The day starts the same way it usually does. Just another monotonously gorgeous October day in Miami, the sky typically blue and cloudless, the temperature expected to reach eighty degrees by noon. There is nothing to suggest that today will vary significantly from yesterday or the day before that, nothing to suggest that today, or more specifically tonight, will change my life forever.
I wake up at seven. Shower and dress—a black pleated skirt and white cotton blouse, slightly more formal than my usual fare. Brush my hair, which is light brown and hangs in loose waves halfway down my back. Apply a hint of blush to my cheeks and a touch of mascara to my lashes. Make some coffee, scarf down a muffin, and call downstairs at eight thirty for one of the valets to bring up my car from the underground garage.
I could go get the vintage silver Porsche myself, but the valets get a kick out of driving it, even for the thirty seconds it takes to accelerate up the circular ramp from my parking spot on lower level three to the front entrance. This morning it’s Finn, almost handsome in his uniform of khaki pants and short-sleeved, forest-green shirt, behind the wheel. “Busy day, Miss Carpenter?” he asks as we exchange positions.
“Just another day in paradise.”
“Enjoy,” he says, closing my door and waving me away.
I head for Biscayne Boulevard and the law offices of Holden, Cunningham, and Kravitz, where I’ve been employed as an investigator for almost two years. The firm, home to approximately three hundred employees, a hundred and twenty-five of whom are lawyers, occupies the top three floors of an imposing marble tower in the business heart of the city. Normally I’d enjoy another cup of coffee while exchanging pleasantries with whomever happens to be milling around the staff room, but today I’m due in court, so I park my car in the underground lot, lock my licensed Glock in the glove compartment, and hail a cab for the short ride over to 73 West Flagler Street and the Miami-Dade County Courthouse. Street parking is minimal to nonexistent in this area, and I can’t afford to waste precious time looking for a spot. I’ve been called as a rebuttal witness in a case involving corporate espionage, and I’m anxious to take the stand. Unlike many in my profession who prefer to remain invisible, I actually enjoy testifying.
Maybe that’s because, as an investigator, I spend a great deal of my time in relative isolation. My job involves gathering information that will prove useful in courtroom defense, investigating cheating spouses and suspicious employees, engaging in surveillance, taking photographs, videotaping clandestine encounters, searching out and questioning prospective witnesses, locating missing heirs, and rounding up facts, some of which turn out to be pertinent and admissible in court, others merely prurient but useful anyway. When I have gathered up all the necessary info, I sit down and write up a report. Occasionally, like today, I’m called to testify. A cursory knowledge of the law is essential, making the several years I spent at the University of Miami majoring in criminology not a total waste of time, despite my leaving before completing my degree. According to the online site where I secured my investigator’s license, it is part of my job description to be clever, well-informed, dogged, methodical, resourceful, and discreet. I try to be all of those things.
There’s a long lineup of people already waiting to pass through the metal detectors when I arrive at the courthouse, followed by an excruciatingly slow ride in a crowded elevator to the twenty-first floor. It seems almost laughable now to think that back when construction of this twenty-eight-story building was completed in 1928, it was not only the tallest building in Florida but the tallest building south of Ohio. Amazingly, its white limestone exterior still manages to stand out amid the largely indistinguishable glass structures that surround and dwarf it. Inside the building, it’s a different and less impressive story, the lobby still awaiting funds to complete its stalled refurbishing, the majority of courtrooms feeling as stale as they occasionally smell.
“State your name and occupation,” the county clerk directs as I take the stand and agree to tell the whole truth and nothing but.
“Bailey Carpenter. I’m an investigator with Holden, Cunningham, and Kravitz.”
“How are you, Bailey?” Sean Holden asks as I take my seat. Sean is not only my boss but one of the firm’s founding fathers and major stars, even though he’s only forty-two. I watch him do up the buttons of his blue pinstriped jacket, thinking what an impressive man he is. Not good-looking in the traditional sense, his features somewhat coarse, his hazel eyes small and a little too direct, his dark hair a bit too curly, his lips a touch too full. Just a little too much of everything, which is usually just more than enough to intimidate the hell out of the other side.
The case before the court is relatively simple: Our client, the owner of a local chain of successful bakeries, is being sued for wrongful dismissal by a former employee. He is countersuing, arguing that the woman was fired for divulging trade secrets to his chief competitor. The woman has already testified that her meetings with the competitor in question were totally innocent, that she and her husband have known him since childhood, and that their meetings, all of which are detailed in my report and already entered into evidence, were for the sole purpose of planning a surprise party for her husband’s fortieth birthday. She went on to volunteer that she is an honest woman who would never knowingly betray her employer’s trust. That was her mistake. Witnesses should never volunteer anything.
Sean asks me a number of seemingly innocuous, job-related questions before zeroing in on the reason I’m here. “You’re aware that Janice Elder has already testified under oath that she is, and I quote, ‘an honest woman incapable of such betrayal.’ ”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
“And you’re here to refute that statement?”
“I have evidence that refutes both her assertion of honesty and that she is incapable of betrayal.”
The lawyer for the other side is immediately on his feet. “Objection, Your Honor.”
“Mrs. Elder opened the door to this line of questioning herself,” Sean states, and the judge quickly rules in his favor.
“You said that you have evidence that refutes both her assertion of honesty and that she is incapable of betrayal?” Sean asks, repeating what I have said, word for word.
“Yes, I do.”
“What is that evidence?”
I refer to my notes, although the truth is I don’t need them. Sean and I have been going over my testimony for days, and I know exactly what I’m going to say. “On the night of March 12, 2013,” I begin, “I followed Mrs. Elder to the Doubleday Hilton Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. . . .” Out of the corner of my eye, I see Janice Elder hastily conferring with her lawyer. I see the panic in her eyes.
“Objection,” her lawyer says again.
Again, he is overruled.
“Go on, Ms. Carpenter.”
“I watched her approach the reception desk and secure a room card. Room 214, registered to a Mr. Carl Segretti.”
“What the hell?” a man exclaims from the bench directly behind Mrs. Elder. He is Todd Elder, Janice’s husband, and he is already on his feet, a combination of shock and outrage causing his tanned skin to glow bright red, as if he has been set ablaze. “You’ve been sneaking around with Carl?”
“Objection, Your Honor. This has absolutely nothing to do with the case at hand.”
“On the contrary, Your Honor. . . .”
“You lying little bitch!”
“Order in the court.”
“You’ve been fucking my goddamn cousin?”
“Bailiff, remove that man.” The judge bangs on his gavel. “Court is recessed for thirty minutes.”
“Good work,” Sean remarks out of the corner of his mouth as I walk past him out of the courtroom, the hostility in Mrs. Elder’s eyes burning into my back like acid.
In the hallway I check my phone while waiting to see if I will be recalled to the stand. There is a message from Alissa Dunphy, a third-year associate at the firm, asking me to look into the possible reappearance of one Roland Peterson, a deadbeat dad who fled Miami some months ago rather than pay his ex-wife the several hundred thousand dollars he owes her in back alimony and child support.
“Well, that was a rather unpleasant surprise,” a voice behind me says as I’m dropping the phone back into my oversized canvas bag. The voice belongs to the lawyer representing Janice Elder. His name is Owen Weaver and I estimate his age as early thirties, which makes him just a few years older than me. I note that he has a mouthful of straight white teeth that don’t quite go with his engagingly crooked smile.
“Just doing my job,” I tell him, only half-apologetically.
“Do you have to do it so well?” The smile spreading from his lips to his soft brown eyes tells me we’re not really talking about the case at all. “Do me a favor,” he says.
“If I can.”
“Have dinner with me,” he continues, confirming my suspicions.
“Dinner? With me? The restaurant of your choice? Saturday night?”
“You’re asking me out?”
“Well, under the circumstances . . .”
“You mean the fact that you just blew my case out of the water?”
“There is that.”
“We still have to eat.”
“There’s that, too.” The courtroom doors burst open and Sean Holden strides purposefully toward me. “If you’ll excuse me a minute . . . my boss . . .”
“Of course.” Owen Weaver reaches into the inside pocket of his navy jacket and hands me his card. “Call me.” He smiles, first at me, then at Sean. “Give me ten minutes with my client,” he tells him before moving away.
Sean nods. “What was that all about?”
I slip Owen’s card into my bag and shrug, as if to indicate our conversation was of no importance. Sean looks back toward the courtroom, my eyes following his. Mrs. Elder’s husband is standing alone and stone-faced beside the door, his fists clenched at his sides, his body muscular and coiled, ready to spring into action. He catches my glance and mouths the word bitch, transferring his fury at his wife to me. Not the first time misplaced anger has been pointed in my direction.
By the time court resumes half an hour later, Mrs. Elder has agreed to drop her suit if our client will do the same. Our client grumbles but ultimately gives in, and nobody leaves happy, which I’ve heard is the sign of a good compromise. At least Sean and I are pleased. “I have to run,” he tells me as we’re leaving the courthouse. “I’ll catch you later. And Bailey,” he adds, hailing down a passing cab and climbing inside. “Congratulations. You did real good.”
I watch the taxi disappear into traffic before hailing a cab of my own and returning to Biscayne Boulevard. Despite our victory in court, I’m feeling a bit let down. I guess I’d been hoping for something more than an ungrammatical pat on the back. A celebratory lunch would have been nice, I think as I locate my car in the underground garage and climb inside, unlocking the glove compartment and returning my gun to my purse, where it lands on top of Owen Weaver’s business card. I’m toying with taking him up on his offer. Since breaking up with my boyfriend, I’ve spent far too many Saturday nights alone.
I’m still debating whether to accept his invitation some twenty minutes later as I turn the corner onto Northeast 129 Street in North Miami. Parking my car on the quiet, residential street, I head toward the lemon-yellow building at the end of a row of similarly old-fashioned, pastel-colored, low-rise condos. This is where Sara McAllister lives. Sara was Roland Peterson’s girlfriend at the time he fled the city rather than support his children. My hunch is that Sara McAllister just might be the reason he came back, something I intend to find out.
Near the end of the street is an elongated circle of shrubbery, a spot both self-contained and secluded, despite its proximity to the road. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect surveillance spot. Taking a quick look around to make sure no one is watching, I retrieve my binoculars from my bag and slip into the middle of the bushes, dislodging several coral blossoms as I crouch among the flowers and raise the binoculars to my eyes. I aim them at the third-floor corner unit of the four-story building and adjust the lenses until they merge into a single image.
The drapes in Sara McAllister’s living room are open, but with the lights off, it’s difficult to make out much of the interior except for a white-shaded lamp positioned next to the window. The apartment appears to be empty, which isn’t surprising. Sara is a saleswoman at Nordstrom and usually works till six. I decide there’s little to be accomplished by hanging around now. It makes more sense to come back this evening.
I have two meetings scheduled for this afternoon as well as a backlog of paperwork to finish off. I also want to call my brother, Heath. It’s been a week since we’ve spoken, and I can’t stop worrying about him. I take one last, seemingly casual look around the old street, frozen in the sunlight as if it were frozen in time, as still as a photograph.
I’m pushing myself to my feet when I see something flash in a window across the way, a hint of someone moving just out of frame. Has someone been watching me?
I lift the binoculars back to my eyes but see no one. Professional paranoia, I decide, as I extricate myself from the bushes, brushing a fallen hibiscus blossom from the shoulder of my white blouse and swiping at the dirt clinging to my knees. I decide to change into more appropriate attire before coming back tonight, when I can use the darkness as a protective shield. I’m foolish enough to think it will keep me safe from prying eyes like mine.