COLD HEART Chapter One

Cold Heart cover

Saturday night

 Fredricks and I perched on stools at Clemmie’s bar and nursed fizzy water. We were going to buy drugs, if we ever got a table.

Fredricks is a pudgy, bald cop, fifteen years my senior. My mentor, my instructor. I’m supposed to take direction from him. Usually I buy product and he backs me up. This night was different since the informant had sent us to a restaurant and Fredricks thought a couple would be less conspicuous. We didn’t look like the other couples at Clemmie’s bar, the ones sipping margaritas and lemon drops, furiously flirting. But no one seemed to notice us.

Fredricks loves eating in restaurants. In our idle moments, he bores me stupid with foodie talk, so naturally he was absorbed in the menu. After one look at it, seeing produce babies—beets, carrot, lettuce—and their prices, I closed it and glanced at the mirror behind the bar to study the couple sitting on my other side. The man had a lovely smell, clean like a waterfall, and every so often he’d lean into me, then apologize. I didn’t mind; I was trembling, the way I always do before a drug buy, and his warm back steadied me. His attention was on his girlfriend, a stunner with the kind of white-blond silky-straight hair I will never have. Such is the unfairness of DNA. He reached out and smoothed her hair, tucked it behind one delicate ear. They smiled at each other, eyes locked. I sighed and turned to Fredricks.

“What’re you gonna have?” he asked.

“What can I afford?” North Carolina state employees get eighteen dollars for dinner.

“Come on, Stella. Live a little.” He read the appetizer list aloud.

I interrupted him. “What’s a White Elf mushroom?”

“From the oyster mushroom family. Earthy, buttery flavor with notes of—”

“Stop. I’ll have a salad. Caesar.” Even that was over the allowance, up-priced by the addition of Parmesan and prosciutto crisps.

“I’m thinking the seared scallops with pea vines and cauliflower puree,” Fredricks said. “Or maybe the pork loin. Turnips and baby kale.” Listening to Fredricks talk about food was like listening to a football junkie review the weekend’s games. Mind-numbing.

“Another club soda?” The bartender asked this without a flicker of irony, as if he were actually pleased we were taking up space with our two-dollar fizzy water.

“Uh, no thanks,” Fredricks said, just as the restaurant’s pager buzzed, signaling that our table was ready. He dropped a dollar on the bar, I added a second one, and we slid off our seats. I cast a fond glance at my neighbor in the mirror. He looked at me, nodded when he caught my eye. Approving of our fifty-percent tip, perhaps, or my leather miniskirt—my legs have been known to slow a man’s breathing.

The dining room was decorated in happy Caribbean colors—teal, lime, orange. Hushed steel-pan jazz and the faint clink of silver on china permitted softly spoken conversations. Fredricks made small talk about his kids, ex-wife, and new girlfriend until our plates arrived and I had to watch him eat, a sight guaranteed to dampen one’s appetite. Just as well, because, according to the plan, I was supposed to leave half my meal and ask for a to-go box. “Why make the sale right here in plain sight?” I whispered, crunching a Parmesan chip. “It’s risky for him.”

“Less risky, actually. No one gets robbed.” He patted his mouth with the linen napkin.

We’d been told to ask for the manager. Here he came, walking swiftly, smiling as he drew near our table. His Claude Monet tie harmonized with his golden tan, white teeth, eyes blue as a Carolina sky. He was what my grandmother Fern—whose lifelong hobby is the male gender—would call a pretty one.

I crooked my finger, he bent down, and I smelled pine, like Christmas. I whispered, “Gift certificates, please. Twelve hundred dollars in denominations of eighty. And a to-go box for my salad.”

His smile faded fast as he studied my face, then Fredricks’s. “How did you hear about our gift certificates?”

“You come highly recommended. We have a mutual friend,” Fredricks said, “from Ohio.”

“Who is …”

“Benedict, actually.” Fredricks was calm, scooping up a last morsel of pea vine and puree. No illegal drug transaction was going to interfere with his meal.

The manager handed Fredricks a black leather check folder. Fredricks signed the credit card slip and tucked it inside, along with an envelope containing twelve hundred dollars. I felt a little queasy, watching that much taxpayer money leave our control.

We waited. This was an iffy step in the exchange. Would he come back with the drugs? I sipped water. Fredricks buttered the last piece of bread and ate it.

The manager returned, handing Fredricks our receipt and me a styrofoam box.

I didn’t open it until we’d climbed into our truck. Nestled under romaine and croutons and Parmesan was a little something special: fifteen eighty-milligram OxyContin tablets in a baggie.

“Check the video,” Fredricks said.

I’d worn a tiny camera clipped to my collar, disguised by a scarf. My phone had an app for camera playback. “It’s good,” I said. “He’s handing me the box. I guess I don’t get to finish my salad.”

“Ha. Can’t eat the evidence.” Fredricks burped quietly.

“Lincoln Teller owns that restaurant,” I said. Lincoln was a Gardner University football All-Star who went on to play for the Washington Redskins, and a current darling of the Triangle media. “Think he’s involved?”

“I hope not. Bad enough the manager’s dealing right out of the dining room.”

Our boss at the State Bureau of Investigation would want to control this case, which would attract significant media interest. Still, it would be several weeks before police could make an arrest. We’d attempt to insert an undercover into the kitchen, make more buys, and find the manager’s sources. My most fervent prayer: Dear Lord, may that undercover be anyone but me.

“Are we done?” I asked.

“Evergreen.” Fredricks started the engine and we rolled out of the parking lot.

“I hate that place.”

“Residents want us to clean it up.”

It was a beautiful night, the air soft on my skin and fragrant with honeysuckle. A night for hand-holding and slow kisses in the moonlight. And here I was, in the front seat of a rusty pickup driven by a squat middle-aged man, on my way into the shittiest building in Verwood. To buy drugs. I suspected every single apartment in Evergreen harbored a thriving drug business. And it was my job to patronize them.

I had to change. In my duffle, I found jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie, and wrestled myself into them as Fredricks looked the other way. I wiped off all my makeup, pulled my hair back tight into a ponytail. “How do I look?”

“About fourteen,” he said. “Add some lipstick.”

I painted my mouth dark red. The zombie look. I hooked the mike to my bra and ran its wire to the one-way transmitter in my back pocket. My Sig was concealed in a holster behind my back, under the hoodie.

“Where first?” I asked.

“Over by that mail kiosk. See what they’re selling. Then you’re going to hit an apartment—B215—belongs to some dude named Scottie. According to a CI, he’s dealing heroin. Turn on the mike and let’s test it.”

Fredricks’s earpiece squealed with feedback, and he pulled it away from his head. “Ouch. Works. You ready?”

Was I ready? The familiar stomach churn. An adrenaline tremor in my hands. Heart rate elevated, metallic taste in my mouth. “Here I go.” I hopped down from the truck.

Evergreen had perhaps a hundred units, arranged in a “U” around a parking lot and mailboxes. Two teenagers lounged against the kiosk, smoking pot. Ugh. I hate pot; it makes my nose all stuffy. I bought a half ounce, and memorized their sweet faces. They were flirty, wanted me to smoke with them, and I felt a twinge of guilt. Undercover requires betrayal, and sometimes it gets to me. They’d be hauled into the sheriff’s office later, based on evidence from Fredricks’s film and my identification of them, charged with felonies, and given the choice of a year in jail or flipping—becoming informants. Making their moms proud.

I stuffed the pot into my hoodie pocket and walked around to a side entrance. The door was unlocked—broken—and I slipped inside, heard a woman’s angry yells, TV, the cries of a baby. A noxious smell of dirt, urine, frying meat. I climbed the steps to the second floor, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door of 215.