Former NYC prosecutor Kate Stone has found herself on the wrong side of the law since leaving the district attorney's office. She returns to confront her former boss, D.A. Frank Rubenstein, and discover all he knows about the corruption in NYC law enforcement and the legal system, where rich men are using dark money to gain advantages. She must decide whether the ends justify the means when she accepts Rubenstein's help and the help of his ragtag team of vigilantes to bring down the corrupt men her policeman father was investigating before his mysterious death. And she will finally clear her father's name.
Release date: May 16, 2023
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
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Only two weeks prior, Whitney Novak had never seen the inside of a jail. She’d read about incarceration in the media and in fiction, of course. Watched news coverage on TV. From that exposure, she had assumed she understood the challenges a person might face in jail.
There was the essential loss of liberty, obviously, and the horror of being confined without the power to come and go at will. She knew inmates encountered violence, from fellow prisoners and guards. And she understood that incarceration robbed individuals of their dignity as well as their bodily autonomy.
What she hadn’t anticipated, though, was the smell.
The dormitory where Whitney was housed at Rosie’s—the Rose M. Singer Center for women on Rikers Island, New York—had a stink that was almost indescribable. In the lockup facility she shared, the mingled funk of forty-nine other unwashed inmates hit Whitney’s senses like a blow from a truncheon. The dorm held women of all ages, sharing five toilets and a couple of sinks, with limited access to basic toiletries or laundry. She still hadn’t adjusted to the stench.
It was a price she had to pay for her decision to join the group.
As Whitney huddled on the narrow bed assigned to her, she reflected on the association that had landed her in Rosie’s. She had lots of time to think about it. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Months ago, she had been invited to join a group. A circle of talented misanthropes. Each one had his or her personal issues.
Not long ago, there had been nine of them. But she only knew where four of the others were right now.
As Whitney took shallow breaths through her mouth, she did a mental tabulation of the membership. Steven was a medical doctor who had stumbled into drug addiction. In recovery, or so he claimed. Rod battled PTSD, a product of his military service. That went with the territory. But in a fight, Rod was the man you’d want on your side. His girlfriend, Millie, was a drama queen who bitched about her anxiety disorder like it was a mark of pride.
Whitney had her own quirk. She was a gambling addict—bad enough to ruin a stellar career in finance. Before she landed at Rosie’s, she’d been working hard to turn it around. Trying to stay out of casinos, to avoid scratching that itch.
The final member of the group was Kate Stone.
They had all been handpicked by a powerful figure, brought together for a worthy mutual goal: to deliver justice when the legal system slipped up. When the courts let people slip by without consequences for their actions, their group stepped in, wreaking swift, efficient payback. Sometimes it was personal, other times it was a matter of principle. It was a heady undertaking, a satisfying quest. The fellowship. The power. Whitney had sincerely enjoyed it. The group association had involved a gamble, and Whitney was drawn by the thrill of the game, the uncertainty of the outcome. And always, the possibility of a big payoff.
Until Kate had come along and screwed everything up. To fix the mess, the group had no choice but to resort to violence, and Whitney had been the only one brave enough to step up. It was all part of the group dynamic.
And she’d ended up behind bars. Facing felony charges that would be tough to beat.
In a bed nearby, one of her fellow inmates broke wind. When Whitney heard the audible warning, she buried her face in the fabric of her dirty jumpsuit and held her breath.
While she fought the urge to breathe, resentment created a ball in her chest that felt like it might explode. I didn’t sign on for this part, never agreed to this, she thought.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she wished she’d never encountered any of the people in the circle of oddball vigilantes. Wished she’d never been lured into involvement by their dynamic leader. Fervently wished she could set back the clock, go many months into the past to unsee and undo everything she’d witnessed. Everything she’d done. Over the past year, she’d been exposed to ugly, vicious realities.
She’d also discovered a side to her nature she hadn’t fully appreciated. And had tapped into a capacity for violence that until now had lain dormant.
All Whitney had wanted was a taste of justice. A righteous reckoning, on her own terms. If she had known the price she’d have to pay, she would never have ventured into the scheme and been ensnared in the trap.
A nagging voice whispered in her head: You never know when to quit. That was true enough. It wasn’t a novel realization. She’d experienced the same compulsion many times, at craps tables, card tables, even the penny slots. She knew what gambler’s remorse felt like. She was intimately acquainted with the phenomenon.
And Whitney had a bad case of gambler’s remorse as she huddled on a jailhouse cot.
She had gambled with her life, and she’d lost. The absurdity almost made her laugh. And she’d thought she’d never laugh again.
A buzz followed by a grating metallic noise had become a familiar sound in lockup. She lifted her head to watch a guard enter the dorm. It was a woman, young enough to be Whitney’s daughter—if she’d ever had a daughter. The officer kept one hand on the door as she called out, “Whitney Novak!”
It took Whitney a moment to react. She tried to think: Was she in some kind of trouble? She had tried to keep her head low, acquiring goods from the commissary to buy the goodwill of her fellow inmates. Maybe it was a visitor. But Whitney had received no visitors, to date. No one had traveled to Rikers Island to check on her—not even the attorney she hired had made the journey. She was bereft, totally on her own.
At the delay, a shade of irritation crossed the guard’s face. “Novak! You deaf?”
“I’m here,” Whitney said, dropping her feet to the floor and slipping them into flip-flops. She hurried over to the door where the guard stood. “Where am I going?”
The guard didn’t offer an explanation. She cuffed Whitney’s hands behind her back before leading her through a maze of hallways. Voices clamored all around, heightening Whitney’s tension as she shuffled along.
“Am I going to court? Has a hearing been set?”
If so, she hadn’t been notified. But communications in lockup were scant. She’d contacted her lawyer after she was arrested but had only had a brief meeting with him, over a week ago. It was a virtual conference, much of which concerned the retainer he required up front. When they finally discussed her case, the conversation hadn’t been encouraging.
After a long walk, through barred doors and locked barriers, the guard delivered Whitney into a holding area where another corrections officer handed her a bundle. As she inspected it with shaking hands, Whitney was amazed to see that it was her own clothing, the pants and shirt she’d been wearing when she was arrested and taken into custody.
The guard didn’t waste any words. “Get dressed.”
Whitney clutched the bundle to her chest like a beloved infant. “For court? Am I going to court?”
“You’re getting out. The bondsman’s waiting. He’s got the paperwork.”
Whitney didn’t argue. She stumbled as she stripped out of the jailhouse scrubs and stepped into the pants. She was trying to move fast before someone realized the mistake.
She shouldn’t be leaving. Not Whitney. She was being held without bond.
For attempting to kill Kate Stone.
The landing at LaGuardia was bumpy. We jostled in our seats as the plane hit the runway, and I inadvertently nailed the guy sitting next to me with my elbow.
“Sorry,” I said.
He didn’t respond. Maybe I didn’t sound sufficiently apologetic. I brushed it off. It was LaGuardia.
The rain beat against the oval windowpanes as I waited to deplane. The stormy skies conveyed a moody welcome back to the city. That morning, I had made a hasty departure from my Florida vacation, where my mother and brother were still soaking up the sun. It looked like I’d be soaking up the rain as soon as I left the airport.
While I waited for the pilot to turn off the “fasten seatbelt” light, I pulled out my phone. I saw that my mom had called during the flight. She left a message. The transcript of her recorded voice jumped out of the screen at me, as if it was relayed in all capital letters, like she was shouting.
Do not get in touch with anyone from that support group when you return to the city. Do you hear me? It’s a toxic circle. They’re all suspect, every one of them. You don’t know who you can trust.
Same old Mom. I deleted the message and hit my Twitter icon, just to kill some time. Scanning the home page, a post caught my eye. Someone I followed had retweeted a local headline: “Woman Jumps to Her Death in Midtown.” I scrambled to turn off the phone and let the screen go dark. I couldn’t read stories about jumpers. They triggered me, ever since my dad died.
Finally, we were allowed to deplane. As I wheeled my regulation-sized overhead compartment bag past the baggage claim carousels, a small cluster of limo drivers stood between me and the door, holding signs for passengers. I ignored them, even though a guy with dark hair slicked back in a ponytail held a handwritten card that read “Stone.”
My surname is common. And I’ve never hired a private car in my twenty-eight years. So I was surprised when he followed me to the exit.
“Miss Stone?” he called.
Sure, I heard him. I kept walking. Like I said, I didn’t hire the guy.
That stopped me. I whirled around, twisting my bag on one wheel. “Who are you?” I said.
He grinned, revealing a blinding smile marred by one crooked eye tooth. “Miss Stone, your mother ordered a limo. Well, a private car, technically. It’s not a stretch. Don’t want to get your hopes up.”
I gave him a closer inspection. Sounding skeptical, I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He pulled out his cell phone and checked the screen. “You’re Kate Stone, right? Your mother is Patricia Stone? She hired a ride to pick you up at LaGuardia and take you to your building in Morningside Heights. Said you were coming in on American flight one-eight-eight-six.”
He held out the phone, adding, “It looks like you.”
A screenshot on the phone displayed the photo my mother posted on her business website, stone&stonenjlaw.com. It was a fairly current headshot of me, dressed in business attire. The picture wasn’t particularly flattering. I looked slightly angry—not an uncommon expression for me. Some people thought I had a bona fide anger management problem.
So the picture the driver held was undeniably me. Still, I hesitated. I’d just read a message from Mom. She didn’t mention anything about a private car.
The driver nodded at my suitcase. “Can I take your bag, Kate?”
“No.” I clutched the handle with a tight grasp. “Do you have any identification?”
I wasn’t always paranoid, but I had experienced a recent brush with danger. After joining a support group that included deranged vigilantes who made attempts on my life, I didn’t like surprise encounters.
One thing in the phone message from my mother had been spot-on. I didn’t know who I could trust, not anymore.
He pulled out a plastic ID that identified him as an employee of Embassy Limousines of Bayside, Queens. The picture matched the guy, and even showed him with a grin that displayed his crooked tooth.
I pulled out my phone and hit my mother’s cell number. “I’m just going to double-check.”
While the phone hummed, a stranger gave me a shove. We were blocking the exit, apparently. I stepped out of the way, silently cursing my mother for failing to answer her phone. When it went to voice mail, I tapped the screen again.
“Is there a problem?” the driver asked. He didn’t sound offended. When I glanced up from the phone, I observed he had nice eyes, with long eyelashes.
“Sorry about the delay, but I’m going to make another call.” I hit my brother’s number. Leo always had his phone at hand. He’d be able to run Mom down.
“Kate!” Leo sounded positively delighted to hear from me, even though he’d last seen me a few hours before, when I got into a taxi at the Fort Lauderdale resort. “How was your flight?”
“It was okay.”
“How’s everything in New York? Have you made it to your apartment?”
“Not yet. Leo, I’m at the airport and there’s a driver here. He says Mom hired him to pick me up.”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
“Did she mention anything about it?”
“No. But you know Mom. She doesn’t generally seek my advice or approval.”
That was true. I glanced at the driver. He smiled at me, with the same expression I’d seen on his ID.
“Let me talk to her.”
“She’s not here. She’s at the resort spa, getting a massage.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. She said she’d be back in a couple of hours. She’s getting some treatments. The Swedish massage, then a facial and an eyebrow wax.”
Well, so much for raising my mother. She didn’t allow interruptions during spa treatments. I was familiar with that policy.
When I ended the call, the driver reached for the handle of my suitcase. “I can take this for you. Embassy Limousines likes our passengers to enjoy a red-carpet experience. We have a five-star rating.”
“Great.” I let him take the bag.
He wheeled it to the automatic sliding door. “We’re in the parking garage. Do you mind walking? It’s not far.”
“Sure. No problem.”
I felt awkward as I followed in the guy’s footsteps. My mother loves five-star treatment, but it isn’t my style. And as we tramped down the pavement and through the garage, it became apparent that he had fibbed to me. The car was parked at a pretty long distance.
We finally walked up to a shiny black Suburban. The driver popped the trunk of the vehicle and tossed my bag inside, then held the back passenger door open for me.
Before I slid across the seat, I thought to ask, “What did you say your name was?”
“Nick,” he said, before pushing the door firmly shut.
That was alarming. Because I was pretty sure his ID said his name was Christopher.
“Hey, Nick, can I see your ID again?”
He didn’t answer, just kept driving. While I waited, I started feeling decidedly edgy. As we neared an intersection, he hit the brakes. Shooting a glance into the rearview mirror, he said, “Sure. When we get to your apartment, I’ll show it to you.”
I didn’t want to wait, I wanted to see it immediately. His power game sent my discomfort into the red zone. When we came to a full stop at a red light, I decided to bail out of the vehicle. I was uneasy with the guy, and I’d learned to trust my gut. I figured I could get my suitcase from the car service later.
But when I grabbed the door handle and tried to open the door, it remained firmly shut. I tried a second time, throwing my shoulder into it. Didn’t budge.
I kept my tone good-natured. “Uh, Nick, the doors back here won’t open. You got me locked in?”
The traffic light turned green, and he hit the accelerator a little too hard; the car bolted through the intersection, jerking me back against the seat.
“Yeah, that’s company policy. We don’t want kids falling out of the car and getting hurt.”
Though the car was moving, I pulled on the handle again. “I’m no kid.”
“Right. We don’t want any customers falling out. Of any age.”
This time, when I spoke, my voice had a definite edge. “Let’s turn off the childproof lock, okay? It makes me feel claustrophobic.”
“Just sit back and enjoy the ride, ma’am.”
“I can’t enjoy it if I feel trapped. It gives me the jitters.”
“Ma’am, I promise, when you arrive at your destination, I’ll pull the door open for you with my own hands.”
That wasn’t the response I wanted to hear. His refusal made me genuinely agitated. I started to get hot, felt like I couldn’t breathe. I pushed the button to roll down the window, to get a breath of the murky air of Queens.
No luck. He’d childproofed the windows.
I pulled my phone from my pocket. If the driver wouldn’t listen to me, I needed to go over his head, like a middle-aged woman demanding to speak to the manager.
“What’s the phone number for Embassy Limo?”
“Why do you need it?”
“So I can tell your employer they need to revise this practice of locking the customers in. It’s bad business, you know why? Because there’s liability under state law for false imprisonment. It’s illegal, an intentional tort.” I started rubbing the web of skin between my thumb and finger. It was an old habit. Since I was a kid, I unconsciously did the move whenever I was tense.
Without taking his eyes from the road, he tossed his ID into the back. It fell on the floorboard, by my feet. When I picked it up, I studied the photo again. It was a good match, definitely the man behind the wheel. And my recollection was accurate. The card identified him as Christopher Romano.
A phone number was listed for the business. When I tapped it onto my phone, I waited for someone to pick up. My call went straight to voice mail. No business recording, just an instruction to leave a message.
I did, a brief message giving my name and stating my business, asking for a return call. When I ended the call, I hit the camera app on my iPhone. Just as I held my phone up to take a photo of the guy’s ID, he reached into the back and grabbed the laminated card out of my hand.
Trying to keep my voice casual, I said, “So why’d your employer mess up your name on the ID?”
“Getting your name wrong? That’s a big mistake. What about payroll?”
“They didn’t get it wrong. My name’s Christopher, my friends call me Nick. It’s a nickname.”
I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that Nick isn’t a nickname for Christopher, never has been. You don’t have to be born Italian to know that.
He was driving fast, tearing through neighborhood streets of Queens like he was running late to something. And he was taking a weird route, one I’d never traveled in my life.
“Why’d you get off the BQE? Aren’t you taking the Triborough Bridge?”
“The Triborough Bridge, Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. That’s the best route to my neighborhood. Are you getting paid by the mile? That’s kind of a scam.”
“Why do you bitch so much? Why don’t you shut your mouth?”
Something was definitely off. A young guy might get away with saying that to me, if he used the right tone—joking, like he was just messing with me. But this driver wasn’t trying to be funny. His voice was gruff. He genuinely wanted to shut me up. The affable limo driver had disappeared, and I was nervous to be in the power of the persona he was sharing with me now.
His eyes were reflected in the rearview mirror, the dark eyes with long lashes. They didn’t look so nice anymore. They were hard, cold.
Leaning to the side, I could see his hands clenching the steering wheel with a compulsive grip. My fight-or-flight reaction kicked into high gear. As we approached another intersection, I said, “Pull over by that pharmacy. I’m getting out.”
Instead of applying the brakes, he hit the accelerator and sped through a red light. We narrowly avoided a collision with a silver minivan. I heard the screech of the van’s tires and the wail of the horn.
I tossed the phone on the seat next to me and unbuckled my seat belt. Reaching over the driver’s shoulder, I tried to hit the lock controls on the armrest of his car door.
He hit my hand with his fist, yelling, “Get back! Sit down and buckle up.”
Yeah, that wasn’t happening. I pushed my upper body past his headrest and had just managed to hit the lock control when he elbowed me squarely in the nose with his left arm.
The blow dazed me. I backed off, falling into the back seat with my hands over my nose. Blood gushed from both my nostrils, making my fingers sticky. I rubbed my hands on the upholstery to dry them and then lunged back over the driver’s seat and grabbed his ponytail.
“Stop the damn car,” I yelled, giving his hair a vicious twist and jerking his head back.
He kept driving, gunning the engine. Panicking, I looked through the windshield, watching the car speed close to a deserted green space. I didn’t see any bystanders or pedestrians in sight. Reaching around his headrest, I got the driver in a choke hold with my right arm, trying to grab the steering wheel with my left hand.
His hands left the steering wheel to grasp my arm, and the car veered out of control, spinning off the roadway and onto the grass. When the Suburban rolled, I shut my eyes and hung on to the driver’s neck with both arms. His seat belt held him in place, but I was thrown around the vehicle like a kernel of corn in a popper.
When the car landed upside down, the driver was still buckled in, wrestling with the deployed airbag. I tried to open the door, but it remained firmly shut. While he punched the airbag, cursing, I used both feet to kick out the back passenger window. It took three tries, but I busted it out just as the driver unbuckled himself. As I escaped the vehicle, there was a thump when he fell to the roof of the overturned car. It must have hurt, I heard him howl. He was cursing as I crawled through the window and struggled to stand.
Looking around, I had no problem getting my bearings. I stood in Gantry Plaza State Park. The East River was behind me. The Suburban had landed in direct sight of the iconic four-story Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, Queens.
I moved away from the vehicle as fast as my battered knee let me. My nose throbbed with pain. The blood had flowed all the way down my chin, dripping onto my shirt and staining it.
A crowd of curious onlookers assembled on the sidewalks outside the park. I was glad to see them, especially a couple of young guys holding up their cell phones to record the crash. I hobbled directly into their midst, because I figured there was safety in numbers. The Suburban driver wouldn’t be inclined to follow me or attempt to grab me in the presence of witnesses. I hoped not, anyway.
Curious stares met me as I limped down the sidewalk. One woman said, “Hey! You okay?”
I ignored the question. She didn’t need to be entangled in my drama. On a street corner in the distance, a neon sign blinked at me. I headed for that.
Inside the pub, I walked up to the bar and called out to the bartender. “You got a phone I can use?”
He gave me an uneasy glance and scooted several steps away from me. I couldn’t fault his reaction. In the mirror behind the bottles of liquor at the bar, I saw the reflection of a woman who’d been in a brawl. My hair was wild, my shirt spattered with the blood that still ran from my nose and was smeared across my face.
I tried again. “I’ve been in a wreck. Did you see that car go out of control? Black Suburban? It’s sitting upside down by the Pepsi sign.”
“Yeah, I heard it. Somebody was driving batshit crazy.” He looked impressed, actually.
“Right, the driver was dangerous, that’s why I had to get away. But my phone is somewhere in that car. And I need to call 911.”
“To report the collision. Okay, sure. You need an ambulance?”
“No, I’m all right. Pretty much.” I studied my reflection again. A knot on my forehead had already started to swell, and I was afraid he’d broken my nose with the elbow jab. I felt like I’d been on the losing end of a boxing match, but I didn’t need an EMT. I could get a better level of care for free, if someone would just hand me a damned phone.
The bartender pulled a cell phone from his pocket. I could see him hesitate. He really didn’t want to hand it over to a blood-spattered stranger. I had to wonder—what did he think I was gonna do? Grab it and run off? He could easily overtake me with my bum knee. After a minute, he looked down at the phone and tapped the screen. “I’ll call 911 for you. We’re really not supposed to let customers use our phones. It’s a privacy issue.”
I knew what the problem was. My hands were sticky with blood. No one in his right mind would want to hand me his cell phone.
There was nothing to do but wait. I hobbled up to the bar and took a seat. After twenty minutes, a uniformed NYPD officer finally walked in. I was still sitting on the barstool, sipping my second gin and tonic. Thank God I carried my wallet and ID in my pocket. The bartender wasn’t giving away any pity cocktails.
The cop, a woman named Anita Gomez, took my report. When she asked, I gave her a detailed recitation of the facts. Nevertheless, she didn’t look particularly convinced when I informed her I’d been the victim of an attempted abduction. She cut her eyes at my highball glass, as if calculating the odds that I was manufacturing facts to cover up my own wrongdoing.
“We’ve been to the scene at the collision. We didn’t find another party over there,” she said. “The driver . . .
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