Read an Excerpt
“Walk away, Jamie, while you can. That’s my advice.”
Detective Frank Marcotti said this as if I’d asked for his opinion. I hadn’t. As always, Frank had given it to me anyway.
When I didn’t respond, he ran a hand across his thick brush of salt-and-pepper hair, then knuckled the mustache that matched it. I’d known him long enough to know the move for what it was. Frank was searching his brain for a better argument.
Well, if he wanted me to cancel my plans for the evening, he needed one.
I didn’t bother to tell him that, though. Instead, I kept my focus on the studio below us. There, Newswatch Nine’s Late Night News broadcast was in full swing. Cables snaked across the floor. Cameras captured every angle. Bright lights blazed with an intensity matched by the four on-air personalities and the members of the technical crew.
My client, anchorwoman Marianne Lewis, sat ramrod straight at the news desk. She spoke confidently into the camera. Nothing in her manner suggested a stalker had scared the living daylights out of her today.
She smiled. She nodded. She listened to her co-anchor. When she turned her head to address a second camera, her honey-blond hair swung in a neat, shoulder-length bob―just like the wig I’d donned when I’d arrived at Newswatch Nine. Her TV-friendly purple blazer had three buttons, but mine had only two. Our black dresses looked identical from a distance, though.
And that was the point.
While I watched Marianne, Frank tried again.
“Don’t get me wrong.” He dropped his voice and leaned close to me. The spare tire of his tummy pressed against the rail of the viewing gallery where we stood high above the studio floor. He smelled faintly of cigarettes, strongly of mint gum. He’d been trying to quit smoking since he was my age. “You’re a good private investigator, a great security specialist. But a pretty woman like you should be out having dinner, maybe a couple of drinks. Not playing decoy for some overpaid TV personality.”
Since my husband had left me, I’d heard a lot about dinner and drinks from Frank Marcotti. Sometimes he painted a general picture. Sometimes the scenario involved him.
Maybe Frank’s evenings felt empty since his third wife had moved out. Or maybe my life looked empty to him. Maybe he could hear the beat of my lonely heart counting off the seconds since I’d failed to do what practically every other red-blooded American woman had done: fill it with a happy family of my own.
In any case, I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed Frank’s interest in me.
Matty, my overprotective right-hand man, gripped the rail in front of us so tightly his raw-boned knuckles popped. “You saying Jamie ain’t smart enough to do this?”
With only ten years between us, the forty-eight-year-old Matty wasn’t nearly old enough to be my father, but that had never stopped him from acting like my Dutch uncle. Like most of my staff, Matthew “Matty” Donnelly was East Coast born and bred. He’d left his rough-and-tumble Philly-Irish neighborhood at the age of seventeen to enlist in the army and he’d served under my father for most of his career. Maybe that was why Matty had such a soft spot for me. In any case, he certainly didn’t have one for Frank.
“You saying just because she’s a woman she ain’t good enough? ’Cause she’s pretty she can’t hack it? That what you’re saying?”
“Of course not,” Frank replied.
“’Cause she’s more than good enough,” Matty declared. “And if yous guys would do your job in the first place, she wouldn’t need to do it for you.”
The glimmer in Frank’s dark, deep-set eyes died. He regarded Matty with the flat, expressionless stare of a cop. After all, a cop was what Frank was. And no cop would like Matty’s reference to “yous guys.”
“Look, Jamie.” Frank gave up on Matty in favor of reasoning with me. “You’ve got to see this from our point of view. So some crank’s been calling Ms. Lewis at the station here. He’s sent her a few weird notes. Maybe he means it as fan mail. You can’t arrest a guy for that.”
“He thinks she’s the Virgin Mary speaking to him through his TV,” Matty said. “That ain’t fan mail.”
“The point is,” Frank said, stopping the argument before it got started, “thinking those things isn’t against the law. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“He tried to abduct her children after school today.”
My statement had Frank’s mouth dropping open like a Venus flytrap.
“He told them God sent him to take them home. When Marianne showed up, he shoved a teacher to the ground and tried to strong-arm the kids into a waiting car.” I faced Frank. “Becca is eight years old. Ben is six.”
I had no idea what it would be like to be blessed with such treasures. But I knew what I’d do if those treasures were threatened. From the look on his face, I knew what Frank would do, too.
“Why didn’t we hear about this?” he demanded.
“Private schools aren’t much on that kind of publicity.”
“I’d be looking for a new school,” he muttered.
“Damn straight,” Matty agreed.
I said, “What else would you do if you were Marianne Lewis and the police kept saying they can’t help you?”
Frank didn’t answer.
Matty, however, did.
“I sure as hell wouldn’t call that guy.”
I followed Matty’s line of sight to the studio floor. Alongside the jittery station owner, in the shadows behind Camera Number Two, a tall man in a dark suit watched Marianne. He had a cleft in his chin the faces on Mount Rushmore could’ve envied. The fit of his jacket was enviable, too. From where I stood, I could barely make out the subtle contour of his shoulder holster beneath the tailoring.
Matty, though, didn’t envy him at all.
“Special Agent Kevin Jaeger,” he spat. “Friggin’ FBI.”
Kev glanced up into the gallery, offered Frank a nod, and ignored Matty altogether. To me, he sketched a small two-fingered salute. I didn’t return the greeting.
Kev grimaced, then spoke to the station owner. The two of them retreated along the corridor that led to the front office. They looked very pleased with themselves.
I didn’t want to say it out loud, but the station owner’s calling Kev made perfect sense. After all, attempted kidnapping was a federal crime, so it fell under Kev’s jurisdiction. And whether Frank liked to admit it or not, he and his police force hadn’t exactly been proactive when it came to the stalker who’d tried to take Marianne Lewis’s kids.
Still, I wasn’t happy to see Kev at Newswatch Nine.
Neither was Frank.
“If this Feeb thinks he’s going to muscle in on my case before I’ve got the okay from my captain—”
“He won’t,” I told him. “Kev does everything by the book.”
Even when following the book meant letting three little boys die at the hands of their abductor. I hadn’t forgiven Kev for that. And I hadn’t forgotten the moment I’d pulled each boy’s waterlogged body from the Delaware River last fall.
I didn’t have time to dwell on such memories, though.
Or on the shortcomings of Kev Jaeger.
On the studio floor, the newscast ended in a flurry of activity. The tech crew rolled the cameras to a far wall, coiled cables in figure eights, and stowed lapel mics in little boxes. Marianne gathered her things and started up the spiral staircase at the end of the studio to meet us.
She offered me a shaky smile when she saw me. She didn’t look like the confident anchorwoman now. She looked like a scared mother of two.
“Ready to go?” I asked.
In response to a formal request from Newswatch Nine’s management, Frank would drive Marianne home in an unmarked police unit. And despite whatever the station owner had planned for Kev Jaeger, Marianne had hired me to go a step further. I would make sure her stalker didn’t tail her. Being a cop, Frank wasn’t thrilled with this plan. But unless he and the Philadelphia PD got a judge to jerk my private investigator’s license out from under me, they couldn’t do a thing to stop me.
Before Marianne could answer my question, Frank said, “Ms. Lewis, I have to strongly advise against this course of action.”
His attitude stiffened Marianne’s spine. “I know. But you won’t keep him away from me. And I can’t let him follow me home to my family.”
“After embarrassing himself in front of you this afternoon, he’s probably not even out there.” I hoped to reassure her. And get Frank off both our backs. “Now let’s get you home.”
Marianne swallowed hard and nodded. She handed me her overcoat. I slipped it on and left her to Frank.
Like a lemming, I followed the Newswatch Nine staffers through the building and into the employee parking lot. Marianne’s Toyota Camry waited in the third row of the lot, directly under a streetlight and exactly where I’d instructed her to park it. I circled wide, remaining within the ring of harsh light thrown down by the lamp, and approached the Camry from the back. I spotted no one under the car or behind it.
With a quick hit of the key fob, I unlocked the door, got in, and locked the door behind me. Marianne’s colleagues wasted no time driving off. I stayed put. Within moments, the only remaining vehicles were mine and an old gray Bronco. Matty nodded to me from behind its wheel.
I stuck the key in the ignition. The car started the first time. I put it in gear and drove toward the exit. No one approached me as I paused to turn onto City Line. Frank and Marianne were long gone. I didn’t see Kev or any of his FBI cronies anywhere. Only Matty’s Bronco drew up behind me.
I merged into traffic.
A blur of motion caught my eye. But the motion wasn’t outside the car. It was inside it.
The Camry’s backseat flipped forward. A skinny man in a gray sweatshirt crawled out of the trunk. He had the sinuous body of a salamander and skin as pale as if he’d spent a lifetime under rocks.
His eyes, black and fevered, met mine in the rearview mirror. I saw insanity in their depths. And the realization that I was not Marianne Lewis.
His scream shook the car.
Still, I heard the unmistakable click of a switchblade snapping open.
The half-light of the city night fired along the blade as it flashed past my cheek, beneath my throat. Steel nicked my ear, the start of a killing stroke. But not the end.
Not if I could help it.
I stood on the brake. The car slammed to a stop in the middle of the street, pitching my attacker forward. His knife whipped toward me again.
I clamped a hand to his wrist.
“Hail Mary,” he shrieked, “full of grace. The Lord is with Thee . . .”
I reached back, fisted my other hand in his lank, greasy locks. I smelled cold sweat, unwashed hair, and the chemical imbalance of a man who should be on heavy medication. A beaded chain slipped from the grimy neck of his sweatshirt. A soldier’s dog tags dangled from it. They swung, tinkling like wind chimes, as I tried to force his head to turn, tried to force his body back.
I had no leverage.
Outside the window at my shoulder, Matty pounded on the glass.
“Jamie, unlock the doors!”
Gripping my attacker’s wrist even tighter with one hand, I released his hair, reached across my body to scrabble for the door locks. Against my cheek, he sobbed. His tears mingled with the sweat beading at my temple to run down my face. Still, he prayed. His teeth scraped my skin.
“Blessed art Thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . .”
The car shuddered with a reverberating thud. In the rearview mirror, I made out Matty, now at the backseat’s window. He hammered the glass with a three-pound Maglite.
“FBI! Drop your weapon!”
Kev Jaeger appeared out of nowhere, aimed his handgun from the other side of the car.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death . . .”
My death, I realized as the man’s wrist twisted in my grip. His blade bit into my neck. If he got his way, it would be my death.
Desperate, I clutched at the key fob dangling from the ignition. My thumb brushed a button. The locks popped open.
Both rear doors banged open at once. Matty grabbed my attacker’s knife hand, snapping it at the wrist. Kev dragged the man from the backseat. By the time I turned, he had the guy on the ground, a knee in his back.
“Easy!” I yelled at Kev. “Lighten up or you’ll break his spine.”
Kev didn’t comply. He pressed the point of his knee deeper into the soft tissue of the man’s back. The guy let loose with a keening wail full of fear—and of pain.
I bounded from the car, grabbed hold of Kev’s coat sleeve. “I said stop hurting him.”
Kev didn’t so much as glance at me, but he shifted his weight to his own heels.
The guy shuddered with relief and choked out a laugh. “Good lady. Kind lady.”
Whether his words were for the Virgin Mary or Marianne Lewis, I didn’t know.
Until Matty pulled me away and led me to an arriving ambulance.
“Lady,” the man screamed at me, “come back to me. We’ll be together. Forever!”
Charles Chapman Brown—former soldier, known drifter, and repeat stalker—had traveled light, but not light enough. In addition to the charges he’d face for trying to kill me, the contents of the duffel bag he’d had with him, namely a roll of duct tape and a box of condoms, would guarantee he’d face charges for attempted kidnapping and attempted rape. At least, he’d face charges if he could pass a psychiatric evaluation.
For my part, I found myself breathing a lot easier once Kev had stuffed Brown into the back of a patrol car and sent him on his way. Frank, who’d returned to the TV station after Marianne was safely home, said he’d follow along, but I hoped he calmed down first. Since he’d heard Brown had held a knife to my throat, his fleshy face looked way too pale.
I knew I wasn’t much to look at, either. I’d lost the Marianne wig, and my own hair hung in hanks where the dark locks had slipped free of their bobby pins. Brown’s knife had drawn my blood, and the sticky red stuff had dripped down my neck and dried there.
A crew from Newswatch Nine showed up before I could get cleaned up. I guess they couldn’t resist covering a story breaking on their doorstep. In any case, they didn’t get very far in their attempts to interview me. Matty hustled me off to the ambulance and wouldn’t let the camera crew near it. In some semblance of privacy, I sat on the tailgate while a paramedic patched me up.
Kev Jaeger found me there soon after. Shoving the tails of his suit coat aside, his hands hit his hips. He’d clipped his FBI shield to his belt for this occasion. The brass of it flashed at me, reflecting the rooftop lights of every response vehicle at the scene. That’s when I knew I was in for a lecture.
“This was a close one, Jamie. Much closer than it needed to be.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. Kev was right and we both knew it. Besides, the burn of the antiseptic the EMT pressed to my throat had me hissing through my teeth.
“I’m just glad I was around to pull your bacon out of the fire.”
“Me, too,” I admitted. But that was as far as I could go. “I only wish you’d been around to help me pull the dead Delmonico boys out of the river.”
Kev’s mouth puckered as if he’d bitten into something bitter—or maybe he was biting back bitter words meant for me.
Before he could voice them, I said, “Of course, you did everything by the book. So I suppose that’s some consolation to the Delmonico family.”
A red flush swept into Kev’s cheeks. He still didn’t say a thing. He just turned on his heel and walked away.
Matty watched him go, then slid onto the tailgate beside me. “I hate to say it, but this time I’ve gotta agree with the Feeb, girlie girl. You cut this one too close.”
“I’m sorry, Matty.” And I was.
“Save your sorry for someone else. Like Frank, maybe. He’s right, too. If you was still married to that piss-poor excuse of a husband, what’re the chances you’d have been out here doing the tango with a nut-bag who’s got a history of stalking women?”
We both knew the answer to that one. Slim to none. Tim wouldn’t have allowed it.
“But what are you doing?” Matty demanded. “Sticking your neck on the chopping block for this client and her kids?”
“Hell, since your divorce you stick your neck out for every client with kids. And what for? You keep this up, you’re gonna get hurt for good, girlie girl.”
As if he agreed with Matty, the EMT slapped a bandage on my neck wound. I wish he could’ve done the same for my peace of mind. I knew I’d picture the faces of those three drowned boys for years to come. And now I’d hear the words of Charles Chapman Brown.
Come back to me. We’ll be together.
My cell phone bleated. I dug under Marianne’s coat to find the thing. The caller ID log listed the incoming number as “Government Number.”
In my line of work, this could have been anybody calling for any reason. My Washington, DC–based business provided security services for high-profile, high-risk clients, including a jeweler whose name was as recognizable as Tiffany’s, a Philadelphia rap-star-turned-Academy-Award-winning-actor, and several members of Congress. Unfortunately, my caller was none of them.
I hadn’t heard this voice in years. But I recognized it in a heartbeat. Because this voice belonged to my ex-husband.