Nassau County Homicide Squad Detective “Doc” Wiley, an ex-Army Ranger Medic and Madeline Maclear, director of nursing at an area hospital, are thrown together when Carl, an expert assassin with a private arsenal, a fortune in cash, and a perverse sense of humor, returns to Long Island in the spring of 1999.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS:
REGAN MURPHY SAYS:
The street looked like a practice field for a plane crash. Police cruisers, private automobiles, news vans, and assorted emergency vehicles stood at haphazard angles wherever they had ceased forward motion. A growing crowd of scurrying humanity was gathering in a blaze of artificial light in front of the house at the end of the block. Reporters and cameramen bailed out of their mobile studios like a SWAT team deployment. Doc Wiley’s unmarked, brand new, 1999 Ford Crown Victoria nosed into the street in time to let him see two of the network vans jockeying for position.
“Oh shit,” he said, “somebody screwed up big time.”
Channel 30, a local all-news station, was there. Their van was right alongside the network’s vehicles. In Doc’s experience, the native news vultures could be even more aggressive in their pursuit of a local story than the kids from that other island–the big gray one west of Brooklyn. Not that he preferred the networks. The Big Three would treat a Long Island story as a passing curiosity. Quickly reaching the limits of their attention span, they would soon lose track of events in the burbs to return their focus to whence they had come–the Big Apple–source of the omnipotent media god, Ratings. Unless of course, the Long Island story proved suitably newsworthy, in which case they would all be gargantuan pains in the ass for the duration.
Doc edged his car into the milieu and goosed the siren to move a knot of gawking neighbors out of his way. A light mist began to fall.
He still missed his old Dodge Diplomat with its Police Interceptor engine. Maybe Old Betsy was as unobtrusive as purple granny glasses, but his new, monochromatic white Crown Vic with its plain-Jane hubcaps still screamed “Cop Car” and, in Doc’s opinion, the six-cylinder motor was just a waste of good metal. He would have paid for repairs out of his own pocket just to hang on to the Dodge, but image trumped function in modern police work. Gas mileage overshadowed performance. Muscle cars had passed into history. He thought it a shame.
The citizens of Oyster Bay, unaccustomed to such excitement in the middle of the night, in bathrobes and jackets hastily thrown on against the mist, shunned the glare of his headlights and grudgingly yielded the right of way as they shuffled onto the grassy apron.
The flashing red and white lights of police cruisers, the yellow strobes of ambulances, and one blue dash beacon from a volunteer fireman sent a kaleidoscope of spots racing across the facades of the turn of the century homes. The spinning beams sent brilliant sparks speeding along wet, naked, tree limbs, creating something akin to silent fireworks. The crowd, the lights, the tense feeling of expectation were not dissimilar to a celebration. To Doc, it was a circus.
The years in Homicide were beginning to tell. Doc imagined the cynicism he had seen in the eyes of so many cops clouding his. When had the fire of making a difference cooled to glowing embers? He had been searching for something when he left the Rangers after Vietnam. Purpose? Atonement? He didn’t know. After separation from the service and a year or so of what now seemed like non-stop drunken anger, he had cleaned up his act and found a job as a Nassau County Paramedic, sliding into the routine as easily as he had into his duties as a combat medic. Two years of that had led to the same frustration he had felt in the jungle: futile, a Band-Aid on a mortal wound. A friend suggested he try the cops. At least the uniform wasn’t green. He made it easily. The gun was the biggest drawback. He had never expected to carry one again. He remembered how it had troubled him. Wearing the thing came too naturally.
It was a statistical fact that throughout their careers most officers never drew their weapon in the line of duty. If it had not been for that bank robbery in Franklin Square, he might have been one of the lucky majority. At least he hadn’t killed the guy, and it did get him into plain clothes and undercover. That had led to the Detective Squad and eventually into Homicide. He found a home there, regained an awareness of what he had missed since the Rangers–the brotherhood–corny as it might sound–that only those who have seen the elephant can truly feel, but he still felt like the shovel in the hands of the elephant keeper.
He slapped the gearshift into park and fumbled in his pocket for his cigarettes. Snapping a light from his old Zippo, Doc sucked a lungful of smoke. He looked at the Ranger tab affixed to the lighter, rolled it over in his palm and read the inscription on the back: Rangers lead the way. Charlie Mike.
“Roger that.” When he looked up again, the infant beads of moisture populating his windshield were maturing into full-grown raindrops. The newshounds were ducking for cover.
He chuckled, and muttered, “Attaboy, God, piss on ‘em.”
A passenger jet roared overhead, turbofans screaming on final approach to JFK. An image appeared in his mind’s eye, unbidden, yanked from his memory as if by a chain. That sound always did it. He smelled jet exhaust, envisioned a blue and white Boeing 707–a Pan Am R&R bird–taxiing past a backdrop of palm trees and revetments, felt the heat of the central highlands on his face and Berryhill’s hand on his shoulder.
“Go have fun,” Berry said. “I’ll hold down the fort until you get back.”
He shivered. The vision evaporated.
A stunning redhead shoved a microphone in his face before Doc had gotten his six-foot frame out of the car and erect.
“Detective Wiley of Nassau County Homicide, Adrienne Boyd, Channel Thirty News,” she said, making introductions for her viewers since she was well acquainted with the detective. “Can you tell us who the victim was?”
Behind her, he saw the live-feed antenna atop one of the network vans was becoming pneumatically erect. A bright red hydraulic hose encircling the growing phallus throbbed with the rhythm of the pump. Doc smiled at the symbolism, and said, “You know as much as I do, Miss Boyd.” He slammed the car door and bunched his shoulders against the rain. “Excuse me. I have work to do.”
“But, Detective Wiley—” She stood in his path.
Doc’s calculated grin told Adrienne she was wasting her time. She stuck her tongue out at him, spun on her heel to face her cameraman, and ran her finger across her throat. The man behind her extinguished the flood lamp, dropped the mini-cam from his shoulder, and threw Doc a disgusted sneer.
“Come on, Doc.” Adrienne whirled on the departing detective. Her face scrunched in a pout. “I thought we were friends,” she said to his back.
“You too? I guess we were both wrong. And don’t stick that pretty little tongue out unless you plan to use it.”
“No problem there.”
Looking over his shoulder, he said, “Anything for a story.” She flipped him the bird. He turned away again, saying, “Not tonight,” and kept walking. The sound of her foot stamping the pavement brightened his mood.
On the front porch of a weathered-gray, modest-frame house with Victorian aspirations stood a forlorn, rookie cop. Doc flashed his ID, lifted his chin toward the media mob, and said, “Who’s responsible for the photo op?”
“I guess I am,” the kid said.
“Called it in on the radio, did you?”
The uniformed cop nodded, awash in self-pity.
“We live in the electronic age, my friend. Police-band scanners are as difficult to obtain as a trip to the nearest Radio Shack. Tow truck drivers are not the only ones who listen. You won’t make that mistake again, will you?”
“No sir. Next time I’ll borrow a neighbor’s phone.”
“No doubt in my mind. Now, who’s where?”
“Detective Cordova’s upstairs with the body. Crime Scene Unit’s up there, too.”
Doc smiled at the first good news of the night. Tony Cordova had been a friend since the Police Academy. His sharp wit and quick mouth had been the source of many memorable episodes. Their mutual disdain for bureaucracy–some of their superiors would call it arrogance–had gotten both of them in trouble more often than was healthy for a policeman’s career. More than a friend, Tony was a brother Vietnam veteran. Tony wasn’t a Ranger, not even Airborne, but at least a combat vet, and that was a bond both men could understand if not explain. Most importantly to Doc, Tony was a good cop.
“ME?” Doc asked. The kid looked puzzled. “Medical examiner?”
The cop made an O of his mouth and said, “Not yet.”
Doc surveyed the scene in the street. The mob was creeping closer to the house, despite a growing number of officers’ energetic attempts at crowd control.
“Keep the vampires out,” he said.
“That’s the ticket, Patrolman…” Doc squinted, but could not make out the cop’s nameplate. His eyes were still recovering from the cameraman’s flood.
“Gallagher. Bob Gallagher.” The kid sighed.
“Relax, Gallagher. Your name won’t be in my report. At least you didn’t use the phone in the house. That’s a really big no-no. Anyway, in a hundred years who’s going to give a shit?” Doc flipped his cigarette onto the lawn and reached for the doorknob, trying to remember when he had been as naive as the rookie patrolman.
The heat in the foyer hit him like a wave. Another uniform, much older than the first, was stationed at the foot of a flight of stairs just beyond the entryway. His tie was undone and he held his hat in his hand. He gave Doc a bored smile, and said, “Hullo, Doc. Warm, ain’t it?”
“Hey, Bill.” Doc loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt collar. “It’s like an oven in here.”
“Yeah. Thermostat was set on ninety. We turned it down, but the burner must have been percolating a while. Place hasn’t cooled down yet.”
“What’ve we got?”
“Murder most foul.”
“I can do without the Hercule Poirot.”
“Sorry, Doc. My old lady’s PBS junkie. Must be contagious.” The cop jerked a thumb at the stairs. “Front bedroom. The lady of the house. Tony C. and the CSU guys are up there. Jack Kobrigian’s in the kitchen with her old man.”
“What’re they doing in there?”
“Jack took hubby in there to calm him down. Guy’s a basket case. You want to talk to him?”
“Later. I’ll see what Tony’s got first.”
Doc signed the Crime Scene Log, noted the time of his arrival, and returned the clipboard to the patrolman. With a sigh, Doc mounted the stairs and climbed slowly, taking in his surroundings, trying to get an impression of the victim’s lifestyle. Don’t just see, feel the terrain–Ranger School 101–the gospel according to Sergeant Blake.
The house seemed to be an ordinary, middle-class home. Judging by the furnishings it might have once been upper-middle-class, but that had been a while ago. Dusty track lighting heads and table lamps with yellowed silk shades lit worn, green upholstery in the living room off the center hallway.
As he reached the second floor, he heard rock and roll music playing from a room at the front of the house. He knew that raspy guitar. Hendrix. Golden oldies.
Sweat had broken out on his forehead by the time he reached the open door at the end of the hall. He stepped into what appeared to be a lady’s dressing chamber. The room was a time warp. Day-Glo fantasy posters covered the walls. Lava lamps bracketed a cracked mirror above a Swedish Modern vanity table. A delicate bamboo and cane chair lay on its side. A fluorescent black-light strip fixture on the ceiling gave the place a ghostly cast. Rope rugs were scattered on the hardwood floor. One red and one yellow beanbag chair filled two corners of the room. Strings of multi-colored beads and crystal hung everywhere. Hendrix slid into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” drawing Doc’s attention to the adjacent room. He moved through the doorway to emerge in a master bedroom decorated in much the same manner but brightly lit by table lamps.
Tony Cordova stood at the foot of a queen-size bed, his back to Doc. Dennis Stockton dusted likely surfaces for fingerprints. Larry Hoeniger snapped photographs. The flash made the figure on the bed even more grotesque, if that were possible. The air was thick. A cloying scent of incense mixed with the odor of marijuana, the coppery scent of blood, and a faint whiff of sex.
Tony Cordova sensed Doc’s presence and turned.
“Evening, Doc. How the hell are you?” Tony’s smile was forced. Doc could see why.
“Hey, Tone.” Doc’s eyes were riveted on the corpse. He nodded a greeting to the other cops, who returned it, but continued with their work. “How’s your bride and brood?”
“Well enough. You should stop by. Phyllis would love to see you. The kids, too.”
“Anybody I know?”
Doc ignored the jibe as he ignored all of his colleagues’ allusions to his sex life. After his divorce, he had gone through women like a man with a migraine goes through aspirin, but like that chronic pain plagued victim, his brand of medication brought short-lived relief. Self-pride and his inherent sense of honor won out after months of boudoir bouncing, but the reputation stuck. Lately, the mantle of the dashing rake weighed heavy on his shoulders, but he let his fellow cops believe what they enjoyed believing. Even faithful, monogamous guys such as Tony got some kind of thrill imagining his sexual exploits. The bubble would burst if they knew of his new passion. In the testosterone-steeped cop world, even if he had been the most talented sculptor since Michelangelo–which he wasn’t–he wouldn’t stand a chance. The jokes would be unbearable.
He pointed with his chin at the nude, dead woman lying prone on the bed. A pillow stuffed under her hips caused her buttocks to thrust skyward in a lewd manner. The effect was far from provocative. Doc saw total human debasement. The woman’s rump was a road map of razor thin slices. Bruises mottled her back with the imprint of knuckles vivid in many. Someone had tortured the lady long and hard. She had a thin, beaded band tied tightly around her forehead. Bleached blonde hair, graying at the dark roots, fanned out across her shoulders as if arranged. One of the padded, uplifting cups of her Victoria’s Secret lace bra was stuffed in her mouth with the straps wound around her skull. The apparent cause of death was a length of fine steel wire around her throat, biting deep into swollen flesh–the finishing touch to a labor of unbridled savagery.
Doc grimaced, despite his years of experience with violent death. He had seen much horror as a policeman, most of it in his years in Homicide, but this one was exceptional. Most murders were passionate, sudden, violent affairs. Jealousy, greed, affronted ego–these were the commonplace motives for slaughter. People snapped. They went at each other with guns, knives, hammers, and lengths of pipe–anything handy. He had come to accept mayhem as a byproduct of the animal world. Humans, his theory went, were merely an advanced species whose superiority begot supreme cruelty when pushed over the brink. But the scenario here was no fit of sudden rage. This smacked of a type of malice he had not seen since Vietnam. The headman’s wife in that Montagnard village. Raped. Beaten. Mutilated. She must have begged for death before it was over.
He shook it off, and said, “Hit the high points for me, Tony.”
“Mrs. Dorothy Kohler,” Tony identified the victim. “Her husband, Jason, found her when he came home from a meeting of some local environmentalist group. Committee to Save the Swampland Peckerheads or some shit.”
“That’s Marshland Woodpecker, Tony,” Larry Hoeniger interjected.
Doc said, “Kind of late for ecological crusading.”
“Maybe. I’ll check with the committee,” Tony said.
“Do that. The guy in the kitchen her old man?”
“Yeah. I tried to question him, but he’s coming unglued. Kobrigian was in the squad room when the call came in and came along for the ride. I asked him to try to settle the guy down.”
“Couldn’t find a better man for the job.”
Jack Kobrigian’s unflappable persona was legendary in police circles.
“The kid who got the dispatch blew his cool when he saw the lady’s condition,” Tony said.
“I know,” Doc said. “He’s guarding the front door and having second thoughts about his chosen career. The news-vultures are circling the block. I had to run the gauntlet to get in the place. Adrienne was on me like white on rice.”
“The A-lady? Still after your bod? Doesn’t she know you’re up to–what is it now? M or N?”
“The A-lady? Only if A is for ambitious. That little bitch is too hungry for her own good.” Doc was tired of locker-room innuendo. “And I wish you’d get off this alphabet kick. I am not trying to screw one woman for every letter.”
“Ooh, aren’t we touchy tonight? Hope you weren’t too rough on the Gallagher kid. First homicide is something that stays with you. We’ve all been there.”
“He’ll get over it.” Tony grinned as he completed the sentence. “Medical examiners on the way–Shapiro. He’s all pissed off that we dragged him out on the eve of his daughter’s fifth birthday. He called a little while ago for directions. Said he was wrestling with a Schwinn, trying to decipher instructions he swears are in Japanese, when they beeped him. I know the feeling.”
“So, we’ll wait.” Doc wished he’d left his suit jacket downstairs. The others were in shirtsleeves. “What is this? A sauna?”
“Mister Kohler doesn’t know why the heat was turned up. Maybe the perp did it,” Tony glanced at the body. “Or maybe the poor thing was cold.”
“Or maybe the perp was trying to alter the lady’s body temperature to throw off the time of death. Dust the thermostat.”
“Already done,” Stockton said.
Doc moved to the side of the bed. He knelt to peer at the blackened face with the bulging eyes. A crime scene had a way of making him attuned to all of his senses. The vision of horror before him, the sweltering atmosphere in the overheated room, and the cloying stench of death should have affected his mind to the point of overload, but the familiar music pulsating in the background brought back memories, most of them pleasant.
“What’s with the tunes?”
A vintage stereo beneath a street facing picture window supplied a rock and roll theme.
“Woodstock Album,” Tony said. “It was playing when I got here. We haven’t gotten that far yet. Didn’t want to disturb any evidence so I let it play.”
Doc nodded agreement, wishing for somewhere to throw his coat, but acutely aware of the danger of contaminating the scene. He looked from the body to the stereo and then examined the rest of the room.
“Flower power lives,” he said. It was eerie, like stepping back through time. Visions of student protests sprang to mind. The Chicago riots. Kent State.
“Until tonight it did,” Tony corrected.
“That a water pipe?” Doc pointed to a Lucite columnar object with a bulbous base in the center of a red velvet throw pillow on the floor. “What did they used to call those things, Tony?”
“Beats me. I’m too young to remember the sixties.”
“You mean you were too stoned to remember the sixties.”
“Hey, c’mon. I never inhaled.”
“Sure, you and Willie of the White House, straight as arrows. Next you’ll tell me you’ve never had a blow-job.”
The other cops chuckled but stayed out of it.
“A bong,” Tony mumbled.
“Never inhaled, my ass.” Doc stood up. “Looks like whoever snuffed her, beat the shit out of her, carved her up, and banged her doggy style before, during, or after strangling her.”
“Yeah. A real sweetheart. The husband?” Tony asked.
“Ain’t it always? But here’s an odd touch.” Doc stooped for a closer look at the murder weapon, careful not to touch anything. “Piano wire, wooden handles, and all. An honest to goodness garrote. Homemade, I’d say. Haven’t seen one like that since Nam. Cut a head clean off if you use enough force.”
“Lovely,” Tony said. “Not exactly basic issue, if memory serves.”
“Nope. Special ops stuff. Nasty-time tool.”
“All’s fair in love, war, and pinochle.”
“Yup. Let’s get the grieving widower in here.” Something caught Doc’s eye. “What’s that on her ass, Tony?”
“Some sicko’s idea of fun and games?”
“I’ve been trying not to.”
Doc cocked his head; his eyebrows arched.
Tony’s lips compressed into a thin, white line as he took a step closer to the bed.
“All I see is the aftermath of a butcher gone berserk.”
“Besides the cuts. Right there.” Doc pointed, his finger an inch from the victim’s skin. “Looks like a fresh burn, almost like a brand. There’s a shape to it. Larry, get a close-up of this.”
Hoeniger shot several angles and stepped back.
“Little bigger than a golf ball.” Doc’s eyes narrowed.
“Now I see it,” Tony said. “Looks like a peace symbol.”
Doc’s eyes went to the stereo. “What in hell have we got here? Flower children S and M freaks?”
Tony went to retrieve Jason Kohler. Doc took the opportunity to shed his jacket and tossed it to him as he went out. Tony passed an irate medical examiner on the stairs.
“There’s still goddamn traffic on the LIE,” Doctor Eugene Shapiro told Doc as he bustled into the room. “Let’s make this quick. My kid’s training wheels are still in the box and I’ve got to finish the damned bike before I go to work in the morning. I’d like to get some sleep tonight, too.” He stopped short as soon as his eyes settled on the corpse. “Christ! What the hell kind of animal did this?”
“We were hoping you could tell us something about that,” Doc said.
“My God, Doc, what’s the world coming to?”
They were discussing the obvious damage to the woman’s remains when they heard a scuffle in the adjacent room.
“I’m not going in there again,” said a hysterical, male voice. “He butchered her. I told her never to bring them home. My God, what he did to her. I don’t want to see her like that again. You can’t make me.”
“Don’t get physical, pal. I’m warning you,” Tony’s determined tones interrupted. “We just want to talk to you. Hey, Doc. Would you step out here for a minute, please?”
“Wait for me,” Doc instructed Shapiro as he hurried out of the room.
Jason Kohler screamed when he caught a glimpse of his wife’s body as Doc stepped through the doorway. He swung wildly at Tony’s head with his fists. The detective ducked and grabbed at his clothing to subdue him. Doc threw his arms around the man, pinioned Jason’s arms to his sides, and lifted him off the floor. He swung the panicked man around, put Kohler’s back to the bedroom doorway, and roared, “Close the fucking door.”
One of the men inside the bedroom kicked it shut.
“Calm down, Mister Kohler,” Doc said, nose to nose with the distraught husband. “You don’t have to look now. Relax, okay?”
“Need a hand out there?” someone called through the bedroom door.
“We’re okay.” Doc looked at the subdued husband. “Aren’t we, Mister Kohler?”
Jason Kohler sagged against Doc and wept. Racking sobs shook the big detective. Tony stood helplessly by.
Doc heard Gene Shapiro’s muted voice say, “Let’s get this show on the road. I got a bike to build.” Then Larry Hoeniger said, “Doc said to—”
The bedroom door bulged outward and split along its length. A shock wave blew the three men in the dressing room off their feet. Jason Kohler shot out of his shoes.
Doc thought he heard someone scream, “Incoming!” His ears were ringing. He felt the prickly nap of a rug against his cheek and choked on dust and smoke. An instant before he blacked out, he recognized the voice.
It was his.
©2020 by James D. Robertson