ANOTHER DEAD HOOKER.

Essex County investigator Frank Tremont hoisted up his pants by the belt and looked down at the girl and sighed. Same ol', same ol'. Newark, South Ward, not far from Beth Israel Hospital yet a lifetime away. Frank could smell the decay in the air, but it wasn't from just the body. It was always this way. No one ever cleaned up out here. No one tried. They all just bathed lazily in the decay.

And so another dead hooker.

They already had her pimp in custody for it. The hooker had "dissed" him or whatever and he had to show what a big man he was so he slit her throat. Still had the knife on him when they picked him up. Smart guy, real genius. It took Frank about six seconds to get a confession out of him. All he had to say was, "We heard you don't have the balls to hurt a woman." That was enough for Genius Pimp to "man up."

He stared down at the dead girl, maybe fifteen years old, maybe thirty, hard to tell out here, splayed among the street debris, crushed soda cans, wrappers from McDonald's, empty forties of beer. Frank flashed back to his last dead hooker investigation. That case had exploded in his face. His bad, totally. He'd read it wrong and messed up. It might have cost more lives, but there was no point in going over that anymore. He had blown the case and lost his job over it. Forced out by the county prosecutor and the chief investigator. He'd been set to retire.

And then he'd drawn the Haley McWaid missing person case.

He'd gone to his bosses and asked to stay on, just until the case was solved. His bosses understood. But that was three months ago. Frank had worked hard looking for the high school girl. He had gotten others involved, the feds, cops who understood the Internet and tracking and profiling, anyone and everyone who could possibly help. He had no interest in glory, just finding the girl.

But the case was bone-dry.

He looked down at the dead hooker. That was what you got a lot of on this job. You see junkies and whores pissing their lives away, getting hammered and stoned and freeloading and then they get beaten up or knocked up with Lord knows how many kids with Lord knows how many different fathers and it was such a damn waste. Most skate through okay, shuffling listlessly through pathetic lives, making barely a dent in the social fabric, and if they do get noticed, it's for a bad reason. But most survive. They're a drain, but God lets them survive, sometimes to old age.

And then, because God is a freaking riot, He takes Frank's daughter instead.

A crowd had gathered behind the yellow tape, but not a very big one. A quick glance and then they moved on.

"You done, Frank?"

It was the medical examiner. Frank nodded. "All yours."

His little girl, Kasey. Seventeen years old. So sweet and bright and loving. There's the old saw about a smile being able to light up a whole room. Kasey had one of those smiles. Bam, a beam that could slice through any darkness. She never gave anyone an ounce of trouble or hurt anyone. Not once in her whole life. Kasey never did drugs or whored or got knocked up. Meanwhile these junkies and whores roamed like wild animals-and Kasey died.

Unfair doesn't begin to get it.

Kasey was sixteen when they made the diagnosis of Ewing's sarcoma. Bone cancer. The tumors started in her pelvis and began to gnaw away. His little girl died in pain. Frank watched it. He sat there, at her bedside, dry-eyed, holding on tightly to both her frail hand and his sanity. He saw the scars from invasive surgeries and the sunken eyes of the slowly dying. He felt her body warmth spike when she had a fever. He remembered that Kasey had a lot of bad dreams as a young child, that she'd often crawl into their bed quaking, slipping between him and Maria, that she talked in her sleep, tossed and turned, but once she was diagnosed, all that stopped. Maybe her night terror fled in the face of her day terror. Either way, Kasey's sleep became quiet, a night calm, almost as though she was rehearsing for death.

He had prayed, but that was worthless. That was just how he felt. God knows what He's going to do. He's got a plan, right? If you truly want to believe that He is all-knowing and all-powerful, do you really think you and your pitiful begging are going to sway His grand plan? Tremont knew it didn't work that way. He met another family praying for their son in the hospital. Same disease. He still died. Then their other son went to Iraq and died there. How anyone could hear that and believe prayer worked was beyond him.

Meanwhile the streets out here are littered with the useless. They live-Kasey dies. So, yeah, girls with families, girls like Haley McWaid and Kasey Tremont, girls who had people who loved them and had lives in front of them, real lives, lives that would amount to more than waste, they mattered more. That was the truth. No one wanted to say it. The spineless phonies would tell you that the dead hooker being zipped up in that Hefty bag deserved the exact same consideration as a Haley McWaid or a Kasey Tremont. Except we all know that's crap. We peddle it. But we all know the truth. We tell the lie. But we know.

So let's stop pretending. The dead hooker would maybe get two paragraphs on page twelve of The Star-Ledger, strictly as a story for the readers to tsk-tsk over. Haley McWaid got hours on national TV. So we all know, don't we? Why can't we just say it?

The Haley McWaids of the world mattered more.

Nothing wrong with that. It's the truth, right? Didn't mean the dead hooker didn't matter. But Haley mattered more. And it wasn't a question of race or any of those other tags people tried to stick on him. Label a guy a bigot-that's the easy way out. But it's crap. White, black, Asian, Latino, whatever-lesser is lesser. Everyone gets it, even if they're afraid to say it.

Frank's mind traveled, as it often did these days, to Haley McWaid's mother, Marcia, and the shattered father, Ted. This hooker being whisked away was gone now. Maybe someone will care, but nine times out of ten, that's not the case. Her parents, if she knew who they were, had given up on her long ago. Marcia and Ted were still waiting and scared and hoping. And yeah, that mattered. Maybe that was the difference between the Dead Hookers of the world and the Haley McWaids. Not skin color or finances or picket fences, but people who cared about you, family who'd be left devastated, fathers and mothers who would never ever be whole again.

So Frank would not quit until he found out what happened to Haley McWaid.

He thought about Kasey again, tried to conjure up the happy little girl, the one who liked aquariums more than zoos and blue more than pink. But those images had faded, were harder now to evoke, outrageous as that was, and instead, Frank remembered the way Kasey grew smaller in that hospital bed, the way she ran her hand through her hair and it came out in clumps, the way she looked down at the hair in her hand and cried while her father sat by her side, helpless, powerless.

The ME finished with the dead hooker. Two men lifted the corpse and plopped it on a gurney, as though it were a bag of peat moss.

"Easy," Frank said.

One of the guys turned to him. "Ain't going to hurt her."

"Just go easy."

As they wheeled the body away, Frank Tremont felt his mobile phone vibrate.

He blinked back the moistness and hit the answer button. "Tremont here."

"Frank?"

It was Mickey Walker, sheriff of nearby Sussex County. Big black guy, used to work in Newark with Frank. Solid dude, good investigator. One of Frank's favorites. Walker's office had landed the baby-raper murder case-apparently a parent had taken care of the pedophilia problem with his own gun. Seemed to Frank a damned fine example of good riddance, though he knew Walker would work it for all it had.

"Yeah, I'm here, Mickey."

"You know Freddy's Deluxe Luxury Suites?"

"The hot sheets on Williams Street?"

"That's the one. I need you to get over here right away."

Tremont felt a tick in his blood. He switched hands. "Why, what's up?"

"I found something in Mercer's room," Walker said in a voice as gray as a tombstone. "I think it belongs to Haley McWaid."



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