FBI Agent Nell Flynn hasn’t been home in ten years. She and her father, homicide detective Martin Flynn, never had much of a relationship, and when it became strained to the point of breaking, she left home and never looked back. Suffolk County, Long Island, will always hold painful memories for Nell of her mother, Marisol, who was brutally murdered when Nell was only seven years old.
Martin Flynn dies in a motorcycle accident, and Nell returns to his house to spread his ashes and handle his estate, given that she is his sole heir. Nell is still recovering from a work-related injury, so her father’s partner, Detective Lee Davis, asks her to consult on the investigation into the murders of two young women.
But the further Nell digs, the more convinced she becomes that her father is the prime suspect — and his friends on the police force are covering his tracks. Still plagued by doubts about the circumstances surrounding her mother’s murder — and her own role in exonerating her father — Nell searches for the killer of Ria Ruiz and Adriana Marques, as well as the motive. She may not like the evidence she uncovers about those she loves, and herself.
When do you do when the primary suspect in a murder investigation is your own father?
In Girls Like Us, Nell has reached a crossroads in her life. She has never been confident that the right man was brought to justice for her mother’s murder. Her memories of that night are murky, but she was the one person who provided an alibi for her father. And now he has ostensibly died in a motorcycle accident, but the more questions Nell asks, the more she finds the circumstances of his death suspicious. She realizes that she must learn the truth and resolve her past if she is ever going to be able to move on with her life.
Once again, Alger has constructed a thriller that, despite its unlikely premise, never compromises its authenticity and credulity.
At the outset, Nell is comforted by her father’s fellow detective and best friend, Glenn Dorsey. But his last partner, Lee Davis, one of Nell’s classmates, asks her to serve as a consultant as he investigates two grisly murders of young women that no one seems to care much about. Both women were poor and became sex workers in order to survive. Nell is put off when Dorsey and other members of the force seem convinced that they know the killer’s identity, even though crucial pieces of evidence simply don’t fit. They don’t embrace her offer to enlist a top-notch coroner with resources beyond those available to the young, inexperienced, but determined Suffolk County coroner. For Nell, “Dorsey’s reticence to bring in outside assistance rubs me the wrong way, and not just because I’m a Fed. It seems shortsighted at best, destructive and suspicious at worst.” Both bodies were found near the ostentatious home of a wealthy local businessman with a reputation for throwing wild parties attended by young girls. The neighbor who found the second victim is the wife of a politician who keeps herself busy, in part, by serving as a member of the Preservation Society that is in the midst of renovating the very dunes where the bodies were left by the killer.
Nell — determined and relentless in her commitment to the investigation — discovers evidence that is at odds with the father she knew, an alcoholic with a temper who lived modestly on a detective’s salary, by a strict code of honor. Nell’s first-person narrative is extremely effective in not only revealing her inner struggle, but propelling the story forward at an unrelenting pace. She explains, “My father was a marine. A cop. . . . He was obsessively disciplined. Except for alcohol: that was his weakness. But he was tough as they come. And deeply principled. At least, I thought he was.” But his usually clean, orderly house is a mess, and there is a stack of unpaid bills on the kitchen counter. When she meets with her father’s attorney to discuss the details of his estate, she is shocked to learn that he had a bank account in the Cayman Islands and recently took out a two-year lease on an apartment, covering the expenses from yet another bank account. When she surveys the apartment, she learns that a young Latina girl had been living there until recently and discovers her father was in possession of photos of the murder victims, as well as a cell phone and necklace belonging to Adriana, the most recent victim. A pickup truck matching the description of her father’s — the very vehicle Nell is now driving — was seen outside the Adriana shared with her sister’s family, and her sister is convinced that Adriana had a wealthy boyfriend. Unable to reconcile her findings with her father’s customary habits and character, Nell becomes increasingly afraid that her father might not only have been a serial murderer . . . but could have killed her own mother all those years ago. “He had a serious temper. He had a drinking problem. And this isn’t the first time he’d be suspected of murdering someone.”
Alger cleverly makes several characters suspects not just in the murder investigation, but the underlying web of relationships and interests that motivated the killings. She expertly injects surprising plot twists, a couple of which are heartbreaking, and red herrings to keep readers interested and determined, along with Nell, to discover the whole sordid truth.
Nell is a sympathetic character — a loner who has devoted herself wholly to her career and enjoyed success on her own merits. She has been skirting the FBI’s demand that she be cleared by a psychologist before resuming full duty, initially convinced that she can work through her emotions without assistance or support. However, she has been running from her complicated feelings for a decade, and gradually admits to herself that she can’t keep it up. Most importantly, she is a committed agent who is repulsed by the indifference shown by the local police to the murder victims and their families. She is admirably relentless in her drive to find their killer and prevent theirs from becoming just another unsolved cold case because the Suffolk County authorities view the young, undocumented Latina victims as “less than” their wealthy Caucasian constituents.
It’s about Adriana and Ria. These are girls like us. I want people to know their names. I want to knkow who killed them. They deserve that, at least.”
Girls Like Us is an intricately plotted, eerily timely story about a tenacious young woman who refuses to permit the murders of two young women, in which she glimpses aspects of herself, remain unsolved. Nell’s maternal grandparents hailed from Juarez, Mexico, and came to the United States to better provide for her mother, Marisol. They “crossed the border and never looked back,” but lived in a different time without fear of deportation despite the fact that they never became United States citizens.
Girls Like Us is also, in a sense, a coming-of-age tale about an accomplished young woman’s surrender to her own history of emotional upheaval for the sake of resolution and peace, and an exploration of a complex father-daughter relationship that can only be reconciled by the discovery of the truth, no matter how painful it may be. It is a tragic story about lost chances — not just for the murder victims, but for Nell and her father, as well.
Alger proves once again that she is capable of creating an engrossing, fast-paced thriller with emotional depth that is contemporary and thought-provoking. Girls Like Us is one of 2019’s must-read books.
Excerpt from Girls Like Us
On the last Tuesday in September, we scatter my father’s ashes off the coast of Long Island.
Four of us board Glenn Dorsey’s fishing boat with a cooler of Guinness and an urn. We head east, toward Orient Point, where Dad and Dorsey spent their Saturdays fishing for albacore and sea bass. When we reach a quiet spot in Orient Shoal, we drop anchor. Dorsey says a few words about Dad’s loyalty: to his country, his community, his friends, his family. He asks me if I want to say anything. I shake my head no. I can tell the guys think I’m about to cry. The truth is, I don’t have anything to say. I hadn’t seen my father in years. I’m not sad. I’m just numb.
After Dorsey finishes his speech, we bow our heads for a minute of respectful silence. Ron Anastas, a homicide detective with the Suffolk County Police Department, fights back tears. Vince DaSilva, Dad’s first partner, crosses himself, muttering something about the Holy Spirit under his breath. All three men go to Mass every Sunday at St. Agnes in Yaphank. At least, they used to. We did, too. Except for a small handful of weddings, I haven’t stepped inside a church since I left the island ten years ago. I’m grateful to be outside today. The air inside St. Agnes was always stagnant and suffocating, even after the summer heat subsided. I can still hear the whir of the ancient fan in the back. I can feel the edge of the scrunched-up dollar bill pressed against my sweaty palm, bound for the collection plate. The thought of it makes me squirm.
It’s a calm day. They say a storm is coming, but for now, the sky is cloudless. Dorsey holds the silence longer than necessary. He clasps his hands in front of him and his lips move as if in prayer. The guys start to get antsy. Vince clears his throat. Ron shifts from one foot to the other. It’s time to get on with it. Dorsey glances up, hands me the urn. I open it. The men look on as my father’s ashes blow away on the wind.
The burial is, I believe, what my father would have wanted. Short and sweet. No standing on ceremony. He is out on the water, the only place he ever seemed at peace. Dad always fidgeted like a schoolboy during Mass. We sat in the back so we could duck out before Communion. Dad claimed to hate the taste of the stale wafers and bad wine. Even then, I knew he was lying. He just didn’t want to confess.
After it’s over, Dorsey hands us each a Guinness and we toast. To the too-short life of Martin Daniel Flynn. Dad had just turned fifty-two when his motorcycle skidded off the Montauk Highway. It was two in the morning. I imagine he’d been drinking heavily, though no one dared say as much. No sense in pointing fingers now. According to Dorsey, Dad’s tires were worn, the road was wet, the fog clouded his visibility. End of story.
With these guys, what Dorsey says goes. Of the four, Dorsey went up the ranks the fastest. He got his gold shield first, then quickly pulled Dad and Ron Anastas out of plain, clothes and put them into homicide. When he became chief of detectives, Dorsey made sure that Vince DaSilva got elevated to inspector of the Third. The Third Precinct of Suffolk County covers some of the island’s rougher parts: Bay Shore, Brentwood, Brightwaters, Islip. It’s where the four men spent their early years together as patrolmen. It’s also where my father met my mother, Marisol Reyes Flynn. Dad always called the Third a war zone. For him especially, it was.
Dorsey and Dad went way back. Our families have been in Suffolk County for three generations. Before that, we hailed from Schull, a small village on Ireland’s rugged southwest coast. They used to joke that we were all probably related somewhere down the line. The men certainly looked it. Both were tall and dark-haired, with green eyes and sharp, inquisitive faces. My father wore his hair in a military crop his whole life. Dorsey, over the years, has had a mustache, sideburns, a shag. But when Dorsey’s hair is short, as it is now, you might mistake him for my father from a distance.
We put out some lines and the guys tell stories about their early days in the Third Precinct. As plainclothes officers, they would show up to work wearing Vans and Led Zeppelin T-shirts. Glory days stuff. They didn’t shave. If they had too much to drink the night before, they didn’t shower. Just rolled out of bed and cruised around in unmarked beater cars, looking for trouble. They never had to look far. In the Third, gangs were-and are still-prevalent. Violent crime is high; drugs are everywhere. For all the wealth in Suffolk County, nearly half of the Third Precinct lives at or just above the poverty line. Dad used to say that there was no better training ground for a cop than the Third Precinct, which was why, when you looked at top brass of the Suffolk County PD, so many of them came up from out of there.
Dorsey remarks that Dad was the toughest cop in the Third, and the best teacher a young patrolman could ask for. The guys nod in ascent. Maybe that’s true. Dad had an unshakable, almost evangelical sense of right and wrong. But there were contradictions. He loathed drugs but felt comfortable pickling his liver in scotch. He routinely busted gamblers but hosted a monthly poker game that drew district attorneys and a few well-known judges from around the island. The criminals he most despised were abusers of women and children, but I once saw him strike my mother so hard across the face that a red outline of his hand was imprinted on her skin. Dad had his own code. I learned early not to second-guess it. At least, not out loud.
Dad’s was a rough sort of justice. He taught lessons you wouldn’t soon forget. Dorsey’s favorite story about Dad was the time he made Anastas lie down on a gurney under a sheet at the medical examiner’s office. There was a rookie fresh out of the academy named Rossi. His dad was a judge and Rossi thought that made him a big shot. He liked to wear designer clothes to work-Armani and Hugo Boss-and that rubbed Dad the wrong way. Dad took Rossi down to the ME’s and had him pull back the sheet. Anastas sat up screaming and Rossi pissed himself, all over his six-hundred-dollar pants. After that, he shopped at JCPenney like everybody else.
Dorsey’s told that story a hundred times, but he tells it again, and we all laugh like we’ve never heard it before. It feels good to remember my father as funny because he was, he really could be. He’d be quiet all night and then pipe up with one perfect, cutting remark. Dorsey and I exchange smiles. I nod, grateful. This is the way I want to remember Dad today. Not for his temper. Not for his sadness. And not for the alcohol, which had finally taken him out on a quiet stretch of wet highway in the early hours of the morning.
Eventually, the sun dips low on the horizon. The sky turns an electric plum-toned blue. Dorsey decides it is time to head home. We’re carrying well more than our quota of sea bass, but with three cops on board-especially these three cops, who, like my father, were all born and raised and will probably die inside county lines-no one’s going to say squat about fishing limits. These men, Dorsey especially, are the closest thing Hampton Bays has to hometown heroes.
The guys are good and sauced. They talk loudly and repeat themselves; they hug me hard in the parking lot, not once but twice, three times. Anastas invites me home for dinner. I beg off, saying I’m tired, I need some time alone to decompress. He seems relieved. Ron has a wife, Shelley, and three kids. He doesn’t need a dour-faced twenty-eight-year-old hanging around his house. DaSilva is in the middle of a divorce. My guess is he’ll head to a bar once we’re done here.
After another round of jokes, Anastas and DaSilva stumble off in separate directions. They both drive away in minivans, cars built for booster seats and lacrosse sticks and car pools. Dorsey points to the silver Harley-Davidson Sportster that I rode over here. It was Dad’s favorite. He bought it cheap years ago; restored it himself over time. Dad had four motorcycles, or he did, before the accident. Now, I guess, there are three. His babies, he called them. Each one meticulously restored and cared for, swallowing up his off-duty hours like hungry fledgling birds.
“Nice ride.” Dorsey drops his arm around my shoulders and gives me a paternal squeeze. Dorsey married his high school sweetheart. He lost her in a car crash just a few years later. He never remarried or had kids. Dad made him my godfather, a job he took seriously. All four of my grandparents have passed. Both my parents were, like me, only children. It occurs to me now that Dorsey is the closest thing I’ve got left to family. I feel a pang of sadness. I wish we’d kept in better touch.
“Yeah,” I say, tilting my head against his arm. “It’s a good-looking bike. I miss riding.”
“You don’t have one in DC?”
“I’m not there enough to take care of it.”
“You move around with every new case, huh.”
“I’m a great packer. Been living out of a suitcase since the academy.”
“Your dad was like that. I think that’s why he liked camping so much.”
“He taught me well.” I take a step toward the bike.
“You sure you’re okay to operate heavy machinery? I can give you a lift home if not.”
I wave him off. “Don’t worry about me.”
“It’s dark out. The road might be wet.”
“I’m okay. Really.” I know what he’s thinking. He’s drunk, and I’ve had enough to put me over the limit. I have a wooden leg, though, and unlike my father, I know when it’s time to stop. I never drink the way Dad used to, well past the point of sloppiness. At least, not in public. Like a lot of agents, I save my drinking for the privacy of home.
“You know I always wanted to ride this bike.” I smile, trying to lighten the mood. “Dad used to make me work on it on the weekends, but I was too afraid to ask to try it out.” We both laugh.
“Marty loved those bikes of his.”
“He sure did. If there was a fire, I’m pretty sure he would’ve saved them first and come back for me afterward.”
“Don’t say that.” Dorsey shakes his head, a reprimand. “Your dad loved you more than you know.”
“Do you know what happened to his bike? The one he was riding, I mean.” It’s something I’ve wanted to ask but haven’t quite found the right moment. It seems like a relatively shallow thing to consider, having just lost my father and all. But it’s one of the many small loose ends I know I need to tie up before I leave Suffolk County for good.
Dorsey frowns, thinking. “It went to impound. I guess it’s still there. I can check.”
“Not the crime lab?”
“Nah. Pretty clear it was an accident. I signed the release form for it. I didn’t think about getting it to you. It’s basically junk metal now.” He winces, realizing how that sounds. “Sorry. I just meant-”
“I know what you meant. It’s okay. Should I pick it up from impound, then?”
“I can have them take it to the scrap yard for you if you want. Save you the time.”
“No, it’s fine. I’d like to do it myself.”
“It’s pretty badly mangled. I don’t know if you want to see something like that.”
“I’m a big girl, Glenn. I’ve seen what happens in a fatal crash.”
“I know you have. It’s just different when it’s family.” Dorsey looks away. His eyes are glassy with tears.
I nod, considering. “You’re right. I’ll call impound tomorrow. Cole Haines still running it?”
“Yep. He’ll take care of it. I’ll check in on you in the morning.” He watches me straddle the bike. “Listen, did you get in touch with Howie Kidd?”
“Dad’s lawyer? Yeah. He’s dropping by tomorrow to go through some estate stuff. Glad you reminded me. I’d forgotten about it.”
“You want me there? I can sit with you. Help you go through paperwork.”
“No, no. Thanks. I’m sure it’s all straightforward.”
“Okay. Well, you call if you need anything. That stuff can get overwhelming.”
“Thanks, Glenn. For everything.” He gives me a two-finger salute and starts to walk away. I rev the engine and he turns back, giving me one final, sad smile.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I say, my voice husky. It’s been a long time since I said those words to anyone.
I pull out of the lot before Dorsey does. It feels good to get moving after so many hours on the boat. The cold air puts life back into me. I putter down the Sunrise Highway, across the Ponquogue Bridge, to the house at the end of Dune Road.
It’s my house now, though it’s hard for me to see it that way. It won’t be for long. I need to sell it. I can’t afford to keep it. Even if I could, it doesn’t make sense for me to hold on to it. I haven’t taken a vacation in six years. I have no use for an old house on the South Fork of Long Island, in a county that holds as many bad memories as good ones.
My grandfather Darragh Flynn, who I called Pop, built this place back in the 1950s, when you could still buy a sliver of land with a bay view on a policeman’s salary. Views like this cost a half-million dollars now, maybe more. The house has about as much charm and space as an RV. I know that anyone who buys it is likely only interested in the land beneath. It is a squat, weather-beaten box with faded gray shingles and cheap sliding doors. Still, it’s not without a certain charm. It has a wraparound deck with views of Shinnecock Bay to the north and acres of rolling dune grass on either side. I hate thinking about someone bulldozing this patch of marshland just to throw up a McMansion with a pool and a tennis court. I know my father would hate that, too.
Excerpted from Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger. Copyright © 2019 by Cristina Alger. All rights reserved.
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