It was after eight o'clock, and all I could see of the sun was its gleaming crown as it slipped behind the row of steep cliffs, giving off an iridescent pink haze that signaled the end of a long August day. Brackish gray water swirled and broke against the large rocks that edged the mound of dirt on which I stood, spitting up at my ankles as I stared out to the west at the Palisades. The pleats of my white linen skirt, which had seemed so cool and weightless as I moved about the air-conditioned courtroom all afternoon, were plastered against my thighs by the humidity, and I swatted off the mosquitoes as they searched for a place to land on my forearms.
I turned away from the striking vista across the Hudson River and glanced down at the body of the woman that had snagged on the boulders less than an hour earlier.
The detective from the Crime Scene Unit reloaded his camera and took another dozen shots. "Want a couple of Polaroids to work from till I get you a full set of blowups?" I nodded to him as he changed equipment, leaned in above the head of his partially clothed subject, and set off the flash attachment.
The old guy with the fishing rod who had made the grim discovery was twitching nervously while he answered questions hurled at him in Spanish by a young uniformed cop from the Thirty-fourth Precinct. The officer pointed at something bulging in the man's pocket, and the fisherman's free hand shook uncontrollably as he pulled out a small flask of red wine.
"Tell him to relax, Carrera," Detective Mike Chapman called over to the rookie. "Tell him this one's a keeper. Catch of the day. Haven't seen anything this clean pulled out of these waters since Rip Van Winkle used it as a bathtub."
Chapman and his good friend Mercer Wallace had been talking with each other from the time Mercer and I reached the site ten minutes earlier. They had walked away from me so that Lieutenant Peterson could fill Mercer in on what he and Mike had learned since being called to the scene, while I stood at the woman's feet, staring down at her from time to time, half hoping she would open her eyes and speak to us. We were all waiting for one of the medical examiners to arrive and take a look at the body so it could be bagged and removed from this desolate strip of earth on Manhattan's northernmost tip before onlookers began to gather.
Hal Sherman rested his camera on top of the evidence collection bag and wiped the rivulets of sweat off his neck. "How'd you get here so fast?" he asked me.
"Mike was reaching out for Mercer to help him on this one and got me in the deal. Mercer was down in court with me for pretrial hearings in an old case when Mike beeped him. Said he had a floater with a possible sexual assault, and he wanted Mercer to look at her."
"Tell the truth, kid. You couldn't resist a night on the town with the big guys, could you, blondie?" Chapman asked, after coming over to check whether Sherman had finished the photography. "Hey, Hal, who's the guy seems like he's about to lose his lunch over there?"
We all turned to look at the man, not more than twenty-five years old, who was leaning against a large boulder, taking in deep breaths of air and cupping one hand over his mouth. "Reporter for the Times, fresh out of journalism school. This is his third assignment, tailing me around to see how we process a crime scene. Two burglaries in the diamond district, one arson in a high school, and now -- Ophelia."
Chapman went into a squat next to the right side of the woman's head, impatient with the presence of amateurs as he set to work on what was clearly the start of a homicide investigation. "Tell him he ought to look into getting the gig for restaurant reviews, Hal. Much easier on the gut."
I stepped closer to watch Chapman go over the corpse again, this time as he concentrated on details that he had observed before our arrival and explained them to Mercer Wallace. The two had been partners for several years in Manhattan North's Homicide Squad, where Chapman still worked, until Mercer had transferred over to Special Victims to handle rape cases. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and manner, they came together seamlessly to work at a crime scene or on a murder investigation.
Mercer, at forty, was five years older than Mike and I. He was one of a handful of African American detectives who had made first grade in the department, a detail man whom every senior prosecutor liked to count on, in the field and on the witness stand, to build a meticulous case. He was as solid as a linebacker but had passed up a football scholarship at Michigan to join the NYPD. Slower to smile than Mike Chapman, Mercer was intense and steady, with a sweetness of disposition that was, for those shattered victims who encountered him, their first lifeline back to a world of normalcy.
Mike Chapman was just over six feet tall, a bit shorter than Mercer. His jet black hair framed his lean face, momentarily somber as he reviewed the dead woman in front of him. A graduate of Fordham College, where he worked his way through school as a waiter and bartender, Mike had never wavered in his determination to follow the career path of his adored father, who had been a cop for more than a quarter of a century. He had a grin that could coax me out of almost any mood, and an encyclopedic knowledge of American history and military affairs, which had been his major concentration while in school.
"Four-point restraint," Chapman began, focusing his pen like a pointer in a college classroom. The slender body was resting on a wooden ladder about eight feet long. The victim's ankles and wrists were bound to narrow rungs above her head and below her feet. The cord used to hold the woman in place was firmly knotted and secured. Longer pieces of a thicker rope dangled from parts of the frame, and two of them still had rocks attached to their tips.
Mercer was bending over now, looking at the extremities from every angle. "Somebody went to an awful lot of trouble to make sure this body didn't come to the surface anytime before Christmas, wouldn't you say?"
He tugged at one of the loose lengths of rope, holding up the ragged end, from which it appeared a weight -- perhaps another rock -- had torn free.
Over the top of his head I could see Craig Fleisher, the on-call medical examiner, walking toward us. He waved a greeting and added, "Better move quickly, the vultures are gathering." Next to his parked car the satellite dish sitting above a Fox 5 television truck was suddenly visible. The first field reporter had already picked up word of the unusual find from a police scanner, and it would take only minutes before other camera crews joined him to try to get the most salacious shot of the corpse.
"What have you got, Mike? A drowning?" Fleisher asked.
"No way, Doc. Throwing her overboard was just a means of disposing of the body." We all leaned in closer as Chapman placed his hand on the crown of the woman's head and moved it slightly to the side. He slipped his pen beneath her matted black hair, which was still wet and splayed against the wooden crosspieces of the ladder, then lifted it gently to expose the scalp. "Skull was bashed in back here, maybe with a gun butt or hammer. I'd bet you'll find a fracture or two when you get in there tomorrow."
Fleisher studied the gaping wound. He was stone-faced and calm, running his fingers over the rest of the rear of the head. "Well, she wasn't in the water very long. Only a day or two at best."
He repeated what Chapman had told us when Mercer and I arrived. There was no putrefaction or decomposition, and the bruises he noted on her body were probably antemortem. "Fish and crabs usually get to work on the soft tissue pretty quickly," he explained, "but the face is completely intact here. Seems like they didn't have much of a chance."
Fleisher had trained in San Diego, so although he was a recent hire in New York, he was quite familiar with marine deaths.
"Could be our lucky break, Doc," Chapman said. "The killer -- or killers -- couldn't have picked a worse place to dump a body if they expected to keep it from surfacing."
The doctor straightened up and scanned the area -- a barren headland, just thirty feet long, that sat at the end of a city street, nestled between Columbia University's Baker Field and below the toll bridge leading north out of Manhattan, to the Bronx. "That water sure looks angry, doesn't it?"
"Spuyten Duyvil," said Chapman. "Welcome to the neighborhood. It's an old Dutch name for this tidal strait that connects the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, separates us from the mainland."
Mike knew the background as well as I did. Settlers in New Amsterdam had called it that in the early 1600s. In spite of the devil, they said, because the waters were so very rough, rocked by the tides in both directions. Passage through it had been impossible for centuries, until the government cut a canal almost one hundred years ago.
"Not that you'll see any Dutchmen around here now, Doc. Rice and beans replaced Heineken's a few years back, if you know what I mean. But they named it well."
The kid reporter had gotten to his feet and come up behind me, out of direct view of the body but close enough to listen to the conversation and jot down what we were saying.
"You mind not putting anything on paper for the time being?" Chapman asked, in a voice that was more of an order than a question. "You'd be required to give your scribbled musings to Miss Cooper here. It would become discovery material for the trial and she'd have to turn your notes over to the defense, once we catch the prick who did this."
"But, but I'm -- uh -- there's a privil -- "
"You want to wait in the car while we do this, or you want to stand here quietly like a good scout and count on your memory to get this right? The local history you can find in a book, the current events are off the record. Start with the fact that she's got a crater the size of a teacup in the back of her head and that nobody planned on her doing any laps once she hit the water. Now keep out of my way. Understood?"
Chapman turned back to our small group, which was huddled around the body. Only the police divers, dressed in their scuba gear and holding for directions, stood off to the side as the rest of us waited for Fleisher to finish his inspection. Wallace had sent Officer Carrera up to his radio car to get a blanket, and he and another cop were holding it open as a shield between the dead woman and the curious busybodies who were gathering on 207th Street. He opened his cell phone and called the local precinct for crowd control backup as the news crew moved up within feet of our operation.
"Who's the blonde?" I heard the Fox 5 news reporter ask his cameraman.
"Alexandra Cooper. District Attorney's Office. Runs the Sex Crimes Unit for the D.A., Paul Battaglia. Probably means the cops think the deceased was raped. They always bring her in on those cases."
I wanted to hear what else the cameraman was going to say about our work, but Fleisher was talking again and I focused back on his remarks.
"You've got a female Caucasian who I'd guess to be in her late thirties." I had recently turned thirty-five, and I peered down at the frozen gaze of the woman, wondering what had brought her to this violent end, so prematurely. "I'm not going to turn her over or do any more work here, gentlemen. Too many eyes. But I'm certain the cause will be blunt force trauma -- that blow to the head which Chapman located for us. I don't think we'll find any signs at autopsy that she was alive when she was submerged."
Fleisher went on. "Possible sexual assault. We'll be checking the vaginal vault for abrasions. I would doubt there'll be seminal fluid of value, once the seawater invaded. Hard to tell whether the missing clothes suggest rape or the rough current ripping them out of place."
The well-toned body of the young woman still had a beige silk shell covering her bra, and a skirt of the same material. Both had tears and rips in the fine fabric. But there were no underpants, and I noticed what appeared to be finger marks embedded in the skin of her inner thighs.
"Doesn't look like a local girl, does she, Mercer?" Chapman remarked. The Thirty-fourth Precinct still housed some elegant old apartment buildings, but it was not one of the tonier neighborhoods of the city. "Check out the fingernails and pedicure. From the shape she's in, I'd bet she spent a lot of time on the StairMaster."
The vermilion polish on her toes and nails had been slightly chipped by her struggle with her assailant or by the tides. It was clear that she had taken good care of herself, until this week.
The Eyewitness News truck had joined the posse. "Hey, Mike," I heard a voice call out from the far side of the blanket Carrera was holding, "got anything for us?"
"Gimme a break, Pablo. Have a little respect for the dead. C'mon, Doc. Can we get her out of here now?"
Fleisher told him to cover the body, move the waiting ambulance in, and load up the ladder as it was, its cargo still lashed to the wood. "Need anything else from me?"
Chapman shook his head and said he'd be at the morgue for the autopsy proceeding the next day. He bent over and noted the name of the manufacturer on the underside of the ladder before an attendant loaded it onto the van.
"Summer backlog," Fleisher said. "I won't get to this one until two P.M., and that's with jumping her over a few unclaimed souls I've got in the cooler."
Four new arrivals from the precinct formed a human chain to separate the growing crowd from the diminishing group of us who were standing where the lady on the ladder had been.
Chapman walked over to talk with the lieutenant, who was watching the scuba team members tether themselves to huge pieces of equipment that Emergency Services had ferried to the scene. They were going to attempt to crawl around the border of the whirling passage in the unlikely possibility that they could feel for any evidence or weapon. It was obvious that there would be nothing to see along the silt-lined sides and bottom of the treacherous waterway gap.
"Don't waste their time or energy, Loo," Chapman urged Peterson, using the informal nickname that rank evoked from all detectives. "She didn't go into the drink anywhere near here. Could have been Yonkers, could have been the Bronx. It's just my good fortune that she stubbed her toe and washed up on a little piece of Manhattan North. I haven't picked up anything except drug shoot-outs in weeks."
Only Mike Chapman would consider this discovery to be his good fortune. I looked around the neglected plot that had become this woman's temporary graveyard, its surface littered with broken beer bottles, empty crack vials, scores of spots of pigeon droppings, and a few dozen used condoms.
Mercer Wallace came up beside me, grasping my elbow in his enormous black hand and guiding me out to the street, running interference for me through the rows of news teams and the neighborhood cronies who were looking for excitement now that darkness had fallen. He unlocked the passenger door of his car and I ducked into the seat.
People moved back to the sidewalk as Mercer made a U-turn on the narrow road, and we drove off. He turned in and out of a maze of one-way streets, accelerating when he reached Broadway, taking me downtown and across Central Park to my apartment, on the Upper East Side. I was silent for blocks.
"Where are you, Alex? Talk to me. I can't let you go upstairs alone just thinking about that body. She'll be with you all night. You'll never close your eyes."
I knew that without being told. But I was deeply distressed and much too wired to sleep after what we had just seen, despite my exhaustion from a couple of weeks of hard-fought courtroom battle in front of a demanding judge. "Thanks, Mercer. Just wondering about the obvious, knowing that there aren't any logical answers. I'll be fine."
"We'll get him, Alex. It doesn't seem very likely tonight. But Chapman and me, we'll get him. In spite of the devil, Miss Cooper. In spite of the devil."
Copyright © 1999 by Linda Fairstein