It was hard not to smile as I watched Lola Dakota die.
I clicked the remote control button and listened to the commentary again on another network.
"New Jersey police officers have released a portion of these dramatic videotapes to the media this evening. We're going to play for you the actual recordings the three hit men hired by her husband to kill Ms. Dakota made to prove to him that they had accomplished their mission."
The local reporter was posed in front of a large mansion in the town of Summit, less than an hour's drive from where I was sitting, in the video technicians' office of the New York County District Attorney. Snowflakes drifted and swirled around her head as she pointed a gloved hand at the darkened facade of a house ringed with strands of tiny white Christmas lights that outlined the roof, the windows, and the enormous wreath on the front door.
"Earlier this afternoon, before the sun went down, Hugh," the woman addressed the news channel's anchorman, "those of us who gathered here for word of Ms. Dakota's condition could see pools of blood, left in the snow during the early morning shooting. It will be a grim holiday season for this forty-two-year-old university professor's family. Let's take you back over the story that led to this morning's tragic events."
Mike Chapman grabbed the clicker from my hand and pressed the mute button, then jabbed at my back with it. "How come the Jersey prosecutors got to do this caper? Too big for you to handle, blondie?"
As the bureau chief in charge of sex crimes for the New York County District Attorney's Office for more than a decade, sexual assault cases -- as well as domestic violence and stalking crimes -- fell under my jurisdiction. The district attorney, Paul Battaglia, ran an office with a legal staff of more than six hundred lawyers, but he had taken a particular interest in the investigation of the professor's perilous marital entanglement.
"Battaglia didn't like the whole idea -- the risk, the melodrama, and...well, the emotional instability of Lola Dakota. He probably didn't know the story would look this good on the late news broadcast or he might have reconsidered."
Chapman lifted his foot to the edge of my chair and swiveled it around so that I faced him. "Had you worked with Lola for a long time?"
"I guess it's been almost two years since the first day I met her. Someone called Battaglia from the president's office at Columbia University. Said there was a matter that needed to be handled discreetly." I reached for a cup of coffee. "One of their professors had split from her husband, and he was stalking her. The usual domestic. She didn't want to have him arrested, didn't want any publicity that would embarrass the administration -- just wanted him to leave her alone. The DA kicked it over to me to try to make it happen. That's how I met Lola Dakota. And became aware of her miserable husband."
"What'd you do for her?"
Chapman worked homicides, most of the time relying on sophisticated forensic technology and reliable medical evidence to solve his cases. He rarely dealt with breathing witnesses, and although he was the best detective in the Manhattan North Squad when he came face-to-face with a corpse, Chapman was always intrigued by how the rest of us in law enforcement managed to untangle and resolve the delicate problems of the living.
"Met with her several times, trying to convince her that we could make a prosecution stick and gain her trust to let me bring charges. I explained that filing a criminal complaint was the only way I could get a judge to put some muscle behind our actions." Lola was like most of our victims. She wanted the violence to stop, but she did not want to face her spouse in a court of law.
"No better than usual. When reasoning with her failed, we relocated her to a temporary apartment, arranged for counseling, and sent a couple of our detectives to talk to her husband informally and explain that Lola was giving him a break."
"Happy to see the local constables, was he?"
"Elated. They told him that she didn't want us to lock him up, but if he kept harassing her, that wasn't a choice I would allow her to make the next time he darkened her doorway. So he behaved...for a while."
"Until she moved back in with him?"
"Right. Just in time for Valentine's Day."
"Hearts and flowers, happily ever after?"
"Eight months." I turned back to glance at the screen, motioning to Mike to give us sound again. Flakes were caking up on the reporter's eyelids as she continued to tell her story, reminding me that undoubtedly snow was piling up on my Jeep as well, which was parked in front of the building. A picture of Ivan Kralovic, Lola's husband, appeared as an insert on the bottom right corner of the screen.
"We've got to take a short break," the reporter said, repeating the euphemistic phrase that signaled a commercial interruption, "then we'll show you the dramatic footage that led to Mr. Kralovic's arrest today."
Mike got rid of the noise. "And at the end of those eight months, what happened? Did you lock him up the second time?"
"No. She wouldn't even give me a clue about what he had done. Called me that October to ask how to get an order of protection. After I greased the wheels to expedite it for her in family court, she told me she had rented an apartment on Riverside Drive, moved to a new office away from the campus, and settled her problems with Ivan the Terrible."
"Don't disappoint me, Coop. Tell me he lived up to his name."
"Predictably. It was in January of this year that he cut her with a corkscrew, while they were enjoying a quiet dinner for two. Must have mistaken her for a good Burgundy. Sliced open her forearm. He raced her to St. Luke's and it took twenty-seven stitches to close her up."
"They were together for just that one evening?"
"No, he had coaxed her back for the holidays a month earlier. A seasonal reconciliation."
Chapman shook his head. "Yeah, I guess most accidents happen close to home. You nail his ass for that one?"
"Once again, Lola refused to prosecute. Told the doctors in the ER -- while Ivan was standing at her bedside -- that she'd done it herself. By the time I heard about it through the university and got her down to my office, she was completely uncooperative. Said that if I had Ivan locked up, she would never tell the true story in a courtroom. She had learned her lesson by trying to reunite with him, she assured me, and wasn't going to have anything further to do with him."
"Guess he didn't get the picture."
"He stalked Lola on and off. That's what led her to hide out in New Jersey, at her sister's house, sometime in the spring. She called me every now and then, after Ivan threatened her or when she thought she was being followed. But her sister got spooked -- worried about her own safety -- and brought Lola to the local prosecutors over there."
"Let's go to the videotape," Mike said, spinning my chair back to the television screen and hitting the sound button on the clicker. The film was rolling and the reporter's voice-over was providing the narrative. The scene appeared to be the same large suburban house, earlier in the day.
"...and you can see the white delivery van parked at the side of the road. The two men walked up the steps in front of the home, which is owned by Ms. Dakota's sister, carrying the cases of wine. When the professor opened the door and came outside to accept the gift bottles, both men put their packages on the ground. The one on the left presented a receipt that Dakota leaned over to sign, while the man on the right -- there he goes now -- pulled a revolver from beneath his jacket and fired five times, at point-blank range."
I leaned forward and watched again as Lola clutched at her chest, her body pushed backward by the force of the impact. Her eyes opened wide for an instant, seeming to stare directly at the lens of the camera, before they closed, as she fell to the ground, blood oozing from her clothing onto the clean white cover provided by the preceding day's dusting of snow.
Then, the camera, held by a third accomplice in the van, zoomed in for a close-up, and the man seemed to lose control of the equipment as it apparently dropped from his fingers.
"When the killers played their tape for Ivan Kralovic in his office at noon today, after the Summit Police Department released the news of Ms. Dakota's death to the wire services, they were rewarded with a payment of one hundred thousand dollars in cash."
Back to a live shot of the chilled reporter, wrapping up her story for the night. "Unfortunately for Kralovic, the gunmen he had hired to kill his estranged wife were actually undercover detectives from the county sheriff's office here in New Jersey, who staged the shooting with the enthusiastic participation of the intended victim."
The tape rolled again and showed the supposedly deceased Dakota now sitting upright against the front door of the house and smiling for the camera as she removed the outer jacket that had concealed the packets of "blood" that had spurted and flowed so convincingly moments before.
"We've been waiting here, Hugh, hoping this brave woman would tell us how she feels now that she has taken such dramatic steps to end years of spousal abuse and bring to justice the man who wanted to kill her. But sources tell us that she left the house here this afternoon, after Kralovic's arrest, and has not yet returned." The reporter glanced down at her notes to read a comment from the local prosecutor. "The district attorney, however, wants us to express his gratitude to the county sheriff for this 'innovative plan that put an end to Ivan's reign of terror, something that prosecutors from Paul Battaglia's office and the New York Police Department across the Hudson River have been unable to do for two years.' Back to the studio -- "
I pulled the remote away from Chapman and slammed it onto the desktop after shutting off the set. "Let's go back to my office and close up for the night."
"Temper, temper, Ms. Cooper. Dakota's not likely to win the Oscar for her performance. You peeved 'cause you didn't get a chance to do the film direction?"
I turned off the light and closed the door behind us. "I don't begrudge her anything. But why did the Jersey DA have to take a shot at us? He knows it hasn't been our choice to let this thing drag on as long as it did." There wasn't a seasoned prosecutor anywhere who didn't know that the most frustrating dynamic in an abusive marriage was the love-hate relationship that persisted between victim and offender, even after the violence escalated.
My heels clicked on the tiles of the quiet corridor as we snaked our way down the long, dark hallway from Video to my eighth-floor office. It was almost eleven-thirty at night, and the tapping of an occasional computer keyboard was the only noise I heard to suggest that any of my colleagues were still at their desks.
Only a handful of cases went to trial this time of year, in the middle of December, with lawyers, judges, and jurors all anticipating the two-week court hiatus for the holiday season. I had been working late -- reviewing indictments for the end-of-the-term filing deadline, and preparing to conduct a sex offender registration hearing after the weekend -- when Detective Michael Chapman came over to tell me the eleven o'clock news was leading with the Dakota story. He had been down the street at headquarters to drop off some evidence at the Property Clerk's Office and called to see if I wanted a drink before knocking off for the night.
"C'mon, I'll buy you dinner," he now said. "Can't expect me to last the midnight shift on an empty stomach. Not with all the dead bodies I'm likely to encounter."
"It's too late to eat."
"That means you got a better offer. Jake must be home, cooking up some exotic -- "
"Wrong. He's in Washington. Got the assignment on that story of the ambassador who was assassinated in Uganda, at the economic conference." I'd been dating an NBC News correspondent since early summer, and the rare nights he was free in time for dinner took me away from my usual haunts and habits.
"How come they keep giving him all that Third World stuff to cover when he seems like such a First World guy?"
The phone was ringing as I opened the door to my office.
"Alex?" Jake's voice sounded brusque and businesslike. "I'm at the NBC studio in D.C."
"How's your story coming?"
"Lola Dakota is dead."
"I know," I said, sitting down in my chair and turning away from Chapman for some privacy. "Mike and I just watched the whole bit on the local news. I think she's got a real future on the stage. Hard to believe she went for all that phony ketchup and -- "
"Listen to me, Alex. She was killed tonight."
I turned back to look at Mike, rolling my eyes to suggest that Jake clearly had not seen the entire story yet and didn't understand that the shooting was a setup. "We know all that, and we also know that Paul Battaglia is not going to be thrilled when the tabloids point the finger at me for not putting this mess to bed a couple of -- "
"This isn't about you, Alex. I've heard the whole story with the Jersey prosecutors and their sting operation. But there's a later headline that just came over the newsroom wires a few minutes ago, probably while you and Mike were watching the story run on the air. Some kids found Lola Dakota's body tonight -- her dead body -- in the basement of an apartment building in Manhattan, crushed to death at the bottom of an elevator shaft."
My eyes shut tight and I rested my head on the back of my chair as Jake lowered his voice to make his point. "Trust me, darling. Lola Dakota is dead."
Copyright © 2001 by Linda Fairstein
On Roosevelt Island, a strip of land in New York City's East River, stands an abandoned 19th century smallpox asylum, "The Deadhouse," where the afflicted were shipped off to die. It's a gruesome bit of history perhaps best forgotten. But for Alexandra Cooper, it may be the key to a shocking murder that cuts deeper than the arctic cold front gripping the city. A respected university professor is dead -- strangled and dumped in an elevator shaft. And while the school does damage control for anxious parents, Cooper and her close detective friend Mike Chapman scramble for answers, fueled by the most daunting discovery: a piece of paper, found on the lifeless body of Professor Lola Dakota, that reads The Deadhouse....
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