Unsafe harbor, p.1

Unsafe Harbor, page 1

 

Unsafe Harbor
 


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Unsafe Harbor


  Jessica Speart

  Unsafe Harbor

  A Rachel Porter Mystery

  Contents

  One

  The sound of a siren split the air, shrill as…

  Two

  I turned the heater on full blast, holding first one…

  Three

  I wrote up a few more tickets, until four thirty…

  Four

  Jake and I headed out together early the next morning.

  Five

  I got into my Trailblazer, turned on the heat, and…

  Six

  Everyone has a scam. No one turns informant for no…

  Seven

  I walked into the hallway only to hear the buzzer…

  Eight

  The streets felt oddly deserted and the sidewalks were covered…

  Nine

  Dawn was already beginning to break by the time I…

  Ten

  I was too revved up to head home. If adrenaline…

  Eleven

  A friend had once told me the three requirements for…

  Twelve

  I sat and stared at the phone number in my…

  Thirteen

  Afternoon rush hour traffic was already in progress by the…

  Fourteen

  It was cold when I awoke, and my body hurt…

  Fifteen

  “You’re taking today off. Right?” Jake asked the next morning,…

  Sixteen

  The best thing about the subway system is that it’s…

  Seventeen

  A jolt of adrenaline raced through me as I picked…

  Eighteen

  I was shivering on the corner when Bertucci pulled up…

  Nineteen

  My hand frantically searched for my cell phone while I…

  Epilogue

  “Here. Look what I found,” Gerda said, placing a heavy…

  Acknowledgments

  Praise

  Other Books by Jessica Speart

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  One

  The sound of a siren split the air, shrill as the cry of a prehistoric bird. I steered my vehicle to one side of the road as a set of flashing red lights appeared in my rearview mirror. Their reflection was dulled by the morning haze, the sky dingy as a soiled pillow case. I stifled a yawn and cranked up the radio, hoping the local shock jock would say something outrageous to jolt me awake.

  The bumper-to-bumper traffic paid little heed to the blue-and-white Crown Vic that continued to screech angrily behind us. But that was the norm for this place. This stretch of the turnpike lay between a couple of urban bullies: Newark and Elizabeth, the Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield of industrial Northern New Jersey.

  I’d quickly become acclimated to my new surroundings. In fact, perhaps a little too well. I gave the incident barely a thought until the Crown Vic’s emblem caught my eye. Squeezing through morning rush-hour traffic was a Port Authority police car. It clearly signaled that something was taking place in my territory. I watched as the squad car disappeared amid the crowd of vehicles, until even its call had been silenced.

  Damn, I thought. Why didn’t I have one of those handy dandy sirens?

  Instead, I continued to crawl along with the rest of the throng, like one more regular Joe. There was little to do but stare out the window as the scenery slowly slipped by.

  Vast warehouses gradually gave way to towering columns of colorful cargo containers. The metallic rainbows rose like giant LEGOs, their individual shells stacked high to the sky. Hidden from view lay a sprawling complex where goods from far-flung places arrived daily by ship.

  One if by air, two if by sea. Newark International Airport stretched along one side of the road, while the Port of Elizabeth laid claim to the other. The turnpike divided the two. What they have in common is that each is a major transportation hub.

  A massive blue-and-yellow structure appeared ahead like a concrete flag of Sweden. The Ikea building cheerfully announced that I’d reached my destination. Exit 13A swiftly approached and, as usual, my vehicle was stuck in the wrong lane. At times like this, I have no shame. The Trailblazer used its bulk to bully its way into the tiniest of spaces. What I hadn’t counted on was hitting a patch of ice while swerving into the exit.

  My vehicle fishtailed, nearly colliding with another brawny SUV. That car did what no disc jockey this morning had so far achieved. Its blaring horn finally shocked me awake. I quickly overcorrected, and sliding to the other side of the road, brushed up against a border of tall, graceful phragmites. Their feathery plumes shook their heads in distress as they valiantly buffered a small polluted creek. Taking a deep breath, I maintained my grip on the wheel and continued on, pretending not to notice the other cars that did their best to steer clear of me.

  I’d been stationed at Port Elizabeth for only a few months, but the posting already felt like years. Perhaps it was due to the fact that winters on the East Coast were colder than I had remembered, the January days morbidly gray.

  Things will be better once spring arrives, I thought, trying to bolster myself.

  But the cold felt as though it would never go away. A gust of wind rounded a bend and shook the Trailblazer as if it were a toy. I must have been certifiable to have ever willingly left Hawaii. I tried to push that thought from my mind while passing the Jersey Garden Mall and drab hotels overlooking scenic oil tanks and chemical plants.

  Turning on to North Avenue, I jostled my way between a line-up of trucks and entered Port Authority property. I felt like one more game piece on a Monopoly board, my destination to pass Go, collect what I could, and land at the seaport.

  Asphalt lots filled with truck wheels and empty containers lined the roadway. This was the place where old semis go to die. A section of swampland up ahead caught my eye. It consisted only of weeds on which nothing had ever been built. However, plenty of action was taking place today.

  Five Port Authority squad cars were parked in single file, their flashing lights simultaneously announcing that urgent business was under way. Sitting nearby was a silver “roach coach,” which best resembled a sardine can on wheels. A closer look revealed it was a mobile luncheonette truck that serviced the port.

  My pulse sped up upon catching sight of the sign on its side. Whatever was going on obviously involved the Kielbasa House. It served some of the best homemade food in the area, and was owned and operated by a Polish woman that I’d befriended.

  I parked behind the last car and got out. My hiking boots crunched through snow and weeds, the sound of my steps in time with the same thought repeating over and over in my head: Please don’t let anything have happened to Magda.

  I nearly made it to the cordoned-off area before being stopped.

  “Sorry, but this is official police business. You’ll have to turn back around,” intoned an authoritative voice.

  I stared at the Port Authority officer’s badge. Then I looked at the man himself. Even through his clothes, I could tell that Officer Nunzio worked out diligently. His arms and legs were slightly bent, as if his muscles had sprouted muscles. He looked to be no more than thirty years old, sported a flattop, and was clearly gung-ho. My fingers clumsily fumbled while removing my own badge from my pocket.

  “Special Agent Rachel Porter,” I responded, and quickly stashed the badge away, hoping that he hadn’t seen the words U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

  Nunzio stepped aside and let me pass.

  “What’s going on?” I asked, as he walked beside me.

  “There’s been a homicide,” he coolly replied, as though murder were an everyday occurrence at the port.

  But I heard the tinge of excitement lurking in his voice.

  I felt momentarily ill,
certain that the victim had to be Magda. Why else was her lunch truck parked at the scene? I breathed a sigh of relief upon catching sight of her standing in the field with an officer.

  A flowered babushka was tied around Magda’s head, and a threadbare coat pulled tightly about her body. She held both arms crossed against her chest, like a corpse in a coffin, with hands buried deep beneath the armpits. As for her face, it was chapped and raw from the cold and wind that whipped off Newark Bay and barreled through the seaport with a vengeance. Even from here I could see that her eyes were red and that she had been crying. She wiped her nose against her sleeve as the officer by her side offered a tissue.

  “Is that woman somehow involved?” I asked, nodding toward Magda.

  “Her? Yeah. She found the victim,” Nunzio said, and shifted his weight as though he were about to throw a baseball.

  I moved closer and squeezed between a wall of blue uniforms, finding myself consumed by morbid curiosity. A small cluster of cops stood around a blanket that had been thrown on the ground. Beneath it lay a body.

  Man or woman? It would have been hard to tell but for the silky strands of blond hair that formed a halo in the dingy snow. Their shade was so exquisitely golden that it couldn’t have been natural; the hue so deliciously rich, no way had the color come from an over-the-counter bottle of hair dye. A few coarse weeds had already become entangled in the splayed locks, as if determined to sully the victim’s gilded tresses.

  “Any idea who she is?” I asked, as Officer Nunzio continued to shadow me.

  The paramedics anxiously stomped their feet against the cold, their shoes sinking through snow into wet earth. But the scene investigator refused to be rushed. He continued to carefully take photos while two officers scoured the ground for any telltale hairs and fibers. I stuffed my hands deep inside my pockets, cursing myself for having forgotten my gloves.

  “Yeah. The perp was considerate enough to leave behind the victim’s ID,” Nunzio answered. “It’s someone by the name of Bitsy von Falken.”

  “The Bitsy von Falken?” I asked in surprise, knowing of only one woman by that name.

  Bitsy von Falken was an esteemed member of Manhattan’s highest society; one of the elite corps of the “Ladies Who Lunch.” She was equally famous for her extravagant parties thrown in the name of charity. Her husband, Gavin von Falken, gallantly underwrote their lifestyle as the chief financial officer of a top investment firm.

  “I wouldn’t know. It sounds as if she was a little out of my social circle. My time is spent patrolling lovely Newark and Port Elizabeth,” Nunzio replied dryly. “By the way, who’d you say you were with again?”

  “U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” I mumbled, fervently hoping he’d mistake my words for the FBI. “How was she killed?”

  But Nunzio had obviously heard me correctly. His response was to shrug and walk away, making it perfectly clear that I’d get no more information out of him.

  I glanced around, having been left to my own devices. Aside from Magda’s roach coach and the squad cars, my Trailblazer was the only other vehicle in sight. There was no sign of a Mercedes or Jaguar—the type of car that I imagined Bitsy von Falken would drive. Unless she’d journeyed here ensconced in the back of a limo, that is.

  The other possibility was that Bitsy hadn’t come alone. Last night’s snowfall would easily have covered up any tire tracks or footprints had she been unceremoniously dumped here.

  Nunzio joined the rest of his crew, a few of whom now turned and gave me the evil eye. Their message was clear. I wasn’t welcome to hang around and snoop on their case anymore.

  That was all right. The 5-degree temperature was cold enough to discourage me from pursuing the matter further. Besides, they were right. Bitsy von Falken’s death had nothing to do with my work. In any case, I’d probably hear all the lurid details on the news tonight.

  I turned to leave, but not before glancing over at Magda once more. This time she met my gaze, and I caught the gleam of fear in her eyes.

  Two

  I turned the heater on full blast, holding first one hand up to the vent and then the other. Having defrosted my fingers, I threw the SUV into gear and pulled away. Bitsy von Falken’s ghost slipped quietly in beside me.

  I couldn’t imagine what she had possibly been doing here. I sincerely doubted that Bitsy secretly shopped at the outlet mall, and she certainly hadn’t come to the port to sample its cuisine. But Bitsy’s ghost merely smiled and sat primly in her seat, not giving anything away.

  Okay, if that’s how you’re going to be…. I thought, and continued on to the office.

  A passing plane gleamed like a silver jack thrown high in the sky, as the sun pushed through a cloud of industrial haze. The Trailblazer morphed into a vibrating chair as its wheels passed over a set of rumble strips designed to slow down trucks on dangerous curves. Even so, one leaned perilously close, as if threatening to topple onto me.

  Port Elizabeth is the largest seaport on the East Coast; a mini-city that boasts streets lined with rows of warehouses and trucking companies. I passed a caravan of autos being driven off a car carrier that was longer than three football fields. A 958-foot floating garage, its interior was akin to a giant beehive. Port Elizabeth ships tons of scrap metal over to Japan, and in return, they send it back to us in the form of Toyotas.

  I drove toward a herd of tall cranes that resembled Tonka toys on steroids. The mechanical giraffes offload product from ships twenty-four hours a day in a synchronized ballet, for entry into the most concentrated and affluent consumer marketplace in the world. About 4.5 million containers pour into the international seaport spanning Newark-Elizabeth and New York Seaport each year, their contents ranging from Indian carpets to Spanish olives, to clothing, shoes, flammable gas, and everything else imaginable.

  A train laden with containers squealed past the black-tinted windows of a three-story structure. My vehicle rounded the corner at Fleet and Corbin Streets, also known as Suicide Corner, and approached the Sea Land Building. In addition to housing Fish and Wildlife, the edifice contains U.S. Customs and Immigration, two agencies now under the umbrella of Homeland Security.

  As usual, the guard booth was unmanned and the entrance gate was up. It was good to know that the government was on its toes protecting its federal employees.

  I parked in the lot, stepped out, and took a deep breath. Ah! The pungent smell of jet fumes early in the morning. A fine spray from overhead planes immediately collected on my windshield. I slogged through snow and slush, using my key to enter the rear of the building.

  My new territory didn’t cover the Jersey of my childhood. I wasn’t prowling the shore, canoeing through the silence of the Pine Barrens, or lolling in luscious fields of strawberries. Rather, my beat consisted of Newark air and seaport, the rail yards and the airport mail facility, including FedEx and UPS.

  Most ironic of all was that I’d requested the transfer. Well, not really. I’d asked to be assigned back home to New York, but that request had quickly been denied. Instead, I’d put my name on the list for Newark, and presto! My wish was instantly granted. It had been easy. No one else had applied.

  I slipped between the unpacked cartons and boxes still piled high in my office. They included not just my own, but also those left behind by the last agent who had worked here. He’d returned to Idaho after only ten months in Newark. Rumor had it, he’d astutely observed that Fish and Wildlife was a sinking ship and he’d been smart enough to get off.

  I had yet to delve into his boxes, knowing full well their contents. They were stacked with violations that he’d never bothered to write up. Most were fines against air shipping companies that delivered wildlife products into the country without first getting them cleared. Tickets needed to be written and issued before the statute of limitations ran out.

  My new boss had ordered me to get to it ASAP. We both knew what that would accomplish—bring much needed money into the agency’s coffers, while keeping me out of any possible t
rouble and tied to my desk.

  “Good morning, Grasshopper. I hear you rustling around in there. Stop whatever it is you’re doing and get your rear end in here,” commanded a voice the texture of sandpaper.

  I’d quickly learned that Jack Hogan likened himself to a wise sage and viewed his underlings as know-nothing minions. I went to see what was up with my master.

  “You called?” I responded, sticking my head in his office.

  Jack Hogan gazed back at me through bloodshot eyes. I swear, the man must never have slept. His clothes were always rumpled and he sported jowls that rivaled those of a bloodhound. But the clincher was long strands of hair carefully combed forward to cover an otherwise bald pate. When will guys ever learn that comb-overs simply make them look like jackasses?

  “How’s it going with those tickets?” he asked, his eyes swimming in two scarlet pools.

  “They’re coming along,” I lied, having not yet started the process. “By the way, there’s a lot of activity going on at the south end of the port this morning. It seems there’s been a murder.”

  “Oh yeah?” he responded, perking right up.

  Hogan was a former cop who admittedly cared little for wildlife. That being the case, Port Elizabeth suited him just fine. The only critters to be seen, other than rats and seagulls, arrived in the form of snakeskin boots, alligator skirts, mink handbags, and the occasional box of python crotchless panties. As far as I was concerned, those were reasons why no animal should ever have to die.

  “So, who got knocked off? Anyone I know?” he inquired.

  “I guess that depends on the crowd you hang out with,” I replied. “The victim was a woman by the name of Bitsy von Falken. Her husband is the CFO of Hyde Barrow, an investment firm on Wall Street.”

 
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