By Julian Cage
Peter slowed as he approached the house on his recon run. Fuck. This was going to be even worse than advertised. Grant Park, he figured it would be like the other one of these he’d been to, a couple of balloons and a bunch of hipster parents and their “childfree” friends looking for an excuse to drink beer at noon. But this house’s front yard had about a hundred balloons, in colors that matched the tablecloths on the two long trestle tables, each one with two silver urns on it. This was an event. Which meant it was going to be ruled by females.
He took the next right and went around the block for another pass. At least this was one of the few neighborhoods in Atlanta with real blocks, instead of the roads just going off in random directions or dead-ending. Second pass proved him right: the urns were fancy ice buckets, and there was a pudgy chick in full makeup and heels jamming bottles of wine into the ice. All the wine was white, too, of course. Sorority life, fifteen years later. What a nightmare.
Fuck it, Ellen could wait, drink Chardonnay with the Tri-Delts for a while. He went around the block again, pulled out onto Boulevard, drove to the park itself, found a place in the parking lot where the lines of sight were clear, packed the little vaporizer, hot-boxed the Jag while listening to some bullshit on NPR. He cracked the windows and dreamed of an empty calendar and a clean open ocean.
He dozed off a little, got jolted awake by the top of the hour news. Now Ellen was going to be all aggro with him, but she owed him, and he didn’t have the other phone on him, anyway. He hit the vape again, fired up the car, went back to the party.
The pudgy chick was the first to greet him. “You’re just in time,” she said. “If you head out right now, you can catch them before they tee off.”
“The hubbies are all playing golf. After all, their part in this is done.” She put a hand to her mouth. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” She wiggled her bottle of seltzer water. “I’m Carol. It’s my party, and I won’t drink cause I can’t.”
“Okay. Is Ellen Smith here?”
“Oh, you belong to her. Not yet. But come on in and have a drink. Are you, like, the new man in her life?”
She wasn’t pudgy; she was pregnant. Right.
“No. We work together. Hi; I’m Peter Sandler.” He slipped on the Sales Mask. “Sorry: I’m real late, so I was just a little surprised she wasn’t here yet. Congratulations. Is there beer?”
“Sure. My husband insisted.”
And soon he found himself just where he didn’t want to be, surrounded by women pushing forty, expensive outfits, ridiculous shoes, full makeup on a muggy Georgia day, nice and tight for their age except for a couple of fatties and another few who were still fighting it off. No smokers at all until one of them whipped out a pack and then half the rest did, fogged up the back porch, teased Carol the pregnant girl.
Later, Carol edged up to him. “Feel like a zebra in a pride of lionesses?”
“I was thinking pool full of sharks. At first. But nobody’s really biting. Which is just fine.”
“That’s because they’re all married. Five years ago you would have been chewed up. But nobody wants to act out in front the rest. Gossip.”
“I didn’t even know what this party was all about.”
“And you probably wish you never did. Oh, look; here’s Jennifer. She’s not married.”
Jennifer was hot, too, and this plus all the fancy matching jewelry was a giant blinking red light if she was single. She was way above the crazy/hot axis, or there was something else real wrong with her. But naturally they got paired off, and she was funny and smart and down-to-earth, so maybe there was a tragic death or breakup or whatever. And the fancy jewelry was marketing: she made it in her house.
“It’s pretty profitable,” she said, in the low, throaty voice that attracted Peter in spite of himself. “If I wanted to live like a nun, I could just live off it. But I have expensive tastes.”
That’s it, thought Peter. But before he could say anything, she went on.
“So I work a boring job, mostly for the health insurance. Hey, Laura said she thought you were Ellen’s boyfriend, but Carol said you work together? Which one is it?”
“Work together, sometimes. I sell and lease commercial real estate? Your company needs new offices, I’m your guy. Been doing it since college. Sometimes Ellen helps me out, showing places, that kind of thing.”
“Is that market, like, working again? All I see are signs that say Space Available.”
“That’s retail, which is way overbuilt and I don’t touch. You want to open a jewelry store, I can put you in touch with–”
“My stuff is all Internet. Just me and the FedEx chick.”
“Exactly. But the office market is doing great. I pushed a show until tomorrow so I could meet Ellen here. Though there was about a year and a half where we never leased anything. Lot of people I know went under; I did okay, because I have really, really cheap tastes.”
He switched the conversation back to her, which was easy with a woman, but she was a surprisingly no-nonsense one. He could see himself dating her, he wanted to get involved; just so long as she could get used to Buford Highway noodle places instead of whatever chi-chi shit she clearly preferred. She only had two glasses of wine, and never finished the second, which was a point in her favor, especially given that the rest of the sorority was three or four times over the limit, except for the pregnant chick and one other who it turned out was also a couple of months in.
Jennifer just shook her head.
“Makes you wonder. Me, I have to keep my fine motor control if I want to spend the evening finishing this custom necklace I’m working on.”
Finally, while some of the girls—he couldn’t make himself think of them as women—were chanting “Boot and Rally!” at one who had evidently done the first and clearly couldn’t handle the second, Ellen showed up.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Peter said. “This is my worst nightmare.”
“I texted you twice.”
She passed him an envelope.
He slipped it into his jacket pocket.
“I didn’t have that phone with me.”
“Well, then. Besides, looks like you’re having fun.”
“That Jennifer girl? What’s her deal?”
“Always a bridesmaid. I don’t know her that well; she’s not a client. From the grapevine? Men get interested, she finds a reason to dump them. She’s picky.” She poked him in the belly.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you interested.”
“Curious, is more like it. I was going with dark secret.”
“Well, you would. I can find out more if–”
And then there was a crash behind them, and the sound of breaking glass.
They whirled to see Carol trying in vain to hold onto a tray of champagne flutes as Boot and Rally stumbled past her, lost her balance, went headfirst down the stairs, arms stretched out reflexively to break her fall. She landed in a crunch of broken glass that sounded louder than it should have in the sudden shocked silence, then got back up, one side of her white blouse soaked in blood that glistened in the summer sunshine.
She raised her arm and her eyes went wide as she saw the stem of the champagne flute sticking out of the center of her forearm, a gobbet of flesh impaled on the jagged tip, the base of the glass flush against the other side of her arm. Before anyone else could react, she reached up with her other hand and started to pull the glass out.
And then there was Jennifer, vaulting the railing and crunching broken glasses as she landed. She peeled Boot and Rally’s hand off the base of the glass, then held her wrists far apart. Peter noticed that Jennifer was the only woman there who wasn’t wearing four-inch heels.
“No, no, no, baby,” she said, looking straight into the injured girl’s eyes.
“You only pull it out in the movies. In real life, it might be the only thing keeping you from bleeding to death.”
She looked up at Carol. “Call 911. And get me something I can use as a tourniquet.” Carol dropped the empty tray and vomited into the bushes. Half a dozen of the others started throwing up, as well.
Peter grabbed a linen napkin and a fork, tied the napkin around the girl’s upper arm and used the stem of the fork to twist it tighter as Jennifer held the girl’s hands and soothed her. Ellen called 911.
Nine days later, Peter stashed the car in the parking garage, walked across the street, sat on a bench in front of the High Museum and texted Ellen a message that would make sense only to the two of them. It was too early for lunch, so he leaned back to peoplewatch for a while.
But it was only about a minute before he noticed that the hot chick walking down the sidewalk was Jennifer, minus the fancy jewelry. He stood up and called to her; she looked, then did a double-take.
“Holy shit,” she said. “I almost didn’t recognize you. That’s a beautiful suit.”
“Just a costume. I had two showings and a closing this morning. I was about to take the train home, hang this beast up, blow up a bunch of spaceships online, go for a bike ride once the sun goes down a little. You work around here?”
“Yeah.” She pointed up and behind him. “Sixteenth floor.”
“Sure. Promenade’s an expensive building, but what do you expect? It’s owned by the architects. You want to get some lunch?”
Over indifferent salads in the skylit food court of Colony Square, he asked her, “So how’s that girl, anyway? Can she use her hand?”
“They don’t know yet. The glass cut a nerve, and a tendon. So they’ve got her in a cast for now, and I think next week they’re going to take it off and see if it healed right. At least she’s a lefty, so it’s not like it’s her main hand. I had a couple nightmares about it. I need both hands to make jewelry.”
“Sure. Hey, you know with all the excitement it kind of upstaged that Carol girl. Did they ever end up showing the ultrasound?”
“Hmm? Oh, the kid thing: it was a boy.” She rolled her eyes. “Never wanted kids: I have enough grubby hands on my time.”
A month later, he was spiraling a finger inward toward her navel in the semen he had shot all over her belly, when she said, “How come we never go to your place?”
“You’ve got a king-sized bed. Mine’s only a full. And it’s a futon, on the floor.”
She sat up on her elbows. “No, seriously: I have rules, and I just figured out I broke one of them. I don’t even know where you live.”
He kept up the swirl. “West End. I rent a room from this woman Amy who owns a loft in a junky old warehouse. Don’t worry; she’s totally gay. You can come over if you want, but it’s a dump.”
“But you make bank.” She sat all the way up, moved his hand away.
“Fuck me. You don’t even have a job, do you? You got laid off back in the crash, and have just been pretending ever since. Hanging out on benches in a suit: I should’ve known.”
He laughed. “I work for myself. And I do make bank. Like I told you, cheap tastes.”
“You drive a Jaguar.”
“It’s what the clients expect. I paid cash for it, off a guy who did get laid off in the crash. It mostly stays in Midtown where it belongs; otherwise, I use my bike, or a bus pass.” He rolled over, grabbed his phone, brought up a picture. “Let me show you why.”
She peered. “It’s a boat.”
“It’s a Sundiver 450. Only the sleekest and most beautiful thing ever created.”
“So you live cheap because you own a boat, and everything goes into that?”
“I live cheap because I want to buy a Sundiver 450. I have a long-term plan: I need eight million dollars.”
“You and me both. That’s what the boat costs? Shit.”
“No, the boat costs about six hundred thousand. I need enough capital so the investment income pays for gas, depreciation, my living expenses. And then I’m gone. No more city, no more clients, no more people. Just me and the Gulf of Mexico.”
“No shit? Total dropout?” She handed him back the phone. “You know, live the dream, but you strike me as a little too focused for that kind of Jimmy Buffet thing. I mean, you’ve got two cell phones.”
“Not Buffet. I don’t even like alcohol. Just empty space, water and sun.”
“But eight million? That’s… a shitload.”
“Why I live in a dump. I’m just about halfway there. When the crash came? I had to live off my savings for nine or ten months. It was like cutting out pieces of my own flesh. Put me more than two years off my schedule.”
He took the phone, put it on the nightstand, slipped a hand under her thighs, lifted her so he could slip a pillow under her hips, rolled back on top, got the angle right and slid back in. “My turn for a question.”
She dug her neatly-trimmed fingernails into his shoulders. “Just so long as it—oh!—doesn’t require high-level reasoning.”
“Why don’t you have any hair at all except on your head? I mean, lots of women shave, but you don’t even have any hair on your arms. Is that like a medical thing?”
She laughed, then gasped at the end of it. “It’s an Italian thing. Don’t stop. I shave, I get five o’clock shadow. Mmm. I went to Mexico a long time ago. Full-body electrolysis. Oh, god. No more mustache, no more stubble. Best three thousand dollars I ever spent. Don’t be so fucking gentle.”
The minute they popped out of the crowd, Peter bolted for the nearest empty space he could find, put his hands on his knees, hyperventilated for a minute or so.
Jennifer walked up to him, slapped him on the back. “If I had known something as simple as the Inman Park festival was going to freak you out–”
“Too many things, too many people, not enough space. Give me the open ocean. I’m cool. Could use a drive in the country.” In the car, he said, “All those little stalls selling jewelry? Yours is nicer, I can tell that. But how?”
“Different materials, different market. Mine is a lot higher-end; the precious stones are real.”
“You ever think about doing that, opening a booth, traveling around?”
“Shit, no. That’s hard work: after expenses, those people make minimum wage. Besides, I’d be worried my truck was going to get broken into.” She settled back into the seat. “Peter? I want to change up our relationship a little bit.”
A long silence. “Aw, man. Everyone told me you weren’t into relationships. Why I like you.”
“No, no; not like that. Make it more of a professional partnership.”
His voice darkened. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“See, you shouldn’t have been so up-front about your yacht plan. Not so specific, I mean. If you think you can be on your boat in eight years, that means you’re banking half a mil per year. And you make good money, but not that much. So where’s the rest come from?”
“Bullshit. I asked around. It took a while to get people to talk to me, but what Ellen does for you is unload huge quantities of high-quality coke on all those sorority chicks. Keeps them thin, right? You got that guy Kevin and at least three other people you send coded texts to–”
“We’re old friends. It’s a bunch of inside jokes.”
“Believe me: I’m not judging you. Those bitches have to get their diet powder from someone; it might as well put you on your boat. The only reason it matters to me is because, remember how I once told you I had some legal problems? Well that’s the thing: they’re not really legal. You get your connections to help me out, not only do I immediately and permanently forget everything I’ve figured out, but I can put you on that boat three, maybe four years quicker. No fooling.”
Bobby drank his coffee, poured another. “And you were out in the country? Why didn’t you just shoot the bitch, let the animals have her body?”
“That’s your job. I just make phone calls. People saw us together, at the festival. Cops can track phones. Plus she wouldn’t have been stupid enough to get out of the car. What I thought about was hitting a bridge abutment; but I didn’t trust myself to do it just right. And who knows what she’s got hidden somewhere? I told her she had it all wrong; she said I had until Monday to take care of her problem or she would dime me out.”
“How much does she know?”
“Maybe twenty percent. Enough to make me a fuckload of trouble.”
“Why you thinking with your dick, man?”
“As if you have any right to talk.” Peter opened his briefcase, took out a folder. “She’s smart, and she’s fucking evil, as it turns out. That’s what’s wrong with her. And no, I did not research these articles on my own computer.” Peter made phone calls about office space while Bobby read.
Finally, Bobby said, “Damn. And here I thought I was a criminal mastermind.” He steepled his fingers, sat in silence for ten minutes. Then, “Okay. Tell her you’ll take care of her.”
Bobby rolled his eyes. “No; I will.”
Peter marked them down for cops even before they got out of the car: something about the way they parked. Big swarthy guy, little blonde: Mustapha and Diana. After the introductions, the guy said, “You know, you don’t look Colombian.”
“I’m an American citizen. Came here when I was eight; changed my name when I was eighteen. And my family is old-school Spanish. You wouldn’t believe the racial shit they got going back over there. Please tell me you guys found out who killed poor Ellen.”
“We wish. Your usual carjacker is not the sharpest knife, but looks like these guys got away clean.” He sighed. “Man. She was my friend for years. And all for a stupid car.”
“You guys had just got back from vacation, right?”
“Yeah. And then like four hours later some gangbangers shoot her. It’ll be six months pretty soon; I’m still upset about it. You know, I talked to another detective about this, back then. Two or three times. Black, tall, really nice suit?”
“Sure. We’ve got Detective Peterson’s notes. But it helps to hear the story again.”
“Whatever it takes. Okay, I’m a little down because this woman I’m seeing decides she wants to change her life and move across the country. So I do what I do every time I need a break, which is to go to the Caribbean. This time, it was the Caymans: I got a deal on plane tickets. Ellen hears about it, decides to come. We have a great week, very chill. Ellen meets this English guy, I do a lot of scuba diving. Wish we’d stayed an extra day or two. We get back, I drive her to her place, then go back to mine and start returning phone calls. Couple of hours into that, I get a call from the other detective. I guess he pulled her phone records, figured I was the only one she talked to for a week or so?”
He took a moment to compose himself.
“I don’t know why she went to East Atlanta, but she had friends who live down there. But, you know how you get after you go on vacation with someone? Even if they’re your old pal, you don’t want to talk to them for a day or two. I wish I had something interesting or useful to tell you. Why do people keep getting carjacked there? I mean, can’t you just put a couple of cops on the corner? I read all about that poor guy getting shot a week or so ago, and it was like half a block away. I had one of those flashbacks. There I am trying to convince these folks that this is the office for them, and I have to run to the can and sit there and cry. And here I am talking about myself; while her poor family–”
The guy nodded. “Believe me, we want to get these guys. Tell us about Jennifer Molinaro.”
“Jen? Well, she was the woman I was seeing. I liked her, that she was up front about not being the marrying kind. So, I mean it’s not like I was heartbroken, but it was all kind of abrupt. She said if she downsized everything, she could live off of what she made making jewelry. She was going out West to live with an aunt, or a cousin.”
“Did you believe that?”
“Uh… well, I didn’t have any reason not to. I did ask her if she thought she could handle it; Jen likes the finer things in life. She said she’d figured out that was what was holding her back.”
He shrugged. “People change. Well, they try to.”
“They sure do,” said the blonde. “When did you last talk to her, Mr. Sandler?”
“Well, that was it. Maybe three or four days before me and Ellen went to the islands. So, like, six months ago right now.”
“You never got sentimental, tried to call her?”
“What’s the point? Besides, my friend had just been killed.”
She took out a tablet computer. “That’s why we’re here.” She showed him the screen.
“Jesus fuck!” Peter made himself almost retch. “Man, I can’t handle blood. What the hell is that?”
“Jennifer Molinaro. Dumped behind an abandoned house in Adair Park, a mile or so from where you live.”
“Seriously? Oh, my god.” He took the tablet from her, then put a fist to his mouth.
“Holy shit. But how do you know it’s her? She doesn’t have a head. Or hands. Or… or feet. Jesus, what happened to her? So… now two of my friends are—what the fuck?”
“DNA,” said the big guy.
“Her car is gone, and her apartment was bleached out. But she left a hairbrush in her locker at the gym. It’s her, all right. Zoom in on her legs, will you?”
“Do I have to?” But he spread his fingers on the screen.
“They… shot her? Up and down the legs?”
He held the tablet out to the woman. “I can’t deal with this.”
She wouldn’t take it. “Those aren’t bullet wounds, Mr. Sandler.”
“Half-inch drill bits,” said the guy.
“Someone drilled all the way through her leg bones. Fourteen times. While she was alive. Medical examiner thinks she was alive for a couple of days, afterward.”
“This is real gangster stuff,” said the blonde.
Her partner said, “And not dumbass teenage gangbangers who jack cars in East Atlanta. This is no-foolin’ organized crime. You know, Russian Mafia. Or, maybe, South American–”
“Hey! Don’t stereotype me. I’ve only ever been back there once. The closest I get to drugs is Starbucks. And what would a bunch of gangsters want with Jennifer? Oh, right, gold and jewels.”
“Nope,” said the guy. “That would be chicken feed. They wanted to know something.” The blonde asked,
“How much do you know about her past?”
“She’s from here. She went to UGA. She… oh, right: she used to work in some kind of big-time banking thing—no, it was computers. Banking for computers? Something like that. It was the tail end of the dot-com thing. Said it was too stressful. But all that was years and years ago. Fuck, man: I’m just… now I’m paranoid somebody’s going to come and shoot me, and all I do is sell office space. Or drill me. Jesus, somebody really did that? I’m not—this is a world away from me, man. I’m seriously spooked here. Oh, and of course I was seeing her, so I’m automatically a suspect, right? Do I need, like, an alibi?”
“That’s the problem,” said the guy.
The woman said, “She’d been frozen.”
At Peter’s bugged-out eyes, she nodded. “For how long? We don’t know. She wasn’t even fully thawed when those crackheads found her.”
“Last anyone saw her,” said the guy, “was around the time she told you she was moving to Texas. Guess she never made it outside the Perimeter.”
His partner said, “Did she ever mention a woman named Lucy, or Lucille?” “Um… I don’t think so.”
“Because this Lucy caused Ms. Molinaro a lot of problems.” “What, she’s some kind of gangster?”
“No,” said the big guy. “She teaches art to little kids.”
Lucy Newman’s DMV photo in Diana’s computer gave her age as forty-four, but she probably got carded every time she bought a drink. So unfair. Very close up, Diana could see the quality makeup job hiding crows’ feet, which made her feel somehow vindicated.
“You understand that this was years ago, right?” Lucy said.
She bustled around the classroom as she spoke, placing two pieces of cheap drawing paper and a crayon in front of each place at the table.
“Sorry; class starts in five. I gave a deposition to those Feds, way back when. Two thousand, oh-one? I forget. We’re talking about a two-minute encounter here; just a couple of weird coincidences.”
“We read the FBI report. But walk us through it.”
“No problem. I’m in the airport: there was this guy lived in Mexico, I thought he was the one. As it turned out, I was the two, or maybe the three. Anyway, I bumped into Jennifer coming out of one of the gates. She’s all done up, but I recognize her right away.”
“Describe all done up, if you can.”
“All done down, really. Jennifer is good-looking, and she always dresses professionally. Here, she was dressed like normal, but she was the ‘before’ picture in a makeover ad. Ugly hair, bad glasses, bad makeup. And none of the clothes were the right colors or fit her right. She looked like—well, she looked like hell, because if you didn’t know her you think she was just a yuppie lady who could have used that makeover. But the real Jennifer would have been the woman who did the makeover. Always great clothes, accessories, makeup, hair. But this was like an Ugly Betty costume. More like Medium Betty. If you didn’t know Jennifer pretty well, you’d never have thought it was her. Even if you did, you might get fooled.”
Mustapha asked, “How come you didn’t?”
“Years of practice honing my skills.” She squatted down by the table, picked up a crayon, began scribbling.
About thirty seconds later, she handed him a pretty close version of what he saw in the mirror every morning.
He took the paper. “Hey, that’s neat.”
“Anyone can learn: it just takes talent. Which is just another word for making yourself sit still long enough to practice.”
She squatted again: soon, she had a drawing of two women, one a younger version of the dead girl’s face and the other a grumpier woman with a bad haircut.
“Look carefully: it’s the same bone structure. You do this for long enough, people can’t really fool you.”
Diana paged through her tablet. “Whoa, you are good.”
She showed Mustapha a photo of the screen. “Wanda Carlson, our missing thief.”
“Yeah,” said Lucy.
“That’s what she told me her name was. I’m like, you can’t fool me. But she just denied it up and down, said I was mistaken, she didn’t know this Jennifer person. I was just baffled: I mean, it’s not like we were close friends, but we partied together back in college. She totally knew I had clocked her, too, but she just stonewalled me and flounced off. Awkward. I’m like whatever, maybe she’s having an affair, and forgot about it while I went to Mexico and got my heart stomped on.”
Mustapha said, “How did the FBI get in touch with you?”
“They didn’t; I did. I’m back, I’m depressed, I’m self-medicating with trash TV. Saw the local news, something I would never normally watch, and there she was, wanted for embezzling a shit-ton of money. Oh, now I get it. She had been, I don’t know, doing some married guy, I’d have kept shut, but that was other people’s money, you know? Like, real people, not bankers.”
She replaced the crayon. “The FBI was like, we got her. But the DA, the federal DA, was like, no. They didn’t have any evidence. Well, they had all kinds of evidence that Wanda Carlson stole millions of dollars, but I was the only one who could say that she was really Jennifer Molinaro. They said she had been super careful and not left any DNA or fingerprints behind?”
“It was over a dozen years ago. Today, they might find something.”
Diana said, “And in all those years, did you and Ms. Molinaro ever talk about it?”
“Sure. Just once, though. She walked straight up to me: she must have figured out I was the one who narked on her. This was maybe three years later? She was like do you have any idea how many problems you caused? As in, having the Feds think she was this big thief. Only later, I figured it was as in, she had all this money but couldn’t spend it. I bet she’s been on the Feds’ radar ever since; if she goes and buys a boat or something, they’re going to come down on her. Honestly, I’d be pissed, too: that’s gotta hurt, having it all just sit there.”
Lucy cocked her head. “Is that why y’all are here? Did she buy a boat?”
“Yeah,” said Mustapha. “Something like that.”
They waited until Peter Sandler shook the clients’ hands, helped them into their car, waved at them as they drove off. He walked back to Diana and Mustapha, smiling, rolling his eyes.
“Those people need to realize it’s not 2009 anymore. How can I help you? Is this about Ellen? Or Jen?”
He looked pensive, blew out a long puff of air. “Man. I’ve got two murdered friends. And yet I’ve got to give a shit about office space. Never mind. Want to get a coffee?”
“Already had some,” said Mustapha. “You and your friend Ellen: why did you go to the Cayman Islands and not someplace else?”
His smile died a little, then reasserted itself. “You know, I’m going to have my attorney help answer that question.”
“Yeah? Makes me think you’ve got something to hide.” “Pretty sure you already think that. Where to?”
Two hours later, Mustapha watched from the viewing room as Sandler and his lawyer exchanged whispers behind cupped hands in the interview room. Having Richard O’Hara as a lawyer ought to tag Sandler with multiple felonies all by itself: O’Hara had made more millions than Wanda Carlson stole, convincing juries that nobody could prove his drug-lord clients were really drug lords.
Sandler had gone for someone who specialized in violent felonies, that would be one thing; but Mustapha could tell he was going to have to make Diana extra tea, get her to do a real background check on him. Or maybe just go ahead and call the FBI—he was surprised they hadn’t already figured out Jane Doe #26 was Jennifer Molinaro. But where was the fun in that?
He saw Diana come into the room, Sandler greet her with a friendly smile. Mustapha walked around the corner and into the room, to hear Diana say, “The real question we have is, why the Cayman Islands?”
“Why not?” said Sandler. “One of the few places in the Caribbean I’d never been.” “
You told us the other day you’d got a deal on plane tickets.”
“You walked up to the ticket counter, paid full fare for the next flight out.”
“Hey, it was vacation. I didn’t want Ellen to feel bad.”
O’Hara said, “Why do you care about his vacation choices?”
Diana smiled. “We don’t like coincidences. Let me tell you a story. Back in 1999, some people founded a kind of Internet bank. At first, it was like PayPal for porn: anonymous, you know?”
She shrugged and sipped from her water bottle.
“It was the twentieth century: people still cared. They had hired this woman Wanda Carlson to run the business. The COO. She had spectacular references, all of whom confirmed her talents via email. But like a lot of Internet companies, it took them a while to figure out what they could do that was actually profitable. And that turned out to be offshore banking. In the… wait for it–”
O’Hara groaned. “Save it for improv night.”
Peter nodded. “Sure. There’s lots of banks there. Secrecy laws.”
“Right. Offshore banking for the little guy, not the sort who can walk up and pay full fare for first-class.”
“It was vacation.”
“People who wanted to hide fifty thousand, or even twenty. Mostly from divorce lawyers or creditors, not so much the Feds. Nice business. But then one day, all the money’s gone, and so is Wanda Carlson. Twenty-one million, and it’s all hers.”
Diana held up the crayon drawing.
“And Wanda Carlson was your girlfriend Jennifer. Well, really, Jennifer was Wanda Carlson. Supposedly the real Jennifer was living in a cabin making jewelry. Which looked true on paper, anyway. Jennifer was smart. By the way, the jewelry? She shipped almost all of it to the Cayman Islands, some kind of shell buyer. Not seashells, I mean. We’re pretty sure it was her only way of getting at any of that money.”
Mustapha leaned forward. “But she had some bad luck.” Then he leaned a little more into Peter’s space.
“Even before she met you.”
Diana said, “All that money, just sitting there. But,” she pointed to one face on the drawing.
“Someone recognized her,” then pointed to the other, “as her. Couldn’t touch the rest of the money.”
Mustapha said, “And you figured it all out, didn’t you? Pillow talk? Man, she didn’t know who she was dealing with. You tortured her with a drill, my man. Fourteen times. And then she gave up the password or whatever it was. And then you packed your little pal Ellen off to the islands, and you dress her up like Jennifer, and you have her use Jennifer’s passport and the secret code, and she got all the money.”
Diana said, “Thirty-seven million, now: compound interest.”
Mustapha said, “And you took it from her and put it in some other bank, made it disappear, then when you got back to Atlanta, you turned around and shot poor Ellen, too. The chick who knew too much. Cold.”
O’Hara held up a finger. “Mr. Sandler provided a positive alibi for the shooting.”
Mustapha said, “We’re not stupid, champ. Your client didn’t do it all himself. Someone else tortured Jennifer Molinaro while he and Ellen were already in the air. Kept her alive to make sure they had the right password. They raped her a lot, you know. Not that you care. Someone else shot Ellen, too.”
“I’m horrified,” said Peter, “but all we did was snorkel and jet-ski.”
“I really don’t care,” said Mustapha. “You give up your pals and tell the Feds everything you know about Jennifer Molinaro’s crimes, and you can get state time. Clam up and we send you to the Feds. You can bet they’ll find whoever it is you do whatever it is you do it with. Then you’ll get Federal time.”
“No parole,” said Diana.
“No chance,” said Peter.
“No proof,” said O’Hara. “Cops. You’re a bunch of liars. You don’t know what goes on in island banks. That’s the whole point. So you’re bluffing.”
Diana smiled. “No.” She showed them her tablet. “Here she is, on video, taking Jennifer Molinaro’s money in the form of a cashier’s check. She’s wearing Jennifer Molinaro’s jewelry, and one of Jennifer’s dresses. But the woman who recognized Wanda as Jennifer doesn’t recognize Ellen here. Too angular a face, not curvy enough in the hips.”
“That bank?” said Mustapha. “Once we could show them death certificates, they were real helpful, especially when we told them we were trying to find the last time anyone saw her. And that was it; but that ain’t her.”
O’Hara said, “What the girl did? Not our problem. Ask her. Oh, yes; never mind. Anyway, you haven’t given any proof of my client’s involvement. You decide you’re going to arrest him, call me first. And don’t waste my time.”
Within minutes, they were gone.
“I hope he figures it out,” said Diana quietly.
Peter almost made it to the Perimeter before he found himself pulling off the highway. Around and back until he slid the rental Honda into the warehouse parking lot, where he had a clear view of the front gate. Maybe two hours to wait in the gathering gloom; he packed the vaporizer, then ended up just holding it in his hand for a long time before tossing it in the cupholder. He heard the pitch of the motorcycle long before he saw the off-kilter headlight.
He bolted from the car, grabbed Amy by the arm. “You have to come with me. Right now.”
She flipped up the helmet’s visor with her other hand, arched a bushy eyebrow. “Hi, Peter. What the fuck?”
“This is not drama; this is real. Come: into the car.” At her planted feet, “I have to disappear, because psychotic Colombian gangsters are coming to kill me. When I’m gone, they’ll come here. And they won’t believe you when you say you don’t know where I went.”
A long stare. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“There’s two hundred grand in the car in a bag for you. Move cross-country and live it up. You’ll meet a new girlfriend.”
Clear eyes. “I… I can’t leave Scarlett. You know how she has issues.”
“Nothing in that place is worth your life. For all I know, there’s a goon in there right now. They might even be watching us here. Let’s go. A week or so, I’ll get someone to go in there and get your stuff.”
“But…” She looked toward the entry gate. “She’s a cat, dude. She’ll be fine. This is your life.”
“I owe her my life. She’s been through it all with me. Do you know how they treated her before I rescued her?”
“This is fucking stupid,” he said under his breath as they ran through the concrete halls. He said a half- remembered prayer to María as he opened the door, but there was nobody in the loft save a purring Scarlett. He gave Amy five minutes to pack while he waited nervously in the doorframe, then they were off, back through the halls and out the gate, in such a hurry that Peter didn’t even see the man standing by the motorcycle.
“What the–” began Amy, and then there was a cough and a flash, and a warm spray on Peter’s face and chest, and she was sinking, and then she jerked as she went down in another flash, and Scarlett was off like a streak under the car.
Peter put a hand to his mouth and tasted seawater as the hand came away covered in Amy’s blood. He tried to imagine himself on the deck of the Sundiver 450, and to imagine the damp cold of late winter as the ocean’s warmth, and the orange security light as the tropical sun, but the dream wasn’t that strong. He looked into the barrel of the silencer: just a tiny circle, really.
The kid with the gun spoke. “Bobby say tell you he sorry.” And then darkness.
And then, darkness.