Excerpt

Girls Like Us

Cristina Alger

The following is an excerpt from Girls Like US, the latest thriller from Cristina Alger (The Banker’s Wife), now in paperback. Inspired by the Long Island serial killer memorialized in Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, the novel explores the seedier side of Suffolk County as FBI Agent Nell Flynn returns home after her father, a local cop, dies. She picks up his investigation of the serial murders of several young women, only to realize he might have been involved in a cover-up.

Lee drives and I stare out the window. We cross the Ponquogue Bridge and make our way through Hampton Bays. It hasn’t changed much. The houses are small and nondescript. There isn’t a real town center: just a few mom- and- pop shops lining the highway and a handful of cheap bars down by the waterfront. There aren’t chain restaurants or tourist-type boutiques to browse in. Just fish markets and bait- and- tackle stores and gas stations and thrift shops that scatter their wares on patchy lawns out front.

There’s small strip mall now, with a Starbucks and a King Kullen and a stoplight in front of it, all of which I’m certain Dad hated. He wasn’t a big fan of development in what he called “our part” of the island. Other than that, everything is the same. We pass a half-dozen signs for the annual pancake breakfast at the fire station. My heart lurches when I see the park where my mother used to whirl me around on a roundabout after school. It sat at an awkward angle, and it groaned while she sang to me. I sit up and catch a glimpse of it as the car rolls past. It’s still there, rusted and tilted as always.

At the edge of town, we pass the marina where Dorsey keeps his boat. There’s a joint next to it called Hank’s, where Dad and the guys used to go for beers after work. After that, the Shinnecock Canal bisects the land in two. Locals call it the Cut. The highway narrows to a bridge, which spans the Cut like a tourniquet. When you see it on a map, you realize that this bridge is the only thing tethering the eastern tip of the South Fork to the main island itself. The Cut is as psychological as it is physical. It’s the demarcation line between the summer people and everybody else.

Once we cross the bridge, we’re in the Hamptons. The change is immediate and noticeable. To the east of the Cut, there are no pawnshops or bait-and-tackles. Main Street in Southampton is populated with designer clothing and jewelry boutiques. Restaurants serve overpriced seafood and French wine. The lawns here are manicured. Hundred- year-old elms line the streets like sentinels. The summer people like their towns perfect. God knows they pay enough for it. It’s strange to think of this as Suffolk County, but it is just the same. The people who reside here don’t know there’s anything else. To them, our part of the island is just something they have to drive through on the way to the beach.

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We pass a gardener on a ladder, shearing the top of a hedge with surgical precision. He wields a long, silver chainsaw; the blade glints in the sun. The man looks at us, his eyes trailing our car with suspicion. I’d guess he’s not documented; a lot of the landscapers around here aren’t. My maternal grandfather was one of them. He and my grandmother crossed the border from Juarez just in time for my mother to be born here. They stayed awhile in Texas before moving north, eventually settling in Central Islip. My grandfather owned a small farm back in Mexico. He found work as a landscaper. My grandmother cleaned rooms in a retirement home. They lived in a trailer with my mother and one other family. As rough as the Third Precinct was for them, it was better than Juarez.

I roll down the window and catch the faint scent of ocean air. The chainsaw falls silent. Cicadas buzz. On the other side of the street, sprinklers turn on and water the already wet, lush grass. Two girls in tennis dresses and matching windbreakers ride bicycles side by side. They head south, toward the beach. I always went back to school the week before Labor Day, but the private schools in Manhattan don’t open until late September. The girls’ slim legs pump in unison. Just as we’re about to pass them, one lifts her arms over her head and raises her feet from the pedals. The wheels wobble, and for a moment, I think she might fall. She swerves toward us, regaining her balance just before she nearly collides with the passenger-side door. I suck in a breath; Lee slams on the brake. I hear the hush of her ponytail against the glass. She has a pink ribbon in her hair. It presses against my window like a kiss.

What the fuck,” Lee mutters.

The girls sail by, laughing. They both look back at us, their sunstreaked ponytails shaking in the breeze, their heads bobbing in disbelief at their near- miss. I expect Lee to speed up and pull alongside them. Give them a lecture about street safety. He doesn’t. He just lets them go. Nothing bad ever happens to girls from Gin Lane, I guess.

We pass the turnoff for Coopers Beach and take a right onto Meadow Lane. Meadow Lane is known as Billionaire’s Row. It’s a thin strip of land with Shinnecock Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The houses on Meadow Lane are enormous. They make the other houses in the area look like guest cottages, which is saying something. They have oceanfront pools and tennis courts. The lawns go on forever. One is studded with large, bizarre sculptures. A giant balloon dog made of shiny, magenta-colored metal. A naked, obese woman cast in bronze. It looks like a museum, and one I’m not particularly eager to visit. Toward the end of the lane, there’s a rectangle carved out of the sand. It’s marked with a large H. A helicopter lifts off from it as we approach, its sleek, silver form disappearing into an overcast sky.

The irony of Billionaire’s Row is that it dead-ends into Shinnecock County Park East, a public preserve where, for thirty bucks, you can park a camper van overnight. The park is a favorite spot for locals to bass fish and take their off-road recreational vehicles. My father loved it there, especially in the off-season. It’s where he taught me how to fish. In high school, my classmates would drive down to the park to drink beer and smoke in the dunes. I’d tag along now and then, not because I enjoyed parties but because anything was better than spending a night at home with Dad when he was drunk. We’d chuck bottles and butts as far as we could in the direction of Meadow Lane. It was just a little fuck-you to the summer people, who acted as though this part of the island belonged to them and them alone.

Today it’s a festering crime scene. I can envision the headlines already. The tabloids will eat this up: a dead girl, dismembered and buried amid multimillion-dollar oceanfront mansions. It’s hard to imagine a more glamorous burial ground. Once the press connects this case to the body found last summer in the Pine Barrens, the floodgates will open. A murder is one thing. Serial killings catch national news interest. Web forums light up with chatter. Conspiracy theorists and true- crime junkies take notice. The killer himself might even crawl out of the woodwork, unable to stay away from the media circus. It might inspire him—or someone else—to kill again.

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It wouldn’t be the first time. Long Island has always been a breeding ground for men who hunt women. Joel Rifkin killed at least nine women back in the nineties. Robert Shulman killed five. The Long Island Serial Killer—said to be responsible for anywhere from ten to sixteen murders over the past twenty years— still remains

at large. And that’s to say nothing of the scores of cold cases that remain in boxes on the shelves at SCPD headquarters and the bodies that never got found at all.

“How does it feel to be home?” Lee says.

I give him a look. “This isn’t home.”

“I mean, the island. Did you miss it?”

“No.”

“How long has it been?”

“Ten years.”

Lee whistles. “You left for college and never came back?”

“Yep.”

“Whatever happened to Tommy Street?”

I must look shocked because Lee turns crimson. “Sorry. Too personal?”

It is too personal, but Lee doesn’t know that. He’s just trying to make casual conversation. Tom was my high school boyfriend. The first and perhaps most important relationship of my life. We started dating at the beginning of sophomore year and broke up at the end of senior year, right after I got pregnant by accident. Tom

wanted to get married. I considered giving up my scholarship to MIT and staying put in Suffolk County so that we could get married. Dad told me he’d disown me if I did. Lee doesn’t know that, despite my father’s outrage, I decided to keep the baby only to lose it a few weeks later. He doesn’t know that all of this changed the course of my life irrevocably. I stopped speaking to Tom, though none of it was his fault. I stopped speaking to my father, too. I packed up my secondhand Civic and drove myself up to MIT without saying goodbye.

“I don’t know about Tommy. We’re not in touch,” I say, though it’s only half- true. I’ve kept tabs on Tom’s life over the past decade. He still lives in Suffolk County. He’s married to a woman named Beth, who looks like me except she’s always smiling. They have twin girls, Hannah and Ellie, who wear matching outfits. He’s an

insurance broker, just like his father. He coaches Little League on the weekends. They have a rescue dog named Hester. They look, on social media anyway, well-adjusted and happy. Occasionally, I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed. Could I have been Mrs. Thomas Street? What if we had a little girl or boy, now ten years old? Would I have felt trapped, like my father had? Or is it possible that, like Beth, I would be smiling in every photo?

“I always thought you two would get married,” Lee says. “Everyone back then did.”

“It was high school. Puppy love.”

Lee shrugs. “Looked real to me.”

“It was ten years ago.”

“You and your dad fell out of touch, I take it.”

“Something like that.”

“Did he ever talk about the Pine Barrens case?”

“He didn’t talk much about anything. At least, not to me.”

“He talked about you.”

I turn, surprised. “He did?”

“Yeah. He was proud of you. Of the work you do. He’d bring you up every chance he got.”

We’re both quiet for a minute. “We didn’t speak for years after I moved away,” I say quietly. “I wanted nothing to do with him.”

“And yet you ended up in law enforcement, just like him.”

“True. It’s in my blood, I guess. Dad came down to DC a few years back. We patched things up a bit. We’d talk now and then. Not recently, though. We hadn’t spoken in months.”

Lee nods like that doesn’t surprise him. “Last year was tough on your dad. Pine Barrens shook him up. It was a horrible case. The girl was young. Just turned seventeen. Your dad took it real personal. He told me once that he felt like he was the only one who seemed to care that she was dead.”

“Did anyone care?”

Lee shrugs. “There wasn’t exactly a media frenzy. She was a working girl from a bad neighborhood. You know. Same old story.”

“Where was she from?”

“Brentwood.”

“Latina?”

“Yeah.”

“And killed the same way as this one?”

“Shot at point-blank range in the head. Cut up and wrapped in burlap like a goddamn Christmas tree and buried way out in the middle of nowhere. Ria Sandoval was her name.”

“Sexually assaulted?”

“Hard to tell. Animals got to her pretty bad. She’d been dead for more than a month when some hikers found her.”

“When did she go missing?”

“Over July Fourth weekend, last summer. Told a friend she was going to work a job out east. Never came back. No one bothered to file a missing persons.”

“Well, right. Because then ICE would come knocking.”

“No one really seemed to notice she was gone. Took them almost two months to ID her.”

“What about her parents?”

“Dad was never in the picture. Mom’s a mess. She’d go MIA for weeks at a time. The girl bounced around. Sometimes she’d stay with her neighbors. She was tight with one of them. Girl named Luz Molina. Both did some escorting. They used a driver sometimes to take them to motels or clients’ houses. An ex-con named Giovanni Calabrese. He runs a limo company out of Wyandanch. Thinks he’s a pimp. Drives a tricked-out white Escalade with custom rims.” Lee rolls his eyes.

“How’d they find themselves a driver?”

“Not sure. Maybe online? Once Ria met Calabrese, she stopped advertising on Craigslist and Backpage. He connected her with clients directly. Rich ones, according to your dad. Calabrese runs a high- end operation.”

“Was Calabrese driving Ria the night she went missing?”

“Yeah. He said he dropped her off in a motel parking lot. GPS backed that up, and the motel attendant remembered seeing his car pull into the lot, idle by the curb, and then leave. Ria was supposed to spend the night with a client and call Calabrese to pick her up in the morning. He never heard from her again.”

“I assume he had an alibi?”

“He did. It checked out. He was out all night, partying with friends.”

“And the client?”

“Never did figure out who it was.”

“Did the motel have security cameras? Client records?”

“Cameras were broken. Had been for months. Most of the clients paid in cash. It’s that kind of establishment.”

“Were there any leads at all?”

Lee sighs. “There was a landscaper. Alfonso Morales. He lives in Brentwood, down the street from the Sandoval house. Ria’s friend Luz said he used to stare at Ria when she passed by. Followed her a couple of times, too. Luz said that she once heard footsteps around the house late one night when Ria was staying over. She thought she saw a man staring in at them through the back window.”

“And she thought it was Morales?”

“That was her guess, but she never called the police or anything.”

“Does Morales still live in Brentwood?”

“Last I checked.”

“And what about Luz?”

“Not sure. I assume so. She works at a bar down by the marina now. Hank O’Gorman’s place. Remember him? I see her there sometimes. I hope what happened to Ria scared her straight, you know?”

“Scared her straight?”

“Got her to stop selling herself.”

I take a beat. “You do understand that most girls don’t choose that life, right?”

“Everyone makes choices.”

I take a deep breath and decline to respond.

“Oh.” Lee snaps his fingers. “There was a thing about a red truck. Morales drives a maroon pickup. The motel clerk said he thought he saw a red truck in the lot the night Ria was there, but he couldn’t say for sure. And he couldn’t positively ID Morales.”

“Did you talk to Morales?”

“We picked him up a couple of times. I always thought there was something off about him myself. He looks all around when you talk to him, but never right in the eye. Got nervous when we started asking questions about Ria. At first, he tried to claim he’d never seen her before.”

“Maybe he’s scared of cops.”

“Maybe. I got a bad feeling, though. He does some work for the South Fork Preservation Society. You heard of them?”

“The plover people?”

Lee snorts. “Yeah. They care a lot about the plover. They do projects all over the island. Run by a bunch of bored hedge-fund wives, mostly. Too much time on their hands and definitely too much money. They buy up land for preservation and do sand dune restoration and that kind of thing. Last summer, Morales was working at one of their sites in the Pine Barrens, not too far from where the body was buried. He was planting trees out there. And guess what the tree roots were wrapped in?”

I raise my eyebrows. “Burlap.”

“You got it. He had yards of it in his truck. Same make, everything. That said, it’s pretty common. You can find it in most of the nurseries on the North Fork.”

“You find anything else? Hair, blood?”

“Nah. We searched the car, his house. Nothing.”

“What about DNA?”

“Vic’s body was too badly degraded to find anyone else’s DNA. Morales had scratches on his hands and a big, nasty gash on his leg. Looked like it was healing up, so maybe a few weeks old. Matched up with our timeline.”

“Did he have an explanation?”

“Claimed he got injured on the job.”

“Plausible.”

“I guess. In the end, we had to let him walk. Your dad didn’t think we had enough to hold him.”

“What did you think?”

Lee sighs. “I thought he might be good for it. At least, I thought we should have turned him over to ICE, let them get rid of him. Better safe than sorry, right? But what did I know? I was two weeks into homicide. And your dad wasn’t really into friendly suggestions.”

“You’re telling me.”

Lee pulls over on the sandy shoulder of the road and cuts the engine. “He was tough on you, huh?”

“You could say that. He had a well- developed sense of right and wrong.”

“Couldn’t have been easy, growing up with him. I mean, he was a good man and all. But he scared the crap out of me.”

“Scared the crap out of most people.” I push open the car door.

There is a news van up ahead, parked behind an SCPD cruiser.

“Fuck.” Lee shakes his head. “These guys are like vultures. They smell blood and come running.”

“What do you expect? You can see the crime scene from the Ponquogue Bridge. And hey, maybe it’s a rich white girl this time.”

Lee hands me an SCPD baseball cap from the back seat of his car. “Put this on. Last thing you need right now is a spot on the five o’clock news.”

__________________________________

From GIRLS LIKE US by Christina Alger, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Bear One Holdings, LLC.




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