a new novel by
Tom Coffey

  Chapter One

New York City, March 3, 2003

The site was supposed to be hallowed ground, like Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor, but in less than eighteen months it had become a tourist destination: GroundZeroLand, America’s newest theme park.

Alex had complained to his wife, who told him to be generous for once. These people had seen the event on TV. Now they were here to look for themselves. They were just being normal.

But she was home. That’s where she usually stayed these days. She did not hear the wisecracks or observe the tourists skipping toward the fence. They’d stop at it and turn, framed by the empty space behind them.

And then they’d smile.

It was the smiling that would one day provoke a semi-psychotic rampage certain to land him on “Eyewitness News” and the front page of the tabs. The smiles belonged to fresh-scrubbed white folks from the heartland who’d throw their arms around each other while they gazed at the member of the group who had volunteered to take the picture. Dad or Grandpa would manipulate the camera until the shot was just right.

On cue that morning, as if his dark thoughts had willed the words, Alex heard an overweight man in an Ohio State sweatshirt say, “Smile for Uncle Bob.”

Alex glared at him. He was on the verge of shouting profanities.

But then he slowed. He told himself he was not seeing what his eyes were taking in. She had always been vocal about how much she hated the city. But there she was, a woman at the beginning stages of middle age, gazing into the void in the heart of Lower Manhattan.

“Bunch of crybabies,” Scot Specter said. “You’d think they were the only people in the history of the world who ever had something bad happen to them.”

Alex couldn’t make out his boss’s response.

“I’m glad you’re handling this on the government side,” Scot said. “I know if you had your way you’d clear out all those idiots and let me do my job.”

Alex nodded. On some topics, he and Scot were in total agreement.

“My press guy’s here,” Scot said. “We’ll put out a release. Thanks for the heads-up.”

“A release on what?” Alex asked.

“That was my guy in the LMDC. Warning us of incoming bullshit from the Coalition for Remembrance.”

“What now?”

“They’re raising a stink about our plans for the tower on Fulton. Something about a perpetual shadow over the site.”

Alex knew what was needed, and started composing immediately: “ ‘While we respect the opinions and feelings of the members of the coalition —’ ”

“It’s a vacant lot, for Christ’s sake.”

“ ‘— we believe our project enhances the area around the site, and contributes to both the memory of that day’s tragic events, and the continuing recovery of downtown.’ ”

Scot looked like a man who’d just found an unexpected fifty in his trousers. “Sometimes, Alex, I get the feeling you could do this job in your sleep.”

Lydia’s shoulders were hunched, as if she were hoping to swallow her own head.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Currie.” His secretary’s voice still had a Trinidad lilt.

“What is it?” Alex asked.

“I tried to keep her out. But she insisted. I said: ‘Mr. Currie, he’s a very busy man. He cannot talk to you if you’re not on his schedule.’ I did my best, sir.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“She said she was a police officer, Mr. Currie. She showed me her ID. She said she wants to talk to you.”


“She said she used to know you.”

Alex looked into his office, then straightened his back and his tie before striding in. She had always liked confident men.

“I’m glad it’s you,” he said.

Melissa Caruso rose from the chair opposite his desk. She was almost as tall as he was. She looked lean and toned. His eyes darted to her ring finger, which was bare.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I thought I saw a dead ringer for you at the Trade Center site about a half hour ago. I was afraid I was entering ‘The Twilight Zone.’”

“It was me. I’d never seen it before. Why didn’t you stop and say something?”

“I figured it couldn’t be you. I know how much you hate the city. Or has that changed?”

Melissa shook her head. It didn’t surprise him that she was a cop — she’d always had the don’t-fuck-with-me attitude necessary for law enforcement — but she was in plainclothes and he figured that meant she’d made detective.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“Because of a case.”

“Am I suspected of something? Should I get a lawyer?”

“You’re not suspected of anything. Tell me about your boss.”

“Why should I?”

“Because I’m here on police business and I’m asking you a question.”

“That’s it? You’re not gonna ask how I’ve been or what I’ve been up to?”

“You look fine, and I know what you’ve been up to. I found you here, didn’t I?”

Alex leaned back in his chair. “Are you NYPD?”

She shook her head. “Suffolk County.”

Alex laced his fingers behind his neck. “You’re outside your jurisdiction. I’m not totally sure how these things work, but I have some contacts in the NYPD from my newspaper days. Unless your department has made an arrangement with theirs, they’d probably tell me to kick you out.”

“You were always the smartest kid in the class, Alex. Let’s call this an unofficial visit.”

“Unofficially, my boss is a businessman. He has a lot at stake downtown but it’s a difficult environment and sometimes he rubs people the wrong way.”

“Is that it?”

“There are easier people to work for. On the other hand, we’re trying to do great things. How many people ever get a chance to say that?”

Melissa looked around. Alex noticed that her eyes rested on the back of the picture of his wife and daughter. He wondered how much she could see.

She was limited. That was what he had told her on the final night, when they were dredging up everything they resented about each other. She was limited in what she did and the way she thought and if he stayed with her she would limit his life and that was the one thing he refused to let happen.

“You’ve done okay for yourself, Alex.”

“It’s a living.”

“One kid?”

“A girl.”

“Any more on the way?”

“We’re thinking about it.”

“You don’t get kids by thinking.”

He tried to take her in. Her hair was shorter now and had a few highlights. He wondered if she did it herself.

“C’mon, Melissa. Level with me. What’s this about?”

“Does your boss ever talk about his marriage?”

“He’s not married.”

She shook her head slowly, like a teacher trying to correct a student with A.D.D. “Yes, he is.”

“He goes through three or four girlfriends a year. If it’s somebody really hot, I call up Page Six and tell them myself. Part of my job.”

Melissa flipped open a notepad and tapped it impatiently with the cap of a blue Bic pen.

“Scot Specter was married on July 12, 1972, in the town hall in Coolidge Junction, Vermont.”

“The answer to your question is obvious,” Alex said. “I don’t know anything about his marriage. Although it seems to me that Mrs. Specter can’t claim he’s running around behind her back. He’s anything but subtle. I placed a picture of him with a Brazilian supermodel in Rush & Molloy three weeks ago.”

“Mrs. Specter hasn’t been claiming anything,” Melissa said. “Nobody knows what she thinks about what her husband does.”

“Why not?”

“Because nobody’s seen her since 1985.”

Alex wished he had a glass of water. “You’re way ahead of me, Sherlock.”

Melissa flipped through her notebook. Her eyebrows lifted when she found what she wanted. In a voice that sounded practiced, as if she’d been rehearsing for hours in front of the mirror on her vanity, she began:

On March 10, 1985, Victoria Specter (nee Vicki Timpone of Neptune, New Jersey) left the beach home in the Hamptons that she and her husband used as a getaway. He was feeling ill, so he stayed behind. The next day, the doorman in her apartment building on Central Park West saw her go out for an early afternoon walk with Max, her bichon frise. Woman and dog headed toward the park.

The dots remained unconnected for a few crucial days. Her husband called and left messages but when she didn’t respond he figured it was because — well, to be honest, they hadn’t been getting along. Of course all marriages have their ups and downs.

He got back late on March 13. There was no sign of Vicki or Max. He figured they were out. Sometimes she took Max out on the town with her. Sometimes he thought she preferred Max to him. He went to sleep and later he admitted it was a terrible mistake but on that day, at that time, after a long and hard trip home from the Hamptons, he was awfully tired and the only thing he wanted to do was sleep. It was only when he woke up the next morning, to no sign of his wife or her dog, that he became unnerved.

Scot called around. He tried everyone they knew, but nobody knew where she was. Finally he made a call he’d been resisting, but he could think of nothing else to do. He was a businessman. He understood the need to explore every option.

He phoned his in-laws. Vicki had left their home years before. There had been all kinds of conflicts.

He asked if they knew where she was.

They said no. Why should they?

He described what he knew and said he was covering all his bases. He was growing more and more concerned.

His in-laws said they hadn’t seen Vicki in years. Once she left home — against their wishes, against everything she had been raised to believe — they had disavowed her. She had made her own life in a wicked world. If she now had to pay for it, perhaps it was the will of the Lord.

Scot nodded in frozen silence, the way most people do when they hear bedraggled people preaching about Jesus. His next call was to his family’s longtime lawyer, Matthew Gold. After Gold heard the story, he told Scot to come to his office immediately. They went over every detail before contacting a deputy commissioner in the NYPD and telling him they wanted to file a missing person’s report.

Melissa tapped her notepad with the pen cap. Alex remembered it as a mannerism that helped her concentrate.

“Why would a guy call his lawyer before he called the cops?” she asked.

“Because he’s smart,” Alex said.

“Because he wanted to get his story straight before he talked to anybody.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

Melissa laid out a few more facts: The case was a media sensation for about a week. The Post ran a front-page headline that screamed “VICKI VANISHES!” Central Park was searched and the reservoir dredged. So were the rivers. In brief but tearful interviews with “Eyewitness News,” “NewsCenter 4,” “A.M. New York,” the News, the Post, The Times and Newsday, Scot Specter begged his wife to come home. He said he would ask no questions.

But as the days went on, the story slowed, then died. Scot stopped talking to reporters, instead giving his statements to a friend of his named Sharon Brodsky. She held long press conferences in which she revealed little. Eventually the media moved on. So did the cops. There was so much crime back then.

“So what changed?” Alex asked.

“What do you mean?”

“This sounds like a cold case. As cold as a case can be. What’s more, it sounds like a cold case outside your jurisdiction.”

“A couple of weeks ago, a jailhouse informant came forward.”


“Angel Garcia. Formerly a day laborer on the East End. He’s doing fifteen for assault.”

“And what did Angel Garcia say that caused you to come all the way into the big, bad city?”

“He said that back in the mid-Eighties, when he first started coming to this country, he used to do work for a couple who had a house in the Hamptons. One day the husband approached him and asked if he’d like to make a thousand dollars. Angel said of course. You can imagine how much Budweiser a thousand bucks bought in those days.”

“I thought all those day laborers sent their money home.”

“Angel’s not that kind of guy.”

“So what did Angel do to earn his thousand bucks?”

“He dug a big hole in the man’s backyard.”

“That proves it. Scot’s guilty.”

“Angel says he then helped the man drag a large, locked chest to this hole. Angel says it was the heaviest thing he ever carried. As he threw dirt onto it, he noticed something leaking out of the chest, something that seemed to be staining it even though it was black.”

“Let me guess: He thinks it was blood.”

“Nostradamus had nothing on you.”

“Why don’t you get a warrant and dig the place up?”

“Angel has credibility issues.”

“How bad?”

“I wouldn’t believe him if he told me traffic was heavy on the L.I.E.”

“Any other problems?”

“The place has been sold a few times since 1985. The house, the property — it’s all different now.”

“Let me take another guess: Nobody who’s purchased the house, or stayed at it, or visited it, or driven by, or breathed the air in its vicinity, has ever reported finding a hole that contains a heavy, locked, bloodstained chest.”

Melissa nodded.

“How does your friend Angel even know that the man who made him drag this allegedly blood-soaked chest was Scot?”

“He saw your boss’s picture in Newsday. Some horsy fund-raising picnic in Quogue. He called us. We hafta look into it.”

“That still doesn’t answer my first question.”

“I can’t remember that far back.”

“Why did you come to see me?” Alex asked. “I don’t need to know any of this. In fact, I was happier not knowing.”

“We hafta start somewhere. I’d heard you were working for Scot Specter and I thought you might have picked up something along the way.”

“I’m not buying it, Melissa.”

Finally she smiled. Alex felt victorious. Unlike all the other women he’d ever known, Melissa Caruso rarely dispensed smiles.

“Maybe I was looking for an excuse to see you again,” she said.