Society Hill, Philadelphia
Saturday, November 15, 10:29 P.M.
“Stop yelling, Krystal, and listen very carefully to me,” Maggie McCain ordered evenly, hoping her tone did not betray her deep fear. “He can track you with your cell phone. Turn it off. Then take out the battery if you can.”
Maggie, at the wheel of her eight-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, was twenty-five years old and, standing five-six and weighing one-thirty, slender and fit. She had pale skin, intense green eyes set in a pleasant face, and shoulder-length chestnut brown hair that she mostly wore up, as now, brushed smooth against her scalp and tied in a tight, neat ponytail. She had on elegant dark woolen slacks and a heavily woven black sweater.
Her work cell phone in hand, Maggie heard her personal phone begin ringing in her purse. When she quickly dug it out and saw that the caller ID read MOTHER, she pushed a key to silence the ring, then let the call roll into voice mail.
Oh, damn it, Krystal! she thought, as she heard Krystal starting to cry.
And damn this traffic!
A sea of glowing red brake lights reflected on the rain-slick Center City street. It was a cold, dreary night, the rain occasionally mixing with wisps of snow. She stared out past the swishing windshield wipers, anxiously awaiting the signal light to turn green.
“Did you hear what I said?” Maggie went on. “Use my house phone to call me back. But first make sure all the doors are locked and stay away from the windows. Try to be calm. I’m just minutes away.”
The image of a desperate Krystal Angel Gonzalez—a curvy five-foot-one, nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican—frantically pacing the stylish living room of Maggie’s Society Hill town house flashed in her mind.
That was exactly what Krystal had done two days earlier, when she banged on Maggie’s door at four in the morning. Then she dropped onto the leather couch and lay on her side. Under crossed arms, she tugged her knees tightly against her chest and, off and on, sobbed uncontrollably for hours.
Krystal had finally escaped from Ricardo, the twenty-seven-year-old Fishtown strip club manager she briefly had been calling her boyfriend. But at a brutal cost. Her short dark hair was matted with dried blood, her face bruised and swollen. Raw welts had formed on the back of her thighs where he had whipped her with a pair of wire coat hangers folded together.
She promised me she’d never go back to him, Maggie thought, watching the traffic light finally cycle to green. I warned her over and over that he really didn’t love her.
“Please hurry!” Krystal said hysterically. “Ricky said the beating was nothing like what he’d do if I told! He’d make me disappear, like Lizzi and Brandi. Then . . . he tore my clothes off and . . . and . . .”
Krystal Gonzalez’s quivering voice trailed off.
And you did tell, Maggie thought, shaking her head.
Oh my God . . .
“I’m almost home,” Maggie said, and then, raising her voice to be heard over Krystal’s sobs, added, “Now turn off your phone!”
Maggie broke off the call. She stuffed the phone in her pocket as her silver SUV rolled up to the intersection. She hung a fast right, pressing harder on the accelerator as she followed Pine Street toward Society Hill.
As a rule, and Maggie devoutly believed in rules—“A place for everything and everything in its place,” she often said—she did not like talking on the phone while driving. She also did not like speeding. And she really did not like breaking her own rule of anyone connected with Mary’s House being prohibited from coming to her residence.
But seeing Krystal throwing away what might be her last chance to get her life straight . . . I just can’t stand that.
We were accomplishing so much.
And now this . . .
Mary’s House, in nearby South Philadelphia, served as a temporary residence for young children and teenagers waiting to be placed in foster homes by the city’s Department of Human Services. The facility actually was composed of two four-bedroom row houses sharing a common wall. With no signage announcing its existence, Mary’s House looked no different from the neighboring well-kept duplexes that lined the street across from Girard Park.
The charity was one of the many ministries of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the century-old Roman Catholic parish on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line, where Maggie McCain’s family had worshipped since before her birth.
At Mary’s House, Maggie, with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, wore many hats. Her biggest was that of chief administrator. She dealt with the detailed—and often obscure—requirements of the Department of Human Services while overseeing the two other social workers who day to day kept up with the twenty-plus female residents ranging in age from five to seventeen.
If allowed—especially as compassion for the kids’ lot in life chipped away at any wall of professional detachment—it quickly could become an all-consuming job.
Maggie knew the City of Philadelphia had its challenges—perhaps more than its fair share in terms of struggling families. It was the fifth-largest city in the United States, with one in four of its 1.5 million residents living in poverty, a third of them under age eighteen.
And the tragic result of that meant an annual caseload of some twenty thousand—from infants to teenagers—moving through the overburdened bureaucracy that was the city’s Department of Human Services.
DHS’s role, with hundreds of millions in annual funds, was to protect the abused and neglected. This meant investigating and overseeing broken families—and, when necessary, immediately removing children from a potentially dangerous environment. Thus, at any given time thousands found themselves in temporary care while DHS evaluated if it was safe for them to be returned to their family—or placed with a foster family.
And Mary’s House was but one small charity among dozens in Philly providing help—temporary shelter that included food, clothing, health care, and more—until permanent foster care, or adoption, could be secured.
The thick, well-worn file labeled “Gonzalez, Krystal Angel” had been among the first cases that Maggie McCain had reviewed after arriving at Mary’s House.
That had been two years earlier, when Krystal had just turned seventeen. It had taken Maggie nearly half a year to earn the confidence of Krystal, who since age ten had suffered the revolving doors of various homes. The last time at Mary’s House had been her third to live there.
What Maggie found in her file was, while without question horrific, sadly common.
“DHS, after notification by an anonymous source, confirmed through the various utility service providers that the address of the Brewerytown row house where the mother and her five (5) children lived did not have gas, water, or electricity. On-site inspection by caseworkers found that there was trash littering every room, as well as evidence of rodents and human feces. Said conditions—‘clear and convincing evidence of parental inadequacy’—thus meet the Pennsylvania standard for terminating parental rights.”
The file further stated that the anonymous source alleged that the mother and her new boyfriend were selling crack cocaine—when they were not using it.
With a court order, and backed by two Philadelphia Police officers, DHS caseworkers came and took the children away.
Krystal—at ten the youngest sibling—and her four sisters were placed in Mary’s House and from there into their first foster home. All against the objections of their maternal aunt, who wanted them in her Kensington home with her three children.
Relatives wanting five more mouths to feed? Maggie had thought incredulously, reading the file. Or just five more checks from DHS?
These situations are so desperate . . . no matter how much money gets thrown at the problem.
After two years, a DHS caseworker discovered evidence of abuse of the oldest Gonzalez sibling by the foster parents—and suspected there was more—and the girls returned to the safety of Mary’s House.
It would be a brief stay.
The aunt lobbied DHS to the point that she finally won court-approved custody of them. The file notes stated that all was more or less okay for the following three years—until the driver of a stolen car hit the aunt in a Kensington crosswalk, killing her. DHS, due to limited space, then split up the six cousins—the eldest two, almost eighteen, had run away and not been heard from since—between three temporary homes.
Krystal, who’d just turned fifteen, wound up back at Mary’s House with no real hope of ever living again with her sisters and cousins.
Caseworkers, as much as they wished to oversee each and every child without fail, knew that the system, frustratingly flawed, was anything but perfect—and that there were those who invariably fell through holes in the safety net that was DHS. The younger kids, particularly infants, understandably commanded the majority of attention. At high risk were the teenagers, who constantly tested the patience of caseworkers. They would talk back, lie, and sneak out at night, violating Philadelphia’s curfew. Alcohol and drug use, particularly among those who’d been abused, wasn’t at all uncommon.
Maggie McCain herself had added ample notes in Krystal’s file, most often in connection with the twins Lizzi and Brandi.
Krystal had met the attractive, blonde sixteen-year-olds at a West Philadelphia facility serving DHS, where they’d lived for almost a year. Not church-affiliated, it was two miles from Mary’s House, and twice its size. The girls had found the rules there were fewer, or not strictly enforced, or both, and being opportunistic—if not cunning—teenagers they took advantage of that.
A year after befriending Krystal, Lizzi and Brandi had introduced her to an older girl, all of twenty-one, who impressed them with the money she said she earned serving cocktails at a couple of Philly nightclubs.
Krystal had been so awed that she’d dropped her guard and gushed to Maggie McCain: “She has the latest everything—her hair, her nails, her clothes! And her own place! ‘Ya gotta use what ya got to get what ya want,’ is what she said. She’s going to help find Lizzi and Brandi jobs, and let them share her place until we can get our own.”
“We?” Maggie had blurted.
“I mean them. Lizzi and Brandi.”
But Maggie had understood exactly what she meant.
The girls had led tough lives, ones that most people could not—and, truth told, really did not want to—begin to try to comprehend. The closer the girls got to eighteen, the odds of them being adopted into any family, let alone a stable, loving one, were about as good as the chance they’d be taken bodily into heaven. And the promise of a new, exciting life on their own simply was too tempting.
Maggie at first couldn’t compose a reply.
“Use what you got to get what you want”?
That could not be any clearer. . . .
Then, even as she began saying the words, Maggie knew they were falling on deaf ears: “You girls must be very, very careful, Krystal. You have to understand that there’s a price, sometimes a very steep one. . . .”
Maggie McCain sped through the tree-lined cobblestone streets of Society Hill, a posh section of Center City overlooking the Delaware River that dated back to the 1700s.
The knot that had formed in the pit of her stomach at the mention of Lizzi and Brandi felt like it was getting worse.
If those poor girls aren’t dead, they probably wish they were, she thought.
And Krystal may have just missed the same fate.
She turned down a brick-paved alleyway, then thumbed the button of the garage door opener clipped to her sun visor. Approaching the back of her three-story town house—in the last year she’d spent a small fortune renovating the hundred-year-old structure—she saw that the wooden door of the garage was almost completely open. The interior was brightly lit.
Glancing up, she saw that there were no lights in the windows of the second and third floors.
Krystal didn’t call back on my house phone, she thought, nosing the Land Cruiser inside the neat, orderly garage. Maybe she went to bed?
Or she’s hiding in the dark . . . ?
Maggie put the SUV in park and turned it off. As she opened her driver’s door, she heard a heavy thump upstairs and what sounded like glass shattering and, a moment later, the rush of air.
Maggie jerked her head, struggling to hear as the garage door closed.
Maybe she fell? But what was—?
The smoke alarms suddenly went off with a steady, ear-piercing squeal.
She got out of the vehicle and ran up the staircase. Reaching the top, she grabbed the doorknob—and instinctively yanked back her hand when she felt the heat. She tugged her thick sweater cuff over her hand, then quickly grabbed and turned the knob.
The door opened onto the kitchen. When she pulled on it, flames flickered out of the crack. She slammed it shut.
What’s that smell? Gas?
She waited for a long moment, then tried again.
This time the flames were not quite as intense—and now she could see Krystal. She was lying on the kitchen’s hardwood floor. What looked like a beer bottle with a rag tied to it lay in a pool of blood beside her head. A second one was shattered on the marble countertop. The wooden cabinetry was burning rapidly.
The room reeked of gasoline.
“Oh my God!” she whimpered, her green eyes tearing.
I need to call nine-one-one!
No—I don’t. The alarm system does that.
She pulled her sweater over her head and ran to Krystal and knelt. Krystal’s face was coated in blood. Her eyes were glazed. Maggie touched her neck to feel for a pulse, found none, then grasped her shoulders and shook her.
There was no response.
When she had shaken her, her head had moved—and Maggie now noticed a small brass object, then a second one, in the blood pool. She immediately recognized them as spent bullet casings.
She looked back at Krystal—and now followed the trail of blood on her neck to the small round entrance wound the bullet had made behind her right earlobe.
You poor thing . . .
Maggie quickly looked around the kitchen, then down the hall that led to the front of the house. At the end, she could see that the front door was wide open.
Did she not lock the door?
Or did she let in whoever did this?
The flames on the cabinets suddenly grew stronger and hotter.
She ran back to the door to the garage, went through it, and slammed it shut. She slapped at the wall to the left of the door frame until her fingers found the control button that opened the garage door.
The light on the opener in the center of the ceiling came back on. The motor hummed as the big wooden door clunked upward.
She could hear the sound of sirens, faint but clear. They were coming from the direction of the firehouse not quite a half dozen blocks away at Sixth and South.
Maggie ran down the steps.
She pulled from the front passenger floorboard of the Land Cruiser a canvas sailing bag—its neat stitching read YELLOWROSE SPRING BAY RESORT & SPA, VIRGIN GORDA BVI—then took it behind the enclosed stairway. She opened the narrow door there. A single bulb above automatically came on, and she crouched as she entered the small enclosure.
A heavy rug covered most of the concrete floor. Tugging back the far corner, she uncovered a false floor that was a three-foot square of sheet metal.
She slid the square aside to reveal a fireproof safe that had been set in the concrete floor. Its door had a readout and a digital keypad for its combination, and she quickly punched in a string of numbers. The keypad beeped as each number was pushed.
Suddenly there was a rapid series of three beeps. A tiny bulb beside the readout lit up red. The screen flashed ERROR.
“Damn!” she said, breathing heavily.
She punched the CANCEL key, then held her breath and again rapidly keyed in the combination’s string of numbers. When she finished, she hit the pound symbol key.
Simultaneously there came a single beep, the tiny bulb glowed green, and the readout flashed OPENING. That was followed by the whirring sound of the door tumblers disengaging the insets of the door frame.
She exhaled heavily, then swung open the fireproof safe’s heavy door.
Maggie reached inside and pulled out a stack of folders and notebooks. She quickly stuffed them into her shoulder bag. She then reached back into the safe, found a bulging brass-zippered cloth bank pouch with the silk-screened logotype KEYSTONE FINANCIAL SERVICES, and a heavy black plastic bag imprinted in gold with LUCKY STARS CASINO & ENTERTAINMENT, and added them to the canvas bag.
Finally, she extracted a black molded plastic clamshell case. She flipped open its silver latches and swung back the top. She looked for a long moment at its contents—a Baby Glock Model 26 9mm semiautomatic pistol with two extra fully charged ten-round magazines—then grunted and shook her head. She racked the slide back and a shiny round ejected, landing inside the safe.
She then let loose of the slide, chambering another round. She stuck the pistol and extra magazines into her bag with everything else, then dropped in the plastic case, slamming the door shut.
Maggie McCain climbed into the Land Cruiser and with effort put the now heavy canvas bag on the front passenger seat. Tires squealed as she quickly backed out of the garage.
When she slid to a stop in the alleyway and looked up through the snow that now fell steadily, she could not believe her eyes. The entire second floor was engulfed in flames. And the flames were quickly spreading to the third floor.
The sirens were getting louder.
It’s all too little too late.
Poor Krystal . . .
Her thoughts were interrupted by her work cell phone ringing. She tugged it out of her pocket, looked down—and gasped.
The screen read KRYSTAL G.
She’s . . . she’s . . .
After a moment, the call went to voice mail, and a moment later Maggie touched the message icon that appeared on-screen.
Over the speakerphone, a Latin male’s voice, with a siren growing in the background, growled: “I told those putas to keep their fuckin’ mouths shut. Now I’m tellin’ you, bitch—”
Her heart raced. She dropped the cell phone as if it also were on fire.
She put her hand over her mouth, staring at the phone on the floorboard until its screen dimmed and went dark.
She looked out the windshield, her mind starting to spin as she watched the flames.
That was the guy . . . Ricky?
He’s here! And knows my number!
He has to know about Mary’s House. . . .
What else is on Krystal’s phone?
Her mind flashed with the scene of the burning kitchen and the girl, lifeless on the floor in a pool of her own blood.
The sirens screamed closer.
She shook her head, trying to clear it.
She jerked the gearshift into drive and floored the accelerator.
She frantically slapped at the door panel, finally finding the window switches. The right front and rear windows both went down at once. Bitter cold air blew into the SUV.
She felt as if she were going to start shaking, from both the chill and the fear, and forced it back.
She then reached down to the floorboard, grabbed the cell phone, and threw it. It went out the front window, disappearing into the thick snowflakes. Then she hit the switches again, putting the windows up.
As she skidded to a stop at the end of the alleyway, an enormous red fire truck filled the windshield. Engine 11 flashed past, its siren wailing and emergency lights pulsing in the falling snow.
Crying, she dug the Baby Glock out of the bag while watching the fire truck make a right turn onto her street.
She then spun the steering wheel left. And again floored the accelerator.
Latitude 23 Degrees 32 Minutes 64 Seconds North
Longitude 81 Degrees 92 Minutes 77 Seconds West
North of the Republic of Cuba
Sunday, November 16, 1:35 A.M.
“Damn it, Miguel, that’s got to be them!” First Mate Raúl Alfonso announced, peering through binoculars as he stood beside the helm of the Nuevo Día. “Those Pangas are right on the GPS coordinates they sent. But why two boats? Is one a backup? Or what . . . ?”
The sky was clear, the winds calm, the sea almost flat. The thin crescent of a new moon hung near the horizon amid a blanket of twinkling stars. The humid air was thick, its salty smell heavy.
The New Day was a faded black, rusty steel-hulled cargo vessel 280 feet in length. In addition to a regular schedule of calling on ports around the Bahamian Islands, she and her sister ship made staggered once-a-week trips to Havana from their home port of Miami. The vessels delivered items deemed by the Communist government of Cuba to be of humanitarian value—for an outrageous import tariff paid by the Cuban exiles in the States who sent them—and thus permissible to enter the sovereign island nation.
Months earlier, in another humanitarian shipment, handheld Motorola two-way radios and Garmin GPS units, possession of which Cuban law considered treason and would result in the bearer’s immediate imprisonment and likely torture, had been smuggled to Cuban fishermen inside fifty-pound bags of dried frijoles negros. Black beans, a Cuban staple, were in almost as great a demand as rice.
A chunky round-faced thirty-year-old Cuban-American, Alfonso stood five-five. He wore a mussed tan uniform, the shirt untucked and his ample belly straining its buttons.
Even with the high-powered optics and the clear weather, he could make out no more than the silhouettes of the two Pangas in the predawn darkness. The narrow, low-profile, twenty-five-foot-long fishing boats, each powered by a single outboard motor, were designed more for calmer inshore waters than for the open sea.
“Perhaps God is with us,” Alfonso said, as he passed the binoculars to the ship’s master.
“Don’t speak too soon, mi amigo,” Captain Miguel Treto replied.
Treto also was Cuban-American. At thirty-three years of age, he looked like a slightly older version of Alfonso, though not nearly as chunky. His tan uniform was much neater.
Alfonso pointed out the pilothouse window.
“Near one o’clock,” he added helpfully, “about two hundred yards out.”
“Got ’em, Raúl,” Captain Treto said, almost immediately after putting the rubber cups to his eyes. “But, like what happened last month, they could just be other fishermen. Or, worse, even a trap. Radio the code to confirm that’s really them.”
The previous day, the Nuevo Día had made the run from Miami to the Port of Havana. The Cuban capital was only ninety miles due south of Key West. Alfonso and the four-man crew had unloaded the cargo of forty-foot-long corrugated metal intermodal containers in just under two hours. Immediately thereafter, with paperwork complete—and none of the crew, including the captain, having been allowed ashore—lines were cast off and the ship headed back to the States.
When south of the Gulf Stream, particularly during the ten-mile approach and departure of the island, it was standard operating procedure for the captain to keep the speed of the twin diesels at a fraction of the usual twenty-knots-an-hour cruise speed. This accomplished a number of things, beginning with better fuel consumption. But more importantly it also bought extra time for the captain to locate any rendezvous target and, during a pickup, for the ship not to draw attention when suddenly slowing or stopping.
Since clearing the breakers at the mouth of the Port of Havana, the Nuevo Día had been making just over five knots per hour. She now, after four hours, was approximately twenty miles east, not far from Santa Cruz del Norte, the small fishing town (population thirty-two thousand) where the Río Santa Cruz emptied into the Caribbean.
The lumbering vessel—in addition to her red, green, and white navigation lights burning—had small clear lights on either side of the bow. They illuminated the thirty-six-inch-high rust-stained white letters that spelled out NUEVO DÍA on the faded black hull.
If they have binocs, Alfonso thought, they won’t be as good as mine.
And if I can’t make out their details, who knows what they can—or can’t—see?
Alfonso thumbed the handheld’s PUSH TO TALK key three times. That caused three clicks to sound on the speaker of any radio within ten or so miles that shared the frequency. They knew that it was possible that someone in the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias—Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces—could be monitoring radio traffic and would somehow interpret the clicks as being a signal. But, being a very common frequency and not maritime specific—not to mention the laxness of the Tropas Guarda Fronteras, especially at such an early hour—their experience had been that it also was equally entirely improbable.
TGF, the Interior Ministry’s Border Guard, used aging Soviet-built patrol boats to interdict Cubans fleeing the island and anti-Castro agents infiltrating it. But, with failing assets and regular shortages of fuel, they managed to do so only sporadically.
“Nothing!” Captain Treto said unnecessarily, as they both strained to see out into the dark distance, Treto still using the binoculars.
Then, a long moment later, a beam from a flashlight on the closest Panga lit momentarily, then lit again, and again.
“There!” Alfonso said.
He keyed the radio twice more, and after another moment the light flashed twice more.
“Good enough?” Alfonso said.
“Not really,” he said, putting down the binoculars. “Anything is possible.”
“So then what do you—?”
“Here,” Treto said, interrupting him.
He reached under the helm and came out with a dull stainless steel Remington twelve-gauge pump shotgun. Instead of a long wooden stock, it had a compact black polymer pistol grip. And its barrel had been cut short.
“Prepare to take them aboard, Raúl,” Treto ordered, racking the foregrip back then forward to chamber a round of double-aught buckshot. He handed the shotgun to Alfonso. “Be quick. But take no chances. If it goes to shit, we open fire, then scuttle the boats with the bodies.”
“And if it’s just Castro’s TGF goons trying to lure us into a trap?”
“Same as always. We say we thought that any small boats way out here had to be in distress—‘We know nothing about anyone seeking exile in the States!’—and were following the United Nations Convention that rendering aid is the ship master’s legal and moral obligation. And I’ll let them hear me call Miami on the satellite phone and repeat that. If that fails . . .”
His voice trailed off.
“If that fails—what?”
“Then we pray, mi amigo. We pray.”
He patted his back. “Now go, Alfonso.”
Ten minutes later, Captain Treto had the Nuevo Día sitting dead in the water, her diesels idling. He stood just inside the open door of the pilothouse, using the steel wall to conceal himself as he covered Alfonso and the crew working almost immediately below. The butt of a stainless steel Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic carbine with a thirty-round magazine of .223 caliber hollow points and ten-power scope rested on his right hip, muzzle pointed skyward.
The crew tied up the two battered gray Pangas alongside the ship almost at her stern, where the deck dropped closest to the water. Alfonso had the shotgun and a flashlight trained on the boats, the barrel following the beam as it bounced from stem to stern and illuminated those aboard. He and one of the men in the first Panga exchanged greetings in Spanish.
Those boats are packed! Treto thought. But why am I surprised?
Alfonso turned, looked up to the pilothouse, and gave Treto a thumbs-up.
The only damn sure thing we’ve learned to expect is the unexpected.
One guy was all they said to pick up. And now there’s got to be more than a dozen people in those boats. Must’ve paid off the TGF—or took ’em out.
What the hell. The more the merrier.
Sínguense un caballo, Castros!
The long, narrow Pangas bobbed and rocked as the men and women aboard moved anxiously, making it difficult for them to transition to the twenty-foot-long ladder hanging over the side of the more stable ship.
But slowly, one by one, they managed.
At the gunwale, two crewmen stood on either side of the top of the ladder. They shone flashlights on the ladder rungs, helping the passengers aboard as they reached the top. Two other crewmen then led them to a bunkroom below deck.
Fifteen minutes later, Captain Treto heard the starter on the engine of the first Panga grinding, and after a moment the outboard finally fired up loudly. Two of the ship’s crew then untied the Panga’s fore and aft lines and tossed them over the side. They went to the lines of the second Panga and prepared to repeat the process as the first boat quickly pulled away and disappeared into the inky dark.
A moment later, its engine running and lines retrieved, the second Panga followed.
One pickup down, one to go, Treto thought, glancing at his wristwatch.
Should make it in under two hours.
He sighed audibly, then stepped back inside the pilothouse and stuck the carbine in its rack by the helm.
He put the Nuevo Día’s engines in gear, set a due north course, and gradually ramped up her speed to twenty knots.
At just shy of four A.M., right at the southern edge of the Gulf Stream, First Mate Raúl Alfonso oversaw the securing of a Bahamian-flagged forty-five-foot cabin cruiser alongside the cargo ship.
The cabin cruiser was far more stable than the Pangas had been, and almost as soon as the boarding ladder was put over the side, someone was quickly coming up it, followed by another and another.
Captain Miguel Treto lit a fat cigar as he again watched the boarding process from the pilothouse door.
The cigar barely had an ash ready to fall as he smiled appreciatively at the last of ten young women stepping aboard. Then two of his crew went quickly down the ladder and reappeared minutes later, each struggling under the weight of an enormous black duffel bag on his back.
Just as we were told to expect, he thought. Will wonders ever cease?
Off Islamorada, Florida
Sunday, November 16, 2 P.M.
It was a Greetings From Paradise! picture-postcard day in the Florida Keys. An occasional puffy white cloud floated in the deep blue sky. The wind and sea were calm, the temperature a comfortable 85 degrees.
Matt Payne stood at the flybridge helm of the sixty-one-foot-long yacht. The tropical sun warmed his face as the Viking Sport Fisherman cruised right at thirty knots, the gleaming white vessel smoothly slicing through the clear blue water.
The twenty-seven-year-old, who was six feet tall and a solidly muscled one hundred seventy-five pounds, had a chiseled face with dark, thoughtful eyes. He kept his thick dark hair clipped short. A homicide sergeant—Philadelphia Police Department Badge Number 471—he was now off duty and on holiday. Accordingly, he was barefoot, wearing only a pair of bright red surfboarding shorts, a Phillies ball cap, and Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses.
He tilted his head back to drain his beer—then casually crunched the can and tossed it into a plastic bucket by his feet. He belched loudly.
Ahhh! he thought, reaching down and setting the autopilot on a compass heading of 220 degrees. I can’t think of a more perfect and relaxing way to spend a day.
He glanced down to where Amanda Law was reclined on deep cushions arranged in the middle of the yacht’s long, sleek nose.
Especially being on the water with my angel goddess.
Sublime . . .
Amanda wore a black bikini and black flip-flops. A broad-brimmed straw hat, white with black piping, shielded her head. A thick, glossy copy of Modern New Mom! magazine was fanned open facedown on her lap.
She was gesturing in an animated manner with her left hand as she spoke on her cell phone, which she held in her right.
Matt smiled as her platinum gold engagement ring—encrusted with tiny diamonds that he’d told her reminded him irreverently of so many very shiny and very expensive barnacles—twinkled in the bright sunshine.
Dr. Amanda Law, the chief physician at Philadelphia’s Temple University Hospital Burn Center, had recently turned twenty-nine. She was extremely intelligent, with a bright face and eyes—and an air of complete confidence. She stood five-foot-five, weighed one-ten, and had the lean, toned body of an athlete. Her thick, luxurious blonde hair she’d woven into a pair of heavy braids, each now resting on a shoulder.
As Matt started to turn his attention back to the helm, he saw Amanda putting down her phone. She then reached over to the small control panel between the cushions and turned up the volume of the high-fidelity audio system.
Playing throughout the boat were tunes from Matt’s portable digital music device. He had compiled more than five hours’ worth of tropics-themed tracks in a file he had, with tongue firmly in cheek, labeled “Pirate Playlist.”
The sound of Caribbean steel drums had just faded out on Jimmy Buffett’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” and now began Michael McCloud singing “Just Came Down for the Weekend.”
They could really be singing about me, Matt thought, grinning broadly. A guy flees the frozen North for the warm tropics, embraces island time—and winds up staying a quarter-century.
That’d be just fine with me.
We’re a world away from Philly—and the damn insanity of me dealing with murders.
His grin faded.
Do we have to go back to that?
Matt saw the screen of his cell phone, which he had placed in a cup holder in front of the wheel, light up. A text message box appeared:
305-555-1254 2:05 PM
IT’S CHAD. WE STILL ON FOR TONIGHT?
Guess he got a new number down here.
Or had to borrow someone’s phone.
Bet he dropped his in the drink again!
Matt picked up the phone and texted back:
TRIED TO TEACH ANOTHER PHONE TO SWIM, HUH?
YUP. WE’RE EN ROUTE TO LITTLE MUNSON NOW. ETA 2 HOURS.
SEE YOU AT 7. BRING $$. YOU ARE BUYING.
Growing up on the upper-crust Main Line, known for Philadelphia’s old money, Chadwick Thomas Nesbitt IV and Matthew Mark Payne had been buddies since they wore diapers. The friendship of the Nesbitts and Paynes—Chad’s father and Matt’s stepfather were best friends—went further back than that.
Matt put his phone back in the cup holder and pulled a water bottle from the built-in cooler. He looked back over his right shoulder, then over his left, making his regular scan of the area for boat traffic and other possible obstacles. He thought he heard the music getting a little louder again and glanced back down in time to see Amanda pulling her hand and its twinkling diamonds away from the control panel.
Well, she clearly likes my music mix.
Maybe cranking up the songs is her way of hinting she could get used to this, too. . . .
Matt and Amanda had arrived in the Keys two days earlier, exactly a week after he mentioned over dinner in Philadelphia that he finally had found in Florida a year-old Porsche 911 he wanted to buy. It would replace his 911, which had been riddled by shotgun blasts as he’d chased a pair of robbers in a restaurant parking lot, one that happened to be a dozen blocks from the police department’s headquarters.
“Now that I’ve finally finished up the last case’s paperwork, I can take a little time off and go get it,” Matt said, then took a swig of red wine.
Amanda knew he was referring to what the news media had been calling the “Halloween Homicides,” a series of murders involving a vigilante shooter taking out convicted sex offenders and drug dealers who were fugitives.
In the end, Matt had become involved in a shoot-out and then a chaotic foot chase across the massive Interstate 676 suspension bridge—the Benjamin Franklin—that had been broadcast live. Images from that—all invariably showing Matt running and dodging cars with his Colt .45 semiautomatic drawn—soon appeared in every local media outlet from television to print to the Internet with headlines that, in one sensational phrasing or another, screamed: “Bullets Fly as the Wyatt Earp of the Main Line Solves Serial Murder Mystery.” Various national media ran with the story, too.
“You’re being disingenuous, sweetie,” Amanda had replied, pointedly but with a smile. “What you mean to say is that your Uncle Denny ordered you to take the time off so you would be out of sight and mind of the media, not to mention the ACLU. Playing up the story of the wealthy hometown hero with a growing history of shoot-outs sells newspapers—and creates friction for City Hall.”
Matt’s “Uncle Denny” was First Deputy Commissioner Dennis V. Coughlin. The fifty-six-year-old wasn’t a blood relative, and thus not actually Matt’s uncle. But he was his godfather—having been best friends with Matt’s biological father, who was killed in the line of duty while Matt was still in the womb—as well as second in command of the Philadelphia Police Department.
And it was the mayor himself who had ordered—through Coughlin—that Matt take another “cooling-off period.” With all his shootings having been thoroughly investigated by Internal Affairs and judged to be righteous, the time off wasn’t meant exactly for Matt’s benefit. The periods were instead designed to give the media and the American Civil Liberties Union time to find something else on which to focus their seemingly boundless energy.
Careful, Matty, he thought. Don’t need to pick the scab off that conversation now.
No question Amanda would like for this cooling-off period to become permanent—for me, as she says, “to quit playing cop and get a job where no one shoots at you.”
Her being newly pregnant can’t help but bring that up again.
“I stand corrected,” Matt said, smiling and raising his wineglass. “Either way, I’m off-duty and going toy shopping.”
“And I’ve been waiting to hear what you were going to do with your time off,” Amanda had then enthusiastically announced. “Let’s go together to get your toy!”
“Really?” he said, almost dropping his glass. “You can get away from the hospital?”
“Of course. You need a break from the city, and I personally need a saltwater fix. Diving is out of the question for me right now. But maybe we could get some fishing in. Certainly we can enjoy some nice long walks on the beach.”
Matt’s initial plan was for them to fly from Philadelphia to West Palm and check into the Breakers or the Four Seasons on the beach there. The sports car—which he had already had professionally inspected and the sale paperwork completed by overnight courier—would be waiting when they arrived at whichever hotel Amanda chose. They would watch the Atlantic Ocean’s waves go up and down for a week or so, then drive the 911 back to Philadelphia.
But when Matt outlined that to his stepfather, Brewster Payne offered another idea.
“As I was having lunch at the Union League,” he had said, “Steve Whittings stopped by my table to say he had news that might take the sting out of the storm having sunk the boat.”
The Union League of Philadelphia, with the motto Love of Country Leads, was founded as a patriotic society during the Civil War. It enjoyed an exclusive membership—well heeled and well connected—including such luminaries as the founding partner of Mawson, Payne, Stockton, McAdoo & Lester, which was the city’s most prestigious law firm, and the president of Franklin National Bank. The Union League’s impressive brownstone covered an entire Center City block, a brief walk from City Hall and many other political and corporate power addresses.
“He always was partial to the Hatteras,” Matt said, having a mental image of them fishing aboard the fifty-five-foot Final Tort IV.
“That’s because he almost always caught the biggest fish on her.”
Matt chuckled. “He certainly likes beating the Nesbitts. I’m beginning to think Chad gave up fishing and went to those high-performance offshore boats because of that.”
“Would not surprise me. The Nesbitts have always been very competitive. Anyway, Steve told me that his bank was having trouble getting rid of a Viking they’d repossessed after its owner went to jail last summer. He said it really is a buyers’ market, and that if I were interested, the bank was damn tired of having the boat on their books. He said he’d almost intentionally sink his own boat so he’d have an excuse to buy her.”
“She must be nice. Are you interested?”
“Of course. We’ve never been without a boat. I just don’t have time to go there and check her out. And now that you’re planning on being in the area . . .”
Matt nodded thoughtfully. “A Final Tort IV. Why not?”
Two phone calls later—one from Brew Payne to Steve Whittings to explain the situation and get details on the boat, and another call from the banker to the yacht broker, whom Whittings instructed to give Matt a familiarization cruise, then hand over the keys for however long he wanted them, having made the point, “I’ve watched Matt run his father’s boats since he could stand and hold the wheel, he won’t so much as ding the boat”—it was a done deal.
“Matt,” his stepfather reported back to him, “you can get your car in West Palm, then meet the broker in Islamorada. Captain Clyde has the boat next to his at Bud and Mary’s Marina. Take Amanda down to Little Palm and put it on my account.”
Matt scanned ahead of the Viking with his binoculars as he—off-key but with gusto—sang along with Buffett about a modern-day pirate. After leaving Islamorada, the big boat had been running almost two hours on a southwesterly course, following along the chain of islands and the bridges of the Overseas Highway connecting them. Matt could easily make out Seven Mile Bridge, which ran south of Bahia Honda to Big Pine Key. He saw what was easily a score or more of other vessels, mostly powerboats but some under sail, crisscrossing the area. And, just out at the edge of the Gulf Stream, a cruise ship was headed east, passing a rusty cargo ship riding high with an empty deck and slowly making its way northward.
Matt heard Amanda playfully clear her throat behind him as she approached the helm. He felt her hand reach around him, finding the volume control.
“I hope you’re not planning to use those singing skills to provide for your new family,” she said as she turned it up.
He put the binoculars on the console and turned to her. She had pulled back the front brim of her floppy hat, revealing her face dominated by a pair of big round black sunglasses and an even bigger mischievous smile.
“Thanks a lot,” he said, smiling back. “You know how that part of the vow goes, the ‘for richer, for poorer’ one . . . ?”
“I think not,” she said, and kissed his neck. “You took advantage of me, and got me in the family way. You’re obligated to make it right.”
His hand slipped to her bikini bottom and gently squeezed her right cheek.
“With pleasure,” he said, then added, “So you like my Pirate Playlist, I hear.”
“Very much. I love all of this down here,” she said, making a grand sweep of the horizon with her left hand. “And I adore what I read about Little Palm Island. How did you say you discovered it?”
“In Scouts. And we really did discover it.”
He nodded and pointed toward shore.
“Off Big Pine Key there are a couple of small outer islands once owned by the guy who made a fortune selling wood-refinishing products. The undeveloped one is called Big Munson, which he donated to the Scouts after some government agency wouldn’t let him build on it. Thirteen or fourteen years ago, Chad and I camped out on it for a week with a bunch of guys from our troop. We played castaways, like Robinson Crusoe, diving the reef, cooking fish on driftwood fires, that kind of thing. Our second day, we were paddling sea kayaks around a tidal flat of mangrove trees when we came out the other side of the island—and almost ran into an enormous yacht. It was moored at a lush little island that was ringed with an immaculately groomed sandy beach. The irony wasn’t lost on us. There we were, a bunch of nasty-smelling sunburned city boys living in mosquito-infested tents next door to a really swank resort accessible only by boat. We didn’t think our kayaks counted.”
She laughed. “Little Palm?”
He nodded. “I like to call it by its old name, Little Munson, just to remind the staff I lived next door before I even knew the place existed. You know, back in the day, Harry Truman and John Foster Dulles stayed there.”
“How nice. And now the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Payne.”
“Huh,” Matt grunted. “I don’t know, baby. I was thinking we’d go native. When was the last time you were in a tent?”
“Enjoy yourself. I’ll be getting room service and a massage in one of those thatched-roof cabanas oceanside that I saw in the photographs.”
He chuckled. “Fine. Be high maintenance. Dinner with Chad is at seven. He texted earlier to confirm.”
He then pointed to a pack of maybe ten high-performance boats that had appeared to the south of them. The boats, moving fast, were kicking up tails of white spray. A helicopter kept pace with the pack, then picked up speed and moved up the coast.
“That’s probably him playing with his buddies in their go-fasts,” he said. “He’s running the company’s new boat.”
Chad Nesbitt was being groomed to one day take over Nesfoods International, just as his grandfather had groomed Chad’s father. Chad recently had been promoted to vice president and put in charge of developing new brands at the Philadelphia headquarters.
“Oh, yeah,” Amanda said. “The boat you said that’s promoting their NRG! drinks.”
Matt nodded. “That caffeine-packed sugar water is making a helluva lot of money. He told me his new NRG! boat cost a cool million—and that’s for a forty-two-footer that only seats maybe eight. Its twin Mercury Racing engines pump out more than two thousand horsepower. Top speed is around one-thirty.”
“A hundred and thirty miles an hour? That’s insane. Why?”
“‘Healthier—Faster!’ That’s the marketing slogan. The boat’s been wrapped in custom vinyl to make it look like a giant can of the stuff. But simple answer? Chad’s come to love go-fasts after hanging out with Antonov. And because he’s got a big hand in the promotion, he gets to pick where they throw money. He said there will be race car promos, too. Guess I’ll have to change his name from the Soup King to Speed King.”
“Antonov? The casino guy?”
Nikoli Antonov was general manager of Philly’s year-old Lucky Stars Casino & Entertainment, an enormous five-story complex that offered cavernous areas for gambling—2,500 slot machines, 100 gaming tables—fine dining, and performances by top music artists. Despite the competing casino that was nearly next door, Lucky Stars was said to sell the highest volume of alcohol in all the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Both casinos were just off the I-95 Delaware Expressway and overlooked the Delaware River, not far from Amanda Law’s luxury high-rise condominium building in Northern Liberties.
Excerpted from The Last Witness by W. E. B. Griffin, William E. Butterworth
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.