get deported!”

“You get deported anyway, unless we get you an S-visa,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s for witnesses who are needed for important cases. Since you’re not talking, you don’t qualify.”

“I’ll talk. I’ll talk about anything you want.”

“It’s not a simple quid pro quo.”

“Not a what?”

“It’s not a given. It takes a lot to earn it.”

“I’ll earn it. You’ll see. Go on, aks me something.”

“Okay, tell us about Carmen Reyes.”

“Carmen? What about her? She’s my reading coach. My church got a program for kids who ain’t read. Carmen be teaching me letters and shit.”

“You can’t read?”

He shrugged. “What of it?”

“Ray-Ray, did you read him those waivers out loud?”

“No, ma’am. He never said anything. He sat there and acted like he was reading them.”

“Very funny, Juan Carlos,” Melanie said, shaking her head. This kid knew what he was doing. The whole interview would’ve been thrown out in court. Melanie reached across the table and picked up the waiver of speedy arraignment and waiver of Miranda-rights forms and read them to Juan Carlos in both English and Spanish. “Still want to talk?” she asked when she’d finished.

“Whatever,” the kid said.

“I need a yes or no, please.”

“Yeah, all right.”

“Make your mark, please.”

She passed him the forms, and he signed them again. Next to his signature, she noted the time and the fact that they’d been read aloud.

“Okay, so Carmen is your literacy coach. And what else?” Melanie asked.

Juan Carlos looked back and forth from Ray-Ray to Melanie, his forehead wrinkled, like he was struggling to understand.

“Well, seems to me Carmen ain’t popped her cherry yet, and I’m thinking about gettin’ in her pants. I like virtuous girls. More of a challenge, you feel me? But we ain’t never do nothin’ much about it. I try to kiss her once, and she get scared and run away. But she sixteen, so why you care? That ain’t statutory rape, is it?”

“I don’t do those cases, but I think the age of consent is seventeen in New York,” Melanie said.

“I don’t think so,” Juan Carlos said, shaking his head. “My shorty Bathead got locked up for statutory-raping some bitch who fourteen. I remember he say two more years and he wouldna had no trouble.”

“Bathead, you said?” Ray-Ray asked, looking up from his note taking.

“Yeah. Call him that because his head got, like, a dent from where somebody smash him with a bat. He talk real slow from it, too.”

“Can we focus, please?” Melanie said. “We don’t have all day. Tell us about giving the drugs to Carmen.”

“What drugs?”

“The heroin.”

“Carmen told you I give her heroin? Why she say that?” He looked very confused.

Melanie turned to Ray-Ray. “What was the stamp again on the decks we found in his sock?”

“WMD,” Ray-Ray said.

“We’re not interested in WMD. Tell us about Golpe,” she said to Juan Carlos.

“I don’t know Golpe,” he replied. “¿Es una marca de drogas? ”

“I can’t feed you the answers, Juan Carlos.Youtellmewhat Golpe is.”

“You talking about a stamp? Ain’t nobody use Spanish stamps in New York. Jersey neither. Only place I heard of Spanish stamps is Puerto Rico, the DR, some shit like that.”

“Tell us about the two girls who OD’d. Whitney and Brianna. Did you ever meet them?” Melanie asked.

“The girls who OD’d last night, you mean?”

She and Ray-Ray exchanged glances. Now they were getting somewhere. “Yes,” she said.

“Yeah, I heard about it on TV.” As Juan Carlos looked at Melanie, his eyes suddenly went wide. Sweat began to collect on the dark fuzz of his upper lip. “The shit that OD’d ’em, it was WMD?”

“What?” Melanie asked.

“You sayin’ those girls OD’d on WMD? You know, weapon a’ mass destruction, the stamp I be moving?”

“Did you sell drugs to them, Juan Carlos?” she asked, avoiding his question.

His breathing got heavier, and he looked ready to cry. “I don’t know what Carmen tell you, but that ain’t me. They put WMD in every spot from here to Jersey City, okay? Hundreds of mu’fuckers movin’ that shit. Coulda been anyone who sold it to them girls. It ain’t me. I swear.”

“Did Carmen ever introduce you to Whitney Seward or Brianna Meyers?” she asked, slowly and clearly.

“Why she tell you that? Why she say something that ain’t true?” he asked, an edge of hysteria in his voice.

“I’m not asking you about what Carmen said. I’m asking you about what happened. Did you ever meet Whitney Seward or Brianna Meyers?”

Tears stood out in Juan Carlos’s eyes. “No more questions. I want a lawyer,” he said.

 

13

 

MISS HOLBROOKE’S SCHOOL occupied several adjoining town houses on the south side of an expensive block in the East Seventies. Ray-Ray Wong double-parked in front of the main doors and slapped a police placard into the window of the G-car. Melanie climbed out, picking her way carefully through the slush to the curb. Their government sedan looked incongruous among the glamorous vehicles jockeying for position there. Navy and black Mercedeses and enormous, sparkling SUVs, driven by dark-skinned chauffeurs, all wearing blazers and cell-phone earpieces. Even if Melanie could’ve afforded to buy a brand-new Range Rover and garage it in the city—which, needless to say, she couldn’t—it would never have occurred to her to hire a driver and ride around town in the back.

It was the last day of classes before holiday recess, and a few girls trickled in late. They varied in age from kindergartners to high-schoolers, but all sported an identical look. Long hair, long limbs, beautiful faces with bored, careless expressions. Melanie and Ray-Ray followed the gazellelike creatures up the ice-slicked steps and into the lobby.

The space was dominated by a tall Christmas tree decorated with ornaments of scarlet and gold, which, judging from various banners hung around the room, were also the school colors. A plump, middle-aged woman in a dark dress sat behind the reception desk.

“Good morning,” the receptionist said in a British accent, looking them up and down. “Are you here for an admissions tour?”

“No, we have an appointment with Patricia Andover, the headmistress, regarding a legal matter,” Melanie said.

“Ah, very good.” The woman appeared relieved, and judging by the crew of skinny blond moms parading through the reception area with furs tossed casually over their gym clothes, Melanie understood why. She and Ray-Ray hardly fit the profile for membership in the Holbrooke parent body.

“So Mrs. Andover is expecting you?” the receptionist asked.

“Yes. Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Vargas and DEA Special Agent Raymond Wong.” Melanie flashed her creds and nodded at Ray-Ray, who did the same.

“Very well, then. Have a seat, why don’t you, and I’ll let her know you’ve arrived. She should be back from chapel by now.”

“Chapel?”

“Every morning she leads the girls in prayer and announcements in the old chapel. It’s a Holbrooke tradition, but perhaps a bit more solemn than usual this morning.”

“Of course. Thank you.”

Melanie and Ray-Ray took seats on a chintz-upholstered bench across from the reception desk. Portraits of former Holbrooke headmistresses lined the walls, the ladies’ attire varying by decade. As a rule they were severe-looking but attractive, with steely expressions, of middle age. Above the portraits, beneath a heavy crown molding, the school motto repeated around the room in gold script intertwined with green vines: PULCHRITUDO VERITAS EST.

“Huh,” Melanie said.

“What?” Ray-Ray asked.

“Holbrooke’s motto. ‘Beauty is truth.’ I think it’s from Keats.”

“Oh.” He nodded, obviously uninterested.

“You know what we should do?”

“What?”

“Get a list of the faculty and staff and run criminal-history checks. Just to cover our bases. Who knows? Maybe somebody has a narcotics record.”

“Sure thing. No problem.”

The receptionist put down her phone and looked at Melanie. “Mrs. Andover will see you now.”

 

 

THE HEADMISTRESS OF HOLBROOKE was a petite, handsome woman in her forties, meticulously groomed, with a helmet of highlighted honey blond hair. Clad in a trim skirt that showcased her excellent legs, a cashmere twinset, Hermès scarf, and pearls, she radiated a cold, almost Stepford-like perfection. She also received them with the school’s lawyer standing beside her, which struck Melanie as more than a little defensive. Was Holbrooke worried about something?

“This is a delicate situation, so I wanted my adviser present,” Patricia Andover explained. She took a seat behind a dainty inlaid-wood desk and indicated that Melanie and Ray-Ray should sit opposite her. A tiny Yorkshire terrier that had been resting on a plaid dog bed leaped up and settled into her lap.

The headmistress put her nose right up to the dog’s and spoke to it as if it were a baby. “We have guests, Vuitton. Mommy needs impeccable behavior, yes, yes I do,” she said. Then she turned to Melanie with a studied smile, her glance seeming to note every imperfection, every hair out of place, and calculate the value of Melanie’s clothing and jewelry in the process.

“Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee, tea, Pellegrino?” she asked.

“Thank you, but no. This shouldn’t take long. We need some basic information and assistance in conducting searches, and then we’ll be out of your way,” Melanie replied.

“This is a shocking tragedy for our community. And right before Christmas, too. So terribly sad. Whatever you need, just ask. What can I tell you?”

“Anything you know about Whitney Seward or Brianna Meyers that might help us track down the drug dealer who sold them the heroin,” Melanie said. “We’re also interested in Carmen Reyes, who was at the scene last night and hasn’t returned home. I assume she didn’t come to school this morning?”

“No. She’s absent today,” the headmistress replied.

“Do you have any idea where she might be?”

“No, I don’t. She wasn’t one of our more…uh, visible girls, and I’m afraid I don’t really know her well on a personal level. Was she doing drugs also?”

“There may be some link between the overdoses and Carmen’s disappearance. We’re not sure yet, but locating her is a top priority. We need to search all three girls’ lockers and review their records. We also need to talk to other students who knew them,” Melanie said.

“Of course,” said Mrs. Andover. “I don’t see any problem with any of that. Do you, Ted?”

Ted Siebert was Holbrooke’s general counsel. A heavyset man in a rumpled suit, he shifted uncomfortably on the small chair beside Patricia’s desk.

“Well, just a minute, Patricia,” Siebert said. “I do. Holbrooke needs to think about its liability, with school districts getting sued left and right these days for letting the police search lockers. This is private property. The government should follow procedures before asking us to get involved in searches.”

“Exactly what procedures are you referring to?” Melanie asked Siebert.

“We want to make sure everything is done by the book. Don’t you need a warrant to do this?”

“Not for the victims’ lockers. The girls are dead, so they don’t have Fourth Amendment rights. There’s plenty of case law supporting our right to search.”

“I don’t practice criminal law, but as general counsel I can’t advise Mrs. Andover to risk this kind of liability without a warrant,” Siebert said.

“I’m telling you, no warrant is required,” Melanie insisted.

“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Andover. “We don’t want to be difficult, Ted. I am a firm believer in cooperating with the authorities.”


Page 9

“Patricia, James Seward is on the board of trustees. He could raise quite a stink. We both know he loves to make trouble.”

“I’m certain Mr. Seward would want us to assist the investigation in any way possible,” Mrs. Andover said.

“Well, if you’re so certain, why not call him?” Siebert suggested. “If we get the parents’ consent, there won’t be any chance of an issue later.”

“Fine. If that’s what it takes to make you comfortable,” Melanie said with a sigh. She hated having to jump through unnecessary hoops because this guy wanted to make a show of earning his paycheck. But it turned out not to be a big deal. She spent the next ten minutes on her cell phone and quickly obtained consent from James Seward, Luis Reyes, and Buffy Meyers—who was in the middle of being interviewed by Dan and Bridget—for searches of their daughters’ lockers.

“Thank you so much for indulging Ted by making those calls,” the headmistress said when Melanie was done. “I never would’ve put you through it, but he’s just trying to look out for us.”

Ted Siebert gave the headmistress an angry glare. Melanie wondered what the subtext was here.

“No problem, Mrs. Andover,” she said. “We’d like to search now, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course.”

“Wait just a second. I don’t think we’ve covered all the issues,” Siebert interjected again. The headmistress’s brow furrowed.

“Before we go ahead, Patricia, you should stop and consider the media implications of this. What if more drugs are found on school property? At the very least, I think we need assurances that nobody’s gonna blab to the press.”

“I won’t be speaking to the press personally. I can promise you that. I can’t make any representations about what others in my office might do,” Melanie said, thinking about her boss.

“This is absolutely the wrong time for a scandal,” Siebert insisted.

This guy was really starting to annoy Melanie. “The cat’s out of the bag, Mr. Siebert. The scandal’s already happened. And if there are drugs on school property, I’d think you would want them removed as promptly as possible.”

“A few wild girls experimenting with drugs, and suddenly Holbrooke is labeled a druggie school,” Siebert said. “We don’t need negative press right now. It’s a sensitive time, funding-wise.”

“Ted’s referring to the fact that we’re in the middle of a major endowment campaign,” added the headmistress. “It concludes this Friday with a black-tie holiday gala where we expect to announce a major contribution. Naturally we’d like this unfortunate event to get the minimum public attention possible, so as to have the least impact on our campaign. It’s very important to the future of Holbrooke.”

Two, maybe three, girls die, and they were worried about the effect on their fund-raiser? The headmistress seemed cooperative enough, but Melanie was running out of patience for her attack dog here. She didn’t have time for this. Carmen Reyes was missing, and the morning was slipping away.

“Mrs. Andover…” Melanie began impatiently.

But the headmistress was nodding encouragingly. “Yes, I understand, Miss Vargas. Don’t worry, I’m going to overrule Ted on this one.”

“What?” sputtered Siebert. “Patricia, I must insist—”

“Ted, at a time like this, we have to pull together and help the authorities. Selfish concerns can’t stand in the way.”

 

 

THE HEADMISTRESS PERSONALLY escorted Ray-Ray to search the girls’ lockers. Meanwhile, the school psychologist was pulled out of a grief-intervention session and assigned to help Melanie locate and review the girls’ files, which contained transcripts, disciplinary records, and other possible items of interest.

“This is a small school, so faculty wear many hats,” Dr. Harrison Hogan explained as they headed toward his office. “I’m head shrinker, science teacher, and director of college counseling all rolled into one. These girls were juniors, so I should have their files in my office for college-application purposes, although with my so-called filing system, you never can tell.”

Hogan was lanky and good-looking, with longish dark hair and a sculpted face. He wore a tweed jacket over frayed blue jeans and projected an air of nonchalant cool. She followed him down a narrow hallway teeming with Holbrooke girls changing classes, many of whom checked her out, even eyed her with hostility.Don’t worry, I’m not his girlfriend, she felt like saying. Hogan was obviously the object of his share of schoolgirl crushes.

Holbrooke girls hadn’t changed much since Melanie’s college days. They still had that slutty-preppy thing going on. Little plaid kilts barely grazing the tops of their thighs, exposing miles of lithe leg even in the dead of winter. Itsy-bitsy T-shirts and skintight cardigans with the buttons provocatively undone. Long, straight hair and smudgy eyeliner. Melanie’s sister, Linda, the Puerto Rican diva, had dressed like a hooker in high school, but come on, they grew up in a rough neighborhood. These were rich girls—you’d expect better, right? The fact that these kids dabbled in heroin wouldn’t shock anybody looking at them.

“You see why we’re doing this endowment campaign,” Hogan was saying. “We’re really squeezed for space. Patricia wants a new building.”

He was right. Holbrooke’s square footage was clearly insufficient for its needs. Several town houses had been awkwardly combined into a cramped, confusing layout. The interiors were surprisingly musty and run-down, in need of a good sprucing, although you could imagine there would be fondness among the alumnae for the school’s dear old WASPy worn-out look.

“How much money is the school trying to raise?” Melanie asked.

“The campaign was for fifty mil over two years. It concludes at the gala Friday night.”

“Fiftymillion? Wow. Did they reach their target?”

“From what I understand, yes, or at least they will have by Friday. Holbrooke alumnae come from the wealthiest families in America. Besides, Patricia is a clever businesswoman. She gets what she wants.”

Hogan opened a door with a frosted-glass window and beckoned her in.

“My humble abode,” he said. “Sorry, I’m not much of a housekeeper.”

The office was claustrophobically tiny, littered with files and papers, and had an absentminded-professor air about it. To say Hogan couldn’t keep house was an understatement. Even the books in the shelves lay askew, as if they’d been shoved in any which way.

“Please,” he said, indicating a chair shoved into a corner next to the door.

Melanie had to move a stack of books off the chair in order to sit down. She picked last year’s Holbrooke yearbook from the top of the pile, flipping through it as Hogan searched through file cabinets looking for the girls’ transcripts. Whitney Seward’s photograph leaped out at her. Whitney had one of those perfect faces that made everyone else in the world look like a badly drawn cartoon. Absolutely symmetrical features, straight blond hair, and blindingly white teeth. Carmen Reyes was on the facing page, looking serious and shy, with big dark eyes and braces. Melanie had to search for Brianna Meyers. Despite being quite pretty, with long, curly dark hair, light-colored eyes, and a nose so pert that it smacked of the surgeon’s knife, there was something nondescript about Brianna, something nervous and self-effacing. Melanie felt a ripple at the tip of her consciousness, like if only she could understand these girls, she’d solve the puzzle.

“While you’re looking for those files, Dr. Hogan, may I ask you a few questions?” Melanie said.

“You can try. Anything sensitive, though, I’m gonna have to refer you back to Ted Siebert, the school lawyer.”

“Why is that?”

“Patricia runs a tight ship. We don’t give out personal information on students without the okay from our attorney.”

“Mrs. Andover was extremely cooperative, I assure you. She sent me here specifically to get this information from you.”

Hogan grimaced meaningfully. “She might’ve acted that way in front ofyou, but I know what side my bread is buttered on.”

“Did Mrs. Andover instruct you not to answer my questions?” Melanie asked.

“She’s too clever to come right out and say that. But I know better than to air dirty laundry about the daughter of a major contributor like James Seward.”

“Was the faculty aware that Whitney Seward was doing drugs, Doctor? Is that what you’re getting at?”

“I’m not gonna say Whitney was pure as the driven snow. That would be a lie.”

“Can you be more specific? I’m looking for anything that would help explain what happened last night.”

Hogan seemed to be avoiding Melanie’s eyes. “Her grades were mediocre, and she was in danger of failing English, but college wasn’t an issue. She was a legacy many times over at Harvard. Buildings named for her family, that sort of thing. She was getting in, no matter what….” He trailed off, occupying himself once again with the filecabinet. Melanie nodded. She knew all about those Holbrooke girls who got into Harvard. But there was more here.

“I’m getting the sense you want to tell me something, Doctor. I understand you’re concerned about the repercussions. You have my word I’ll keep everything in strictest confidence.”

Hogan looked up and sighed. “You didn’t hear it here.”

“Of course not. I never reveal a source.”

“Whitney was big into the club scene. Mixed up with a bad element. You should check it out.”

“Just the club scene generally? Do you know any names or locations?”

“She was hanging out at a club called Screen, with a guy named Esposito who’s really sleazy.”

Melanie noted the names on her legal pad. Come to think of it, they sounded familiar. “Thank you, Doctor. Anything else about Whitney?”

“I heard she had a blog where she was doing some wild stuff. Not sure, though.”

“A Weblog? You mean like a personal Web page?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard some of the other girls talking about it.” Hogan glanced nervously at the door, then at his watch. “Patricia is going to wonder what’s taking us so long,” he said.

“Two more questions, Doctor. What can you tell me about Brianna Meyers?”

“Okay, now,Briannawas troubled.”

“Troubled? In what way?”

“Terrible home life. Parents divorced, father out of the picture, mother a big socialite who had no time for her. So Brianna acted out.”

“Acted out how?”

“She was dating this creepy kid, kind of a goth type. He used to come around the school a lot. Had a really scary affect. Like, made you think of Columbine. I wondered about his mental stability.”

“What was his name?” Melanie asked.

“Trevor Leonard. He goes to Manhattan Learning. It’s a high-end school for kids with behavioral issues who are mainstream academically.”

She noted the information on her legal pad. “Any reason to think he was into drugs?”

“That’s possible, sure.” Hogan nodded. “In fact, I’d bet on it.”

“Okay. Last question,” Melanie said. Hogan glanced nervously at the door again. Man, this guy was scared of Patricia Andover. Interesting, really, when you thought about it. “We’re very concerned about Carmen Reyes. Apparently Carmen went to Whitney’s apartment last night right around the time the girls were doing the drugs, and she hasn’t been heard from since. Is there anything you can tell us about Carmen, her friends, her connections, her habits? Anything that might help us locate her?”

“Carmen was relatively new to the school, and I didn’t know her well,” Hogan said. “I could give you my gut reaction. But I’d rather not.”

“Why not? What do you mean?”

“Well, it isn’t based on much, frankly, and I hate to speak ill of a kid.”

“What? Please tell me, Doctor. This is too important to stand on good manners.”

Hogan sighed. “Okay,” he said with obvious reluctance, “but you have to take this for what it’s worth, which isn’t much. As head of counseling, I knew that Carmen had real money problems. She was very concerned about paying for college, not only for herself but for her little sister, Lourdes, who goes to school here also.”

“What’s your point?”

“I don’t know a faster way for a kid to make money than selling drugs. And Carmen struck me asthatdesperate.” Hogan stopped talking and looked up at the ceiling, scratching his head. “Seems I’ll have to get back to you on the girls’ files. They’re not here.”

“Are you serious?” Melanie said.

“Yeah, I’ve gone through every pile. Somebody must’ve taken ’em. Unless they’re lost, which is always a possibility. As you see, organization is not my forte.”

“Who would take them?”

“You could try Ted Siebert, for starters. He’s been known to just walk into people’s offices and remove records when there’s some kind of legal issue.”

There was a sharp rapping on the frosted glass of the office door.

“Yeah!” Hogan called.

The door opened inward, slamming into the back of Melanie’s chair.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Ray-Ray Wong said.

“We’re just finishing up here, Ray-Ray,” Melanie said. “Any luck searching the lockers?”

“Oh, yeah. We hit the jackpot big time with Carmen Reyes’s locker. We found heroin. And it’s the right stamp.”

 

14

 

CARMEN REYES DRIFTED in and out of consciousness. She wanted desperately to stay asleep. Being awake was too horrible. But the physical agony of her confinement prevented her from escaping awareness for more than a few minutes at a time. She was in too much pain. Her limbs tingled with fiery numbness. She was parched and hungry. She needed to go to the bathroom. And breathing required actual thought, if she wanted to avoid swallowing the rag stuffed in her taped mouth.

In moments of lucidity, Carmen relived the events of the night before, seeing them again in the darkness with nightmarish clarity. Last night had felt like a bad dream even while it was happening. From the moment Carmen heard Whitney’s voice, she’d had a strange sense of foreboding. She justknewsomething was off. If only she’d listened to that instinct.

“Aw, c’mon, Carm, we’ll study for a while, then you can party with us,” Whitney had said, in a wheedling tone Carmen had never heard her use before. It was bizarre, in fact, for Whitney to wantanythingfrom Carmen, let alone her company.


Page 10

“Gee, thanks. But I shouldn’t.”

“No, seriously. I want you to come up. It’s me and Brianna and a special friend of mine who really wants to hang with you.”

“Who’s that?”

Whitney gave an evil giggle. “It’s a surprise.”

Carmen felt sick with anxiety at the thought of what might be going on up there. Drugs? Orgies? She knew the gossip. Who didn’t? Whitney was all anybody talked about.

“I really can’t,” Carmen replied. “Maybe you’re ahead of where I am for the quiz. I really need to just, like, study all night.”

“I need your notes, girl,” Whitney insisted.

“Okay, well, I guess I could bring them upstairs. Do you have a way to copy them?”

“Duh, yeah, it’s called like a fucking Xerox machine. What do you think?”

Carmen didn’t exactly have a Xerox machine in her own apartment. “Okay. I’ll bring them up, but I can’t stay long.”

“Fine, be that way. But come up now, okay? I mean,rightnow.”

“Okay.”

She’d told Papi she was going upstairs to the Sewards’. His whole face brightened, like he was proud his daughter had such fancy friends, and it made Carmen pity him and want to protect him at the same time. How could she explain that it wasn’t like that?

She took the service elevator up to the penthouse floor. Inside the building, Carmen was help, not a tenant. Even if Whitney invited her, she wouldn’t presume to ride in the front elevator. The service elevator let her out in the back foyer, where the Sewards kept their trash cans. It smelled of garbage and brass polish. All day, every day, Papi polished the building’s brass fixtures. It gave him a rash that he had to treat with a special ointment.

Just as Carmen reached out to press the buzzer, the dead bolt opened from inside.

“Smile, you’re onCandid Camera!” Whitney exclaimed, holding a tiny pink phone up to her eye and pressing a button.

“Did you just take my picture?”

“Mmm-hmm. God, I’m starving. Fucking major munchies. Want some smoked salmon or something?” Whitney asked, backing into the kitchen. Her eyes were funny, the pupils nearly invisible pinpricks in the light blue irises. Carmen knew enough to realize that Whitney was high on something.

“No thanks.”

Whitney opened the door of an enormous stainless-steel built-in refrigerator and peered inside. She was dressed exactly as she had been in school earlier that day, in an abbreviated navy sweater, white thigh-highs, and electric blue Pumas, but she’d taken her kilt off and was walking around in teeny-tiny thong panties. She had a small flower tattooed on her lower back. Whitney turned, shoving a piece of orangey pink smoked salmon, sliced so thin it was nearly translucent, into her mouth with her fingers. The panties were sheer enough that Carmen saw Whitney had one of those Brazilian bikini waxes, everything gone except a small triangle, like a stripper. Carmen had read about that in aCosmomagazine she kept hidden under her bed but had never seen it in real life. Whitney had a long, perfect torso and legs, tanned a dusky gold. Carmen tried not to stare, but it was almost impossible to look away from Whitney’s unreal beauty, so recklessly displayed. In Carmen’s house they didn’t prance around half naked.

“Mmm, yum. Salty.” Whitney licked her oily fingers.

“I brought the notes,” Carmen said, holding out her calculus notebook.

“We’ll get to that. Come on. Back in my room.”

Carmen followed Whitney down the hallway leading to the rear bedroom, marveling as she had the previous few times she’d visited at the enormous, empty rooms they passed. A darkened dining room with a glittering chandelier and elaborate murals of New York in the time of the Algonquins. A library whose floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookshelves were filled with perfectly aligned hand-tooled leather books. A “music room” that held no musical instruments but boasted numerous settees, ottomans, and window treatments in candy-hued silk. It went on and on, all of it looking as if no people ever set foot in it. A neutron bomb might’ve hit and killed all the humans, so undisturbed were the spaces. Strange to be fabulously rich and yet leave no impression on your own home.

Whitney turned and walked backward down the hall in front of Carmen. She lifted her phone to her eye again and began snapping Carmen’s picture repeatedly.

“Why are you doing that?” Carmen asked.

Whitney didn’t reply.

They got to Whitney’s bedroom. Whitney whisked in ahead of Carmen, heading straight through to the bathroom door across the room, and disappeared.

The second Carmen stepped over the threshold, she knew something was terribly wrong. Her nose told her. The whole room reeked of shit. There were piles of it in spots on the otherwise pristine white-and-gold carpet. At first Carmen thought dog and racked her brain trying to remember if Whitney had a pet. But no. The turds were human, no doubt about it, and here and there had these strange, bright orangethingsin them, like plastic pellets.

“Whitney?” Carmen called, her voice shaking. She felt cold and dizzy, practically welded to her spot near the door. But events were unfolding exactly like a nightmare, because Carmen simultaneously had a powerful compulsion to see what was in that bathroom. She knew it was bad. She knew she should turn and run screaming right out of that apartment and down fifteen flights of stairs. Yet instead her leaden feet advanced step by step across the floor until she stood right in front of the bathroom door, which Whitney had left slightly ajar.

A wheezing sound emanated from inside. Like ragged breathing. Of its own accord, Carmen’s hand reached out and pushed the bathroom door inward.

Brianna Meyers sat naked on the toilet, reclining backward, almost sliding off, her arms and legs slack. Her eyes, which had been staring into space unseeingly, seemed to flicker in response to Carmen’s appearance. Carmen remembered that Brianna hadn’t been in school today, wondered how long she’d been in Whitney’s bathroom.

“Jesus,” Carmen whispered in shock, stepping all the way into the bathroom. “What is it, Brianna? Are you sick?”

Brianna’s mouth opened and tried to form words, but no sound emerged. Her entire body dripped with sweat. It ran in rivulets down her belly. Her long, dark hair was wet, plastered to her forehead. Carmen looked down and saw streaks of shit on Brianna’s legs and feet. Meanwhile, Whitney sat on the edge of the bathtub idly examining the label on an Ex-Lax package.

“Whitney, Brianna needs a doctor. We should call 911,” Carmen said accusingly.

“It’s something she ate. Right, Bree?” Whitney giggled, but this time Carmen saw real fear in her eyes.

“Listen to the way she’s breathing. Something is really wrong,” Carmen insisted. She still thought there was a possibility of salvaging this situation, of making things normal again. Little did she know.

Whitney’s head jerked up. She was looking past Carmen, at the open doorway behind Carmen’s back.

“Okay,” Whitney said sulkily to whoever was standing behind Carmen. “Here she is. Happy now?”

The split second it took Carmen to whip her head around and see who was behind her was the most nightmarish of all. Because she instinctively knew who she’d see standing in the doorway, and the knowledge was terrible. With Whitney’s words a lot of small events from the previous days snapped into a pattern for Carmen, with the precision of a mathematical sequence. It all made sense. Now she understood perfectly why she’d been lured to Whitney’s apartment. She’d walked right into a trap. A trap she probably wouldn’t get out of alive.

 

15

 

AFTER THE DEA AGENT found the dope in Carmen Reyes’s locker, Patricia Andover excused herself politely, walked back to her office, and, nerves jangling, dialed James at home. It crossed her mind to worry about the trail of telephone records. Two calls this morning so far. But the next few days leading up to the gala were critical and dicey, and she had to make sure the ODs didn’t disturb their carefully laid plans. Neither of them could put a foot wrong if they wanted to pull this off. The calls were necessary and could be explained if it came down to it. They were simply evidence of the headmistress’s offering comfort to a bereaved family.

Charlotte must’ve been at least semiconscious—how unusual!—because when James answered, he pretended Patricia was someone from his campaign. He made her wait for what felt like ages while he went to his library, locked the door, and called back from his cell phone. Patricia sat there with palms sweating and heart pounding. Why put her through this? Screw Charlotte anyway, that drug-addled whore. Patricia could walk around that apartment buck naked, and Charlotte wouldn’t notice. Goddamn junkie, just like her daughter. Patricia hated them both with a passion. Correction—hadhated them, before Whitney got what she so richly deserved.

The phone on her desk finally rang. She snatched it up.

“Hello?” she said breathlessly.

“How’d it go?”

“Fine. It was her, the one you told me about. Melanie Vargas. She was with some DEA agent.”

“Chinese guy, right?”

“Yes. I’m their best friend now.”

He chuckled. “Good. That’s the way to handle it, I’m telling you. Look at Martha Stewart. She didn’t go to jail for anything shedid. Just for lying to them. They hate it when you don’t cooperate. Offends their little egos.”

“Well, I cooperated, all right. I even had Ted Siebert go through this song and dance about a search warrant so I could pretend to overrule him. You know, good cop, bad cop.”

“Oh, yeah. I was going to ask you about that, because that prosecutor called me for permission—”

“I know! I was sitting right there. Ted took me way too seriously. He wouldn’t let it drop, so she had to mollify him. I swear, it was almost like hewantedthem to think we had something to hide.”

They were both silent for a moment.

“Do you think he did it on purpose?” James asked.

“What, over that old thing?” But Patricia considered the possibility.

“You know he hates me.”

“Honestly, with what I have on him, I don’t think he’d dare. He has a position to protect. Not just his family either, but you know he’s very big in the Bar Association now.”

“What a thought.” James laughed sharply, then stopped short, his tone turning ominous. “I’m glad it went well, but still…We need to talk. There’s a problem, you know, Patricia.”

“Yes, I know, dearest,” she said. “You’re angry about Whitney. I want you to understand, Itriedto keep a lid on things. It wasn’t my fault—”

“Whitney’s the least of our problems. This is serious. It’s about the second set of books.”

“The…books?” Patricia’s heart began to beat erratically.

“You told somebody, didn’t you?”

“About our plan? Of…of course not, darling.”

“You’re lying.”

“James, what’s this about? Why are you talking this way?”

“Somebody’s been tampering. Accessing the computer files behind our backs. Or at least behindmine.”

Patricia felt suddenly ill. The fact was, shehadtold somebody. She’d been forced to. Did James really think she could handle the accounting all by herself? Or even the computer? She was not a math-science type. He knew that, and yet he’d refused to help her himself because he didn’t want to take the risk. Naturally she’d had to turn elsewhere. She’d been so careful about whom she’d trusted. What could possibly have gone wrong? But she couldn’t admit this to James now. He’d be furious at her.

“There are two possibilities,” he said. “Either you told someone andtheyinvaded the account—oryou’re fucking around with things behind my back. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming the former.”

“I swear, I didn’t breathe a word to anybody, James. Why would I? How could it evenbenefitme to get somebody else involved?”

“I don’t believe you, Patricia. Who was it? Was it Ted? Didn’t it ever occur to you he’d double-cross us?”

“I would never trustTed. Are you crazy? James, please tell me, is the money missing? Is that what you’re suggesting?”

He paused, then said, “You’re a talented actress, but you don’t fool me.”

“You think I would steal from our future? If money was what I wanted, don’t you think I could’ve gotten it from you by now?”

“How, by blackmailing me?Please. How much could you really hope to gain from that? You know my situation.”

She hated the way he was talking. James had promised to marry Patricia after the campaign was over, and she planned to make him keep his word. She’d worked so hard to overcome the obstacles. There was the small matter of finances. The real so-called Seward money belonged to Charlotte, and James had told her from the beginning there was an airtight prenup. He wouldn’t get a red cent if he left. The endowment money would solve that little problem. Then there was the question of bloodline. Patricia had been born Andrewski, the daughter of a maid and a garage mechanic, Polacks from Paterson, New Jersey. The Andover, like the Mrs., had been her own invention. But she was confident James would overlook her origins once the financial end was taken care of. After all, Patricia was polished to a fine sheen, truly deserving of becoming Mrs. Senator Seward, whereas Charlotte spent her days so stoned she could hardly hold her head up.

Patricia couldn’t take this. She’d call his bluff.

“If you don’t believe me, James, I’ll prove it! The Van Allen money doesn’t get wired in until Friday night. I’ll rejigger the accounts, put everything back the way it was, and we’ll pretend this whole thing never happened. We can still be together. We don’t need that money.”

He said nothing.

“James?”

“Ineed it, Patricia,” he said with quiet urgency. “Of course it’s not about the money for me either, but campaigns are expensive. The new headquarters, those sixty-second spots in prime time, that smart Jew I hired away from Bell’s staff.”

“Get it from Charlotte, then!”

She waited to hear what he’d say to this. She had her suspicions. The rumors about what Whitney was doing for money, about the status of their finances. James would never admit he was broke, even if it were true. He’d never let her see that he was desperate.


Page 11

“Charlotte would give it to me, but she’s not happy about my running for office,” he said nonchalantly. She suspected he was lying, that he’d bled Charlotte dry already, that there was nothing left. But she had no way of knowing for certain.

“I’m only in this because of you,” she said heavily. That was actually true. Okay, Patricia was wearing a current-season Badgley Mischka to the gala, which naturally she couldn’t’ve afforded on the pittance Holbrooke paid her, but how much was that, really? Six thousand? Maybe a couple of thousand more when you threw in shoes, bag, hair, makeup. Nothing in the scheme of things. She could scrounge up that much in gifts by giving some rich parent the evil eye. She didn’t need to expose herself to hard time for a few baubles.

James drew an aggrieved breath, but she could feel him calculating on the other end of the line. Once all was said and done, she had the power to make him keep his word. If nothing else, she’d threaten to turn state’s evidence, the last best refuge of the woman scorned.

“Of course, darling,” he said finally. “We’re in this together. You know that.”

She felt faint with relief.

“What were you doing looking at the books anyway, silly? You could end up leaving an electronic trail if you’re not careful. And I need to hear about this problem you found. You probably just misread the numbers,” she said.

“I certainly hope you’re right. But I don’t want to talk about the details over the telephone.”

“So let’s meet. It’s been too long. I miss you.”

“This mess with Whitney is screwing everything up. I can’t leave the house. The police could be watching me. The pressdefinitelyare.”

“Why the police? You’re the grieving stepfather. They should be bringing you a cup of hot tea.”

“Are you kidding? They’d love to see me trip up. Melanie Vargas was all over me about the timing last night. Where was I, when did I call the police…?”

Patricia caught an undercurrent of something in his tone. “I thought you were at that Guggenheim thing,” she said suspiciously.

“Yes. Yes, I was.”

“So why was she asking you, then?”

“Who knows? You know how these people are. I’m surprised she didn’t askyou.”

“Let her. I was home with the doggies.” Patricia glanced over at Vuitton, who was napping. Coco was at the doggy shrink. Poor thing’s eating disorder was acting up again, the way it did every year as January 1 approached. They lived in a building that barred dogs weighing more than twelve pounds because they took up too much space in the elevators. The annual weigh-ins were disastrous for Coco’s body image, even though Patricia constantly reassured her there was no chance she’d hit the limit. Coco was tiny—barely eight pounds!

“So they searched?” James asked.

Patricia was distracted, her mind wandering to the bothersome question of where he’d been last night. “Hmm? What?”

“What did they search? They didn’t ask about the school’s computers, did they?”

“No. And I don’t see why they would. It was just the girls’ lockers they were interested in.”

“But you’d gone through Whitney’s—”

“Yes, of course!” she exclaimed irritably. “I came in at five to be sure nobody would see me. I went through everything, like you told me, all right? I left the innocuous stuff where they would find it so it wouldn’t look too obvious.”

“What do you mean? Was there anything you removed? Anything thatwasn’tinnocuous?”

Did he really have so little idea what his stepdaughter had been up to? He was surely playing dumb. After all, if he didn’t already know what was in there, why have her search? But she wouldn’t tell him what she’d found. She didn’t trust him these days; she needed something up her sleeve.

“No,” Patricia lied. “Just the usual teenager crap.”

“What about the other lockers? Did they find anything?”

“Yes indeed. As a matter of fact, they found heroin in Carmen Reyes’s locker.”

“Really?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Well.” He chuckled. “That’s fabulous. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I just did.”

“It makes so much sense. The little wetback with drugs in her locker. Just like I told them it would be. Now we can force them to stop investigating. Every second they’re out there poking around, you know, we’re at risk. And we don’t need any problems before Friday.”

“Believe me, I know.”

“I’m so glad we’re a team, darling.”

 

 

THEY AGREED THAT James would try to slip away and meet Patricia at her place later. The hours until then would be difficult ones. Normally she enjoyed the anticipation of waiting for a rendezvous with James. But not today; this security breach he was hinting about had her worried. She couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Had somebodyreallytampered with the second set of books? Was that possible, or was James lying? Testing her, maybe even screwing around with things behindherback and screaming bloody murder to cover his own tracks? Much as she adored him, she wouldn’t put anything past him. James was treacherous. She loved that about him; it was exhilarating. He really kept her on her toes. Patricia tapped her impeccably manicured fingernails on the desktop, thinking. She’d better damn well get to the bottom of the problem and figure out her next move. Here in the rarefied air at the tippy-top, it was play or get played.

And damn that Carmen Reyes, too, disappearing at just the wrong moment.

 

16

 

THE DRIVE BACK to Melanie’s office was slow because of holiday traffic, but not slow enough to come to terms with the evidence she held in her hand. A glassine bag, stamped GOLPE in red ink, sealed inside a clear plastic evidence envelope. Unlike the empty glassines recovered from Whitney Seward’s bedroom, this one still held its stash of grainy white powder. On the outside of the evidence envelope, Ray-Ray Wong had neatly printed his initials, the date, and the place of discovery: “Miss Holbrooke’s School. Locker of Carmen Reyes.”

Why was Melanie so disappointed? So what if Carmen was the one who’d corrupted her friends, who’d provided the heroin that killed them? What did Melanie care? She hadn’t even known the girl. Too often in life, the ugly, cynical explanation was the right one. She should just grow up and get used to that.

Ray-Ray dropped Melanie in front of her building and headed off to the DEA lab to get the heroin tested. She ran for the door, the bitter wind cutting right through her coat. The sky was an ugly grayish white, and she felt exhausted, cold to the bone, depressed. This case was pretty much over, and she didn’t like the way it was turning out, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. Juan Carlos Peralta had been remanded to custody and was refusing to talk any further. They’d seized heroin from him and from Carmen’s locker. The only missing link—literally—was Carmen herself, who presumably would be found and arrested in short order. Juvie charges, but still enough to wreck her life and break her father’s heart. Melanie told herself she should just accept the evidence the way it was coming in. Yet something didn’t feel right.

There was a yellow Post-it stuck to her office door with a virtually illegible message scrawled on it. Melanie picked it off and squinted at it. Her best guess was: “Made arrest, 6th Floor, Dan.” Man, he had terrible handwriting. And,mierda, she was infatuated. Because learning that new fact about Dan made her feel all warm and gooey inside. His handwriting sucks, how cute!Barf. Melanie hung her coat on the rack, slapped herself lightly on both cheeks, and muttered, “Snap out of it,” under her breath. Only then did she go looking for him in the interview rooms on the sixth floor.

Dan and Bridget Mulqueen were debriefing a strange-looking kid Melanie didn’t recognize. Pale and pimply, with long brown dreadlocks, his face riddled with eyebrow and lip piercings, an angry line of Chinese characters tattooed down his left cheek. The second Melanie stuck her head in the room, Dan leaped to his feet and came outside to speak with her.

“Who’sthat?” she asked. Dan pulled the door shut behind him and came to stand beside her—way too close to her, in fact. As if she didn’t already have enough trouble ignoring his looks, his height, the clean way he smelled. She took a step backward.

“Name’s Trevor Leonard,” Dan said. “We picked him up about an hour ago on a failure to appear. Kid had an outstanding warrant for wire fraud from some Internet hacking scam. Heard about it from Brianna Meyers’s mother.”

She nodded. “Oh, right, Trevor Leonard. The school psychologist at Holbrooke says he was Brianna’s boyfriend.”

“I’ll tell ya, he’s a fucking treasure trove of information about these girls.”

“So he’s talking?”

“Yup. I grabbed him on the warrant, and come to find out he had twenty tabs of ecstasy in his jacket pocket. With the drug charge piled on, he rolled in a heartbeat.”

“Great. I’ll sit in with you so we can lock him into a statement.”

“Yeah, sure, but one thing you should know first.” Dan moved even closer. He was leaning down, practically whispering in her ear. There was no call for it. Yes, they were standing right outside the interview room where Bridget held the prisoner. But the door was closed. Dan couldn’t reasonably think they would be overheard. Melanie took another step back, heart beating way too fast.

“What?”

“Bridget got Whitney Seward’s phone records already,” was all he said. “That wack job actually has good phone-company contacts, I’ll say that for her. Anyway, you’ll never guess who’s all over Whitney’s phones—cellandlandline.”

“Who?” Melanie asked.

“Jay Esposito. That nightclub guy.”

“Right, the school psychologist mentioned him, too. Whoishe?”

“Remember a few years back it was all over the papers? Wiseguy wannabe, owned a string of nightclubs, investigated for moving product?”

“Club drugs?”

“Nah, serious shit. Heroin, cocaine. I just talked to a guy I know on the squad that did the investigation. They were looking at Esposito for running a string of heroin mules. Moving Colombian product from Puerto Rico to New York.”

“But they never arrested him?”

“They were just about to go up on a wire on his phone when their main snitch got fished out of the East River. Minus his head, which they never found.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. Esposito doesn’t fuck around. Since then, as you can imagine, nobody’s been willing to flip on the guy. You never hear about him, unless he’s in ‘Page Six’ with some model.”

“And you say he shows up in Whitney’s phone records?”

“Yeah, big time. We got numerous calls, including—get this—a call placed last night at nine-fourteen from the Sewards’ home telephone to Esposito’s cell phone, meaning Whitney called Esposito during the incident.”

“Or someone else called Esposito from her telephone,” Melanie pointed out.

“Excellent point, Counselor. You’re very smart, you know that?” He gazed at her, grinning. Was he flirting with her?

“Puerto Rico is an important transshipment point for Colombian narcotics, because it’s a domestic flight. No customs inspections,” she said hurriedly, blurting the first thing that popped into her head to quiet her fluttering heart. She was beginning to think she should’ve refused to work with Dan. Not that Bernadette had given her any option.

“Mmm-hmm.” He was still looking at her.

“You’re thinking maybe Esposito supplied the heroin that killed the girls?” Melanie asked.

“There’s another angle I’m just getting into with this kid, and it’s even beyond that. It’s gonna surprise you.”

 

 

BACK IN THE INTERVIEW ROOM, Bridget and Trevor Leonard sat next to each other on one side of the conference table, Bridget cradling her head on folded arms. She jerked up when Melanie and Dan walked in.

“Finally! I was getting tired of shooting the shit with Beavis here all by myself.”

“That’s not too secure a posture, Bridget,” Dan chided as he took a seat on the other side of the table.

“What? Kid’s a pussycat. Plus, he’s cuffed to the chair, right, Trev?”

Trevor didn’t say anything. Underneath his fearsome looks, he seemed vulnerable and young.

“How old are you, Trevor?” Melanie asked, sliding into the seat next to Dan. If Trevor was a juvenile, they shouldn’t be interviewing him without counsel and a parent present.

“Nineteen.” His eyes were an unusual yellowy green, like a cat’s, but wide and frightened.

“Oh, okay, good. You’re legally an adult under federal law. Have you been advised of your rights?”

“He signed a waiver,” Dan said, sliding a piece of paper toward her. Melanie glanced at it and nodded.

“I understand you were taken into custody on an outstanding warrant for fraud?” she asked.

“I was hacking. I sent out a game. If you were stupid enough to play it, it would invade your PC and steal some personal data. I didn’t everdoanything with the information. I was just, like, punking on people. Like, for kicks.”

“Unfortunately, it turns out that’s a federal crime, Trevor. You skipped out on your warrant, which makes it worse. Plus, when these agents arrested you, you had a distribution quantity of ecstasy in your possession,” Melanie said.

“Yeah, okay. A small amount, but enough to sell.”

“Twenty pills. Not nothing. So you’re facing some serious charges. Which gives you an incentive to talk to us, to get a more favorable plea offer. Now, have the agents explained what we’re interested in?” she asked.

“Yeah, they just told me Whitney Seward hot-loaded last night.”

“You hadn’t heard?”

“No. I’m not much for reading the papers. I told these guys what I know about Whitney. She was hooking up with this total psycho club-owner dude, like, old enough to be her father. Now,hemoves product. That’s where you should be looking.”

“Jay Esposito?” Melanie asked.

“Expo. Yeah. He owns nightclubs and sells heavy-duty drugs. My thing is strictly like X or K—”

“Meaning ecstasy and ketamine?” Melanie asked.

“Right. Club drugs, you know? Go down easy, don’t fuck with your head too much. But Expo moves the real McCoy. We’re talking H. Not that Whitney Seward messing with hayron surprises me in the least. That girl was constantly pushing the envelope, looking for the next jones.”


Page 12

“Brianna Meyers, too?”

“What about Brianna?” Trevor looked blank. Melanie glanced over at Dan, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. He hadn’t broken the bad news to Trevor yet.

Melanie looked Trevor in the eye. “I’m sorry to inform you that Brianna Meyers OD’d last night also.”

Trevor swallowed hard. His strange eyes welled up. “Did she…did shedie?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Jesus. I didn’t know that.” He fell silent, his face reddening. Tears began to slide down his cheeks.

“Uncuff him,” she instructed Bridget. Melanie stood up, got a box of Kleenex from a side table, and handed it to Trevor. Shoulders heaving, Trevor rubbed his wrist, then pulled out some tissues and pressed them to his eyes with both hands.

“Are you okay to talk, Trevor?” she asked, resting her hand on his shoulder for a moment.

“Yeah, okay. I had no idea.” He took the tissues away and shook his head like he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.

“Did you know Brianna was using heroin?” Melanie asked gently, settling back into her seat.

“No. She wasn’t. I mean, you can tell me that, but I don’t buy it.”

“You were dating Brianna?” Melanie asked.

“I’ve known her since nursery school, but dated, no. We’re like BFFs.”

“BFF?”

“Best friends forever. It’s only since she started hanging with Whitney that things got weird with me and Bree. Whitney had Brianna pretty brainwashed. She only let me hang with them if I paid for shit, and it was at the point where Brianna was going along with her on that.”

Melanie waited as Trevor blew his nose and wiped his eyes some more.

“What kind of stuff did they want you to pay for? Like, drugs?” she asked.

“No. I mean yes, but not only. Justeverything, you know? Whenever we went out. My parents are divorced, and my dad’s a dentist, which doesn’t rate shit on the Upper East Side. So I start saying no, because I really couldn’t afford it, and Whitney goes, ‘Oh, Trevor, I used to like you when you gave me money, but now you bore me,’” he said, adopting a high falsetto. “The fucking bitch, I’m glad she’s dead,” he added, wadding the Kleenex into a ball in his fist, though his tears were still flowing. Melanie fed him a few more from the box, until he got himself somewhat under control.

“We’re trying to figure out where they got the drugs that killed them, Trevor. Tell us anything you know. About Carmen Reyes, too,” she said.

“Carmen? The custodian’s daughter? What’s she got to do with it?” Trevor asked, sniffling, his eyes and nose still streaming.

“She was there last night when they did the drugs, and now she’s missing. We’re wondering if she’s involved somehow,” Melanie said.

“You’re messing with me!” He sat up straighter.

“No. Why?” she asked.

“Carmen’s this, like, uptight priss. They just use her to cheat on tests and shit because she’s a nerd, but they weren’tfriends. If Whitney scored some hayron, she would never share it with Carmen. She didn’t owe Carmen favors like that, see? Carmen owedher, ’cause Carmen was a nobody and Whitney was the man.”

“So you didn’t know Carmen Reyes to be involved with drugs?”

“No way. That surprises me. But then again, I barely knew the girl. She wasn’t part of the scene, you know?”

“What about Brianna and drugs?” Melanie asked.

Trevor smiled fondly through wet eyes. “Aw, y’know, me and Bree’d smoke weed and shit. I mean, we been doing that since we were ten years old. But it was all pretty mellow. Get high, watch old movies, and order takeout from this Szechuan place on First Avenue. That was our thing.”

“Just marijuana? Brianna wasn’t doing any other drugs, as far as you knew?” Melanie asked.

“Once in a while, I’d get her to do a hit of X so, you know, maybe she’d blow me or something.” Trevor shrugged, blushing and looking down at the table.

“I thought you said you weren’t dating.”

“Oral sex isn’t dating. It’s just a way to pass the time.”

Melanie raised her eyebrows. Kids today. She was gonna lock Maya in her room until thechiquitaturned twenty-one. Make that forty.

“Seriously,” Trevor said, noticing her reaction. “Holbrooke girls are pretty fast that way. They’ll blow the delivery guy instead of giving him a dollar for the tip, but since most of ’em don’t, like, actually fuck anybody, they pretend to be all virginal. It’s kinda bogus, when you think about it. You heard of rainbow parties?”

“No.”

“It’s where every girl wears a different-color lipstick, and they all suck off some, like, football player or—”

“Trevor, we really need to focus in on what you know about these three girls and heroin, okay?” Melanie said.

“Right. Okay.” He nodded, wiping his nose.

“Tell me what you know about Whitney’s relationship with Jay Esposito,” Melanie prompted.

“Like I said, Whitney was hooking up with him.”

“Hooking up. You mean sex?”

“Yeah. Now,Whitneywas no virgin. And, like, recently she made a buncha trips to Puerto Rico with Expo. She started getting Brianna into it, too. I got weird vibes about what they were up to, but Brianna was holding back on the details.”

Dan shot her a glance, and Melanie instantly caught his meaning. Trips to Puerto Rico. Supposedly Esposito was moving heroin from Puerto Rico to New York. Could there be a connection?

“Whitney Seward went to Puerto Rico with Jay Esposito?” she repeated.

“Yeah. A few times. More than a few.”

“Did she tell you anything about the trips? Why they went, where they stayed, what they did there? Anything?”

“I mostly heard about it from Brianna. She was jealous because Whitney always had a great tan and a lot of money. See, money was a problem for all of us.”

“Well, Whitney was rich, right? I mean, did the money come from the trips, or was it just Whitney’s own money?” Melanie was careful to keep the excitement out of her voice. Sometimes, when witnesses were eager to cooperate, they’d say whatever they thought you wanted to hear. Best not to clue them in as to what that was, or you’d get unreliable information.

“Oh, Expo was giving Whitney money,” Trevor said definitively.

“How do you know?” Melanie asked, exchanging glances with Dan again.

“Brianna told me. She said every time Whitney went to Puerto Rico with Expo, she’d come back with, like, a lot of Benjamins and buy some amazing shit. Like, one time it was a Christian Dior bag with crystal charms on it, another time this kinda fetishy, like, Gucci dress. All stuff that cost thousands. And I saw it, really.”

“Brianna said Benjamins? Meaning cash?”

“Yes.”

“That was the exact term she used?”

“Yeah.”

“But isn’t it possible that Whitney was just spending her own money? That it didn’t have anything to do with Esposito?” Melanie asked.

“No. That stuff about the Sewards being so rich? Done! They’re burnt. The money’sgone—at least that’s what everybody says. It’s tied up in the apartment and the houses or something, and there’s not much else. That’s why Whitney was always hitting me up to pay for shit. Either that or she was really cheap, which I guess is possible.” He gave a harsh laugh, like a bark.

“Why would Esposito give Whitney such large amounts of money?” Melanie asked.

“Well, shewasa hot blonde with a slammin’ bod, and Expo was definitely doin’ ’er.”

“You’re saying he was paying her for sex?” Melanie asked.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Trevor replied, shrugging.

“What else could it be?” Melanie asked.

“Well, okay, something weird happened this weekend,” Trevor said, kneading his eyes and sighing. “On Saturday I was supposed to hang with Brianna, right? But she texted me that morning and said she was on a plane to San Juan with Whitney.”

“She texted you from the plane?”

“Yeah. Both ways, going and coming.”

“It was just Brianna and Whitney? Did Esposito go also?”

“I think so. Because Brianna texted me Sunday, from the plane coming back. And she seemed scared.”

“Wait a minute, let me get this straight. Brianna, Whitney, and possibly Esposito traveledtoSan Juan on Saturday morning andreturnedSunday at what time?”

“Really late. I think they missed school yesterday, actually.”

“I’ll pull the manifests of all possible flights and see if we can corroborate that,” Dan said.

“Do you happen to know which hotel they stayed in?” Melanie asked.

“Brianna said the El San Juan.”

“Okay. Now, explain to me what made you think Expo went with them,” she said.

“If you give me my phone, I can find the message.”

Melanie nodded to Dan. He pulled a small silver phone from an evidence envelope and handed it to Trevor. Trevor fiddled with the buttons and handed the phone to Melanie.

“Here,” Trevor said.

The message read: “Hey Tinks miss u DB is creeping me out with her fucked up shit her friend too you wouldn’t believe who’s here anyway she’s coming back to the seat in a minute if I ever see you again give me a brain transplant don’t let me do this again Friday for a fucking FB totally not worth it what was I thinking wanna smoke weed when I get home really really miss u luv bree.”

Melanie looked at Trevor. “Translate this for me. I don’t understand all the abbreviations.”

Trevor took the phone back. Tears began rolling down his cheeks again as he scrolled through the message. He wiped them away with the back of his hand, sniffling violently, as he read.

“DB is Whitney. Short for Diva Bitch. And FB is Fendi bag. Brianna’s saying, like, the bling isn’t worth it, because whatever Whitney has her into is so fucked up that it’s scaring her. Like, she realizes she made a mistake. And see, here it says ‘her friend too you wouldn’t believe who’s here.’ So somebody else was with ’em. I’m just guessing it was Expo.”

Melanie took the phone back. “What does she mean, ‘if I ever see you again’?” she asked Trevor.

“Beats the hell out of me. But it sounds like she’s scared, doesn’t it? Like she agreed to something thinking it was gonna be a big party, and now she’s in over her head.”

“What about ‘don’t let me do this again Friday’?”

“They must’ve wanted her to go back at the end of the week,” Trevor said.

“Where were these girls’ parents? I can’t believe they just let their teenage daughters go off with a thug like Esposito,” Melanie said, shaking her head.

Trevor shrugged cynically. “All Brianna had to do was say Whitney’s name, and her mom would be, like, How fast can I pay for your plane ticket? Buffy was pumped her daughter was hanging with a Seward. The Meyerses were Jewish, like me, and Holbrooke is WASP Central. Brianna didn’t fit in. Whitney taking her up changed everything for her socially.”

“What about Whitney’s parents? Were they totally out to lunch? I mean, these girls were only sixteen years old.”

“Yeah, Whitney’s parentswereout to lunch. Out to something anyway. I was at her house a bunch, and I never once saw her parents. Her dad was always gone. Her mom stayed in her bedroom with the door locked, mainlining like OxyContin and vodka or some shit. If Whitney wanted to talk to her, she’d call her on the intercom, and most of the time her mom wouldn’t even answer.”

That certainly added up with the picture the tabloids painted of Charlotte Seward. Melanie briefly considered the implications of Whitney’s mother’s drug problem. Was it possible Charlotte had, knowingly or not, supplied the heroin that killed the girls? Perhaps she had a private stash and they swiped some? That would explain a thing or two—like why James Seward delayed calling the police.

“Dan, can you please make a note that we should interview Charlotte Seward right away?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Now, Trevor, did Esposito ever give any money to Brianna? Not Whitney. I’m talking about Brianna.”

A vein began to throb in Trevor’s temple. “I really wouldn’t know,” he said.

He avoided her eyes, and a light sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead. Suspects held out on Melanie on a daily basis, but few were this obvious about it.

“I don’t believe you, Trevor,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Well, that’s rude,” he sputtered, flushing bright red. “Fine, then. Believe whatever you want. How should I know if Expo gave Brianna cash? I wouldn’t know that. Jeez.”

Melanie looked at him steadily. Trevor became even more uncomfortable and shifted in his seat.

Bridget Mulqueen had been shredding the label off a bottle of Poland Spring water, seemingly miles away mentally, but now she looked up. “Hey, Melanie, toss me that phone.”

“What?”

“Trevor’s phone. Chuck it over here.”

Melanie hesitated but then did as requested. Bridget began scrolling through the text messages.

“What are you doing, Bridget?” she asked nervously. All Melanie needed was Bridget erasing her evidence by mistake.

“I looked through these before. Hold on a second. Here it is. What’s this, Trev?”

Bridget held up the phone so Trevor could read the display. Without so much as a glance at it, Trevor thrust his chin out and said, “I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about.”

“Let me read it to you, then, jog your memory. ‘That lechuga is in locker 4703 near the Delta counter but only get it if something really happens to me then blow it all on something nice in my memory wuv u Bree,’” Bridget read.

Lechuga—“lettuce” in Spanish—was common parlance for cash among drug dealers, rap artists, and the teenagers who loved to imitate them. Melanie, Dan, and Trevor all stared at Bridget in astonishment.

“How much money is in the locker, Trevor?” Melanie demanded.

“Brianna wanted me to have it,” he whined.

“You’re in a lot of trouble already. Don’t make it worse for yourself. How much is in there?” Melanie said.

“Ten thousand,” he replied in a small voice, averting his eyes. Debriefing this kid was like taking candy from a baby, after the hardened characters Melanie was used to.

“Cash?” she asked.

“Yes.”


Page 13

“Why did Jay Esposito pay Brianna Meyers ten thousand dollars cash, Trevor?”

“Well, I can’t be a hundred percent sure, because she never came right out and said. But I have a pretty good idea Bree and Whitney were muling heroin for him.”

 

17

 

BUD HAD KEPT his phone off all day, because he knew Jay would be going ballistic trying to call him, and he just didn’t feel like listening to his bullshit. But when he turned the damn thing on and there were seven voice mails, every one of ’em a hang-up, he decided he’d better call back. Jay Esposito had been the same since their schoolyard days. If he smelled a rat, he’d move right in for the kill. Shoot first, ask questions later.

Despite the inconvenience, Bud knew he should call from a pay phone. He’d been thinking a lot about phone records these days, what would show up and what wouldn’t if someone were checking into things. At the end of the day, he wanted to get away clean. That was his main concern. So he’d been taking precautions for a while now. Not only to deflect attention away from himself but also to focus it on Jay. Like, he’d purposely called Jay last night from the phone on Whitney’s desk while Brianna lay dying. Jay said he wanted a report. Well, he got a fucking report, and it was like a big red arrow pointing the cops right to him, the prick. Bud had scores to settle with Jay going back to when they were five years old. Some big, some small, but the most recent one was a whopper. And he planned to get his revenge.

He knew of a phone in the back of a Korean grocery about ten blocks from his apartment, so he walked uptown for a ways, his scarf pulled up over his face, actually enjoying the sleet that the wind drove into his eyes. Soon enough he’d be in a warm, sunny place, all of this behind him.

He bought three packs of Dunhills from the skinny old Korean man behind the counter.

“Got a telephone?” he asked, as if he’d never been in the place before.

“Yuh. Back. Near beer.”

He headed toward the back of the small store. Bins of pungent-smelling root vegetables lined the shelves on either side of the narrow aisle, their strange odors assaulting him as he trod the uneven floor-boards. He got to the phone, checked to make sure he was alone, then dropped the quarter into the slot.

“Yeah?” Esposito answered. He had a whiny voice, high-pitched for a guy his substantial size.

“It’s me.”

“What the fuck, Bud! You said everything was all right! Then I wake up to Whitney in a fuckin’ body bag on the front page of thePost.”

Bud had already decided how he would handle this. The lies flowed like honey from his mouth.

“Everythingwasall right when I called you, but things went south. Shit happens sometimes in this line of work. You know that.”

“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you, pal! Those girls were prime merchandise. Seven trips I used Whitney, and every time she sailed through security like nobody’s business. You want somebody looks like a rich girl on vacation, hire a rich girl and send her on vacation. Where am I gonna get another one of those, huh? Answer me that!”

“Take it easy, Jay—”

“Don’t tell me to fuckin’ take it easy! You realize what you’ve fuckin’ done here, Bud? Young girl, fancy family. Not a lot of those willin’ to smuggle heroin in their bellies. And not only is she hard to replace, but with her dead now, the cops are gonna be fuckin’ all over us.Fuck.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Every other word out of his mouth, the lowlife. Learn anotherfuckin’word, youfuckin’prick. Bud could barely stand to be associated with him. He had to take a deep breath to calm himself before speaking.

“Look, you wanna blame someone, blame the Colombians, Jay,” Bud said, keeping his voice neutral with great effort. “They use cheap latex. You knew that since Mirta.”

Mirta Jimenez had dropped dead a while back in the bathroom at Marín Airport before she even got on the plane to New York. Jay was always careful to sit several rows behind the mules when he rode shotgun, so he wasn’t questioned in her death. He just got on the plane and flew to New York like nothing had happened, then took the opportunity to upgrade the quality of his employees by hiring Whitney Seward.

Esposito sighed. “Yeah, well, even so, the Colombians are gonna come after me for the product. So where the fuck is it?”

“I have most of it, and it wasn’t pretty getting it, lemme tell you. We went through three boxes of Ex-Lax,” Bud said.

“Mostof it, you got? Where’s the rest?”

Bud glanced around, lowered his voice. “I went out for cigarettes before the girls passed all the balloons. When I came back, they were dead. What was I supposed to do?”

“Fuckin’ cut ’em open, for Chrissakes!”

“Jesus Christ.”

“That’s what I woulda done. Money’s money.”

Hewouldhave, the scumbag. Worrying about the mules’ health was not Jay Esposito’s style. When baggage screening tightened up post-9/11, Jay had immediately switched the girls over from suitcase carries to internal smuggling, and his biggest concern had been the fact that they demanded more money. Jay was a parasite. Bud would be doing the world a big favor by putting him out of his misery.

“Can I ask you something?” Jay said.

“What?”

“I thought Whitney was done swallowing. She wanted to be more like an escort, a coyote? Isn’t that why she brought the new girl into the picture?”

Bud had wondered if Jay would notice that inconsistency. He was so fucking thick, you never knew. But now that he’d noticed, Whitney’s death was difficult to explain. Luckily, Bud had prepared a response.

“Yeah, well, the new girl got cold feet. After like ten balloons, she freaked out and refused to swallow any more. So Whitney did the rest.”

“Whitney alwayswasgood at opening her mouth.”

“Yeah,” Bud said, chuckling, “don’t I know it.”

“Give her a coupla tabs of X and she’d hump a fucking parking meter, too. Shit, that reminds me, though. I better destroy the videos we got of her. And erase that stuff on her blog.”

Too late, you prick, Bud thought gleefully.

“Excellent idea, Jay,” he said aloud. “Oh, hold on a second. The phone just beeped for me to put in more money.”

Bud fed another quarter into the slot, checking all around to satisfy himself that he was still alone. No worries. With the lousy weather, the store was empty.

Esposito sighed again. “Jesus, I’m getting fucking teary-eyed, here. I should look on the bright side. Whitneywasan unreliable cunt.”

“She was a wild girl. You couldn’t control her. Who knows what she was into that we weren’t even aware of? That’s why I think this OD explanation is gonna fly.”

“Yeah, that was quick thinking. But wait a minute, you said you didn’t get all the balloons. Won’t they find the ones that didn’t pass still inside ’em when they do the autopsies?”

Bud had thought of that himself, but only in the middle of the night last night, only after the whole thing was over and it was too late to do anything about it. Crime was always perfect in the movies. But in real life, in the heat of the moment, you improvised, and sometimes you missed things. Short of leaving town, Bud still hadn’t come up with a solution to this one. And, of course, leaving town before Friday was not an option. No, he’d decided his best bet was to get Jay to slow down the investigation. All he needed was a few days, and Jay definitely had the will and the resources to take care of business, even if that meant going after federal agents. All Bud had to do now was convince Jay it was necessary and point him in the right direction.

“Yeah, I thought of that. We probably have a day or two before the feds get the autopsy results. When’s that next shipment?” Bud asked, feigning ignorance.

“Friday, and it’s a big one. How the fuck we gonna get another girl by then? We may even need more than one, with the weight we’re movin’.”

“I’ll take care of that part, Jay. That’s the least of our problems anyway. We need to think more defensively than that.”

“Talk English, for Chrissakes.”

“Friday is a big score, right?”

“That’s what I just fuckin’ said.”

“We need to make sure it happens, so we have a nice cushion and we can lay low for a while, right?”

“Yeah. So?”

“So. We need to keep the feds off us until then.”

“I’m with you on that. In fact, I sent Pavel and Lamar over to the courthouse to check shit out, look into who’s investigating this,” Jay said.

“Those idiots’ll never come through. All they know is how to kill people. But lucky for you, I already got that information.”

“That was quick. How’d you manage it? Yourday job?”

“I do what I have to do to look out for you, Jay.”

“You always did,” Esposito said. “And I always show my appreciation in return, right, Buddy boy?”

“Yeah, right. But you catch my drift? I’m giving you this information to help you take appropriate steps.”

“You don’t need to spell it out. I’m making sweet money right now. I got an investment to protect.”

“Good. I knew we’d see things the same way. What I have so far is the name of the lead investigator. She’s a woman named Melanie Vargas, about five-six or -seven, shoulder-length dark hair, maybe late twenties, early thirties, attractive….”

 

18

 

MELANIE STRODE PURPOSEFULLY down the center aisle of the cavernous ceremonial courtroom. With its twenty-foot ceilings and row upon row of spectator benches, the place was big enough to host a three-ring circus, and nearly every seat was filled at four in the afternoon. Judge Warner was on duty. Even though arraignments had been piling up since early that morning, he refused to assume the bench until every single case was ready to be called. And since he loved nothing better than sanctioning any lawyer unlucky enough to step out to the bathroom at the wrong moment, they all spent hours glued to their seats, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the fearsome jurist to make his appearance.

Melanie slid into an empty chair at the government’s table, setting down her armload of files and shrugging out of her heavy winter coat. She’d changed into the spare skirt and hose she kept in her office. It was well known that any female Assistant U.S. Attorney who dared to appear before Judge Warner in pants would lose her bail hearing as punishment. Some pretty serious offenders had made it out onto the street that way.

Brad Monahan, the clean-cut, square-jawed prosecutor in the next seat, leaned over to speak to Melanie.

“So, Vargas, is it true you caught this Holbrooke junkies case?” Brad asked wistfully.

“Holbrooke junkies? What a way to put it!”

“Not my words. Take a look.”

Glancing anxiously at the empty bench first, since Judge Warner had been known to sanction lawyers caught reading the paper in his courtroom, Brad pulled aDaily Newsfrom beneath his folded overcoat. A huge black headline proclaimed SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL. A smaller headline beneath it read, “Beautiful Holbrooke Junkies Include Candidate Seward’s Daughter.” Superimposed on a grainy shot of body bags being loaded into the medical examiner’s van in front of Seward’s building were the same wholesome, smiling yearbook photos of Whitney, Brianna, and Carmen that Melanie had seen in Dr. Hogan’s office that morning. Under Whitney and Brianna’s photos, boldface type screamed DEAD, whereas under Carmen’s it said simply SUSPECT.

“Jesus, who leakedthat?” Melanie whispered, feeling sick to her stomach. She sincerely hoped Luis Reyes and his daughter Lulu hadn’t seen the papers.

“Face it, Vargas. You’re a hotshot. First the Benson case, now this. Howdoyou do it? You and Witchie-poo sorority sisters or something?” he asked, referring to Bernadette by the epithet favored among junior prosecutors.

“She was paging around last night, and I was stupid enough to answer my beeper.”

“I sleep with mine under my freakin’ pillow, and I don’t get assignments this good.”

“What’s the big deal, Brad? This is just a low-quantity heroin-distribution case. Hardly the Cali cartel.”

“Are you kidding, with these victims? I’d kill for a shot at this kind of media coverage.”

She’d forgotten what a press hound Brad was. Melanie firmly believed that a good prosecutor did not seek press attention. The only appropriate moment to be quoted in the paper was after a big conviction, even then limiting your commentary to, “Justice was served.” Anything more was grandstanding. The job was about the cases, not the prosecutors.

“I have to get my paperwork stamped,” she said, pushing back her chair, relieved for the excuse to stop talking to him. Brad was a decent guy, but his relentless ambition gave her a headache.

Melanie approached the well of the judge’s bench, where a tall, flashily dressed guy in his late twenties with slicked dark hair sat behind a desk talking quietly on the telephone. He held up an index finger to let her know he wouldn’t be long. Within a minute he hung up and shot her a big smile.

“Hola, mami. ¿Cómo estás? Whaddaya got for me?” asked Gabriel Colón, Judge Warner’s young deputy clerk.

Known among the prosecutors as “Gaby Baby” or “Gabriel Cologne,” in honor of his fragrant hair product, Gabriel was the courthouse’s resident Casanova. He’d hit on Melanie for a while after learning of her separation, but she’d turned him down politely. Charming and good-looking as he was, and despite their similar backgrounds, Gabriel didn’t do a thing for her. Maybe she’d actually learned something from her failed marriage to Steve, because players turned her off now,por supuesto. Luckily, Gabriel had taken no for an answer and backed off graciously. And itwaslucky, because Judge Warner’s deputy wielded real power and could’ve made her life miserable if he’d chosen to.

“Okay, Gabe, I’ve got search warrants for computers, a camera phone, and a locker at JFK airport, all based on the same affidavit,” Melanie said, lining up multiple documents for him to stamp. “And one new arrest. Trevor Leonard. I spoke to his dad, who’s on his way and asks that we go ahead and assign counsel. It’s a return on an outstanding wire-fraud warrant, with a new ecstasy-distribution charge added, and I’m prepared to agree to bail under the right circumstances.”


Page 14

“Related to the Holbrooke junkies case?” Gabriel asked, rotating the digits on his stamper to a new docket number and beginning to mark her papers.

“You know about that, too?”

“It’s all over the courthouse that you caught that one,mami. And some curious eyes been watching you since you walked in. Normally I’d think it’s just your pretty legs they’re interested in, but I’ve had some inquiries.”

“Who from? The press?” Melanie asked, resisting a powerful urge to turn and look over her shoulder. The whole thing about knowing when you were being watched was a complete myth. Whenever she’d been watched—and ithadhappened in other cases—she’d never had a clue until way too late.

“Mostly press,” he was saying. “But a couple of guys I didn’t like the looks of, too. Came in claiming to be friends of the victims. Looked like bad news to me. I pointed ’em out to the marshals just in case. Anyways, I don’t see ’em now,” he said, eyes scanning the spectator benches.

“Can you describe them?” Melanie asked.

“Real bruiser types. One black, the other white with a scar from a bulletaquí en la cara,” he said, touching his finger to his cheek. “They asked if we had anything come in on the schoolgirls case. I didn’t tell ’em a thing.”

Melanie felt a prickling sensation run down the back of her neck. She tried to tell herself it was because the courtroom was drafty, but she didn’t believe herself. Why would two thugs be looking into this? Esposito, maybe?

“They sound familiar?” Gabriel asked, eyeing her with concern.

“Not really, no. But let me know if you see them again, okay?”

“Sure. Meanwhile, be careful. Watch out if you go to the little girls’ room.”

“Don’t worry about me, Gabe. I can take care of myself.”

Noooproblem. She could take on a couple of huge, hulking bruisers. Melanie wiped her suddenly sweaty palms against her skirt, feeling slightly ill. She gathered up her papers, now stamped with docket numbers, and turned away. But after collecting her thoughts for a second, she turned back. If these goons were still here somewhere watching, they would see Trevor Leonard get arraigned.Think about someone other than yourself, she told herself. Melanie had plans for Trevor. He’d make a great informant in an investigation against Esposito. Arraigning him in open court would blow that possibility sky high. Not to mention that he seemed like a decent kid, and she would never want any harm to come to him.

“Any chance the judge would entertain a motion to close the courtroom?” Melanie asked, already knowing the answer.

“From thegovernment? Get over yourself,mami! There’s gotta be a hundred people in here we’d have to clear. Besides, you know how the judge feels about Big Brother stomping on the public’s right to know.”

She knew how the left-wing Judge Warner felt about the government, was what she knew. Deny the prosecution’s every request, even if it meant getting a witness killed.

“At least take the arraignment in chambers instead of in open court?” Melanie wheedled.

“Not a chance.” Gabriel shook his head firmly but then stopped after seeing the stricken expression on Melanie’s face. “Why? You got a cooperator?” he asked.

“Possibly.”

“He been threatened?” Gabriel asked.

“Not yet, but he probably will be. And he’s young. I’m not sure he can handle himself.”

“The judge likes to see evidence of actual threat on the defendant’s life before he takes anything in camera,” Gabriel said.

“That’s not required by the statute.”

“The statute is interpreted differently in this courtroom. The judge has his own rules. You know that.”

“You can’t always produce evidence of a threat, Gabe, even when it’s real and the witness is at risk.Youknowthat,” she said.

Gabriel was Dominican, from the Bronx. He knew how the streets worked. “Yeah, okay, I know.” He drummed his fingers on the desk, thinking. “It might be different if the motion came from the defense.”

“Who’s on duty from Legal Aid today?” she asked.

“Ah, what am I saying? No good. It’s Stewart Steinberg.”

“Shit. That totally sucks.”

Stewart Steinberg was a short, stocky defense lawyer–slash–ideologue–slash–prima donna, a sixties throwback, intimate of Kunstler and Kuby, who hated prosecutors on principle. He argued every point to his last wheezing breath no matter how counterproductive for his client. People he represented refused to cooperate and turned down sweet plea bargains, mesmerized by his angry rhetoric, never realizing what a disservice their lawyer had done them. It was said that Stewart Steinberg got more people locked up for longer time than the FBI and NYPD put together.

“Not your day, huh,mami?” Gabriel said.

“Well, with Stewart representing him, at least I don’t need to worry about death threats. The kid’ll never cooperate,” she said bitterly.

“You know, it pains me to see a beautiful woman look so unhappy. You’re gonna give yourself wrinkles, and that would be a tragedy. Sopapi’s gonna take care of you.”

Gabriel picked up his phone and dialed Legal Aid.

“Yeah, Sandra?…Gabriel from Judge Warner’s chambers. How you doing,mami?…Sure, I’d be into that, especially the part about the cute chicks. You send me the invitation in the interoffice, okay?…Listen, I got a little problem. A new case came in. Stewart Steinberg’s up, but he’s nowhere to be found. Is he there?…Yeah, I’ll hold.” He covered the receiver with his hand, smiling at Melanie with sparkly white teeth. “Don’t worry. Fat Stewie went over to the mob diner for his afternoon snack fifteen minutes ago,” he said, referring to a diner across the plaza frequented by organized-crime figures. “He won’t be back anytime soon.”

Gabriel held up his hand for silence. “Yeah, Sandra?What? What you mean, woman? The case is getting ready to be called. The judge ain’t gonna be happy, and he’s in a worse mood than usual today. I hate to see him take it out on the entire Legal Aid Society…Okay, okay, tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna cover for you. I’ll appoint other counsel under the Criminal Justice Act. How’s that?…Yeah, you owe me one, baby. Tell Mr. Disappearing Steinberg that, too. Fat Stewie owes me big time. Bye, now.”

Gabriel hung up and grinned broadly at Melanie, then pulled a typed list of names from a folder on his desk. “As ifpapiain’t do you mad favors already.” He dialed a pager, punched in a callback number, and hung up. “I’m gonna give you Patty Atkins to represent your cooperator. Just don’t forget who’s your candy man, babe,” he said, winking at her.

 

19

 

IN JUDGE WARNER’S private chambers, everything went according to plan.

They stood before the judge’s imposing walnut desk. Gabriel Colón turned on the tape recorder, called the case, and placed Dan O’Reilly under oath. Dan raised his right hand and attested to the truth of the information in the search and arrest warrants. Judge Warner signed the warrants with a flourish and handed them to Melanie. Trevor Leonard, who stood shackled between Patty Atkins and two burly deputy marshals, looked young and remorseful and spoke in a tiny voice. He’d been ferried up in the back service elevator just in case those thugs were still lurking around somewhere. And Melanie made her carefully rehearsed pitch, seconded enthusiastically by prosecutor–turned–defense lawyer Patty Atkins, who knew a good deal when she saw one.

“I hereby find that the defendant poses neither a risk of flight nor a danger to the community,” Judge Warner intoned into the tape recorder, peering severely over his half-glasses. “This finding is made on the joint motion of the government and the defense, and takes into account that the defendant has agreed to cooperate with agents of the Elite Narcotics Task Force as requested. Mr. Leonard is ordered released on a twenty-thousand-dollar personal-recognizance bond, secured by his own signature. He will remain within the five boroughs unless permission to travel is sought and granted by this court. Anything further, Ms. Vargas?” Judge Warner asked, glaring at Melanie.

“Nothing from the government, Your Honor,” Melanie said.

“Ms. Atkins?” Another glare.

“No, Judge.”

“Very well. All records of this proceeding, including this audiotape, shall be sealed for Mr. Leonard’s protection. So ordered.”

And he smacked his gavel resoundingly on its base, suppressing a slight smile when they all jumped.

 

 

MELANIE, Dan, and Bridget were waiting outside Melanie’s office door. Trevor Leonard was inside conferring with his lawyer and his father, trying to decide whether to go forward with the debriefing. The risks of cooperating in this case were obvious, given Jay Esposito’s suspected history of witness killing.

“I have some real doubts about whether we should use this kid even if he wants to cooperate,” Melanie admitted, tapping her foot nervously.

“You mean because he didn’t come clean about the money in the airport locker?” Dan asked. His eyes were lingering on her face in a way that only made her more antsy.

“No, it’s not that. Trevor actually strikes me as a good kid. But he’s so young, so green. I’m not sure he can handle himself out there.”

“That’s our job,” Bridget piped up in a squeaky voice. “If we do a drug buy or something, we’ll supervise Trev real closely, keep him out of trouble.”

Melanie and Dan exchanged glances. As usual, she knew just what he was thinking: Fine, but who would supervise Bridget?

“Let’s take it one step at a time, okay?” Dan suggested. “The kid obviously has good information. Let’s debrief him and see where it goes. As we talk more, we’ll get a better sense of what his capabilities are.”

Melanie nodded. “I agree about the debriefing. It’s only the undercover I’m worried about.”

“I’d take a wait-and-see on that, too,” Dan said. “Kid could be valuable infiltrating Esposito’s organization. And I’m starting to think Expo’s a good target. Did I tell you there’s information linking him to that Golpe stamp found with the dead girls?”

“No. What kind of information?”

“A reference in the NADDIS database from an old DEA report. I’m trying to track it down.”

“That’s excellent. If there’s something solid linking Expo to the stamp…”

“Yeah, I know. It would make our case.”

Just then Patty Atkins opened the door. She was a no-nonsense, no-frills woman in her forties, with pleasant brown eyes and short, graying hair, wearing a navy suit.

“Could you come in, Melanie? We have a couple of questions.”

“Sure.”

Melanie walked in and sat down behind her desk. Trevor had been bailed out, so they were meeting in Melanie’s office rather than the gloomy prisoner-interview rooms on the sixth floor. Trevor and his father, who was thin and tired-looking with an aggrieved air, sat in her guest chairs. Patty took a seat beside them as Dan and Bridget filed in and stood in the back of the room.

“I have one major concern,” Patty began.

“Your client’s safety?” Melanie guessed.

“You got it.”

“That’s what I’d be thinking about if I were you. I have to admit, I’m worried about it, too.”

“I calculated the sentence. Four to ten months, max. Not enough, in my opinion, to justify taking many risks.”

“You’re basing your calculation on the weight Trevor was carrying at the time of arrest,” Melanie said. “But he’s already admitted to a steady gig selling ecstasy and ketamine. He’s looking at a lot higher, maybe up to three years.”

“You’re not going to make him plead to all that?”

“Come on, Patty, you know I don’t have a lot of leeway when it comes to making plea offers. There are rules.”

“Times have changed. The Sentencing Guidelines are only advisory now.”

“A lot of the judges still follow them. Trevor needs to understand what his exposure is so he can make an informed decision.”

“An informed decision requires more than numbers, Melanie. Don’t I recall something in the papers a couple of years back about a decapitated corpse washing up on Roosevelt Island, linked to Esposito?” Patty asked.

“Oh, now, wait one minute! I don’t like the sound of this,” Trevor’s father exclaimed. Trevor said nothing but went even paler under his tattoos and piercings.

“Nobody’s hiding the ball here,” Melanie said. “Trevor is facing two felony convictions and real jail time. Enough to derail him at this point in his young life. On the other hand, the target we need his cooperation against is undeniably dangerous.”

“Exactly what kind of cooperation are you looking for?” Patty asked.

“At a minimum we want to debrief him and have him testify to any relevant information. Beyond that there’s a possibility we’ll want to use him as an undercover. If we were to do that, we’d make sure all proper precautions were taken. We care very deeply about Trevor’s safety. But still, it’s never possible to eliminate every risk,” Melanie said.

“You bet. You know that firsthand, don’t you, Melanie?” Patty turned to Trevor. “She had a witness killed on another case.”

“That’s a low blow!” Dan exclaimed. “Typical sleazy defense-lawyer tactic. That other case has nothing to do with this one.”

Trevor stared at Melanie, who sat in stunned silence behind her desk, seeing Rosario Sangrador’s face. Rosario’s murder haunted Melanie. Rosario had been the very definition of innocent bystander, a middle-aged housekeeper who’d witnessed her wealthy employer brutally tortured and murdered at the hands of a sadistic killer. Melanie had gone to great lengths to persuade Rosario to cooperate and testify, on the assurances of the FBI and the PD that she would receive round-the-clock protection. The killer’s ability to infiltrate their ranks and find out where Rosario was sequestered could not have been predicted by Melanie or anybody else. But that didn’t make Rosario’s death excusable. It wasn’t okay and never would be.

“Patty’s right,” Melanie said, meeting Trevor’s eyes, speaking with quiet intensity. “A witness was murdered on a case I did a while back. Agent O’Reilly’s upset because he knows how much her death affected me. All I can say is, that experience made me understand in a very personal way how much is at stake when somebody cooperates.” She shook her head slowly. “You know, we can probably make this case without you, Trevor. Maybe youshouldjust eat the jail time and not take the risk.”


Page 15

The room exploded, everybody talking at once.

“But you said he’s facing three years! He can’t do that. What about college?” Trevor’s father exclaimed.

“You and me should talk outside, Melanie,” Dan said.

Patty Atkins blurted, “But I never said my client wasn’t interested—”

Trevor waved his hand in the air. “Whoa, you guys, calm down. I’m not freaking out here. Nobody else should either, okay?”

“If he does this undercover stuff, does that mean he won’t have to go to jail?” Trevor’s father asked.

Melanie turned to Patty. “I assume you’re looking for a probation-ary sentence?”

“Naturally. I mean, look at him, he’s a baby. He’d get eaten alive inside,” Patty said.

“I don’t want to see him do hard time either, Patty. But the fact is, to get to zero jail time from where he is, he needs to produce something. And I’m not talking about just giving a statement. Without any arrests to his credit, he’ll never make probation. So that’s a reality you all need to consider.”

“Maybe Trevorshouldgo to jail,” his father said. “It might teach him a lesson. God knows, I can’t control him. It would be better than exposing him to something dangerous anyway.”

“Jailisdangerous,” Melanie observed. “Trevor’s charged with a drug offense, so he’d get designated to a maximum-security facility. He’d be in with some hardened types.”

“You happy now? See where you ended up? What did I tell you?” Trevor’s father demanded, looking at his son in disgust.

Melanie sighed and got to her feet. “Look, why don’t we stop for today. I’m beginning to feel like this isn’t going anywhere.”

“Not necessary,” Trevor said. “I’ve made up my mind. You’re missing the point. All of you, but especially you, Dad.”

“Trevor,” Patty said, “please don’t say anything further until—”

“No, really! It’s my life. Let me talk.”

Melanie sat back down behind her desk. “Okay. We’re listening.”

Trevor drew a deep, sighing breath. Tears began to roll slowly down his cheeks.

“Brianna Meyers was my best friend. Dad, I’m not saying this to hurt you or anything, but youknowme and her both came from some fucked-up family situations. Some of that stuff that went on before Mom left? That was some mad shit! And then after, when Mom wouldn’t see us for two years? Brianna got me through all that. She was a great person. She was smart and kind. She played the cello. She had a pretty voice and a nice body. It’s a fuckingwastethat she died, and that prick Expo is responsible. Bottom line,” he said, turning to Melanie, “show me where to fucking sign, because I’m in.”

“I respect your feelings for Brianna, Trevor,” Melanie said gently. “We all do. But we need to make sure—”

“I’msure,” Trevor said firmly. “I’m definitely sure. And it’s my decision. So let’s do it.”

Melanie considered telling him no. The final call on whether to allow a witness to cooperate lay in the prosecutor’s discretion. If something happened to Trevor, it would be on Melanie’s conscience, and she wasn’t sure she wanted that burden. On the other hand, Carmen Reyes was still missing. Didn’t Melanie also need to considerCarmen’sfuture,Carmen’ssafety? Rosario Sangrador’s death weighed so heavily on Melanie that she needed to watch herself lest she become a less aggressive prosecutor than she ought to be.

“All right,” Melanie said finally. “If you’re sure that’s what you want.”

 

 

AFTER HIS FATHER LEFT, Trevor Leonard gave them a full and complete proffer of information.

“I went to Screen just once with Brianna and Whitney, maybe two, three weeks ago,” Trevor explained, sitting in a guest chair in Melanie’s office, his lawyer still beside him. Melanie sat behind her desk. Dan and Bridget leaned against her filing cabinets, listening and taking occasional notes.

“No question,” Trevor continued, “Whitney was hooking up with the dude. He comes up to us, like, the minute we walk in the door, says everything’s on the house. And at first I thought he was into Brianna, right, because he’s majorly checking her out. I remember he asked her how old she was, which I thought was weird. But then him and Whitney disappeared for, like, an hour. Whitney came back high off her ass and all skanky, like she just got finished doing the wild thing. Her hair a mess, her makeup smeared all over her face. She flaunted it, too, like she wanted everyone to know what a porn star she was. I was, like, go take a shower, skank, you disgust me.”

“Did you see Esposito again that night?”

“No. Well, yes, but only from a distance. I never talked to him again.”

“When you met him, was anyone else with him? Anyone who might’ve worked for him?”

“Yeah, actually. Two bodyguards. From what Whitney was saying, they drive Expo around in a big black Escalade and hurt people for him. She seemed to get off on that. Chick was a major thrill seeker, I’m telling you.”

“Can you give us physical descriptions of Esposito and the bodyguards?” Melanie asked.

“Expo’s, like, a fly-looking dude with a shaved head and this huge diamond earring. Thirties, forties, I’m not sure. Old anyway. The bodyguards are both as big as houses. One’s black, one’s white, and the white one’s got a nasty-looking scar in his cheek, like from a bullet hole.”

Melanie caught Dan’s eye; he nodded at her solemnly. She’d already filled him in on the goons’ descriptions as reported earlier by Gabriel Colón. Expo was watching the feds beforetheystarted watchinghim.

“Did you happen to catch the bodyguards’ names?” she asked Trevor.

“The white guy with the scarface was Pavel. Russian dude, I think. The black guy, no. Oh, and there’s another guy who works for Expo, named Bud. I never met him, but Whitney mentioned him, and Expo talked to him on the phone when I was at Screen that night.”

“Did Whitney say anything in particular about Bud? Any details?”

“He was a go-between. The one who’d call her when Expo wanted her to do something.”

“Trevor, let me ask you something,” Dan said. “Just hypothetical, now. Think you could get into Screen, maybe take Detective Mulqueen with you, introduce her around so she can make a controlled buy of heroin from Esposito or one of his employees?”

“Hey, wait a minute—” Patty Atkins began, but Trevor cut her off.

“Hey, it’s cool. Really, Patty, I’m not afraid of any of this. I’m pretty into it.”

“Trevor, Patty’s right to be concerned,” Melanie said. “I want to make sure myself that if you go to Screen, we have all the bases covered as far as your safety’s concerned.”

“Quite honestly, the last time I was there, I bought some X. The Russian bodyguard steered me to a house dealer who was operating out of the men’s room. So it’s cool, I’ve done it before. I’d recognize Expo’s people, and they’d do business with me.”

“And just so everybody’s extra comfortable,” Dan said, “Detective Mulqueen can do the actual buy. I’ll go, too, blend into the crowd, observe and jump in if anything starts looking hinky. We’ll be right on top of Trevor the whole time.”

“There’s just one problem,” Trevor said.

“What’s that?” Melanie asked.

“Screen moves around.”

“You mean, like, the floor moves?”

Trevor giggled. “The floor? What, likeSaturday Night Fever? What century areyoufrom? No, see, Expo’s regular clubs are strictly for the bridge-and-tunnel crew. Celebs and ‘it girls’ like Whitney Seward and their posses, they turn up their noses at those places. They only go to underground clubs, see?”

“Underground?”

“Secret. Not only do you have to know someone to get in, you have to know someone just tofindthe place. Screen changes locations every week, and people follow it around. It’s always in some totally bizarre place. The time I went, it was in this secret bunker beneath the Waldorf that was built for some, like, railroad tycoon or something,” Trevor said.

“So where is it now?” Dan asked.

“That, I wouldn’t know. You can’t just dial Information to find it, and I’m not hooked up. So like I said, there’s a problem.”

“No sweat,” Melanie said. “I’ll take care of getting that information. When it comes to New York City nightlife, I have the greatest source in the world.”

 

20

 

BY THE TIME Melanie finished debriefing Trevor Leonard, it was after six o’clock. She needed to get on the stick if she wanted to sneak her team into Screen that night to do a heroin buy from Esposito’s people.

Melanie whipped out her cell phone, where she had her sister on the speed dial.

“Dígame,” Linda answered.

“Hey,chica, where are you?”

“Getting a pedicure and a wax. I have a date later.”

“You and Josh sure are getting hot and heavy. When am I gonna meet him?”

“Josh who? We broke up.”

“You’re kidding! When?”

“Mmm, yesterday.”

“And you’re onto somebody new already?”

“Why sit home?”

“Fast work, even for you. I’m impressed.”

“Get with the program,bebé. You should take a page from my book.”

“Yeah, right, I’ll give it some thought. So, listen, what time are you going out?”

“Uh-oh. I feel a request to baby-sit coming on.”

“If you’re volunteering, I accept, but that’s not why I called.”

“So you’re not working late tonight?”

“Well, actually I am, but—”

“Again? Your bodacious ass should quit that job,chica.”

“Right. As long as Maya and I can live with you, because then we’ll be destitute.”

“I’m serious. That boss of yours is a rhymes-with-witch.”

“You’re not the only one who thinks so, but this isn’t on her.”

“For God’s sake, it’s almost Christmas, Mel.”

“Tell it to the bad guys. They’re the ones making me work late. Anyway, I need a favor, and it’s not baby-sitting. It’s more in your skill set, sis.”

 

 

JUST AS MELANIE was grabbing her coat to run home and steal some precious moments with Maya, the phone on her desk rang. The caller ID displayed Bernadette’s extension. Melanie did the calculation in her head—how fast she could sprint to the elevator versus how long it would take Bernadette to get out to the hall and catch her.Drat!

She reached for the receiver. “Yes, Bern.”

“Hey, girlfriend, I need an update on the Holbrooke ODs case.”

“Okay, sure, no problem. We—”

“Notnow. I’m on a conference call. Six-thirty, my office.”

And Bernadette hung up. Melanie kicked her desk in frustration.Why the helldja call me if you were already on the phone? Now she was stuck waiting around, using up what was likely to be her only personal time for days to come. She tried not to feel sorry for herself, but really, she missed her daughter. Linda was right—itwasholiday season, December 18 at 6:10 A.M, to be exact. Not many shopping days left till Christmas. Shouldn’t she be home? Everyone else in the world was partying or decorating the tree or spending time with family. Wait a minute, though, noteveryone. Not Carmen Reyes. Or Brianna Meyers or Whitney Seward. Melanie reminded herself why she did this job.

The thought of Christmas shopping made her crazy, though. Between work and Maya’s being sick, she hadn’t had time to get anything for her poor little daughter. She looked at her watch. Twenty minutes until Bernadette wanted to see her. Hmm, the miracle of the Internet. She knew she wasn’t supposed to, but…

Melanie went online, searching for toys for Maya. She wanted a doll with dark hair and pudgy cheeks, one that looked like Maya. The selection on Amazon was vast, but nothing seemed to fit the bill. Dolls with bottles. Dolls that wet and cried real tears. Dolls that smelled like baby powder. Dolls with removable clothes to teach zipping and buttoning skills. None of them had the right look. Finally, time running out, Melanie started looking at storybooks instead. She didn’t spend enough time reading with Maya. Heck, she didn’t spend enough time doinganythingwith Maya.

“Melanie Vargas,whatdo you think you’re up to?”

Melanie nearly fell out of her chair.

“Bernadette, I—”

“Your office Internet connection is reserved for official government business!” Bernadette snapped, looming over Melanie’s desk.

“Yes, I know. I—”

“Yeah, since when is Dora the Explorer official business?”

“I’m sorry. I had a few extra minutes while I waited for you to—”

“I never hold this single-motherhood thing against you, Melanie. I even assign you a high-profile case. In exchange, I expect to see some discipline.”

“Look, Bernadette, I apologize. It won’t happen again. And you don’t need to worry. Everything is under control on the Holbrooke case. We have a promising new angle, a cooperator—”

Melanie’s phone rang. Saved by the bell! It was her boss’s secretary, Shekeya Jenkins, calling to say Vito Albano was on the line for Bernadette.

“I’ll take it in my office,” Bernadette said. “You, come with me. I swear, I have to watch you every second.”

Melanie’s face went hot with indignation, but she held her tongue and followed Bernadette down the hall to her corner suite, which sat at the intersection of the two corridors housing the Major Crimes Unit. BERNADETTE DEFELICE, CHIEF, screamed the brass nameplate, all in caps. Why did it seem like every time she walked into her boss’s office, Melanie’s stomach was upset for one reason or another? She wasn’t alone in this: Everyone else’s relationship with Bernadette was the same way. Yet as much as she resented her boss, she admired her, too. Bernadette was exciting, dynamic, and good at her job. She got things done. She had the best Rolodex in the business and therefore brought in the best cases. She recruited talented prosecutors and demanded the best work from them. Too bad she accomplished all that by wielding a stick instead of a carrot, but still, Melanie wouldn’t trade the experience for anything less dramatic or interesting.


Page 16

“Wait here!” Bernadette commanded as they entered the anteroom.

Shekeya Jenkins looked up from her computer screen, contemplating Melanie sympathetically. Shekeya had been Bernadette’s secretary for years, the only one who’d ever lasted in the position. A big woman with elaborate braids bleached orangey red, long, gem-studded fingernails, and a sharp tongue, Shekeya was one of the few people in the office who could do battle with Bernadette on equal terms.

“What she on you about now?” Shekeya asked, blowing a bubble with Day-Glo pink bubble gum.

“She caught me doing my Christmas shopping online while I was waiting to meet with her.”

“Girl, don’t listen to that bullshit. I shop online all the time and e-mail my psychic, too. The boss don’t so much as look cross-eyed at me.”

“She’s probably afraid to, Shekeya.”

Shekeya laughed and slapped her knee. “You got that right! Get back in her face is all is takes. And Iknowyou know how if you want to.”

“So what are you still doing here at this hour?” Melanie asked. Shekeya was normally gone by 4:55 at the latest.

“I can’t do a little overtime if I feel like it?” she asked, working the bubble gum with her tongue.

“Oh, I get it. Christmas and all. I could use some extra cash myself.” Unfortunately, attorneys didn’t get paid overtime for putting in additional hours the way support staff did. Melanie’s base salary was significantly higher, but she was expected to work as hard as it took to get the job done without additional compensation.

“No, it ain’t even about that,” Shekeya was saying. “You’ll be seein’ me around here all hours from now on. Khadija just got accepted in private school starting next semester. Public schools in my neighborhood suck. I want to give her the best possible chance in life, you know?”

“I’m with you there. I feel exactly the same way.”

“Got to pay for it somehow. So I went in to see the boss, told her I was picking up a night job cleaning, and she say to me, why not do the extra hours here? There’s always some filing or some shit needs doin’.”

Since all the lawyers on the unit pretty much did their own word processing, Shekeya’s job was limited to answering Bernadette’s telephone, filling out the occasional requisition form, doing her nails—and, apparently, online shopping and psychic consulting. Obviously Bernadette had just been trying to help Shekeya out. That was the thing about Bernadette. Just when you were most disgusted with her, she’d do something truly humane, and you’d say, Oh, if only she’d act like that all the time, how much better would life be?

Speak of the devil. Bernadette poked her head out into the anteroom. “Come on in, girlfriend,” she called. “I’ve got Lieutenant Albano on the line.”

Melanie walked in and sank into a guest chair, feeling utterly drained. The sky beyond Bernadette’s window was already ink dark. Melanie felt about a million years old, and like the day would never end.

“Vito?” Bernadette said.

“Still here, hon,” Albano’s voice squawked from the speakerphone.

“Melanie’s with me now. Melanie, can you please explain what the hell the deal is with this new cooperator?”

Melanie sat up straighter. “You mean Trevor Leonard?”

“That freaky kid I saw leaving your office an hour ago.”

“Yup, that’s Trevor. He was a close friend of Brianna Meyers. Trevor says Brianna and Whitney Seward were working as drug couriers for Jay Esposito, the nightclub owner. Esposito’s been investigated—”

“Jesus,” Bernadette exclaimed, dropping her head into her hands, “you were right, Vito.”

“I don’t see what the big tragedy is,” Albano said. “Sounds like a promising lead. We know about this Expo character from way back. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s the supplier.”

“Supplier, fine. But did you hear what Melanie just said? The last thing I need is an allegation from some slacker freak that James Seward’s daughter was muling heroin.”

Albano was silent.

“Vito?” Bernadette said.

“Yeah, okay, I see what you mean. It’s a little sensitive.”

“Sensitive, my ass. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. Am I the only one who worries about the big picture around here?Think, people. What if the tabloids get ahold of it and then it doesn’t pan out?”

“So don’t tell ’em,” Albano suggested.

Melanie plucked a copy of that morning’sDaily Newsoff Bernadette’s desk. It was the same one Brad Monahan had in court earlier, with the word “Suspect” emblazoned beneath Carmen Reyes’s photo on the front page.

“Itwouldbe better if nobody talked to the press,” Melanie said. “About anything.”

“Oh, what’s that supposed to mean?” Bernadette snapped.

“Leaking this thing about Carmen Reyes being a suspect—”

“Leak? Watch your language. ‘Leak’ means you disclosed confidential information without proper authority. I’m authorized to tell the press anything I damn well please, so by definition Ican’tleak. I apprised the taxpayers of how we’re spending their money. They’re entitled to know. They pay our salary.”

“Fine, whatever you want to call it, but the point is—”

“And you seem to forget that Ray Wong found heroin with the Golpe stamp in Carmen Reyes’s locker.That’swhy she’s on the lam, not because her picture’s in the paper. But instead of trying to locate a girl who’s obviously involved, you’re spending your time debriefing this highly problematic witness about potentially libelous allegations.”

“Iamtrying to locate Carmen, Bern. Believe me, I’m very concerned about her. And Trevor’s not problematic. Young, yes, but he’s quite credible when you talk to him. Likeyoualways say, nuns and schoolteachers aren’t the ones with inside information about drug trafficking.”

“One look at this Leonard kid and anybody can see he’s gonnatankin front of a jury. He was probably on drugs when you debriefed him, for crying out loud.”

“He wasnot. Pretrial Services screens all defendants before arraignment and reports dirty urines. Trevor was completely clean. Besides, we’re not taking his word for anything. We’re doing a full investigation to corroborate him, including a buy tonight at Esposito’s club.”

“Yes, okay. That’s what we wanted to speak to you about. Vito, are you still there?” Silence from the speakerphone. “Vito?” Again silence. “Christ, so much forhim,” Bernadette said irritably, and punched the button to hang up the line.

“Don’t worry, Bernadette,” Melanie began.

“What do they pay me for if not to worry about you hotheads screwing up? I can’t believe you’re actually sending this Leonard kid out to do a buy.”

“Bridget Mulqueen is doing the buy. Trevor’s just making the introduction to Esposito’s people.”

“That’s hardly better. I want you in there personally supervising, Melanie Vargas. Do you understand me?”

“Well, Iwasplanning to meet the agents later to give them instructions on getting into Esposito’s club. But going in myself? Isn’t thattheirjob? I thought you said no cops-and-robbers stuff this time.”

“Don’tquote me to myself! I said that in a completely different context. I’m not suggesting you personally make a drug buy. Just keep an eye on things and make sure they don’t fuck it all up, excuse my French. I don’t trust Mulqueen, and Idon’ttrust your cooperator.”

Melanie shrugged. “Okay.”

“I’m giving you some rope here by letting you explore this angle. Don’t hang yourself with it.”

“I won’t. Really, Bern, I appreciate your confidence in me.”

Shekeya buzzed Bernadette with a phone call. “If it’s Vito, he better have a damn good explanation for why he hung up on me,” Bernadette muttered, picking up the receiver. “Who?…Well, did you tell them she’s in a meeting?…Oh,all right, put it through.” Bernadette’s top line flashed red. She pressed the button and picked up the receiver, holding it out to Melanie with the tips of her fingers as if it were radioactive. “It’s for you.”

Melanie stood up and grasped the receiver, pulling the cord taut across Bernadette’s desk. “Hello?” she said tentatively.

“Melanie? Shavonne Washington from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office. Sorry to interrupt your meeting, but I thought you’d like to know that we just completed the autopsies on Whitney Seward and Brianna Meyers. You should get down here right away.”

 

21

 

THE HULKING OCME BUILDING, at First Avenue and Thirtieth Street, loomed over the neighborhood like a haunted castle. By the time Melanie entered its depressing, institutional-looking lobby, Ray-Ray Wong was already seated in the reception area waiting for her. She needed an agent present to take chain of custody on the girls’ personal effects, and Dan and Bridget were busy setting up the heroin buy for later that night.

“Evening, ma’am,” Ray-Ray said, rising to his feet, nodding crisply.

They crossed a span of muddy brown carpet and signed in with the good-looking black guy behind the reception desk, who directed them to a freight elevator that would take them down to the morgue in the basement.

“So what were the autopsy results, ma’am?” Ray-Ray asked as he pressed the call button.

“Shavonne didn’t want to go into it over the phone, but apparently the deputy M.E. is waiting to give us a report.”

“Okay.”

“Any developments on your end?”

“Yes. Well, this might be nothing, but…”

“What?”

“I had Gidget run rap sheets on the faculty and staff at Holbrooke, like you said?”

“Yeah?”

“Not much. An English teacher with a couple of DWIs. The guidance counselor had a disorderly from fifteen years back, but no details in the record.”

“Probably some kind of political protest, knowing him.”

“Yeah, okay, but here’s the sort of creepy one. That lawyer?”

“Siebert?”

“Yeah. He’s in a sex-offender database.”

“Jesus, really?”

“Not because of an actual arrest. His name came up in an investigation. I contacted the NYPD guy whose case it is. He says Siebert was going on this Web site where a lot of teenage boys post profiles. It’s like a known site for older men looking to hook up with underage prostitutes.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. I’m telling ya, this Siebert’s a fucking perv. He actually messaged a fifteen-year-old kid who’d posted a picture of himself wearing jeans and no shirt.”

“So why hasn’t Siebert been arrested?”

“Because. Apparently he never asked to meet the kid or anything. He just messaged him about baseball.”

“Baseball? You mean, like, how ’bout those Mets?”

“Right.”

“I’m not sure that’s a crime. How do we know he was even after sex?”

Ray looked at her like she was stupid. “It’s a known site. People don’t just wander into these things. Maybe he’s working up his nerve.”

“Huh. Well, but we have girls in this case. And so far there’s no known sex angle.”

“I know.”

“Ours looks like a drug thing.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

The elevator came, and they got in.

“That’s weird,” Melanie said. “We should interview Siebert, find out what he’s up to. Who knows? Maybe there’s some connection, although it doesn’t leap out at me.”

“We can’t. I promised this detective I wouldn’t burn his investigation.”

“So we don’t specifically ask Siebert about the Web site.”

“Okay.”

“Anything else?”

“I examined the dead girls’ telephones with a guy from Tech.”

“And?”

“Brianna’s wasn’t very interesting, but Whitney’s phone was strange. First of all, you’ve got numerous saved photos of Carmen Reyes in Whitney’s apartment last night. It’s as if somebody decided to document Carmen’s presence there,” Ray-Ray said.

“Do we know when the pictures were taken?”

“Based on the time stamps, between seven-thirty and seven forty-eight P.M.”

“What’s Carmen doing?”

“Nothing really. Just standing around. But what really raised me up is, other than the photos and a couple of calls to a cell phone associated with Jay Esposito, the phone’s entire memory’s been erased. Including all records of calls dialed and received, phone numbers in the address book, everything. Some of that can be reconstructed using telephone records. But some of it can’t.”

“So somebody erased the memory purposely but left the photos of Carmen for us to find?” Melanie asked, thinking aloud.

“Looks that way.”

Melanie felt a tiny tingle of fear—not for herself but for Carmen. Somebody had been in Whitney Seward’s apartment last night, tampering with evidence, presumably at the same time Carmen was there. Whoever it was seemed to be trying to point the finger at Carmen. Why? Where was that person now? Wherever they were, Melanie had a bad feeling that Carmen was with them.

“Hey,” Melanie said. “Why would they leave the calls to Esposito?”

“I don’t know. Oversight?”

“Pretty stupid oversight. Do you think someone wanted us to find those calls? Like they’re setting Esposito up?”

“Is it called a setup when the victim is actually guilty?” Ray-Ray asked.

They reached the basement and got out. Brightly lit, spick-and-span, with cheerful green and white tiles, it nevertheless reeked of death.

“Yuck!” Melanie exclaimed, clapping her hand over her nose.

“Breathe through your mouth and you won’t smell it as much,” Ray-Ray suggested.

She tried it; it worked. “Huh. Thanks, I’ll remember that.”

“Learned that in the Gulf.”

They met up with Shavonne Washington at a booth near the back entrance. Shavonne stood guard over two white body bags that had been stacked on metal trays fixed to a wheeled gurney. Nodding hello to Melanie and Ray-Ray, she checked the bar codes on each body bag against a log, then wheeled the gurney carefully over to a narrow elevator. The elevator doors opened, and an orderly stepped out. Shavonne helped him maneuver the gurney carefully into the elevator.


Page 17

“There go your girls,” Shavonne said, coming over to Melanie and nodding toward the closing doors. “They’re getting released to the families for burial now. Dr. Drucker’s in the autopsy room scrubbing up, waiting to explain his findings to you.”

Melanie and Ray-Ray followed Shavonne down the hall. All around them high-tech refrigerators gave off an eerily soothing hum. Shavonne pushed open a wide swinging door, and they trailed her into the large room, which held eight stainless-steel autopsy slabs, each with its own sink, scale, and array of scary-looking cutting shears and electric saws. A short, slight doctor wearing surgical greens, face mask, and shoe covers was just finishing drying his hands at one of the sinks. Shavonne made the introductions.

“As we expected, preliminary tox on both bodies was positive for the presence of heroin in the bloodstream,” Dr. Drucker explained. “I’m prepared to certify acute heroin poisoning as cause of death on both victims.”

“You refer to preliminary tox. Meaning…”

“We just do a preliminary screen that tests for the presence of particular substances of interest. In this case we tested for the presence of heroin and got a positive result,” Dr. Drucker replied.

“So if the girls had something else in their bloodstreams…?”

“Unless we expose the blood sample to the specific reagent for that particular substance, we won’t detect it. So you’d have to notify us exactly what you want us to test for. Is there some other substance you have reason to believe they might have ingested?”

“No, not really,” Melanie said, shaking her head. “You can’t just do a generalized sort of test for narcotics and poisons?”

“No, it doesn’t work that way. A full tox would test for a wider range of narcotic and nonnarcotic controlled substances, but still, it’s limited. Icanorder up a test for common poisons, but we like to have some basis before we do that, so we’re not wasting our time,” Dr. Drucker said.

“There’s a basis here. Their deaths might’ve been plain old-fashioned ODs, but they might’ve been something else. We believe that these girls were transporting drugs, not just using.”

“Yes, exactly, that’s why we called you in. You believe right, and now we can prove it.”

“What? You found evidence?”

“Yes. The Meyers girl had heroin balloons in her stomach.”

Melanie’s insides did a horrible somersault. “Is…is that what killed her?” Melanie asked, her mouth suddenly dry. That poor, wrongheaded kid. Doing this to herself so she’d fit in with Whitney, so she could afford a Fendi bag.

“You bet. The balloons ruptured and justpouredheroin into her bloodstream. Much more than what could be ingested nasally or even intravenously through intentional use. I’m afraid it’s a very painful way to die. Here, come look,” Dr. Drucker said, leading them over to one of the autopsy slabs.

An array of sample containers holding gruesome collections of organs and fluids was spread out on a small stainless-steel table at the end of the slab. Dr. Drucker picked up a clear plastic vial bearing a small label with Brianna’s name and a bar code. Melanie took it and held it up to her eye. Inside were three small, round, orange pellets, coated in a fine slime of tissue and blood. She held up the vial for Ray-Ray, who examined it also.

“What you see are typical balloons of heroin used by drug couriers for internal smuggling,” Dr. Drucker explained. “These were recovered from Brianna’s stomach. Literally, they’reballoons, like you could purchase in any toy store. We know that from the orange color. The other product commonly used by smugglers to wrap drugs for internal smuggling, as I’m sure you’re aware, is the latex condom, which tends to be flesh-colored. Those are actually even more likely to leak, especially the…uh, ultrathin varieties.”

“How do you know these balloons leaked?” Melanie asked.

“Under the microscope we saw small lesions on two of the balloons. The lesions occur when stomach acids compromise the latex. Extremely unfortunate for the victim,” he said, shaking his head.

Melanie was silent for a moment, staring at the tiny orange pellets that had ended a young girl’s life. There was no question in her mind that Jay Esposito was behind this. But she still had to prove it.

“What about Whitney?” she asked. “Did you find balloons in her stomach, too?”

“No. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. She could’ve excreted them all prior to her death.”

“Is there any other way to tell whether she OD’d from leaking balloons as opposed to snorting the heroin voluntarily?” Melanie asked.

“Not based on the toxicology results, no,” Dr. Drucker said. “But wecanlook to other indicators. In this case Whitney had fresh track marks between her toes, so I’d say she probably ingested voluntarily. But not by snorting, by shooting up.”

Melanie and Ray-Ray looked at each other in confusion. “That’s weird,” Melanie said. “We found empty glassines but no works. And the glassines were right beside the bodies. To shoot up they’d have to cook the stuff first, right? There was no indication of that at all.”

Dr. Drucker shrugged. “I can only tell you what I observed in the autopsy.”

“Is it possible Whitney died from leaking balloons, and that the track marks are unrelated?”

“Anything’spossible, Ms. Vargas,” the doctor said. “But how likely is it?”

“Still, I’d like to run those other toxicology tests. Who knows what Whitney was taking? I need the complete picture.”

“Seems unnecessary, frankly, but I won’t say no. I’ll order up a generalized toxicology for common poisons and controlled substances. Given that it’s Christmastime and we’re understaffed, though, I have to warn you, it could take up to a month.”

“Amonth? Isn’t there some way to get it done faster?” Melanie asked.

“I can put a rush on it and see what we get.”

“Thank you, I would appreciate that. The sooner the better.”

Melanie and Ray-Ray took their leave and made their way to the elevator.

“Very fucking weird,” Ray-Ray commented as they waited. “Girls like that swallowing.”

“I agree, but it’s a relief to finally have some solid evidence. It’s looking pretty clear that Jay Esposito is responsible for these girls’ deaths. And he probably knows where Carmen Reyes is, too.”

 

22

 

THOUGH IT WAS WELL past rush hour, the number-six train was packed to the gills with commuters. Everybody was weighted down with parcels, having come straight from the Christmas shopping Melanie still hadn’t found time for. She fought her way into the subway car just as the doors closed, ending up pressed against the glass with the sharp corner of someone’s lavender Bergdorf’s bag poking into her. Mmmm, Bergdorf’s. Last year for Christmas, Steve had gone there and bought her an assortment of themostlavish Jo Malone perfumes and lotions. They came in gorgeous cream-colored boxes tied together with black ribbons and cost a pretty penny. Too bad she’d used them all, because Santa wouldnotbe visiting Melanie Vargas this year. At least until the settlement was finalized and she got a handle on her finances, her dollars were going to buy goodies for Maya. And she doubted anybody planned to buy Christmas presents forher.

The steep stairs of the Eighty-sixth Street station were slick with black water, the trampled remains of last night’s snow. Melanie picked her way carefully up and emerged into a blast of cold air. Crossing Park Avenue, she looked at the row of Christmas trees stretching downtown as far as the eye could see, their white lights glittering like diamonds, and tried to muster some Christmas spirit. But she felt too alone on the elegant boulevard, watching her fellow New Yorkers bustle by laden with their expensive haul. Here she was, almost divorced, half crazy for some gorgeous, moody guy she barely knew and had to work with, who might or might not feel the same. Trying to be a mother to her daughter while working this insane case. Hardly a recipe for Christmas cheer.

The sight of Hector, her portly, balding doorman, cheered her. His Puerto Rican accent always reminded her of her father. Whatdidn’twas that he actually behaved in a fatherly manner.

“Hey,mi’ja, how you doing tonight?” he asked as he opened the door for her.

She sighed, not even trying to hide her feelings. “All right, I guess.”

“Why so down? And don’t deny it. I can tell.”

Melanie glanced around the small lobby, dominated by an artificial Christmas tree and a partly lit electric Hanukkah menorah. Hector she trusted, but she didn’t need the whole building knowing her business. Her first baby-sitter had quit after learning that Melanie and Steve were splitting up, and she’d been nervous ever since that the co-op board would have a cow, too, and get all nervous about Melanie’s ability to make monthly maintenance payments. Luckily, none of her fellow tenants were around to eavesdrop at the moment.

“Just the usual, I guess. It’s lonely facing the holidays being separated. I’m a little worried about money. That sort of thing.”

“No te preocupes, mi’ja. I got the answer for your problems.”

“You do?”

“Heck, yeah. You bring the little one over to my house on Christmas Day. My Manny’s gonna be there. He’s doing real good with his accounting business. Time he settled down. Nice girl like you, so pretty, who knows?”

Melanie had met Hector’s Manny, and he wasn’t for her. He might be making money as an accountant, but the boy’s heart was still in the block. Which in his case meant he was a little too into girls with fake boobs and tattoos, who’d cook and clean for him. No thanks.

“Aw, Hector, that’s sweet, but you know I’m not ready. Besides, Manny wouldn’t be interested in somebody with a kid.”

“Naw, he’s fine with that.”

“Well, listen, I’ll think about it. Maybe after some more time goes by,” she said, giving him a peck on the cheek.

She got her mail and leafed through it on the elevator. A pile of bills and a couple of Christmas cards. One of the cards had a San Juan postmark. Melanie ignored her father’s handwriting, and opened the other one instead. It was from Amy Robards, a law-school classmate whom she hadn’t seen in years. Amy had worked briefly at the same law firm as Melanie after graduation. Around the time Melanie went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Amy married a senior partner, had three kids in rapid succession, put on forty pounds, and retired to Bedford to chair bake sales. Looking at Amy smiling out from the glossy photo card, ensconced among towheaded toddlers and a dull but steady-looking husband, Melanie was overwhelmed by a bitter wave of jealousy. Not that she wanted to turn back the clock in her own life. She hadn’t liked being married to a two-timer, and Steve was in the process of proving he’d never change. But she couldn’t help envying what this woman had. The contrast was just too stark: Amy so happily settled and Melanie without a clue where her own life was going.

 

 

AN HOUR LATER Melanie struggled out of a cab, juggling Maya and a shopping bag in one arm and a briefcase and folded stroller in the other. She pressed the buzzer to her sister’s building with her elbow. It was nine-thirty, ten degrees, with a bitter wind blowing. The door buzzed, and she pushed it, stumbling toward the enormous, graffiti-covered freight elevator. Lofts! Linda was nuts to live down here. Melanie would take uptown any day.

“Gaaa, Mama,” Maya said with a huge, wet smile, all gums and tiny front teeth, as they waited for the elevator. Her pudgy cheeks sparkled pink with cold. Melanie nibbled her daughter’s ear where it poked out from a fleecy hat, eliciting giggles.

“You keep me going, you know that?” she whispered.

Upstairs, Linda opened the door, telephone pressed to her head, and motioned them inside. The bracelets on her manicured hand jingled like chimes. The foyer smelled of sandalwood perfume and scented candles.

“I know, but youoweme, Fab D,” Linda was whining into the phone. “Okay, okay, fine.”

Melanie studied her sister’s outfit with dismay as she struggled after her. Linda had eventually agreed to baby-sit while Melanie went to Screen to supervise the buy. Granted, Linda was a fashion and entertainment reporter on a local cable channel. Given her position, she hardly stinted on the Puerto Rican glam. But evenshewouldn’t wear skintight gold lamé pants, a one-shouldered white top, and gold stilettos for dinner with baby. Would she?

“Lin, why are you dressed like that? You said you’d give me the location and then baby-sit!”

Linda waved her hand in annoyance.

“Fab D? I lost you for a minute, hon….What, again? You attention ho! How many times can I plug your damn demo? Allright, but only because I love your swishy black patootie to death. Okay, baby. Ciao.”

Linda put down the phone.

“Would you take Maya before I drop her, please?” Melanie said.

“Is she clean?”

“Of course she’s clean! You think I don’t wash my daughter?”

Linda took Maya from Melanie’s arms gingerly. “Don’t get so offended. She got strawberry jam all over my white Michael Kors sweater last week, you know. Thank God I suck up to the guy at the dry cleaners.”

“What were you doing wearing white to baby-sit anyway? And why are you so dressed up now? You said you’d watch her so I could check out this nightclub. I told you, it’swork.”

Melanie stuck the stroller in a corner and dropped her shopping bag on the dramatic chaise longue that was the only place to sit in Linda’s apartment. Linda’s loft had once been separated into living and sleeping spaces, but she’d recently converted the sleeping area to a huge closet. The living area was now dominated by a canopy bed draped with fringed mosquito netting courtesy of one of Linda’s decorator friends. The walls were painted in exotic stripes of lipstick red and gold. The once sleeping alcove, now closet, was divided off with elaborate gold draperies tied back with silk cords, continuing what Melanie thought of privately as the bordello theme.


Page 18

“My friend Fabulous Deon, he deejays for Expo sometimes. I know he can get us into Screen, but he won’t go unless I go,” Linda said.

“This is law-enforcement business. You can’t just tag along, and neither can he. All I need is the location of the club and the password.”

“Are you arresting somebody?”

“No, nothing like that. Just poking around. But still, I’d rather keep you and your friend out of it. You never know. It could get dangerous.”

“They know us at Screen. Nobody’s gonna bother us there. Besides, thereisno password. It’s a velvet-rope-type thing, and you won’t get in without me and Fab D by your side to say you’re fly.”

“So what am I supposed to do with Maya? It’s way past her bedtime, and I can’t take a one-year-old to a nightclub.”

“Relax,chica, I took care of it. Mom’s on her way over here right now. She’ll take Maya back to your place and sit with her as long as we need,” Linda said.

“How’d you arrange that?” Melanie’s mother was even less interested in baby-sitting than her sister was.

“I’m telling you, ever since she started dating that widowed minister, she’s veryfamilia-oriented. She’s trying to convince him she’s marriage material. Unlike the rest of us.”

“Speak for yourself. I was good at being married. It was my husband who fell down on the job,” Melanie said wistfully.

“Oh, my God, that reminds me! I saw Steve in a club this weekend. I can’t believe I forgot to tell you. He was with—”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Melanie said, shaking her head decisively.

“No, really, it was definitely him. You know, back when you first kicked him out, I was like, Hey c’mon, one little lapse, Mel, give the guy a break. I mean, people cheat, right? It’s not the end of the world. But he’s been on a rampage in the clubs since you two split. I told you about that time my friend Teresa saw him—”

“Lin, stop! Enough already. I don’t need to hear every time he picks up some bimbo in a bar.”

Melanie grabbed Maya from Linda’s arms. She hugged her daughter close for a moment, then put her down and peeled off her pink snowsuit and fleecy hat. A stubby little ponytail on top of Maya’s head sprang straight up. Melanie tweaked it playfully. Maya squealed and waddled away, toddling a few bowlegged steps before plopping down on the floor.

“Why not?” Linda asked.

“Because. It’s not healthy. I’m trying not to feel sorry for myself, okay? Steve and I are legally separated, which wasmychoice. He’s entitled to see other women, but still, I can deal with him better if it’s not shoved in my face constantly.”

“Deal with him? You mean, over the settlement negotiations?”

“That. Everything. He wants to spend Christmas with me andla chiquitahere.”

“You’re not going to let him, are you?”

“He’s her father. I couldn’t stand it if he just disappeared out of her life, the way Papi did with us,” Melanie said, a catch in her voice.

“You still obsessing aboutthatancient history? You know, ever since I wrote Papi and told him he was a rat bastard and I never wanted to hear from him again, I feel so much better. You should try it. It’s very liberating.”

“It’s kind of an empty gesture to kick someone out of my life who’s not even in it, don’t you think? I just got a Christmas card from him from a totally new address. He signs it ‘Feliz Navidad, Papi y familia.’ That’s it. No note saying he moved, no pictures of his kids, nothing. You believe that?”

“So tell him not to write to you. Then you won’t feel bad when he sends you that impersonal bullshit.”

Melanie thrust the shopping bag at her sister. “Here, help me figure out what to wear. I don’t want to talk about this stuff anymore. Too depressing.”

Linda rummaged through the shopping bag, her dark brows knitting into a frown. “You’re kidding me, right?”

“I told you, mostly I own suits for work, and jeans. What about that red sweater? It’s pretty sexy on. Or the black dress from when Steve and I were dating? It had a little tear, but I sewed it.”

“Not if you plan to be seen in public withme! Get your butt in here,” Linda said, flouncing through the gold curtains into her closet. Melanie picked up Maya and followed.

Inside the closet, mirrors covered one wall, reflecting hundreds of specialized shoe cubbies Linda had installed opposite. Four massive department-store-style metal clothing racks bearing extravagant garments in every color of the rainbow filled the rest of the space.

“Quítate la ropa,” Linda ordered, and disappeared into the racks.

Melanie stripped off the jeans and turtleneck she’d worn over to her sister’s. She’d showered and blow-dried her hair when she went home to get Maya, and for reasons she couldn’t explain—or didn’t want to admit—donned her sexiest lingerie, a lacy black push-up bra and thong set trimmed in candy pink ribbon. Steve had given them to her for Valentine’s Day last year, right around the time she began to suspect he was fooling around with that executive assistant.You wish, she’d thought, and stuck them in the back of a drawer. But tonight she’d pulled them out, and now she twirled around, checking herself in the mirror, fantasizing about how Dan’s face would look if he saw her in them. How he’d come up to her, whisper to her in that incredible voice, back her up against the wall, put his hands all over her body—

¡Qué estúpida! Like she could afford to get obsessed with Dan O’Reilly again, with how lonely and vulnerableshewas these days. She even did it with Steve a few weeks back when he came by to drop off Maya, that’s how desperate she was for companionship—or, let’s be honest,sex. She would never tell Linda. And yes, she regretted it, but it’d justhappened. She’d been sitting on the sofa in the dark flipping channels and feeling depressed while Steve put Maya down in her crib. She’d looked up to find him standing in the doorway bathed in the blue light of the TV, staring at her with this incredibly potent combination of lust and nostalgia. Next thing she knew, he was on top of her and they were going at it like wild animals.

Not that there was any real danger they would slip into a reconciliation. Steve kept her on track. Lying naked on the couch afterward, half dozing, she’d heard a noise like the clicking of insects and looked over to find him tapping madly away on his BlackBerry. He’d been evasive when she asked him who he was texting. If she started thinking even for a second about getting back together, she could count on Steve to remind her why she’d left.

“Uh, what?” Melanie said, realizing Linda had been speaking to her.

“Isaid, I’m glad to see you finally took my advice and got yourself some cute knickers,” Linda said, walking over and pinching Melanie’s hips. “And you’re looking real good, too. You were kinda porky there for a while, sis. What are you, on Zone or South Beach or something?”

“No, I just don’t have time to eat.”

Linda laughed.

“I’m serious,” Melanie said.

“Hey, whatever it is, it’s working. And I take it from your choice of undergarments you’re planning to get lucky tonight?”

“No!” Melanie said, but she could feel herself blushing.

“Oh, wait one minute! I haven’t seen that expression on your face since you were all crazy for that FBI hunk. Is there a new guy in the picture?”

“A new guy? Definitely not.”

Linda scrutinized her. “You’re not wearing that slutty underwear for my benefit,chica. Come on, give it up.”

“It’s not slutty.”

“Hello, good girl. Slutty is a compliment.”

“There’s no new guy,” Melanie insisted, still blushing.

“Thesameguy? He’s back?”

“Dan? No. Well, I mean, he’s assigned to my new case, but—”

“Assigned to your case!” Linda yelped and began hopping up and down, clutching herself. “Mel’s got a boyfriend, Mel’s got a boyfriend!” Maya, sitting on the floor playing with some plastic rings, looked at Linda and gave a hoot of hilarity. Melanie couldn’t help laughing, too.

“Lin, I swear, sometimes I think you’re still eight years old.”

“That would make you ten, and,chica, with those curves you donotlook ten.”

Melanie watched in the mirror as her flamboyant sister waltzed around, holding on to a sparkly beige dress as if it were her dance partner. She was startled to see how alike she and Linda looked, with their shiny dark hair, almond eyes, and full lips. She thought of Linda as so much more beautiful than herself, but it wasn’t true. Linda just acted the part, whereas Melanie was afraid to.

“Come on, spill it,” Linda demanded. “What happened so far? And I want every gory detail. What he likes, the size of his—”

“Will youstop? Nothing’s happened, and nothing’s going to. Dan scares me too much.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not afraid of anything.”

“Thisguy, I am! When I get back into dating again, I’m taking it slow. He’d mess up my head, and I have Maya to think of after all.”

“Huh. Well, okay, if that’s how you feel. But I must say, I never saw a woman wear black lace panties for a guy she was planning to cold-shoulder.”

“I’m not wearing them forhim. I’m just wearing them.”

“Yeah, right, Miss Jockey for Her. Like I believe that.”

Linda held the beige dress up against Melanie, studying the effect in the mirror.

“Hmm, no.Muy de modobut too neutral. We need you in some bright, sexy colors,chica. Something that screams, Hello, FBI hunk, nail myboricuaass so I can go home and tell my sister all about it.”

“Did youhearwhat I just said?”

“Oh, shut up and stop being so boring. Try this on, and we’ll just see where your night ends up.” Linda thrust a filmy scrap of tomato red fabric at Melanie.

“What is it?”

“It’s a top, silly. D&G. Label whore that I am, you should thank your lucky stars I’m eventhinkingof lending it to you.”

Melanie took the thing. There was barely enough to it to keep it on the hanger. She slipped it from its moorings and looked at it suspiciously.

“It won’t bite you. Take off your bra, and I’ll help you get into it,” Linda said.

“Are you crazy? Ineeda bra.”

“Oh, come on, it’s a halter. It’ll hold you up. I’m not on the ittybitty-titty committee either, you know. Besides, the FBI hunk’ll be on the edge of his seat, wondering if something’s gonna pop out.”

Melanie shook her head in disbelief.

“I’ll fix it so it works, promise,” Linda said, slipping the fabric over Melanie’s head and carefully adjusting the ties behind her neck. Melanie looked at herself in the mirror.

“Wow,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s amazing what the right outfit can do. It makes you beautiful, keeps you young. It’s almost like it cheats death.”

“Right. I’ll remember that the next time somebody shoots at me.”

“Very funny, smart-ass. Oh, wait, I have the perfect pants! I scored ’em at a fashion show after I talked up the designer on air.”

Linda disappeared back into the racks, emerging a second later with gauzy black chiffon pajama pants. Melanie stepped into them and zipped them up the side. They made her look thin and glamorous.

“Here, try these, too,” Linda said, pulling sexy satin pumps from a white box with MANOLO BLAHNIK stamped in black letters across the cover.

Maya put down the plastic ring she’d been chewing on and leaned forward on her diapered bottom. “Shoes!” she cried, pointing.

“She’syourniece, all right. That’s only her fourth word,” Melanie said with a laugh as she slipped on the stiletto-heeled pumps and studied herself in the mirror. Amazing what clothes could do. All of a sudden, she felt like a million bucks and life seemed full of possibilities.

Linda looked Melanie up and down approvingly. “You may or may not catch the bad guy, but I’ll tell you one thing,chica: This FBI agent better watch the fuck out.”

 

23

 

PATRICIA CHECKED HER WATCH for the fourth time. It was after hours. Holbrooke was deserted, and James—she hoped—was waiting for her at her apartment with a decent bottle of Bordeaux. The old building creaked and gasped all around her, steam radiators hissing, wind rattling the wavy glass in the ancient windows. Screwcharm, this heating system was a goddamn joke. Patricia felt chilled to the bone. Who the hell did Hogan think hewas, keeping her waiting?

Patricia was unpleasantly nervous. Her mind had been working overtime since this morning, when James had mentioned the so-called breach in their security. She hadn’t believed him at first. Now, having investigated further, she knew he was right. She’d pulled up the endowment ledgers on the computer, both sets of them—the real and the doctored. A clever plan, if she did say so herself. Nobody but Patricia knew thetotalsum of the contribution pledges. Her private ledger reflectedallthe pledge money, but the doctored books, the ones for public consumption, reflected onlymostof it. A little missing here, a little missing there. No individual donor could know that the total amount was wrong. And so the public ledger held, thus far, about four million less than had actually been contributed. Not such a shortfall that anybody would notice, mind you. Even after her skimming, there was still a substantial amount of money going to the school—more than enough to hire architects and structural engineers and get that new building going. And when the Van Allen pledge got wired in Friday night, all ten million of it…well, quite a lot of that was going to find its way into Patricia’s private ledger. The new building would still be called the Van Allen Upper School. It would just be a bit smaller in terms of square footage. That’s all. And Patricia would beMrs. Senator Seward.


Page 19

The problem was, the ledgershadbeen accessed—twice, earlier this morning, without her authorization. Try as she might, she couldn’t figure out how that had happened. Both sets of books were on the Holbrooke computer system, but both were carefully disguised and password-protected. Patricia had fired the school’s development director several months ago, for the very purpose of preventing anyone from discovering her scheme. Since then only one person other than Patricia herself had had access to the password. That person could not possibly have pulled up the books without her knowledge. So who had, then? James? But how had he managed? Someone else? Then who?

She checked her watch again, more anxiously this time. Patricia was in over her head, and she knew it. How had things gotten so crazy? She’d only intended to better herself, like any red-blooded American girl. Had she aimed too high? Twenty-five years ago, when her credentials weren’t strong enough to land a job in the public-school system, Holbrooke had hired her happily. All they cared about was her look—young, pretty, blond, and fashionably dressed, appropriate for teaching the daughters of the rich. She’d had no idea what she’d be exposing herself to. The money was unthinkable, overwhelming. It took years of watchful coveting before Patricia even comprehended the full scope of it. The most important clues were also the subtlest. The quiet Hermès handbag that only a connoisseur knew cost fifteen thousand dollars. The fact that all the mothers had the same perfectly sculpted arms, courtesy of a few pricey society trainers who wouldn’t work with outsiders even if they had the cash. The offhand mentions of staff, private jets, third and fourth homes that slipped out in casual conversation, things one toted up in full only after years of knowing a family. But over time she saw how it was, and the crush of jealousy just shriveled her.

Patricia’s own attempts to marry money had failed. Once she hit her late thirties and had pretty much stopped meeting eligible men, she’d had no choice but to admit that to herself. The game was up. Then the only thing that slaked her bitter disappointment was exercising power over the families at school. Fortunately, her power was limitless. She held their daughters’ futures in the palm of her hand. The mothers endlessly sucked up to her. It was not uncommon for families to let Patricia use their vacation homes, to give her a lift on their private jets and host her in Aspen or Bermuda, to take her out to lavish dinners or even give her expensive gifts at Christmas. They tripped over one another to do it, in fact, and nobody ever objected. Who’d make a fuss when Patricia had the final say on college recommendations? Everybody acted like it was completely normal. She’d even perfected the art—when college of choice hung in the balance—of wrenching nice, fat contribution checks out of the wealthier families. She’d simply drop a hint that a deficiency in the girl’s record could be counterbalanced by the family’s becoming more significant benefactors of the school. Colleges paid attention to the bottom line, Patricia would remind the parents, and were more likely to take on a middling student if the family were reliable donors. Patricia handled the whole process so deftly that families viewed it as realpolitik rather than extortion and even—pathetically—thanked her for her candor. When she skimmed money off those contributions, she was extremely careful. Nobody had ever so much as raised an eyebrow.

But ultimately her machinations were poor consolation. Patricia suspected that the mothers knew this as well as she did herself. When James came along and held out the hope of an eleventh-hour victory, was it any surprise that she leaped at the chance? That she fell hard? Did what he asked? And now, after she’d compromised herself, was it all to come to naught, because her plan had been discovered?

Patricia had no way of determining who had accessed the endowment account. If the Holbrooke computer system had some method of keeping track, she wasn’t versed enough in its complexities to know. Asking somebody else to explore the issue for her would just rouse suspicion. So she’d considered her options and decided there was only one way. She’d called all the suspects in one by one and reminded them to toe the line. Reminded them of the consequences if they didn’t. She had a little something on everyone. Teachers were human beings, after all, and human beings had their weaknesses. Holbrooke wasn’t any worse than the outside world in that respect, but neither was it any better.

She’d dealt with Ted Siebert first, right after speaking with James this morning. She was certain Ted coveted the endowment money for himself. He also hated James with a passion—some feud stretching back years, having to do with James’s embarrassing Ted at a board of trustees meeting. Ted watched Patricia’s interactions with James with an eagle eye, suspecting something, looking for any evidence. But she’d been careful enough. There was nothing solid to go on. More to the point, Patricia knew things about Ted that his own wife surely didn’t—for example, he regularly used the school’s computer system to access gay-porn Web sites. It disgusted her, and yet it gave her power over him.

Likewise, the director of admissions had a gambling problem, and the head of the English department had three DWIs in the last ten years. She suspected each of them of being closet rebels, carrying chips on their shoulders, conspiring against her. And she’d now reminded each of them that she had the upper hand, simply by letting it slip that sheknewbut that she wasn’t doing anything with the information. Not yet anyway.

That left one more candidate to deal with. Here he was now, rapping so self-effacingly on her office door.

“Come in!” she called.

“Hey, Patricia,” Hogan said, strolling in like he hadn’t just kept her waiting for an hour. He sat down in the chair in front of her desk. “I got the message you wanted to see me. What’s up?”

“Wherewereyou, Harrison? I’ve been looking for you for quite some time.”

“Down in the lower gym, schmoozing with some of the junior class. These girls are going to need a lot of attention in the coming weeks, Patricia. We haven’t eventalkedabout the fact that this happened right before the holidays, when kids are already stressed to the max.”

His earnestness bugged the hell out of her. She’d wipe that self-righteous smirk clean off his face.

“Students crying on your shoulder, hmm? It doesn’t do to get too close to the girls, Harrison. I thought you were smart enough to understand that,” she said.

Hogan positively blanched. Hah! This was going to be fun.

“What are you talking about?” he asked quietly.

“This is rather delicate. But it’s my duty to speak up. It’s come to my attention that you were engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Whitney Seward.”

He sat up straight for once. “What? Who told you that? It’s a complete lie!”

“Be silent, Harrison, and hear me out. This is a deeply serious matter, for Holbrooke and for your own future. I have solid evidence. I think you know what it is. You weren’t particularly careful, were you?”

“Whitney was my student and my advisee,” Hogan protested. “If we spent time together, it was only—”

“Please.” She held up her hand. “I need to caution you not to speak further without representation.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Do I look like I’m joking?” Patricia’s tone was quiet, menacing.

“What is this really about? You have an agenda here, Patricia, I know it.”

“Don’t try to weasel out of it. You were naughty, and you’ve been caught with your hand in the honeypot. Normally I would suspend you immediately, but I don’t think the Holbrooke community could handle that right now, on top of these overdose deaths and with only a few days until the endowment campaign closes. But I felt it only fair to let you know, I have the evidence, and I could use it at any time. Do I make myself clear?”

 

24

 

CARMEN DRIFTED IN and out of consciousness. When she was awake, sometimes she was lucid, sometimes she wasn’t. When she knew what was happening, damn, it hurt so bad! She couldn’t stand it. But not for herself. She thought only of Papi, wherever he was—home, somewhere, looking for her, waiting, going crazy. He must be tearing at his hair, pounding himself with his fists. Every second she felt Papi’s agony. She imagined her captor, saw his cold eyes, remembered the gun he’d brandished at her. But in her mind she wasn’t herself; she was her father, consumed by these terrible worries about his daughter. She saw her own death, bullets piercing her flesh. But she was Papi, visualizing her murder while sobbing over her dead body. It was his pain she experienced, not her own.

Eventually time stretched out and lost its meaning. Carmen began hallucinating. She knew she was hallucinating, but that didn’t matter. The visions were blindingly real. A woman started visiting her in the closet, a woman who looked strangely like her dead mother. But she didn’t talk like Mami had. This woman talked fancy, whereas Mami’s English had barely been passable. And this woman was mean, whereas Mami had been very loving.

“Life is a nanosecond,” the woman said. “Death is what lasts. Don’t fight it.”

“I can’t die. Papi would be too sad. You already left him. He needs me.” Carmen said this, even though she knew this woman was not her mother but rather a stranger masquerading as her mother.

“We don’t choose when to die, Carmen. Death finds us, just like this man found you. When he comes back, he’s going to kill you.”

“No. I don’t think so. Not right away anyway. He needs me to do something for him first.”

“You’re not going to do it, are you?”

“I have to. Otherwise he’ll kill Lulu. He told me.”

“And you believe him?”

“Of course I believe him. He killed Whitney and Brianna. He has the devil inside him, I know.”

“Then you’re making a deal with the devil. That’s not smart, Carmen. You’ll burn in hell. Resist him, say no. Let him kill you. It’s not so bad where I live. Come, and we’ll spend time together.”

“Please, don’t tell me to do that!” Carmen cried. “I need to save Lulu! I need to see Papi again! What the man’s asking is wrong, but it’s not so terrible. Who will it hurt if I do what he asks? Then maybe I could even escape—”

“Escape? You’re a foolish girl if you think that’s possible. Look at the way he tied you up. You’ll never get out of this closet,” the woman said.

“Hehasto take me out eventually, if I’m going to do what he’s asking. Maybe I could escape then.”

“No you can’t. He has a gun.”

“So maybe he won’t use it.”

The woman just laughed, an ugly cackle, nothing like Mami’s.

“What’s so funny?”

“Youare, the way you fool yourself. How much time do you think you have left, Carmen? A day? A few hours? You don’t even know how long ago it was that Whitney and Brianna died, do you? You have no clue.”

“It can’t bethatlong, because I’m still alive. If I’d gone a week without food and water, I’d be dead. I mean, Iamstill alive, right?…Right?” Carmen asked nervously.

“I’m not going to tell you the answer to that one.”

“Someone will find me!” Carmen cried, in tears. “Someone will come rescue me, I know!”

“What are you talking about? Stupid girl! What makes you think anybody’s even looking for you?”

 

25

 

THE TEAM HAD AGREED to stage out of a pub a block from the Worth Street subway stop. When Melanie and Linda arrived, the place was overflowing with drunken Wall Streeters who’d begun their Christmas revels early. Melanie stood near the door and scanned the crowd. After the bracing wind outside, the sudden heat and noise made her dizzy. No sleep and very little food—she was running on fumes. She shrugged out of her coat, taking a deep breath.

“You see your friends?” Linda shouted over the din.

“Not yet. Looking.”

“Hey,” Linda called after a moment. She leaned closer to Melanie. “There’s a major hottie in the corner checking you out like you’re a thick, juicy steak and he’s a starving man.”

“Where?”

“Over there, but— No, don’t look, you no-brain!”

“That’s Dan.”

“What?”

“C’mon,” Melanie said, grabbing Linda by the arm.

Danwasstaring at her. And somehow, in these clothes, in this place, she could handle it. As she walked toward him, their eyes locked, and everything else fell away. Blood pounded in her veins. She forgot about their almost love affair, their sort of breakup, the nights she’d spent alone obsessing over the way things had ended. She looked right back at him and let herself remember how he kissed.

“That’shim? His body issick,” Linda said.

“Shut up now, or I’m gonna smack you,” Melanie said.

Bridget Mulqueen and Trevor Leonard, sitting on bar stools beyond Dan, popped into view as they drew near. She waved to them, not even trying to make herself heard over the racket. Dan stood up.

“Look atyou,” was all he said, but there was a soft light in his eyes that she wanted to memorize.

“My sister dressed me up so I could pass muster. This is Linda. She’s gonna get us into Screen.”

Dan shook Linda’s hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Linda said. “Mel mentioned you once or twice.”

“Oh, yeah?” He glanced at Melanie, looking gratified.

“Enough small talk,” Melanie said. “We need to go over our plan.”

“Was she always so serious like this?” Dan asked Linda.

“Yeah, since she was a kid. That’s how she got into those fancy schools.”

“I admire that about her,” he said.

“Will you guys stop?” Melanie said, though she was eating it up. “Let’s talk business.”

She had told Linda that they were investigating heroin dealing at area nightclubs but given no indication that Esposito himself was their target or that the case was relating to the Holbrooke girls’ deaths. She’d disclosed enough to warn Linda of the risks of the operation, without giving her details that could compromise their plan or put Linda in additional danger.


Page 20

“So how do you know where Screen is?” he asked Linda.

“A friend of mine deejays for Expo sometimes, and he gets me in. Tonight they’re set up in this abandoned subway station a few blocks from here. They bribed some guys from the MTA. You get on a certain train, and if you’re on the list, they let you stay on when they go out of service. When they turn around at the end of the line, they open the doors for you—and presto, you’re in Screen.”

“It must be the old City Hall station,” Dan said, nodding. “It was the jewel of the IRT before they shut it. The tile work on the arches is some of the most beautiful you’re ever gonna see.”

“Have you been in there?” Melanie asked.

“Yeah. Buddy of mine in the transit police took me on a tour once.” He leaned closer to Melanie. “I know you think I’m about as sharp as a marble, but I’m really interested in stuff like that. I’ll even go to an arty movie now and then.”

“I don’t think that,” Melanie said, looking up into his crystal blue eyes.

“You don’t?”

“No.” She shook her head.

“So listen,” Linda shouted. “My buddy Fabulous Deon can get a few of us in, but I’m not sure how many. And everybody has to look the part.” She studied Dan, frowning.

“I don’t fit the bill, huh?” he asked.

“To me you’re a little too big and clean-looking. Honestly, you look like a cop,” Linda replied.

Dan looked handsome and respectable in khaki pants and a navy V-necked sweater with a T-shirt under it. Melanie felt offended on his behalf.

“I don’t know what you’retalkingabout,” she protested to Linda. “He looks like every one of these traders in here. I bet they could get into Screen, so why can’t he?”

“I’m just saying—”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Dan said. “No need to have family strife over this. I know the layout. I’ll figure out how to get myself in on the tracks. But those two over there”—he nodded toward Bridget and Trevor— “should go in the front door to make it believable.”

“And me,” Melanie said.

“Who saidyouwere going in?” Dan asked.

“Bernadette. She wants me to vet the ops plans, make sure nothing gets screwed up. It’s sensitive stuff, and she doesn’t trust Bridget or Trevor.”

Dan took her by the elbow and pulled her aside, out of Linda’s earshot.

“You got to be fucking kidding me,” he said. “Even if the Bureau let prosecutors review our ops plans, which we don’t, and even if we let prosecutors ride along on buys, which wetotallydon’t,Iwouldn’t letyouput yourself in harm’s way.”

“Well, thank you. I appreciate your concern. But this is not your call. Bernadette wants it done this way. This is an ENTF case, not a Bureau case, and Albano’s in agreement with her. So you’re outvoted.”

He shook his head in disbelief. “Craziest thing I ever heard. And don’t pretend you don’t agree.”

“Hey, what’s the big deal? I’ll keep out of the way. With you there I’m not so worried about things going wrong, but still, I’m the one who looked Trevor in the eye and promised he’d be safe. Remember what happened to Rosario Sangrador,” Melanie said, and at the very mention of Rosario’s name, her eyes welled up. She’d never forgive herself for that.

Dan’s face softened. “It means that much to you?”

“Of course it does.”

“Okay, I’ll go along with you, but listen up, sweetheart. You step out of line and get crazy on me, I’m pulling the plug on the drug buy. We clear on that?”

“Dan—”

“Just say yes. That’s the only answer I’ll accept.”

“I’m notplanningto do anything risky. I promise.”

He looked at her quizzically, then broke into a grin. “Don’t think you’re getting over on me here. I see what you’re doing. Jeez, you lawyers, always with the sneaky language.”

“If you’re done scolding me, can we go over the plan?”

“What do you want to know?”

“First off, is Trevor wired?” she whispered, glancing around to make sure nobody was eavesdropping. With the noise level in here, not much danger of that.

“Not until we get the lay of the land,” Dan said. “Who knows, they could be doing pat-downs at the door. Besides, with the club underground in the subway tunnel, it’d be tough to pick up a signal anyway.”

“Has Trevor been searched?”

“Yes, ma’am. I go by the book, every time.”

Before making a controlled buy, a careful agent searched the cooperating witness to prevent him from sneaking in his own drugs and claiming he’d bought them from the target. For the price of a few Baggies and a little perjured testimony, many a drug dealer had bought himself a nice sentencing reduction without doing the heavy lifting of actually infiltrating the target’s organization. Dan was too thorough to let an informant scam him like that.

“What’s the ops plan once everybody’s inside?” Melanie asked.

“Bridget sticks with Trevor every step of the way. He makes the contact with Expo’s people, but she does the hand-to-hand. She tries to buy dime bags. We recorded the serial numbers on the buy money in advance ’cause that’s procedure, but prob’ly we let the money walk this time. Don’t make any arrests, try to build to something bigger. Ideally get a cell number or something, see if we can work up a wiretap.”

Melanie had been listening with great attentiveness. Now she looked over at Bridget and Trevor, who were laughing together conspiratorially. Bridget was wearing tight jeans, a black T-shirt, and boots, and she’d made up her eyes. She actually looked cute in a butch sort of way, but very young.

“You really think she’s up to this?” Melanie asked.

“Only one way to find out.”

“Seriously, Dan.”

“Look, she was on the mark with that text message before. I think we’re underestimating her. Weren’t you the one who said to give her the benefit of the doubt?”

Melanie sighed. If something got screwed up here…man, she couldn’t even stand to think about it. Still, there wasn’t much more she could do. In fairness to Dan, ops were really his baby.

“Okay,” she said, nodding.

He signaled to the rest of their group. “We ready?”

Linda looked at her watch. “Yeah. Fab D should be at the station by now.”

“Let’s go,” Melanie said.

 

 

FABULOUS DEON KNEW how to command a room. Resplendent in a calf-length mink coat, orange trousers, and patent-leather spats, he sported short, bleached-blond braids that stuck up all over his head like horns. His brown face was plump and sweetly feminine, his eyes sparkling with silver glitter eye shadow, so that the wispy little soul patch on his chin came as a surprise. His dubious gender and wild attire drew amused looks from some passersby in the subway station, while most others simply ignored him. This was New York, after all. Still, Melanie thought, they weren’t sneaking in under the radar withthisdude as their escort.

Deon waved excitedly to Linda, who rushed up to him.

“Hello, gorgeous!” Deon cried, double-air-kissing Linda while looking past her at Melanie. “Don’ttellme this is your gorgeous sister! So much fabulousness in one family is just too much tobear!”

“Don’t worry, D,” Linda said. “She’s not really fabulous. I just dressed her up tonight.”

“Shehasto make a comment,” Melanie said, smiling broadly. This guy was a trip. No wonder Linda liked him.

“Really,mee-ow. Don’t listen to her, sweet sister! You’re absolutely beyond. The problem won’t be getting you into Screen, it’ll be fighting themoff.”

“Thank you! This is my new best friend,” she said to Linda, as Fabulous Deon air-kissed her, too.

“Those are her buds over there. What do you think?” Linda asked Deon, pointing to where Bridget and Trevor stood, beside a grimy pillar, going over some last-minute instructions.

“Rest easy,” Deon said. “The pierced boy with dreadlocks will fit right in. Blondie’s no problem either. If she were a bit scrawnier, she’d even look heroinchic.”

Heroin— he doesn’t know how right he is, Melanie thought. “So, Deon, did Linda fill you in on what I do? I want you to have your eyes open. Because there’s some risk—”

“Oh, pshaw! I bring people to clubs all the time without the teensiest clue who they are. That is par for the course. Nobody would ever dream of holding it against me if somebody turns out to be a narc.”

“Still, a drug bust in Expo’s club would reflect badly on him, and he’s no pussycat.”

“Funny you should mention that. The fact is, I have a bone to pick with Jay Esposito. The man owes me over three thousand dollars for work I’ve done for him and never been paid for. And when I tried to collect, he blackballed me at several other clubs. You have no idea how helpless I felt until La Linda called me up tonight. You’re doing me a big favor by putting me in a position to exact some payback.”

“If you’re sure,” Melanie said.

“I’m sure.”

“Oh, and it’s okay to use Linda’s real name. They’ll probably recognize her from TV anyway. But you and Linda only just met me and these others guys at a club earlier tonight, okay, and you don’t know us very well.”

Deon nodded. “Smart idea, precious. Do you have a favoritealias?”

They worked out fake names for everybody on Melanie’s team.

“Ah, here’s our train, my chickens!” Deon exclaimed, as a southbound six rumbled into the station.

They all got on.

“Come, children. We have to go to the first car,” said Fabulous Deon.

They’d gotten on about five cars from the front, so they slowly made their way forward through the moving train. Heavy sliding metal doors at both ends of the cars opened onto narrow platforms. Melanie stepped carefully across the couplings as the train bucked ahead, wary of tripping in the borrowed stiletto heels, holding her breath against the acrid fumes and ricocheting sparks in the open tunnels. When they reached the first car, it was relatively empty, and they all found seats on a bench across from the conductor’s booth. Within minutes the train pulled into the Brooklyn Bridge station, opening its doors and turning off its lights to indicate it was going out of service. An announcement came on, telling everybody to exit.

“Stay here,” Deon said, and went to knock on the conductor’s booth.

The door slid open. Deon conversed briefly with the heavyset man inside, who consulted a list and nodded. Cash changed hands. Deon returned to his seat and flashed them an “okay” sign. A few minutes later, its lights still off, the train lurched forward. Looking out the window, Melanie saw blackness. A moment later the tracks curved, the train reached its southernmost point and just began to turn sharply uptown. A tumultuous scene came into view. Spotlights bounced off the soaring, tiled arches of a dimly lit, turn-of-the-previous-century subway station. The platform was mobbed with hundreds of writhing bodies dancing to earsplitting techno-pop music.

Melanie leaned forward and made eye contact with Bridget. “Are you all set?” she asked in a low tone, so Linda and Deon wouldn’t hear.

Bridget took a deep breath. “No prob. If Esposito sells it, we’ll find it.”

The subway stopped; its doors opened.

“This is us,” Fabulous Deon said, standing up.

They followed him off the train into the hot press of the crowd. Within minutes Bridget and Trevor had disappeared. Melanie would just have to trust the young detective to do her job properly and keep a watchful eye on Trevor. In the meantime she’d do some snooping around herself.

“What’s the plan?” Melanie shouted into Fabulous Deon’s ear.

“Let’s hit the bar. This way.”

Melanie and Linda followed as Fabulous Deon snaked his way through the densely packed crowd. The revelers were all young and gorgeous, the cream of New York City’s clubgoers in all their finery. Pants were tight, tops revealing, and heels high, yet everybody managed to look sleek and sophisticated rather than cheesy. Melanie felt relieved Linda had dressed her up; she wouldn’t have had a clue what to wear otherwise, and she would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb. Although the place was so jammed that most likely nobody would’ve noticed. The noise level hovered at a roar, swelling to a deafening clamor every few minutes as a train screeched into the station to discharge new revelers.

After waiting in line to check their coats, Melanie, Linda, and Fabulous Deon fought their way up to a mahogany bar set against a wall under an elaborate tile mosaic that spelled out “City Hall.” The three curvaceous blond bartenders wore identical low-slung jeans and tiny halter tops that revealed pierced navels. After several attempts Linda got a bartender’s attention and ordered them apple martinis. When the drinks came, Melanie took a sip of hers and gasped.

“Powerful,” she choked out, eyes tearing up.

“They have a heavy hand here,” Linda said. “It’s one of the reasons Expo does well. He doesn’t stint on the liquor. Speak of the devil—that’shim. Told you he always puts in an appearance.”

Linda nudged her and gestured toward a tall, muscular guy with a shaved head who stood between two lithe models at the far end of the bar. Jay Esposito looked every inch the mobbed-up nightclub mogul. He was maybe forty, with handsome, Mediterranean features and dark eyebrows. In the middle of a New York winter, his attire was pure South Beach—a white linen suit and a black silk T-shirt setting off a deep tan, an enormous diamond stud glittering in one ear. As she watched, he threw his head back and guffawed, revealing a flash of white teeth. Melanie could see why a messed-up wild child like Whitney Seward would be attracted to this guy. He gave off criminal charisma like musk.

The target was right there in front of her.Down, girl, down. She should stay where she was. Sit back and allow events to take their course without injecting herself. Let the agents do their job. She scanned the jam-packed club, looking for Bridget and Trevor. Wherever they were, they weren’t anywhere near Expo. Still, it wasn’t her place. Even if this opportunity slipped through their fingers, surely somehow another would come along. She’d find Carmen Reyes anyway. Right?


Page 21

Melanie turned to her sister abruptly. “Introduce me,” she snapped, gesturing toward Esposito.

“I don’t know him. But Fab D can hook us up.”

Fabulous Deon was busy hitting on the bodybuilder type standing next to him at the bar. Linda tapped Deon on the shoulder. He leaned over, lips pursed in an annoyed moue.

“Honeychild, I am otherwise engaged.”

“Fab D, are you blind?” Linda said. “That guy’s straight.”

“You think so?”

“Mos’ def. Come introduce us to Expo before you get the shit kicked out of you.”

“Oh, yes. I’m going to enjoythis. Come along.”

Deon sashayed ahead, beckoning to them to follow. As they approached, Esposito caught sight of Deon and waved at him with a fat cigar held between thumb and forefinger.

“Deon,” Esposito said in a whiny voice, “why aren’t you working tonight?”

“Funny you should ask, sire. Perhaps because you didn’tbookme and haven’t paid me for the last six times youdid?”

“Yeah, well, whaddaya want, things’ve been slow. Maybe if you’d stop whining like a little bitch, I’d tell my booker to call you.” Esposito looked at Melanie and Linda appraisingly. “So introduce me to your friends.”

“This is Linda Vargas, from Channel Sixteen, and her friend…uh…what did you say your name was, precious?” Deon asked.

“Marilyn Corona,” Melanie said to Expo. “I just met these guys at another club, and they dragged me over here. They said Screen was way cool, and they’re right.”

As Esposito’s eyes raked over her body, Melanie imagined she saw a flicker of suspicion. “Yeah? What club were you just at?” he asked.

“Railroad Forty-seven,” Deon answered quickly, thank God, because Melanie couldn’t’ve come up with a club name to save her life.

“Yeah, that place is a fucking pit,” Esposito said, seeming mollified. “What’re you girls drinking?”

“Appletinis,” Linda replied.

“Cindy, apple martinis over here for my friends,” he called to one of the blond bartenders, who slapped fresh drinks on the bar for them instantly. At Esposito’s merest gesture, several patrons vacated their bar stools so Melanie and Linda could sit down.

“Thank you,” Melanie said.

“Don’t mention it.” He leaned across her and mashed out his cigar in the remnants of somebody’s drink. She caught a whiff of spicy cologne.

“Good crowd tonight, Expo,” Linda said loudly, arching her back so her chest stuck out. It worked, because Esposito started talking to her cleavage.

“Yeah, we’re busy this week. People still in town, but they’re celebratin’,” he said.

“You really come up with some hot locales. I’m crazy for this subway thing. In fact, I’d love to feature it in my nightlife segment.” Linda was looking up at Esposito from under perfectly mascaraed eyelashes. Melanie nearly laughed out loud at her sister’s blatantness. The girllovedto work the celebs.

“Nah, you know, I like press on my big clubs, but Screen I keep on the DL or else it loses its cachet.”

“Oh, sure, I get it.”

“You wanna cover the bash I’m doing down in Palm Beach on New Year’s Eve, though, I’ll get you on the list.” Something behind them seemed to catch his eye. “Hold on a second,” he said, and walked away.

Linda leaned over. “You think he likes me? He could really help my career, you know.”

“You’re not serious!” Melanie wrinkled her nose.

“Chica, that’s why God invented dimmer switches.”

“His looks aren’t bad, Lin. It’s the fact that he’s a major criminal that bothers me.”

“That’s just PR! He cultivates that image to promote his clubs.”

“Yeah, why do you thinkI’mhere?” she said under her breath.

Melanie restrained herself from regaling Linda with tales of the evidence against Expo. Doing that while sitting in his bar was not a smart idea. She glanced around and spotted him, standing out like a beacon in his white suit. He was talking to an enormous guy with an angry, dimesize scar on his left cheek—presumably the bodyguard who’d been asking about the case in Judge Warner’s courtroom earlier today. As she watched, they both turned and looked directly at her. The little hairs on Melanie’s arms stood on end.

Calm down, she told herself. Gabriel Colón had said nothing when those thugs visited the courthouse looking for information, and Melanie was using a false name. Esposito couldn’t possibly have a clue who she was. Granted, Linda had given her real name, and the two of themdidlook alike. But still…

The bodyguard seemed to melt away into the crowd. Esposito walked casually back to the bar and threw his arm around Melanie’s shoulder. Claustrophobia overwhelmed her instantly, but she steeled herself to accept his touch. A young girl was missing, and this might be a significant opportunity to find out more.

Copying Linda, Melanie smiled up at Esposito through flirtatious lashes.

“You’re back,” she said, in her most seductive voice, like she’d been waiting with bated breath.

“You’re set, the botha youse. I put your names on all my lists. Anything you want in my clubs, just ask.”

That must’ve been what he’d been talking to the bodyguard about. She breathed a small sigh of relief.

“Cool,” Linda said, nodding but looking at Melanie with obvious confusion.

Esposito’s thick fingers caressed Melanie’s exposed back. She forced herself not to pull away. She’d make conversation, see where it went. If he liked her, maybe he’d give her some private cell number they weren’t aware of or tell her some unknown address.

“It must be a lot of pressure, being a celebrity and all,” she said, looking up at him seductively.

“Fuckin’ A. But I love every second of it. You wanna know what my secret is?”

“You bet I do.”

“Work hard, play hard. Do business all day, party all night. Blows off the steam.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Melanie said, and took a swig of the appletini. It was going down easier with every minute that passed.

“Hey, if you like to have a good time, I can hook you up,” Expo said, his fingers inching down her back toward her derriere.

“Yeah? What’ve you got in mind?”

“What’s your pleasure? I have a little office in the back where I transact my private business. I can arrange whatever goodies you like. You name it, we got it.”

Esposito’s office, which was full ofdrugs? How tempting wasthat? But no, really, she’d promised Dan—no heroics. Well, maybe “promised” was too strong a word. Hadn’t it been more like a statement of intention? And here circumstances had changed and all….

“You interested or not?” Esposito demanded. “Because if not, plenty of others are.”

“I’m game,” Melanie said. Shehadto do this. Carmen was still missing.

“What about you?” Expo asked Linda, and then he winked, saying, “I can handle two girls at once.”

Nervous as Melanie was about being alone with this guy, no way was she exposing Linda to danger.

“I’m not into that,” Melanie said firmly. “She’s here with someone anyway, right?”

Linda’s eyes widened. Melanie couldn’t tell if her sister understood what was going on or not. “Ri-ight,” Linda said, hesitantly at first, then, “yeah, I’m with somebody.”

“What the hell, it was worth a shot. Catch you later, then. Come on, you,” Esposito said, yanking Melanie to her feet. The room swam. She’d been stupid to guzzle that drink, but it tasted so good going down. Man, she was pathetic at holding her liquor.

“Hey, Linda,” Melanie said, putting all the significance she could manage into her facial expression, “find my friends and tell them I’m hanging out with Expo, okay? Will you do that for me, so they know where I am?”

“Okay.”

Esposito took Melanie firmly by the arm and began to steer her toward the far end of the subway platform, where the tiled walls curved away into the blackness of the tunnel. Melanie threw a final, imploring glance over her shoulder to Linda, who had already turned away and was heading toward the dance floor. Melaniethoughtthat Linda had understood, that she’d go find Bridget and give her a heads-up. God, she hoped so.

Esposito’s powerful fingers bit painfully into her wrist as he pulled her through the crowd. He leaned over, his lips grazing her ear. “I love to party with Spanish girls, you know.”

Oh, great, score one forla raza.

“Really?”

“Yeah. What’s your name again?”

“Marilyn.”

“You remind me of this old girlfriend of mine, Mirta. She was hot. Unbelievable blow jobs, this girl could give. She had no gag reflex. She died, though. Very sad.”

“How’d that happen?” Melanie asked, her antennae up. No gag reflex. Could come in handy for more than just blow jobs. But Esposito acted like he hadn’t heard her.

They had reached the far end of the platform. Esposito pulled a small flashlight from his pocket and shone it into the tunnel beyond. Melanie heard scurrying noises as the beam of light bounced off grimy walls, illuminating nothing. God, it was dark in there. As if from nowhere, the bodyguard with the bullet-hole scar materialized, nodded to Esposito, and took up a position at the edge of the tunnel. Even if somebody came looking for her now, Melanie had the sneaking suspicion Bulletface wouldn’t let them pass. Whether Esposito wanted sex or had something more sinister in mind, Melanie was forced to admit that this was shaping up into a pretty bad idea. She needed to get away from this guy. Now.

“I think I heard rats,” she said, stopping dead at the edge of the tunnel and beginning to backpedal. “I’m not going in there.”

Had Linda found Bridget or Dan? Where the hell were they? She turned frantically, her eyes searching the turbulent crowd to no avail. Melanie was running out of time. Esposito tightened his grip on her wrist just as another number-six train roared onto the curving tracks.

“Fuck the rats, hon,” Esposito said, yanking her practically off her feet. “I’ll take care a’ ya. Let’s go.”

 

26

 

CHELSEA PIERS WAS not a place he would normally choose to visit on a night like this, with a frigid wind blowing off the Hudson. Hell, there were icebergs bobbing in the river; he could see them from here. Fucking winters. Whatever happened to global warming? Urban renewal had turned the piers into a city kid’s sports paradise—bowling alleys, climbing walls, and the like housed in brightly painted buildings. The transvestites and drug dealers of years past were long gone, but it was still a no-man’s-land down here. Dimly lit, desolate. The perfect place to corner a vulnerable young girl. Which was exactly why he’d come.

There was so much information on the Internet if you had the first clue where to look. Like Lulu Reyes’s ice-skating schedule, for example. There for all to see, with minimal digging. The evening hours were cheapest, it turned out, and the girl ranked competitively in her age group. She came here all by herself. People were so careless, so arrogant. They assumed that nobody would ever want to hurt them or their children. They almost deserved it, when you thought about it.

To get to the Sky Rink, you had to pass through a cavernous, deserted parking garage. His shoes had soft soles; they didn’t make a sound on the concrete. Even if they did, the wind howling through the open rafters would mask the noise. Lulu would come this way when her ice time was over, huddled in her parka against the bitter night, and go wait alone at the bus stop. Nobody was around. It was very dark. Lulu was exhausted, grief-stricken, distracted. She wouldn’t notice anything until it was too late, and then the river was right there to dump the body. Not that he planned to do that tonight. He needed her alive, to ensure her sister’s cooperation. It was tempting, though. He had to admit, he was beginning to enjoy killing people, even though murder wasn’t in the original game plan.

The big metal elevator heaved and shimmied its way up to the Sky Rink. He came out into a large seating area that reeked of what he first thought was vomit and then realized was the soggy cheese on the pizzas at the concession stand. A bunch of janitors sat around watching the Islanders game on a wide-screen TV mounted high on the far wall. None of them gave him so much as a glance, which was lucky, because the place was lit up like the Fourth of July. Anybody looking would have no problem identifying him later. But he wasn’t worried. Like he always said, people were oblivious.

There were two rinks, one on either side of the seating area. He chose the one on the left. Got it on the first try. Lulu was immediately recognizable, nearly alone on the ice at this hour. She had the stringy limbs of a colt and an adolescent awkwardness, but you could tell she’d be really good with the proper coaching. A lot of the elements were already in place: impressive technical skill for her age, a ferocious energy in the way she attacked the moves. But she lacked artistry. He should really stop, though, shouldn’t he? It wouldn’t do to start thinking of Lulu as too much of a person. Better to keep his emotional distance and be free to take whatever action proved most…advantageous.

He climbed the aluminum bleachers and took a seat front and center. All she’d have to do was look up once and she’d see him. He had no doubt that Lulu would immediately understand why he was there. She wasn’t stupid, and she knew enough about what had happened to the other girls. Shemust, or else she would have told the cops by now how to find her sister. Because she’d definitely seen him the other night.

He sat there for a while, the cold seeping into his bones as Lulu skated and skated. Jumps and spins and arabesques. Eventually she turned and began gliding smoothly toward the half door that led off the ice. That was when she looked up and saw him—and instantly tripped over her skates, tumbling facefirst to the hard, gleaming surface.

 

27

 

ESPOSITO PULLED MELANIE along a narrow ledge above the tracks. Light poured into the tunnel, courtesy of the headlamp of the number-six train that sat spitting and heaving in the station like some prehistoric beast. She’d better be damned careful of her footing: In a second the train would roar by, ready to eviscerate anything—anybody—in its path. The thought that Esposito knew who she was, that he might decide to push her onto the tracks, was farfetched. She tried to tell herself this but still couldn’t seem to shake the terrible image from her mind. Esposito just gave off that vibe. And besides, she was doing something completely reckless.


Page 22

Like most New Yorkers, Melanie knew by heart the sounds of a subway train gearing for takeoff. She listened to the familiar sequence now with intense focus. The singsong warning bells that accompanied the closing doors. The hissing as the brakes released. And finally—as her chest heaved with panic, as Esposito grabbed her arms with powerful hands—the thunderous rumble of the train moving into the tunnel, heading smack for her. She screamed, throwing her body weight toward the wall, away from the tracks. Esposito laughed and, holding tight to her bare arms, let her pull him along, using gravity and his bulk to trap her against the slick tiles. In an instant, the train was gone, and she was twisting away to avoid his sloppy tongue kiss. It seemed he hadn’t intended anything beyond a grope.

“You’re a crazy one,” he said. “I like that in a woman. Let’s see what other tricks you got up your sleeve. My office is right here.”

He pushed open a metal door set into the tile wall to reveal a small, brightly lit storeroom. It was meagerly furnished, with a couple of low foam sofas, a card table strewn with papers, and, leaning incongruously against the wall, a sleek leather bag holding a full set of titanium golf clubs. Her heart was still pounding with adrenaline as she quickly scanned the room. She didn’t see any drugs—or anyplace to hide drugs either. Esposito pulled the door closed behind them and advanced toward her.

“Hey,” Melanie said, backing away, “where’s the candy store you promised me?”

“Just using me to get hooked up? That’s not very nice, is it?”

“Youoffered.”

“I need a little showing of good faith first. Like one of them special Spanish-girl blow jobs.”

He reached for his fly. She started to gag. So much for her resemblance to good old Mirta.

Just then the metal door flew open with a crash.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Dan O’Reilly demanded from the threshold.

“Who are you?” Esposito asked.

“That’s my girlfriend, asshole!” He turned to Melanie. “Answer me, you slut. What are you doing in here with this scumbag?”

“Nothing,” she said, shrinking away like she was afraid of Dan. “I swear, baby.”

Dan stepped into the room and grabbed her by the arm. “You think I don’t know what you’re up to? I can’t turn my back on you for ten seconds without you spreading your legs for some lowlife. You’re coming with me.”

“Yo, calm down, pal, nothing happened,” Esposito said, making no move to stop them as Dan pretended to drag Melanie toward the door.

“Stay the fuck away from her, or I promise you you’ll regret it,” Dan warned.

Esposito just waved his hand nonchalantly. He let them go without a fuss, like it was nothing to him. But as she and Dan passed through the metal door, Melanie cast Esposito a final, curious glance and found him looking at her with cunning eyes.

 

28

 

AFTER A QUICK SEARCH failed to turn up anybody else from their team, Melanie and Dan decided to hop the next six out. She left a message on her sister’s cell saying she was safe and another for Bridget telling her to come back to the pub where they’d met earlier once she’d completed the buy.

“We had a deal,” Dan said as they settled into a booth at the pub twenty minutes later. He glared at her, so angry his breathing was rapid. “That was way out of line, what you did back there. You put yourself in danger, and other people, too. Prosecutors shouldn’t work undercover. They don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, so they don’t take basic precautions. Like a wire and a backup team and a prearranged signal for when things go south.”

He paused for breath.

“You done?” she asked.

“No, I’m just getting started.”

“Oh, come on, Dan, I wasn’t looking to work undercover, and you know it. Bernadetteorderedme to go to the club to monitor Trevor. It was just chance that I met Esposito. Once he told me he had drugs in that room, what was I supposed to do? Ignore the lead? This is an urgent matter. Am I the only one who remembers that Carmen Reyes is still missing?”

“Esposito lied. There were no drugs in that room. I checked it out before you ever went in there.”

“Fine, he lied. How was I supposed to know?”

“Any idiot could see the guy was just trying to get into your pants. You’re not taking any more risks like that. I won’t allow it.”

“What are you talking about?Youtake risks every day.”

“That’s my fuckingjob. It’s what I’m trained for. You’re a lawyer, not a cop.”

“Hey, I can handle myself, all right? You have no business telling me what to do.”

“Yeah? Whose fault is that?” he snapped back, eyes blazing.

A young waitress dressed in black pants and a white shirt came over and swiped at their table desultorily with a damp rag. “Menus or just drinkin’?” she asked.

Melanie stared at Dan, taken aback by his last comment, but he deliberately avoided her gaze. After a moment she gave up.

“I missed dinner,” she said, sighing. “I could eat something.”

“Yeah, okay. Me, too.”

The waitress left them menus. Melanie studied hers for a second, then peeked over the top of it, watching him as he perused his. Whose faultwasit that they weren’t together? He seemed to be implying it was hers. A pang of longing swelled her chest, making it hard to breathe. Even when they argued, being around him felt so right. This thing between them didn’t want to die, and maybe she shouldn’t let it. Life was too short. Weren’t they wasting time, being apart?

He looked up and caught her staring. “What?”

“Shouldn’t we talk?”

“About what?”

“You know. You and me. Us. Before.”

“What’s there to say?” he demanded angrily.

“I don’t know. Never mind.”

Her heart sank. It must’ve showed on her face, because Dan’s expression softened noticeably.

The waitress came back. Dan ordered a cheeseburger and a beer, Melanie a club sandwich and a diet Coke, though she’d completely lost her appetite. Her stomach hurt, in fact.

“Hey, look,” Dan said after the waitress left, “I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

She didn’t say anything.

“All right, you wanna talk aboutus? Fine. The way I see it, I laid my cards on the table from day one. I told you how I felt. And you said you didn’t have room for me in your life. So I took you at your word and walked away. End of story.”

“I never said that,” she protested.

“You’re right. You actually said something much worse. You said you didn’t have room to fall in love, which told me you weren’t. In love with me, I mean. August twenty-seventh of this year. See, I even remember the date. Not too often a person gets kicked in the chest like that.”

Their eyes held, and so much meaning passed between them that Melanie could’ve sworn her whole life flashed before her eyes. The past and the future all wrapped up in one glance. She imagined herself much older, married to Dan, with grown sons who looked like him. Without fully intending to, she slid closer to him until their knees touched under the table. Dan’s legs were as solid and powerful as tree trunks.

“You still with your husband?” he asked quietly, holding her gaze.

“No. That’s over.”

As they stared at each other, Bridget Mulqueen suddenly materialized at the end of their table. Her squeaky voice shattered the moment as effectively as a car alarm on a moonlit night.

“Hey, you guys! You’ll never guess what happened. We almost did a controlled buy of fricking aspirin!”

Bridget smacked herself on the forehead comically with her open hand as she slid into the booth next to Dan. Trevor Leonard appeared and just stood there looking awkward. Melanie patted the seat beside her, and he sat down.

“Didja lose the buy money?” Dan asked, frowning.

“Naw, dude, I know what X looks like,” Trevor said proudly. “I put a stop to it before Detective Mulqueen handed over the dough. Can’t scam a scammer.”

“I knew it was fake, too!” Bridget protested.

The waitress set down their drinks. Bridget picked up Dan’s beer and took a big gulp, then realized what she’d done. “Oh, jeez, I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay,” Dan said.

“I was just really parched. I didn’t think. I’m sorry.” Bridget seemed on the verge of tears.

“Hey, kiddo, no big deal,” Dan said, patting Bridget’s leg. “Keep it. There’s more where that came from. Want something to eat? You look like you could use it.”

“Okay, sure.”

Bridget gazed at Dan a bit too adoringly for Melanie’s comfort. Though she knew Dan was simply acting like a decent human being, Melanie felt a sharp twinge of jealousy. This was getting out of hand. She’d better calm herself down and chill out about this guy. They had a case to do. A missing girl to find. She couldn’t afford to get all distracted with emotions. Emotions were bad for your concentration.

“Yeah, you guys should both order something,” Melanie made herself say. “But no alcohol, Trevor. Since you’re underage, drinking is a violation of your bail conditions.”

“Fill us in on what happened,” Dan said. “What were you doing negotiating for ecstasy anyway? You were supposed to buy heroin so we could test it against the decks from Whitney’s apartment.”

“Well, we were trying to get to Expo’s people,” Bridget said. “Looking for the two bodyguards. Trevor recognized the big black guy, see, so we approached him. We told him we wanted to score heroin, but he steered us to the Russian guy, who said he only had ecstasy. So we said okay, figuring we start with ecstasy and work our way up, right? The guy asks for the money up front, but I didn’t give it.” She hesitated, struggling over what to say next, but honesty won out. “I mean, okay, I might’ve given it to’m, but Trevor, like, shakes his head not to. Then the guy brings back some blue tablets, and Trevor scrapes at ’em and goes, ‘This shit is counterfeit.’”

“Oldest trick in the book,” Trevor said. “They take fucking Excedrin, put a coating on it, and mark it like X. I tried pulling that once myself to make some extra cash, but for all the work you gotta do to pull the scam, it’s not even worth it.”

“But still, I think we made some headway, right, Trev?” Bridget said.

“Yeah, ’cause afterward we catch up with the black dude, and I go, ‘Yo, your boy tried to rip me.’ And he goes, ‘Hakuna matata, it’s a little hot in here right now, son, but I’ll catch you on the rebound.’”

“What did he mean by that?” Melanie asked.

“You know, no worries, like he’d do me solid next time. Make it right. Hook me up with some mad H,” Trevor said.

“No, what I’m asking is, what did he mean by ‘it’s hot’?”

It was a question Melanie already knew the answer to. Anybody in law enforcement or with even a passing knowledge of the street knew what “hot” meant.

“That just means there’s cops around,” Trevor replied, his tone implying she was slow.

“Exactly,” Melanie said.

“What are you saying? That Esposito’s guys knew we were there working undercover?” Bridget asked.

“Well…” Melanie raised her eyebrows meaningfully and looked around the table at each of them. “They knewsomething.”

 

29

 

FABULOUS DEON SPOTTED Linda at the bar. “Well, hello again, honeychild. Thought I’d lost you,” he shouted over the music.

“I was hanging for a while with that guy Aidan who has that radio show, remember him?” Linda shouted back. She took a sip of her cocktail, pinkie extended.

“No, but you have so many men, how can one keep track?”

“Look who’s talking, D!”

“Are you joking? I am in such a dry spell, I swear I’m thinking about paying for it!”

“Never say that! You take too many risks,” she scolded.

“Ah, well, dearest, thank you for caring. But a person does need love.”

“Sex is whatyou’retalking about.”

“Semantics.”

“I’m gonna set you up with that lawyer I mentioned. The one who does work for the station? He’s nice, and he’s looking for a real relationship.”

“I’ll take a pass on that one. He sounds stupendously boring.”

“You could use a little boring, and fewer party boys. Besides, this guy has a house in Amagansett.”

“What good does that do me in December? Remind me next August, and maybe I’ll be interested.”

“Oh, look, D, Bettina Lloyd is over there! She just signed a major deal with Def Jam. I’m gonna see if I can score an interview. Catch you later.”

Linda pecked Deon on the cheek and floated off into the crowd. Deon sighed and ordered a double Macallan straight up. He tossed back the booze when it came, glancing around restlessly, thinking maybe he should just go home. What would hanging around Screen get him, except a few hours older and a few more ego-bruising rejections? If recent experience was any guide anyway. Maybe he should take Linda up on her offer and meet Mr. Stable-and-Boring. He was turning thirty-five next week, and the party scene, which still held sway over him with its high-voltage thrills, was not welcoming him with quite the same open arms it once had. The writing was on the wall, the bloom off the rose. People had grown tired of him. Pretty soon even dull old sugar daddies like Linda’s friend would look at him with indifferent eyes, so maybe he should set himself up while he still had the goods.

A completely hot young man wearing tight pants and a filmy wifebeater pushed his way up to the bar beside Deon and stood so close that their thighs touched in the tightly packed crowd. The boy had that look Deon went for every time—dusky-skinned, pouty-lipped, built. He ordered an expensive single-malt, then glanced back over his shoulder at Deon enticingly. Deon recognized the move. He’d used it to good effect himself, back in the day.

“Here, darling, let me get that for you,” Deon said, reaching for his wallet.

“Yeah, awright.” The kid had the sound of the projects in his voice. Which to Deon indicated that he might be more available than his dazzling looks would otherwise suggest.

“I haven’t seen you around here before. What’s your name?”

“Who askin’?”

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