|Necessary Betrayals Excerpt (in HOT PURSUIT anthology)
|At 2 A.M. Sal’s was still going strong. Behind the bar, Francesca Bern rubbed one foot against the other, pulled the handle to dispense the Bud, and wondered why the hell everyone didn't go home. Yes it was Saturday night, yes it was Sal’s in Baypointe, that happening little corner on Long Island Sound, but the band had left an hour ago, and even though Sal had cranked up the music, it was only Jimmy Buffett whining about wasting his life again.
She set the beer in front of the customer, caught a wave from the crowd at the other end of the bar: some guy holding up his glass. What had he been drinking? Oh, yeah, shades of Buffettville. Tequila shots. She slid down to him, poured two more, and made sure the lime and salt were in easy reach. He winked at her with two bleary eyes. She smiledbetter tips that waybut rolled her eyes when she turned her back.
"Hey, Frannie!" Sal was waving the phone over his head. His sixty-year-old’s paunch hung over the waistband of his pants, but his hair was still greased back in the ducktail of his youth. "Keep it short," he added when she grabbed it, his pencil mustache twitching, and she mouthed the words in her head because he always said the same thing.
Thinking it was her nightly call from Brucie Kiel, a bar regular who'd made it his mission to walk her home Saturday nightsa little piece of chivalry he always wanted to turn into something moreshe said, "Look, Brucie, I'm beat"
"Frannie? Oh, God, Frannie, can you hear me?" Her little sister’s voice gulped and stuttered, full of panicked tears.
Frannie’s pulse leaped into the stratosphere. "Gina? What’s the matter?"
"Frannie, I" Static intervened.
"Where are you? You're breaking up."
More static. Then Gina’s voice, still full of fear. "Oh my God, Frannie. Someone just" the voice broke up again, then one word got through"Calvino."
"Gina? What about the Calvinos? Where are you?" She waited, heard nothing. "Gina? Gina!"
Faster than she thought possible, Francesca punched in her phone number. It was two in the morning. Gina was fifteen. She was supposed to be home. In bed. If that little brat had snuck out again...
She listened to the endless buzz indicating the phone was ringing on Gina’s nightstand. Francesca disconnected, a cruel chill crawling up her back.
Gina had sounded terrified. She'd been on a cell phone. She didn't own a cell phone. She either wasn't home or couldn't answer the phone, and worse, she'd said the one word calculated to scare the shit out of Francesca.
"Hey, Frannie," Sal said. "You got your love life straightened out, there’s drinks to pour." Sal tried to take the phone away, but Francesca had it in a death grip.
"Go away, Sal." Leaving Sal openmouthed, she scurried into the back room where the swinging door deadened the scream of the music enough so she could hear herself think.
That name hadn't passed her lips in five years. Not since the day her father had gone to prison.
She looked down at the phone. Her hand was shaking. With slow, deliberate thought, she dredged up the phone number. Her stomach knotted as she waited for someone to pick up on the other end. But like the call home, this one also went unanswered.
Everything tightened around her. The room grew smaller, the air colder.
Someone was always at the Calvino compound. The phone never rang unanswered.
The door swung open. Francesca jumped out of her skin.
"Frannie! We got customers."
"II gotta go, Sal." She shoved the phone at him, grabbed her purse from a hook by the employee entrance, and ran out.
She was leaving him short, hell, she'd probably just fired herself, but what could she do? It was Gina.
raced to her car and fumbled with the keys, dropping them once before getting the right one inserted. Tires squealed as she backed out, and the car bucked as she sped through the parking lot entrance.
It took twenty minutes to get to the aging neighborhood where she and Gina had lived for the last five years. Built up after the second World War, it was filled with tiny clapboard homes on postage stamp lots. A far cry from where they used to live, but it was all she could afford. As it was, she'd used almost every cent her father had left to buy it.
She zipped into a parking space in front of the house, leaped out, and raced across the grass to the front door. When she got hold of that kid... Hands shaking, she inserted the key in the lock and opened the door.
"Gina!" She turned on the hall light and looked up the steps to the darkened second floor. "Gina, are you home?"
She took the stairs two at a time, flung open the door to Gina’s bedroom and yanked up the light switch. Swirls of black and color screamed back at her from walls covered with Gina’s artwork. She stared at them for a moment, disturbed as always, by their angry intensity. Tearing her gaze away, she rifled through the week’s worth of clothes strewn over the floor, searched the unmade bed. No clue as to where Gina had gone.
She ran to the dresser, scavenging through the junk on top: stickers and earrings, a black bra, a dried up paint brush, a photo strip of Gina in various incarnations, all of them with heavy eye makeup and orange hair that stuck out over her head in short, witchy spikes.
Gina’s words from earlier that evening echoed in her mind. "You're not my mother! You can't tell me what to do!"
And her own, as she snatched Gina’s purse out of her hands. "I can and I will, and you're not going out unless you tell me where!"
But Gina had only crossed her arms and glared at her.
A familiar fury shook Francesca. Why couldn't Gina be neater? Less angry? Why did she have to make everything so hard? Even when Francesca was fifteen, she'd never dyed her hair or walked around looking like a vampire. And her room had never looked like World War III had been fought there.
Then again, neither had Gina’s; the cleaning lady had picked up after them both.
Growling in frustration, Francesca wheeled around and bolted out the door. "Gina! Don't do this to me!" She ran down the stairs, checked the kitchen, the TV room, the basement. All empty.
By the time she finished, a thin film of dread coated her stomach. Inside her head she heard that name again.
Returning to her car, she sped from Baypointe, where people like her hung outpeople who worked for a livingto Old Baypointewhere people like Arturo Calvino lived off what other people did for them.
She saw the blue lights almost before she saw the gates to the Calvino estate, which were wide open and unnaturally welcoming. If she wasn't scared before, she was now. Blue lights and Calvinos weren't a normal combination. The last time she'd seen them together had been the day of her father’s arrest. Now, as then, something was terribly wrong.
A cop car and requisite uniform blocked the entrance.
"Move along." He gestured up the road with an orange light.
She lowered her window and called out. "What’s happened?"
"Read about it tomorrow. Keep moving."
"Look, I need to go in there. I got a call from my sister. Something about the Calvinos."
The cop came closer. "Who’s your sister?"
Before she could answer, a second cop ran up. "Trouble?" he asked the first guy, who shrugged.
"Says her sister called about the Calvinos."
The second cop peered into the window. A look of recognition crossed his face. "You're Francesca Bern."
She stilled. There was a time when it seemed that everyone on the planet knew who she was. But that was a long time ago. "That’s right."
"Too bad about your dad."
She gave him a cold look. "Shit happens. Can I talk to someone? I think my sister, Gina, might be in trouble here."
The two cops exchanged a look. "Pull the car over," the second cop said, "and come with me." He waited until she'd turned off the engine and got out, then he escorted her through the gates and into the chaos beyond.
More cars with flashing blue lights, men and a few women scurrying back and forth, some in blue, others in suits, more guys huddled in small groups, talking low. A scrawny woman in a maid’s uniform sat hunched by herself on the low stone wall that bordered the place. She looked like she was cryingshoulders shaking, tissues crumpled in one hand.
A van with CSU scrawled over it was parked on the lawn, an ambulance next to it. Francesca refused to draw conclusions, refused to even think that Gina might be inside it. But her mouth was dry, her palms sweaty.
Her escort led her to a tree just inside the gate. "Wait here," he said. "I'll tell the lead and when he’s ready, he'll come talk to you. Don't touch anything."
He stalked off toward a huddle and spoke to one of the men. As if he'd been told a ghost had appeared, the man whipped around, and she saw his face.
Whatever blood her elevated pulse had been pumping fled in an instant. It was a warm August night, but she went cold, then hot, then cold again.
The man came forward, and every instinct inside Francesca cried "run," but her feet wouldn't budge.
His cool, assessing gaze flicked over her. She was wearing her bar clothestight white blouse and clinging black pants, because a bit of cleavage and a curve of ass was another help in the tip departmentand looked nothing like the private school girl he once knew.
Thinking about that other life started a slow fury building. She tamped it into hard embers and examined him right back. She'd forgotten how tall he was. His big shoulders seemed to envelop the space around him. His thick blond hair used to have waves in it, and he'd push it off his forehead with a lazy grin. Now it was skinned to military correctness, which only made his face more sculpted, his mouth more sensual. She remembered that mouth and a sudden pang of pain and longing cut through her anger.
"Hello, Francesca." His voice, deep and gruff, seemed to match the gray suit he wore.
The exchange was short and stiffenemies meeting to discuss a temporary truce.
"Brody says you want to talk to me."
Not you. Never you. "It’s about Gina."
"What happened to Gina?"
You put her father in prison and he died there, she wanted to say, that’s what happened to Gina. "She called about half an hour ago. From a cell phone. She kept breaking up, but she was crying, and she said something about the Calvinos." She drew a breath, forced the quiver out of her voice. "Is she here? Has...has something happened to her?"
"No." The answer was quick and decisive, and for half a second, her knees wobbled. She stumbled, and Quinn caught her, propping her up against his shoulder. "It’s okay. She’s not here, Francesca."
She nodded, swallowing hard. "For a minute, I thought"
"No. Don't go there. She’s not here. Look, sit down." He led her to a cop car, opened the door, and guided her inside. "Brody! See if you can find a cup of coffee or a glass of water."
She didn't want something to drink. She didn't want anything from Quinn ParkerGod no, he wasn't Quinn Parker, he was Quinn Parker Lewis, Detective Quinn Parker Lewis. But she perched on the seat, legs outside on the ground, while he loomed over her. Dully, she asked, "What happened here?"
"Someone killed Arturo Calvino." No hesitation, no cop bullshit. At least he'd given her that.
Then the implications of what he'd just told her sank in. The head of the Calvino mob, dead. No wonder there was a swarm here. The anthill had been overturned.
Not that she'd grieve. They could rot in hell for all she cared. Except that Gina had spoken that hated name. She shuddered again. Where was her sister?
"When’s the last time you saw Calvino?"
She looked at him. Saw the implications in his face. As if she and Artie were friends. Maybe even more than friends. She raised her chin. "Five years ago. I'm sure you remember."
If he flushed, she couldn't tell in the darkness. "You haven't seen him? Not once in five years?"
"You think I'm lying? I don't lie. That’s your department."
He ignored that. "Arturo Calvino was very close to your father. I can't imagine he'd make no effort to help you."
"I didn't say he didn't try. I said I haven't seen him." She glanced away. "Look, I came here about Gina. If you can't help me, maybe someone else can." She got up, and he blocked her way.
"Tell me again about the phone call."
Quinn watched her as she repeated what she'd already told him. Truth was, he didn't listen. It was just an excuse to look at her. After all this time, he would have thought she couldn't rattle him, but the sight of her.
Christ, the sight of her.
Her dark hair, which had been long and flowing and lit with streaks of red gold, was now clipped short. Did it still smell like summer flowers? Did he even have the right to wonder?
And the clothes. When he knew her, she'd worn skirts and tailored slacks, pretty things, but classic. Never anything that hugged her body. Now, she not only looked older, but harder, and something inside him twisted. How much of that had been his fault?
"What’s her cell phone number?" he asked, as much to avoid answering his own question as anything else.
"Haven't you been listening? She doesn't have a cell phone. I wouldn't even have guessed she was calling from one, except that the line kept breaking up. I don't know where she was calling from."
He thought of the ten-year-old Gina, the one who liked ice skating and marshmallows in her hot chocolate, and wondered what she was doing wandering around at two in the morning. "Who was she with?"
Francesca’s face tensed. "I don't know. She wasn't supposed to be with anyone. She was supposed to be at home."
He frowned. "By herself?"
"She’s fifteen. She’s not supposed to need a babysitter anymore."
It hit him then, the vast gulf between then and now. Gina had been a child, now she was a teenager. And Francesca. She had whispered his name, kissed his mouth. Now she was a stranger.
"What about your aunt?" Francesca’s mother had died in a car accident just after Gina was born, so Bruno’s sister had come to help out after his arrest. It had given Quinn a bit of peace to know that if Francesca wouldn't lean on him, at least she wouldn't be alone.
"She died, okay? And there wasn't a long line of volunteers waiting to take her place. I'm doing the best I can, but Gina’s never been the same since..."
Since he put her father in jail.
"And lately..." She pressed a hand to her forehead. He noticed it trembling.
She flashed him a defiant look. "She’s been sneaking out. Running away a lot."
He nodded, tried not to let the concern show on his face. "So maybe that’s all this is. She ran away again. Did you say something to upset her? Have a fight? Kids can go off at the slightest"
"That’s not what happened."
"Did you have a fight with her, Francesca?"
The angry slam of the front door echoed in her head. She closed her eyes. "Yes."
"So it’s possible"
"She called me in tears! She said Calvino’s name!"
"Okay, okay. I didn't say we wouldn't check it out."
Brody came with a plastic cup of water. He handed it to Francesca, but she shook her head and rose. "I didn't come for a pat on the shoulder and a little ‘there, there.’ I came to find Gina."
"If she’s here, we'll find her," Quinn said, doing his best Dragnet imitation.
Francesca wasn't buying it. "Have you searched the mansion, the grounds?"
"We're working on it."
"What does that mean?"
"We're still working the scene."
"Then how do you know she’s not here?"
"All I mean is we didn't find her with Calvino."
Beyond her, Quinn saw Al Stellman giving him a heads-up. Older than Quinn, he was stoop shouldered and shuffling, but not nearly as decrepit as he liked to make out.
"I'll be right back," Quinn told Francesca and stepped away.
"Two more bodies inside," Stellman said in a low voice.
Quinn froze. A picture of Arturo Calvino flashed in his head. He'd been shot, then his throat slit and his tongue cut out. Quinn could barely entertain the thought of Gina in similar straights. "Who?"
"Calvino’s guys. Tommy Pelotti and the other one. Paul O’Neil."
Stellman frowned. "Girl?"
"Gina Bern is missing." He nodded over his shoulder at Francesca. Stellman saw her, whistled low, then peered at Quinn closely.
"Oi, boychik. I'll bet that set you back." Stellman had been Quinn’s partner since he'd transferred to homicide, but before that, he'd been a family friend. He knew all about Francesca.
Quinn shrugged and lied. "I'm fine."
Stellman nodded as though he didn't believe it any more than Quinn did. "So the little one’s gone?"
"Not so little anymore. She’s fifteen." Briefly, Quinn filled him in.
"Kind of a coincidence, the kid mentioning Calvino the same night Artie Calvino gets drilled. What'd you tell Francesca?"
"Nothing. She’s halfway to hysterical already."
"You thinking there’s another body we haven't found?"
Bile rose in Quinn’s throat. "I hope to God not. How far have you got in the house?"
"Not very. I wanted to let you know about the two skells."
"Anyone else living there?"
"Couldn't get much out of the maid. English isn't too good. I got Nuñez talking to her. I think she mentioned someone named Tony."
"Calvino has a nephew, Tony. His sister’s kid. See if that’s him. And if it is, get a line on the sister. See if she can locate him."
Just then there was a commotion by the gate. Quinn turned to see a man charging in, two uniforms blocking the way.
Out of the darkness, the little Honduran maid who'd made the panicked phone call to Joey Zachariah leaped up. "Señor Z! Señor Z!" She was wringing her hands and screaming at the intruder in a mixture of Spanish and English. "No llamé a la policia. I no call them. I no call them!"
Quinn and Stellman exchanged looks. The maid was right: she hadn't phoned the police. But the call to Zachariah telling him that Arturo Calvino was dead was made on one of the house phones.
"Thank God for wiretaps," Stellman said.
Francesca saw and heard the disturbance, too. It had been a long time since she'd seen Joey Zachariah, but he'd been her father’s close friend, and she'd known him for most of her life. All of a sudden he was a welcome face among strangers.
She ran over to where he was wrestling with a couple of cops. "Uncle Z!"
He wasn't a big man, but age had been kind to him. Even in his late fifties, he still had a thick head of dark hair, and though a bad case of teenage acne had left its mark on his craggy face, he'd retained much of the casual good looks he'd been born with. His strong chin was balanced by a jutting nose, both of which were raised in anger at the cops holding him back. "Hands off!"
His still-powerful arms bulged, but he stopped struggling when he finally noticed her. His eyes narrowed, then bugged out. "Francesca?"
"Yeah, it’s me."
"What thehoney, what the hell are you doing here?"
"It’s Gina. She’s in trouble. I need help."
"What?" He tried to pull free. "Take your damn hands off"
Quinn appeared, apparently finished with his private little chat. "It’s okay," he told the uniforms. "Let him go."
Immediately, Uncle Z opened his arms and she sank into them. "Now, what’s this about Gina?"
For what seemed like the hundredth time, she replayed her conversation with her sister. He listened closely. "Okay," he said, "not to worry. Uncle Z has it covered."
But Quinn grabbed her wrist and tugged her away. "She doesn't need your help. If Gina is here, we'll find her."
"You couldn't find the nose on your face." Joey spit, underlining the point. "What happened to Artie? Where is he?"
"Out by the pool," Quinn said. "And I do mean out."
But she didn't want to think about Arturo Calvino or what had happened to him. She wanted to find her sister.
She jerked free of Quinn’s hold and turned to Uncle Z. "Have you seen Gina?"
Sadly, Joey laid his palm over his heart. "Francesca. You wouldn't let me. I haven't seen her since they closed the doors on Bruno. What would she be doing here anyway?"
She looked around helplessly. "I don't know. I only know she said something about the Calvinos. And Uncle Z, she sounded terrified."
"Look, honey, I gotta see about Artie." He chucked her lightly under the chin and gave her an encouraging smile. "You stay here. We'll talk."
He started off, but Quinn blocked his way, slapping a hand against Z’s chest. "You're not going anywhere. Where were you tonight?"
Joey gave the hand a look of cold disdain, then stepped back, neatly dislodging it. "With friends. I got friends, detective. Which is a helluva lot more than I can say for you."
Quinn didn't rise to the taunt. "And these friends. You were with them...where?"
But Francesca had had enough of the Quinn Parker Lewis cop show. "If Artie’s dead, he’s dead," she said to Quinn. "It’s Gina you should be worrying about." She turned to Z. "Can you help me find her?"
Z put one of his massive arms around her shoulders and squeezed. "Sure, honey. We'll find her. I'll get Tommy on it." He took out his phone and started punching in numbers.
"Forget Tommy," Quinn said. "He’s inside. As dead as Artie."
Joey Z’s face tightened. "What?"
"And O’Neil, too."
Francesca’s stomach flopped. Someone had taken out Artie and his thugs. Had Gina been caught in the cross-fire?
Desperate, she turned to Quinn. "What about Gina? Did you...Is she?"
"No," he said quietly. "I told you. No." Then more harshly, "What’s going on, Zachariah? Arturo going to war?"
"No!" Z’s black eyes flashed. "Artie was keeping the peace."
"He wasn't a peaceful kind of guy," Quinn said dryly.
"He was young, maybe a little full of himself. Maybe he made a few mistakes, but"
"Mistakes? Like your brother? Where is Mike, by the way?"
With frightening swiftness, Z’s face churned into hatred and he lunged at Quinn, crushing his suit lapels in a vicious grip. "You leave Mike out of this." They were nose to nose, and Quinn the taller, but Z didn't seem to notice or care. "You lied to him, you tricked him. He brought you in and"
"Calvino killed him for it." With a jerk, Quinn freed himself from Z’s hold.
Breathing hard, Z glared at Quinn. "You want to know who’s breaking the peace?" He stabbed the air. "It wasn't Artie."
"So, who do you make for this?" With frigid calm, Quinn straightened his tie. "Volkov?"
Another name from her father’s past that sent a shiver down Francesca’s back. There had been trouble between Volkov’s Russians and the Calvinos since before Arturo took over.
Joey Zachariah’s hard face reflected that tension. "Ask that son of a bitch yourself."
"Oh, we will. In the meantime, no one goes in until we're done here."
Francesca’s chest tightened. She thought she was through with names like Calvino and Volkov. Thought she'd never have to see another cop or made man. And now, as if a bad nightmare was coming true, they were wrecking her life all over again. And she was sick of it.
She turned on Quinn. "You don't get it, do you? I'm not sitting here while you and your buddies talk and poke and twiddle their thumbs. I want to look for Gina. Let me search the house. I know it. I practically grew up here."
"It’s a crime scene, Francesca. All of itthe mansion, the grounds. We'll be going over every inch. Trust me, if she’s here, we'll find her."
"Trust you?" Joey scoffed. "She wouldn't trust you with a goldfish. Come on, Frannie." He pulled her away. "Let’s talk."
Quinn watched them go. The mobster and the mobster’s daughter. It made his skin crawl to see them together again. Joey Z had been a fixture in the Bern house. Both kids from the neighborhood, he and Bruno had grown up together. Joey and his brother, Michael, had gone the muscle route; Bruno had become an accountant. But both of them had ended up in the same place: the Calvino organization.
It had killed him when Francesca had refused to see him, but at least she'd also cut her ties with the Calvinos. He didn't like to think that anything could bring them together again.
But Gina had. And murder.
Just then a woman in uniform ran up. Her name tag read Nuñez. "Detective Stellman asked me to give this to you." She handed him an evidence bag. Inside was a zippered canvas case. "What is it?"
"CD holder. Got slots inside to hold discs."
He examined the case through the baggie by the glow of car headlights. Someone had used it as a doodle pad. Loops and swirls, cartoons, initials. Several TGs and lots of GBs. His throat closed up.
"Where'd they find this?"
She gestured toward the east side of the property. "Inside the pool house."
Nuñez nodded and jogged off.
Quinn turned to where Francesca and Joey Z had their heads together. Slowly, he made his way over to them.
Francesca looked up, her face cold, wary, and fearful. He could still remember when she'd looked at him altogether differently. But he didn't waste time reminding her. Get the bad news over fast.
He thrust the baggie at her. "Recognize this?"
She peered at the contents. "Oh, my God." She glanced at Quinn, stricken. "It’s Gina’s. Where was it?"
"Inside the pool house. Ten feet from where Arturo was killed."