My name is Syd Greenstreet. You know, like the actor. It’s not my real name.
What do they say? “Best place to hide the obvious is right out in plain sight. Right under their noses.”
That’s why I’m working this beat. Homicide in Boca Raton, Florida.
Now, before you say something like, “Florida? Boca Raton? The town where nearly everybody drives a BMW convertible and wears designer clothing? That Boca?”
Yea, that Boca. But not everybody lives high on the hog here. Not everybody here has money.
Some people do.
The other ones want that money. Will kill to get it.
If you don’t believe me, check the news sometime.
Murders, robberies, carjackings: South Florida’s just like any other place in this U. S. of A. Full of anger, resentment, poverty, danger, gang killings, drive-by shootings.
I used to wonder how it got that way. Some of my fellow cops have their own theories. I like this one best: God shook the world, the bad ones all let go and fell into the bottom of the boot. That’s us. South Florida.
Gateway to Hell. But I digress.
The whole mess started about 4 am on a Saturday. The kind of Saturday when you’re supposed to be sleeping in, off duty, no worries, no cares. That kind of Saturday.
Once the phone rang, all that vanished. How much of my life this would change I didn’t know yet.
Anyway, back to the phone call.
I pushed my hair out of my eyes and gazed blearily at my watch. Picked up my cell, hit the answer button. Caller I D said DISPATCH. Knew I better answer it. They never call me in on a day off unless something very weird happens.
Turned out I was right.
“Yea, what is it?”
Faint voice on the phone. “Body found. Sandstream Park. Hanging from a swing set. Crew’s already on the way. Get there, Stat. Lt. says faster if you can manage it.”
“Yea, yea, okay.”
“And Detective…it’s a little girl.”
That’s all Dispatch had to say. I threw on some clothes, ran a comb through my rebellious black hair, and hit the staircase, pulling on my Homicide jacket. Grabbed my kit from the kitchen.
Didn’t bother driving. Just ran across the road.
The park Dispatch called me out to in the early morning darkness happened to be just across the street from me. Nice park usually.
But not at 4 am. Not with the strident strobe of police lights, and the bright white flashlights of the CSI gang. When I walked up to Sharon, she grimaced.
“Sorry, Syd. But, well, come with me, and you’ll understand.”
I followed her to the playground about 30 yards from the road, behind a tall safety fence. Chris had already marked off the scene with that ubiquitous yellow tape. My eyes went to the swings.
The little girl’s body was hanging from the longest chain of the swings, her legs hung over the top bar. She wore pink overalls, a white tshirt, and red Keds, with no socks. Her hair flew around her face as the swing rocked back and forth in the strong wind off the Intracoastal.
“How long do you think she’s been hanging here, Sharon?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“Who called it in?”
Chris turned to me, a frown tugging at her mouth. “That’s just it,” she said, “we don’t know.”
“Well, there aren’t any pay phones around any more. Was it a cell call?”
“Don’t know that either. Dispatch just called me and said get here. Stat”
I stared over at the little girl. Blue eyes never laughing again. “Guy,lady, space alien? Who called it in?”
Chris stared up at me. “We don’t know, Syd. Not kidding. Dispatch doesn’t know either.”
“Well, how can you have a call come in and not know if it’s male or female?” I took in a short breath. “Wait a minute. Text?”
Sharon nodded. “Yep. To Dispatch. On the new system we just tested the other day.”
I shook my shoulders, throwing off the chill from the wind.
Mike called over to us. “We’re done with the pics, folks. Would you come help us get her down?”
Sharon and Chris led the way over to the swings. Chris reached out and took hold of the swinging chains. Sharon’s gloved hands held the little girl’s body as Mike unwrapped the chains from around her neck. Doc laid the body bag on the ground.
Both men laid the child on the bag, and Mike zipped it up, but not before bagging the tiny scarred hands.
Doc stood up and stretched his back. “I’m getting too old for these calls.”
Sharon patted his shoulder. “Nah, you’re not. You just hate it’s a kid.”
I hadn’t said anything for a while. Chris noticed. She cocked an eyebrow at me. “What?”
“Look over near the fence.”
Chris turned her head and looked around at the other side of the play area.
Wind kicked up spurts of dust. A large palm branch shifted on the ground. Tiny golden eyes looked up at us.
“It’s a puppy, Chris. I saw it the minute I came over to the swings. But I don’t want to spook it. Don’t make any sudden moves.”
I made my way over in the general direction of the back fence. There’s where a large palm branch lay, twitching a bit as th puppy tried to hide.
I squatted down slowly and held out my hand. “Come on, boy, it’s me. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The black nose of the puppy poked out of the pile of branches. The rest of the puppy flew out of the hiding place and leaped up into my arms, nearly knocking me over.
Good thing I still had on my latex gloves. Otherwise I would’ve contaminated the evidence.
The puppy cowered in my arms. I stood up slowly and walked over to Sharon. I whispered something in her ear.
She stared at me, startled.
A few hours later, I waited in the hallway as the mother of the little dead girl confirmed the identification for us.
Once Mike had bagged her hands, and moved the hair away from her face, I’d recognized her. She lived next door to me. Played on my patio after school when her parents weren’t home yet.
I’d called the mother on my cell. Told her to meet me outside on the front lawn. Not to wake the kids.
She’d met me, wearing her bathrobe over a nightgown. “What is it, Syd?”
I stared into her eyes. “Where’s Mickey?”
“She’s asleep in her bed, of course.”
“Terri, she’s not in her bed.”
“Syd, yes she is. I tucked her in myself.”
I kept staring. Till she got it. Covered her mouth with her hand.
“You…you’re working aren’t you? Where is she?”
“She’s not in her bed, Terri. She’s at the hospital.”
“Is she okay? What’s going on?”
“Terri,” I took her by the arms. “Is Dan here?”
“No, he’s on a business trip. What’s wrong with Mickey?”
I knew she knew. Could see it in her eyes. “Terri, I need you to get your mother over here to stay with the other kids. I want you to get dressed and come to the station with me. Now.”
She obeyed, looking back over her shoulder at me. I’d sent the puppy on with Sharon and Chris. No sense on Terri seeing all that blood.
By nine am I stood out in the hall outside the Lt.’s office. I’d volunteered to take Terri over to the morgue at the hospital. To identify her own little girl she’d put to bed six hours ago.
The Lieutenant hadn’t been very forthcoming. Just said He’d assigned the case to me. I was next up on the roster, I knew that. I also knew that Mickey’s laughter wouldn’t tickle my fancy anymore.
I had to find out who killed her and why. But something wasn’t right here. I had that shiver up the spine feeling, the walking on your grave feeling.
Whoever killed that little girl deliberately did it close to home. Close to my home. Waving in my face. I didn’t want to think that, but it had become obvious to me. The pattern, the victims: this was the third little girl killed in the last year. Each crime scene working its way closer and closer to my home base.
Almost as if they were taunting me. I tried to shake off the feeling. My friend in FDLE told me never go by my feelings. Always go by the book. But murder’s an ugly act, a terrible thing to do to any human being. To kill a child, to destroy all that possibility. I couldn’t help feeling responsible for all of them.
I’ve seen lots of murders in my 10 years on the force. But never one like this. Never one right in my front yard, so to speak.
After nearly two years of working the Mall Murders, I’d been taken off that task force and put back onto my main cases. Then this happened. Out of the blue.
Right before my scheduled meeting.
Whoever this killer turned out to be, I had a feeling I wouldn’t like it.
Funny how sometimes you can be right and wish you weren’t.
On Sunday morning, I planned to nuke my leftover dinner from The Irishmen Pub in Boca, sit on the couch with a beer, andread the paper. Make the most of at least one day off.
Little did I know…
Usually my apartment complex is a pretty quiet place. But there are a lot of Florida Atlantic University students who live in my complex, and today being Sunday, in the middle of finals, they were all home, hanging out by the pool, shouting and laughing. In a couple more weeks, they’d be gone.
Most of them have no idea who I really am. I never drive a cop car home. I’m never assigned to cases on the university campus. Safer that way. Have to try to keep a low profile, even as a homicide cop.
I turned down the AC nice and cold, and nuked the leftovers. In a couple of minutes, when the microwave gave up its characteristic scream, I sat down on the couch behind the wooden TV tray, bit into the juicy banger sandwich. I wiped the dripping juice from my chin with an orange hand towel, picked up the Sentinel and started reading the front page. Nearly choked.
The murder scene made the front page. There I was, front and center, glaring at the camera lens. Middle of the page, above the fold. Who the hell took that picture?
Checked the byline. Yep. Figures. Nick usually covered the crime beat.
Dang, need another hair cut. Now, what did the story say that I didn’t already know?
Hm…nothing new. Just my mug on the front page. I sat back on the couch, glaring at the paper. Knowing my quiet wouldn’t last.
Sure enough, the sounds of Al Hirt’s trumpet playing the theme from Green Hornet 1960’s TV show echoed from my left pocket. I pushed the tray away and yanked the phone out.
“Greenstreet. Waddya want?”
Unintelligible mumbling on the other end, except for three words..three words that made my spine chill.
“I found you.”
Tried to get my breath back, tried to act normal. Didn’t quite make it.
“Who? Who did you find?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
Clunk. Disconnected. Put the phone down like it was a cottonmouth about to strike.
Oh my God. I have to call Ryan. And I have to do it now.
Then I thought a minute. Wait. How’d they get this number? It’s not common knowledge. I stared at the picture of my cousin’s Marine son on the bookcase. Then I picked up the receiver of my land line phone and unscrewed the ear piece. Dug into it. Nothing. Opened the mouthpiece. Dug in. Ah, there it is. Nope, just a loose…wait, that’s a memory chip. A chip that doesn’t belong.
I stood up so fast I nearly fell over. Pulled the secure cell from my waist pack on the table and hit speed 3.
Ringing, ringing, ringing, ring…”Yea, what?”
“They tapped my land line. Now what the hell do I do? They’ll find her, Ryan.”
Nothing but hard breathing on the other end.
“They must know where she is.”
“Syd, calm down. I heard you. There’s no way they know. No way. You understand what’s happening here? They want you to go to her. They’re probably watching your place.”
I took a couple of deep slow breaths and sat down. Calming down. Yea, right. “What if they’re telling the truth? If they get to her, I’m…”
“Hey, have I ever let you down? I won’t let them get to her, you know that. We’ve got her under surveillance every second of the day; even when she doesn’t think we’re there, we are. Somebody’s on her all the time.”
How could they be so sure? How could I know…. “I’m telling you I have to be sure. If my cover gets blown, all hell is going to break loose.” I paused. “You know there’s been another little girl killed in Boca.”
“I saw the paper. Let me think how we’re going to handle this.”
Sitting on the couch, gripping the phone, I heard breathing in my ear, and wished it were 10 years ago, and she slept, safe in her mother’s house.
But pipe dreams stayed just that, pipe dreams. Can’t go back and undo the past, stupid choices that have eternal consequences.
“Syd? I think I have an idea. You stay put. Don’t blow it. Keep your eyes open, and watch for them to make a mistake. I’ll keep her safe, don’t worry. She has no idea, remember?”
“Thanks, Ryan. I’ll send the memory chip in the courier pack in the morning. Good night.”
I woke up groggy. A figure stood in front of me, white skulled and silent.
No, can’t be, can’t be here…
Woke up screaming. Shaking. Ran into the kitchen and dunked my head in the deep sink. Turned on the cold faucet. Shivered under the splash. Shook my hair clear of my eyes, and tried not to cry. For all the perfect dreams shattered on a long ago night. A night full of stupid choices, and quiet agony.
Sometimes a man can make a very bad decision, justify it, and people still die. That’s what happened to me.
The car accident that killed Robby’s parents—it was my fault. Running a sting, so sure of myself, I didn’t listen to the little voice inside me that tried to tell me to slow down.
I didn’t slow down. I went into that warehouse, certain they had no idea who I really was. A cop undercover.
Not only did they know, but the chase to catch them, with me handcuffed and locked in the trunk of the lead car, cost Robby Martin her parents, and her safety. She’d been ten that year. Sitting in the back of the car, watching a video on her portable DVD player. Thank God she’d been wearing a seat belt.
The only trouble was, she saw the faces of the guys in the lead car. Her dad had driven past them. She told us later she’d heard a noise, then looked up, right at the passenger as the car flew by. And he’d seen her looking at him.
No problem, sure. Except he had a gun pointed behind him through the window, and fired just as she looked at him.
Her dad sped up and tried to get away from them. Didn’t make it.
She told us this later, after the accident. After the lead cop car impacted the rear end of the fleeing Mercedes. The Mercedes that careened all over the road with a blown tire, and a torn rear bumper. Trouble was, the Martin’s van got caught in the byblow, went shrieking off the road into the East River. Only reason Robby survived? Her seat belt shattered. Then her mom broke out the window, and shoved her out of it. Couldn’t get her own seat belt undone, but managed to save her child.
After, Jim managed to dive down and pull out the mom and dad. They pried me out of the Mercedes’ trunk. Once the car got pulled up the river bank, that is. All my macho gone, I spend three weeks in the hospital with a busted ankle from trying to kick the trunk lid open, I found out what happened. What my macho attitude cost Robby. So, yea, I blamed myself.
Three years later, hiding in plain sight. Moved to Florida, where all the crazies end up. Even undercover vice cops who should know better than to get cocky.
After the Captain busted me down to uniform, and I spent six weeks on forced leave on top of the three in the hospital, the shrinks got hold of me.
Once that was done, WitSec came to me with a no brainer: move to Florida, change my name, become a homicide cop. Help find the Big Man running the gang. I said yes. But with a caveat: they had to hide Robby, too.
And only a hour from Robby, who’s living with a different family, under a new name, in a place far away from the madness.
Robby, who’d seen the one that got away.
I knew they’d try to find her sooner or later. I couldn’t let them find her. Or me.
On Monday morning, they struck again. In an unexpected direction. Stunned. In a bind. In a corner. Up Goose Creek without a paddle. Stare into nothing. Brain on overdrive. Trying to think.
What the hell was going on here? I picked up the pictures from my desk at headquarters. Checking out the witness. And the new crime scene.
Curling brown hair, gawking at what was left of bloodstains on her hands. Deep pools of anger shining from her eyes. Face taut with anguish. Cries stuck in her throat.
Blood on the sidewalk. Little yellow plastic pyramid markers everywhere. Gawkers hanging around the edges of the yellow crime scene tape. Police on guard, black and whites everywhere.
Another day, another murder, another notch in someone’s gun, another child dead on my watch.
I looked across my desk, trying not to look back down at the photos strewn across it. The eyes that met mine still held that shock of discovery, the feeling that nothing would ever be right in her world again.
“Now, just take a deep breath and tell me what happened, one more time.” The deep voice from above and behind me pulled me back into reality. I turned slightly to look up at his strained face. I could tell he wanted answers. I’d called him into this crazy case to consult, to give me some pointers on what the heck I did next.
The day he walked back into my life just happened to bring another murder with it. The one clue he’d given me, the one thing that kept me on this took residence inside me and wouldn’t let me go.
I had a glimmer of an idea now. The woman sitting across my desk held part of the answer. I just knew it.
When she started talking again, the words didn’t mean as much as the way she said them. Considered them before she spoke a sound.
“I walked into the newsroom from the downstairs garage, sat down at my desk. I heard a scream from behind me at the top of the stairs. I jumped up and ran over to the boy standing there.” She took a deep breath and gathered herself. “Blood covered his ankles and sneakers, but he didn’t have a mark on him. I didn’t know what to do. I just looked at him. Then something kicked in, adrenaline, I don’t know what. I followed back down the stairs out into the street, onto the corner.”
He leaned over my shoulder. “What did you see?”
She stared into my eyes, avoiding his. “I saw blood, lots of it, and a little girl, just lying there, eyes wide open, not breathing. She had something tied around her neck. I could tell by the way she lay there that she’d fallen from a height. I looked up but couldn’t see anything. The boy who’d come up to me at the newsroom had vanished. I never did figure out who he was.”
“What do you think?” I looked up at him. He’d come around the corner of my desk and sat on the edge of it. Even seated, he was much taller than you’d expect him to be.
He cleared his throat, and looked down at me, then back at the witness. “When you called it in, you said something about ‘not another one.’ What did you mean?”
She looked out the window behind me, a thousand-yard stare in her eyes. “I just immediately thought about the child murders here in Boca, and my first thought…well, another one, you know.”
Turning his eyes to me, he rubbed a finger thoughtfully across his nose. Then his cell phone rang out, a jaunty little jazz tune. He got an annoyed look on his face when he saw the number on the screen, clicked it on and said, “Yea? Whaddya want?”
He made grunting sounds, listening to the unheard end of the conversation. Snapped the phone closed. “Gotta go. New lead on the case I’m working in Miami. That was Jim. There’s a break in the case. He’s waiting at the port. Wish I could be of more help. Did you get all the stuff you needed?”
“Yea, you guys have given me a new direction to take where this crazy case is concerned.”
After he’d left, Oline and I just sat there. Somehow not only had this sicko invaded my life, now he’d brought the killings farther afield. Almost like he was leading me someplace I didn’t really want to go.
I pushed my chair back. “Will you be okay? Can I get you a soda or something?”
“No, they said the sketch artist is coming, to work with me on a sketch of the boy who came upstairs to get me. Then I’m just going home, take a long hot shower and try not to think.”
I nodded. I had a few phone calls to make, but I knew once she had done her duty, she’d call me. Once in, always in, we’d always said.
Once the murders get personal, we get personal.
You see, she isn’t just a newspaper editor. Sometimes Wit-Sec gets it right. She’s my handler.
Just goes to show, you can’t judge a book reviewer by her cover.
Once Oline had left, I walked down to the lab. When I walked in, Dr. Chambers turned my way. “Hi, Syd. Want the low down on the last one?”
Doc is nothing if not blunt.
“Yea, Sam. Go ahead and fill me in while I get fresh cup of java.”
She shuffled some papers on her desk, put them in a file folder, then picked up another stack. Shuffled those together, looked at me over her half-rim glasses, and frowned.
“Remember what you told me your source said? Well, he was right. There is a connection between the murders. And it’s exactly what he thought.”
I waited. Sam loves pregnant pauses. She sighed.
“Okay, okay. I’ll get to it. The little girl left hanging from the swings near your apartment and this little girl have only one thing in common: their blood type.”
I sat down hard in the chair behind me. Took a slow breath. “What blood type, Sam?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“B negative, Syd. I’m sorry. You were right. This is personal. This guy has an agenda. And I’m afraid he’s getting closer. The last child, as you’ll remember, looked very much like…”
I raised my hand in front of me, palm up. “Stop, Sam. Don’t say it. Wait, how…”
She shook her head. “That’s just it, Syd. I do know.”
I stared at her. “What? How’d you find…” I stopped. “Ryan told you, didn’t he?”
“Yea, Syd. He did. He felt it was necessary. Don’t worry. I won’t breathe a word. You know that.”
My turn to sigh. Gotta find a new way to feel now, I thought. Sam knows my secret. Then I paused, thoughts frozen. If Sam knows…
I stood up so quickly I kicked the chair over. “Sam, was anybody else in the lab when…”
This time she stood up too, alarm on her face. “Just the tech.”
Looked into her eyes, saw the truth there. The worry. The tech.
“How long has this tech been working here, Sam?”
I saw her figuring it in her head, putting it together. She started to shiver. “About a year and a half, Syd,” she whispered.
Oh my God. He’s here…in the station…that’s how he found me.
He’s a cop.