The rookie didn't faint or lose his lunch. Detective Jack Leightner supposed he ought to give his new partner some credit for that.
A patrol officer met them outside the crime scene, an abandoned row house on the edge of Crown Heights. The uniform looked a bit pale. "It's not pretty in there," he said. "The body wasn't found for a few days."
Jack just glanced at the crowd of scowling locals standing beyond the yellow tape, out in the brutal August heat. "Keep an eye on my car," he said, then turned to his partner. "You ready for this?"
The young detective from the Seventy- first Precinct nodded in a show of eagerness. "Let's do it." It was Kyle Driscoll's first time as primary detective on a homicide. He was in his late twenties, and he had burnished brown skin and the confident good looks of a professional athlete.
The body was on the second floor, but its odor met them downstairs, as soon as they walked into the dark front hallway, starkly lit by a floodlight one of the Crime Scene techs had planted to guide the way. The smell was god- awful and sickly sweet. Thousands of years of evolution had prepared human beings to hate this particular scent: it meant Avoid this spot. Bad things happen here.
The young detective swallowed. "Should we do that thing with the Vicks VapoRub?" He was still doing his best to act enthusiastic, but the smell was clearly getting to him.
Jack tried not to grin. As a veteran with Brooklyn South Homicide, it was his job to temporarily pair up with local detectives and assist them with their murder investigations. "What thing?" he asked.
The rookie squirmed. "Don't you smear it under your nose to cover up bad smells?" Even real cops were susceptible to false information from TV shows; in Jack's experience, it took several years to mature beyond all that.
He shook his head. "We don't do that—all it would do is burn your nose. Don't worry, you'll be fine."
The rookie nodded. The young man had earned his detective's shield, but he'd spent his first few months on robberies and assaults. He wanted to prove that he was ready for the big show.
The house was an empty shell waiting to fall in on itself, but Jack noticed some elegant architectural details—crown moldings, a dusty, gap- toothed chandelier—from an earlier era. The rookie pulled up short as they reached the top of the staircase. Through the first doorway on the left—a bedroom, judging by a dingy mattress on the floor—they could see a whirlwind of activity. The plywood in the windows blocked any natural light, but the Crime Scene Unit had lit the place with more floodlights on stands. Jumpsuited techs crouched down searching for evidence, a photographer was snapping photos, and the Medical Examiner's investigators bustled back and forth. In the heart of the maelstrom, as always, was a terribly lonely and still center. In this case, the body was that of a young black woman, hanging by a rope attached to a chain that had probably once supported another chandelier. She was half dressed, in a shorty negligee; she wore her orangey hair straightened and it looked almost shellacked; her light brown legs were purpled with the blood that had settled within. Despite her current puffy condition, Jack figured that she had been a pretty young woman.
He turned and caught the rookie staring. He'd wanted to see, to become privy to this dark knowledge, and now he probably wished he hadn't.
"The M.E.'s guys control the body at the scene," Jack explained. "That guy in the white shirt is Anselmo Alvarez, head of the C.S.U."
The rookie stared up at the corpse; Jack didn't know if he was even registering the commentary. Having him around was disconcerting; he reminded Jack of his own early days with the NYPD. He recalled the shock of his first few bodies. And he remembered farther back, his first memory of a corpse, when he was a little kid: the sudden jolt of adrenaline he'd felt after almost stepping on a dead squirrel on a sidewalk, its wiry body splayed and stiff, its little watermelon- pit eyes staring up, accusing. There was something terribly unnatural about any creature with its animating spirit gone, and sensible people did everything they could to avoid looking at such things. Jack saw himself and his colleagues through this rookie's naïve eyes now, and thought something he rarely bothered to think anymore: What a weird goddamn job.
He squared his shoulders. There was no room for emotion here, or philosophy: this was just a puzzle that needed to be solved. He turned to the kid. "We're going to have to wait a few minutes until we can get inside."
The rookie nodded, doing his best not to look relieved.
Anselmo Alvarez stepped out into the hallway. He and Jack had become friendly over the years, two fairly small men in a world of big cops, and two relative outsiders, a Dominican and a Jew. Alvarez was the best forensics man in Brooklyn. He started to offer a prelim, but Jack waved him off. "This is Kyle Driscoll from the Seven- one. I want him to look at the scene fresh, without any preconceptions, and see if he can tell us what happened." He had a son a few years younger than the rookie. Though he had never felt right talking about the job with Ben—or with his ex- wife—he liked to mentor young detectives, to reach them before the job made them jaded or cynical.
The photographer had finished his work, and it was time for Jack and his young partner to go in. The rookie hesitated before they stepped over the threshold, but this time it didn't seem to be fear or distaste that was holding him back.
"Something on your mind?" Jack asked.
The rookie squinted. "Um, yeah. If this woman killed herself, then why is Homicide here?"
Jack nodded. "That's a good question. Let's see if you can answer it."
The room was sweltering; Jack felt his shirt cling to the small of his back. As they moved inside, his own questions began to pop like firing nerve synapses, but he kept them to himself.
The Crime Scene crew had left a stepladder next to the vic, and he climbed up for a look at her neck. Then he moved down and examined her fingertips. Finally, he turned to the rookie. "You all right with a closer look? There's something up there I want you to see."
The rookie nodded. He climbed the ladder gingerly, as if he were ascending a gallows himself.
"Look at the neck and see if you notice anything," Jack said, patiently.
While the young detective followed his suggestion, Jack turned away and surveyed the rest of the room. Even without the corpse, it would have smelled bad. The place was a mess, with junk- food wrappers strewn about, a pile of dirty clothes over by the window, an open Domino's box sitting next to the soiled mattress, revealing a half- eaten pizza. A bitter odor, faintly detectable under the overpowering scent of the body, gave away one reason for the human presence here (crack cocaine), and an economy- size box of condoms half tucked between the mattress and a dusty baseboard gave away another. Jack noticed one unrolled, forsaken condom lying next to the bed, and he crouched down for a closer look. Then he straightened up and motioned toward the door. "That's enough for now."
THEY STEPPED OUT OF the house and into a blast of humid summer heat, but the fresh air still felt good.
Beyond the little concrete front yard, several radio cars and a Crime Scene van were pulled up to the curb. Across the street, another small crowd had gathered: not resentful black neighbors, but dour, bearded white men. Despite the heat, they wore black suits and black hats. Crown Heights was home to three main population groups: African- Americans, black immigrants from the West Indies, and these ultrareligious Hasidic Jews.
The rookie breathed deeply. Jack gave him a moment to recover, then turned his attention to the matter at hand. "So: why wasn't this a suicide?"
The freshly minted detective frowned in concentration. "There was something weird about the neck. It looked like there was another mark across it, instead of just from the rope."
Jack nodded. "That's exactly right. In a hanging, the ligature mark would rise up behind the ears, but here we have a mark that goes straight across, which would indicate strangulation. And it's thin, with a double groove—probably caused by an electrical cord." He leaned back against the stoop's iron railing, then noticed flakes of rust coming off onto his sports jacket, and moved away. (Despite the often grubby nature of his job, he was a bit fastidious.) "Did you notice the condom next to the mattress?"
The rookie frowned again. "Um, I think so. It was unrolled, right?"
Jack nodded. "Yeah, but what else?"
The rookie squinted. "I don't know."
Jack crossed his arms. "It was dry and empty. Now why would there be an open condom lying there with nothing in it?"
He watched the detective struggle to work through the implications. "Whoever was using it didn't, um, finish what he was doing?"
Jack nodded. "You're doing good. Let's try to re- create the scene. Someone else was in that room with the woman. A john, or maybe her pimp. He unrolls a condom but can't finish his business. Or can't get started. Maybe she says something about his manhood, or maybe she doesn't even have to; either way, he gets enraged. He reaches out and there's some old appliance lying there and he strangles her with the cord. Did you notice that I looked at her fingernails?"
The rookie nodded uncertainly.
"What do you think we might find there?"
The rookie squinted. "The killer's DNA? Like, what if she scratched him as she tried to pull his hands away?"
"Actually, we often find the victim's own tissue under her fingernails: she digs into her skin, trying to pull away the cord. So anyhow," Jack concluded, "the perp calms down and sees what he's done, and then he tries to cover it up by making it look like a suicide. Luckily for us, like most criminals, he's not a rocket scientist."
The rookie sank down onto the stoop, took out a handkerchief, and wiped his face.
THEY SPENT THE NEXT couple of hours canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses. Fruitlessly. Nobody wanted to step up and get involved, not the distrustful black locals, not the sour- looking Hasidim. They checked with a local Vice team to see if the victim was a known hooker, but no luck there. They showed a photo to some working girls—nada—and then ran it by some informants on the local drug scene. Nothing. And then their tour was over.
"Don't worry," Jack told his new partner. "We'll have an I.D. soon. We'll get a match on her prints. Or we'll find out who was selling her drugs. . . ." He certainly hoped he was right—the odds of solving any homicide dropped drastically after the first forty- eight hours.
The rookie was quiet for the first part of the drive back to the Seven- one house. As they passed a bunch of little kids dancing around in the spray of an open hydrant and then rolled by clusters of old folks sitting on folding chairs right out on the sidewalk, Jack left him alone; the young detective had plenty to think about.
"You got any questions?" Jack finally said.
The rookie chewed his lower lip. "Does, ah, does it get to you?"
The rookie nodded gravely.
Jack leaned back and dropped his forearm on his armrest. "We do this every day. We kick into an investigative gear as soon as we hit the scene. If we got emotional or took it personally, there's no way we could do the job."
The rookie frowned but didn't speak.
"What?" Jack said.
The rookie chewed his lip.
"Something bothering you?"
The rookie shrugged. "I was wondering why everybody didn't wear Tyvek jumpsuits. I thought that, after O.J. and all, we were supposed to be more careful about dealing with possible evidence."
Jack glanced at him. The rookie was looking straight ahead, as if he was embarrassed. "Well, law enforcement all across the country has been more careful since the Simpson thing, but that doesn't mean that we're gonna have a perfect textbook setup for every single investigation. If you watch some of these TV shows, you'd think that every murder gets solved by forensic evidence, but in real life that's pretty rare. Most cases still get solved because we found a witness or because the mutt confessed."
The rookie still frowned.
The rookie looked away. "I was just wondering if maybe there would have been a more textbook setup if, you know—if the victim hadn't been black."
Jack resisted an urge to swerve to the curb and throw the car into Park. "Listen," he said. "You've been on the job long enough to know that every case gets its own priority. And yeah, the killing of some crack- addicted hooker is not generally the highest- precedence type of situation, as far as the brass or the press are concerned. But if you're suggesting that we might do a shoddy job because of the color of her skin . . ."
At the next red light, he turned and stared at the young detective. "I don't hear you complaining about the fact that the victim was a woman. Or that somebody cold- bloodedly murdered a prostitute, because he thought nobody would give a shit . . ." Despite all his talk about professionalism and detachment, he pictured the girl hanging so helpless in that dismal room and he felt a deep flash of anger toward whoever had done this to her. "That girl wasn't able to protect herself, and now she can't speak for herself, and we're damn well gonna stand up for her."
The young detective looked only slightly chastened, but enough so that Jack didn't feel a need to point out that if the case had been high priority, the rookie would never have been given responsibility for it. He was here to encourage the kid, not bust his chops. And so he added, decisively, "And you know why we're gonna put some extra mojo into this case?"
The rookie shook his head.
"Because this bastard thinks he's smarter than the NYPD."
Excerpted from Neptune Avenue by Gabriel Cohen.
Copyright © 2009 by Gabriel Cohen.
Published in May 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.