The answering machine kicked in a fourth irritating echo from the insistent caller. I listened to my recorded voice announce that I was not available to come to the phone right now, as little hammers pounded furiously inside my head. The last Dewar's of the evening had been unnecessary.
I cocked an eye to glance at the illuminated dial glowing an eerie shade of green in the still dark room. It read 5:38 A.M.
"If you're screening, Coop, pick it up. C'mon, kid."
I was unmoved, and mercifully not on duty this morning.
"It's early and it's cold, but don't leave me dangling at the end of the only working phone booth in Manhattan when I'm trying to do you a favor. Pick it up, Blondie. Don't give me that 'unavailable' stuff. Last I knew you were the most available broad in town."
"Good morning, Detective Chapman, and thank you for that vote of confidence," I murmured into the receiver as I brought my arm back under the comforter to keep it warm while I listened to Mike. Too bad I'd cracked open a window for some fresh air before going to sleep. The room was frigid.
"I got something for you. A big one, if you're ready to get back in the saddle again."
I winced at Chapman's reminder that I had not picked up any serious investigations for almost five months. My involvement last fall in the murder case of my friend, the actress Isabella Lascar, had derailed me professionally. It had prompted the District Attorney to direct the reassignment of most of my trial load, so I had taken a long vacation when the killer was caught. Mike had accused me of coasting through the winter season and avoiding the kinds of difficult matters that we had worked on together so often in the past.
"What have you got?" I asked him.
"Oh, no. This isn't one of those 'run it by me and if it's sexy enough I'll keep it' cases, Miss Cooper. You either accept this mission on faith, or I do this, the legitimate way and call whichever one of your mopes is on the homicide chart today. There'll be some eager beaver looking to get his teeth into this -- I can't help it if he won't happen to know the difference between DNA and NBC. At least he won't be afraid to --"
"All right, all right." Chapman had just said the magic word and I was sitting straight up in bed now. I wasn't certain if I was shivering because of the bitterly cold air that was blowing in from outdoors, or because I was frightened by the prospect of plunging back into the violent landscape of rapists and murderers that had dominated my professional life for almost a decade.
"Is that a yes, Blondie? You with us on this one?"
"I promise to sound more enthusiastic after some coffee, Mike. Yes, I'm with you." His exuberance at this moment would be offensive to anyone outside the family of police and prosecutors who worked in the same orbit as he did, since it was fueled by the unnatural death of a human being. The only comfort it offered was the fact that the particular murder victim in question would be the undistracted focus of the best homicide detective in the business: Mike Chapman.
"Great. Now, get out of bed, suit up, take a few Advil for that hangover --"
"Is that just a guess, Dr. Holmes, or do you have me under surveillance?"
"Mercer told me he was in your office yesterday. Got an overheard on your evening plans -- Knicks game with your law school friends, followed by supper in the bar at '21.' Elementary, Miss Cooper. The only thing he couldn't figure was whether we'd be interrupting any steamy bedroom scene with a call at this hour. I assured him that we'd be the first to know when you gave up on abstinence."
I ignored the shot and welcomed the news that Mercer Wallace would be part of the team. A former homicide cop, he was my best investigator at the Special Victims Squad, where he caught all the major serial rape cases and pattern crimes.
"Before you use up your quarter, are you going to fill me in on this one and give me a clue about how to sell it to my boss?"
Paul Battaglia hated it when detectives shopped around his office to pull in their favorite assistant district attorneys to work on complex criminal matters. For the twenty years that he'd been the District Attorney of New York County, he had operated with an on-call system -- known as the homicide chart -- so that for every twenty-four-hour period, every day of the year, a senior prosecutor was on standby and ready to assist in the investigation of murder cases in any way that the NYPD considered useful. Questioning suspects, drafting search warrants, authorizing arrests, and interviewing witnesses -- all of the tasks fell to the assistant D.A. who was "on the chart" and had the first significant contact with the police.
"You're a natural for this one, Alex. No kidding. The deceased was sexually assaulted. Mercer's right -- we really need your guidance on this one." Chapman was referring to the fact that I am the bureau chief in charge of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit -- Battaglia's pet project that specializes in the sensitive handling of victims of rape and abuse. Often, since many of those crimes escalated to murder, my colleagues and I were designated to handle the ensuing investigations and trials.
I was stretching across to the drawer of the night table to find this month's homicide chart, to check whether I'd be stepping on the toes of one of the D.A.'s fair-haired boys, and how much flak I'd be heading for. "Well, until eight o'clock this morning, Eddie Fremont is catching."
"Oh, no, you gotta save me from him," Mike responded. "Son of a senator. That's about as useful as having my mother at the station house. Fremont's a whackjob of the first order -- I don't think he'd know probable cause if it bit him in the ass."
Chapman often did a stand-up comic routine at the bar at Forlini's, the courthouse watering hole, with the monthly calendar and chart in his hand, calling out the name of the assigned assistants and reliving some embarrassing episode from the career of each of us as he rolled off the dates. Fremont was an easy target, one of those brilliant students with impeccable academic credentials that simply failed to translate to the courtroom. Everyone assumed he had been hired as a "contract," because his father, the former senior senator from Indiana, had been Paul Battaglia's roommate at Columbia Law School.
"Or if you wait until a few minutes after eight, you can have Laurie Deitcher," I countered, aware that she would be responsible for decisions on anything coming in during the next twenty-four hours.
"The Princess? Never again, Blondie. The only time I had a high-profile case with her, it was a disaster. During the lunch hour, instead of prepping witnesses and outlining her cross-examinations, she'd make us wait in the hallway while she plugged in her hot rollers and troweled on some more makeup. Then she'd belly up to the jury box like she was Norma Desmond ready for her close-up. She looked great for the cameras, but the friggin' perp walked. Nope. You just call Battaglia and tell him Wallace and I woke you up in the middle of the night because you were the only person who could answer our questions. Hang tough with him, Cooper. This is your case."
"Like what kind of questions, Mike?"
"Like can you tell if she was raped before she was killed or after? Like does establishing the time of death have anything to do with the speed at which the sperm deteriorates, because of interference from her body fluids?"
"Now you're talking my language. Of course he'll let me keep a case like that. What do you need from me?"
"I think you'll want to get down here as soon as you can. Have your video guys meet us, too. The Crime Scene Unit has already processed the room and taken photos, but they had to move really fast. I'm just worried we all may have overlooked something that might turn out to be important, so I'd like your crew to go over the whole area and record it. Once the story breaks, the place'll be crawling with press and we won't be able to preserve it."
"Back up, Mike, and start at the top. Where are you?"
"Mid-Manhattan Medical Center. Sixth floor of the Minuit Building." East Forty-eighth Street, right off the FDR Drive. The oldest and largest medical compound in the city. The victim must have been transported there for an attempt at treatment after she was found.
"Well, where shall I meet you? Where's the scene?"
"I just told you. The sixth floor at Mid-Manhattan."
"You mean the victim was killed in the hospital?"
"Raped and killed in the hospital. Big wheel. Head of the neurosurgery department at the medical college, brain surgeon, professor. Name's Gemma Dogen."
After ten years at my job, there were very few things that surprised me, but this news was shocking.
I had always thought of hospitals as sanctuaries, places for healing the sick and wounded, comforting and easing the days of the terminally ill. I had been in and out of Mid-Manhattan countless times, visiting witnesses as well as training medical personnel in the treatment of sexual assault survivors. Its original red-brick buildings, almost a century old, had been restored to recapture the look of the antiquated sanitarium, and generous patrons of more recent times had lent their family names to a handful of granite skyscrapers that housed the latest in medical technology and a superb teaching facility -- the Minuit Medical College.
The familiar knots that tied and untied themselves in my stomach whenever I received news of a senseless crime and a sacrificed human existence took over control from the pounding noise inside my head. I began to conjure mental images of Dr. Dogen, and scores of questions -- about her life and death, her career and family, her friends and enemies -- followed each other into my mind before I could form the words with my mouth.
"When did it happen, Mike? And how --"
"Sometime in the last fifteen to twenty hours -- I'll fill you in when you get here. We got the call just after midnight. Stabbed six times. Collapsed a lung, must have hit a couple of major organs. The killer left her for dead, soaked in blood, but she actually held on for a bit. We got her as a 'likely to die.' And she did, before we got anywhere near the hospital."
Likely to die. An unfortunate name for a category of cases handled by Manhattan's elite homicide squad. Victims whose condition is so extreme when police officers reach the crime scene that no matter what herculean efforts are undertaken by medics and clerics, the next stop for these bodies is undoubtedly the morgue.
Stop wasting time, I chided myself. You'll know more than you ever wanted to know about all of this after a few hours with Chapman and Wallace.
"I can be there in less than forty-five minutes."
I got out of bed and closed the window, raising the Duette shade to look out from my apartment on the twentieth floor of an Upper East Side high-rise across the city as it began to come awake on this gray and grisly day. I have always enjoyed the crisp chill of autumn, leading as it does into the winter holiday season and the snowy blankets of January and February. My favorite months are April and May, when the city parks blossom with the green buds of springtime and the promise of warmer days of summer. So as I scanned the horizon and saw only a bleak and cheerless palette, I figured that Gemma Dogen might also have scoffed at the great poets and agreed with my personal view that March, in fact, is the cruelest month.
Copyright ©1997 by Linda Fairstein