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Heart of a Killer

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by David Rosenfelt

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Jamie Wagner is a young lawyer who is happy to be flying under the radar at a large firm. It's not that he isn't smart. He is. It's just that hard work, not to mention the whole legal thing, isn't exactly his passion. Underachiever? A little. Content? Right up until the firm puts him on a case that turns his whole world upside down.

Sheryl Harrison has served


Jamie Wagner is a young lawyer who is happy to be flying under the radar at a large firm. It's not that he isn't smart. He is. It's just that hard work, not to mention the whole legal thing, isn't exactly his passion. Underachiever? A little. Content? Right up until the firm puts him on a case that turns his whole world upside down.

Sheryl Harrison has served four years of a thirty-year murder sentence for killing her husband, who she claims was abusive. The case is settled---there shouldn't be anything for Jamie to do---except Sheryl's fourteen-year-old daughter, Karen, is sick. She has a congenital heart defect and will die without a transplant. Her blood type is rare, making their chances of finding a matching donor remote at best. Sheryl wants to be that donor for her daughter, and Jamie is in way over his head. Suicide, no matter the motive, is illegal. So with Sheryl on suicide watch, Jamie's only shot at helping her and saving Karen is to reopen the murder case, prove Sheryl's innocence, and get her freed so that she can pursue her plan on her own.

Heart of a Killer---a gripping story of an ordinary man faced with an impossible situation---is the most powerful and shocking thriller yet from David Rosenfelt, a true master of the genre.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Edgar-finalist Rosenfelt’s fine stand-alone begins as a legal thriller that twists into a murder mystery before becoming a full-blown suspense chiller. The life of Karen Harrison, a 14-year-old girl with a congenital heart defect, can only be saved by a heart transplant from a matching donor. Karen’s mom, Sheryl, who shares Karen’s rare blood type, wishes to donate her heart. Two complications stand in Sheryl’s way. First, she must die to enable the transplant. Second, in order to commit suicide, she must get out of prison, where she’s serving 15 years to life for her abusive husband’s murder six years earlier. That’s where Sheryl’s underachieving lawyer, Jamie Wagner, comes in. Jamie hopes to file a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey on her behalf, but his plans change when he learns Sheryl may not be guilty. Rosenfelt (On Borrowed Time) employs his usual wry wit to drive the well-paced plot. Author tour. Agent: Robin Rue at Writers House. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“An absolutely irresistible hook… No one who picks up this greased-lightning account will rest till it's finished.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) on ON BORROWED TIME

“Outstanding...Anyone who enjoyed Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island will love this thriller.” —Library Journal (starred review) on ON BORROWED TIME

“Excellent. All will marvel at the way Rosenfelt builds suspense.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) on ON BORROWED TIME

“Dynamite…Sly humor, breathless pacing, and terrific plot twists keep the pages spinning toward the showdown.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) on DOWN TO THE WIRE

“Rosenfelt's Andy Carpenter novels are known for their breezy storytelling and humor...This one eschews humor to focus on the actions of ordinary people faced with extraordinary trials. It also employs a whiplash plot turn…an engaging suspense tale.” —Booklist on DOWN TO THE WIRE

“A terrific plot and a gripping narrative.” —The Toronto Sun on DOWN TO THE WIRE

“I am raving about this book…a page-turning thriller.” —Deadly Pleasure on DOWN TO THE WIRE

“Stellar… Rosenfelt keeps the plot hopping and popping as he reveals a complex frame-up of major proportions with profound political ramifications both terrifying and enlightening.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) on DON'T TELL A SOUL

“This fast-paced and brightly written tale spins along...Don't Tell a Soul is a humdinger.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch on DON'T TELL A SOUL

“High-voltage entertainment from an author who plots and writes with verve and wit…Rosenfelt ratchets up tension with the precision of a skilled auto mechanic wielding a torque wrench.” —Booklist (starred) on DON'T TELL A SOUL

“Rosenfelt has earned his crime-novelist pedigree.” —Entertainment Weekly on DON'T TELL A SOUL

“He delivers a fast, inventive stand-alone thriller you'll never put down.” —Kirkus Reviews on DON'T TELL A SOUL

Kirkus Reviews
A lawyer who's never tried a criminal case suddenly finds himself with the world's unlikeliest pro bono client: a woman convicted of murder who demands the right to end her life so that she can donate her heart to her dying daughter. New Jersey doesn't have the death penalty, so there's no way Sheryl Harrison can be legally executed for the murder of her husband Charlie, even though she confessed at the scene six years ago. Once her request finds its way to about-to-be-fired associate Jamie Wagner, however, he's so smitten with the woman who calls him "Harvard" that he instantly starts doing his best to make her wish come true. Jamie does get Sheryl taken off suicide watch, but the New Jersey State Prison for Women insists on keeping her alive despite her fervent wishes. There's only one dim hope: that Jamie can get her original conviction overturned so that the woman he loves can go home and kill herself. After all, Newark police detective John Novack has never been entirely convinced of her guilt even though he's the one she confessed to. As these unlikely allies go forth on their quixotic mission, Rosenfelt presents tantalizing glimpses of the criminal mastermind they're up against: domestic terrorist Nolan Murray, a computer hacker who's prepared to cause high-casualty havoc throughout the nation's tech-dependent transportation and energy sectors if his extortion demands aren't met. What this monster has to do with Sheryl's plight, and whether Jamie will be able to fulfill her wishes and bid her farewell, are questions Rosenfelt answers with all his accustomed dexterity (On Borrowed Time, 2011, etc.). Warmhearted, satisfyingly inventive and almost too clever for its own good. Why isn't Rosenfelt a household name like Michael Connelly and Jeffery Deaver?

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Heart of a Killer

By David Rosenfelt

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Tara Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5050-3


"Jamie, Mr. Hemmings wants to see you." Alicia Waldman, my assistant, delivered the news. She said it with a stunned reverence, in the way she might say, "God is on line two." Actually, calling Alicia my assistant might imply too high a status level for me; she assisted four other lawyers in the firm as well, all of whom she liked more than me.

I had absolutely no guess why Richard Hemmings would want to see me. I was a twenty-nine-year old, sixth-year associate in the corporate litigation section of Carlson, Miller, and Timmerman, while he was a senior partner in the bankruptcy section. In non-law-firm parlance, when it came to dumping work on people, he was a "dumper" and I was a "dumpee," but we worked in very different dumping grounds.

We also worked on different floors in our Newark, New Jersey, office building. I was a second-floor guy with a view of the second floor of the building right next door. He was a tenth-story guy, which was as high as it went, with a view on one side of glorious downtown Newark, and a clear sight line to the airport on the other side.

I went right up, and his assistant ushered me directly into his office. He was looking out the window and turned when he heard me. "Jamie," he said, although he had never met me. He must have just known that he had sent for a Jamie, and figured I must be him. He might even have known that my last name was Wagner. Those are the kind of smarts that partners have.

"Mr. Hemmings," I responded, keeping the conversation humming. The culture in the firm was that everyone was on a first-name basis, but when it came to full partners, nobody on my level really trusted that. Better to address them formally, and let them correct you if they wanted.

He didn't, but fortunately came right to the point. "I assume you know that Stan Lysinger is out attending to a personal issue."

I knew that quite well, everybody did, if advanced lung cancer could be casually dismissed as a personal issue. "Yes."

"Everybody is pitching in until he gets back," he said, although we both knew that Stan was not coming back. "I'm taking on his pro-bono responsibilities."

I immediately knew why I was there. Most big firms feel a corporate responsibility, or at least want to look as if they feel a corporate responsibility, to do pro-bono work within the community. They generally like to assign lower- and mid-level people to these jobs, and Stan is, or was, the resident assigner-in-chief.

Most associates dread such assignments, because it takes them out of the mainstream of the firm, and can thus impact their ability to shine and make partner. I had no such concerns, since it had been clear for a while that I was never going to reach those heights. So I viewed a pro-bono assignment with a wait-and-see attitude; it would depend on the specifics of the assignment.

"It's with Legal Aid," he said, as my feelings went from mixed to outright negative. "You're to see an inmate in New Jersey State Prison named Sheryl Harrison."

"They're not going to brief me first?" I asked.

He looked at the file, as if reading it for the first time. "No. They want you to hear it from the client. Seems unusual."

"Does it say what she's in there for?"

He looked again. "Murder. She murdered her husband six years ago; slit his throat. Pleaded guilty. Got fifteen to life."

"Sounds like a nice lady," I said, but it didn't get a smile from Hemmings.

"You'll provide me with written reports on your progress," he said. "Until Stan gets back."

"Yes, I certainly will."

I lived then, and now, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which made me semi-unique among my colleagues at the firm. My apartment was on the third floor of a brownstone on Seventy-sixth Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam. It was a walk-up, common among those kinds of buildings in the area, and I tried to think positive by viewing the stairs as a way to stay in shape.

I suspected that my Manhattan residence was not viewed as a positive by my superiors, who no doubt felt that the forty-five-minute commute each way was time better spent in the office, doing work billable to clients.

It wasn't that I was anti–New Jersey; I was pro–New York. If I wanted a pizza at 11:00 P.M., I didn't want to have to preheat an oven. I wanted to go downstairs and get one.

Also, my favorite bars to hang out in were in New York, though I never really gave the Jersey bars a chance. I felt at home in Manhattan, on its streets, in its restaurants, with its women. And if a woman came in one night from Queens, that was fine as well.

The truth is that I would willingly date a woman from any of the five boroughs, with the obvious exception of Staten Island. Even that would be fine, if not for the fact that at some point I'd have to take her home, or meet her parents, or something like that. I've heard that people never come back from there.

I was and am a Manhattan snob, and that's where I'd soon be looking for a job. I was reaching that point at my tenure in the firm where one was either made a partner or encouraged to leave. I was certainly going to receive such encouragement, and I wasn't going to move to any job I couldn't commute to by subway or feet.

I got home from work at about 7:45, which was fairly typical. The phone was ringing as I was walking in the door. It was my friend Ken Bollinger, asking if I wanted to meet him for the first of what would become quite a few drinks.

Ken was and is an investment banker, on track to make ridiculous amounts of money, none of which he was willing to spend. He actually ordered beer based on price.

"Not tonight," I said. "I've got to be at New Jersey State Prison for Women first thing in the morning." It was a line I had never gotten to say before in my life, and I took my time with it.

"Excuse me?"

I explained the situation, after which he said, "There's nothing better than conjugal visit sex."

I knew he was talking about a Seinfeld episode in which George dated a female prisoner. He reveled in the idea of conjugal visit sex. Ken and I could talk for days, only using Seinfeld references.

"And no pop-ins," I said, since George had also considered it a huge plus that his inmate girlfriend couldn't just show up at his apartment unannounced.

"Can I go with you?" he asked. "Convicts never insist on going to expensive restaurants."

"No chance," I said. "But I'll see if she has a friend. Maybe a nice, frugal arsonist."


The prison was about a forty-five-minute drive from my apartment, though with New York traffic you never know. I didn't want to be late, since I couldn't be sure what the prison punishment for that might be. Solitary? Two weeks in the hole? No sense taking a chance.

Most people I know, and pretty much everyone I work with, are amazed that I keep a car in the city at all. There are trains that could get me to work, but I don't like them. Somehow when I'm in the car I feel like I'm in control, despite the fact that traffic jams can be awful and arbitrary.

I got to the prison a half hour early, which was just as well, because it took almost that long to identify myself, demonstrate that I had an appointment, and go through security. At ten after nine I was finally led into a small visiting room, where Sheryl Harrison was already waiting for me. She was sitting at a table with a folder in front of her.

I almost did a double take. I don't know what I was expecting, but it sure wasn't this. She was young, I would have said about my age, and quite nice looking. There was no hard edge to her, no scraggly hair, or tattooed arms. She was actually pretty, despite the prison garb and obvious lack of makeup, and there was a softness about her that took me off guard. Under different circumstances, this could be someone I'd be willing to follow to Staten Island.

George Costanza may have been on to something.

All in all, she looked like someone that ten years ago I could have taken to the prom, except for the fact that prospective prom dates are rarely handcuffed to metal tables, and almost never have a knife murder as part of their high school experience.

"I'm Jamie Wagner," I said, sitting down. "I'm a lawyer."

She looked me straight in the eye. Eye contact is not my specialty, but she seemed to silently mandate it. "Have they told you why you're here?" she asked.

"No, apparently I'm supposed to hear that from you. But I should tell you straight out that I have no experience in criminal matters."

She nodded. "That's okay; this isn't a criminal matter."

"It isn't?"

"No, and I doubt anyone has experience in what I need." She said it matter-of-factly.

"What might that be?"

"I want to die."

"A lot of women have that initial reaction to me." It was a stupid joke, meant to cover my panic and discomfort. What I really wanted to say was, "Guard! Get me out of here."

She didn't respond either way, not even to reprimand me for the misplaced humor. "I don't have much time," she said.

"Why don't you tell me exactly what's going on?" I asked, though I really didn't want to know.

She opened the folder and took out a picture, which she slid across the table to me. It was of a young girl, pretty but thin, who clearly resembled Sheryl, especially in the eyes. "This is my daughter, Karen. The picture was taken last year, when she was thirteen."

"She looks like you."

"Thank you. She hasn't been well for the last couple of years. Tires easily, poor appetite, not sleeping well. My mother, that's who she lives with, finally took her to the doctor for tests. We got the diagnosis two months ago."

This was not going to be good. "And?"

"She has a congenital heart defect. It's a progressive condition, and it will kill her, unless she gets a transplant."

"I'm sorry, but how does your dying help her?"

"She has a rare blood type, which will make finding a donor almost impossible. So I'm going to give her my heart," she said, definitely, as if the issue was already decided, and only the details were still to be worked out.

"Excuse me?"

She slid another piece of paper across the desk. It was a report from a doctor, with lab results and a written summary. I didn't read it at that point, because she was describing it.

"The prison doctor is a good guy; he took some of my blood and I had it tested on the outside. I have the same blood type, and I'm a perfect match."

"So you want me to get the prison authorities to let you give your heart to your daughter?"

"That's correct," she said.

"You'd be committing suicide in the process."

"You figured that out?"

It was as bizarre a conversation as I'd ever been involved in; this woman was actually asking me to arrange her death. But the situation itself and the surroundings felt even weirder, and that was mostly because of Sheryl Harrison.

People say that certain charismatic people, the Bill Clintons and Ronald Reagans of the world, are the center of whatever room they're in. They control the room by the force of their personality.

Well, Sheryl Harrison controlled this room, and she didn't do it with an entourage of assistants or Secret Service officers around her. She did it alone, wearing an orange jumpsuit, handcuffed to a table. It was surprising to me, and a little disconcerting. I would have thought, just going by our positions in life, that I would have had the upper hand.

I didn't.

Having said that, I was there because of my alleged legal expertise, so I figured I should demonstrate some of it. "Look, this is not a situation I'm faced with every day, but I believe that suicide is illegal, and —"

She interrupted me. "Actually, it's not. Assisting a suicide is illegal."

"And in this case you need assistance."

"Less than you think," she said. "But as you can imagine, it has to be carefully orchestrated. I've done a lot of research on it."

I had no doubt that she had done so; I could already tell that there was nothing impulsive about this decision. "Have you talked to the authorities about it yet?"

"No, I thought it best to have a lawyer do that, at least initially. They will take it more seriously."

I hadn't liked where this was going, and now that it had gotten there, I liked it even less. "Mrs. Harrison ..."


"Sheryl, I'm not sure I'm the right attorney to handle this."

She laughed a short laugh. "You think I picked you?" she said, then softened it with, "You're all I have. This is my daughter, and her life is more worth living than mine."

I looked at the picture again, then at this woman chained to a table, who was probably right in her assessment. But fortunately I don't get to make calls like that. "What does Karen think of all this?" I asked. "She would certainly have to consent."

"She doesn't know yet. I don't want to tell her until it's arranged. And at her age, consent isn't necessary."

"And your mother?"

"She knows. She's opposed to it." For the first time, I thought I detected a bit of frustration, or an impatience. "But none of that need concern you. That's for me to deal with."

I felt as if I was being dismissed and I wasn't crazy about the feeling. "I'm going to need time to think about this, and research it."

She nodded. "That's fine. Just do me one favor, please."

"What's that?" I asked.



"So she's a nut job?" The questioner was Julie Ammerman, the closest I had to a real friend in the entire firm. There are a limited number of partnerships at the end of the eight- or nine-year rainbow, so a natural competition exists among the associates vying to receive them.

Somehow Julie and I had always mostly gotten past that, and since it became obvious I was no real threat for one of the coveted spots, we'd gotten even closer. We'd slept together twice, which qualified as a semi-long relationship for me, but the last time was six months prior, and we'd since settled into a platonic friendship.

Julie had gone to a much lesser law school than me; actually, everybody by definition had gone to a lesser law school than me. But she certainly never resented it, and worked tirelessly and successfully to prove those Ivy admissions offices wrong.

We were in the firm's cafeteria, moving through the line with our trays. The food was extraordinarily good and inexpensive; it was the one aspect of big-time lawyering that I was likely to miss.

"That's what I thought while I was talking to her, but ... yeah, she might be nuts."

"Maybe you should report her," she said.

"To who? About what?"

"Well, if she's suicidal, shouldn't you tell someone? I mean, if she hangs herself in her cell and they come to you, what are you going to say? 'Oh, right, she mentioned cutting her heart out, but it slipped my mind'?"

"She's not going to hang herself in her cell. She wants to do the whole thing under medical supervision. And I can't tell anyone about it; it's covered under attorney-client privilege. Did you cut class the year they taught that in law school?"

"Sorry, Mr. Harvard." The fact that I went to Harvard Law somehow has always qualified me for ridicule among my colleagues, all of whom would have sacrificed their future firstborns to have gone there. "And if it's all privileged, how come you're telling me?"

"Because we work for the same firm; I consider you my cocounsel."

"I suggest you reconsider that. Are you going to take her case?"

"No way. If I lose, which I would, I'm a loser. If I win, which I won't, my client dies. Not exactly a fun way to pass the time."

"And her daughter is really going to die?"

"That's what she said; I have to assume she wouldn't lie about it."

We were quiet for a while; I was thinking about Sheryl's situation and I imagined Julie was doing the same.

Finally, she said, "I'm trying to imagine my mother giving up her heart for me." She laughed. "If she did, I'd never hear the end of it."

I wasn't quite into the humor of this; I could still picture Sheryl in that prison, trying to control her desperation, relying on me.

But Julie was on a roll. "Every day I don't get married, she tells me I'm tearing her heart out."

We finished lunch and headed back to our respective offices for another torture-filled afternoon. At 6:15, I got an instant message from her asking me if I was almost done for the day. I wrote back that I was planning to be out in fifteen minutes.

You want to grab a drink? Julie asked.

More than one, I responded.


Excerpted from Heart of a Killer by David Rosenfelt. Copyright © 2012 Tara Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Rosenfelt is the Edgar and Shamus Award--nominated author of nine Andy Carpenter novels, most recently One Dog Night, and three previous stand-alones. He and his wife recently moved to Maine with the twenty-seven golden retrievers they have rescued and rehabilitated over the years.

DAVID ROSENFELT is the Edgar and Shamus Award-nominated author of five stand-alone thrillers and eleven Andy Carpenter novels, including Who Let the Dog Out. He and his wife live in Maine with their ever-changing pack of rescue dogs.

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