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It was a beautiful flight. A blue-gray dusk had fallen over Manhattan. Lights twinkled as brightly as the new stars, delineating streets that, for him, were paved with gold, and traffic that, for everyone else, came straight from hell. The little single-piston-engine Cessna Skylane 182 responded so fluidly to his touch he almost felt he had sprouted wings. Forget jets, he thought as he began his swooping descent through Manhattan’s sparkling towers into LaGuardia. This was what flying was all about. The freedom of it, escaping for a couple of hours from the mundane world, pretending, like a little kid, that you could really fly. He hadn’t expected to be en route to New York tonight, but the phone call had been urgent. He was in negotiations for an important Manhattan property and somebody was determined to outbid him. Who, exactly, was what he was about to find out. Tonight.
He grinned as he touched the tiny plane down, bumped lightly once or twice, then taxied smoothly toward the hangar. He felt about his customized silver plane the way some people felt about a racehorse. After a flight, he almost wanted to rub it down, throw a blanket over it, feed it some fresh hay and a carrot....
He was laughing at himself as he brought the aircraft to a stop, unbuckled, and climbed out. He patted the fuselage affectionately, then remembered he had left his briefcase inside. He was about to climb back in when he heard his name called. That would be Jerry, the mechanic. He was expecting him, and he was the one who would currycomb the Cessna, check out its innards, make sure it was in tip-top shape for the flight back to Charleston tomorrow. When he had taken care of this business.
“Yeah?” He was smiling as he swung round.
He stared right into the barrel of a Sigma automatic.
And then all the world went red.
“He’s not going to make it.”
Ed Vincent heard those words clear as a bell, but it was several seconds before he realized it was him they were talking about.
The gurney bounced agonizingly as they rolled him out of the medevac helicopter. He heard the whoosh of automatic doors opening as they raced him into Emergency; heard the medevac nurse calling out the circumstances of his shooting and his injuries and condition; heard the shouted commands. “Does he have a femoral pulse? Heart rate’s down to thirty-six — he’s crashing....”
He felt the clothes being cut off him. Then he was lying naked, like a just-landed fish, under a hot glare of lights with what felt like the eyes of the world on him.
A small thing but mine own, he thought, grinning mentally because he was unable to work the necessary facial muscles. His face under the oxygen mask felt frozen, his arms and legs numb, his body did not exist. Until someone started to dig a hole in his side with a sword. He let out a roar of pain then, but it must have been only a whimper because his throat refused to move, too.
“We’re just intubating you, putting a tube in your lungs, got to drain the blood quickly,” a soothing female voice said, close to his ear.
Well, what the fuck happened to anesthetic? he wanted to shout back. But of course, he could say nothing.
“What’s your name?” someone else yelled at him. “Open your eyes, look at me....”
Weren’t his eyes open? He could see faces peering down at him under a halo of light, feel hands on him, hear them speak. He just could not answer.
“Blood pressure’s gone, we’re losing him....”
The gel they smeared on his chest was cold. He thought someone should tell them about that, tell them to warm it up a little so it’s not such a shock to the system. The next thing he knew, his heart was jumping out of his chest as the cardiac shock jolted his body upward in an arc. Again. And again.
“What’s the reading?” someone demanded.
Why bother? he thought wearily. I’m already waiting to see that light at the end of the tunnel, the light that welcomes the dead.
He was so tired. He knew he was going. He was on his way. He felt his body jolt one more time, but the voices were dimmer now. He gave a mental shrug. He’d had a good life, he guessed. As good as it gets. At least in the latter years. He couldn’t grumble. He had no wife, no kids, no family. Not much to live for really. Except maybe another dinner at the little Italian place he favored. Or one last weekend at the old beach house, out on the promontory, alone with the elements, taking out the boat he had painstakingly restored over the years.
He loved that place in any weather — the silent, rolling spring fogs; the hot sizzle of August; the languid late-summer nights; the gray, rain-lashed storms of winter. He’d always thought he had found paradise. Until now, when he was about to discover the real thing....
“Try again!” a stern voice commanded the storm troops, and again the cardiac shock ricocheted through his body.
Just give it up, guys, why don’t you? he wanted to say. It’s just too hard to make the effort to live now.... This is easy, sliding into the tunnel, waiting to see the light ... maybe to see God’s face, finally, the way the preacher always used to tell us we would, way back when we were kids in that little cedar-plank Baptist chapel in the foothills of the East Tennessee mountains....
“There’s no pulse,” someone yelled.
Of course there isn’t, I’m dying. He relaxed into it. There was nothing to live for. No one.
He felt a piercing pain as they injected a stimulant directly into his heart. He wanted to scream.
“One more time,” the command came, and his body jumped again.
Zelda. The name zapped through his brain along with the cardiac shock. What had happened to Zelda? Where was she? They had killed him. Now they would be after her.
“There’s a pulse.” The nurse’s voice was triumphant as they all gazed at the monitor with the little green peaks and valleys that showed his heart beating again.
With a monumental effort, Ed opened his eyes. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he said in a throaty whisper.
Homicide Detective Marco Camelia stood to one side in the emergency room, watching the battle between life and death. As far as he could see, death was winning. And that would make his job of finding the perpetrators of the crime a hell of a lot more difficult. Now, if only Ed Vincent would come out of it, wake up and tell them who did it, he would have it made.
Camelia was forty-six years old, a lean, wiry Sicilian of medium height, with thick dark hair and brown eyes that looked almost black when he was mad, which was a good part of the time. He was attractive in an offbeat kind of way, clean-shaven but with a perpetually blue-stubbled chin, and he always wore the same immaculate “uniform”: a dark suit, white shirt, and silver-gray tie.
Camelia had joined the force at the age of twenty after dropping out of Queens College and marrying his high school sweetheart, Claudia Romanos, a Puerto Rican beauty who saw him through the distorted eyes of love as a kind of Arnold Schwarzenegger. She adored him. As did his four kids, two boys and two girls, who spoke Spanish as well as Italian and straight-ahead American. His own little United Nations, he called them.
Despite the fact that he was a family man, Marco Camelia had a reputation and he knew it. Tough cop; a fighter; a troubleshooter. He’d been suspended and investigated a couple of times, both for killings in the line of duty — and just before the felons could kill him; but both times he had been proven right. He was just a dogged cop is all. He left no stone — or bullet — unturned, and no killer was ever gonna get away from him. So far, none had.
Camelia felt sorry for Ed Vincent. And he admired him. He was a regular guy, a rich man who did good things with his money. He helped many charities, including pediatric AIDS. He supported special boarding schools for the underprivileged and rehab camps for delinquents, which was quite something, since many of the kids were crack addicts and gang members who wanted anything but to be rehabilitated. But those who made it through would be eternally grateful that Ed Vincent had cared. He was also a strong supporter of the police force and law and order, and that counted for a lot with the guys of the NYPD.
Forty-four-year-old Vincent was a bit of a mystery man, though. Despite his success, his private life was just that. What was known about him was that he was a southerner, from Charleston, the heir to a fortune, the media said. He had parlayed his fortune in real estate development, erecting the two magnificent Vincent Towers in Manhattan. Ed Vincent was not short of brains or savvy. He knew how to make a buck and he knew how to make a deal, but he was still spoken of as a gentleman. And there were few enough of those around in business these days.
As a property developer Vincent had no equal for his flashy public style and for his personal reticence. His business life was public. His private life was just that. He never gave personal interviews, never talked about his past, never invited a member of the media into his penthouse home in the Vincent Towers on Fifth. And they said that no one, not even his friends, had ever been invited to his private retreat, the beach house north of Charleston, South Carolina.
Which was where Ed had just flown from, piloting his own Cessna into LaGuardia, where he had been shot.
“Four bullet wounds to the chest,” the resident intern called out, lifting Ed’s torso, searching for exit wounds. “Looks like one nicked the left pulmonary artery, that’s why the internal bleeding and the collapsed lung. They missed the liver, but there’s another wound just above the heart. Got to get him to the O.R. right away. Open him up and find out what’s happening.”
Camelia thought gloomily it did not sound good. In fact, the only good thing to happen to Vincent had been the immediate accessibility of the medevac helicopter that had brought the victim, fast, to Manhattan’s finest hospital. If Vincent could be saved, then timing and good medical care were on his side. Camelia doubted it. The guy was a goner.
They were running a tube into him. No time for anesthetic, they just sliced him neatly open and stuck it in there. Camelia’s own heart flipped sickeningly as he watched. Vincent looked like death, and God knows Camelia had seen enough of that to know how it looked.
Then, goddammit if the tough bastard didn’t lift his head and speak. “I’ve got to get out of here.” That’s what he said.
Camelia stepped forward, anxious to question him, but was immediately pushed aside by the nurse. “Get out of the way,” she yelled. “What’s the matter, can’t you guys wait?”
“Sorry, sorry.” He put up his hands, backing away as they rolled Vincent on the gurney to the O.R. Somehow, looking at the guy, he had a feeling this had been his last chance. No way was Ed Vincent gonna walk out of there. He was never gonna be able to tell him who shot him as he climbed from his Cessna outside the hangar at LaGuardia Airport. Nor would he be able to tell him why. It was up to Camelia to find out.