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An Excerpt from Among the Dead

Prologue: Hector

Thursday, April 7
East 178th Street
Bronx, New York
3:25 p.m.

The smell of blood drove the reality home. She could almost deny her own eyes, but not that smell. It was wet and tinny, like the rusty metal of her fire escape after a good rain. It emanated from the young boy’s body, crumpled in the bathtub, face up, with his throat split open. Joseliz Perez, not quite 20 years old, was standing in the doorway of the little bathroom, stunned into an unbelieving silence. Her dark eyes were feeding her brain a vision it could scarcely absorb—doing so felt like tiny razors cutting into her consciousness, sending her thoughts scattered and bleeding.

Bleeding. But it looked like Hector was no longer bleeding. It looked more like he had bled out, his vital fluid pooled around him and already congealing, creating a scarlet line around the tub.

The grip of her right hand, the knuckles growing white, tightened on the side of the doorjamb. In her left hand was a lollipop she had brought for him. It fell and shattered on the tile floor, but she barely heard it.

Oh, God, no. Please.

 Joseliz had a family, school, and friends, but the truth was, Hector had been her life. He was severely autistic, profound by any measurable standard. She was a volunteer at the center where he received care and, for the most part, his principal attendant and only companion. And she had been reaching him. Almost anyone else would have given up on that, but Joseliz had pushed through with patience and skill she hadn’t known she possessed. She understood this boy like no one else, their connection as deep and real as anything she had ever experienced. She had unlocked a part of this beautiful, helpless child no one thought possible. He had been trapped, but she was opening up the world to him, watching it awaken in his eyes like a new miracle, day after day. But now those eyes were blank. His head lolled to the side, exposing a gaping wound across his neck. He seemed impossibly still, like a doll in a pool of blood. Joseliz felt her breath catch, the need to retch crawling up her throat. When she threw up, she heard the vomit splattering on the tile, eyes clenched shut, and seconds later she was staring at what remained of her lunch. It was easier to view than what was in the tub. With a fortifying breath, she walked her gaze forward to where the claw-foot tub casted a shadow hiding the uneven surface of the old floor. She covered her mouth, turned, and ran, fleeing the little row house, the front door banging on its hinges and then standing wide open.

Chapter One

Yankee Stadium
East 161st Street and Jerome Avenue
3:55 p.m.

The pain, framed with cruel precision around his late son Jordan, hit Alex like a brick. With a clenched fist, he waited for the wave of grief to pass. He collected himself quickly, burying the emotion the same way he did as an assistant district attorney when a juror’s response, a detective’s report, or even a witness’ hollow look triggered something similar.

But in this case, it wasn’t about work. Instead, it was a view of his former father-in-law, Jonah, at the steakhouse bar, frowning through reading glasses at a drink menu. He had forgotten about their meeting, mostly because he wanted to forget it, but that wasn’t about Jonah. It was about the ache that, for Alex, Jonah was forever associated with.

It was undeniable, the resemblance between Jonah and Alex’s son. Dara, Jordan’s mother, had said so all the time; Jordan was Papa Jonah’s reflection. He had the same frown line, the same look of consternation. Alex could almost hear Jordan himself saying “Daddy, don’t be a crybaby.” But that was just imagination, not memory. Jordan had never really spoken. That, like so many other things, had been denied him. Giving himself a mental shake, Alex pasted a smile on his face and strode over to the bar. The older man rose to greet him with a hug. As always, Jonah looked impeccable in perfectly tailored clothes, this time a powder blue dress shirt and tan slacks. Jonah was kind looking and handsome, and at 68 still enjoyed a full head of silver hair and a slim but appreciable build. He was rich, and he looked it.

“Boychik,” Jonah said, smiling and using the Yiddish nickname for a beloved boy, usually a son or grandson. He looked Alex up and down as if he truly were Jonah’s son and not a man who had once, tragically, been married to his daughter. Alex was a big man, broad-shouldered and handsome, with an old-school haircut that gave him a little bit of a Robert F. Kennedy look. Usually, he tried to sweep it back, but a little shock of it nevertheless tended to flop down in a half-moon shape over his forehead.

“It’s good to see you, Jonah,” he said and meant it. Theirs was an odd friendship, forged largely in horror and secrecy. But it had become quickly hard and fast. “Busy day, I forgot we were meeting.” Up close now, Alex could see the age creeping into Jonah’s face, the sad lines along his brow, a drooping of the lips. Jordan’s death had let that in, he figured. They were both pretty much in the same boat that way.

“Don’t worry. I had to be here anyway. So how are you?” Jonah stared at Alex with sharp, piercing eyes as his second martini arrived. They were at NYY Steak, the upscale restaurant inside Yankee Stadium. A game crowd would show up within the hour, ready to be liquored up for the first pitch, but this steakhouse would lure less beer-bellied guys in jerseys and more hedge fund types in suits.

“It’s his birthday,” Alex said with a sigh. “How can I be?”

“Stupid question,” he said, looking away. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. How’s Dara?”

“She’s had a bad few weeks. Happens every year.”

“I got a weird text from her the other day,” Alex said.

“Wasn’t sure if it was a meds issue or just the time of year.”

“It is what it is,” Jonah said with a shrug. “She’s a survivor. Listen, let me buy you a drink.”

“I’m on homicide duty,” Alex said, tapping the phone in his breast pocket. “Gotta stay dry.”

“Feh, we’ve got to get you out of that office.”

“I like it up here,” Alex said, a grin finally appearing on his face. “The Bronx suits me.” And it was true. Alex had been at the District Attorney’s Office, just up the hill from where he was meeting his ex’s father, for a little over two years. In his previous life, he had been a prosecutor in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., where he had grown up with and married Jonah’s daughter, despite the protests of everyone involved. New York was a move he had made after all of that had fallen apart. After Jordan was found dead, and Dara and he were dissolving. It was a move Jonah had brokered for him because he desperately needed it. In particular, he needed a place that would swallow everything he had been before, leaving him blank, like a beach at dawn.

“The Bronx? Please. I grew up in the Marble Hill projects. Don’t tell me about the Bronx.”

“And look at you now,” Alex said, patting his arm. “No need to worry, I’m doing okay.”

“You’re doing more than okay,” Jonah said. “You’re becoming a superstar very quickly. The Prince case was all over the press.” People v. Prince was a brutal homicide Alex had tried successfully a few months earlier, and it had won him citywide acclaim. “With that kind of momentum, I can get you something better. Look, the Bronx makes for an interesting experience, I’m sure. But it’s a dead end. Lousy conviction rate. Impossible juries. You’re 39. That’s exactly the place where the world is judging whether you’re heading up the ladder or rounding a curve to head back down. Let me help you take another step forward. A federal office, maybe.”

“I owe you too much already.”

“We’re even. At best,” Jonah said, dead serious. The older man’s eyes searched Alex’s for a moment, wanting that to sink in. Before Alex could respond, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He looked and saw it was an office extension. Jonah excused himself to the men’s room while Alex took the call.

“ADA Greco.”

“It’s Raquel Silva,” he heard. “Do you have the bag still?” The ‘bag’ meant the satchel senior ADAs carried when on homicide duty, still called “beeper duty” for the centrality of the beeper that used to summon them to crime scenes back in the day. “I do, and I’m sober,” he said half-jokingly. Raquel was the Chief of Special Victims, and not someone he worked with regularly, but he liked and respected her. “Listen,” she said. “Something came in. But it’s really not your style, so I’m not sure I want to stick you with it.”

“What is it?” He could hear her breathe out on the other end.

“Child homicide. It’s bad. An autistic kid I think, eleven or twelve. Someone cut his throat ear-to-ear. Damn near took his head off.” Autistic. The word sank into him with cold, mean familiarity. He shook it off.

“Where?”

“A row house in the Four-Four.” When cops and prosecutors referred to one of the eleven Bronx police precincts, they expressed them as two numbers side by side, so that the 44th was the “Four-Four,” and so on. “I can ask Frank to go out on this, Alex.”

“Rock, I’m fine. It’s my job.” Raquel, Alex knew, was more aware of his circumstances than most. He had shared with her that he’d lost a son, albeit without many details. Raquel had three children, and one of them, Alicia, had died of leukemia right around the time Alex joined the office. They had commiserated on it more than once.

“I lost a kid, too,” she said quietly. “I get it.” Alex felt his gut tighten and a wave of emotion rose through him. But this was work, and he choked it back.

“I know you do,” he said. “But it’s okay, I’ll handle it. And I’m in the Four-Four, at Yankee Stadium. I can be there in ten.”

“Okay,” she said and sounded relieved. He knew her unit had been busy lately, and she was probably shorthanded. “Are you driving?”

“No, my car’s in the city. I’ll cab it.”

“Hang on,” she said. He heard her speak into another phone, probably her cell. Then she was back. “Danny Lopez will pick you up in front of gate six in ten minutes. He’s in the Four-Four squad now, and he’s catching it. Tip will want a briefing tonight, but take your time there.” Tip Healy was the Chief of Homicide. If you caught a homicide on beeper duty, you talked to Tip before anyone else.

“I’ll call you later also,” he said. “I’ll brief you before you assign it to one of your people.”

“I’d appreciate that,” she said, and Alex could hear the smile in her voice. “I’ll be here late. Thanks, Alex.”

Jonah returned from the restroom and seemed to read the look on the younger man’s face.

“You gotta go, right?”

“I’ve got ten minutes,” Alex said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I’m meeting a couple of guys here for the game anyway. So who shot whom?”

“It wasn’t that.”

“Do I want to know what it was?”

“No,” Alex said with a sad smile. “You really don’t. So, what’s this about, Jonah? What’s troubling you?”

Jonah sighed and stirred his drink. “I just want you to be happy here. You deserve that.”

“Thank you. But what else is going on? Tell me.”

“You know there’s an election for Commonwealth’s Attorney next year,” he said at low volume, even though that didn’t seem to matter in the environment they were in.  “Back home.”

“Of course I know,” Alex said. The Commonwealth Attorney was the chief prosecutor in Alexandria. It was the job Alex was seen as the heir-apparent for, not three years previous, when he had Dara and Jordan by his side and a much different life in front of him. “I’m not going back there, believe me.”

“You could if you wanted to,” Jonah said. “There are a few people down there who’d like to recruit you to come back and run. You still have friends, and they remember how it was supposed to happen.”

“That was another life. It’s gone now. Anyway, you know I’d come to you first if I was considering something like that.”

“Of course I know,” he said. He seemed almost ashamed. “I don’t mean to sound like I don’t trust your judgment. Or that I’m trying to keep you in New York.”

“You’re looking out for me. You know I’m better off up here. I know it too.”

“I worry about the past, that’s all,” Jonah said. “About some asshole down there digging it up if you ever did go back.” Alex tensed. The past. Again. It was amazing, after two years and a string of successes, how close he could still feel to old hurts. And threats. Then Jonah leaned in, waiting until Alex’s eyes were on his before he spoke again. “But listen to me. If you did want to return, I’d back you as hard as I did when you and Dara were together. It’s you I worry about, not me. I know they don’t scare you, but I know they can’t touch me.” A smile at that point, a sardonic grin even, would have been inappropriate, but Alex hid one just below the surface regardless. Jonah Schwartz was, in street terms, ‘a swingin’ dick.’ He was wildly successful, powerful, and philanthropic. He was also controversial.

“I’m where I belong. But thank you. Listen, I’ve gotta run. How long are you in the city for?” Jonah still lived most of the time in Alexandria, but he had a lavish apartment in Manhattan as well.

“Just until tomorrow. But keep in touch, okay? We’ll talk more. I’m still moving you up when the time is right.”

They said their goodbyes, and Alex made his way through the still quiet, echoing stadium down to the street. The air outside was cool but fresh and spring-like, even in South Bronx. He molded himself into work mode as the steps receded behind him, pushing out the cares of the day and even the burden of memory that Jonah had brought back. He was practiced at this, shutting out distractions and opening his mind to the task at hand. Usually, that task was a homicide. This was, he told himself, just another one. But it was also a child case, and he didn’t like those. Deeper still was one word that kept punching up through his thoughts, a word he loathed and knew intimately at the same time. A word that, like the past itself, wouldn’t seem to let him be.

Autistic.