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Authors: Jonathon King

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BOOK: Don't Lose Her
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Inside the elevator, I pressed the button for the garage floor.

“He's in th-the m-middle of a b-big m-money tr-trial and w-was pr-probably g-getting m-more m-media attention th-than anyone else in th-the b-building.”

I did not finish Billy's sentence: “Before this all happened.” But I did look over at him, and he must have felt my eyes on the side of his face.

“Wh-what, M-max?”

I shrugged—wondering why he was going on about the judge's current case.

“I t-tapped into the c-courthouse c-computers from D-diane's desk. R-researched every c-case, including th-those immediately p-past and awaiting: wh-what judges are s-sitting, wh-what c-cases th-they're w-working, wh-why th-those c-cases w-were br-brought here, who the s-suspects are, who's d-defending, who's pr-prosecuting. Th-three of the m-men st-standing th-there are d-doing b-big-m-money c-cases.”

The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. We stepped out and started for my truck.

“I have to keep asking, ‘Wh-why D-diane?'” Billy said, again musing aloud.

“Wh-what d-did th-they t-teach you about criminality, M-max? Always l-look f-for m-motivation, r-right?” he said, looking at me again.

I just nodded. It was unusual for Billy to ask questions to which he already knew the answer.

“And follow the money,” I said.

Billy hesitated for a fleeting second, then spun and headed for my truck. “N-no p-possibility unconsidered.”

Billy called his limousine decoy when we were two blocks from his apartment building and sent the empty car to the half-circle front drive. We watched from a safe distance. Despite the early hour, there were still three camera guys lying in wait. Often in these times of diminishing news budgets, local newspapers and television affiliates will send only a photographer to a criminal perp walk or to tag a person of interest. All they want is the photo or the video clip.

They're smart enough to know that the shouted questions of reporters rarely get answered, anyway. And who says a cameraperson isn't smart enough to yell the same old: “Why'd you do it? Are you scared? What does it feel like?” But pity the poor assignment editor who sends no one and then the competition gets some guy tearfully falling apart on camera and blathering into an open microphone. So they cover their asses.

Billy and I watched as the news guys reacted to the limo, rushing to follow it to the front entrance. Then we drove around back to the sublevel garage, used Billy's resident key card to get in, and took the service elevator to the penthouse floor.

Upstairs the elevator opened onto a short, nondescript hallway and yet another door that led to Billy's private entrance. His vestibule was tiled in gleaming marble, his front door a solid slab of polished oak. He keyed it open, and we entered his domain of subtle luxury.

Despite the fact that no one had been home for days, the air was fresh and lightly scented with some kind of automatic aerosol. Billy skirted the sunken living room, dropped his keys on the pass-through kitchen counter, and went directly to the wall of sliding glass doors that opened onto his deck twenty-one stories in the air. He opened them wide, and I could feel the ocean air billow into the apartment, bringing its own brand of salt-tinged freshness.

Billy stood out on the patio with his hands on the rail looking out over the Atlantic, staring out at the ruffled surface of the sea. I gave him a few minutes to breathe, to close his eyes and let the breeze take him where his head needed to go—a respite, if only for a short time.

I looked out over the thousand square feet of living space: the tongue-and-groove oak floors, the glass-topped dining table, the leather couches, the ebony statuary and art objects that were mostly museum-grade and would eventually be loaned or simply given away to charities and collections as Billy and Diane experimented with different styles.

There were, of course, some never-changing favorites, including the copy of Eduard Charlemont's painting
The Moorish Chief,
which dominated the southern wall. As I looked in the eyes of the guard whose duty it was to protect the women of the palace, it was not lost on me that I had seen them in the truck on the way over. They had the same stoic burning that now inhabited Billy's gaze; not angry, but defiant and intent. The lives of his wife and his unborn child were in jeopardy.

As a man who used the strength of his intellect and knowledge as his sword, Billy's battle was known to me, but not his tactics. On the other hand, I was ready to kick ass and do whatever it took to whoever was responsible.

I walked out to the patio entrance but did not clear the threshold.

“You want a wine or something?”

“No, thank you, Max. I don't need it.”

I stayed quiet. It would come.

“I planted a listening device in Diane's chambers,” he finally said. His speech was clear and uninterrupted. It was something we'd developed without planning: him standing outside at the rail and me just inside the apartment, or the other way around. Without being face-to-face, his stutter disappeared. “I also hacked a line into the computer system there so that I can monitor it. Whatever they know or find out, we'll know at the same time.”

Again, I let the sound of ocean breeze carry us. In the time I'd known and worked for Billy, I had never known my friend to do anything illegal. Now, he'd stepped over a line, and I wasn't sure what that might mean in the future.

“You don't trust them?”

“To give us everything they have? No.”

Billy's voice held a tinge of cynicism that I recognized as my own, but that I rarely heard him use.

“They'll follow kidnap protocol,” I said. “They're trained in this, Billy. They've done it a lot.”

I don't always go in for the FBI-bashing that many cops do. The feds are professionals and, like any other, they have their good and bad. But even raw logic tells you that a surgeon who does two dozen heart transplants a year is going to have better odds than the one who works at the local hospital and does one.

But I also know that every scenario is unique, involving different­ personalities, motivations, and levels of acceptable risk. One size does not fit all. But government agencies, by the nature of the huge numbers they deal in, are in love with one-size answers and procedures. If you're the family, though, you don't want to hear stats and probabilities and one size: you want your loved one back.

Billy was covering all the angles, even if he had to step out of the lines to do it. As I watched from behind, my friend took a deep breath of ocean air, his lungs filling and his back seemingly expanding as he straightened. Then he squared his shoulders and turned to look at me.

“I've g-got other p-possibilities f-for you, M-max,” Billy said with a nod toward his office.

I followed. The room consisted of two walls of floor-to-ceiling books and one wall of shelved CDs. The fourth was dominated by a huge video screen. Billy was at his desk, fingers on a keyboard with his back to me. The screen was tiled into six different blocks, most with data undecipherable to me: maybe stock evaluations, or lists of contact names, or schedules of who knows whom. In one block I recognized a satellite photo of downtown West Palm Beach that showed streets and the tops of buildings, a Google photo I knew could be widened to reveal the whole city or pinpointed to a specific intersection.

And in the top right block on the screen was a photo of Billy and Diane, posing on the beach on their wedding day, a turquoise sea behind them, a light in their smiles and eyes that I had seen from the day they met and had never seen diminished.

“It m-may s-seem t-to you th-that I am grasping,” Billy said as he turned in his seat, took a printout from the copier, and handed it to me. “B-but anything l-less f-feels l-like g-giving up, M-max. And w-we d-don't d-do th-that, d-do w-we?”

I looked from the list of names and addresses on the paper to Billy's eyes to confirm the thought, but he was already focused on something else. He was looking up at the block in the upper right-hand corner of the computer screen.

Chapter 17

A
ll I had was an address somewhere in Pompano Beach, somewhere on A1A, somewhere where the man who had scared Diane Manchester more than any person she'd sent to prison supposedly lived.

Whether or not the feds were willing to expand their theories beyond the drug cartel leader they had locked up in the basement of the courthouse, Billy wasn't taking their seeming inability to look beyond the obvious as his own. Diane had put a lot of people behind bars in her years as a prosecutor and judge, and Billy had come up with a list. These weren't the ones who did the most time or lost the most money or were necessarily the ones who were the most ruthless or sociopathic or had outwardly threatened or condemned her. They were the ones she remembered late at night, the ones she whispered about to Billy—the ones who really rattled her.

This one went by the name of Giovanni Maltese. He'd been out for a year, plenty of time to reconnect and set up a retribution kidnapping. Maltese was a gangster of the East Coast Italian variety who had been anything but typical. At one time, he ran most of his overlord's cocaine distribution system from South Florida to environs in New York State. Maltese was not a hands-on made man. He procured, which meant he made the deals, set up the delivery lines from importers in Florida to outlets in the north, negotiated the price, and kept anybody who thought they might move in on his organization's franchise from actually doing so by making the cost too high in terms of both business and bodies. And although Maltese never pulled the jobs or the triggers, he hired all those who did.

For a prosecutor like Diane, he was the big fish that could not be allowed to get away. And according to Billy, she'd worked him like a talented flats fisherman works a bonefish with a fly rod. She was relentless and cunning and resourceful and above all patient, intentionally feeding him delicious possibilities, working his greed and ego until she hooked him in the mouth with enough interstate trafficking charges that even his own people were ready to give up on him and let him be sacrificed. Then when the case finally came to trial, she refused to deal.

What made Maltese atypical was that the word got out that he was willing to deal, break the code of silence, and be the rat. And Diane let him swing; no federal witness protection deal. No negotiating the sentence with the standard, “You give me this, I'll give you that.”

“Th-the m-man scared th-the sh-shit out of her, b-but sh-she refused to b-budge,” Billy recalled. “Sh-she s-said, ‘He p-poisoned ch-children, f-fed addicts, got rich off p-people's w-weaknesses. W-we'll get th-the rest of his organization on our own.'”

Whether she knew that Maltese's willingness to deal would get out to the kingpins he worked for or not, Billy said, she went for the fifteen-year prison term she had in the bag and sent the man away.

“W-was sh-she uncompromising? Yes,” Billy asked and answered his own question. “St-stubborn? Yes, especially wh-when sh-she s-sets her p-path. B-but th-that's m-my hope, M-max. Th-that's wh-who sh-she is and t-that's wh-why w-we'll get her b-back.”

In the Fury, I headed toward Pompano Beach, got off the I-95 exit at Atlantic Boulevard, and drove to the beach.

This was yet another part of Florida, an oceanfront wall of high-rise condominiums that the cynical described as concrete ant hills: thousands of people living stacked on top of one another and each, depending on how high their floor was and how their condo was positioned to the east, with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. A few would have Billy's kind of view, many others just a glimpse of watery horizon. But the address I had for Maltese was on the west side of A1A. Buildings here were one or two stories, with a few motels in the 1960s mode: stucco framing jalousie windows, hand-railed stairways, numbered parking spaces. The signs ran the gamut from
THE OCEAN VENETIAN
to
THE LUCKY GUY MOTEL.

When I finally found the address I was looking for, there was no sign. The place was one story, took up two full lots including a corner, and held no adornments offering free HBO or Wi-Fi. I pulled into a half-empty parking lot and tucked the business card I'd taken from the desk of the probation officer I'd met earlier into a black vinyl folder, determined to look official.

It wasn't the big, open reception area that tipped me off. Nor was it the open-door hallways that led off in three directions or the smiling, middle-aged woman at the front desk. It was the odor, the slightly pungent smell of too much disinfectant trying to cover the olfactory hint of open medications or stale wardrobes or urinary miscues.

“Welcome to Atlantic Shores. How may I help you, sir?”

ATLANTIC SHORES ASSISTED LIVING INC.
read the top of the sign-in­ page the woman pushed across the countertop toward me.

“Hi, I'm looking for Mr. Giovanni Maltese,” I said honestly.

“And you are?”

I opened my folder, took out the probation officer's card, placed it on the counter, and ignored the sign-in sheet. When the woman read the card, her smiled disappeared.

“Mr. Maltese is over at the beach. With Peter,” she said, putting extra emphasis on the second sentence. “Where's Mr. Mobley?”

“Uh, Mr. Mobley's on vacation,” I said, guessing she was asking about Maltese's regular probation officer and apparently guessing right.

She looked again at the card I'd given her.

“Well, they're out there staring at the ocean like they always do this time of day,” she said, nodding her head back toward the front door.

“Thank you,” I said, and reached out my hand to retrieve the card. She gave it back. I still hadn't lied about my identity, at least not with my mouth. Someday I'd have to ask Billy if that would hold up in court, but not today.

I stepped back outside and took a deep lungful of clean air. A year out after a fifteen-year stretch in the federal lockup at Coleman, and Maltese was in assisted living? From the sheet Billy had given me, the man was fifty-four. His wife had divorced him while he was in lockup, and there were no children. Usually, these guys squirrel enough away before they go inside so that they aren't destitute when they get out. Maybe the nest egg was paying the bills here. I'd have to ask.

I scanned the monster-size buildings across on the beach side of A1A: the Coastal Sun, the Royal Beach Club, the Avalon—concrete honeycombs with as much style as shoeboxes standing on their ends and packed as close as building codes would allow. I followed a sidewalk to the edge of the street and spotted a crosswalk and a sign that read
BEACH ACCESS.
I had to wait for four cars to pass despite the bright yellow markings for pedestrian right-of-way. You do not step out in front of moving vehicles in Florida the way you might in Philly or New York. They will flatten you, your bicycle, your walker, and your baby stroller, and then curse you for getting in their way.

The beach access was a crumbling asphalt path most likely grudgingly carved between two towers. It allowed the regular public to visit the public beach. It was like walking a back alley in midtown, but at the other end I could see a slash of blue horizon and could smell salt on the breeze. As I came out of the funnel, I spotted two figures: someone in a wheelchair accompanied by a man dressed in what hospital people call scrubs. I stepped to the side of the standing man.

“Peter?” I said. The face that turned to me was in his mid-twenties­, cleanly shaved, and from the dusky skin tone and eyes so dark you'd say black before brown, Hispanic.

“Yes,” he said, his tone slightly surprised and his eyes darting over my shoulder in the direction of the assisted living building. “Does someone need me?”

“No, no. My name is Max Freeman,” I said ditching the probation officer ruse and offering my hand. Peter took it, his expression changing from concern to perplexity.

“I'm a private investigator from up in Palm Beach County, and I'm here to talk with Mr. Maltese.”

I gestured past the young man to the person in the wheelchair. The figure there had not turned his head or indicated in any way that he was aware of my presence. He was dressed in tan slacks and a pale windbreaker with the collar turned up despite the warm temperature. A baseball cap with the bill turned in the correct way to shield his face from the sun was pulled down.

“Well, Mr. Freeman, I am afraid you will have a difficult time doing that,” Peter said, and I could hear the slight Spanish accent in his wording. “Mr. Maltese does not talk these days.”

I nodded but gestured to the sitting figure. “May I try anyway?”

The man named Peter hesitated, but then politely stepped back and indicated with an open palm—give it a shot.

I knelt next to the wheelchair and made the same introduction to Maltese I had to his aide, but he continued to face out to sea. From up close, I could see wide wraparound sunglasses under the cap. His hands were clasped in his lap, mottled loose skin barely covering the thin bones that made me think of bird skeletons I would find occasionally in the Everglades during drought times. His thin legs protruded from the wheelchair seat, draped in the fabric of his trousers like cloth hanging on a towel rack. He may have been fifty-four, but looked ninety. Prison takes its toll, but in this case it had taken more. I let the silence sit for several beats and then stood.

“Does he hear?”

“Yes, but I think only when he wants to,” the aide said, perhaps a glimmer of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

“Talk?”

“You would not describe it as talk, no, sir.”

When I gave him a quizzical look, Peter continued, moving in past me to bend at Maltese's side.

“When Mr. Maltese was in prison, they told me he was injured by the other inmates,” Peter said while zipping down the front of Maltese's windbreaker and then unwrapping a soft cotton scarf from the man's neck. Exposed was ochre-colored, crumpled flesh like cooked chicken skin that had been heated from the inside out. It ran from under Maltese's boney chin down past where an Adam's apple should have been and into the collar of his white T-shirt.

“They told me the others pinned him down and poured Drano, you know, the pipe cleaner, down his throat. The acid, I guess, did what they wanted it to do.

“He coughs. He growls sometimes when he is not happy. He moans when he is deeply saddened. But talk? No, he does not talk.”

“How does he communicate, then?” I asked, fighting against empathy. I knew the man's background, what he had visited on others through his ruthless enterprise. “How do you know what he wants?”

“Since I started taking care of him last April, we have discovered a language together,” Peter said, tucking the scarf back into place and re-zipping the jacket collar. “I know when he is hungry and when he needs the bathroom. When I wash him, I know that he likes it. Sometimes, when we have a soccer game on the television, I can tell he is smiling inside.”

“So he can see?”

The aide looked out at the Atlantic, where the afternoon sun sparkled off the wind-rippled surface as if a thousand diamonds had been cast into the sea.

“The doctors say yes. But I think he sees only what he wants to see. He likes the ocean, even when it is stormy or wet. If he sees it or hears it, I am not sure. I just know he likes it.”

I kept pressing.

“Can you take the glasses off?”

Again, the aide hesitated and looked into my face. He was being protective. I realized it was his job to do so; still, there was more there than simple guardianship. The kid cared.

After making some assessment of my intentions, he made a decision.

“Sure,” Peter said, moving again to Maltese and carefully slipping the dark sunglasses off.

Again, I knelt before the man, whose eyes were open, aimed out at sea, the irises a gray color that showed no recognition nor cunning, no depth nor guile.

“Mr. Maltese, do you remember a woman named Diane McIntyre?” I asked, using Diane's maiden name, from when she prosecuted his case. There was no reaction, not even a blink of eyelids. “Do you know Judge Manchester?”

Again, no flinch or change in the coloration of his skin or rhythm of his breathing. I was talking to a wall. I stood again.

“Does he write? Does he get mail? Does he get visitors?” I asked the aide.

“No one has ever come, and I have never seen him put pen to paper. They never told me where his family is, or if he has any. I think I am all he has.”

The man called Peter looked down at his charge and put his hand on Maltese's thin shoulder. A sound like a muffled sigh came from the man's scarred throat. Peter looked up into my eyes and smiled.

“See?”

“Yeah, I see,” I said, reaching out to shake the young man's hand. “I'm sorry to have bothered you.”

I returned to the Fury and sat in the driver's seat looking back to the entrance of the beach access. Did I think I would see the two men jogging back across the street high-fiving each other over putting one past the idiot private dick? No. Could Maltese have hired some of his former underlings to kidnap the prosecutor who sent him away and in effect sealed his fate? Maybe; but why now, fifteen years after the fact? I wasn't optimistic.

I knew that if Billy decided to, he could make Maltese and Diane's fear of him into a federal case and get the FBI to pull every telephone record and mailed correspondence ever attached to the one-time mobster. But I was convinced that the crumpled human being I'd just seen was beyond retribution or vengeance. We couldn't wait on search warrants and records checks. We needed to find Diane.

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