Authors: James Grippando
After six exciting thrillers in seven years, bestselling author James Grippando is at last bringing back the main character from his blockbuster debut novel, The Pardon. Miami lawyer Jack Swyteck is in trouble. With more than a decade of experience in the criminal courts, Jack doesn't handle many civil cases. But this one is different. His exgirlfriend is being sued because she thought she was going to die. When Jessie Merrill was diagnosed with a deadly disease, she worked a deal with an insurance company to get cash fast. In exchange, a group of wealthy investors were supposed to collect on the policy at her death. But Jessie was misdiagnosed, and the investors want their money back. Now. At the trial, Jack pulls off a brilliant victory and Jessie gets to keep the USD1.5 million from the investors. Two days later, her body turns up in Jack's bathtub. As the evidence mounts against him, Jack finds himself on a collision course with dark secrets from the past and a possible killer who is beyond suspicion.
The second book in the Jack Swyteck series
To Tiffany, always.
The newsstand had a half-dozen Russian language newspapers to choose from, and I wasn’t in Moscow. I was in Hollywood, Florida, a typical suburban community north of Miami. Naturally, I had to ask: What gives?
It turns out that south Florida – known for its ethnic diversity, though usually with a Latin beat – has a sizeable Russian population. The vast majority are law-abiding, good people. But there’s a dark side, too. Take Tarzan, for instance. No, not Johnny Weismüller. This Tarzan is a legendary, muscle-bound Russian mobster famous for the drug and sex orgies on his boat off Miami Beach. He’s now even more famous (not to mention incarcerated) for a serious but unsuccessful scheme to buy a nuclear submarine from a former Soviet naval officer and then use it to smuggle cocaine from Colombia.
Miami has a new criminal powerhouse knocking at its gates. Brighton Beach, New York is the only place in America with more Russian mobsters – the Mafiya, as it’s called. Thankfully, the Mafiya is nowhere near as well organized as
La Cosa Nostra
, but they are definitely here and growing stronger. With a little help from my law enforcement contacts, I was able to find a Ukrainian-born undercover agent who was willing to tell me all about it. One meeting with him, and I knew: There had to be a novel in this.
At the time, I was wrapping up a six-month investigation into the “dirty blood business.” I took an inside look at a company that, for profit, collected samples of diseased blood from drug addicts, the homeless, and anyone else who was willing to sell infected bodily fluids to medical research companies. I was surprised to find how loosely regulated this industry was, particularly when you consider that many specimens are collected from people with AIDS and other deadly diseases. It was this business side of terminal illness that started me in an even more intriguing direction: viatical settlements.
Viatical settlements are a growing facet of the insurance industry that started with the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Although most people have never even heard the word “viatical,” a recent study reported by a leading insurance company concluded that the industry will soon exceed $10 billion. Basically, it’s a way for someone diagnosed with a terminally ill disease to get the money they need to fight their disease, or simply to live comfortably in the time they have left. The patient signs his life insurance benefits over to a group of investors. In exchange, the investors pay an immediate, lump-sum cash settlement to the patient, usually about half the value of the policy. So, with a policy of one million dollars, the patient gets a quick half million dollars while he’s still alive, to do with as he wishes. The investors collect the full death benefit when the patient dies, doubling their money. It’s a little ghoulish, since the investor is betting (indeed, hoping) that the patient will die soon and provide a quick return on the investment.
As a writer, this concept immediately intrigued me – the very idea of a total stranger having a serious financial interest in your early death. I was even more interested when I came across the findings of a Florida grand jury, which concluded that “fraud in the viatical-settlement industry is rampant” and that as many as 40% to 50% of the settlements were tainted with fraud. As I dug deeper, I discovered a Texas case in which the accused ring-leader of an alleged $10 million viatical settlement scheme happened to be on parole from a murder-for-hire conviction. Although no one was found to have been murdered as a way of expediting the pay-off to investors, it got me to wondering… what if?
Which brings me back to the Russian Mafiya. By now, you can probably see where this is going. At least you
you know where this is going. I promise you’ll be surprised when you read
– James Grippando
Outside her bedroom window, the blanket of fallen leaves moved-one footstep at a time.
Cindy Swyteck lay quietly in her bed, her sleeping husband at her side. It was a dark winter night, cold by Miami standards. In a city where forty degrees was considered frigid, no more than once or twice a year could she light the fireplace and snuggle up to Jack beneath a fluffy down comforter. She slid closer to his body, drawn by his warmth. A gusty north wind rattled the window, the shrill sound alone conveying a chill. The whistle became a howl, but the steady crunching of leaves was still discernible, the unmistakable sound of an approaching stranger.
Flashing images in her head offered a clear view of the lawn, the patio, and the huge almond leaves scattered all about. She could see the path he’d cut through the leaves. It led straight to her window.
Five years had passed since she’d last laid eyes on her attacker. Everyone from her husband to the police had assured her he was dead, though she knew he’d never really be gone. On nights like these, she could have sworn he was back, in the flesh. His name was Esteban.
Five years, and the horrifying details were still burned into her memory. His calloused hands and jagged nails so rough against her skin. The stale puffs of rum that came with each nauseating breath in her face. The cold, steel blade pressing at her jugular. Even then, she’d refused to kiss him back. Most unforgettable of all were those empty, sharklike eyes-eyes so cold and angry that when he’d opened his disgusting mouth and bit her on the lips she saw her own reflection, witnessed her own terror, in the shiny black irises.
Five years, and those haunting eyes still followed her everywhere, watching her every move. Not even her counselors seemed to understand what she was going through. It was as if the eyes of Esteban had become her second line of sight. When night fell and the wind howled, she could easily slip into the mind of her attacker and see things he’d seen before his own violent death. Stranger still, she seemed to have a window to the things he might be seeing now. Through his eyes, she could even watch herself. Night after night, she had the perfect view of Cindy Swyteck lying in bed, struggling in vain with her incurable fear of the dark.
Outside, the scuffling noise stopped. The wind and leaves were momentarily silent. The digital alarm clock on the nightstand blinked on and off, the way it always did when storms interrupted power. It was stuck on midnight, bathing her pillow with faint pulses of green light.
She heard a knock at the back door. On impulse, she rose and sat at the edge of the bed.
she told herself, but it was as if she were being summoned.
Another knock followed, exactly like the first one. On the other side of the king-sized bed, Jack was sleeping soundly. She didn’t even consider waking him.
I’ll get it.
Cindy saw herself rise from the mattress and plant her bare feet on the tile floor. Each step felt colder as she continued down the hall and through the kitchen. The house was completely dark, and she relied more on instinct than sight to maneuver her way to the back door. She was sure she’d turned off the outside lights at bedtime, but the yellow porch light was burning. Something had obviously triggered the electronic eye of the motion detector. She inched closer to the door, peered out the little diamond-shaped window, and let her eyes roam from one edge of the backyard to the other. A gust of wind ripped through the big almond tree, tearing the brownest leaves from the branches. They fell to the ground like giant snowflakes, but a few were caught in an upward draft and rose into the night, just beyond the faint glow of the porch light. Cindy lost sight of them, except for one that seemed to hover above the patio. Another blast of wind sent it soaring upward. Then it suddenly changed direction, came straight toward her, and slammed against the door.
The noise startled her, but she didn’t back away. She kept looking out the window, as if searching for whatever it was that had sent that lone leaf streaking toward her with so much force. She saw nothing, but in her heart she knew that she was mistaken. Something was definitely out there. She just couldn’t see it. Or maybe it was Esteban who couldn’t see it.
The door swung open. A burst of cold air hit her like an Arctic front. Goose bumps covered her arms and legs. Her silk nightgown shifted in the breeze, rising to midthigh. She somehow knew that she was colder than ever before in her life, though she didn’t really feel it. She didn’t feel anything. A numbness had washed over her, and though her mind told her to run, her feet wouldn’t move. It was suddenly impossible to gauge the passage of time, but in no more than a few moments was she strangely at ease with the silhouette in the doorway.
“What are you doing here?”
“Is Jack here?”
“It’s our night to play poker.”
“Jack can’t play cards with you tonight.”
“We play every Tuesday.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy. Jack can’t play with you anymore.”
“Because you’re dead.”
With a shrill scream she sat bolt upright in bed. Confused and frightened, she was shivering uncontrollably. A hand caressed her cheek, and she screamed again.
“It’s okay,” said Jack. He moved closer and tried putting his arms around her.
She pushed him away. “No!”
“It’s okay, it’s me.”
Her heart was pounding, and she was barely able to catch her breath. A lone tear ran down her face. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. It felt as cold as ice water.
“Take a deep breath,” said Jack. “Slowly, in and out.”
She inhaled, then exhaled, repeating the exercise several times. In a minute or so, the panic subsided and her breathing became less erratic. Jack’s touch felt soothing now, and she nestled into his embrace.
He sat up beside her and wrapped his arms around her. “Was it that dream again?”
“The one about your father?”
She was staring into the darkness, not even aware that Jack was gently brushing her hair out of her face. “He’s been gone so long. Why am I having these dreams now?”
“Don’t let it scare you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
She laid her head against his shoulder. Jack surely meant well, but he couldn’t possibly understand what truly frightened her. She’d never told him the most disturbing part. What good was there in knowing that her father was coming back-
“It’s okay,” said Jack. “Try to get some sleep.”
She met his kiss and then let him go, stroking his forehead as he drifted off to sleep. He was breathing audibly in the darkness, but she still felt utterly alone. She lay with eyes wide open, listening.
She heard that sound again outside her bedroom window, the familiar scuffle of boots cutting through a carpet of dead leaves. Cindy didn’t dare close her eyes, didn’t even flirt with the idea of sliding back to that place where she’d found the cursed gift of sight. She brought the blanket all the way up to her chin and clutched it for warmth, praying that this time there’d be no knocking at the back door.
In time the noise faded, as if someone were drifting away.
Jack Swyteck was in Courtroom 9 of the Miami-Dade courthouse, having a ball. With a decade of experience in criminal courts, both as a prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, he didn’t take many civil cases. But this one was different. It was a slam-bang winner, the judge had been spitting venom at opposing counsel the entire trial, and Jack’s client was an old flame who’d once ripped his heart right out of his chest and stomped that sucker flat.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
The lunch break was over, and the lawyers and litigants rose as Judge Antonio Garcia approached the bench. The judge glanced their way, as if he couldn’t help gathering an eyeful of Jack’s client. No surprise there. Jessie Merrill wasn’t stunningly beautiful, but she was damn close. She carried herself with a confidence that bespoke intelligence, tempered by intermittent moments of apparent vulnerability that made her simply irresistible to the knuckle-dragging, testosterone-toting half of the population. Judge Garcia was as susceptible as the next guy. Beneath that flowing black robe was, after all, a mere mortal-a man. That aside, Jessie truly was a victim in this case, and it was impossible not to feel sorry for her.
“Good afternoon,” said the judge.
“Good afternoon,” the lawyers replied, though the judge’s nose was buried in paperwork. Rather than immediately call in the jury, it was Judge Garcia’s custom to mount the bench and then take a few minutes to read his mail or finish the crossword puzzle-his way of announcing to all who entered his courtroom that he alone had that rare and special power to silence attorneys and make them sit and wait. Judicial power plays of all sorts seemed to be on the rise in Miami courtrooms, ever since hometown hero Marilyn Milian gave up her day job to star on
The People’s Court
. Not every south Florida judge wanted to trace her steps to television stardom, but at least one wannabe in criminal court could no longer mete out sentences to convicted murderers without adding, “You
the weakest link, good-bye.”
Jack glanced to his left and noticed his client’s hand shaking. It stopped the moment she’d caught him looking. Typical Jessie, never wanting anyone to know she was nervous.
“We’re almost home,” Jack whispered.
She gave him a tight smile.
Before this case, it had been a good six years since Jack had seen her. Five months after dumping him, Jessie had called for lunch with the hope of giving it another try. By then Jack was well on his way toward falling hopelessly in love with Cindy Paige, now Mrs. Jack Swyteck, something he never called her unless he wanted to be introduced at their next cocktail party as Mr. Cindy Paige. Cindy was more beautiful today than she was then, and Jack had to admit the same was true of Jessie. That, of course, was no reason to take her case. But he decided it wasn’t a reason to turn it down, either. This had nothing to do with the fact that her long, auburn hair had once splayed across both their pillows. She’d come to him as an old friend in a genuine crisis. Even six months later, her words still echoed in the back of his mind.
“The doctor told me I have two years to live. Three, tops.”
Jack’s mouth fell open, but words came slowly. “Damn, Jessie. I’m so sorry.”
She seemed on the verge of tears. He scrambled to find her a tissue. She dug one of her own from her purse. “It’s so hard for me to talk about this.”
“I was so damn unprepared for that kind of news.”
“Who wouldn’t be?”
“I take care of myself. I always have.”
“It shows.” It wasn’t intended as a come-on, just a statement of fact that underscored what a waste this was.
“My first thought was, you’re crazy, doc. This can’t be.”
“I mean, I’ve never faced anything that I couldn’t beat. Then suddenly I’m in the office of some doctor who’s basically telling me, that’s it, game over. No one bothered to tell me the game had even started.”
He could hear the anger in her voice. “I’d be mad, too.”
“I was furious. And scared. Especially when he told me what I had.”
Jack didn’t ask. He figured she’d tell him if she wanted him to know.
“He said I had ALS-amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”
“I’m not familiar with that one.”
“You probably know it as Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
“Oh.” It was a more ominous-sounding “oh” than intended. She immediately picked up on it.
“So, you know what a horrible illness it is.”
“Just from what I heard happened to Lou Gehrig.”
“Imagine how it feels to hear that it’s going to happen to you. Your mind stays healthy, but your nervous system slowly dies, causing you to lose control of your own body. Eventually you can’t swallow anymore, your throat muscles fail, and you either suffocate or choke to death on your own tongue.”
She was looking straight at him, but he was the one to blink.
“It’s always fatal,” she added. “Usually in two to five years.”
He wasn’t sure what to say. The silence was getting uncomfortable. “I don’t know how I can help, but if there’s anything I can do, just name it.”
“Please, don’t be afraid to ask.”
“I’m being sued.”
“A million and a half dollars.”
He did a double take. “That’s a lot of money.”
“It’s all the money I have in the world.”
“Funny. There was a time when you and I would have thought that
all the money in the world.”
Her smile was more sad than wistful. “Things change.”
“They sure do.”
A silence fell between them, a moment to reminisce.
“Anyway, here’s my problem. My
problem. I tried to be responsible about my illness. The first thing I did was get my finances in order. Treatment’s expensive, and I wanted to do something extravagant for myself in the time I had left. Maybe a trip to Europe, whatever. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a three-million-dollar life insurance policy.”
“Why so much?”
“When the stock market tanked a couple years ago, a financial planner talked me into believing that whole-life insurance was a good retirement vehicle. Maybe it would have been worth something by the time I reached sixty-five. But at my age, the cash surrender value is practically zilch. Obviously, the death benefit wouldn’t kick in until I was dead, which wouldn’t do
any good. I wanted a pot of money while I was alive and well enough to enjoy myself.”
Jack nodded, seeing where this was headed. “You did a viatical settlement?”
“You’ve heard of them?”
“I had a friend with AIDS who did one before he died.”
“That’s how they got popular, back in the eighties. But the concept works with any terminal disease.”
“Is it a done deal?”
“Yes. It sounded like a win-win situation. I sell my three-million-dollar policy to a group of investors for a million and a half dollars. I get a big check right now, when I can use it. They get the three-million-dollar death benefit when I die. They’d basically double their money in two or three years.”
“It’s a little ghoulish, but I can see the good in it.”
“Absolutely. Everybody was satisfied.” The sorrow seemed to drain from her expression as she looked at him and said, “Until my symptoms started to disappear.”
“Yeah. I started getting better.”
“But there’s no cure for ALS.”
“The doctor ran more tests.”
Jack saw a glimmer in her eye. His heart beat faster. “And?”
“They finally figured out I had lead poisoning. It can mimic the symptoms of ALS, but it wasn’t nearly enough to kill me.”
“You don’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease?”
“You’re not going to die?”
“I’m completely recovered.”
A sense of joy washed over him, though he did feel a little manipulated. “Thank God. But why didn’t you tell me from the get-go?”
She smiled wryly, then turned serious. “I thought you should know how I felt, even if it was just for a few minutes. This sense of being on the fast track to such an awful death.”
“Good. Because I have quite a battle on my hands, legally speaking.”
“You want to sue the quack who got the diagnosis wrong?”
“Like I said, at the moment, I’m the one being sued over this.”
“The viatical investors?”
“You got it. They thought they were coming into three million in at most three years. Turns out they may have to wait another forty or fifty years for their investment to ‘mature,’ so to speak. They want their million and a half bucks back.”
“Them’s the breaks.”
She smiled. “So you’ll take the case?”
“You bet I will.”
The crack of the gavel stirred Jack from his thoughts. The jury had returned. Judge Garcia had finished perusing his mail, the sports section, or whatever else had caught his attention. Court was back in session.
“Mr. Swyteck, any questions for Dr. Herna?”
Jack glanced toward the witness stand. Dr. Herna was the physician who’d reviewed Jessie’s medical history on behalf of the viatical investors and essentially confirmed the misdiagnosis, giving them the green light to invest. He and the investors’ lawyer had spent the entire morning trying to convince the jury that, because Jessie didn’t actually have ALS, the viatical settlement should be invalidated on the basis of a “mutual mistake.” It was Jack’s job to prove it was
mistake, nothing mutual about it, too bad, so sad.
Jack could hardly wait.
“Yes, Your Honor,” he said as he approached the witness with a thin, confident smile. “I promise, this won’t take long.”