Fairstein, Linda - Silent Mercy
For CYRUS R. VANCE, Jr., District Attorney, New York County, whose wisdom, vision, integrity, courage, loyalty, and gift for friendship inspire me
“IS that you with the broad, Detective?” the fire captain shouted at Mike Chapman in the darkness of a frigid March night. “Keep her back there, across the street.”
“Got that, Coop? Stay put.” Mike left me in the middle of the double-wide roadway, wedged between unmarked police cars and bright red fire trucks as he charged in behind the huddle of uniformed cops on the sidewalk on the far side of the street.
I took my own blue-and-gold badge out of my pocket — no one would stop to read that the small print beneath my name said Assistant District Attorney, not NYPD — and flapped it over the breast pocket of my ski jacket, slinking between rowdy onlookers to get within inches of Mike.
“Alexandra Cooper. Special Victims,” I said to one of the firemen. His scowl softened and he nodded to let me pass.
Chaos had enveloped the corner of 114th Street and Seventh Avenue. Flames still danced around something that lay on the portico of a stately old church, teasing the water that spouted from steady-stream nozzles the firemen aimed at it. Emergency Service Unit cops wielded axes to try to break open the locks on the wrought-iron gate that guarded the front steps, and a growing herd of neighborhood rubberneckers crowded the first responders who were trying to get the job done.
I was on the tips of my toes, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was burning. Amidst blackened fragments of some kind of fabric and the occasional glitter of embers atop that, I could make out something white — almost flesh-colored. The shape of a human arm, maybe, but that thought was too awful to imagine.
More firemen rushed past me to aid their brother officers, one of them knocking me back a step. There was no point in slowing anyone down to ask questions.
I raised myself up again. It must have been sensory overload because I thought I could see a hand, but there weren’t really any fingers, and a terrible smell made me dizzier than the confusing sight.
“Who on fire?” one tall kid yelled out at no one in particular, then started to pull on the sleeve of my jacket as I passed in front of him.
“Don’t know,” I said, breaking loose from his grip and inching forward, but his choice of pronoun focused me.
No question that within the fiery pile was a human being. The putrid odor of burning flesh — coppery and metallic — permeated the air. Holocaust survivors and soldiers who had liberated camps in World War II claimed it was a stench they would never forget.
“Go!” It was one of the ESU cops who had pushed back the gate he’d hacked open, calling out to the firemen who’d been spraying hoses impatiently from the sidewalk.
The pair took the church steps two at a time, rushing toward the smoking mound. While uniformed cops turned their attention to crowd control, Mike dashed in through the gate.
“I’m his partner,” I lied to the startled cop at the foot of the steps, running up behind Mike. I could see feet — small, pale, and bare — protruding from the remains of what might have once been a blanket that had covered them. They didn’t move.
The taller fireman dropped to his knees and did what he must have done thousands of times after dousing the flames at a scene, whether or not he believed the victim would be able to respond.
He grabbed the ankles and pulled them toward him, then threw off the charred material that had concealed the corpse. He leaned over to begin an attempt at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but his back bucked and broke sideways as he braced himself against one of the massive columns and retched.
I stepped forward to see what ended the fireman’s effort so abruptly, and a wave of nausea swept over me too.
The body of the young woman had no head.
“DON’T you think the guys should move her inside?” I asked. The fire had been out for almost an hour and everyone on duty was growing restless.
Mike Chapman didn’t look up at me when he answered. “She can’t feel the cold quite like you do, Coop.”
My gloved hands were deep in the pockets of my ski jacket. “I’m not talking about the weather. I’m talking about the size of the crowd we’re attracting.”
“Breaking into a church is against my religion. Besides, the arson investigators have to check her out before we can take down the scene.”
I glanced at the pathologist who’d been dispatched from the medical examiner’s office. He was standing against another of the six columns at the far end of the portico, talking on his cell phone.
“The ME’s word isn’t enough?”
“Not when the perp was playing with matches. Got to make nice with the fire department,” Mike said, standing to turn and look down the steps at the growing number of passersby pressed against the wrought-iron fence.
“What do you want us to do, Chapman?” asked one of the four uniformed cops guarding the gated sidewalk entrance. It always seemed harder to get things done on the midnight shift.
Mike didn’t answer. He scanned the crowd of faces — all African American, mostly young-adult men with a handful of women among them. “It’s two o’clock in the morning. You mooks got nothing better to do with your time? Come back on Sunday for the full service. Be sure to bring something to throw into the plate.”
“I know you — you a DT,” one tall kid yelled out, using the uptown street name for detectives. “I seen you lock up dudes in Taft Houses last year, after that pimp got whacked. Who dead?”
Mike waved him off and speed-dialed the veteran lieutenant in charge of the Homicide Squad, Ray Peterson. “How about that backup you promised, Loo? Northeast corner of 114th Street and Powell Boulevard.”
This stretch of Seventh Avenue that spiked into Harlem, north of Central Park, had been renamed Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in honor of the pastor turned politician, the first black congressman from New York.
“What did he say?” I asked Mike as he flipped his phone shut.
“Should be lights and sirens any minute now.”
“Who’s the shorty, man?” The kid with the big voice was pushing through the crowd, referring to me — despite my five-foot-ten-inch frame — with another street term used by many teens in Harlem to tag their women. When that question failed to get Mike’s attention, a string of curse words followed.
“Yo, keep it sweet. This is sacred ground, don’t you know that?” Mike pointed over our heads to the large white wooden sign that appeared to have been added to the limestone façade of the old building more recently. I knew it read MOUNT NEBOH BAPTIST CHURCH, though I wasn’t sure how visible the lettering was in the early morning darkness. “And the shorty is my sister. So keep it sweet.”
I suppressed a smile at Mike’s form of crowd control. It was less controversial to claim me as kin than announce to the agitated onlookers that I was the prosecutor in charge of the Sex Crimes Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
“Chapman!” the uniformed cop shouted again. “I asked if you got a plan.”
I could see the revolving red lights as a fleet of squad cars approached from both directions on the boulevard.
“Here comes your mob management, guys,” Mike said. “They’ll help you clear the sidewalk.”
An unmarked car moved through the vehicular snarl with urgent repeats from its screaming whelper. When it braked to a stop across from the church, I could see Mercer Wallace, one of the city’s only African American detectives to make first grade, his six-footfour inches towering over the noisy kids.
Officers began to push back against the curious crowd as one of the sergeants from the local precinct came through the gates and up the steps, followed by Mercer.
“Counselor.” Sergeant Grayson nodded at me as he shook Mike’s hand. “What’s going on here, Chapman? Why’d you pull Alexandra out of bed in the middle of the night?”
“She got something better to do I don’t know about?”
I walked behind Mike to try to get a closer look at the body, wrapping the end of my scarf around my mouth and nostrils, although it provided little protection from the powerful odor. We had all put on booties and been cautioned to minimize foot traffic close to the dead woman because of the need for the crime-scene team to collect debris that might also yield valuable clues.
“You just can’t learn to stay back, can you, Coop?” Mike said as Mercer joined us at the top of the staircase, in front of three pairs of tall wooden doors that fronted the six columns of the old church.
I stared at the parts of the young woman’s body that were visible. Her left thigh was bruised, her torso was badly burned, and mutilated fingers protruded from beneath the tattered blanket.
“Who’s the ME?” Grayson asked, glancing over at Mike.
“Rookie named Bixby, who’s about to die from a cell phone being forcibly impacted in his cochlea if he doesn’t hang it up and get back over here,” Mike said, whistling to get the doctor’s attention. “I take it you’ve met Ms. Cooper.”
“About six rapes and thirty-seven domestic assaults ago,” Grayson said. “How you doing, Alex?”
“Coop’s been handling a bias crime from last summer,” Mike said. He walked away from the steps and led us behind another of the columns, farther away from the dead woman. Bixby sauntered toward us. “Gay guy whose body was mutilated.”
“A barbecue, like this?” Grayson asked.
I shook my head.
“It’s pretty obvious the girl wasn’t burned alive,” Dr. Bixby said, squinting to read a message on his BlackBerry. “I want the arson team to have a look before I disturb the body, but I think the fire was set to cover up the manner of death.”
“What kind of cover-up? She’s behind a locked fence, on the steps of one of the most prominent churches in Harlem, and she’s torched like a bonfire in the middle of a dark, cold night,” Grayson said. “That’s hardly hiding anything. It’s like inviting all the locals to stop by for a drink.”
“I got a call at eleven. Pair of cops in the Charlie/David sector of the precinct,” Mike said, running his fingers through a shock of black hair against the direction that the wind was trying to take it. He was wearing his trademark navy blazer and chinos, and as always, no matter how bitter the weather, no overcoat. His explanation for why we were together, so close to the crime scene, was directed at Mercer. “They found fingertips — four of them — nicely manicured, most likely a woman. Garbage pail on Lenox near 120th Street.”
“Like, six blocks from here,” Grayson said. “No head, huh?”
“I had a decapitation once. Guy carried the head all over town in a bowling bag. Left it on the six train going downtown in rush hour. Some jerk thought he scored himself a major steal. Opened the bag and the damn head rolled out. Cleared the whole freaking train in thirty seconds. Don’t worry — it’ll show up.”
“I’m not worried, Sarge,” Mike said, turning back to Mercer. “I knew Coop had that other mutilation case, so I thought I’d pick her brain. Never even made it to Lenox Avenue to scope the fingers when this call came in.”
“That victim last summer was a guy, right?” Mercer asked me.
“Yes, but cross-dressing. Perp might have thought he was picking up a woman and gone berserk.”
“Now I’ve got a naked cadaver dumped in a public place. Headless. I gotta think sexual assault, I gotta think torture, I gotta think mutilation again,” Mike said. “And I gotta think possible hate crime’cause the perp picked a religious institution for the drop. Sex crimes, torture, hate — it’s got Alex Cooper written all over it.”
I had run the Special Victims Unit in Paul Battaglia’s office for more than a decade and partnered often with Mercer, who worked in the counterpart NYPD bureau almost as long. Mike was assigned to the elite Manhattan North Homicide Squad — responsible for all of the murders above Fifty-Ninth Street — and knew that so many of the sadistic serial rapists Mercer and I investigated often escalated to killing their prey.
Mercer walked over to the body and kneeled to pull back the sheet Dr. Bixby had placed over it so he could eyeball the woman. “And she’s white. Dead center of Harlem and you’ve got a white girl snuffed out on a big stage.”
“We’ve been gentrified, Mercer,” Grayson said. “Don’t go playing the race card here.”
“I’m betting you she’s not from the ’hood.”
“When’s the last time you stopped into Sylvia’s for some ribs?” the sergeant asked, referring to the legendary soul food restaurant. “Looks like the limos full of ladies who lunch got lost on their way to tea at the Plaza.”
Mercer’s jurisdiction was countywide, like mine. He knew about the cross-dressing victim who had been bludgeoned to death in the Ramble by a guy he’d picked up on the street. The gay man who got his signals mixed was black. His fingertips had been mutilated, probably in an attempt by his killer to slow down the identification process. His penis had also been cut. The NYPD had classified the unsolved murder as a hate crime, though it was safe to say that most assaults that occurred within the thirty-six-acre enclave of Central Park’s densely foliated Ramble were assumed to have an element of bias.
“We’re on this, Sarge,” Mike said. “Thanks for your help.”
“She staying?” he asked, pointing at me.
“Coop’s useful sometimes, Sarge. You ever give that a try?”
It wasn’t unusual for a Manhattan prosecutor to come to a crime scene. Smart detectives called us into cases early on, to work as a team so that the most important evidence could be preserved and presented in the courtroom if the investigation was solved and the case went to trial. Matching seemingly unrelated crimes, overseeing forensic testing, and giving legal guidance for search warrants, lineups, and confessions had proved invaluable teamwork in seeking justice for those victimized.
“I’ll hang around, too, then,” Grayson said.
Mercer rose to survey the rest of the scene. “That gate was locked when you arrived?” he asked Mike.
“So, you’re saying the murderer got over the gate carrying a dead body, Doc? You’re not thinking he killed her on this portico?”
“Most likely the former,” Bixby said. “She’s rather petite, easy to move around. Lighter without, you know—”
We all knew. Lighter without her head.
“Or he had a key,” the sergeant said, trying to make himself relevant. “Or maybe he came out of the church with her. It’s possible he killed her inside there.”