Frank Hughes is crazy with grief over the death of his AIDS-stricken lover. When he is found dead in the grass at the base of his apartment building, his best friend, Cece Gardner, can't believe that he has committed suicide. As she crosses the police barrier to enter Frank's apartment, she finds a puzzling telephone message from the Drug Enforcement Agency that leads her to the eventual realization that Frank has been murdered.
Headstrong and reckless, Cece is determined to find the killers. Meanwhile, a lethal and virtually undetectable cache of bogus medicines intended for shipment to the United States has just been found by authorities in Dubai. After Cece learns the truth about Frank's death, she unintentionally becomes a target of the vicious ring of smugglers and purveyors of the contaminated meds. Aided by Johnny Gault, a former DEA agent, she continues her quest to find Frank's killers-some of whom are masquerading as doctors at local AIDS clinics.
From Nigeria to New Jersey, the ring of counterfeit drug smugglers are intent on wreaking havoc on innocent patients and Cece is willing to risk everything to uncover the truth.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)|
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RING OF DECEIT
By Carole W. Holden
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Carole W. Holden
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJersey City, New Jersey
At four o'clock, Cece said good-bye to the last of her students and hurried to her office in the art department at Hudson College. It worried her that she hadn't seen Frank all day. Since his classroom was next to hers, either he'd come late or left early-or hadn't made it at all. That wasn't like him-but what did she expect at a time like this? She'd check his office. What the hell? If she was overdoing the handholding routine, he'd let her know.
Frank's office door was closed. She knocked quietly.
"Come in," he said. "The door's open."
Frank didn't look up from the papers he was reading when she stepped inside the room. "Sorry, I didn't mean to intrude," she said, taking a step backward.
"No, don't go." He shoved the papers into the center desk drawer and slammed it shut. "I'm glad you're here, Cece." He looked up at her with his usual warm smile. "It's time I put away this pile of bills. You'd think the medical profession would allow a person a decent period of mourning before they come barking at the door. Earl's only been dead a week."
Frank got up from his desk and walked over to the window. The tall slender black man slumped against the window frame and stared down at the quiet campus. Cece wished she could wave a magic wand and bring Earl back to life. Watching her friend's grief was tearing her apart.
He suddenly pulled himself up to his full height and turned back to her. "Enough of this," he said, forcing another smile. "Tonight, we'll share memories of Earl with great music, good food and lots of drinks." He folded his arms and cocked his head thoughtfully. "You know, it seems Earl Flanagan is more famous dead than alive. I've had calls this week from Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, even St. Louis, all from musicians who either played with Earl at one time or who knew about him. You never heard him at his best, did you, Cece?"
Before Cece could answer, Victor Covino, their boss and chair of the art department at Hudson burst into Frank's office. He was wearing his uniform: crisp white oxford cloth button down shirt, rep tie and Harris tweed jacket.
"I'm glad I caught you," he said breathlessly. "Sadly, Frank, Brenda and I can't make the party tonight. A conflict with something she promised to do. Just no way to get out of it."
Victor couldn't seem to stand still. He bounced from one foot to the other. No wonder he was agitated, Cece thought. She didn't need a polygraph test to know he was lying. The attractive and elegant Brenda Covino relished her husband's position as chair of the art department, even though it had been bought with her family's healthy donations to the college, but attending a party for a homosexual faculty member's dead lover didn't make her "to do" list. And Victor always acquiesced. After all, Brenda paid the bills.
"Thanks for letting me know," Frank said diplomatically, but Cece saw the disappointment in his eyes.
"Well, then, I better be going. Brenda's planning an early dinner."
"Yeah, yeah, I understand, Victor. See you tomorrow."
After Victor tore out of the office, Frank turned to Cece. "Damn, Victor's a shitty liar," he said.
Cece nodded in agreement. "I'm just happy there aren't any other Victor Covinos at Hudson. It might dampen my love affair with this place."
Frank placed his hands on his hips and sighed. "My dad's a rigid son of a bitch with no education and only a passing knowledge of the queen's English," he said, "but I have a feeling he and our classy chairman could be soul mates."
"I'm glad they're not coming," Cece said. "Victor's bad enough, but beautiful Brenda's the real hard ass in that family."
"Speaking of special guests, is your friend Maureen McKinney coming tonight?"
"I've never known Mo to miss a good party."
"I owe her one," Frank said. "The Butterfly doesn't allow private parties. They turned me down cold until she got involved."
"Mo can be very persuasive." Cece had to smile as she thought about Mo, a gorgeous blonde who was by trade a very capable therapist. She loved jazz and the Butterfly was one of her favorite jazz clubs in Jersey City. More importantly, it was owned by a couple of guys. Guys rarely refused Mo whatever it was she wanted.
Frank looked over at his desk. Cece assumed he wanted some time to prepare for tomorrow's classes.
"I can take a hint," she laughed, turning toward the door.
"No, wait Cece," he said. "Please, before you go, I need to ask you something. It's important."
There was an awkward silence.
"I don't know, Cece," he said, staring down at the floor. "I shouldn't ask ... it's not right." He thrust his hands into his pants pockets and turned his back on her.
"Frank-for heaven's sake, what is it?"
"We haven't talked about it-I haven't wanted to talk about it until now-"
"Talk about what?" she asked apprehensively.
"Earl's sudden death. Didn't it come out of nowhere?"
"... No ... I mean I don't think so," she stammered. Frank had thrown her a curve ball. "It's not that we didn't expect it," she added.
"Not true, Cece," he said, his voice rising. "Think back. Only a month ago he was getting better-much better. All his tests were positive."
Cece wanted to bolt. How could she respond without hurting him or starting a senseless argument?
"You're right about the tests, Frank, but Earl was so ill," she said in a soft voice, trying hard not to sound abrasive. "He'd been ill for such a long time. Dr. Grimaldi told us his body couldn't fight anymore. It wasn't unusual with this disease."
Frank's mouth curved downward and his gaze went straight through her. It made Cece's skin tingle.
"Yes, that's exactly what Grimaldi claimed."
"Frank, please-it's over," she pleaded. "Earl wouldn't want you-"
Frank threw his arms out as if to push her away. "Stop! Don't say any more. You don't know the truth, but I do and I will make them pay. Believe me, Cece, I will make them pay. That-and not this party-will be my real tribute to Earl."
Head down, his shoulders slumped, Frank turned back toward the window. "Sorry, Cece," he said, "you didn't deserve that. See you tonight, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, about nine. I'll be there." Cece walked slowly down the hall and out of the building. She'd seen and experienced grief before, but this was different. Frank sounded like a crazy man-a dangerous crazy man. God, how she was dreading this party!
Cece walked into the Butterfly at nine-fifteen. She'd never seen the place so crowded. A jazz trio was on stage surrounded by other musicians holding their instruments and waiting for their chance to play. Frank would be pleased. It was a great tribute to Earl.
She immediately spotted Mo sitting at a table near the bar. It wasn't hard. Her tall, blonde friend wore a close-fitting long-sleeved black sheath adorned with a strand of milky pearls that glowed against her creamy Irish skin. The thick yellow hair was pulled sharply back from her heart-shaped face with its large sky-blue eyes, straight narrow nose and full lips. She looked stunning, as usual. Also, as usual, there was a very good-looking guy hanging all over her.
"Cece, you're finally here." Mo reached out unsteadily and squeezed Cece's hand. She'd already had a couple. "Johnny was beginning to think I'd lied about my famous artist friend."
"I'm Johnny Gault," the man said, holding out his hand. "I'm Mo's neighbor. We met on the elevator at Portside Towers."
"Actually, I spotted Johnny before that elevator ride. He was playing the piano in a sleazy jazz club in Greenwich Village. Imagine my surprise when I saw him a few days later all natted up in a Brooks Brother's suit toting a flashy briefcase. Easy ID. Ambitious young lawyer on the fast track up the food chain."
Cece scanned the man's face. He had extraordinary eyes, the focal point of his handsome face. They were a rich and glossy chocolate brown, full of both warmth and intensity. The sharp angle of his jaw line fascinated her, as did his well-shaped, expressive mouth. When he abruptly turned away, Cece realized she'd embarrassed him. What a great first impression!
"I apologize," she said, feeling her cheeks redden. "... I like good faces-I mean interesting faces-"
His dark eyes twinkled with amusement. "I take that as a compliment, Ms. Gardner," he said, smiling down at her. "No one has ever said that to me before. I'm flattered."
Cece feared she was staring again, but her attention had nothing to do with wanting to store his image until she had a sketch pad and a charcoal pencil in her hand.
"Waiter, over here," Mo said, beckoning the closest waiter with a raised hand and a dazzling smile. "I'd like another drink. Anyone want to join me?"
"Count me in," Johnny said.
"I'll take a white wine spritzer," Cece said.
When the drinks came, Cece took only a small sip, but it was enough to heighten her apprehensions and to bring back bad memories of her mother who died at forty-nine from alcoholism. Whether or not it was only a myth that American Indians carried a propensity to the disease, Cece vowed never to test her own vulnerability. Following her mother's ugly death, she also promised never to return to the Cherokee Indian Reservation or the haunting beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains that had inspired many of her early paintings.
"I was a great fan of Earl's," Johnny was saying. "First heard him and his trio when I was tending bar in Boston. I've followed him ever since. Hard to believe he's dead."
Before Cece could respond, a black guy wearing a baseball cap turned backward and three long gold chains, carrying a bottle of Corona sidled up behind Johnny and grabbed him by the shoulder. Tattoos of exotic animals crawled up each forearm.
"Hey, Johnny, great to see you man!"
Johnny turned in surprise. "Arnie Bethune! Son of a gun!" He gave Arnie a thump on the back. "It's been a long time."
"You're here to play, right?"
"Negative. I'm on my own. Not enough time these days to keep up."
"You're not getting off that easy, Johnny boy. Besides you don't need no 'keeping up.' Chris and Jesse are with me, but the guy I got on piano can't play for shit. I'll pay him and he can take the night off." Arnie motioned with his head toward the stage. "Come on. Make my day."
"You got it-but just one set. I got friends here who need my attention." He looked directly at Cece. "Don't go away," he said.
By the time they reached the stage, Johnny had taken off his sport jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He looked much less buttoned down. Cece wondered if he'd ever worn gold chains or if there was a strange figure-or figures-tattooed somewhere on his long, lean body. She giggled at the thought.
"Johnny's really terrific," Mo said. "I could listen to him all night."
Cece watched Johnny's hands as they moved easily over the keyboard. They had taken on a life of their own, like her own hands when she started to draw or paint. With her, the lines and shapes and figures appeared magically, as if they were living things that begged to be set free. She closed her eyes and listened to the many moods in his music. They were like colors to her, some bright, some dark, some muted and somber. He was creating a canvas with sound. She didn't want it to end.
Mo leaned close to Cece's ear. "Didn't I tell you?" she whispered.
"... Hmmm ... yeah, you're right," she said dreamily. "He's terrific."
When the set ended, everyone in the club stood up and applauded. Johnny, his dark hair damp with sweat, attempted to leave the stage. The crowd pushed him back.
"I've seen this before. He'll be up there for awhile," Mo said. She took a long sip of her drink and looked around. "Where the hell is Frank? People are getting into the booze. It'll be tough to arrive stone sober to find half the guests have forgotten why they're here."
Cece pulled out her cellphone. "I'm calling to see what's keeping him." His answering machine came on after the fourth ring. She started to leave a message, but thought better of it and simply hung up. "He doesn't answer. I don't like it. He should have been here an hour ago."
"Don't worry so much, Cece," Mo said soothingly. "He probably got caught up in traffic. My bet is he'll step in that door in less than five minutes. Just watch." She signaled the bartender for another drink.
"You're probably right," Cece said, "but I'm too antsy. I'm going to check." Cece shoved her way through the crowd. The red Honda motorbike was parked on a side street a block from the club. She zipped her nylon jacket all the way up to her neck, threw on her helmet and started the bike with a roar.
Mo was wrong about the traffic. In less than ten minutes she had crossed town and had turned the Honda north along the Boulevard toward Frank's apartment on Duncan. The cold night air was refreshing after the closeness of the Butterfly and relieved her anxiety. It was a lovely evening. Frank was probably taking his time to enjoy it or was already making his grand entrance. She could imagine Mo's "I told you so" smirk when she returned to the party and saw Frank smack in the middle of it.
Cece saw the flashing lights before she turned the corner onto Frank's street. Three police cars and an ambulance were parked directly in front of Frank's building. The back door of the ambulance was open and two emergency workers were sliding a gurney inside. A half-dozen uniformed police officers kept the small crowd of bystanders off the grassy lawn in front of the building away from the ambulance.
Oh, my God! Cece jumped off the Honda and ran to the closest person in the crowd, a young guy wearing blue jeans and a navy down parka. "What happened?" she cried.
"I dunno," he said. "Some guy went off the roof, I think. He was lying over there in the grass." He cocked his head toward the little square of grass in front of the building.
Cece's hands were damp inside her wool gloves. "Who was it?"
"Some black guy. I think he worked at the college."
"That's right." Another man standing close by joined the conversation. He was middle-aged with a noticeable beer gut that strained the zipper of his plaid wool coat. "Some kids pulled a fire alarm about the time the guy jumped. Nobody saw him go. Who would do that? I mean seven stories. Break you apart like a watermelon."
Cece was shaking. "That's horrible. How do you know it was someone who worked at Hudson College?" The man backed off. "... I'm sorry," she stammered, "but the victim may be a friend of mine."
"All I know, lady, is that the people who found him said he was a tall black guy who lived in the building and worked at the college. I don't know-does that sound like your friend?"
Cece felt sick to her stomach. She watched in numb horror as the ambulance doors closed and it pulled slowly away from the curb. There was no siren, no urgency to save a life. Whoever was on that gurney-oh, God, please not Frank-was no longer in a hurry to go anywhere.
Cece stared in disbelief at the taillights until they disappeared around the corner onto the Boulevard. It couldn't be -not Frank. He wouldn't take his life, but still "... some black guy ..." they'd said, "...a tall black guy who worked at the college ..." Cece wanted to die.
Chapter TwoDuncan Avenue Jersey City, New Jersey
Cece stumbled across the street, away from the surreal scene in front of Frank's apartment building. Her hand shaking, she pulled the cell from her pocket and punched in Mo's number.
Mo picked up on the third ring. "Hello, whoever you are," she said gaily. Her slurred words betrayed her. She was half in the bag.
"Mo, it's me, Cece ... oh, God ... it's awful ..."
Mo's voice softened. "Cece-slow down. What is it? What's wrong?"
"Frank's dead. He jumped off the roof of his apartment building. They found him lying in the grass." Cece slumped against the wall of the building behind her. "There are cops and people are standing around gawking and whispering. It's horrible."
"Cece, wait there! I'm coming to get you," Mo said softly, the slurring gone from her voice. In a matter of seconds, she had metamorphosed from a party animal into a conscientious therapist.
"I can't wait." Cece's chest tightened. Talking to Mo wasn't helping "I can't wait. I've got to get away as fast as I can."
Excerpted from RING OF DECEIT by Carole W. Holden Copyright © 2010 by Carole W. Holden. Excerpted by permission.
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