READ CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 OF
The man Melanie Vargas was
talking to would die violently in a matter of minutes. But in the here
and now, he was so very alive as they debated the handling of a case
that she couldn’t have imagined it.
“You need to ask the judge to
put off the trial,” Lester Poe insisted. “The request has to come from
the prosecution. If I ask, we might as well call a press conference
right now and tell the world my client’s ready to snitch.”
They stood in the grand plaza
outside the federal courthouse in New York City. It was an eighty
degree afternoon in March, and the unseasonable heat blazing down from
the bright white sky added to Melanie’s anxiety. She was a young
prosecutor, respected in courthouse circles but unknown outside of
them. Lester Poe was the most famous criminal lawyer in America and
had been for thirty years. With his trademark shoulder-length white
hair and craggy, handsome features, he was highly recognizable.
Several people walking by had already turned to stare. Melanie didn’t
like talking about such a dangerous subject out in the open like this.
“Let’s keep our voices down,”
Lester was enough on edge
himself to accede to her suggestion, taking papers from his briefcase
with studied nonchalance, as if he was consulting with her about them.
The mere fact that they were seen talking shouldn’t arouse any
suspicions. They were adversaries on a celebrated case, scheduled for
trial in little more than a week’s time. Nevertheless, it paid to be
“You’re right,” Lester said in
a low tone. “You may want Atari locked up, but other people want him
Atari Briggs, Lester’s client,
was named for the video games his gangsta daddy had loved to play, and
their magic had rubbed off on him. He’d worked every heroin spot in
East New York and rained down murder and mayhem on his enemies, then
retired at twenty and turned his street cred to gold in the recording
studio. On the same day that Atari’s sixth CD went triple platinum,
DEA arrested him for a murder he’d ordered ten years earlier.
“What’s your client got to tell
me that’s worth killing him over?” Melanie asked. “Does he plan to
finger somebody else for the murder he’s charged with?”
“If all I had for you was a
lousy drug murder, honey, I wouldn’t keep you from your tuna fish
She smiled. “You take a pretty
bleak view of my lunch situation.”
“I know what the government
pays you,” he said, smiling back. “What I’m about to give you, you can
take to the bank. My client can give up Gamal Abdullah.”
“Call him what you will, but
we’re not talking about some lowlife in a suicide vest. Abdullah’s a
major player internationally.”
“I know exactly who he is.
That’s why I find it hard to believe that a rap artist has the goods
on him. This isn’t a ploy to throw me off my trial prep, is it,
He looked genuinely hurt.
“Darling, would I scam you?”
“You’re smart enough to try,
“Maybe with somebody else, but
never with you.”
Lester’s eyes lingered on her
face. They were stormy grey under dark brows, and he was famous for
mesmerizing juries with them.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” she said,
all business. “What does your client want to tell me?”
“About six months ago, Gamal
Abdullah used Atari’s yacht to meet with some of the biggest drug
kingpins in the United States.”
“Meet about what?”
“A major supply agreement.
Afghan heroin, to be exact, to the tune of a hundred million bucks a
week, with the proceeds going straight back to Taliban-associated
war-lords in Afghanistan.”
“Your client witnessed this
“Not only witnessed, he filmed
it. His boat has a state-of-the-art surveillance system. I haven’t
seen the DVD yet, but from what I understand, it’s enough to persuade
any jury. You’ll get Abdullah dead to rights, along with just about
every other major player in domestic narcotics in the whole damn
“Where’s this DVD now?”
“In a safe place. We can get it
for you, but in order to avoid arousing suspicion, that may take
“And I’m supposed to ask for
the delay in the meantime, with no proof?”
“You don’t trust me enough to
“You, I trust, but your client?
“Maybe a showing of good faith
would help. How about if I give you a significant lead for free, no
strings attached? You can check it out and see if I’m being truthful.
If you’re satisfied, ask for the delay by the end of the week.”
“Here it is, then, straight
from my client’s mouth an hour ago. Gamal Abdullah moves in and out of
Western Europe using various aliases. The current one is Sebastien
Calais. As of a few days ago, he was in Spain, first in Madrid, then
in a town in the south called Ronda, traveling under that name.”
“Okay, got it. I’ll have it
checked out right away.”
“And Melanie, secrecy is key
“No, you don’t, you can’t
possibly understand the full implications,” he said, his voice urgent.
“I don’t want to alarm you, but some very dangerous people would go to
great lengths to prevent this cooperation from happening. And beyond
that, I don’t trust the phone lines in my office. I think they’re
bugged. That may sound crazy to somebody your age, but I was bugged in
the sixties, in the South, when I was doing civil rights work. I know
“Lester, are you serious? What
are you doing about it?”
“I’m taking care of it. I have
a company coming in to sweep. The bug may have to do with something
separate and apart from the Briggs case, but in any event, the point
is, you and I cannot discuss this over the phone.”
Lester was watching the park
across the street as he spoke, his expression anxious.
“I promise,” she said. On an
impulse, she reached out and squeezed his hand. “Please, be careful.”
He turned his gray eyes back on
her. “That’s very sweet. You know, I can think of something that would
make me feel better.”
She laughed. “Don’t start.”
“Why not? We had a great time
when I took you out last summer, didn’t we?”
“That was business. You were
trying to recruit me. But now we’re adversaries on a case. Seeing each
other socially isn’t – well, it’s not a good idea.”
“When the case is over, then.
I’ll take you to Daniel, get us a great table. We’ll order the tasting
menu and a bottle of Margaux.”
Lester was a lot older than
Melanie, but that didn’t make him any less madly attractive. Her real
problem with dating was that she was still hung up on the last guy.
She had to get over Dan O’Reilly sooner or later. Why not sooner?
“When the case is over. It’s a
date,” she said.
They said their goodbyes, and
Lester dashed across the street toward his silver Maserati. As she
started back to the courthouse, Melanie noticed a man in a dark jacket
walking his dog. The dog was sniffing a parking meter, but the man’s
eyes were on Lester, blazing with such intensity that it caught her
attention. Melanie stopped to watch him.
Lester was at the door of his
car now, pulling keys from the pocket of his charcoal gray suit. As he
lifted the key toward the lock, the man with the dog held up his cell
phone and pointed it at the Maserati. Melanie had seen enough homeland
security training videos to recognize the gesture for what it was. The
hair on the back of her neck stood up.
“Hey!” she yelled, but the man
didn’t look up. He was focused on his phone, checking which button to
“Lester!” she shouted at the
top of her lungs. “Get away from the car! Get away from the car!”
She ran toward him, screaming, and
the force of the blast knocked her back off her feet.
The world erupted in fire and
blood. Melanie’s head hit the rough cement of the sidewalk, and she
cried out in pain. All around her, pieces of flaming metal rained
down. She was choking on thick smoke. She rolled over and threw her
arms over her head, feeling the wetness there. She was bleeding, but
the blood she saw all around wasn’t her own. Lester! Lester was dead.
She closed her eyes for what felt like a long time, not believing this
was really happening, thinking she could wish it away if she tried
hard. Sirens blared from every direction. Fire? Police?
The man with the dog! She needed to
tell them about him.
Melanie struggled to her knees,
dizzy and nauseous. She didn’t know how much time had passed. Strong
hands grabbed her under the arms and pulled her up.
“You need a doctor, miss?” the
cop shouted over the din of sirens. Two enormous fire trucks had
screeched to a stop mere feet from her. Men were jumping off, running
and shouting, throwing things down off the truck.
Melanie fought to stay upright.
Her legs were shaking so badly that her knees nearly buckled.
“It was a bomb!” she shouted,
her voice shaking, too. “I saw the guy detonate it.”
The cop was very young. His
eyes widened at her words. “You’re sure?”
“Absolutely. He detonated it
with a cell phone.”
“You see this man now? Look
around. Look everywhere!”
Black smoke poured off the
flaming wreck of the Maserati. Melanie’s eyes were stinging and
tearing from it. The fire extinguishers made a terrible hissing sound
as they spurted out their foam.
She squinted, peering through
the dense blanket of smoke. “I can’t see!”
Melanie staggered down the
block toward where the man had been. She turned first one way, then
the other, ignoring the throbbing pain in her head. He wasn’t there.
She couldn’t see him. He was gone, gone, gone.
“He’s gone!” she cried, her
voice a forlorn wail.
The cop whipped out a notepad.
“Male,” she said, trying to get
her breathing under control. “Thirties. Medium dark complexion. Middle
Eastern or Hispanic in appearance. Dark hair, black jacket, slender
build, maybe five eight, five nine. He had a dog on a leash. The dog
was brown, medium sized. A mutt, it looked like. It was a prop. The
dog was just a prop to make the guy blend in. I realize that now. I
bet it didn’t even belong to him.”
Melanie put her hand to the
back of her head. It came away red. She wanted to cry. Not for
herself, she wanted to cry for Lester.
“Did you see the victims?” the
cop asked, scribbling notes furiously. “Any idea how many people were
near that car when it blew up?
“One victim. Lester Poe, the
lawyer. Do you know who he is?”
“No. Should I?”
This cop looked like a
teenager, with big ears and baby fat. He was doing a fine job, but he
seemed nervous. Her opposing counsel had just been assassinated in an
important federal case. She needed to put her personal feelings aside
and give some guidance to this rookie beat cop. She needed to take
“Officer Ruiz,” she said,
reading his nametag. “I should have told you up front. I’m a federal
prosecutor. What you see here is a federal crime. Mr. Poe was murdered
because of a case he’s working on. Take the description I gave you and
put it out over the radio. Do it now. If you can grab this guy, you’ll
be a big hero with the FBI.”
He looked at her for long
enough to realize that she was telling the truth. “Will do. Yes,
ma’am,” he said, and ran back to his car.
* * *
The Atari Briggs case had been
big and splashy enough to warrant assigning the two top prosecutors in
the Major Crimes Unit – Melanie, who was the deputy chief, and her
boss, Susan Charlton, the chief. Susan was the first person Melanie
“Where are you?” Susan
demanded, her voice riddled with anxiety. “We’re all locked down in
here. There was a bombing outside the courthouse.”
“I know, I’m right there. I was
in it! They blew up Lester’s car. He’s dead, oh my God, he’d dead!”
“He was hit! Assassinated. Call
“I just turned on the tv. I
think I see you. Yes, it’s definitely you. You’re on New York One. It
looks like – is that. . . .Mel, is that blood on your clothes? Are you
There were a bunch of
television news vans on the block already. A camera pointed directly
at her. She’d felt the bright light on her face but assumed it
belonged to a fire truck.
Melanie turned her back on the
camera and walked fast in the opposite direction. “I’m fine. Susan,
did you hear what I said?”
“Somebody killed Lester.”
“Yes. With a car bomb. I saw it
happen. Lester and I were standing in front of the courthouse talking.
He’d just told me that Atari Briggs wants to cooperate, that he has
national security information, stuff I can’t discuss over the phone.
Then this man with a dog detonated the bomb. Right in front of my
eyes. I tried to warn Lester, but it was too late!”
There was silence on the line.
“Susan, are you there?”
“Yeah, I just – I can’t believe
it. What does this mean for our trial?”
“Who cares about the trial?
Lester Poe is dead, and I think they killed him to stop the
Thank God Melanie had pushed
Lester for details. She already knew a lot. She prayed that it would
be enough to work with, enough to pressure Atari Briggs to flip
anyway. Lester Poe had died trying to bring that information to light.
“You said you saw the bomber?”
“I saw everything.” Melanie’s
voice caught in her throat. “Susan, I saw Lester blown apart. I mean,
chunks of him landed near me. I couldn’t even tell what it was! Susan,
I cared about him. He was – he was my friend.” She started breathing
hard again, hyperventilating almost.
“Okay, okay. Come back to the
office, babe. Sam Estes keeps a bottle of bourbon in his desk. I’ll
have a shot waiting for you. It’ll calm you down. And I’m calling the
FBI right now. We can’t leave this to the beat cops. I’ll get a good
crime scene team out there right away.”
“Yes, good, do that. I’ll stay
here and wait for them to show.”
“No! You come back here.”
“Susan, no. I’m an eyewitness.
I can do more here. The crime scene guys might need to interview me.”
“I want you protected. You’re
not safe on the street.”
The cops had cordoned off a
large area around the blackened hulk of the Maserati. All the big
firemen were blocking Melanie’s view, but she could see that the smoke
had stopped, and they were spreading sheets over the remains piled up
in various places along the street.
“It’s fine. The fire’s out,”
Melanie said, choking back a gag.
“Mel, where’s your head? You
saw the bomber’s face. If this was really an assassination, and you’re
an eyewitness, you’re in danger.”
Copyright © 2008 Michele Martinez