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Ballantine Books  New York

MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

FOR ANDY VITA

Do justly . . . love mercy, and . . .

walk humbly with thy god.

—MICAH 6 : 8

PART ONE

MERCY

CHAPTER ONE

My cell phone awoke me from a deep sleep.

I didn't get a lot of calls. Especially in the middle of the night. Opening my eyes, I stared into the darkness of my rented room. Hanging on the ceiling above my head were the smiling faces of my wife and daughter. They were like after-images of my former life, and they filled me with sadness. Lifting my arm, I tried to touch them, only to watch them melt away.

My phone continued to ring. Grabbing it off the night table, I stared at its face. Caller ID showed a 305 area code, which was Miami/Dade County. The only people I knew in Dade were cops. I decided to answer.

“Carpenter here.”

“Jack, this is Tommy Gonzalez. Sorry to wake you up.”

“What time is it?”

“Six in the morning. I'm in a jam, Jack. I wouldn't have called you otherwise.”

Tommy ran the Missing Persons Division of the Miami/Dade Police Department and had gotten his training under me during a stint he did in Broward. Although he was only a few years my junior, I still considered him a kid.

“I'm listening,” I said.

“We lost a newborn at Mercy Hospital this morning,” Tommy said.

A knifelike pain stabbed my gut. “Abduction?”

“That's what it looks like. I need help. Are you available?”

“I'm giving testimony at a homicide trial tomorrow. I'm supposed to be spending the day preparing for it.”

“Is this about the Midnight Rambler?” Tommy asked.

Another pain jabbed my gut, this one much deeper. The Midnight Rambler was my last case as a detective, and it had ruined both my career and my personal life. Each day I awoke wondering if I'd ever escape its dark shadow.

“No, this is another murder case,” I said. “I can come down and help you, but I can't stay all day.”

“That's fantastic,” Tommy said. “What's your going rate these days?”

I was wide awake now, and I propped my back against the wall, which was cool against my bare flesh. My rent was due next week, and I was flat broke.

“Four hundred and fifty bucks,” I said.

“How'd you come up with that figure?”

“Need. Now tell me what happened.”

“Baby was born yesterday, name's Isabella Marie Vasquez. Parents are a couple of well-known architects, built those fancy downtown skyscrapers that look like giant kid's toys. Isabella got fed at four a.m. and was gone from her crib when a nurse checked fifteen minutes later. None of the other newborns in the maternity ward were touched. I sent my best investigator, and she combed the ward and interviewed the nursing staff, doctors, and cleaning people. No one saw anything, heard anything, or knows anything.”

“Think it's an inside job?”

“I don't know what to think,” Tommy said, sounding exasperated. “Mercy is one of the best hospitals in south Florida. I go there every year with a group from NCMEC, and we lecture the staff and administrators on how to lessen the likelihood of an abduction. When it comes to protecting babies, they know their stuff.”

“So they've hardened the target.”

“Absolutely.”

NCMEC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, had done more to prevent child abductions than any other grassroots organization in the country. They lectured school and hospital staffs on how to make children safe, or what they called hardening the target. I didn't like the sound of what Tommy had described, and climbed out of bed. My dog, sleeping beside me, got up as well.

“I'm leaving right now,” I said. “Depending on traffic, I should be there within the hour.”

“Park in the back and come through the emergency door,” Tommy said.

CHAPTER TWO

Dressing is easy when you own only three pairs of pants and four shirts. Hanging up with Tommy, I put on the clothes that looked the cleanest, threw my dog into my car, and headed south to Miami.

The day my wife walked out on me, I went to the Broward County Humane Society to find a new companion. Forty dogs had been sitting on doggy death row, ranging from cuddly miniature dachshunds to snarling pit bulls. The orderly had suggested that I walk past their cages and see which one tugged at my heartstrings. Buster, a chocolate short-haired Australian Shepherd, had done just that.

The dog had problems. He was not socially inclined and would curl his lip the moment you turned your back

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