A face to die for, p.21
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       A Face to Die For, p.21

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane
 
“My dad is running for the US House of Representatives. He’ll be the Republican party candidate after next week’s primaries, which I know he’ll win. How’s that for over-the-top events?”

  Emma gaped. “Are you serious? That’s incredible. Why didn’t you ever tell us?”

  “Because… I don’t know. We were concentrating on Brianna and catching the scumbag who was harassing her. My life was kind of on the back burner. But now that nightmare is resolved, and I’m back in the thick of things on the political front. I’m so proud of my dad I could burst.”

  “I can only imagine.” Emma was processing all this as quickly as she could. Lina’s father was a public figure. That could give the team a wide avenue for exploration. “Is he already in politics?”

  “Yup. He’s the Staten Island representative for the New York State Assembly. He has been for three terms. And he’s run his law practice at the same time. He’s the smartest, most high-energy person I know.” Lina wrinkled her nose again. “People say he’s charismatic and handsome. I guess they’re right. But he’s my dad. I don’t view him that way.”

  Abruptly, Lina sat up straight, her mind clearly coming up with something. “I have a great idea! Next Sunday, after my dad’s win, my parents are hosting a huge party at their house. Uncle Neil—Neil Donato, my dad’s campaign manager—said I could invite a few of my friends. I’d love it if you guys could come—all of you, including Hero. He’s better behaved than most politicians.”

  Grinning at her own joke, Lina jumped up and dashed into the kitchen. “I have invitations for you to give to the whole team,” she said, the decision apparently a done deal to her. “I’ll tell my parents to be expecting you. They’ll be honored. My dad spoke highly of you the night Brianna came over for dinner. Oh, this will be awesome!”

  Emma took the invitations, feeling like a fish out of water. She’d been a street kid most of her life. Lina’s lifestyle was completely foreign to her. But she wasn’t going to let this chance get away.

  “I’m really touched you want to include us,” she said. “I have to talk to the team, make sure they’re all available. I promise to do that right away and get back to you ASAP.”

  “That’s fine, but no is not an option. Unless someone is on vacation or dealing with an emergency, the whole team will be there. I won’t have it any other way. My mom refused to let my dad hire a caterer. She claims they don’t know how to cook. In her kitchen, she’s the queen. And trust me, once you taste her cooking, you’ll agree.”

  Glancing from the classy calligraphy of the invitation to Lina’s decisive gaze, Emma knew this was a done deal. The team would be there—and not only because of Lina’s insistence. This could be an opportunity to gather info on Joseph and Donna Brando.

  Between this invite and the info Lina had innocently provided, Emma had a lot to share with the FI team.

  CHAPTER 23

  Office of Forensic Instincts

  6:30 a.m.

  Ryan was in his lair.

  He’d hit the gym at five and then headed straight to the office. Gia and Dani had dropped off their laptops for him to check out. His project had been to find and analyze any spyware in time for the seven thirty–a.m. team meeting that Emma had requested.

  Dani’s laptop had been first up. Once he’d located the spyware, Ryan reviewed the data from the packet sniffer he had placed onto her computer to see if he could track where the keylogger was sending information. It appeared that the spyware was nothing special—just run-of-the-mill software that was available commercially. Data was being sent to a website where the customer could log in and see the data that had been collected. These companies marketed their digital spy service as well-intentioned: allowing concerned parents to monitor their children, enabling paranoid companies to track errant workers. They strenuously denied having clients with illegal intentions, and their terms of service were crafted carefully by the best lawyers to escape both prosecution and the potential of being shut down. But there were also suspicious and jealous lovers and all forms of pervs watching who knows what.

  Ryan decided the quickest path to finding out who had been spying on Dani was to set up his own spyware account. Once he had valid credentials, the trick would be to find and exploit a security weakness in the site where he could elevate his account to admin status. With unfettered access, he could dig in to the logs and find out who was spying on Dani.

  It would take him a couple of days to get his answers. Who knows, maybe he could even use the same software to spy on the spy himself.

  A wry grin tugged at Ryan’s lips. How poetic.

  Fifteen minutes later, he wasn’t smiling. He’d done a thorough search of Gia’s computer and come up empty. Nothing. No spyware. The computer was completely clean. Whoever the person was who was monitoring Dani’s every move, her entire online activity, wasn’t doing squat to keep tabs on Gia. What the hell did that mean? Was Dani a bigger factor in this surveillance, and did she know more than she realized, more than Gia did?

  Ryan swore under his breath. It was good that the two girls were coming in soon. He had questions that needed answers.

  * * *

  At seven thirty sharp, the entire FI team was gathered around the conference room table. All eyes were on Emma, as she was taking the lead on this meeting.

  “Tell us what happened at Lina’s last night that has you so worked up,” Casey began without preamble.

  Emma was practically crackling with electricity. “First of all, did you know that Lina’s dad is running for national office?”

  “Yes.” Casey nodded. “Ryan discovered that yesterday when he was doing his cursory research on Joseph Brando. I take it Lina talked about her father’s candidacy.”

  “She did more than that.” Emma slapped the invitations onto the conference table. “She invited us to the victory party they’re having after his anticipated win. All of us. She won’t take no for an answer.”

  “That’s good.” Casey pursed her lips. “I think it’s time we met the Brandos. We’re going to have to talk to them soon enough anyway. When’s the party?”

  “This coming Sunday.”

  “We’ll be there. But that’s obviously not all you found out. You sounded like you were about to explode when you called.”

  “I was. I am.” Emma looked around the table. “I have a ton of information about Lina’s birth—at least what she was told about it, truthful or not.” With that, Emma blurted out everything, from the fact that Lina believed she was her parents’ biological child to Donna’s alleged pregnancy to the snowstorm to the date and place of Lina’s birth.

  “That’s a pretty elaborate story,” Patrick said.

  “One that’s easy enough to check out.” Ryan made note of his new assignment.

  “You’re both right.” Marc was tapping his pen thoughtfully on his knee. “Unless Donna Brando had triplets and gave two of them away—which I highly doubt—the story Lina was given was a complete fabrication. You’d think her parents would keep it as mundane as possible, so it wouldn’t raise any red flags. Instead, they concocted an elaborate story that’s easily confirmed—or disproved. Why?”

  Casey recognized the speculative glint in Marc’s eyes. “You think
they knew the hospital records had been altered and that the existing ones would corroborate their story.”

  “It would certainly fit. It would also explain why they were determined for Lina to believe she was their biological child. No adoption procedure to explain. No paperwork to present. Just a very emotional, very believable story.”

  “That suggests the Brandos knew more about this deception than the Russos and the Muranos.” Casey shot Ryan a quizzical look. “Did anything in your research on Joseph Brando raise any red flags? Anything that suggested he might be shady?”

  “You mean other than the fact that he’s a politician?” Ryan asked dryly. “No. At least not directly.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “It means I did more than a cursory search since last we spoke. Have you ever heard of Angelo Colone?”

  “The mob leader?” Marc’s brows rose in interest. “Sure.”

  “Well, he and Joseph Brando grew up in Brooklyn together. They were very tight, right through adulthood—actually right through Angelo’s death several months ago. When Joseph started his own law firm, Angelo was his first client. Joseph represented his personal interests and his construction business. My guess? Angelo funded his legal practice.”

  Now, Casey was leaning forward, her gaze intense. “Are you saying that Joseph Brando has mob ties?”

  “Like I said, none that I can find,” Ryan replied. “But I am saying that he had access to all kinds of illegal help, even if he didn’t get his own hands dirty. Whether or not he used it is still unknown.”

  “But not for long, knowing you.”

  “My search engine is busily working. But Marc’s theory makes sense from my end, too. I found both Gia’s and Dani’s filed birth certificates and they’re identical to the ones they have. No other records show up in the database of the Department of Health, not in any of the five boroughs. As for triplets? Nada. Which means we’re coming up empty on the truth. To get forgeries like that into the system? Only someone with big-time connections could orchestrate that.”

  “Angelo Colone would match that description.”

  “Sure would. But even if he was behind this, it doesn’t necessarily implicate Brando—although it sure as hell moves him to the top of the suspect list.”

  “All the more reason for us to go to that party on Sunday,” Casey said. “We can get a read on Brando and, if we’re lucky, pick up some crumbs of information. So, all of you, get your formal wear out from storage.”

  Ryan groaned. “Does this mean I have to wear a tie?”

  “Yup. The whole nine yards. Suit, dress shirt, tie.” Casey’s lips twitched. “Maybe Claire will offer to knot your tie for you.”

  “Only if he doesn’t squirm,” Claire replied.

  The whole team chuckled.

  “Anything else?” Casey asked, glancing around the table.

  “Yeah.” Ryan’s humor vanished. “I’ve been here since dawn working on the girls’ laptops. Found and left in place the spyware on Dani’s—and set things up so I can hopefully trace it back to the person who installed it. But Gia’s? Totally clean. No spyware whatsoever.”

  “That’s weird.” Marc frowned. “It suggests that either Dani represents more of a threat than Gia or that whoever did this had more access to Dani’s computer.”

  “He—or whatever thug he’s got working for him—was in Gia’s townhouse the morning of the fire,” Ryan pointed out. “He could have installed the spyware then or talked someone through doing it. So I opt for your first theory. We need more info on Dani.”

  Casey glanced at her watch. “Gia and Dani are due here soon. We’ll have to dig deep into their lists of friends, boyfriends, co-workers, everyone they know. Without saying anything, we’ll concentrate more heavily on Dani’s list. Maybe that’ll give us something to go on.”

  Claire was gazing into her coffee mug, her expression bleak and faraway. “I’m picking up on a lot of anguish. Gia and Dani have been through the emotional wringer since yesterday. Leaning on them would be a huge mistake. Please. Let’s take this slow and gently—for their sake and for the sake of our investigation.”

  * * *

  Claire’s assessment was, unfortunately, more than accurate.

  Gia and Dani arrived looking like hell. The past day had taken a huge toll on them—Gia’s morning visit with her parents, Dani’s emotional exchange with her parents followed by working with Patrick to coordinate the arrangements for them to fly in, and finally last night’s dinner with the Russos.

  The pair sat with the FI team in the small conference room, sipping coffee and relaying information.

  “I don’t know whose parents are in worse shape,” Gia told them in a watery voice. “Actually, I do. Dani’s. Mine at least had the chance to meet Dani and to see what a wonderful person she is. They’re also more involved, since they live so close by. Dani’s poor parents haven’t seen their daughter since this all began, and all they know about me is my name and that I’m the twin who just surfaced out of nowhere and uprooted their life.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Although this is tearing my parents apart, too. I feel like a horrible daughter—I can’t do a thing to ease their pain.”

  Casey felt a wave of sympathy, for both the girls and their parents. This situation was one big emotional devastation. And there was a whole facet yet to reveal—Lina and all the ramifications that came with that revelation.

  “I’m so sorry,” she said quietly. “You know we’ll do everything we can to ease your way through this.”

  “We know,” Dani replied. Her eyes were puffy from crying, and pain was etched all over her face. “It’s just all too much. My parents are in shock. Gia’s parents are, too, although they were lovely to me. But they couldn’t stop staring, and Mrs. Russo was blinking back tears all night. It was the most difficult evening of my life, and certainly of theirs.”

  “Your parents will be arriving later today,” Patrick said, trying to soothe her. “Then, all of you can get together. It will comfort and strengthen you. You’ll see.” His jaw tightened. “And this time I’ll be heading up the security team. Safety won’t be an issue.”

  He turned to Gia. “You have three weddings this weekend. I’m uneasy about you handling them. It’s too risky. Too many people. Too little control. I’d suggest you send Liz Watts, the assistant planner you mentioned, in your place.”

  “Not a prayer.” Gia’s response was immediate. “As it is, I had to call on Liz to be my stand-in this past weekend—with me on the other end of the phone for hours. But that was for my parents; they needed me and they needed to meet Dani. But the upcoming weekend? No way. Two of the three weddings are enormous events I’ve been planning for over a year. The third is smaller, but the clients are even more demanding than the other two sets. There’s no way Liz can run the show on these, and there’s no way I’d let her. My clients would eat her alive, then they’d hunt me down and shoot me.”

  Patrick’s brows shot up. “That bad?”

  “Worse.”

  “Fine. Then I’ll have to double security on you.” He turned to Dani. “And I want you in a controlled environment while Gia’s away. That means Gia’s townhouse or your
parents’ hotel room.”

  Dani nodded. “As long as my folks are with me, I’ll stay put.”

  Gia pressed her lips together, anger mixing with pain. “I hate this. I have no control over my life. Neither does Dani. Our lives are in the hands of some lunatic.”

  “We’ll change that. And soon.” Casey’s words were more than a statement. They were a promise.

  Ryan cleared his throat. “We’ve got another angle to cover.” Remembering Claire’s words, he kept his delivery nice and easy. Normally, he’d be going at this like a missile. But there was no point in making things worse and impeding his progress. “We need to talk about the spyware I found on your computers.” He intentionally used the plural. If he told Gia and Dani the truth now, it would push them closer to the edge and destroy their ability to think clearly.

  “So we were being monitored, just like you suspected.” Dani sounded wearier than she did shocked. “What were they privy to?”

  “Besides seeing everything on your screen? Audio and video feeds.”

  Gia blanched. “They could hear what we were saying? And worse, watch us?”

  “When your computers were on? Yes. Otherwise, no. But I’ve made that go away,” he added hastily. “I put a piece of masking tape over both your microphones and your cameras. That’ll frustrate the hell out of your hacker. When you take these babies home, all he’ll see is what’s on your screen—which will be none of the important stuff. That you’ll continue to put only on your Raspberry Pi. The video and audio feeds will be blocked.”

  Gia and Dani didn’t look appeased. They looked green.

  “I can’t believe he was watching us,” Dani said, her mind clearly racing to all kinds of creepy places. “And if he can’t see or hear us anymore, won’t he know we’re onto him?”

  “He already knows that,” Ryan replied. “He figured it out the first time whoever’s keeping eyes on you saw you walk through our front door. And it was confirmed by the absence of data you’ve been posting. He more than realizes he’s been made. This is just a great gotcha to raise his blood pressure.”

 
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