. . . My husband and my sister worried for my safety when I chose this work. . . . I admit there’s always the potential for violence. I also admit it isn’t for everyone. . . .
(excerpted from Boston Monitor)
MAGGIE WAS LATE. Back almost a dozen years when Natalie and Maggie were college roomies at Boston State, Maggie used to tell Nat her problem with tardiness was congenital. What else could you expect, Maggie would say, from someone who was finally forced from momma’s comfy womb close to a month past her due date? Nat, on the other hand was a stickler for time, and so she’d spent many a night over the past twelve years getting frustrated, annoyed, finally angry waiting for Maggie to show up—for dinners, movies, trips. Maggie even showed up late for Nat’s wedding. And since Maggie was the maid of honor, the ceremony had to be put on hold until she arrived. But Nat knew there was nothing congenital about her best friend’s tardiness that time. Maggie thought Nat was making a big mistake marrying Ethan Price. And she hadn’t minced words about it.
“It’s a father thing, Nat.”
“He’s only thirteen years older than me. You make it sound like I’m marrying Methuselah.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
“Believe me, Maggie, Ethan is nothing like my father. Thank God.”
“Exactly. Ethan’s the good father. Or so you think.”
“Meaning he’s totally full of himself. And he absolutely loves your puppy dog adoration—”
“Gee, you make me sound so appealing.”
“Come on, Nat. You love me because I tell it like it is. He’s the whole reason you decided to major in Criminal Justice. If you hadn’t taken his course your sophomore year—”
“I took his course because I was already interested in doing my major in Criminal Justice. I had . . . personal reasons.”
“Which you don’t want to talk about.”
“Which I don’t want to talk about.”
“You know, it’s not fair, Nat. I tell you everything. And you’re always playing woman of mystery.”
“I tell you more than I’ve ever told anyone else in my life, Maggie.”
“. . . even Ethan.”
Nat picked up her phone, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the mantel. She looked lousy, not so much feeling old as faded. Barely thirty-one and already she could see crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes. That morning she’d spotted several threads of gray when she was trying to tame her renegade auburn hair into a French knot. Whenever the humidity rose, her natural curls became coiled springs, refusing to obey. But she was afraid if she cut her hair short, she’d look like Alfalfa. Besides, Ethan always said her hair was her sexiest feature. He used to come up behind her on the bed, slowly, almost ritualistically pulling out her combs and hair pins, letting her wild curls fall down around her shoulders, then he’d bury his face—
Nat scowled and started punching in Maggie’s number. Maybe she would get her hair cut. And straightened. That’s right, Nat. Cut off your hair to spite your face. Not that her face was bad. She had an olive complexion that tanned nicely—tending toward sallow, unfortunately, when winter hit; good bone structure that accentuated high cheekbones; an unassuming nose; lips that might have been fuller; hazel eyes that changed color with the light—Ethan used to say they changed color with her moods, glowing almost golden when she was aroused. Well, they sure as hell hadn’t been golden for quite some time.
Her gaze drifted down to her body, clad in blue jeans and a plain white tee shirt. She was slim—a little too slim of late—and while not flat-chested, she could get away without wearing a bra, although she’d only do that around the house. At five foot seven, she was neither too short nor too tall. Average. Attractive in an average way.
Distracted by her clinical self-analysis, she ended up getting a wrong number. She tried again. Three rings and Maggie’s answering machine clicked on. Nat figured she was finally on her way. As she was about to hang up—no point leaving a message—Nat was brought up short by an addendum Maggie had tagged on to her recording. “Dean? If that’s you, I may be a bit late for lunch tomorrow, so let’s plan on 12:30 instead of noon. Same place as usual. . . .”
Dean? As in Dean Thomas Walsh? Same place as usual?
Nat couldn’t believe it. Maggie was meeting Walsh outside of class. She was having regular lunch dates with him. Did they squeeze in early dinner dates as well before check-in? What else did they squeeze in?
Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. For all your talk of worldly wisdom, you are so naive.
Nat was already preparing the lecture in her head that she’d deliver to her closest friend. Filled with hard, cold facts. Warnings. Concern. If necessary, threats.
Maggie was going to fight her on this. One trait the two friends shared in common was a thick streak of stubbornness. But no way was Maggie going to win this one. She’d realize the truth and reluctantly go along with Nat’s demands. Because she wouldn’t have any choice.
But it was bound to cause a rift between them.
Nat felt miserable as she came to this realization. As if she needed more rifts in her life. More estrangement.
She sank down on the couch, pressing her palms into her eyes until tiny silver spots sparkled in the blackness. The public Natalie Price—tough, competent, ambitious, fierce in her convictions—blinked out. Despite her many years of concerted effort and determination, the lonely, frightened, insecure little girl remained immutably lodged inside her skin. Still all too painfully alive. With no one there to bear witness to her weakness, Nat let the tears fall.
Crying brought back the memory of just about the only time in her adult life that she’d broken down in front of another person. That person had been Maggie. It had happened just a short time ago. Nat could still recapture the sensation of her friend’s comforting arms encircling her. Encouraging her to let go. It’s okay to cry, Nat. It’s okay to hurt. That’s the only way to heal. Nat longed for that to be true. But even if it wasn’t, she cherished the gift of her friend’s tender nurturing. There were so few people in her life who had ever demonstrated such caring. And she’d already lost one of them. She desperately did not want to lose Maggie’s friendship. It would leave a terrible void. And then the thing that Nat had concertedly staved off her entire life, would finally happen. Empty, she would simply cave in.
The echo of Maggie’s phone message replayed in Nat’s mind.
Maybe, she thought with no real conviction, maybe she’d got it wrong. Maybe it was another Dean.
10:40 P.M. Maggie could have walked from her South End apartment to Brookline and been there by now. Nat, an alarmist if not by nature then certainly by nurture, had learned to curb her anxiety where her friend was concerned. But this was late even for Maggie. Nat was starting to worry that something had happened to her, her mind racing through a minefield of catastrophic possibilities. Of course, the most logical explanation was that Maggie had forgotten altogether. Or thought they were on for the next night. Maybe she had a date tonight. At least it couldn’t be Dean. If he were out and about at this late hour she would most definitely have heard about it.
Before giving up and going to sleep, Nat rang Maggie’s number one last time, planning to leave a message. To her relief, it was picked up after one ring. Not a late date anyway.
“Hey,” Nat said before Maggie squeezed in so much as a contrite hi, “just wanted to make sure you’re still alive and kicking. And no, I’m not pissed you forgot about me. Well, maybe a little. I have still got this wicked craving for that lemon meringue pie you were supposed to bring over tonight. You owe me—”
“Who is this?” A somber voice cut Nat off. A somber male voice she didn’t recognize.
“Sorry . . . must have dialed the wrong number.”
“Who are you trying to reach?”
Nat hesitated. Maybe this was Maggie’s new boyfriend. And Nat had interrupted—Oh damn.
“I’m sorry. I’m a friend of Maggie’s and—”
“Yes. Who . . . ?”
“May I have your name?”
The guy was really putting Nat off. If this was Maggie’s new love interest, Nat was not too impressed.
“Are you still there? Is this Nat?”
So Maggie’d told the new guy about her. Nat was irritated that Maggie hadn’t told her best friend, who she supposedly told everything, about him.
“What’s your name?” Nat countered.
She scowled. Name didn’t ring a bell.
“Well, look Leo, I’m just calling to let Maggie know—”
“Detective Leo Coscarelli. Homicide.”
Oh God, Nat thought, the air in the room suddenly too thick to breathe. Or else it was her lungs. Something congealing in her lungs. And a lump instantly formed in Nat’s chest that felt like a hard knot. “Hom . . . icide?”
“Are you Nat?” he asked again.
“Yes. How did you . . . ? Where’s Maggie? What’s happened . . . ?” The room started to spin. Nat couldn’t focus.
“Can I have your full name please?”
Nat willed herself to be calm. It was a lesson she’d drilled into herself as a child. There was the popular saying—never let ’em see you sweat. Nat’s was a variation—never let ‘em see you hurting.
“Price. Natalie Price. I’m Superintendent of Corrections at CCI Horizon House, the pre-release center in Boston.” She tacked her credentials on deliberately. To establish authority. To let him know she was one of them. And to remind herself so she wouldn’t fold. “Maggie Austin is a close friend of mine. Will you please tell me . . .”
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Superintendent Price.”
Bad news. Homicide. Nat knew even as she asked, “Is Maggie . . . dead?”
“Yes. I’m sorry . . .”
“How?” The brusqueness in her voice belied the struggle it had taken to get the word out. She shut her eyes, trying to tell herself this was a nightmare, that it wasn’t really happening. An old, sadly familiar litany. Why did she keep at it when it never worked, her nightmares invariably the real thing?
“I’d rather not discuss it over the phone, Superintendent.”
“I see.” Of course Nat didn’t see. She was half blind from the tears flooding her eyes. Sucking in a frayed breath, she held it a few seconds, hoping she wouldn’t retch.
“I can drive over to your apartment—”
“I’ll come there,” Nat said firmly.
“I don’t know if that’s—”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“I’d prefer to send a car over for you.”
“You’re very upset. Wait for the car.”
“Yes. All right. I . . . I’ll do that.”
“It’s not a pretty sight, Superintendent. You might want to—” The detective hesitated, still with the somber voice but with an added touch of sympathy. He started over. “You might want to prepare yourself.”
“How do I do that?” Nat asked starkly. She knew he didn’t have an answer. There was no answer.
The receiver slipped out of Nat’s sweaty hand and clattered to the floor. She stood there, numb with devastation. A female voice oozed from the phone that hadn’t been disconnected—if you would like to make a call, please hang up and—
Nat viciously kicked the phone across the living room. Fierce anger warred with her intense sorrow. One name flashed before her eyes. Dean Thomas Walsh. And as soon as she saw it, a sinking feeling, shameful in its self-interest, pushed its way into the fray.
She could not dislodge it. She could not ignore the catastrophic repercussions, not only at the pre-release center but throughout the entire Massachusetts criminal justice system, that could potentially unfold with Maggie’s murder. While she had no way of knowing at this point if Dean Thomas Walsh was in any way involved, Nat knew she had to act on that possibility. And act immediately. She crossed the room and retrieved the phone.
“When did Walsh check in?” Amazingly, her voice sounded calm enough when she got Gordon Hutchins on the line, but her hand was shaking so hard she could barely hold on to the receiver.
“And he’s there now?”
“Of course he’s here. Don’t you think you’d be the first to know if we had an escapee on our hands?”
Sometimes Nat wondered about being the first. She might be the head of CCI Horizon House, but she was still a woman in a macho man’s world. Even though she’d risen up the ranks, obstacles had been thrown in her path at every rung.
“You sound funny, Nat.” So much for thinking she at least had her voice under control.
“What’s wrong?” Hutch pressed. “Walsh in some kind of trouble?”
“I don’t know yet.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell him about Maggie. If she did, she knew she would break down. And she couldn’t do that because, for one thing, to have any of her people witness her collapse would only prove she didn’t have what it took to be in command. For another, she was terrified she wouldn’t be able to pull herself together again. Surely, there was a point of no return. And Nat had never felt so close to that breaking point as she did right then. The only way she knew to fight it off was to shift into command overdrive. She started barking out orders. “I want a full battery of drug tests run on Walsh. Immediately. The works. Dope, coke, uppers, downers, booze.”
“He’s gonna ask questions.”
“You’re not going to give him answers. And Hutch, take some backup with you.”
“Sounds serious, Nat.”
“Serious enough that I want those tests run in lockup. And I want tight security on him. Call in a couple of day officers.”
“Word’s gonna get out. You’re going to have a lot of agitated cons in here.”
Hutch wasn’t telling Nat anything she didn’t already know.
“If a little mouthing off is as bad as it gets we can count ourselves lucky.” And then, before she could stop herself, she blurted it out. “Maggie Austin’s been murdered, Hutch.”
She heard his sharp intake of breath at the same instant her downstairs buzzer rang. She looked out the window. Saw the police car at the curb.
The receiver once again slipped from her hand. She was going to be sick.