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Truth or Die(3)

By:James Patterson

"Have a seat," he said, pointing to a folding metal chair in front of his desk. "You want some coffee?"

"No, I'm okay. Thanks."

He grabbed a mug with a faded New York Giants logo on it that was sitting on top of some overstuffed folders. "I'll be right back."

I watched him as he walked off. Lamont was a tall man, filled out by age, but still with a build that suggested a degree of athleticism somewhere in his past. Given the Giants mug, I was thinking there was probably an old high school yearbook out there with the word linebacker next to his name.

Claire once showed me her high school yearbook. Her senior quote was from Andrew Marvell: "Had we but world enough and time  … "

Christ, this is really happening, isn't it? She's really gone. Just like that. I feel numb. No, that's not right. I feel everything. And it's hurting like hell.

Claire's sister, Ellen, had given me Detective Lamont's name and number. He'd made the call to her up in Boston, breaking the news.

I wasn't next of kin, husband or fiancé, or even the last person to see Claire alive, but when I'd told Lamont my name over the phone I'd been pretty sure he'd agree to see me right away.

"You were that ADA, weren't you?" he asked.

"Yeah, that was me," I answered.

Me, as in that former Manhattan assistant district attorney. Back when I played for the home team. Before I changed jerseys.

Before I got disbarred.

I knew he knew the story. Most every cop in the city did, at least the veterans. It was the kind of story they wouldn't forget.

Lamont came back now and sat behind his desk with a full mug of coffee. He took a sip as he pulled Claire's file in front of him, the steam momentarily fogging the bottom half of his drugstore-variety glasses.

Then he shook his head slowly and simply stared at me for a moment, unblinking.

"Fuckin' random," he said finally.

I nodded as he flipped open the file to his notes in anticipation of my questions. I had a lot of them.

Christ. The pain is only going to get worse, isn't it?


"WHERE EXACTLY did it happen?" I asked.

"West End Avenue at Seventy-Third. The taxi was stopped at a red light," said Lamont. "The assailant smashed the driver's side window, pistol-whipped the driver until he was knocked out cold, and grabbed his money bag. He then robbed Ms. Parker at gunpoint."

"Claire," I said.

"Excuse me?"

"Please call her Claire."

I knew it was a weird thing for me to say, but weirder still was hearing Lamont refer to Claire as Ms. Parker, not that I blamed him. Victims are always Mr., Mrs., or Ms. for a detective. He was supposed to call her that. I just wasn't ready to hear it.

"I apologize," I said. "It's just that-"

"Don't worry about it," he said with a raised palm. He understood. He got it.

"So what happened next?" I asked. "What went wrong?"

"We're not sure, exactly. Best we can tell, she fully cooperated, didn't put up a fight."

That made sense. Claire might have been your prototypical "tough" New Yorker, but she was also no fool. She didn't own anything she'd risk her life to keep. Does anyone?

No, she definitely knew the drill. Never be a statistic. If your taxi gets jacked, you do exactly as told.</ol>


"And you said the driver was knocked out&cedil; right? He didn't hear anything?" I asked.

"Not even the gunshots," said Lamont. "In fact, he didn't actually regain consciousness until after the first two officers arrived at the scene."

"Who called it in?"

"An older couple walking nearby."

"What did they see?"

"The shooter running back to his car, which was behind the taxi. They were thirty or forty yards away; they didn't get a good look."

"Any other witnesses?"

"You'd think, but no. Then again, residential block  …  after midnight," he said. "We'll obviously follow up in the area tomorrow. Talk to the driver, too. He was taken to St. Luke's before we arrived."

I leaned back in my chair, a metal hinge somewhere below the seat creaking its age. I must have had a dozen more questions for Lamont, each one trying to get me that much closer to being in the taxi with Claire, to knowing what had really happened.

To knowing whether or not it truly was  …  fuckin' random.

But I wasn't fooling anyone. Not Lamont, and especially not myself. All I was doing was procrastinating, trying hopelessly to avoid asking the one question I was truly dreading.

I couldn't avoid it any longer.


"FOR THE record, you were never in here," said Lamont, pausing at a closed door toward the back corner of the precinct house.

I stared at him blankly as if I were some chronic sufferer of short-term memory loss. "In where?" I asked.

He smirked. Then he opened the door.

The windowless room I followed him into was only slightly bigger than claustrophobic. After closing the door behind us, Lamont introduced me to his partner, Detective Mike McGeary, who was at the helm of what looked like one of those video arcade games where you sit in a captain's chair shooting at alien spaceships on a large screen. He was even holding what looked like a joystick.

McGeary, square-jawed and bald, gave Lamont a sideways glance that all but screamed, What the hell is he doing in here?

"Mr. Mann was a close acquaintance of the victim," said Lamont. He added a slight emphasis on my last name, as if to jog his partner's memory.

McGeary studied me in the dim light of the room until he put my face and name together. Perhaps he was remembering the cover of the New York Post a couple of years back. An Honest Mann, read the headline.

"Yeah, fine," McGeary said finally.

It wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was enough to consider the issue of my being there resolved. I could stay. I could see the recording.

I could watch, frame by frame, the murder of the woman I loved.

Lamont hadn't had to tell me there was a surveillance camera in the taxi. I'd known right away, given how he'd described the shooting over the phone, some of the details he had. There were little things no eyewitnesses could ever provide. Had there been any eyewitnesses, that is.

Lamont removed his glasses, wearily pinching the bridge of his nose. No one ever truly gets used to the graveyard shift. "Any matches so far?" he asked his partner.

McGeary shook his head.

I glanced at the large monitor, which had shifted into screen saver mode, an NYPD logo floating about. Lamont, I could tell, was waiting for me to ask him about the space-age console, the reason I wasn't supposed to be in the room. The machine obviously did a little more than just digital playback.

But I didn't ask. I already knew.

I'm sure the thing had an official name, something ultra-high-tech sounding, but back when I was in the DA's office I'd only ever heard it referred to by its nickname, CrackerJack. What it did was combine every known recognition software program into one giant cross-referencing "decoder" that was linked to practically every criminal database in the country, as well as those from twenty-three other countries, or basically all of our official allies in the "war on terror."

In short, given any image at any angle of any suspected terrorist, CrackerJack could source a litany of identifying characteristics, be it an exposed mole or tattoo; the exact measurements between the suspect's eyes, ears, nose, and mouth; or even a piece of jewelry. Clothing, too. Apparently, for all the precautions terrorists take in their planning, it rarely occurs to them that wearing the same polyester shirt in London, Cairo, and Islamabad might be a bad idea.

Of course, it didn't take long for law enforcement in major cities-where CrackerJacks were heavily deployed by the Department of Homeland Security-to realize that these machines didn't have to identify just terrorists. Anyone with a criminal record was fair game.</ol>


So here was McGeary going through the recording sent over by the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission to see if any image of the shooter triggered a match. And here was me, having asked if I could watch it, too.

"Mike, cue it up from the beginning, will you?" said Lamont.

McGeary punched a button and then another until the screen lit up with the first frame, the taxi having pulled over to pick Claire up. The image was grainy, black-and-white, like on an old tube television with a set of rabbit ears. But what little I could see was still way too much.

It was exactly as Lamont had described it. The shooter smashes the driver's side window, beating the driver senseless with the butt of his gun. He's wearing a dark turtleneck and a ski mask with holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. His gloves are tight, like those Isotoners that O. J. Simpson pretended didn't fit.

So far, Claire is barely visible. Not once can I see her face. Then I do.

It's right after the shooter snatches the driver's money bag. He swings his gun, aiming it at Claire in the backseat. She jolts. There's no Plexiglas divider. There's nothing but air.

Presumably, he says something to her, but the back of his head is toward the camera. Claire offers up her purse. He takes it and she says something. I was never any good at reading lips.

He should be leaving. Running away. Instead, he swings out and around, opening the rear door. He's out of frame for no more than three seconds. Then all I see is his outstretched arm. And the fear in her eyes.