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READ CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 OF MOST WANTED

Chapter 1

Melanie Vargas would normally never have dreamed of pushing her baby stroller into the middle of a crime scene. Sure, she was a dedicated prosecutor who believed in locking up the bad guys, but she was also a fiercely protective mommy to her six-month-old daughter. Then again, these were not normal times. Things were out of control in Melanie's life, in a big way. Not to mention that little Maya had a will of her own. You could almost say that Maya engineered the whole thing. Something huge was happening outside their window, and Maya didn't want to miss it any more than Melanie did. That chiquitita had law enforcement in her blood.

They'd been home in their apartment at ten o'clock on a steamy Monday night. Maya was screaming her lungs out, face bright red, as Melanie walked her up and down, danced with her, jiggled her around. Anything and everything to get her to sleep, but nothing was working.

Then, in a split second of silence while Maya drew a breath, Melanie heard the sirens. Not just a few sirens either, but the separate and distinct shrieks of police cruisers, ambulances and fire trucks. A big response. She'd been a prosecutor long enough to know the difference between those sounds and know what they meant. A ruckus like that in a tranquil, fancy neighborhood like this? Highly unusual -- and serious. Someone else had worse problems than she did tonight.

It took an eternity for Maya to suck that breath all the way in. But it came back out in one loud, piercing wail.

"Maya, listen," Melanie begged, moving frantically toward the window, trying to put a soothing sway in her step. "Do you hear that? Sirens. Sirens, oiga."

She turned Maya around to face the rectangle of window above the humming air conditioner, bouncing her up and down. For a blissful moment, the distraction worked. Maya quieted, her sodden brown eyes focusing on the hazy, shimmering air beyond the glass. Then a new bunch of police cruisers sped down Park Avenue. Their sirens blared, but you couldn't see them at all from this angle. Melanie craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the wide boulevard, over the tops of the low buildings on her side street. Too late. They were gone. Maya swung a pudgy fist toward the window and started to howl again. Frustrated, obviously.

"I know, I know, nena. The view is not what it should be." She pulled Maya close, resting her cheek on her daughter's silky raven hair, so like her own, trying to comfort her with caresses. No good. Maya struggled and fussed to get free.

"You're not ever going to sleep, are you?" Melanie said, looking into her daughter's face. "That's it, baby girl. We're going out."

She turned on her heel decisively and headed down the hall to Maya's room. Yanking the stroller from the closet with one hand, she settled Maya into it and buckled the safety strap. The bunny night-light on the dresser cast a warm glow on Maya's wet cheeks as Melanie pulled lace-trimmed ankle socks onto her tiny feet. The baby's sobs quickly faded to hiccups. No doubt about it, this little girl was happy to be going for a ride.

When they reached the lobby, though, Melanie's doorman had other ideas. Hector was Puerto Rican like her, and the slight lilt of a Spanish accent in his voice always reminded her of her father. The feeling was clearly mutual, since Hector fussed over Melanie like a protective papi who was convinced she couldn't take care of herself.

"Aw, no! Where you think you going? Something nasty happening out there. Sirens and everything."

"Hector, I'm a prosecutor. I can handle a few sirens." She stopped short of telling him that she liked the sirens. They were interesting. They drew her more than they scared her away.

"What about this little one? She don't want to go out!" Hector protested.

Maya leaned forward eagerly on her puffy, diapered bottom, grasping the toy bar strapped to the front of the stroller. She had completely stopped crying.

"Oh, yes she does! ¡Claro! You should have heard her screaming five minutes ago. I'm going to walk her till she falls asleep."

"By yourself at this hour?"

Melanie shrugged. Hector studied her face.

"When Mr. Hanson coming home, hija? He on business still? ‘Cause I ain't seen him around lately."

Steve Hanson was Melanie's husband. And no, he hadn't been around much lately, because Melanie had thrown his cheating butt out. She just hadn't brought herself to tell Hector yet. Or anyone else for that matter. Telling people would make it real, and she didn't want it to be real. The last few weeks were a bad dream she kept hoping she would wake up from.

The telephone at the doorman's station began to buzz.

"Answer your phone, Hector. And don't worry about us. We'll be back in ten minutes with this little girl fast asleep. Promise."

As Melanie exited the air-conditioned lobby, the heat and the racket from the sirens blasted her in the face. She drew a sharp breath and tasted something acrid. August in New York City was always unbearable, but this was different. The haziness smelled like smoke. She hesitated, looking down at Maya. Far from seeming troubled, her daughter gave a huge yawn and snuggled down into the stroller. That settled it. Melanie pointed the stroller south on Madison Avenue and headed in the direction of the flashing lights.

A few blocks ahead, people clustered in front of blue police barricades, rubbernecking wildly. The smoke in the air stung Melanie's eyes, but the crowds told her there was something worth seeing. She stopped momentarily to check Maya. Hah! Fast asleep already, black lashes resting against silken cheeks, a peaceful smile on her shell-pink lips. Melanie stroked her daughter's face. Amazing what an angel this one could be when she was quiet. Melanie pulled the stroller hood lower to protect her and made a beeline for the police barricades.

Two blocks down, she finally got a clear line of sight across the street to the source of the commotion. The posh, town-house-lined side street was a tangle of police cars. Two large fire trucks with American flags dangling from their backs were parked at unnatural angles in front of an imposing brick-and-limestone town house on the south side of the block. Hose lines ran through its massive, carved front doors and through the elegant windows on the first floor, crushing the lovely flowers in their window boxes. Firemen in full regalia ran back and forth shouting as water gushed out the front door and down the grand, curving limestone steps. Melanie thought about leaving, but she was definitely at a safe enough distance for the baby. Besides, now that she saw which house it was, she couldn't possibly leave.

Chapter 2

Melanie crossed the street, staring wide-eyed at the Bensons' burning house. They were acquaintances rather than friends, but she knew them. Everybody did. They were like celebrities in her universe. Jed Benson had been a famous prosecutor in her office years ago, then left and made a bundle in private practice. A serious bundle, like major lechuga. Melanie had met Jed and his wife, Nell, once or twice in passing, though never intimately, never for long. She wasn't in their league. They were the types who went out every night in black tie and jewels and got their pictures in the paper the next day standing beside the mayor. The types you'd think would be immune to tragedy like this.

The crowd was too thick for easy movement. Melanie maneuvered the stroller as best she could to a spot a few feet from the police barricade. The medical examiner's refrigerated van drove up. The crowd-control officers pulled aside the barricade to let the van pass. You didn't call the ME unless you had bodies. Somebody in that house was dead.

A ripple surged through the crowd. A woman fought her way up to the police barricade and grabbed the arm of a young cop with a dark crew cut.

"Officer, please, let me talk to the firemen!" the woman shouted over the din. "I know the house! Let me help!"

Between the backs of the people in the crowd, Melanie recognized Sophie Cho, her college roommate, still her friend. Sophie was an architect, and she had spent the last year working on a renovation of the Bensons' town house that made the society pages. Not only was her livelihood burning to the ground here, but she was personal friends with the family. Sophie looked deeply alarmed, face pale, eyes dark with worry. Melanie angled the stroller deeper into the crowd, not stopping until she reached Sophie and the cop at the barricade. The cop looked at Melanie, clearly trying to place her.

"Yeah? What can I do for you?" he asked.

"Melanie Vargas from the U.S. Attorney's Office," she said, reaching into the handbag dangling from the stroller handle and flashing her creds. "You testified for me on a drug seizure a few months ago."

"Sure, okay, now I remember," he said, instantly more polite. "Did you catch this case? You need to get in?"

"You work for Lieutenant Ramirez, right?" she asked, dodging his question. Case? They must suspect arson. Now she was really curious.

"Yeah. The lieutenant's over with the fire chief," the cop said.

"Can I speak with him, please?" Melanie asked.

Motioning to a nearby patrol officer to take over his post, the cop walked off to find Rommie. Sophie, who'd fallen into astonished silence at Melanie's approach, turned to her now with a terrified look.

"Was someone hurt? Are the Bensons okay?"

Melanie reached out and squeezed Sophie's arm as reassuringly as she could under the circumstances. But how reassuring could she be? Things looked grim for whoever was in that house.

"Soph, I don't know anything more than you do, but I'm going to ask the lieutenant who's in charge of the scene. And if you think you can do something to help, we'll let him know that."

"Yes. Please."

As they spoke, Romulado Ramirez strode toward them, the other cops and firemen giving way to let him pass. He was dressed sharply as always, but disheveled, his dark hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, his expensive blazer streaked with soot and dust. He sidestepped the barricade and came up to her.

"How you doing, kid?" He hugged Melanie and kissed both cheeks. He was dripping sweat, so much he got her face wet, and he held her for an extra minute, like he needed comfort. He must know Jed Benson. It made sense -- they were about the same age, and Rommie had worked with prosecutors in her office for a lot of years.

Rommie glanced at her baby stroller but, in his confusion, hardly seemed to notice it. "I don't get it, I didn't even call your boss yet. She got ESP? How'd she know to send you over here?"

Melanie's boss, Bernadette DeFelice, head of the Major Crimes Unit in the New York City U.S. Attorney's Office, had a close personal relationship with Rommie Ramirez. They knew each other very well indeed. He would surely talk to her, so Melanie needed to tread carefully to avoid getting caught in a lie.

She kept it as vague as she could. "I'm here to check out the scene, Rommie. What's going on?"

Rommie shifted on his feet nervously. "How much did Bernadette tell you? I didn't know she knew already that Jed Benson was murdered. She's gonna be real upset. And you know it's never good to upset Bernadette."

Sophie gasped. Shock hit Melanie like a slap in the face. Jed Benson, golden boy, star, murdered? She could hardly believe what she was hearing. A victim like him, a neighborhood like this? Impossible! At least, extremely rare. But if it was true, it was the kind of high-profile case that could make a career. And make a girl forget her problems. She wanted in. No, she needed in. It was fate, destino, that had called her here at just this moment. She was too junior to get assigned such a juicy case in the normal course of things, she knew that. But being at the scene of the crime gave her an edge. She could turn it to her advantage. This was her big opportunity, handed to her like a gift just when she needed it most. She would not let it slip away.

Melanie looked Rommie straight in the eye and mustered her most confident, professional tone. "I'm ready to work the case. The fire was an arson, right?"

"Set to destroy evidence of the murder, looks like." Rommie nodded.

"So Benson was already dead when the fire started. How was he killed?"

"Hard to tell, it's such a mess in there. I gotta talk to the ME."

Sophie grabbed the stroller handles as if to steady herself. Melanie glanced over at her, but Sophie immediately took a breath and straightened up.

"He was the only victim?" Melanie asked Rommie. "No family members?"

"His daughter was . . . her fingers were cut off. Amanda. She's fifteen. Maybe to get information -- who knows." He looked away, his voice breaking as if he might cry. After a moment, he pulled himself together and continued. "The housekeeper was beaten. They've both been taken to the hospital. Nell Benson wasn't home and still hasn't returned. We're trying to locate her."

"Any leads on the perpetrator?"

"Fled. Blue-and-whites patrolling the area, but we won't even have a physical description until the surviving victims can be interviewed."

"Okay," she said. "Let's go inside and examine the crime scene."

Rommie was taken aback. "You want to view the scene now? Melanie, this isn't show-and-tell for the prosecutors. Besides, what's your jurisdiction? Murder isn't normally a federal crime. The state DA's gonna go ballistic if I let you in."

"I could ask you the same question," she replied evenly. "Why is a narcotics lieutenant running this murder scene instead of somebody from Manhattan North Homicide? But I figure you work out the politics on your end. I'll handle them on mine. If we get to the scene first, we get first dibs. The state DA will have to live with that. There's always a way to federalize a murder charge. I just need to hit the books and I'll find ten cases to cite to the judge."

He shook his head uncertainly. "I don't know, Melanie."

She had to find the right words. She risked playing the card of Rommie's relationship with Bernadette DeFelice. "I understand. You want to make sure everything's done right, out of respect for Jed's memory. But remember, you have a special relationship with our office. If we get the case, we'll handle it with kid gloves. We'll consult you every step of the way. You won't get that kind of access from the DA."

"You think your boss is gonna consult? Dream on, kid," he said. But she read something different in his eyes. He was calculating the benefit of his direct pipeline to Bernadette. Melanie stood her ground, watching him, sensing that she'd scored.

Finally he said, "I'm not gonna stand around arguing all night. We got work to do. If the state's not here yet, that's their problem. You're faster, you get the prize. I'm warning you, though, it's gonna be ugly in there."

"I'm a big girl. I'll be fine."

That left only one logistical hurdle -- what to do with Maya while she went inside. Sophie regularly baby-sat for Maya. Unhappily single and dying for a child of her own, she begged to, in fact. But Melanie couldn't tell if she was too upset tonight. That reminded her -- she'd promised to let Rommie know that Sophie wanted to help the firemen.

"Rommie," Melanie said, "before we go in, I need to introduce you to my friend Sophie Cho. She's the architect who worked on redesigning the Bensons' house. She knows it inside out. She wants to help any way she can."

"Architect?" That got his attention.

"Yes," Sophie answered.

"Do you have the blueprints for this building?" he asked.

Sophie froze up. "They're on file with the Buildings Department," she responded stiffly. "Why?"

"I need them right away."

"I don't have them," Sophie said, shaking her head emphatically. "But I could go inside and -- "

"No civilians inside. You don't keep a copy for yourself?" Rommie scrutinized her suspiciously, as if he didn't believe her. He started to say something else, but one of a group of fire officials standing nearby called his name, gesturing toward the town house.

"All clear," Rommie said to Melanie. "I gotta get in there. I'll follow up with you later about those blueprints, miss. Here, gimme your name and number." He pulled a small memo book from his breast pocket. Sophie gave him the information. He jotted it down and disappeared back in the direction of the town house, leaving Melanie to follow.

"What was that about? Why did he want the blueprints?" Sophie asked.

"They're probably trying to figure out where the fire started."

Melanie reached out and smoothed Sophie's hair, studying her friend's face. Sophie's eyes were dry, but Melanie knew her well enough to understand she could be upset and never show it. Sophie kept everything bottled up inside. A short, intense Korean girl from Flushing, struggling to get to the top of what was, in New York at least, a cutthroat profession. She took a lot of things hard, and Melanie couldn't quite tell how she was taking this.

"Are you okay, chica?" Melanie asked gently.

"Me? I'm fine. It's the Bensons we should worry about. You need to do something, Melanie. I'll feel so much better if I know you're on the case. Let me take Maya home for you so you can do your job."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure."

"Well, if you're really up for it. I know how good you are with her." It was true. Melanie totally trusted Sophie with Maya.

"Okay, then it's settled. Don't worry, take as long as you need. If I get tired, I'll snooze on the couch."

"You're the best, Soph! Thank you so much."

Melanie gave Sophie her keys and some quick instructions. They hugged, and then Sophie grasped the stroller handles and headed off.

Melanie turned to the crew-cut cop, back at his post alongside the barricade.

"I'm going in with the lieutenant."

She must have sounded more confident than she felt, because he immediately pulled it aside for her. He had no way of knowing this was her first murder scene. She'd seen autopsy photos, all right, but no matter how graphic or disgusting, pictures were pictures. Hardly the same as real human flesh, slashed, ripped, burned, staring you in the face. She hoped she wouldn't gag or faint. It's all part of the job, she told herself, nodding at him as she drew a deep breath and marched toward the town house to view what was left of Jed Benson.

Copyright © 2004 Michele Martinez

 

 
   


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by Michele Martinez
author of Notorious,
Cover-Up, The Finishing School
, and Most Wanted

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