Authors: James Patterson,Howard Roughan
I clicked again.
I cursed under my breath and started walking back, thinking I was out of range. The entire key chain was out of my pocket and aimed squarely at the dash. I was definitely close enough now.
But the taillights still weren’t blinking.
I shook the key fob, pressing the lock button hard a few more times. Was the little battery inside the thing dead?
No, it wasn’t. But I sure as hell was supposed to be.
went my Saab.
MY CAR ROSE in the air a good three feet as an orange fire-ball raced toward me, then knocked me down, my body slamming so hard against the sidewalk that I actually blacked out for a few seconds.
When I came to, the sound of the explosion was still pummeling my ears. All at once I could hear the shattering of glass, the twisting of metal, my car being blown to smithereens!
Slowly I got up, but the heat from the flames was so intense I had to step back.
Am I okay? Am I hurt more than I think I am? Am I still among the living?
I looked down at my charred clothing and got part of the answer. Smoke literally was rising from my sweater. I was dizzy and scared to death, but most of all I was relieved to be alive.
Okay, Nick. You’re okay
Then came another awful scene — and the kind of screaming that raised every little hair on the back of my neck.
My head whipped left and right until I spotted a chocolate Lab dragging a leash on the opposite sidewalk. The dog was spinning in circles, barking like it had gone crazy.
Then I saw why.
Dashing across the street, I practically ripped the sweater off my own body. By the time I reached the curb, I was already flying through the air.
The dog’s owner, a college-aged kid, was on the ground in flames and screaming in agony. I landed on him sweater first, trying to smother the fire. “Help me!” he was pleading now. “PLEASE HELP ME!”
I was smothering the kid with my body and sweater. But the flames were stubborn and I needed help.
Thank God, it came.
I felt the freezing cold spray of white powder against my skin. It was like an avalanche, and just in time.
I coughed and sputtered, barely able to catch my breath. Someone had rushed forward with a fire extinguisher, emptying what seemed to be the entire canister. That was fine by me.
fine by the guy who was no longer on fire underneath me.
“You okay?” I asked as I finally rolled off him.
“I don’t know,” was all he could manage.
By now the entire street was filling with people from the brownstones. Anyone within earshot of the explosion had come out to see what had happened. They didn’t understand, but I did, and it chilled me like the spray of dozens of fire extinguishers.
Someone had just tried to kill me.
The next thing I knew, I was being helped to my feet by some good people in the crowd. “Are you hurt?” one man asked. “You okay, mister?”
I heard the question but didn’t respond. All I could do was look around at all the concerned, frightened faces. With each face I didn’t recognize, I became more afraid. “Oh, no!” I suddenly cried out. “Oh God, no.”
Then I was running away from the crowd. Fast, as fast as I could go on rubbery legs.
Like someone’s life depended on it.
I WAS NOW the designated madman on the street, the guy covered in white powder, with smoldering clothes and charred skin, with singed hair and desperate eyes.
With each frantic step I kept looking around me, hoping that I’d spot Phalen.
Was that Derrick over there by the fire hydrant?
Was that him on the stoop?
Dammit! No again
I kept banging into people, forcing my way across the street. It was a block party of lookie-loos, my burning car at the center of it,
as the other story of interest.
I reached the front of Phalen’s brownstone and bounded up the steps, my arms pumping. The front door was locked —
— so I turned to the column of buzzers off to the side. I
dug into my pocket for his apartment number. I remembered I’d written it on the back of his business card.
I pounded my fist against the buzzer. The seconds took forever as I waited for a response. Plausible scenarios zoomed through my head. Derrick was in the shower. Taking a nap. Not home yet. Anything but what I feared.
I kept stabbing the buzzer, when the front door suddenly opened. A man in a bathrobe was coming to see about the commotion on the street.
“Hey, what’s your problem?” he said as I nearly knocked him over to get inside.
The stairwell was straight ahead. Two by two I took the steps, turning the corner to the second floor, then the third. The man in the bathrobe was still yelling at me, threatening to call the cops.
I scanned the doors. 3C was down the hall, at the front of the building.
It was locked. Of course it was.
I hammered on the door, calling out Derrick’s name.
Please be there!
The more I pounded, the less hope I had, though.
I turned around, searching for something to help break down the damn door. Then I figured out what I needed. Hell, I was practically wearing the answer.
But there was no fire extinguisher in the hallway on Derrick’s floor.
I dashed up to the fourth floor.
Near the top of the stairs was a large canister, polished red and silver. I ripped it from the wall. Then I raced back downstairs to Phalen’s door,
smashing it as hard as I could over and over, definitely looking like a madman now.
Finally the door splintered. I was able to get at the locks. Then the door flew open. I was just about to call out Derrick’s name.
Instead I fell to my knees. I was staring into what had once been Derrick Phalen’s eyes.
BURDEN OF PROOF
I FOUND MYSELF back down on the street again, talking to detectives from the local precinct, when I spotted somebody arriving on the scene, somebody who I really didn’t want to talk to right now, or even see.
Officially, the Manhattan DA was out of his jurisdiction up here in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Unofficially, he didn’t seem to care.
Nor did the two detectives who were interviewing me. Receiving nothing more than a nod from Sorren, they both backed away.
Sorren lit a cigarette and gave me a quick head to toe. First things first: “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
In that case…
Sorren took a step forward, getting in my face. “Then what were you thinking?”
I rose from the bumper of the ambulance to stand closer to him, toe to toe. I’d never felt more drained and upset, but I wasn’t about to be pushed around by him, or anybody else at the crime scene. I was one of the victims here, wasn’t I? Sure I was.
“I told you what I was thinking in your office. Remember? You told me I had no evidence. You insinuated I should try and find some.”
Sorren swatted his hand in the air incredulously. “So you go to the OCTF and bullshit a prosecutor about your writing an article?”
“How’d you hear that?” I asked.
“I spoke to Phalen’s boss, a man named Ian LaGrange, on the way over here. He said you lied to both of them.”
“He’s right, I did lie. That’s why Phalen wanted nothing to do with me,” I said. “I was here to try and change his mind. That’s all.”
Sorren smirked. I’m sure he knew that probably wasn’t true — not with Phalen murdered and me narrowly escaping the same fate. “Listen to me, Nick,” he said, his tone sharpening to an edge. “The time to protect Phalen was when he was still alive.”
Whoa. That stung. I was already beating myself up over getting Derrick involved in this mess. The self-inflicted guilt was bad enough. The
-inflicted guilt just made it that much worse.
But he was right. Suddenly I was reminded that Sorren was a very bright guy and that I needed him, possibly just to stay alive.
“Derrick Phalen was helping me,” I admitted. “He told me
he’d discovered something big and that it would blow my mind.”
“All right. That’s good. So what was it?”
“He was supposed to share it with me tonight. That’s why I came here. I’m telling the truth, David. I’m totally leveling with you.”
“You have no idea what it might be?” asked Sorren. “Don’t try and have it both ways, Nick.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I have no idea. None.”
“You’ve got that right.”
Sorren took a last desperate drag off his cigarette, throwing it at the ground. I watched as he gave it an angry twist with his heel.
Of course, if I’d been looking up instead of down, I would’ve seen the man who was charging straight for me, his fist cocked, his nose just about blowing steam.
But it was like everything else that had happened that terrible night.
I never saw it coming.
MY RIGHT CHEEK imploded, the pain so quick and fierce I thought I’d been hit by a crosstown bus.
In a way I had. Ian LaGrange, all six feet four inches and nearly three hundred pounds of him, had stormed right past Sorren to sucker punch me square in the face, and as I fell helplessly back against the ambulance behind me, I could hear him screaming at the top of his fire-breathing lungs.
“LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE, YOU SON OF A BITCH! LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!”
And he was far from done himself.
He lunged for me again, his long and powerful arms flailing in the air. Were it not for Sorren stepping in to block him, he would’ve probably knocked me out cold, then smashed my face into pieces. As it was, I was seeing stars and a variety of bright colors that weren’t in my usual palette.
“Stop it! Calm down!” barked Sorren, pushing him back — or at least trying to. LaGrange outweighed Sorren by a hundred pounds easy, and he wasn’t about to be denied another crack at me.
That is, until Sorren tried a different tact. While LaGrange continued shouting about me being the reason Derrick Phalen had been murdered, Sorren reminded the guy that we weren’t alone.
Uh, hello? Did you not see the news vans?
“Look around you, LaGrange!” said Sorren through clenched teeth. “This isn’t the place.”
That did the trick for some reason or another. LaGrange’s rage was trumped only by his desire not to be fodder for every news outlet in the city, not to mention his becoming the latest sensation on YouTube. With reporters and their cameramen literally sprinting toward us, LaGrange immediately backed off.
“Nothing to see here, folks!” announced Sorren to the reporters. “We’ll have a statement for you in a few minutes. Just be a little patient.”
Reluctantly, they took his word for it.
patiently until it was just the three of us again. He turned to LaGrange.
“Do me a favor, Ian,” he said calmly. “I need you to give the detectives whatever personal information you can on Phalen — next of kin, exact title with the Task Force, et cetera…. Nothing that they can run with.”
LaGrange nodded. He knew Sorren merely wanted him separated from me. That’s probably why he couldn’t help himself as he turned to walk away.
“I don’t care what anybody says,” said LaGrange, jabbing his thick forefinger at me. “You got Derrick killed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. It was all I could think of.
No, worse than that, actually.
It was all I had
“HE’S AN ASSHOLE. Don’t let him get to you,” said Sorren as LaGrange headed over to talk to the detectives.
“Too late. He already did,” I said, rubbing my jaw, which was already swollen from the guy’s roundhouse punch. “I think he loosened a tooth.”
“Yeah, that was way out of line.” Sorren shifted his feet uncomfortably. “I know it’s well within your right, but if you’re thinking about pressing charges —”
“Do I look like the type to take him to court for that?”
“No, I suppose you don’t,” said Sorren, flashing some relief. “Thanks, Nick.”
“Sure. And now you owe me one, right?”
“We’ll see about that later. Listen, after Ian’s done I’ll let you finish up with the detectives so you can finally get the hell out of here. Just so you know, though, you’re going to need around-the-clock police protection after tonight.”
“Is that necessary? Wait, that didn’t come out right. I mean, will it help any?”
“I don’t know. You tell me,” he said with a glance at the scorched and smoking carcass that used to be my car. “It’s probably safe to say that whoever wanted you dead still does.”
I nodded. “But it’s not Pinero.”
“So you’ve been telling me,” replied Sorren, reaching for a cigarette. It was like he was only half listening to me.
“It was Joseph D’zorio,” I said.
got his attention.
Suddenly his next smoke could wait. Sorren was all ears. “How do you know that? Who’s your source? Talk to me, Daniels.”
“I can’t give you all the details, but Dwayne Robinson owed him money that he didn’t have. So —”
Sorren raised his palms. Smart guy — he saw where I was going. “Wait a minute,” he said incredulously. “You’re telling me that your being at Lombardo’s that day was a setup?”
“It was all a setup. D’zorio knew I’d have a recorder going to catch every word of Robinson’s. He knew he could frame Pinero.”
“I guess. But how do
know all this?”
“I can’t reveal my source.”
“Then don’t. But if you want my help, you’ve got to give me more than a gut feeling.”
I spread my arms wide.
Take a look around!
“Does all this look like a gut feeling? D’zorio knew Phalen and I were onto him.”
“Maybe that’s true; maybe you’ve solved this thing. But it’s a nonstarter if I can’t connect the dots.”
“What about Pinero?” I asked.
“What about him?”
“He’s been charged with first-degree murder.”
“Yes. That’s what happens when all the dots connect,” said Sorren.