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‘Killer Heat,’ by Linda Fairstein

/ Source: TODAY

Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor in real life, returns with her 10th Alexandra Cooper thriller. Manhattan D.A. Alex Cooper gets the call: The body of a young woman has been found in an abandoned building. Between dodging the bullets of the gang members who are infuriated by Alex's most recent courtroom victory, Cooper uses her interrogation skills and exploits one big break to focus the search for the killer to a chain of small, abandoned islands around New York harbor. Here's an excerpt from “Killer Heat”:

Chapter OneMike Chapman bit into the tip of a Cohiba and held the match to the end of his thick cigar, drawing several deep breaths to make certain it was lighted.

"Take a few hits, Coop," he said, passing it to me.

I shook my head.

"The stench from that corpse is going to stay in your brain for weeks unless you infuse it right away with something more powerful. Why do you think I've always got a couple of these in my pocket?"

I took the cigar from Mike and rolled it between my fingers.

"Don't look at the damn thing. Smoke it. That broad's been decomposing for days in an empty room during a summer heat wave. Wrap your lips around that sucker and inhale till the smoke comes through your nose and ears, and maybe even from between your toes."

I put it to my lips, coughing as the harsh tobacco taste filled my mouth and lungs. There were no overhead lights above the concrete barriers we sat on at the intersection of South Street and Whitehall, which dead-ended at the East River, near the southernmost tip of Manhattan. "There's no air out here. Not even a breeze off the water."

"Almost midnight and it's still ninety-seven degrees. She's cooking in that room," Mike said, tossing his head in the direction of the crime scene that he'd been working for the last three hours. His black hair glistened with sweat, and the perspiration on his shirt made the cotton cloth cling to his chest. "Whatever body parts were left intact will be fried by the time they bag her."

"Are you going with the guys to the morgue?" I asked.

"Might be the coolest place in town tonight. You into refrigerated boxes?"

"I'll pass. Are they almost done?"

"The ME was ready to call it quits when the maggot maven showed up."

The putrefaction of the woman's body, which had been left to rot in the abandoned government offices over the old ferry slip, offered an irresistible opportunity to swarms of summer flies, which entered to lay their eggs and leave their offspring to nourish themselves on her flesh.

The blast of the horn from the Staten Island Ferry, its giant orange hull sliding out of the pier from the enormous modern terminal just twenty yards downriver, startled me. We were half a mile south of the bustling marketplace that had once been the South Street Seaport, flanking the glittering towers of Wall Street, outside what seemed like the only building in the downtown area that had been neglected alongside the water's flotsam and jetsam.

I stood up from the concrete barrier and looked over my shoulder at the entrance to the deserted slips — three vaulted openings that led to the water, supporting a raised porch and the offices in which the body had been found, centered between forty-foot-tall columns that faced Whitehall. Crumbling wooden pilings bordered the walkway behind me, while trash floated and bobbed among the large rocks in the water ten feet below.

"Jumpy already?" Mike smiled at me as he held the open collar of his shirt between his thumb and forefinger, waving it back and forth as though the cloth might actually dry out despite the oppressive humidity. "You don't even know what happened to her yet."

"Has he got any ideas about how long the woman's been dead?" The cigar smoke filtered up through my nostrils, overwhelming the pungent odor of death.

"Bug juice, Madam Prosecutor. The good Dr. Magorski likes to bring this whole thing down to when he figures the flies laid the maggots which finished feasting and then sat on the floorboards and pupated. He's picking up the pupal cases to take to his lab. It's a slow process," Mike said, dismissing the expert with a flip of his hand.

The forensic entomologist had been called to the scene by the young medical examiner who first responded to the detectives' notification. I had watched Magorski work several other cases, clipping a pair of lenses that looked like tiny microscopes over his thick eyeglasses while he scoured the body and its surroundings for signs of insect life — with its predictable cycles that might help establish a time of death.

"I understand. But do you think he's useful?"

"I want you to keep puffing on that thing till you turn a pale shade of green."

"I feel like I'm coming up on chartreuse," I said, brushing wisps of damp hair off my forehead with the back of my hand.

"Personally, I think he's a waste of resources. Is she dead more than a week? Yeah. Less than two? My money's on that. The only reason everybody south of Forty-second Street didn't notice the odor is because this place is so isolated, except for the decaying fish remains and sewage right below where she was found."

"That's still a pretty big window of opportunity."

"Once we ID the broad, it won't take long for some joker to tell us the last time she showed up at work or a girlfriend to say what domestic tiff sped her out the door of her apartment. Stick with real detective work, kid. I never met a bug with a gold shield."

I had seen more than my share of bodies as the prosecutor in charge of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office for the last decade. The black humor of many cops and colleagues, an effort to defuse these ugly situations, did nothing to ease my revulsion.

"Hey, Chapman," a rookie in uniform called out to Mike from the porch of the old ferry slip. "They're bringing her out now. You and Ms. Cooper can come back up."

On the roadway opposite the aging terminal, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive sank below ground to loop under the Battery and reemerge as the West Side Highway. The far side of the tunnel entrance, dozens of glass and steel office towers — many of their windows still lit — formed the dense, narrow canyons of the city's financial district.

"Sorry to drag you down here. I really thought it might be your girl," Mike said. He knew I had been assigned to an unsolved case involving a young woman who'd gone missing the week before.

We watched as the ME's van backed into the loading dock and the attendant opened the rear doors, ready to receive the body bag.

"Looked like a good possibility till the wig came off and we realized her hair wasn't red," he went on.

Mike was a second-grade detective assigned to the Manhattan North Homicide Squad. His usual turf stretched from north of Fifty-ninth Street, uptown through the Harlems and the Heights to the narrow waterway that separated the island from the Bronx. But the end of summer, despite the spike in murders that usually accompanied a dramatic rise in the temperature, was also the time many cops took their vacation. The two squads, now short of manpower in late August, combined forces to respond to every murder in Manhattan.

We stopped talking when four men — one from the medical examiner's office and three uniformed officers from the First Precinct — emerged from the dark mouth of the building with their charge. There were no other spectators, no need for them to walk as though they were pallbearers, struggling to balance the coffin. The foursome loped along with the body, heaving it onto the stretcher inside the van, jerking it from side to side to position it before they strapped it into place for the ride up the drive to the morgue.

"None of these 'ologists' can help with the more important questions," Mike said as the driver slammed the double doors. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, then passed it to me. "Who the hell is she? What brought her to this godforsaken place? Why hasn't anybody noticed she was out of commission before tonight? What kind of monster am I looking for? I can't even think straight it's so hot."

"No other missing-person reports?" I pressed the damp cloth to the back of my neck.

"Nothing that fits. Two African-American women — one from the Bronx and the other a chronic runaway from Queens — an Asian tourist, an old lady with dementia who hasn't come home in a week, but definitely a blue-rinse dye job. Your case is the only one that seemed a possible match."

As the assistant district attorney who supervised sex crimes, I had partnered with Mike for more than a decade. I was at my desk in the criminal courthouse when he called me several hours earlier, asking for more details about the physical description of the twenty-two-year-old woman — Elise Huff — who had gone missing more than a week earlier. The investigation had been handed to me two days after her disappearance by my boss, Paul Battaglia, now in his fifth term as Manhattan's district attorney.

"Elise is a redhead. Natural."

She had disappeared after a night of barhopping with a girlfriend, who split from her at 3:00 a.m. when she had been unable to convince Elise to go home. Elise's parents had pressed their congressman, in Tennessee, to lean on Battaglia to ramp up the search for their daughter, assuming that she might have been the target of a sexual predator.

"That's why I called you out. This one," Mike said, pointing at the taillights of the van that carried the woman away, "was a redhead when I showed up, till the medical examiner rolled her face to the side and the damn wig fell off."

The synthetic auburn mane had been straight, lustrous, and obviously expensive when I looked at it earlier with the aid of Mike's flashlight. It had covered a shock of short curly hair — dark brown — the only distinguishable feature still visible on the head and body.

Mike took the cigar from me as we walked under the archway and back into the terminal, toward the staircase. His cheeks hollowed as he sucked in several deep breaths before handing it back. "Inhale once more, Coop."

Climbing the steps behind Mike, I smiled at his constant attempts to protect me from the more horrific parts of our job. Hal Sherman was setting up the battery-run lighting system that would allow him to take dozens more photographs of the grim room from which the body had been removed. Within the confines of this space — no more than thirty feet long and twenty wide — the Crime Scene Unit investigators would look for any speck of evidence that might lead to an identification of the victim, her killer, and whatever connection linked them to each other.

"So what's the weapon?" Mike asked.

"Maybe the butt of a gun caused the fracture. Maybe a hammer. The autopsy'll tell you more than I can." Hal put a ruler on the floor, next to what looked like a bloodstain, before he leaned over to snap his picture.

The young ME was certain that the woman had died from a blunt force injury, an impact that had depressed a portion of her skull on the left temple and caused the fatal damage to her brain.

"You make anything of the marks on her face?"

"Yeah. Scope the personals for a guy who likes to dance. Too bad there wasn't much skin left. The bastard must have stomped on her face after he whacked her. I don't know if there's enough of a pattern to get a shoe print, but I shot it from every angle."

I stood still while Mike geared up again — rubber gloves and booties — to go back over every crevice of the dusty room.

"And when uniform arrived?"

"Obliterated everything on the stairs," Hal said, sweeping his arm around the room, then wiping his moustache with his sleeve, "and all over the place."

The glass in each of the five windows that faced the river was shattered, much like the bones of the dead woman's face.

"You guys find anything?" Mike asked the two cops who had been assisting Hal.

"Double-checking. Nothing so far except this —- I don't know —- looks like a knotted strip of leather. Like the end of a key chain or something." One of them held up a two-inch piece of rawhide.

"This guy was good," the other said. "Must have had lots of time. Maybe even got away clean."

Each man had examined half of the room, and now they switched positions to go over the other's territory. Mike stepped around Hal and stood behind an old wooden desk. He opened the four drawers, flashing his light into them and slamming them shut.

"Government offices. Seems like whoever winds up designing stuff for the city has to take a course in how to make it look dismal."

"What agency was this?" I asked.

"Ports and Terminals."

Three chairs with broken backs lined the far wall. Mike lifted each one and replaced it. He moved toward several crates piled in a corner.

"Don't bother, Chapman. They're as empty as your pockets."

"What did you think about those lines on her wrists?" Mike was crouched on the floor now, measuring the coating of dust with a gloved finger.

"Some kind of ligature. Maybe even cuffs. Hey, Alexandra, you want to wave that cigar around. Where did you get such a good one, Mike?" Hal asked, sniffing the air.

"Coop's boss. All his friends stockpile him with the best Cubans. Only the feds prosecute for trading with the enemy. Not Battaglia. He just lets the evidence go up in smoke."

"You think she was killed here?" I asked.

"Nah. She's a dump job."

"No signs of any struggle, but then that's pretty tough to do when you're bound," Mike said, agreeing with Hal. "Maybe still alive when he brought her up and left her to die. That's why there's blood."

I looked through what was left of the window. The river was dark, a slight chop from the current kicking up an occasional whitecap. A few small boats criss-crossed the harbor, illuminating narrow lines over the water with their headlights.

"Not a trace of her clothing anywhere?" I asked.

"Zip. Looks like we're dealing with a pro, Coop. Felony frequent flier miles. C'mon, I'll put you in a cab. You've got court in the morning."

I said good night to Hal and his crew and went downstairs, careful to avoid the powder on the banister where crime scene cops had dusted for prints.

As we emerged from the mouth of the archway, under the faded print of the sign that said battery maritime building, one of the crime scene cops was waiting for Mike.

"There's something snagged in one of the long wooden splinters of the pilings, Detective. Take a look. I've photographed it there, so let me know if you want me to fish it out."

I followed Mike to the north side of the old structure. He leaned over the wire fencing and his hair gleamed as the officer held a flashlight above his head. I could see an object floating on the surface of the water, its many thick strands splayed like the tentacles of a sea creature.

"Bring it up, Jenks. You got something to hook it with?"

The eager kid ran to the department station wagon and brought out a long metal pole.  He disappeared inside the bay of the old terminal and reappeared on the far side of the fence. He walked along the edge of the building, carefully stepping down and out onto the planks between the tall pilings.

After several attempts to snag the mysterious object, Willy Jenks triumphantly lifted it out of the river, swung the pole over the fence, and dumped it at Mike's feet.

I kneeled beside him and tried to figure out what I was staring at. Mike removed another rubber glove from his pants pocket and slipped it on before he began to separate the tangled strands.

With his index finger, Mike found what looked like a handle, pulling on it to stretch it out toward my foot. Then he started to count the strips as he spread them apart on the ground. "One, two, three … "

I could see that they, too, were made of leather, knotted like the piece the cops had found upstairs. "What do you —-?"

Mike held his finger to his lips to quiet me as he continued to count. "Six, seven, eight."

The ninth length of rope was missing its knot.

"What is it?"

"Guess you never saw a cat-o’-nine-tails before."

Mike picked up the whip by its handle, shook off the water, then raised his arm and cracked it against the asphalt walk. The sharp sound split the still night air like a gunshot.

"Bound. Tortured. Killed. It’s not a pretty way to die."

Excerpted from “Killer Heat” by Linda Fairstein Copyright © 2008 by Linda Fairstein. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.