DETECTIVE MITCH CONNORS RETURNED TO HIS desk in a pensive mood.
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
Tall, blond, athletic and altogether too big for his glass-walled office, Mitch Connors looked more like a football pro than a cop. Sinking into his uncomfortable chair (Helen had bought him the damn thing two years ago, for his back pain. It had won a bunch of design awards, apparently, and cost a small fortune, so he couldn't throw it away, but Mitch had always hated it), he stretched out his legs and tried to think.
Do I really want this case?
On the one hand, his boss had just handed him what would, in a few short hours, become the biggest, most high-profile investigation in the country. Late last night, Grace Brookstein had pulled off a dramatic escape from a maximum-security prison. It would be Mitch Connors's job to find her, apprehend her and haul her thieving, designer-clad ass back to jail.
His boss said, "You're the best, Mitch. I wouldn't put you on this if you weren't." And Mitch had felt a warm glow. But now he felt something else. Something bad. For the life of him, Mitch couldn't figure out what it was.
He blamed the chair. It was so torturous, no wonder he couldn't concentrate. Ergonomic, my ass. I figure Helen bought it on purpose to torment me. To pay me back for all the shit I put her through. Then he thought, That's bullshit, Connors, and you know it.
Helen wasn't like that. She was an angel. Saint Helen of Pittsburgh, patron saint of tolerance.
And you drove her away.
MITCH CONNORS HAD GROWN UP IN PITTSBURGH. He was born in the well-to-do suburb of Monroeville, where his mom was a local beauty queen. She married Mitch's dad, an inventor, when she was nineteen. Mitch arrived a year later and the couple's happiness was complete.
For about six months.
Mitch's father was a brilliant inventor...by night. By day, he was a traveling encyclopedia salesman. Mitch used to go on trips with him. The little boy would watch in awe as his dad scammed one housewife after another.
"Do you know the average cost of a college education, ma'am?"
Pete Connors was standing on the front steps of a dilapidated house in Genette, Pennsylvania, wearing a suit and tie and shiny black shoes, his trilby hat held respectfully in one hand. He was a handsome man. Mitch thought he looked like Frank Sinatra. The woman standing at the door in a stained housecoat was fat, depressed and defeated. Hungry kids ran around her feet like rats.
"No, sir. Can't say I do."
The door was closing. Pete Connors stepped forward. "Let me tell you. It's fifteen hundred dollars. Fifteen hundred dollars. Can you imagine that?"
She couldn't imagine.
"But what if I were to tell you that for as little as one dollar a week - that's right, one dollar - you can give your child the gift of that same education right here at home?"
"I never really thought about - "
"Of course you didn't! You're a busy woman. You have bills, responsibilities. You don't have time to sit down and read studies like this one." At a given signal, Mitch would run forward and hand his father a laminated sheaf of papers with the words Educational Research printed on the front. "Studies that prove that kids who have an encyclopedia in the house are more than six times more likely to go into white-collar jobs?"
"Well, I - "
"How'd you like for this little guy here to grow up and be a lawyer, huh?" Pete Connors slipped one of the dirty-faced children a boiled candy. "For as little as one dollar a day, you can make that happen, ma'am."
He was like a whirlwind. A force of nature. Some women he would bulldoze. Others he would charm and cajole. Others still he would take upstairs to perform some "secret" sales technique that Mitch was never allowed to see. It always took around fifteen minutes, and it always worked. "Those Pennsylvania women!" Mitch's dad would joke afterward. "They're hungry for knowledge, all right. You ain't never seen a woman hungrier for knowledge than that one, Mitchy!"
After every sale, they would drive to the nearest small town or rest stop and Pete Connors would buy his son an enormous ice-cream sundae. Mitch would return home to his mother full of excitement and wonder, chocolate sauce smeared all over his face. "Dad was amazing. You shoulda seen what Dad did! Guess how many we sold, Mom. Go on, guess!"
Mitch could never understand why his mother never wanted to guess. Why she looked at his dad with such bitterness and disappointment. Later - too late - he understood. She could have borne the infidelity. It was the recklessness she couldn't forgive. Pete Connors was a natural salesman, but he was also a dreamer, who regularly blew his earnings investing in one crackpot invention after another. Mitch remembered some of them. There was the vacuum cleaner you didn't have to push. That was going to make them millions. Then there was the mini-refrigerator for your car. The running shoes that massaged the ball of your foot. The clothes rack that got out creases. Mitch would watch his father work on each new design during weekends and late into the night. Whenever he finished a prototype, he would "unveil" it in the living room in front of Mitch's mom.
"Whaddaya think, Lucy?" he'd ask hopefully, his face alight with pride and anticipation, like a little boy's. The tragedy was, Pete Connors loved his wife. He needed her approval so badly. If she'd given it, just once, perhaps things would've turned out differently. But her response was always the same.
"How much d'you blow this time?"
"Jeez, Lucy. Give me a break, would you? I'm an idea man. You knew that when you married me."
"Yeah? Well, here's an idea for you, Pete. How about we make our mortgage this month?"
Mitch's mom used to say that the only thing his father could ever economize on was the truth.
By Mitch's sixth birthday, they'd moved out of the Monroeville house. The new place was a condo in Murraysville. Next it was Millvale, an area full of old millworkers' tenements. By the time Mitch was twelve, they were in the Hill District, Pittsburgh's Harlem, a boarded-up, drug-riddled hell bordering the prosperous downtown. Too poor to divorce, his parents "separated." Within a month, his mom had a new boyfriend. Eventually they moved to Florida, to a nice house with palm trees in the front yard. Mitch decided to stay with his dad.
Pete Connors was excited. "This is great, Mitchy! It'll be like old times, just the two of us. We'll have poker nights. Sleep late on Sundays. Get some pretty girls over here, huh? Shake things up a bit!"
There were girls. Some of them were even pretty, but those ones were paid for. Pete Connors's Frank Sinatra days were long gone. He looked like what he was, a tired old roue long past his sell-by date. It broke Mitch's heart. As Mitch grew older, his father began to get jealous of his son's good looks. At seventeen, Mitch had his mother's blond hair and blue eyes and his father's long legs and strong, masculine features. He'd also inherited Pete's gift of gab.
"I'm just home for the summer, helping out my old man. I'm off to biz school in the fall...
"My car? Oh, yeah, I sold it. My little cousin got sick. Leukemia. She's only six, poor kid. I wanted to help out with her medical bills."
Women lapped it up.
Helen Brunner was different. She was twenty-five years old, a redheaded, green-eyed goddess, and she worked for a veterans' charity that provided impoverished ex-servicemen with meals and helped them out at home. Mitch never knew how his father had convinced Helen's charity that he'd been in the navy. Pete Connors couldn't even swim. Pictures of boats made him nauseous. In any event, Helen started showing up at the apartment three times a week. Pete was crazy about her.
"I bet she's a virgin. You can tell. Just thinking about that untouched ginger bush makes me horny."
Mitch hated it when his dad spoke that way. About any woman, but especially about Helen. It was embarrassing.
"Twenty bucks says I fuck her before you do."
"Dad! Don't be stupid. Neither of us is going to fuck her."
"Speak for yourself, kiddo. She wants it. Take it from someone who knows. They all want it."
Helen Brunner didn't want it. At least, not from a drunken alleged ex-midshipman old enough to be her father. Mitch, on the other hand...now, he was something else. Helen had been raised a Christian. She believed in abstinence. But Mitch Connors was testing her faith to the limits.
Lead me not into temptation. Watching Mitch move around the cramped apartment, feeling his eyes surreptitiously sweep over her body as she did the dishes or made the beds, it seemed to Helen that the Lord had led her right into temptation. Mitch felt the same way. He started to make lists.
Reasons not to sleep with Helen:
She's a nice girl.
You'll probably get struck by a thunderbolt halfway through.
If God doesn't smite you dead
Then one day Helen walked into the laundry room to find Mitch standing in his boxer shorts.
Helen said a silent prayer. Deliver me from evil.
So did Mitch. Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin.
The sex was incredible. They did it on top of the washing machine, in the shower, on the floor in the living room and, finally, in Pete Connors's bed. Afterward, Mitch lay slumped back on the pillows, replete with happiness. He tried to feel guilty but he couldn't. He was in love.
Helen sat bolt upright.
"Don't tell me you want it again?" Mitch groaned.
"No. I heard something. I think it's your father!"
Helen was in her clothes in a flash. Rushing into the kitchen, she started scrubbing pots. Mitch, whose lower body suddenly seemed to have developed advanced Parkinson's, stumbled around the bedroom in blind panic. The front door opened.
Shit. There was nothing else for it. Stark naked, Mitch dived into the built-in closet, pulling the door closed behind him. At the back of the closet, against the wall, was a trapdoor leading into a crawl space in the roof. Mitch had barely managed to squeeze his six-foot frame through it when he heard Pete Connors's footsteps in the bedroom.
"MITCH!" It was a roar. The old man wasn't stupid. The combination of Helen's flushed, guilty face and the rumpled sheets must have given them away. Mitch heard the front door open and close. Helen, sensibly, had made a run for it. How Mitch wished he were with her!
The closet door opened. A shaft of light appeared under the trapdoor to the crawl space. Mitch held his breath. There was a pause. Shirts being ruffled on hangers. Then the closet door closed.
Thank you, God. I swear I will never screw a woman in my father's bed ever again.
Pete Connors's footsteps receded. Then, suddenly, they stopped. Mitch's heart did the same. Hey, c'mon, God! We had a deal!
The closet door opened again. Then the door to the crawl space. As Pete Connors looked down at his naked son, an unmistakably fishy waft of sex hit him in the face.
"Hey, Dad. I don't suppose you know where I could find a towel?"
Two minutes later, Mitch was out on the street. He never saw his father alive again.
"I WANT TO GET MARRIED, MITCH."
Helen and Mitch had been living together for three years. Now almost twenty-one, Mitch was making good money tending bar. Helen had cut back on her charity work to do three days a week as a trainee librarian, but her heart wasn't in it. She was pushing thirty and she wanted to have a child.
"Why? Is that a serious question? Because we're living in mortal sin, that's why."
Mitch grinned. "I know. Hasn't it been fun so far?"
"Mitchell! I'm not kidding around. I want to have a baby. I want to make a commitment, to start a family, to do this right. Isn't that what you want, too?"
"Sure it is, baby."
But the truth was, Mitch didn't know what he wanted. Growing up watching his parents rip each other apart had put him off the idea of marriage for life. He loved Helen, that wasn't the problem. Or maybe it was the problem. Being with someone so good, so perfect, made him feel uneasy. He had too much of his father in him. A natural-born scammer, flirting was in Mitch's blood. Sooner or later I'll let her down. She'll learn to hate me, to despise me for my weakness. Helen was the mother ship, but Mitch needed lifeboats: other girls who he could keep as backup should Helen see the light and realize she could do a whole lot better than a barman from Pittsburgh.
"Next year," he told her. "Once Dad's come around to the idea." He said the same thing the following year, and the year after that. Then, in the space of a month, two seismic events took place that were to change Mitch's life forever.
First, Helen left him.
Then his father was murdered.
TWO WEEKS AFTER HELEN BRUNNER WALKED out on Mitch, Pete Connors was stabbed to death outside his apartment. He lost his life for a fake Rolex watch, a cheap, nine-karat gold wedding ring and twenty-three dollars in cash. Mitch's mom flew in for the funeral. Lucy Connors looked glamorous and suntanned and not remotely grief-stricken. Then again, why should she?
She hugged Mitch tightly. "You okay, sweetie? No offense, but you look like hell."
I'm not fine. I should have been there. I abandoned him, and now he's dead, and I never got to say I was sorry. I never told him how much I loved him.
"Try not to be too upset. I know it sounds harsh, but if this hadn't happened, the booze would have gotten him soon enough."
"It does sound harsh."
"I saw the autopsy report, Mitch. I know what I'm talking about. Your father's liver was like a pickled walnut."
"I'm sorry, honey, but it's the truth. Your father didn't want to live."
"Maybe not. But he sure as hell didn't want some deranged junkie to stick a steak knife in his heart. He didn't ask for that! He didn't deserve that." Mitch's mother raised an eyebrow as if to say, That's a moot point, but she let him finish. "And what about the police? What the hell have they been doing? They just let whoever killed Dad walk free. Like his life didn't mean anything at all."
"I'm sure they've done all they can, Mitch."
It was bullshit. The Pittsburgh police had done the bare minimum, grudgingly completing the paperwork on Pete Connors's murder without lifting a finger to attempt to track down his killer. Mitch made a bunch of complaints, all of them politely ignored. That's when it dawned on him.
People like my dad don't matter. In the end, he was no different from those poor housewives he used to scam with promises of a better life and white-collar jobs. There's no justice for people like that. The underclass. No one cares what happens to them.
Two weeks after his father's funeral, Mitch telephoned Helen.
"I've made some decisions."
"Uh-huh?" Her voice sounded weary.
"I'm going to become a cop. A detective."
It wasn't what she'd been expecting. "Oh."
"Not here, though. I need to get away from Pittsburgh. Start afresh. I thought maybe New York."
"That's great Mitch. Good luck." Helen hung up.
Ten seconds later, Mitch called her back.
"I was hoping you'd consider coming with me. We'd get married first, obviously. I thought we could - "
"When? When would we get married?"
"As soon as you like. Tomorrow?"
Six weeks later they moved to New York as man and wife.
Seven weeks after that, Helen was pregnant.
THEY CALLED THEIR LITTLE GIRL CELESTE, because she was a gift from the heavens. Helen delighted in motherhood, wandering around their minuscule Queens apartment cuddling her daughter for hours on end. Mitch loved the baby, too, with her shock of black hair and inquisitive, intelligent gray eyes. But he was working long hours, first training, then out on the streets. Often, by the time he got home, Celeste was asleep in her crib and Helen was passed out on the couch, exhausted. Imperceptibly, as the months and years passed, Mitch found it harder and harder to pierce the cocoon of love enveloping his wife and daughter.
He got promoted and moved them to a bigger place, expecting that this would make Helen happy. It didn't.
"We never see you, Mitch."
"Sure you do. Come on, honey, don't exaggerate."
"I'm not exaggerating. The other day I heard Sally-Ann ask Celeste if she had a daddy."
Mitch said angrily, "That's ridiculous. Who's Sally-Ann anyway?"
Helen gave him a withering look. "She's your daughter's best friend. Sally-Ann Meyer? She and Celeste have been joined at the hip for the last two years, Mitch."
Mitch felt bad. He wanted to spend more time at home. The problem, as he told Helen, was that the bad guys never took a vacation. Muggers, junkies, gang leaders, rapists, every day they walked the streets of the city, preying on the vulnerable, the helpless, the poor. Preying on people like my father. Being a detective was more than Mitch's job. It was his vocation, the same way that being a mother was Helen's. And he was great at it.
The divorce came like a bolt from the blue. Mitch got home one night expecting to find his supper on the table. Instead he found a sheaf of legal papers. Helen and Celeste were gone. In hindsight, he realized the writing had been on the wall for a long time. Ever since the economy imploded, crime in the city had been steadily rising. Then Quorum collapsed, unemployment in New York spiked and overnight a bad situation got twenty times worse. Mitch Connors was on the front line of a war. He couldn't just lay down his gun and be home in time for dinner.
Well, maybe he could. But he didn't. By the time he realized the toll his dedication had taken on his marriage, it was too late.
THE NYPD HAD BECOME MITCH CONNORS'S LIFE. But that didn't mean he loved it. Guys joined the force for different reasons, not all of them laudable. Some reveled in the authority that the badge and the gun gave them. Power trippers. They were the worst. Others were looking for a sense of camaraderie. To those guys, the NYPD was like a softball team or a fraternity. It filled a void in their life that marriage, family and civilian friendships couldn't fill. Mitch Connors understood those guys, but didn't count himself among their number. He hadn't become a cop to make friends, or to lord it over his fellow citizens. He'd joined up as a form of atonement for his father's death. And because he still believed he could make a difference.
Whoever killed Mitch's father had gotten away with it. That was wrong. Guilty people deserved to be punished. As for guilty rich people, educated people like Grace and Lenny Brookstein, they were the worst of all.
MITCH STOOD UP, KICKING HELEN'S TORTURE chair out of his way. There was a problem with him taking this case. A downside. Now, what the hell was it?
At last it came to him. Of course. The FBI would be involved...
It had been two years since the Brooksteins' audacious fraud first came to light, but as the whole of America knew, the stolen Quorum billions were still missing in action. Harry Bain, the FBI's debonair assistant director in New York, ran the task force set up to find the Quorum cash, and he'd come up with a big fat zero. Bain's agents had interviewed Grace Brookstein numerous times in prison, but she'd stuck like glue to her story. According to her, she knew nothing about the money and neither did her dear departed husband.
Like most NYPD men, Mitch deeply distrusted the FBI. With Grace Brookstein on the run, it was inevitable that Harry Bain would start poking his Harvard-educated nose into Mitch's case, asking questions, tampering with witnesses, pulling rank. As Mitch's boss would so eloquently put it, "Bain'll be all over your ass like a bad case of herpes. You better be prepared to fight him off."
Mitch was prepared.
The money is Harry Bain's problem. Grace Brookstein is mine.
Maybe, if he caught Grace and became a national hero, Helen would take him back. Was that what he really wanted? He didn't know anymore. Maybe he wasn't cut out for marriage.
It was time to get to work.