An excerpt of The Dead Man’s Wife, the third novel in the Detective Mike Coletti series by Solomon Jones (available October 16, 2012).
She’s a cop-turned-defense lawyer. Her husband is a research scientist. She lives in a half-million-dollar home. Yet on this night, Andrea Wilson—a woman who seemingly has everything—awakens to a living nightmare. Her husband Paul is dead, she’s covered in his blood, and the police are banging on her door. Andrea doesn’t remember what happened, but she knows how it looks. With just a split second to make a choice, Andrea decides to run, and in doing so, risks everything in an attempt to clear her name.
Enter Detective Mike Coletti. He and Andrea shared a relationship once. Now all they share is the chase. As Andrea races to prove her innocence and Coletti struggles to track her down, they each uncover clues about the mystery of Paul’s death. Along the way, Andrea uncovers the biggest mystery of all: Is her husband actually still alive?
The memory ebbed and flowed like a river. Sometimes it was crystal clear, other times it was murky, but no matter how Tim Green’s recollection of that night ended up, it always started the same—at Kensington and Allegheny.
After hours near the Philadelphia street corner known as K and A, prostitutes, addicts, and dealers fought tooth and nail for survival. Tricks were turned, deals were made, and sunrise brought dead bodies. After that, the night returned and the game would start again.
Tim knew the game well. He’d played it more often than most, yet somehow, he was still alive. Like the other suburban twenty-somethings who’d come to Philly in search of heroin, Tim had discovered his own private hell, and he’d found it inside himself.
With drooping blue eyes and brown, dusty hair, he looked like an unkempt boy, but Tim was a hardcore drug addict who would die for a vein full of dope. Once when he robbed a hooker for ten dollars, an angry pimp broke Tim’s jaw. Another time, a dealer shot him in the leg for stealing five bags from his stash. A year before, he’d contracted a virus through the point of the wrong shared needle. But despite everything he’d been through for heroin, Tim had managed to survive.
By the time he reached that chaotic evening in June 2008, however, survival wasn’t enough anymore. After two years of watching women turn tricks under the El tracks, and men turn to zombies under the influence, Tim didn’t care if he lived or died. He just wanted to fill his needle.
The night began with Tim doing the same thing he did every evening—sitting on the steps of a boarded-up house and watching the avenue move. This night was different, though. He saw more than the usual preening prostitutes and dead-eyed addicts. He saw opportunity.
As he scratched his face absently and pretended to nod, his eyes were fixed on a man across the street. That man didn’t belong at K and A. Tim knew that, so he waited for him to walk inside a bar. Then Tim got up and crossed the avenue, hoping he would somehow get ten dollars for another bag of dope.
The bar was dark when Tim walked in, so he waited for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he saw scantily clad women, and a bartender with one hand beneath the counter. He saw patrons who rarely left their bar stools. Then he looked at the man he’d followed inside, and Tim knew he’d made a mistake.
The man was six feet two and husky, with a plain black suit, a square jaw, and a hard stare. His hair was close-cropped and squared off above the collar. In a room full of criminals he was watchful, but not afraid, all of which could mean only one thing. The guy was a cop. Tim could see that now, and while he didn’t know Officer Jon Harris’s name at that moment, the name would come to dominate what was left of Tim’s life.
“Drinks on me!” Officer Harris shouted while tossing a stack of bills onto the bar.
Two women plopped down on Harris’s lap. He pawed them and lit a cigar, and as liquor flowed and people laughed, nearly every eye watched Jon Harris. Then Tim noticed a barmaid whose attention was elsewhere, and he knew something wasn’t quite right.
When Tim turned around to see what she was watching, a thin man walked quickly past him. With one hand, he was pulling a mask over his face. With the other, he was pulling out a gun.
With eyes stretched wide, the bartender tried to grab his shotgun from beneath the bar, but the gunman shot him in the head. As blood spattered and chaos erupted, the barmaid screamed. Customers hit the floor. Officer Harris tried to turn while pulling his gun. Then a bullet tore into his midsection.
The cop tumbled from his bar stool and landed on the floor as blood spilled from his gut. He tried to level his gun to shoot, but the gunman never gave him a chance. Standing over Jon Harris like an executioner, he pulled the trigger once again. Then he walked out as people ran and screamed in the chaos and fear that followed.
Whenever Tim thought back to that moment, he remembered three things: the barmaid staring into his eyes, the cop’s money falling onto the floor, and the feeling that he might have hit the jackpot after all.
As everyone panicked and ran for the door, Tim scurried to the dying cop’s side. Quickly, he scooped up the bills and left the bar. Fifteen minutes later, he was nodding in a filthy back alley, with a needle in his arm and a fist full of bloody twenties. The cops that found him kept asking where he’d got the money. Tim didn’t answer and they beat him unconscious. When he woke up, he was in prison.
That was all Tim could recall about that night, so that’s what he told his lawyer when she asked him about it. He liked his lawyer. Her name was Andrea Wilson. She was beautiful and smart, she knew more about K and A than he gave her credit for, and she’d agreed to represent him for free.
But Tim didn’t tell Andrea everything. He didn’t think he needed to. She should’ve seen that his eyes were lifeless. She should have known he didn’t care about his defense. She should’ve sensed that something was wrong.
Even Tim Green, in his drug-addled state, understood hopelessness when he saw it. He knew that Officer Harris’s murder was the start of a journey through hell. His lawyer would soon know it, too.
On Friday, December 4, 2009, the Criminal Justice Center was abuzz with activity. Prospective jurors were herded through metal detectors. Defendants were brought in from prisons. Cops waited to testify in cases they barely remembered, and public defenders spoke poorly for the impoverished.
The whole thing moved like a carefully orchestrated dance, with each step perfectly choreographed and the outcome always the same. But upstairs in Courtroom 3B, Andrea Wilson argued passionately for her client, because Andrea danced to her own drumbeat.
Like a veteran actress whose theater was the courtroom, she carefully studied the set. She saw floors that were covered with cheap carpeting and hard wooden spectator benches. The judge was nestled between the flag of Pennsylvania and America’s stars and stripes. The defendant was a poor man whose struggles she knew, because drugs had killed people she loved.
That’s why she was so concerned about her client. He looked like a man who’d already been convicted.
Three days into his trial, Tim Green sat at the defense table in his orange prison jumpsuit, as if he were waiting to go back to his cell. In truth, Tim was right to be pessimistic. He had almost no chance of acquittal. That didn’t stop Andrea from fighting, though, and from using her every attribute to do so.
With raven black hair and honey-colored eyes, Andrea was a well-preserved forty-three. Some thought of her as half black. Others said she was half Italian, but everyone was certain that Andrea was all woman.
Her lithe physique was accented by taut calves peering out from a fitted skirt, and as she paced the floor in a plunging silk blouse that fluttered when she moved, she was energy itself, beautiful and powerful at the same time.
“So let’s go over this again,” Andrea said, a smirk playing on her lips as she questioned the witness. “Is it your contention that Officer Harris was shot by a masked gunman about twenty feet from where you were standing?”
“That’s right,” said the witness, a Dominican woman who was thirty-five and trying desperately not to look it. “He was as far away from me then as he is right now when he shot him the first time,” she added while glaring at the young man at the defense table. “He was much closer when he shot him again.”
“So you can identify the defendant as the shooter despite the fact that he was wearing a mask?”
The witness sighed impatiently. “The mask only covered the top half of his face. He’d been in the bar before so he was pretty easy to recognize.”
“What were you doing in the bar?” Andrea asked. “Were you drinking?”
“No, I was the barmaid. I was serving drinks and taking orders from the customers.”
“Taking orders,” Andrea repeated with a glance at the witness’s skimpy outfit. “What exactly could they order you to do?”
“Objection!” the prosecutor shouted. “She’s harassing the witness.”
“Your honor, I’m simply trying to establish the bar’s atmosphere and the conditions under which Ms. Reyes worked. That goes to her ability to see what was going on in the bar.”
“Rephrase the question,” the judge said.
“Ms. Reyes, what exactly were you serving at the bar?”
“Drinks and buffalo wings,” the witness said, her eyes flashing angrily. “That’s all. There wasn’t anything else on the menu.”
“Coulda fooled me,” Andrea mumbled.
The judge shot a disapproving glance in Andrea’s direction. “Ms. Wilson, I’m not going to warn you again.”
“I apologize, your honor, but if it pleases the court I do have one more question. Ms. Reyes, you testified that there was nothing else for sale in the bar, but are you aware that the bar’s been cited five times in the past year for prostitution, and several barmaids were involved?”
“Objection!” the prosecutor shouted. “Ms. Reyes has no arrest record, and neither she nor the bar is on trial here!”
“Well maybe they should be!” Andrea retorted.
“And maybe you should know where to draw the line!” the prosecutor yelled.
“I draw it at the truth!”
“Order!” The judge banged his gavel as the people in the gallery murmured loudly. “I will have order in this court, or I swear I’ll lock both of you up for contempt.”
Andrea apologized profusely, knowing that her comments would remain in the jurors’ minds. Memory was funny that way. It retained whatever it wanted, and disregarded whatever it didn’t.
Andrea knew that creating memories could produce doubt. Doubt, after all, was at the core of her job, and she did her job better than most.
When the lunch recess arrived, Andrea pushed her way through the crush of media who were there to cover the trial of yet another accused cop killer. As she uttered “No comment” to the questions they hurled at her, Prosecutor Derrick Bell followed her through the crowd, catching up as the cameras rolled.
“What the hell was that in there?” he asked when he was close enough for her to hear.
“It’s called practicing law,” Andrea said, rushing toward the elevator and pushing the down button.
“Practicing law is one thing,” he said through clenched teeth. “Putting a cop killer back on the streets is another.”
“My client pleaded not guilty. Until a jury says different, he’s not a cop killer.”
As she spoke, the digital cameras recorded every syllable, and cops who were gathered in the hallway grew quiet. They all wanted to see what the assistant D.A. would say to the defense lawyer they all loved to hate.
Andrea saw the cameras and the eyes that were trained on them. Derrick Bell did, too. That’s why he got even louder.
“You’re an ex-cop, Andrea. I don’t see how you can defend this guy. But I’m gonna make sure he pays for what he did!”
Andrea almost responded, but decided against it. Instead she stared him down as they stood eye to eye. His hair was thick and curly, and his brown eyes shone brightly against his olive skin. He reminded Andrea of a detective she’d dated twenty years before. She hated that about him.
“I’m gonna get this,” she said, boarding the elevator when it arrived. “Do us both a favor and wait for the next one.”
He yelled something as the elevator doors closed, but Andrea couldn’t hear him. No matter. She’d hear plenty from him later. She knew she didn’t have long to get to her destination.
Exiting the Criminal Justice Center, she walked down Thirteenth Street to Market, her mind racing and her stomach churning as she anticipated her next appointment.
Meetings like this weren’t the reason she’d left the police department all those years ago to become a criminal defense lawyer. She’d left to make a difference in other people’s lives. Instead, she was making a mess of her own.
Andrea couldn’t stop herself, though. As badly as she wanted to turn around and go back, she was too close now. Her heart fluttered as she thought about all that could go wrong. Her mouth watered as she anticipated what would go right.
Like a woman possessed, she walked through the glass doors of the Loews hotel. She waited for one minute before she made her way to the elevators. As she got off on the fifth floor, a light in the hallway reflected against the diamonds in her wedding ring, creating a brilliant flash of blue.
Andrea smiled self-consciously as the flutter in her heart became a full-blown thump. Perhaps he could hear that thump as she stood outside room 513, because he opened the door before she had a chance to knock.
“Hey, Andrea,” Derrick Bell said, with that same aggressive posture he’d portrayed outside the courtroom.
“Hi,” she said softly, and looked away with a mix of nerves and anticipation.
They’d been careful to give the impression that they hated each other. The argument outside the courtroom was part of that. In truth, the act wasn’t difficult. The tension that made them feel like enemies was the same force that drew them together. This was the third time she’d come to him during the trial.
“Aren’t you coming in?” Derrick asked with a knowing grin.
She looked him in the eye and smirked. “What would Karen think?”
“I’ll make you a deal. Leave my wife out of this, and I’ll leave your husband out.”
Andrea stood there for a moment, knowing that this was wrong. It almost felt like someone was watching her, and that made it even more exciting.
“Come here,” Derrick said, and pulled her inside.
That’s when Andrea gave in. She wanted him in spite of all she had to lose. She craved him because her life was too safe. She needed him because she felt trapped in her marriage, but even as she clung to Derrick and savored the moment, Andrea felt no peace.
She knew she was trying to get back something she’d lost twenty years before, when another man with the same rough manner had fulfilled her need for danger. As Derrick’s hands touched her, Andrea found herself wishing that this was twenty years ago, and that Derrick was Mike Coletti.
It was one in the afternoon, and Coletti had spent most of the day just like he’d spent the past twenty years—alone. Of course, twenty years ago, things were different. Back then, he had his job to fulfill him, and for a time, he had a woman to do the same.
Now he was fifty-eight years old, and on most days his work as a homicide detective still drove him, but after the demise of the killer known as the Gravedigger, Coletti was out of crimes to investigate, and he was taking a step back from the job.
He’d barely lived through the betrayal of fellow cop Mary Smithson, whose love for him turned out to be hate, and when he tried to deal with the pain of her lies, another murder interrupted him. Another woman told lies to him. Another case unfolded. Another killer was caught.
Despite all that had happened over the past few months, Coletti tried to carry on business as usual, but everyone knew he was still hurting, because they’d watched his relationship with Mary crash and burn.
Commissioner Kevin Lynch ordered him to take a couple days off to clear his head, but on this, the first day of his involuntary vacation, Coletti only wanted to sleep, and he couldn’t even do that, because at four o’clock the phone on his nightstand rang.
Coletti got out of bed, picked up a pair of striped boxers from the floor, and slipped them on. Then he yawned and walked to the kitchen, where he took a beer from his refrigerator. He took his time getting back to the bedroom. On the tenth ring, he answered the phone.
“What is it, Mann?” he asked, sounding annoyed.
“How did you know it was me?”
“Nobody else calls me at home,” he said while snatching a lighter and a rumpled pack of Marlboros from the nightstand. Shaking a cigarette loose, he lit it and inhaled deeply.
“Those smokes are gonna kill you,” Charlie Mann said.
Coletti exhaled into the receiver. “I smoke one a day. That oughta hold off the cancer for at least twenty years. But that’s not why you called, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” Mann said. “I called to invite you to dinner with Sandy and me.”
“Three’s a crowd. Besides, you don’t eat Italian and I don’t eat soul food.”
“That slop you make on hot plates ain’t food. It’s an insult to Italians everywhere.”
“Don’t knock it till you try it,” Coletti said, puffing his cigarette once again.
Mann chuckled, but when the laughter faded there was a moment of awkward silence. “I never got a chance to thank you for saving my life when we got the Gravedigger. If it weren’t for you, I probably would’ve died in that cemetery.”
“You saved my life once, too. Now we’re even.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Mann paused, struggling to find a way to say what he was thinking.
“What is it?”
“Look,” Mann said with a sigh. “I know you’re still going through a rough time, and I don’t want to get in your business.”
“Then don’t,” Coletti snapped.
“Okay. How ’bout I just tell you mine?”
Coletti didn’t respond. He didn’t hang up, either, so Mann said his piece.
“Sandy and I lived through a lot in that graveyard, but I learned some things about her and I know what I want now. Hopefully, she wants the same thing. I guess I’ll know soon enough.”
There was a pause as Coletti digested what Mann was trying to tell him.
“I hope it works out for you, Charlie.”
“Yeah, me too,” Mann said. “So you wanna go to dinner with us or what? Have a couple drinks, eat a good steak, have a few laughs. It’ll be fun. And since I know how cheap you are, it’s on me.”
Coletti took another drag of his cigarette. “No, thanks. Tonight should be about the two of you.”
“You sure? Because—”
“I’m positive,” Coletti said. “I’ll talk to you later.”
Before Mann could respond, Coletti slid the phone into the cradle, puffed his cigarette once more, and crushed out the flame in a filthy glass ashtray. He gulped down the rest of his beer. Then he went back to the refrigerator for more.
Sitting down in his ratty armchair, Coletti drank his beer, turned on the TV, and began channel surfing. He stopped at NBC 10, where the new redhead on the four o’clock newscast was just pretty enough to hold his interest.
Standing outside the Criminal Justice Center, wearing a practiced grave expression, she spoke with one eye on the camera and another on the building.
“This is Crystal Murray reporting live from the Criminal Justice Center, where there were major courtroom fireworks today in the barroom murder trial of Timothy Green.”
As she spoke, a woman came out of the building, and Mike Coletti froze. A flood of memories came rushing back to him; memories that were at once comforting and sad.
The reporter and the cameraman caught up with her, and when they did, the questions began. “Ms. Wilson, do you believe your client was best served by what happened in the courtroom today?” the reporter asked.
“I believe my client is best served by a robust defense,” Andrea said, moving quickly so the reporter had to run to keep up.
“Even if he was found with Officer Harris’s money in his hands and the evidence says he’s guilty?”
Andrea stopped and looked at the reporter. “Eyewitnesses say a masked gunman shot Officer Harris in a bar. There’s no physical evidence establishing my client as that gunman. That’s why juries determine guilt, not the media.”
Andrea walked away, leaving the reporter shouting questions at her back. As Coletti watched, he remembered a time long ago when Andrea was a young vice cop and he was a rising star in Homicide. Back then, he was willing to do anything to have her, but now Andrea belonged to someone else, and there was nothing he could do to change that.
Dr. Paul Wilson had been busy all day. As the top researcher at Beech Pharmaceuticals, he worked long hours heading a research and development team.
In an industry where the cost of developing a new drug was close to a billion dollars, and where years of lab work, research, studies, and red tape always preceded the first human trials, Dr. Wilson was a star.
But fame didn’t matter to Dr. Wilson. What mattered was the work. In the four years since the pharmaceutical industry had lured him away from academia, where he’d earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience, his research on memory and cognitive function had produced promising, albeit unofficial, results.
For six months, Paul had been conducting independent human trials with subjects across a wide spectrum. But unsanctioned trials were dangerous, and Paul knew it. Still, he took the risk, because his work, like everything else in his life, was all or nothing.
His willingness to gamble earned Paul Wilson, the bookish Iowa farm boy, nearly a quarter million dollars a year, far more than his academic counterparts. But his gambles weren’t always embraced by those closest to him. His life was littered with examples of that.
Coming to the University of Pennsylvania from a place where scholarly pursuits were ridiculed, leaving academia for the corporate world despite his colleagues’ condemnation, marrying a woman of mixed heritage while ignoring his family’s disapproval. Each of these gambles cut off a group of people he cared about, leaving him with no one other than his wife. That was the crux of his problem. Andrea was all he had, and the more he told her that, the more she seemed to despise him.
Paul Wilson’s research was at the center of one of the world’s richest industries. Yet Paul was unhappy, because he knew he was about to lose the one thing that mattered more than all of it. He felt that he was losing his wife.
Paul could afford many things, but he couldn’t afford to be alone, so he augmented his income to give Andrea what she wanted. Unfortunately, what she wanted was not him.
Tonight he’d tell her that things had to change. At least that’s what he told himself as he walked in the front door of their townhouse on a tiny street off Thirteenth and Spruce. Trying not to think of what she might say in response, he went to the kitchen and took a plate of brie from the refrigerator, also a bottle of wine. Then he sat in the living room with a specially made DVD of his wife’s favorite old film—Gaslight. He turned the disc over in his hand, watching as the light reflected on its shiny metallic surface, and marveling at the digital images it contained. Tonight they would watch it together.
Paul sat down in the living room, poured himself a glass of wine, and turned on the news as he waited for his wife to come home. Channel 10 was replaying the interview with Andrea outside the Criminal Justice Center. For a moment, Paul’s heart swelled with pride, but as he thought of the state of their marriage, it sunk with sadness. Then the phone rang.
Annoyed, Paul picked it up. “Yes?”
“Dr. Wilson this is Mr. Channing,” said a voice on the other end of the line.
A chill went through Paul’s body. He’d been expecting the call, but not this soon.
“I’ve got good news,” Channing said. “The gentlemen I represent would like to meet with you today to discuss next steps.”
“I’m, uh, I’m glad you called, Mr. Channing,” Paul stammered. “I’ve been rethinking our arrangement. I’m not sure I’m interested in continuing.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Channing began to laugh, quietly at first, and then with gusto. It went on that way for a full ten seconds. Then, as suddenly as Channing began, he stopped. “Dr. Wilson, I’m beginning to appreciate your sense of humor as much as your research. For a minute there I thought you were serious about backing out of our agreement.”
“Well, actually, I was serious,” Paul said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t sell my integrity. I still have most of the money and I can get it back to you. Just let me know where and when.”
Again, the silence. This time, though, it was menacing, as if there were an unspoken threat beneath the quiet. To erase any doubt, Channing spoke it aloud. “Dr. Wilson, we intend to start selling your drug immediately, because we know there’s an unlimited demand for any treatment that can cure Alzheimer’s and double memory capacity. Beech can still do the whole patent thing and bring it to market five years from now, but we’re not waiting to make thirteen billion dollars a year. We’re going to make it now. Of course, if you back out of our arrangement, we’d risk losing those billions.” Channing paused ominously. “That would be unfortunate for everyone involved, especially you.”
“You don’t understand, Mr. Channing.”
“No, you don’t understand. No one backs out of agreements with us unless they back out in a coffin. We expect you to deliver what we paid for.”
“But I can’t,” Paul said. “I’ve signed confidentiality agreements. Besides, my wife and I—”
“Ah yes, your wife,” Channing said. “The lovely Andrea. I believe she stopped by the Loews hotel today for a long lunch.”
“How do you know that?” Paul asked.
“We paid you a million in cash, Dr. Wilson. Surely you didn’t believe we’d do that without some, um, assurances.”
“What are you talking about?” Paul’s tone was at once nervous and angry.
“I’m talking about your wife. She seems to be the only person you care about. Too bad she doesn’t feel the same way about you.”
Paul wanted to respond, to scream out that Channing was wrong, to do anything but sit there holding the phone. Before he could think of a response, however, Channing filled the void.
“We know you’ve been spending a lot of cash on your wife; amounts that you can’t afford. A Mercedes 500SL, a hundred-thousand-dollar Tiffany bracelet, a collection of Christian Louboutin shoes—and that’s just in the past six months. That kind of money adds up, Dr. Wilson.”
“Then you understand that my wife is worth more to me than money,” Paul said.
“Frankly, Dr. Wilson, you’ve got it backwards. The money’s worth more than your wife.”
“Now wait a minute!” Paul said angrily. “I’m not going to sit here and—”
“Andrea wasn’t alone at the Loews this afternoon. She was in room 513 with a prosecutor named Derrick Bell. In fact, she’s spent her last three lunch hours in hotel rooms with him. If you need proof, we have surveillance tapes, but I don’t know if you want to see them. They might be painful to watch.”
Channing could tell from Paul’s silence that this was the first time he’d heard it out loud. He could also tell that somewhere down deep, Paul already knew the truth.
“But just in case you still want her after everything she’s done, I need you to know something. We can put our hands on her anytime we’d like.”
“If you do anything to my wife . . .” Paul croaked, his words fading into nothing.
“Don’t worry, Dr. Wilson. Your wife is safe and sound. Right now she’s on her way to CFCF to see her client. But if you don’t give us the formulas and findings from your trials on your Alzheimer’s drug, we’ll kill her. Then we’ll kill you. So take my advice, Dr. Wilson. Keep the million dollars. There’s another ten million on the other end of the deal. You have ten hours to deliver.”
Channing disconnected the call as Paul Wilson sat there with the phone in his hand. As he wracked his brain to come up with a way out, Paul knew that one way or another, it would all be over by morning.
Copyright © 2012 by Solomon Jones
Solomon Jones is an Essence bestselling author. He is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and a member of the authors group, the Liars Club. Jones teaches creative writing at Temple University. He lives in Philadelphia with his family, and is currently at work on his next novel.