The man Melanie Vargas was talking to would die violently in a matter of minutes. But in the here and now, he was so very alive as they debated the handling of a case that she couldn’t have imagined it.
“You need to ask the judge to put off the trial,” Lester Poe insisted. “The request has to come from the prosecution. If I ask, we might as well call a press conference right now and tell the world my client’s ready to snitch.”
They stood in the grand plaza outside the federal courthouse in New York City. It was an eighty degree afternoon in March, and the unseasonable heat blazing down from the bright white sky added to Melanie’s anxiety. She was a young prosecutor, respected in courthouse circles but unknown outside of them. Lester Poe was the most famous criminal lawyer in America and had been for thirty years. With his trademark shoulder-length white hair and craggy, handsome features, he was highly recognizable. Several people walking by had already turned to stare. Melanie didn’t like talking about such a dangerous subject out in the open like this.
“Let’s keep our voices down,” she warned.
Lester was enough on edge himself to accede to her suggestion, taking papers from his briefcase with studied nonchalance, as if he was consulting with her about them. The mere fact that they were seen talking shouldn’t arouse any suspicions. They were adversaries on a celebrated case, scheduled for trial in little more than a week’s time. Nevertheless, it paid to be careful.
“You’re right,” Lester said in a low tone. “You may want Atari locked up, but other people want him dead.”
Atari Briggs, Lester’s client, was named for the video games his gangsta daddy had loved to play, and their magic had rubbed off on him. He’d worked every heroin spot in East New York and rained down murder and mayhem on his enemies, then retired at twenty and turned his street cred to gold in the recording studio. On the same day that Atari’s sixth CD went triple platinum, DEA arrested him for a murder he’d ordered ten years earlier.
“What’s your client got to tell me that’s worth killing him over?” Melanie asked. “Does he plan to finger somebody else for the murder he’s charged with?”
“If all I had for you was a lousy drug murder, honey, I wouldn’t keep you from your tuna fish sandwich.”
She smiled. “You take a pretty bleak view of my lunch situation.”
“I know what the government pays you,” he said, smiling back. “What I’m about to give you, you can take to the bank. My client can give up Gamal Abdullah.”
“Call him what you will, but we’re not talking about some lowlife in a suicide vest. Abdullah’s a major player internationally.”
“I know exactly who he is. That’s why I find it hard to believe that a rap artist has the goods on him. This isn’t a ploy to throw me off my trial prep, is it, Lester?”
He looked genuinely hurt. “Darling, would I scam you?”
“You’re smart enough to try, anyway.”
“Maybe with somebody else, but never with you.”
Lester’s eyes lingered on her face. They were stormy grey under dark brows, and he was famous for mesmerizing juries with them.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” she said, all business. “What does your client want to tell me?”
“About six months ago, Gamal Abdullah used Atari’s yacht to meet with some of the biggest drug kingpins in the United States.”
“Meet about what?”
“A major supply agreement. Afghan heroin, to be exact, to the tune of a hundred million bucks a week, with the proceeds going straight back to Taliban-associated warlords in Afghanistan.”
“Your client witnessed this meeting?”
“Not only witnessed, he filmed it. His boat has a state-of-the-art surveillance system. I haven’t seen the DVD yet, but from what I understand, it’s enough to persuade any jury. You’ll get Abdullah dead to rights, along with just about every other major player in domestic narcotics in the whole damn country.”
“Where’s this DVD now?”
“In a safe place. We can get it for you, but in order to avoid arousing suspicion, that may take time.”
“And I’m supposed to ask for the delay in the meantime, with no proof?”
“You don’t trust me enough to do that?”
“You, I trust, but your client? Uh-uh.”
“Maybe a showing of good faith would help. How about if I give you a significant lead for free, no strings attached? You can check it out and see if I’m being truthful. If you’re satisfied, ask for the delay by the end of the week.”
“Here it is, then, straight from my client’s mouth an hour ago. Gamal Abdullah moves in and out of Western Europe using various aliases. The current one is Sebastien Calais. As of a few days ago, he was in Spain, first in Madrid, then in a town in the south called Ronda, traveling under that name.”
“Okay, got it. I’ll have it checked out right away.”
“And Melanie, secrecy is key here.”
“No, you don’t, you can’t possibly understand the full implications,” he said, his voice urgent. “I don’t want to alarm you, but some very dangerous people would go to great lengths to prevent this cooperation from happening. And beyond that, I don’t trust the phone lines in my office. I think they’re bugged. That may sound crazy to somebody your age, but I was bugged in the sixties, in the South, when I was doing civil rights work. I know the signs.”
“Lester, are you serious? What are you doing about it?”
“I’m taking care of it. I have a company coming in to sweep. The bug may have to do with something separate and apart from the Briggs case, but in any event, the point is, you and I cannot discuss this over the phone.”
Lester was watching the park across the street as he spoke, his expression anxious.
“I promise,” she said. On an impulse, she reached out and squeezed his hand. “Please, be careful.”
He turned his gray eyes back on her. “That’s very sweet. You know, I can think of something that would make me feel better.”
She laughed. “Don’t start.”
“Why not? We had a great time when I took you out last summer, didn’t we?”
“That was business. You were trying to recruit me. But now we’re adversaries on a case. Seeing each other socially isn’t—well, it’s not a good idea.”
“When the case is over, then. I’ll take you to Daniel, get us a great table. We’ll order the tasting menu and a bottle of Margaux.”
Lester was a lot older than Melanie, but that didn’t make him any less madly attractive. Her real problem with dating was that she was still hung up on the last guy. She had to get over Dan O’Reilly sooner or later. Why not sooner?
“When the case is over. It’s a date,” she said.
They said their good-byes, and Lester dashed across the street toward his silver Maserati. As she started back to the courthouse, Melanie noticed a man in a dark jacket walking his dog. The dog was sniffing a parking meter, but the man’s eyes were on Lester, blazing with such intensity that it caught her attention. Melanie stopped to watch him.
Lester was at the door of his car now, pulling keys from the pocket of his charcoal-gray suit. As he lifted the key toward the lock, the man with the dog held up his cell phone and pointed it at the Maserati. Melanie had seen enough Homeland Security training videos to recognize the gesture for what it was. The hair on the back of her neck stood up.
“Hey!” she yelled, but the man didn’t look up. He was focused on his phone, checking which button to push.
“Lester!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Get away from the car! Get away from the car!”
She ran toward him, screaming, and the force of the blast knocked her back off her feet.
Saturday dawned with an iron-gray sky threatening snow and little Maya snuggled up, warm and cozy, next to Melanie. Maya was an early riser, and once she’d graduated from a crib to a toddler bed, she’d developed the habit of tiptoeing into Melanie’s room and falling back to sleep beside her mommy. Melanie hadn’t done a thing to stop her. It was extra time together, and cuddly, precious time at that.
But even the sight of her daughter’s sleeping face couldn’t quell the anxiety Melanie felt upon waking up this morning. After reading about Brenda Gould’s suicide, she’d lain awake for hours, turning the meeting with Brenda over in her mind, searching for any clue that the woman had been planning to take her own life—and finding none. Admittedly, Melanie was no psychologist, and she had no experience determining whether a person was suicidal or not, especially a person she’d only just met. Still, if Brenda Gould had been planning to kill herself, she’d put on a pretty good front. She’d appeared sad rather than desperate, reflective rather than grief-stricken—in short, relatively calm for a woman who’d just lost her husband. Did that mean anything, or was it simply a mask Brenda had donned for the benefit of a stranger? Melanie reminded herself repeatedly that Brenda had a history of drug use, and that if the overdose death wasn’t a suicide, it might be an accident. Yet Brenda had claimed to be clean, and she’d said it in a way that Melanie had completely believed.
It was this last factor that kept Melanie tossing and turning, remembering Brenda’s warning that Evan Diamond was dangerous, playing with the St. Jude’s medal that Brenda had given her as a talisman against him. She spent hours kicking herself for not getting the details on Evan out of Brenda when she’d had the chance. But what could she do about that now? Was she supposed to start investigating Brenda Gould’s death? She wasn’t even allowed to investigate the car bombing because she’d been ordered to focus on the Briggs trial. She could only imagine what Mark Sonschein would say if she told him she wanted to spend her time figuring out whether Brenda Gould had committed suicide or not.
When she thought about explaining herself to Mark, she realized how far-fetched the whole idea sounded, and forced herself to get out of bed and get dressed for the office. It was Saturday, but it was also her ex-husband’s weekend with Maya, which turned out to be a good thing for Melanie’s schedule. The trial was bearing down on her so fast that she’d planned witness prep sessions for today. She had plenty of work to fill up Sunday, too, so if she’d had Maya all weekend, she would’ve been in trouble. As much as Melanie missed her daughter when she was with her daddy, she had to admit that the joint custody arrangement was a lifesaver sometimes.
Melanie woke Maya up, got her dressed, and made scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. The buzzer rang just as she was cleaning up the dishes.
“Daddy,” Maya said, lifting up her arms so Melanie could take her out of the booster seat.
“Yep. Hold on, sweetie.”
Once free, Maya ran to the foyer and stopped short at the front door. For security reasons, Melanie had her well trained never to open it on her own. That was a grown-up’s job. With Maya jumping up and down beside her, Melanie peered through the peephole and saw her ex, gorgeous as ever with his rugged blond looks and his casually expensive clothes. The second she opened it, Maya raced past her and leaped into her daddy’s arms.
“Daddy!” Maya looked into the hallway. “Where’s Kate?”
Kate McCall was Steve’s new girlfriend. The fact that her ex had started dating somebody seriously at the same time that Melanie had ended her relationship with Dan O’Reilly was one of the things that had made this winter seem so grim. When Melanie first met Kate, she’d envisioned all sorts of nightmare scenarios. Kate the Stepmonster convincing Steve to stop paying child support, talking him into moving far away so Maya would grow up not knowing her daddy, or worse yet, scheming to steal Maya’s heart and replace Melanie in her daughter’s affections. Not that she thought Steve would ever behave that way, but the presence of another woman in his life, and in Maya’s, at just the wrong time made her panic.
Not only had none of those horrors come to pass, but things on the home front were actually better with Kate around. She was a responsible, intelligent, kind woman, a colleague of Steve’s with an important job, who was excellent with Maya. Maybe Steve had grown up in the year and a half since Melanie had caught him cheating and thrown him out, or maybe Kate just tolerated less garbage than Melanie had. But having Kate in his life had settled Steve down. He was now handling joint custody in a mature, civilized way that made Maya’s life better and Melanie’s less complicated. Of course, Steve’s new relationship meant that Melanie hadn’t had her ex-husband to go crying to when she broke up with her boyfriend. But that was a good thing, right?
“Yeah,” Melanie said. “Where’s Kate?”
“I was out late last night. Client dinner. So I never ended up going over to her place. But we’re meeting her later at Serendipity.”
“Dipity!” Maya exclaimed. It was her favorite ice cream shop.
“Have a great time,” Melanie said.
She found herself hoping for his girlfriend’s sake that Steve wasn’t backsliding to his old ways. But he wasn’t her problem any more, and that was a relief. Steve was a good father, and he was even a good ex. But he hadn’t been terrific in the husband department.
Melanie saw Maya out the door with lots of hugs and kisses, feeling a pang of baby-sickness at letting the little one go. But she looked on the bright side. She had the weekend free to work, which she really needed to do.
Her boxes weren’t yet unpacked or her diplomas hung to put the world on notice of her Ivy education, but the telephone in Jennifer Lamont’s office was now working. That was all she cared about as she slammed the door behind her and sank into her swivel chair. She had a phone, and she had an excuse to call Evan.
She knew exactly the tone she wanted to strike. Professional at first. Not too personal. But just personal enough to remind him of their . . . encounter on Friday night. She remembered the cold touch of his fingers on her hand, and her pulse started to race. Why, oh why, had she taken hers away just as his started to warm up, to feel like flesh? Nobody would have walked in. Since then, she’d imagined a hundred scenarios for what might’ve happened next if she hadn’t been such a chicken.
Jennifer picked up the receiver, then lost her nerve and let it clatter back into the cradle. Finally, she took a deep breath and punched in the numbers. Her fingers were shaking, but in a delicious, butterflies sort of way.
Voice mail, after all that. Disappointment overwhelmed her, so much that the beep sounded before she was ready.
“Uh, hi, Evan, this is Jennifer Lamont from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I hope you’ve had a chance to review the discovery I gave you on Friday night. I need to speak to you regarding—”
A loud screech sounded on the line.
“Sure I am. You think you’re the only one with a trial to prepare for?”
“Well, I thought, you know, high-priced firm and all . . .”
Jennifer felt incoherent, but he picked up the ball and ran with it.
“What? That I have some hotshot associate doing all the heavy lifting? That I’m nothing but a mouthpiece?”
She loved the teasing tone in his voice, did her best to match it.
“I thought you were just another pretty face,” she said.
“Look who’s talking.”
“Oh, come on now. You’re a flatterer.”
His voice was soft and insinuating as silk. “Don’t play coy. You’re beautiful, and you know it, too. Long auburn hair, big green eyes, the little freckles across your nose. Mmm, and your body in that nice, tight sweater you were wearing the other night. You’re incredible.”
Jennifer couldn’t speak for a moment. No man had ever complimented her like that. She’d always thought of herself as ordinary-looking, even mousy. But in Evan’s eyes, she was beautiful.
When she’d finally collected herself enough to speak, her voice came out all husky. “You... you shouldn’t say those things.”
“Why? Because you like it too much?”
She laughed. “No. Because this is business, and you’re opposing counsel, and you’re married.”
“Damn, and here I thought you’d be happy to know how I felt. I thought you were calling because you missed me. I miss you, you know.”
“Well, you shouldn’t.”
“Shouldn’t seems to be your favorite word. I can see I’m going to have to work on eliminating it from your vocabulary.”
“You’re right, it is my favorite,” Jennifer said, turning serious. “I’m very attached to it. It’s the only way I keep from screwing up all the time. Otherwise...” She trailed off.
“Am I hearing right? Wholesome little Dixie, living life on the edge?”
“Yeah, that’s me. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but I really do.”
“I’m happy for the company, then. That’s where I live.”
“I see that.”
“Of course you do. It’s why you like me so much.”
She was struck dumb yet again. He saw right through her.
“Get over yourself,” she said. “How do you even know I like you?”
Now it was his turn to laugh. “Go ahead, fight it. I like a good build-up. But you’ll fall in the end. See, I know something about you that you don’t even know about yourself.”
He lowered his voice till she felt like he was whispering right into her ear. “Somebody like you, who lives life on the edge, who feels the power of the dark side? What you really want . . .”
“Is for me to pull you in.”
Excerpted from NOTORIOUS © Copyright 2011 by Michele Martinez. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow. All rights reserved.