MARIA PRESTON TOSSED BACK HER LONG mane of chestnut hair and admired her reflection in the rearview mirror. She had the skin of a woman ten years younger, and she knew it. This afternoon, her creamy-white complexion was flushed and glowing, a testament to the three hours she'd just spent in bed with her lover. What a joy it was to be with a man who appreciated her! Maria had been with scores of men, many of them more technically proficient at lovemaking than her current paramour, and almost all of them more physically attractive. But woman could not live on six-pack abs alone. There came a point in her life when she needed more. Power. Maria Preston's lover was a powerful man, a man of influence. Not like Andrew.

Poor Andy. He wasn't a bad husband. In the last couple years, he'd finally started making the sort of money that could give Maria the lifestyle she deserved. Wealth was the one thing she'd thought she wanted all these years. But now that she finally had it, it bored her. He bored her, sexually, intellectually and in every other way. She realized now that however much money Andrew made, he would always be an accountant. And as long as she stayed with him, she would always be an accountant's wife. Maria Carmine! An accountant's wife! The very idea was preposterous, an affront to nature. The only wonder was that it had taken her so long to see it. A free spirit like Maria should not be trapped in such a banal marriage, like lesser mortals. It was like trying to freeze a volcano or to flood a desert.

Applying a fresh slick of bright red Dior lipstick, Maria reflected on her destiny. I was born to be a great man's wife. His muse.

Now, at last, she would be.

She'd finally figured it out: a way for her lover to leave his wife, to be free of all the pressures weighing him down and to run away with her. Maria, in her brilliance, had solved all their problems. She would leave Andrew and start afresh. Her lover had been overjoyed when she told him the plan last week. He'd still been excited about it when they met today, making love to her with a passionate intensity unusual even for him.

Maria smiled at her reflection in the rearview mirror and laughed. "You're not just a pretty face!"

She was on her way back to the city from Sag Harbor. It was a schlep to get out there, two hours on a good day, three in rush hour, but Maria's lover couldn't risk being seen with her in Manhattan, and besides the American Hotel on Main Street was so quaint and charming with its white portico and cheery, striped awning, it was worth the trip. Turning onto Scuttle Hole Road, Maria noticed Nancy's Cake Shop up ahead, one of her favorite haunts, its window display enticingly crammed with cupcakes of every color and flavor. All that sex had given her quite an appetite. Why not?

She pulled over and turned off the engine, humming happily to herself as she opened the driver's-side door.

Nancy Robertson was out back in the kitchen when she heard the explosion. Her heart racing, she ran into the store. Thank God no one was in there! The room was destroyed. Every window was shattered, shards of glass mingling with the buttercream icing stuck to the walls. Outside on the street, all that was left of Maria Preston's Bentley was a twisted hulk of burning metal.

MITCH CONNORS WAS AT THE PLAYGROUND with his daughter. It was the first Saturday he hadn't worked in months. Helen was reluctant to let him have Celeste.

"You can't just swan in and out of her life when it suits you, Mitch. Do you have any idea how disappointed she was when you didn't show up for her school play? You couldn't even be bothered to call her and explain."

Guilt made Mitch lash out. "Explain what? I'm working, Helen. I'm paying for that roof over both your heads. Besides, I'm not asking your permission to see her. It's my weekend."

Now, watching Celeste kick her skinny legs as he pushed her on the swing, he regretted losing his temper. He wasn't in love with Helen anymore. But there was no denying she was a great mom. He, on the other hand, was a lousy father. He liked to tell himself that he spent quality time with his daughter, but he knew it was a crock. Mitch loved Celeste, but the truth was he barely knew her. Even now, when he hadn't seen her for weeks, he couldn't switch off work. His thoughts kept drifting back to Grace Brookstein: where she was being held, and how on earth he was going to keep his promise to her. No one wanted to know about his theories of foul play in Lenny Brookstein's death. Two days ago, Dubray spelled it out for him in black and white.

"Let it go, Mitch. You're a good detective, but you've gotten way too personally involved on this one. Besides, I've got a new case for you. Teen homicide, junkie, no leads. Right up your alley."

"Can you give it to someone else? All I need is a little more time to look into this stuff, a few weeks at most."

"No, I can't give it to someone else. You don't get to choose your assignments, Mitch. You are on the Brady homicide as of right now. And if I catch you wasting one more minute of department time on this Brookstein bullshit, believe me, I will have you suspended so fast you won't know what hit you. I won't tell you again. Drop it."

Drop it.

Forget about me.

Maybe next, someone would tell him to stop exhaling carbon dioxide or sleeping with his eyes shut.

His cell phone rang. It was Carl, a buddy from work.

"You anywhere near a TV, man?"

"Nope. Why?"

"There's been a car bombing in Long Island. Looks like a Mafia job. The victim's the wife of one of those Quorum guys you keep talking about. Preston."

Mitch stopped pushing the swing.

"Maria Preston?"

"Daddy! Higher!"

"She's dead?"

"Very dead. Nothing left of her, apparently."

"Daddeeee."

"You gotta watch this, man, it's all over the news."

Mitch hung up and started running to his car. He had to get to a TV.

A woman ran after him. "Sir? Excuse me. Sir!"

Mitch turned around.

The woman pointed to Celeste, sitting forlornly on the stationary swing. Mitch had forgotten all about her.

JOHN MERRIVALE WAS LATE. HE HATED being late. Hurrying into his office, he sat down and started pulling open drawers, looking for papers while his computer fired up.

"You all right, John?" Harry Bain put his head around the door.

"F-fine, thank you. Sorry I'm late in this morning. The p-press keep badgering me for a statement about Maria Preston."

"Poor woman. Terrible thing. You expect car bombs in Beirut or Gaza, but not in Sag Harbor. She was a friend of yours, wasn't she?"

John looked irritated. "No, not really. Her husband was a c-c-colleague. But the media hear the word Quorum and I'm their f-first call. I wish to God they'd leave me be."

Harry Bain frowned. It seemed an oddly detached, clinical response to such an awful tragedy. But then he never had figured out John Merrivale. He let it go.

"Are you still all set for Mustique?"

"Of course."

The task force had discovered that one of Lenny's family trusts, Brookstein Dependents in Guernsey, had made a number of payments to a financier called Jacob Rees. The FBI was interested in what had become of that money, but so far Mr. Rees's business managers in New York had been less than cooperative. John Merrivale was planning a surprise visit to the great man's Mustique estate. Jake Rees's mansion was less than a mile down the beach from Lenny's own (now seized) compound, and the two men had once vacationed together.

"I guess if you have to spend years of your life chasing a money trail, there are worse places to go, right?"

John forced a smile. "I suppose there are..."

"How long do you think you'll be gone?"

"A day or so, I hope. It may take longer if Jake's not immediately r-receptive."

"Well, if you need any help, you know where I am." Harry Bain walked back to his own office. John Merrivale breathed a sigh of relief.

You're in the home stretch now, John. The hard part is over.

It was all coming together at last. Grace was back behind bars. Whispers had already started around the office that the bureau was growing tired of throwing good money after bad and that Harry Bain's Quorum task force might soon be quietly disbanded. John had suffered a terrible moment of panic last week when the prospect of exposure had suddenly loomed from a most unexpected quarter. But now that, too, was over.

In a few days, he'd be on an airplane.

At last.

THE MARIA PRESTON MURDER CASE HAD been given to an old rival of Mitch's from his own precinct, an overweight family man in his fifties named Donald Falke. With his tonsure of white hair, big belly and full, salt-and-pepper beard, Detective Falke's nickname on the force was Santa. Not that Don's cases called for much ho-ho-ho-ing. An NYPD lifer, Don Falke specialized in Mob killings.

He told Mitch, "The media's getting folks all stirred up about terrorism. It's bullshit. If this was a terror attack, I'm Dolly Parton. This wasn't al-Qaeda. It was Al Capone. It's got Mafia written all over it."

"What makes you so sure?"

Don Falke's eyes narrowed. "Experience. What makes you so interested? This ain't your case, Connors."

"What if it wasn't a Mob hit? What if Maria Preston knew something? Something about Quorum, maybe. Something important enough to make someone want to kill her."

"We looked into all that," said Don dismissively. "This had nothing to do with Quorum, okay? Definitively. Someone didn't kill her; this was a sophisticated car bomb, not a knife or a gun. It's a classic Casa Nostra MO."

"Do you know who invented the car bomb, Don?"

Falke rolled his eyes. "I don't got time for a history lesson, Connors. I have a murder to solve. Now if you'll excuse me..."

"It was a guy named Buda. Mario Buda. He was an Italian anarchist back in 1920."

"What'd I tell you? Italian."

"It was a hot day in September..."

"Jesus, Mitch."

"...this guy, Buda, parks his horse and wagon on the corner of Wall Street and Broad, across the street from J. P. Morgan's offices. He gets out and wanders into the crowd. Twelve o'clock, all the bankers are heading out for lunch, right? You can hear the bells of Trinity Church ringing."

"Very poetic."

"Then boom, the horse and cart are blown to bits. It's mayhem, dead bodies everywhere, rubble, shrapnel. Right on Wall Street. Nineteen twenty. Two hundred people were wounded. Forty killed. Not including old J.P. himself, I might add. He was the intended target, but he was in Scotland at the time."

Don Falke had humored him long enough. "Where are you going with this, Mitch?"

"The car bomb was invented by one lone, ignorant immigrant with a grudge against rich Wall Street bankers."

"So?"

"So it was a hundred-odd years ago, but the principle's the same. Why does this have to be Mafia? Any idiot with a grudge could have strapped some Semtex to that car. Some fruit loop might have linked Maria in his addled brain with Quorum or Lenny Brookstein."

Don Falke laughed. "Dubray's right. You are obsessed. This doesn't have a fuckin' thing to do with Lenny Brookstein, okay? I think you need to go and lie down."

"I want to interview Andrew Preston."

Donald Falke finally lost his temper. "Over my dead body. Now you listen to me, Connors. Stay the fuck away from my case. I'm serious."

"Why, Don? Are you worried I might uncover something inconvenient?"

"If I hear you've been within ten miles of Andrew Preston, I'm going to go to Dubray and he is going to fire your ass. Drop it."

Drop it. Mitch was starting to feel like a naughty Labrador retriever with his jaws around some other dog's stick. He left Donald Falke's office and walked straight to his car.

IT HAD BEEN A MONTH SINCE Mitch last visited the Prestons' midtown apartment. He remembered it as an expensive piece of real estate, an enormous five-bedroom pad in a tony, well-maintained building. But what had struck him most about it was how little it struck him. Everything about Andrew and Maria's home was bland, from the nondescript street outside to the dutifully tasteful cream-and-brown decor inside. Mitch couldn't imagine having that much money to spend and wasting it on something so safe. Maria Preston had been an irritating woman. Mitch loathed drama queens. But at least she'd had some color to her. Some life. She must have felt entombed in that apartment. As if she'd been cut and pasted into a page from the Pottery Barn catalog, laminated for all eternity onto a cream B&B Italia sofa and left there to rot.

Turning onto the Prestons' block, Mitch slowed. Uniformed beat cops were in the process of having the street cordoned off. Mitch pulled up at the same time as two ambulances and a fleet of squad cars.

"What's with the circus? What's going on?" He flashed his badge.

"It's Maria Preston's husband, sir."

"What about him?"

"Looks like he hanged himself, sir. About an hour ago. They're cutting him down now."




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