The Finishing School
By Michele Martinez
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Michele Martinez
All right reserved. ISBN: 0061121258
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 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, 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."
"Bern -- "
"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 2:00 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 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.
Excerpted from The Finishing School by Michele Martinez Copyright © 2005 by Michele Martinez. Excerpted by permission.
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