READ CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 OF THE FINISHING SCHOOL
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.
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 read-out, 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, did not like to be kept waiting.
“Hey, Bern, it’s Melanie—“
“I know that, 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. Did he kill 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 a real job, 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.”
“Do you realize how 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—“
“Albano asked for 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 you understand what 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 two a.m., with music and laughter in the background. Up to his old tricks, the desgraciado. 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 entry foyer and peered through the peephole. Seeing him gave her a jolt. Mmm, too bad he still looked so good. Tall, lean, blonde 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 do you, 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 look hot. 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.
“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.
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 pot belly 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 nine-one-one, you believe that? Prick’s been on the phone non-stop 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 red-headed 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 diss a prosecutor that wants to buy me cars and radios.”
“So why call us now?”
“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—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.”
“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 nose full 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.
Copyright © 2005 Michele Martinez