Excerpt: 'Hell Gate'

Hell Gate
Hell Gate
By Linda Fairstein
Hardcover, 400 pages
Dutton Adult
List price: $26.95

"How many do you think jumped ship?" I wanted to make myself useful, but all the specialized squads of the NYPD were well-trained for this kind of disaster.

"It's impossible to get an accurate count at this point. One fellow they've talked to explained that when the mutineers began to struggle with the captain, he tried to steer the damn thing away from shore, back out into the open sea. Making that turn, he ran the ship aground on a shallow sandbar. Some of the victims figured they were so close to the beach they could reach land — even several who didn't know how to swim. Maybe twenty jumped. Maybe forty. Nobody seems to know yet."

"The men you've talked to, do they know where they thought they were going?" I asked.

"Nobody told them the truth, Alex. It's the usual scam," Donovan said. "You've been there — people who don't see a future for themselves and want to believe in a dream, but wake up in the middle of a nightmare. Countrymen were supposed to meet them right here in Queens and bring them into their homes until they're placed in jobs — mostly agricultural ones — in farms upstate and in the Midwest. Those would be the men, the lucky ones."

"The young women would become your territory," Mike said.

I had seen this time after time in my role as chief sex crimes prosecutor in the DA's office — girls abducted from their homes in Thailand or Montenegro, running away from abusive parents and desolate lives in Sri Lanka or Serbia, smuggled across borders in car trunks or leaky boats, often following their brothers or schoolmates, hoping that hard work and physical labor would eventually gain them the freedom of a new life in the States.

But the girls rarely made it to farmlands and fields. The sex trade had become a huge transnational industry, as lucrative as it could be deadly. The teenagers on the Golden Voyage were doubtless bound for basements and brothels, to be broken in by their owners for the months and years of prostitution that awaited them in the promised land.

"Is there any way to identify these victims?" I asked.

"No better than usual. Each one is supposed to have a piece of paper with his or her family name and town of origin in their pockets when they ship out," Baynes said. "Most of them tossed or swallowed the paper as the police launches arrived. The brother of one of the dead girls is among the few who are talking. He dove in and she tried to follow."

A lanky man sat at the corner of the tented morgue, with a gray blanket covering his head and upper body. I couldn't tell whether he was shaking from the cold or because he was crying so hard.

Stu Carella was making his way back to us, refusing the offer of an NYPD sweatshirt that one of the cops thrust at him.

"Another kid gone," Carella said, throwing a tuft of algae at the ground in disgust. "Probably drowned in three feet of water, unable to handle the pull of the rip."

"From his hand?" Mike knelt down and picked up the slimy green vegetation with the tip of his pen.

"Yeah."

Mike whistled and the closest cops looked up. He signaled one, who jogged to us. "Carry this over to the medical examiner. Goes with that latest body."

The fact that the victim had been clutching algae, and I'd bet a handful of sand, as he was dragged across the ocean floor meant that he had been alive when he went into the water. Drowning, I had learned over the years, was a diagnosis of exclusion. A complete autopsy would be necessary for each of the Golden Voyagers who had washed up on the windy beach, despite how obvious the circumstances appeared to be to us.

"What do you plan to do, Donny?" I asked. "I mean, with the survivors."

There was no good answer to this question. It was commonplace for these individuals whose lives at home were already overcome with despair to risk everything for this run to freedom, only to find themselves handcuffed in the backseat of a patrol car to begin the next leg of their ugly journey. A few might eventually be granted political asylum, some would be deported, but the majority would wind up in immigrant detention centers somewhere in the heartland of America.

Baynes stammered as he surveyed the bleak scene stretched out across the waterfront.

"I — I haven't had an operation of this size since I — uh — since I was appointed to the task force. Frankly, I don't know what becomes of these poor souls."

The noise overhead was a police helicopter, probably carrying Commissioner Keith Scully, whom Donovan, Mike, and I all knew well.

"Not jail," I said. "We can't let them rot in jail while we sort it out."

"Scully's too smart for that," Mike said.

"You'll have to start working with the women right away, Alex," Baynes said. "We'll have them checked out medically and then each one needs to be interviewed. You've got backup?"

"The senior people in the bureau will be on it with me." I had a great team of lawyers assigned to my unit by Battaglia, experienced in the courtroom and compassionate in their interactions with traumatized victims.

I could hear wailing now, a cacophony of voices that seemed like it could carry for miles. Cops were trying to move a small cluster of bedraggled survivors toward the dunes, to the vans waiting in the street that would shuttle them to whatever police facility Scully designated. The men were refusing to separate from their comrades despite prodding — all still focused on the others being ferried ashore, all still searching the waves for signs of missing friends.

"C'mon, Coop. You'll rerun this movie in your brain all day and all night," Mike said, taking my arm to turn me away from the sight. "You got what Battaglia sent you for. Donovan's not doing anything on this case without your input."

My feet were firmly planted in the sand. "I want to talk to Scully, Mike. Let go."

"Scully's running late."

My head whipped around as I recognized the voice of Mercer Wallace. I squinted in the sunlight and shaded my eyes with my hand to look up at him. His six-foot-six frame towered over my shivering five-foot-ten-inch body.

"Good to have you here, buddy," Baynes said, shaking his hand. "We've got a monster of a problem on our hands."

Excerpted from Hell Gate by Linda Fairstein, copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission of Dutton Adult.

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