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Chapter 1

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.?/font>

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.?/font>

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??/font>

“If all I had for you was a lousy drug murder, honey, I wouldn’t keep you from your tuna fish sandwich.?/font>

She smiled. “You take a pretty bleak view of my lunch situation.?/font>

“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.?/font>

“The terrorist??

“Call him what you will, but we’re not talking about some lowlife in a suicide vest. Abdullah’s a major player internationally.?/font>

“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??/font>

He looked genuinely hurt. “Darling, would I scam you??

“You’re smart enough to try, anyway.?/font>

“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??/font>

“About six months ago, Gamal Abdullah used Atari’s yacht to meet with some of the biggest drug kingpins in the United States.?/font>

“Meet about what??/font>

“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 war-lords in Afghanistan.?/font>

“Your client witnessed this meeting??/font>

“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.?/font>

“Where’s this DVD now??/font>

“In a safe place. We can get it for you, but in order to avoid arousing suspicion, that may take time.?/font>

“And I’m supposed to ask for the delay in the meantime, with no proof??/font>

“You don’t trust me enough to do that??/font>

“You, I trust, but your client? Uh-uh.?/font>

“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.?/font>

“All right.?/font>

“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.?/font>

“That’s it??/font>


“Okay, got it. I’ll have it checked out right away.?/font>

“And Melanie, secrecy is key here.?/font>

“I understand.?/font>

“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.?/font>

“Lester, are you serious? What are you doing about it??/font>

“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.?/font>

She laughed. “Don’t start.?/font>

“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.?/font>

“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.?/font>

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 goodbyes, 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!?/font>

She ran toward him, screaming, and the force of the blast knocked her back off her feet.

Chapter 2

The world erupted in fire and blood. Melanie’s head hit the rough cement of the sidewalk, and she cried out in pain. All around her, pieces of flaming metal rained down. She was choking on thick smoke. She rolled over and threw her arms over her head, feeling the wetness there. She was bleeding, but the blood she saw all around wasn’t her own. Lester! Lester was dead. She closed her eyes for what felt like a long time, not believing this was really happening, thinking she could wish it away if she tried hard. Sirens blared from every direction. Fire? Police?

The man with the dog! She needed to tell them about him.

Melanie struggled to her knees, dizzy and nauseous. She didn’t know how much time had passed. Strong hands grabbed her under the arms and pulled her up.

“You need a doctor, miss??the cop shouted over the din of sirens. Two enormous fire trucks had screeched to a stop mere feet from her. Men were jumping off, running and shouting, throwing things down off the truck.

Melanie fought to stay upright. Her legs were shaking so badly that her knees nearly buckled.

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“It was a bomb!?she shouted, her voice shaking, too. “I saw the guy detonate it.?

The cop was very young. His eyes widened at her words. “You’re sure??/font>

“Absolutely. He detonated it with a cell phone.?/font>

“You see this man now? Look around. Look everywhere!?/font>

Black smoke poured off the flaming wreck of the Maserati. Melanie’s eyes were stinging and tearing from it. The fire extinguishers made a terrible hissing sound as they spurted out their foam.

She squinted, peering through the dense blanket of smoke. “I can’t see!?/font>


Melanie staggered down the block toward where the man had been. She turned first one way, then the other, ignoring the throbbing pain in her head. He wasn’t there. She couldn’t see him. He was gone, gone, gone.

“He’s gone!?she cried, her voice a forlorn wail.

The cop whipped out a notepad. “Physical description??/font>

“Male,?she said, trying to get her breathing under control. “Thirties. Medium dark complexion. Middle Eastern or Hispanic in appearance. Dark hair, black jacket, slender build, maybe five eight, five nine. He had a dog on a leash. The dog was brown, medium sized. A mutt, it looked like. It was a prop. The dog was just a prop to make the guy blend in. I realize that now. I bet it didn’t even belong to him.?

Melanie put her hand to the back of her head. It came away red. She wanted to cry. Not for herself, she wanted to cry for Lester.

“Did you see the victims??the cop asked, scribbling notes furiously. “Any idea how many people were near that car when it blew up?

“One victim. Lester Poe, the lawyer. Do you know who he is??/font>

“No. Should I??/font>

This cop looked like a teenager, with big ears and baby fat. He was doing a fine job, but he seemed nervous. Her opposing counsel had just been assassinated in an important federal case. She needed to put her personal feelings aside and give some guidance to this rookie beat cop. She needed to take charge.

“Officer Ruiz,?she said, reading his nametag. “I should have told you up front. I’m a federal prosecutor. What you see here is a federal crime. Mr. Poe was murdered because of a case he’s working on. Take the description I gave you and put it out over the radio. Do it now. If you can grab this guy, you’ll be a big hero with the FBI.?/font>

He looked at her for long enough to realize that she was telling the truth. “Will do. Yes, ma’am,?he said, and ran back to his car.

* * *

The Atari Briggs case had been big and splashy enough to warrant assigning the two top prosecutors in the Major Crimes Unit ?Melanie, who was the deputy chief, and her boss, Susan Charlton, the chief. Susan was the first person Melanie called.

“Where are you??Susan demanded, her voice riddled with anxiety. “We’re all locked down in here. There was a bombing outside the courthouse.?/font>

“I know, I’m right there. I was in it! They blew up Lester’s car. He’s dead, oh my God, he’d dead!?/font>

“Lester Poe??/font>

“He was hit! Assassinated. Call the FBI!?/font>

“I just turned on the tv. I think I see you. Yes, it’s definitely you. You’re on New York One. It looks like ?is that. . . .Mel, is that blood on your clothes? Are you okay??/font>

There were a bunch of television news vans on the block already. A camera pointed directly at her. She’d felt the bright light on her face but assumed it belonged to a fire truck.

Melanie turned her back on the camera and walked fast in the opposite direction. “I’m fine. Susan, did you hear what I said??

“Somebody killed Lester.?/font>

“Yes. With a car bomb. I saw it happen. Lester and I were standing in front of the courthouse talking. He’d just told me that Atari Briggs wants to cooperate, that he has national security information, stuff I can’t discuss over the phone. Then this man with a dog detonated the bomb. Right in front of my eyes. I tried to warn Lester, but it was too late!?/font>

There was silence on the line.

“Susan, are you there??/font>

“Yeah, I just ?I can’t believe it. What does this mean for our trial??/font>

“Who cares about the trial? Lester Poe is dead, and I think they killed him to stop the cooperation!?

Thank God Melanie had pushed Lester for details. She already knew a lot. She prayed that it would be enough to work with, enough to pressure Atari Briggs to flip anyway. Lester Poe had died trying to bring that information to light.

“You said you saw the bomber?? Susan asked.

“I saw everything.?Melanie’s voice caught in her throat. “Susan, I saw Lester blown apart. I mean, chunks of him landed near me. I couldn’t even tell what it was! Susan, I cared about him. He was ?he was my friend.?She started breathing hard again, hyperventilating almost.

“Okay, okay. Come back to the office, babe. Sam Estes keeps a bottle of bourbon in his desk. I’ll have a shot waiting for you. It’ll calm you down. And I’m calling the FBI right now. We can’t leave this to the beat cops. I’ll get a good crime scene team out there right away.?/font>

“Yes, good, do that. I’ll stay here and wait for them to show.?/font>

“No! You come back here.?/font>

“Susan, no. I’m an eyewitness. I can do more here. The crime scene guys might need to interview me.?/font>

“I want you protected. You’re not safe on the street.?/font>

The cops had cordoned off a large area around the blackened hulk of the Maserati. All the big firemen were blocking Melanie’s view, but she could see that the smoke had stopped, and they were spreading sheets over the remains piled up in various places along the street.

“It’s fine. The fire’s out,? Melanie said, choking back a gag.

“Mel, where’s your head? You saw the bomber’s face. If this was really an assassination, and you’re an eyewitness, you’re in danger.?/font>

Copyright ?2008 Michele Martinez



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by Michele Martinez
author of Notorious,
Cover-Up, The Finishing School
, and Most Wanted

Copyright ?2004-2012 Michele Martinez
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