Read The Finishing School Online

Authors: Michele Martinez

Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Preparatory schools, #Manhattan (New York; N.Y.), #Mystery & Detective, #Women Lawyers, #Legal, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Vargas; Melanie (Fictitious character), #Suspense, #Women Sleuths, #Public Prosecutors, #Legal Stories, #Fiction

The Finishing School (28 page)

“Jeez, I was just trying to leave a voice mail. I didn’t think you’d be there this late.”

“Some people work hard.”

“I shoulda known. You’re like the Energizer Bunny,” he said, and she could almost hear him smile. He sounded so normal, so
himself
, with that deep, sexy voice, that she felt herself relaxing. Wanting to forgive him. But she’d fight that temptation to the death. Those terrible things he’d said about her! Who the hell did he think he was?

“For your information, I don’t love being here this late, so get to the point.”

“Whaddaya, there by yourself? Didn’t I tell you to be more careful, with Expo’s goons running around?”

“Please, spare me the phony concern for my safety.”

He sighed. “Fine, I give up. Forget we ever had this conversation. I’ll call back and talk to your machine.”


Fine
,” she said, and hung up.

A moment later her phone rang. Melanie let it roll over to voice mail. But she couldn’t help feeling curious: Dan was leaving a long message. An apology, perhaps? Maybe if he apologized profusely enough…But no way, José, she’d never forgive him. When the little red light finally came on, though, she grabbed the receiver and retrieved the message so eagerly that she felt embarrassed for herself.


Ms.Vargas
,” Dan began coldly, “
Special Agent Dan O’Reilly from the FBI calling to fill you in on a development on the case. Listen, I checked out James Seward’s whereabouts the night of the ODs. I’ll tell you, for a royal pain in the ass, you got excellent instincts. His timing is fucked up, just like you thought. The people seated with them at that holiday benefit claim Seward and his wife left way earlier than what he told you. Shortly after nine o’clock, to be exact. Everybody noticed, because the missus was trashed out of her mind. Seward had to practically carry her out. So I go after the Sewards’ doormen, like, What the fuck, you scumbags, you’re holding out on me, and wouldn’t you know, one of ’em miraculously gets his memory back. He tells me Seward brought the missus home, dumped her at the front door so hammered she could barely walk, slipped him a twenty to take ’er upstairs, and ran off. Chivalry’s fucking dead, ain’t it? Anyhow, the guy has a
real
clear recollection of what happened next, because—get this—he goes up in the elevator, holding Mrs. Seward so she doesn’t collapse, and rings the bell
. Whitney
comes to the door in her panties, looking stoned off her ass, goes, ‘Thanks, I’ll take it from here,’ and brings her mother inside. Three things this tells us: One, Whitney was still alive at around nine-fifteen or nine-thirty. Two
, Mrs.
Seward was home, prob’ly out cold, when the girls died. And three
, Mr.
Seward’s whereabouts are unaccounted for between, say, nine-thirty and midnight. Uh, that’s it. Have a nice life
.”

Melanie mentally added a conclusion number four to Dan’s list: Luis Reyes, in confirming that the Sewards arrived home
together
around midnight, had lied to her. And if he’d lied about that, what else might Reyes be lying about?

Man, people sucked sometimes. Witnesses lied to Melanie about matters of importance on a daily basis. Not just criminals either, but civilians. Some out of fear, some because they were covering for friends or family, some because they just enjoyed dicking around with the authorities. Whatever. Melanie expected it, she took it in stride. It was her job to zero in on the lie and blast away at it until she got to the truth. Once in a while, in egregious cases, she’d bring perjury or obstruction charges. But on a personal level, she was past caring, past disillusion. Or so she’d thought, until now. Strangely, Luis Reyes’s dishonesty truly stung. She’d cared about this
papi
, seemingly so distraught over his missing daughter. Yes, she understood that people in Reyes’s position often didn’t trust the police. But come on, she was no uniform, she was on his side. She’d spoken Spanish to him, like one of his own. She felt betrayed. Her blood boiling, Melanie grabbed her coat from where she’d thrown it on the floor, ready to rush over to Reyes’s basement apartment, barge in, and confront him.

But then her phone rang again. This time she saw from the caller ID that it was the phone outside the bulletproof door. She remembered she had an appointment, a plan. Even if Reyes had lied, she still had every intention of finding his daughter—hopefully, before much more time passed.

A few minutes later, Melanie was back at her desk, Bridget Mulqueen and Trevor Leonard seated across from her.

“I had an idea,” Melanie said. “So far Jay Esposito hasn’t said anything illegal over the cell-phone wiretap, am I right?”

“Nothing. Squat,” Bridget replied. “Everybody at HQ is majorly disappointed.”

“What if somebody were to approach the bodyguards tonight with something so huge that Esposito has no choice but to talk about it over his cell phone? I don’t mean a drug buy, now. They get those at Screen every night of the week, and obviously Expo’s cautious about talking drugs over the phone. I’m thinking of something much bigger.”

“Like what?”

“Like Carmen Reyes. There’s a good chance Esposito knows where she is. If we were to go to the club and start asking about Carmen, my guess is the bodyguards call their boss right away. Then, bingo, we’ve got ’em talking about criminal matters over the tapped phone. What do you think?”

Trevor nodded enthusiastically. “Righteous. I’ll do it!”

“Not you, Trevor.
Bridget
,” Melanie said. “If Expo really is responsible for Carmen’s disappearance, you start asking about Carmen, you become a target. It’s too dangerous.”

“So? I don’t give a shit.”

“Well, you should. This is no joke. Something awful happened last night.”

She filled them in on Fabulous Deon’s murder.

“That bludgeon vic was Deon?” Bridget said. “Jeez, that sucks! For being light on his feet, I liked the guy. But Expo’s not behind the murder. My cousin Frankie Leary from Manhattan South caught the case. He says it was a prostitute robbery gone bad.”

“Detective Leary is your cousin?”

“Yeah. He’s a hundred percent sure the killer was a pross. So Trevor can do the undercover.”

“I’m not saying don’t
do
it, but I refuse to use a civilian like Trevor.
You
go in there, Bridget. Claim to be a friend of Carmen Reyes’s,” Melanie said.

“Sure. I mean, if that’s the way you want to go, I can do that.”

“That doesn’t make sense!” Trevor objected. “Expo’s people know me. They know I hung with Whitney and Brianna. Coming from me, it looks real natural to ask about Carmen.”

“Trevor, trust me, it’s just not smart,” Melanie said. “Danger is part of any undercover operation. But when you’re nosing around about a missing girl who’s possibly kidnapped or murdered, people like Expo don’t play games. They kill you.”

“I don’t care. I’m not scared. I want to do it,” Trevor said, a calm, resolute look on his pierced face.

“Did I tell you about this witness I had on another case? A really sweet woman named Rosario Sangrador—”

“Yeah, yeah, you told me all about her. Different time, different place.”

“Don’t be so blasé. This could happen to
you
. Do me a favor, talk to Patty Atkins before you make a final decision. Please? She works late. I’ll get her on the phone,” Melanie said, reaching for the receiver.

“No!” Trevor insisted. “Hear me out, okay, Melanie? The way I see it, my whole life so far, all I did is get wasted and sell drugs. Maybe I got a decent grade now and then, but I never accomplished anything real, you know? Nailing Expo for what he did to Brianna, finding Carmen—those things matter. Your plan is sound, man. I want to do it for
myself
, like a self-respect thing. You couldn’t talk me out of it if you tried.”

You gotta love this kid
, Melanie thought. She imagined he’d make a fine cop—if it weren’t for the small matter of his criminal record.

“I’m responsible for your safety,” she protested, but she knew she was fighting a losing battle. She could see in his eyes that he’d made up his mind.

“It’s my life.”

Melanie sighed. “Okay, then we need to work out our plan very carefully. Because I can’t even
think
about what might happen if we screw up.”

 

 

AFTER TREVOR AND BRIDGET LEFT, Melanie sifted through her in-box and pulled out a copy of Ray-Ray Wong’s DEA-6 report detailing the interview with Luis Reyes. She wanted to give Reyes the benefit of the doubt, but damn, there it was in black and white: proof he’d lied. “REYES informed the undersigned that Mr. and Mrs. James Seward arrived back to the residence at approximately 2330 to 2400 hours and met up with REYES.” No mistake about it either. Ray-Ray Wong was a careful note taker, and besides, the report only confirmed Melanie’s own recollection of what Reyes had said. It was after ten, but this couldn’t wait. She was leaving for Puerto Rico first thing in the morning. She’d confront Reyes tonight.

The snow had turned to heavy sleet. Melanie exited the glass lobby doors, heading across the plaza toward the empty street. Small icy pellets hit her face, stinging her, collecting on her hair and eyelashes. She pulled her coat tighter, looked up at the strangely backlit gray-white sky and wondered if her flight would be canceled tomorrow.

Making it uptown was starting to look like a chancier proposition than getting to Puerto Rico. Melanie stepped off the curb, squinting through the driving sleet at oncoming traffic, looking for a cab. But the wide avenue, which ran through a canyon of tall courthouses and office buildings, was virtually deserted given the hour and the weather. Several blocks down, a few vehicles sat at a red light. The light changed, and they struggled slowly toward her, fighting for traction. A beat-up white van fishtailed on the glassy blacktop, then righted itself. Melanie spotted a taxi with its off-duty light on and hailed it frantically, but the driver ignored her.

After a few more minutes, an enormous plow sped by, spitting foamy black slush from its blade, forcing her to jump up onto the curb to avoid getting splattered. Once it passed, she stepped into the street again and sank into a puddle up to her ankles. The frigid water soaked right through her good suede boots.

Melanie trudged out of the puddle, feeling like the last person left on earth. Nobody out on foot, no vehicles approaching as far as the eye could see, the clicking sound of pelting sleet muffling everything else. She was beginning to feel vulnerable out here all alone. Not to mention cold and wet. Two more minutes and she’d give up and take the subway. She hated the deserted platforms at this hour, but the street on a night like this was hardly better. Anyway, who knew how long it would be before the next taxi happened by?

Across the avenue and up several car lengths, the headlights of a parked SUV flashed on. Strange. Melanie couldn’t recall seeing a person approach that car or hearing its engine start up either. Maybe she’d been distracted by her search for a cab? The enormous vehicle was covered in crusty snow, its outline softened and obscured. But as it maneuvered to pull out of the tight parking space, Melanie recognized it as an Escalade by its size and shape. It looked black, too—the same make and model Expo’s bodyguards were known to drive. In less than a minute, judging from its angle, the massive thing would pull free and head toward her. It would be in perfect position to run her down, too, with nobody to stop it and no witnesses. Melanie couldn’t see in through the tinted windshield. Granted, some soccer mom from Connecticut could be behind the wheel just as easily as Expo’s thugs. But she was beginning to have a bad feeling about this. Best not to stick around to find out.

There was only one small problem: To get to the only subway entrance, Melanie had to cross the street, making her a sitting duck if the Escalade came after her. She glanced over her shoulder at her darkened office building, but it was even farther away than the subway. And at this hour, if the lobby security guard took a bathroom break, you could stand there for ten minutes pounding on the locked door to no avail.

She looked back at the Escalade. It was nearly out of the space now, its massive wheels swinging toward her ominously, as if in slow motion. Shit.
Run for it
!

Melanie bolted into the street and raced for the subway entrance with all her strength. At the same instant, the Escalade finally escaped its parking space, tires spinning and crunching the sleet as they gripped the road. Fricking thing had unbelievable traction! Melanie was halfway across the street in one shot, heart in her throat, cold air stinging her lungs.
Goddamn boots! You had to be vain and wear three-inch heels
! Her eyes were fixed on the subway entrance, but her ears couldn’t ignore the roar of the Escalade close behind her. She hit the opposite sidewalk at a dead run, mere feet now from the subway stairs. Fumbling in her pocket for her MetroCard, panting with fear, she turned to look over her shoulder just as her boots hit a patch of ice. Melanie’s legs flew out from under her, her tailbone connecting with the hard cement and sending a wave of pain shooting up her spine as she skidded forward. In her peripheral vision, she saw six thousand pounds of steel jump the curb, barreling straight for her, as the sound of her own screams filled her ears.

 

37

 

BUD HAD a new cell phone in a fake name, to take Jay’s incoming calls. The way things had heated up lately, you couldn’t be too careful. No point in getting caught now. He planned to make it to payday, and Friday was only forty-eight hours away.

The fucking thing was already ringing as he walked in the door to the apartment. He glanced at the caller ID. What a surprise—Jay’s cell. Some wannabe kingpin this guy was! He couldn’t do a goddamn thing on his own.

“Yeah?” Bud said.

“Look, I think we might got a situation. I’m not sure,” Jay said, a roar of music and voices behind him. He must be at Screen.

“What?” Bud asked.

“Kid’s in here asking around about one of Whitney’s friends.”

“By name?”

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