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“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.?
FBI Agent Dan O’Reilly looked through his windshield at the large crowd milling on Fifth Avenue. It was eleven o’clock on a rainy Wednesday night in June, but the blazing spotlights from the television news vans made it feel like high noon. His companion in the car, federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas, was surveying the scene with obvious alarm. Here and there, recognizable faces stood out, celebrity reporters from the local news channels.
“You didn’t warn me about this,?Melanie said.
“Famous victim. You’ve got to expect press.?/font>
The N.Y.P.D. had set up a barricade at the Seventy-Ninth Street entrance to Central Park. Inside the gates, a short walk into the Ramble, a tabloid tv personality lay dead. Suzanne Shepard, the glamorous blonde scandal-mongerer, had been viciously raped and stabbed, and Dan and Melanie had come to view the crime scene. But after a tough year, Melanie was fighting serious burn-out, and she hardly needed a high-profile case right now. Twenty minutes earlier, she’d been enjoying a romantic evening, getting hot and heavy with Dan on her living room sofa after taking him to dinner for his birthday. She hadn’t been in the market for anything like this. Then his pager started shrieking.
“Press coverage kicks everything up a notch,?Melanie said. “More pressure. More scrutiny. I should never have let you drag me out here.?
“Admit it. You can’t say no to me.?/font>
In the semi-darkness of the car, Dan smiled. He had a movie-star smile, a football hero body and intense blue eyes. He was right. These days, Melanie wasn’t refusing him much. Which probably wasn’t the smartest move, mere months after she’d divorced her cheating husband, and with a little girl to raise.
“You’re full of yourself, O’Reilly,?she said.
Dan edged his G-car toward the barricade. Several cameramen walked backwards in front of them, filming them through the car windows.
“I can’t believe this. Look at these guys,?Melanie said.
“Didn’t you tell me your boss was pissed at you for turning down that terrorism financing case??Dan asked.
“What choice did I have? It involved overseas travel, and I can’t leave Maya.?/font>
“Bring in a big murder case,?Dan said. “Bernadette’ll love you again.?/font>
“You know what they say. Big cases, big problems. Little cases, little problems. No cases, no problems.?/font>
“You know what else they say. No cases, no job. Trust me, you’ll be up on the dais accepting Prosecutor of the Year on this one. Then you’ll thank me.?/font>
Dan rolled his window down, and they both handed their credentials over to the cop stationed there, who studied them and proceeded to consult with somebody over a walkie-talkie. After a few minutes, he handed the creds back, pulled the barricade aside and waved them through. Melanie had pushed Maya’s stroller through this very gate more times than she could count, but in the reassuring light of day. She wished mightily that she were doing that now. The park looked so different at night. Strange shadows loomed between the arcs of yellow light spilling from the lampposts, and branches flapped in the wet wind. What had happened to the old Melanie? Time was, she would’ve been eating this up instead of feeling the butterflies.
They drove as far as the Boathouse before the path became too narrow for the G-car to pass. A traffic jam of blue-and-whites and American-made sedans with tinted windows had all stopped at the same place, parked every which way in front of the ornate brick building. Their drivers were nowhere in sight. Slapping a police placard in the front windshield, Dan got out and came around to open Melanie’s door.
“At least the service is good,?she said, stepping out. He closed the door with a thud, and the sound seemed to echo in the gloom all around them.
“Not as good as what you’re gonna get later. I wasn’t done with you.?Dan winked at her, giving her a jolt right down to her toes.
It was a warm, rainy night, and the sky above them glowed lurid orange with reflected light from the city. They passed through a gate to enter the Ramble, and the manicured park immediately turned wild and overgrown, smelling of wet earth and rotting leaves. The woods closed in on either side so the footpath was barely wide enough for two people to walk abreast. She couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. The ground was broken and uneven, and Melanie was glad she’d chosen boots with sturdy soles. A sudden scurrying noise in the underbrush made her start.
“You okay??Dan asked.
“Yeah. Just a squirrel.?/font>
“Or a rat. This is Central Park after all.?/font>
“Thanks a lot.?/font>
“I’d try to take him out with my Glock, but I haven’t been to the range lately.?/font>
Melanie laughed. “Oh, that gives me a lot of confidence.?/font>
The path sloped upward and opened onto a vista that would have been beautiful if it weren’t swarming with cops and blazing with strange artificial light. Portable klieg lamps had been set up around the edges of a ravine that dropped off precipitously from the pathway. Beyond the ravine -- which measured maybe twenty feet deep by fifty wide -- an inlet of the Central Park Lake glittered and a spectacular weeping willow swayed in the wet wind. Below, crime scene detectives in protective white coveralls and facemasks were busy photographing, bagging, marking and sampling, their grim faces washed out to sepia hues by the glare.
Melanie and Dan came to a halt by necessity. Both the path ahead and the steep trail down into the ravine where the detectives worked were blocked off with police barricades.
“There’s Brennan,?Dan said. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Yo, Butch! Up here.?
A tall, stocky man standing knee-deep in the underbrush in the middle of the ravine looked up. Butch Brennan was the supervisor of the Crime Scene team, an old-timer, nearing retirement now, who’d waded through oceans of gore in his day without losing his happy-go-lucky attitude. In fact, the more brutal the crime, the more cheerful Butch got. And Melanie could tell that he was smiling broadly through his face mask now as he gave them a peppy wave.
“He looks way too happy,?Melanie said. “I’m going home.?/font>
“You can’t leave. It’s pitch dark, and there’s a killer on the loose.?/font>
“Stay there!?Butch yelled. “I’m coming to get youse!?
Melanie shielded her eyes against the glare and watched Butch Brennan clamber up the side of the ravine. He picked his way carefully along a ragged schist outcropping, then doubled back toward them, careful not to disturb anything in the cordoned-off areas.
“Dan, Melanie,?Butch said, nodding, breathing heavily as he yanked off a paper face mask. “Glad to see the feds on the case. We need all the help we can get.?/font>
“That doesn’t sound good,?Melanie commented.
“It’s not,?Butch said. “Whoever did this is a major psycho. Janice Marsh from the D.A.’s Office was here before. She saw the body, turned green and ran off to hurl. Haven’t seen her since.?/font>
“What’s so bad??Dan asked.
“The victim’s hacked all to shit,?Butch said, “and the killer carved ‘Bitch?in her stomach with a hunting knife. I’ll tell you, I thought about puking myself, and I’ve seen everything.?
“The D.A.’s Office has dibs,?Melanie said to Dan. “I should bow out.?Melanie was a federal prosecutor, from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, whereas the D.A. was state. The two offices were constantly engaged in turf battles. Melanie wasn’t just looking for an excuse here. It a situation like this, the politics could get tricky.
“My boss worked out the turf issues already with Manhattan North Homicide,?Dan said. “The investigation is joint state-federal. If the Bureau and the N.Y.P.D. can play nice, I’m sure you can get along with the D.A.’s Office.?/font>
“Don’t leave, really,?Butch said. “Janice ain’t coming back any time soon. We need a prosecutor with a strong stomach on this case. I’ve seen you in action, Melanie. I know you can handle yourself,?Butch said.
Given the mood she was in, the fact that the A.D.A. had vomited and fled the scene should’ve made Melanie run screaming all the way back to her apartment. But Butch Brennan wasn’t one to hand out compliments lightly, and his vote of confidence managed to scratch the surface of her attitude. If she said no, she’d risk losing Butch’s regard, and that wouldn’t feel good.
“If you think so, Butch,?she said.
Just then, the wind shifted. A warm mist blew into Melanie’s face, coming from the direction of the lake. It carried a whiff of something sharp that cut right through the lush scent of water and woods. A gamy, metallic odor Melanie recognized from crime scenes past, and from a terrible night in her own childhood when violence had invaded her home. Blood.
“I do think so,?Butch said. “Let’s go have a look.?/font>
In order to view the body, Melanie and Dan were required to don the white jumpsuits, shoe covers and face masks worn by the crime scene detectives. The suits were constructed from a space-age slippery microfiber that made Melanie feel like she was embarking on a trip to Mars. As Butch Brennan gave them a rundown of the other forensic evidence on their way down into the ravine, and the brutality of the crime became increasingly evident to her, a feeling that she’d stepped into some sick alternate universe took hold of her.
“Assailant attacked the victim on the path up ahead here. He may have used a stun gun to subdue her, based on a small lesion on the side of her neck, three marks in a triangular formation. Then he stabbed her. There’s a shitload of blood. Lucky the rain let up. It didn’t wash away,?he said, unclipping a heavy rubber flashlight from his tool belt and training its beam on a cordoned-off portion of blacktop. Melanie couldn’t see anything but wet black pavement.
“It don’t look like much to the naked eye, but it’s there,?Butch said. “When we sprayed the Luminol, the place lit up like the Fourth of July. We took infrared photos and samples of the victim’s blood. We also got what we believe to be samples of the killer’s DNA.?/font>
“How’d you get that??Melanie asked.
“The victim was sexually assaulted, and we swabbed. Plus she had long fingernails, and we took scrapings from under ‘em. From that, and the defensive wounds on her arms, I’m betting she got her licks in. Our subject’s walking around with some nasty scratches and maybe a few contusions into the bargain.?/font>
“So you’ll submit those DNA samples to the FBI database for comparison??Melanie asked. As reluctant as she’d been to come out, her brain was kicking in now, working on the puzzle.
“We’ll do that. Not to rain on your parade, but just remember you only get a match if your killer was gentleman enough to provide his DNA profile to the FBI in advance. Otherwise there’s nothing in the CODIS database to match our sample to,?Butch said.
“I understand,?Melanie said. “Now, from the spatters, you think she was actually attacked here in the Ramble? Not attacked elsewhere and dumped here??/font>
“The attack definitely happened here,?Butch replied.
“Huh,?Melanie said, interested. “What’s a woman doing walking around alone in the Ramble at night??/font>
“Oh,?Butch said, “you mean because it’s. . . .?/font>
“A major gay cruising location. Suzanne Shepard was a reporter in this town for a long time. You’d think she’d know that. Besides, it was raining. Not a terrific night for a jog in the park.?
“The forensics can’t tell us why she was here,?Butch said. “But maybe they’ll tell us a thing or two about why she was killed. To me, looking at the brutality of the crime, it fits with a PCP or meth killing.?/font>
“PCP’s over, and there’s no meth in New York,?Dan said, shaking his head.
“That’s not true; meth’s everywhere now,?Melanie said. “DEA’s been bringing us a lot of those cases.?/font>
“Whatever drug it was,?Butch said, “I’m thinking maybe a junkie confronted her, tried to rob her, she resisted and it went south from there. The uniforms who notified next of kin radioed back that the victim was wearing diamond earrings and a gold Rolex when she left home this morning, which she ain’t now.?/font>
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“Would a junkie rape her though??Melanie asked. “The rape strikes me as more consistent with a random sex crime.?/font>
“I hear you, but on the other hand, would a rapist rob her??Butch asked. “This scumbag went through her wallet. We found it next to the body with streaks of talcum powder visible on the leather. The cash was gone, and her driver’s license. But the credit cards were still there. That’s a little unusual. Most killers who boost a wallet just grab the fucking thing and run.?/font>
“Talcum powder marks. What’s that about??Melanie asked.
“Surgical gloves. They must’ve been wet from the rain, and the residue transferred. We found powder spots on her clothing, too.?
The little hairs on the back of Melanie’s neck stood up. “What kind of junkie wears surgical gloves? That sounds like a psycho serial killer move. Maybe even somebody experienced, who’s committed similar acts before,?she said.
“A sexual sadist??Dan asked. “That would fit with what he carved on her stomach.?/font>
“Either way, it sounds like a random killing. I don’t like that,?Melanie said.
“Random is a lot tougher to crack than something targeted,?Dan agreed.
“What do you think, Butch??Melanie asked.
“From what I’ve seen, nothing points to the victim knowing her attacker. The stun gun mark tells me he had a plan to subdue her, so it’s not like he was somebody she trusted, who was counting on getting close before he attacked. As for the writing on her stomach, it’s hard to say. Could go either way -- a robbery, a sex slay. Or even somebody who hated her show, though God knows, that don’t narrow it down much,?Butch said with a chuckle.
“I never saw that show,?Dan said. ?i>High Crimes, right??/font>
“Yeah, what a load of crap,?Butch said. “She was always slinging the muck about famous people, digging around in their dirty laundry. But listen to me. I watched it.?/font>
“You, and a lot of other people,?Dan said.
“Hmm, I bet she had a lot of enemies,?Melanie said thoughtfully.
“Anyways, getting back to what I was saying,?Butch said, “after he stabbed her, he dragged her across this patch of dirt. We got a few footprints, so we’re making some casts for you for trial.?
Butch directed the flashlight beam down at a section of ground which was studded with rectangular wood frames containing hardening plaster.
“Then he tossed her over the edge of the ravine like a sack of garbage. Boom. She lands down there. He goes down after her. It’s nice and private down there. We believe the sexual assault took place in the ravine, after the stabbing. And now, let’s go take a look at what’s left.?
Melanie nodded, and she and Dan followed Butch wordlessly down into the ravine. The bottom was soft earth covered in ferns and underbrush and bathed in cold white light from the klieg lamps. In the other-worldly glare, Melanie felt like she was sleepwalking. Spacewalking was more like it. As Butch led them toward the body, and the gamy smell grew stronger, she felt numb. She’d been through the crime scene wringer before on other cases. You’d think it would get easier, but far from it. Lately the job only got harder.
They were right upon the victim now, yet the body was barely visible. The ground sloped downward toward the lake, and the victim had landed with her head pointing in that same direction. Her head, torso and upper legs disappeared into the thick underbrush, obscured by low bushes and dripping ferns. Only her lower legs and feet stuck out, twisted oddly inward. The right leg was completely naked and glowed a dead white punctuated by dark clumps of dried blood. The left leg was partly bare and partly twined in a coiled mess of blood-sopped khaki pants and underwear, its foot still clad in a tan moccasin.
“We photographed the area with the leaves covering her, just like this, which is how we found her. Then we held ‘em aside and took pictures of the wounds. After the M.E. bags her and hauls her off, we’ll cut away all the brush and do a final sweep for anything we missed because of the ground cover.?/font>
“Okay, good,?Melanie forced herself to say. Part of her wanted to run, and part of her knew she needed to stay now and bear witness to this horrible crime. God, human beings were evil.
“He taped her hands and mouth. Plain packing tape like you could buy in any hardware or moving supply store. We can try to print it, but again, he wore gloves, so my guess is, we’ll come up empty. I’m gonna show you her face so’s you trust my I.D., but I’m warning you, it ain’t pretty. Ready??/font>
Melanie nodded mutely, and Butch used his probe to sweep aside the wet ferns that obscured the victim’s head.
Suzanne Shepard’s mouth, visible through strips of blood-smeared plastic packing tape, was twisted into a grimace of the starkest horror. Her blue eyes were open and vacant, but wide with shock, and the black blood that had sprayed up to dot her face looked like so many flies swarming her body. She’d died in agony; you could see it in her expression, and yet the cool, beautiful tv star was still recognizable in the gruesome corpse. Seeing a celebrity in the flesh always felt surreal. Melanie’s occasional close encounters -- Mary Tyler Moore buying a sweater at Bendel’s, Kelly Ripa eating ice cream with her kids -- had been disorienting just because it was bizarre to realize that television stars existed in real life. But a famous person dead, and brutally, horribly so? Beyond weird.
“It’s definitely her,?Dan said. He took Melanie’s arm to steady her, looking concerned, and she managed a nod to let him know she was okay. Butch was right. She did have a strong stomach. She could handle this, and she liked that about herself. She took a deep breath through her mouth, so she could get oxygen without inhaling the stench of blood.
“Here’s what we think is a stun gun mark,?Butch said, using his pointer to indicate three tiny burn marks arranged in a triangular pattern on the side of Suzanne Shepard’s elegant neck. “Public place, it makes sense he would stun her and gag her to reduce noise.?/font>
“How long would a stun gun knock her out for??Melanie asked.
“It wouldn’t knock her out at all,?Dan said, shaking his head. “To make somebody lose consciousness, you have to maintain the electrical connection between the stun gun and the skin for several seconds. That’s harder than you’d think. Probably he just shocked her enough to get the jump on her.?/font>
“Now get a load of this,?Butch said. “The main event. This part, I need to be careful, because it’s important. We took pictures, but the M.E.’ll want it clean for the autopsy.?
Butch knelt down and carefully held aside a low-lying branch that had concealed the woman’s torso, then shined his flashlight beam directly on it.
“Jesus!?Dan exclaimed, recoiling.
Melanie gasped and jerked her eyes away, closing them instinctively to shield herself from the monstrous sight. But it stayed with her anyway, vibrating against her eyelids, so after a moment she opened them again, swallowing hard to fight back the sour taste rising in her throat.
A pink cotton sweater was bunched up near the victim’s underarms, and a lavender brassiere hung loosely down from her right shoulder. She’d been stabbed many times with tremendous force. Her left breast was half-severed. Gaping slash wounds covered the rest of her upper chest, exposing internal organs that looked like nothing so much as meat at the butcher’s counter. But her stomach had been spared, and stood out white and unmarred except for the message the killer had sent. The letters were carved with unexpected precision: BITCH, in boxy capitals that had been formed by joining together straight-edged cuts which oozed smears of blood.
“Look how neat it is,?Butch said. “Like he had all the time in the world. I bet the autopsy’s gonna say the knife he used to write on her was different from the murder weapon. Something small and sharp, a box cutter, maybe, or a scalpel. We recovered the murder weapon, and just eyeballing it, it’s too fat to make those nice, neat cuts.?/font>
Butch let the leaves fall back into place and stood up.
“You got the murder weapon??Dan asked.
“Yeah,?Butch said. “Guy threw it down toward the lake and we found it lying on a rock. Sloppy. Typical resin-handled hunting knife with a ten-inch steel blade. Nothing unusual enough to trace easy. We’ll print it and all, but we won’t get anything, seeing as he was wearing gloves.?
“What about the stun gun??Dan asked.
“That might be easier to bring back to an individual purchaser than a knife. A lotta guys hunt, but not too many electric-shock people,?Butch said wryly.
Somebody called to Butch from above.
“Oh, the footprint casts are set. I gotta go pull ‘em up. But you two, relax. Stay as long as you want,?Butch said, like he was inviting them to sit by the fire.
Dan turned to Melanie, who stood solemn and silent, her eyes glued to Suzanne Shepard’s blood-drenched legs protruding from the leaves. They reminded her of the wicked witch’s legs sticking out from under the house in The Wizard of Oz, a sight that had never failed to make her tremble with fear as a child.
“I’m sorry,?Dan said. “This one was worse than I expected. You must hate me for bringing you here.?/font>
It took her a second to pull her eyes away and meet his gaze. “I hate the killer, not you. Anybody who could do this to another person isn’t fit to be called human. I bet it’s some jerk who’s done this to other women, too.?/font>
“That’s why I like what I do for a living,?he said meaningfully. “We make a difference. We can get him off the streets. You can.?/font>
“You’re right,?Melanie said, sighing deeply. “I’m in.?/font>
Copyright ?2007 Michele Martinez