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Midnight Rambler
 


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Midnight Rambler


  Ballantine Books New York

  MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

  CONTENTS

  COVER PAGE

  TITLE PAGE

  DEDICATION

  EPIGRAPH

  PART ONE: MERCY

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  CHAPTER NINE

  CHAPTER TEN

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  PART TWO: GOD BLINKED

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

  PART THREE: HIDDEN MICKEYS

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  CHAPTER THIRTY

  CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

  CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

  PART FOUR: DIA DE LOS MUERTOS

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

  CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

  CHAPTER FORTY

  CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

  CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

  CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

  CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

  CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

  CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

  CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

  CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

  CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

  CHAPTER FIFTY

  CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

  CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

  CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

  CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

  CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  ALSO BY JAMES SWAIN

  COPYRIGHT

  FOR ANDY VITA

  Do justly . . . love mercy, and . . .

  walk humbly with thy god.

  —MICAH 6 : 8

  PART ONE

  MERCY

  CHAPTER ONE

  My cell phone awoke me from a deep sleep.

  I didn't get a lot of calls. Especially in the middle of the night. Opening my eyes, I stared into the darkness of my rented room. Hanging on the ceiling above my head were the smiling faces of my wife and daughter. They were like after-images of my former life, and they filled me with sadness. Lifting my arm, I tried to touch them, only to watch them melt away.

  My phone continued to ring. Grabbing it off the night table, I stared at its face. Caller ID showed a 305 area code, which was Miami/Dade County. The only people I knew in Dade were cops. I decided to answer.

  “Carpenter here.”

  “Jack, this is Tommy Gonzalez. Sorry to wake you up.”

  “What time is it?”

  “Six in the morning. I'm in a jam, Jack. I wouldn't have called you otherwise.”

  Tommy ran the Missing Persons Division of the Miami/Dade Police Department and had gotten his training under me during a stint he did in Broward. Although he was only a few years my junior, I still considered him a kid.

  “I'm listening,” I said.

  “We lost a newborn at Mercy Hospital this morning,” Tommy said.

  A knifelike pain stabbed my gut. “Abduction?”

  “That's what it looks like. I need help. Are you available?”

  “I'm giving testimony at a homicide trial tomorrow. I'm supposed to be spending the day preparing for it.”

  “Is this about the Midnight Rambler?” Tommy asked.

  Another pain jabbed my gut, this one much deeper. The Midnight Rambler was my last case as a detective, and it had ruined both my career and my personal life. Each day I awoke wondering if I'd ever escape its dark shadow.

  “No, this is another murder case,” I said. “I can come down and help you, but I can't stay all day.”

  “That's fantastic,” Tommy said. “What's your going rate these days?”

  I was wide awake now, and I propped my back against the wall, which was cool against my bare flesh. My rent was due next week, and I was flat broke.

  “Four hundred and fifty bucks,” I said.

  “How'd you come up with that figure?”

  “Need. Now tell me what happened.”

  “Baby was born yesterday, name's Isabella Marie Vasquez. Parents are a couple of well-known architects, built those fancy downtown skyscrapers that look like giant kid's toys. Isabella got fed at four a.m. and was gone from her crib when a nurse checked fifteen minutes later. None of the other newborns in the maternity ward were touched. I sent my best investigator, and she combed the ward and interviewed the nursing staff, doctors, and cleaning people. No one saw anything, heard anything, or knows anything.”

  “Think it's an inside job?”

  “I don't know what to think,” Tommy said, sounding exasperated. “Mercy is one of the best hospitals in south Florida. I go there every year with a group from NCMEC, and we lecture the staff and administrators on how to lessen the likelihood of an abduction. When it comes to protecting babies, they know their stuff.”

  “So they've hardened the target.”

  “Absolutely.”

  NCMEC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, had done more to prevent child abductions than any other grassroots organization in the country. They lectured school and hospital staffs on how to make children safe, or what they called hardening the target. I didn't like the sound of what Tommy had described, and climbed out of bed. My dog, sleeping beside me, got up as well.

  “I'm leaving right now,” I said. “Depending on traffic, I should be there within the hour.”

  “Park in the back and come through the emergency door,” Tommy said.

  CHAPTER TWO

  Dressing is easy when you own only three pairs of pants and four shirts. Hanging up with Tommy, I put on the clothes that looked the cleanest, threw my dog into my car, and headed south to Miami.

  The day my wife walked out on me, I went to the Broward County Humane Society to find a new companion. Forty dogs had been sitting on doggy death row, ranging from cuddly miniature dachshunds to snarling pit bulls. The orderly had suggested that I walk past their cages and see which one tugged at my heartstrings. Buster, a chocolate short-haired Australian Shepherd, had done just that.

  The dog had problems. He was not socially inclined and would curl his lip the moment you turned your back on him. My vet called him a potential fear-biter and suggested he be put to sleep. I had balked at the idea. The fact that Buster hated the world and adored me made him aces in my book.

  Traffic was light on I-95, and I did seventy in the left lane. Flipping on my radio, I found a local shock jock named Neil Bash.

  Bash had vilified me on his show during the Midnight Rambler trial, and I got so many threatening phone calls that I had to change my number. Today he was attacking blacks and gays. It turned my stomach, so I turned him off.

  I-95 ended just south of the city of Miami, the last exit a half mile from Mercy Hospital. I parked in the back as Tommy had suggested. It was a cool morning, and I left the windows down and filled up a plastic bowl with water for Buster. When I walked into the emergency room, Tommy was waiting for me.

  Tommy was a tall, lanky Hispanic with a mop of jet-black hair, expressive brown eyes, and more energy than a
litter of puppies. He pumped my hand and thanked me for coming, then led me to the maternity ward.

  “Who's your chief investigator on the case?” I asked.

  “Detective Tracy Margolin,” Tommy replied.

  “Any good?”

  “She's one of my best.”

  We stopped at the maternity ward viewing area to stare through the glass at the bundles of joy on the other side. Babies rarely disappeared these days. It was one of the few arenas where the cops had actually won. I pressed my face to the glass and stared at the empty crib that Isabella Vasquez had occupied less than a few hours ago.

  A thirtyish woman wearing a moss-green pantsuit made greener by the hospital walls appeared by Tommy's side. Tommy introduced her as Detective Margolin, and as we shook hands I studied her face. It was as round as a coin, her honey-blond hair swept back, the skin ringing her eyes puffy. Most cops become immune to the work they do, but it doesn't work that way when kids disappear.

  Margolin went over her investigation, telling us the last person to see the child, the approximate time of the abduction, and how she'd broadcast the details on police communications channels in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties while also no tifying the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

  “What's the parents' marital status?” I asked.

  “They're happily married,” Margolin said.

  “This the first marriage for both of them?”

  “Yes.”

  “Any other children?”

  “This is their first.”

  “How are they taking this?”

  “They're devastated.”

  “What about the nursing staff and doctors? How do they look?”

  “Their alibis are airtight,” Margolin said.

  “How about the cleaning staff and maintenance people?”

  “The same. I'm convinced it was an outsider.”

  “So you have a theory of how the abduction took place?”

  “More or less.”

  “Show me,” I said.

  We followed Margolin back to the emergency room. Sometimes an investigator's first reaction was more important than the facts, and Margolin explained how she believed the abductor had entered the emergency room doors during a busy period at around four a.m. and slipped down to the maternity ward. Going outside, she pointed at a concrete bench where she believed the abductor had waited. The ground was littered with cigarette butts.

  Back inside, Margolin showed us the zig-zagging path the abductor would have taken to reach the maternity ward, while speculating that he might have worn a white doctor's coat to avoid detection. When we reached the maternity ward, she stopped talking and stared at the newborns, then resumed.

  “Somehow, he gained entrance to the ward, even though the door is locked at all times. My guess is, he waited for one of the nurses to come out after feeding, then grabbed the door before it closed. He rushed in, snatched the Vasquez baby, and ran.”

  I processed everything Margolin had said. Her assumptions rang true, but I wasn't buying this final scenario. Waiting for a nurse to leave was a risk, and I felt certain the abductor had used a different method to gain access to the ward.

  Across the hall from the ward was a door with a brass nameplate. Crossing the hall, I read the name. Mercedes Fernandez.

  “Who is this?” I asked.

  “The head nurse for the night shift,” Margolin said.

  “Did you speak with her?”

  “I tried.”

  “No luck?”

  “She's out sick.”

  An alarm went off inside my head. The walk to the maternity ward was filled with turns, and I couldn't see someone unfamiliar with Mercy's layout not getting lost. The abductor had a map. And if he had a map, he probably also had a key.

  I pointed at the night nurse's door. “Can we go in there?”

  “You think she's involved?” Tommy asked.

  “Could be,” I said.

  Tommy got a key from the hospital supervisor and unlocked the door. The room was a windowless square. I sat at Mercedes Fernandez's messy desk and booted up her computer. The screen came to life, and I entered her Web browser and checked e-mails. There were plenty, all work-related. Then I checked the sent e-mails. The Sent box was empty. Behind me Margolin was sifting through the garbage pail.

  “Tell me what you think of this,” I said.

  Margolin peered over my shoulder at the screen. “Looks like Fernandez erased all the e-mails she sent before leaving work yesterday.”

  “That look strange to you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Let's see if she erased her deleted bin.”

  I dragged the cursor over the deleted bin and double-clicked on it. It was filled with messages that were deleted but not permanently erased. I scrolled through them. Halfway down, I saw one that lifted me out of my chair.

  Jorge, I've got what you're looking for. FBB. Call me.

  I glanced at Margolin, who was blowing air down my neck as if we were on a hot date. “Have you seen a picture of the Vasquez baby?”

  “No,” she said.

  I asked Tommy and got the same answer.

  “Where're her parents?” I asked.

  “The mother's in a room upstairs. She was sedated after hearing the news,” Tommy said. “The last time I checked, the father was in the visitors' room pulling his hair out.”

  “I need to talk to him.”

  Mercy's visitors' room was painted in warm earth tones, the round coffee table overflowing with glossy parenting magazines, the TV tuned to Dr. Phil. Isabella's father sat anxiously in the corner, the only male in the room.

  “Mr. Vasquez, we need to talk with you in private,” Tommy said.

  Vasquez rose stiffly from his chair and followed us into the hallway. He was bearded and heavyset, his clothes as rumpled as an unmade bed. Judging by the diamond-studded platinum Rolex on his wrist, he was also loaded.

  Tommy walked down the hallway so we could talk in private.

  When we stopped, Vasquez recognized me and exploded.

  “I know who you are,” he said. “You're that sick cop from Broward that beat the shit out of that suspect. You're John Carpenter. ”

  “It's Jack,” I said.

  “Well, Jack, I saw your smiling face on television the other day. You must be real proud of yourself, taking the law into your own hands like that. It's sick guys like you that give the police a bad name.” Vasquez turned to Tommy. “Please don't tell me you've got him working on my daughter's case.”

  “Jack is one of the best in the business at finding missing kids,” Tommy said.

  “I won't stand for this,” Vasquez said. “This man is a menace.”

  “It's my call,” Tommy said.

  “Don't talk back to me, goddamn it. This is my daughter's life we're talking about. I don't want him involved.”

  It was normal for family members of missing kids to take out their anger on the very people who were trying to help them. It was part of coping.

  “Jack has a lead,” Tommy said.

  Vasquez blushed and looked at me.

  “You do?” he squeaked.

  “Yes. Does your daughter have blond hair and blue eyes?” I asked.

  “Why is that important?”

  “Just answer the question.”

  “Yes, she does,” Vasquez said.

  I looked at Tommy. “The e-mail said FBB. Female, blond, blue-eyed. Whoever Jorge is, he was shopping for a baby, and Mercedes Fernandez helped him find one.”

  “We need to talk to her,” Tommy said.

  There was a loud clacking of heels as Margolin came sprinting down the hallway. She was running so hard that she slid when she stopped, and nearly barreled into us.

  “Got him,” she blurted out.

  “Who?” Tommy asked.

  “Jorge Castillo. I found his name in Mercedes Fernandez's computer, along with his phone number and address. I called it in to headquarters, and they ran a backg
round check. He's an ex-con who's already done time in the federal pen for kidnapping. The department is sending a cruiser to his house right now.”

  “Where does he live?” Tommy asked.

  “On Tigertail in Coconut Grove. It's only a couple of miles from here.”

  Tommy looked at me. “You up for paying him a visit?”

  There was a fire in Tommy's eyes that I knew all too well, for that same fire had burned in me every single day I'd been a cop.

  “You bet,” I said.

  CHAPTER THREE

  The city of Coconut Grove was a funky jungle of overgrown foliage, gourmet restaurants, and late-night bars. It was a far cry from the rest of Miami, which had been scraped clean by development, and I cracked the passenger window to let Buster sniff the many strange and wonderful odors.

  I followed Tommy down Tigertail Avenue. The street was a mix of eclectic office buildings and Bahamian-style homes nestled behind protective stone walls. Tommy drove past Jorge Castillo's address and parked farther down the street. I parked in front of Tommy's car and lowered my windows, not wanting Buster to die of heatstroke while I was gone.

  Tommy, Margolin, and I met on the cracked sidewalk outside of Castillo's house. There was no sign of the Miami police, which was irritating but not unusual. The city's crime rate was high, and cops were always busy answering calls.

  Tommy came up with a plan. While he and Margolin knocked on the front door, I would watch the back of the house to make sure Castillo didn't escape with the baby. As we started to separate, a black BMW 745 came down the street and parked in front of our cars. It was Vasquez, and Tommy let out an exasperated breath.

  “This guy is going to fuck this up.”

  “Let me handle him,” I suggested.

  “You sure?”

  “Positive.”

  I walked down the sidewalk to the BMW. I should probably have let Tommy deal with Vasquez, but I was afraid Vasquez would start arguing and cause a scene. Not being a cop had its advantages, and I confronted Vasquez as he got out.

  “Get back in your car,” I said.

 
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