“Gladyss! Turn on the TV, quick!”
“Hold on!” I muttered, having just been awakened from a sound sleep.
Assuming it had something to do with my murder case, which my brother knew I was assigned to, I put on my glasses and flipped it on.
“What happened?” I asked him groggily, nervous that the killer had struck yet again while I slept. But onscreen I saw Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, speaking in a large auditorium filled with suits.
“What the hell is this?”
“Powell is at the UN, making a case for war so that we’ll invade Iraq.”
“Carl, I was sleeping!”
“We’re being pushed into a war for absolutely no reason. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“There’s no draft, Carl,” I said, turning the TV off. “It’s not like Vietnam. No one’s going to be forced to fight if they don’t want to.”
“How about the Iraqi people?” he shouted.
“I gotta go,” I said, not caring to debate this bullshit any further.
“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“I’m still a 23 year old virgin, OK?” I said.
“How’s the OCD?”
“All cleared up,” I said and hung up. I lay back down. This was why I was glad Carl was no longer living in the city. He’d be breathing down my neck every second, trying to control my life. But I was always worried about him.
I closed my eyes, breathed steadily and tried to push all concerns out of my head. The only thing that stuck in my mind was the vision I’d had in yoga class the other day—a tall, slim, shimmering woman holding a bow and arrow. After a while I showered, dressed, and went off to work. When I arrived, Bernie was sitting at his old partner’s desk, resting his head against a cardboard box in front of him.
I peeked to make sure that his shoe was still on, then approached him. “You didn’t call One PP about the Marilyn web site, did you?”
“Yep,” he said, without making eye contact.
I didn’t need the crisp morning light to see that Bernie needed a shave and a change of clothes. He looked haggard. Finally he sat up in his chair, swallowed down whatever bile had risen in his throat and said, “Last night after the credit card theft, I figured that this guy might be targeting me. So I’ve spent the last eight hours going through all my cases over the last fifteen years.” He hit his head against the cardboard box. There were several more boxes on the floor behind the desk.
“Those are all your cases?” I was only a rookie on a thirty-day assignment given to me because I happened to look like his victim, but being a homicide detective was my goal.
“This is decades of pulling rats out of glue traps and putting them into tiny cages upstate. But I came up with nothing.”
“So what now?”
“The problem with this business isn’t running out of ideas, it’s having too many of them. Bert used to say that.”
He opened the file in front of him. It was our case. Aside from various reports, I saw a stack of crime photos. Close-ups of severed heads. Detailed pictures of wrists and ankles splattered with blood and taped together. Single-digit numbers carved painfully into soft flesh.
“I’m sure you noticed that all the numbers cut into the vic’s limbs correspond with the numbers cut into prior vics . . . .” I again made the mistake of stating the obvious.
“Yeah, yeah. The way the bodies are positioned, the numbering on the limbs, the crap he shoves into their hands—all that shit. If you can figure out what it means, I’ll give you ten bucks. Otherwise . . .” He made a zipper gesture over his mouth. All these dead ends were evidently driving him nuts.
“The thing I find most interesting is the actual taping,” Bernie finally said. “It would be really hard to get their limbs like that and balance them all to stay upright.”
“Maybe the guy worked for Mailboxes Etc.”
“And why is this the only victim he didn’t decapitate?”
“Yet he still did the numbering and taping,” I pointed out.
When I looked at the Polaroids of our latest Jane Doe, I gasped. The killer had been so violent that even her implants were sliced apart. Also, unlike the other girls, she had a tattoo on her back—a coiled and sleeping dragon.
“What now?” I asked.
“I’m going to shave, change my shirt and get a coffee. Then we’ll go back to the list.”
I used the recess to run to the lab, where I gave my baggied cellphone to a techie and asked him to lift Noel’s prints from it, then run the prints through the file to see if they matched any we had found at the other crime scenes. He told me the CSI techies had found two new fingerprints at last night’s crime scene that they were pretty certain belonged to the killer.
As I got back to the squad room, Alex and Annie arrived, both at the same time. Just when I began to wonder if they were sleeping together, Bernie explained that they had gone out to Brooklyn to check up on some possible leads regarding the latest victim. A wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning, considering they both had families.
“Find out anything?”
“Her real name was Jane Hansen, nickname Minty,” Annie said, reading from her notepad. “She lived in Greenpoint with her cat Angus. Went to NYU film school and was still paying off her student loans. She’s the first vic who doesn’t seem connected to any escort service, though I guess she might be a freelancer.”
“But she might not be a hooker at all,” Alex added.
“Why do you say that?” Bernie asked.
“She has no record, and we haven’t found anything tying her to the sex industry,” Annie said, almost happily. I remembered how bad she’d felt when we found so little at the last vic’s house.
“Did the receptionist at the Ticonderoga ever see her before?”
“Nope,” Annie replied. “And she has no priors of any kind.”
“Do me a favor,” Bernie said to Alex, handing him a piece of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. “I’ve called them twice already. This is tech support. Can you stay on them to get us a computer geek? I need someone to look at Gladyss’s friend’s laptop, check out this, uh, web site, and help determine if our guy is targeting this lady.” I wasn’t sure why they would need to look at her laptop, but I didn’t say anything as Alex took the paper.
With the help of last week’s expanded task force, we had whittled down our list of suspects to roughly two dozen names consisting of those we couldn’t find or hadn’t interviewed yet and three men we had interviewed who were deemed persons of interest, worth interviewing again.
Using details from the Ticonderoga Hotel case, Bernie was now able to cut the list down further, bringing our suspects down to a baker’s dozen. They consisted of eight whites, two light-skinned blacks and three Latinos, all of whom could’ve matched the poor-contrast image of the suspect on the washed-out Ticonderoga tape. All were relatively thin and had a history of theft, frequenting prostitutes and/or violence against women.
“If we can hit these guys,” he suggested, “a series of quick field interrogations should give us some idea if any of them is our boy.”
I didn’t share his optimism about detecting instant guilt. To me it seemed more like a big, chilly fishing expedition. Again I was teamed with Bernie. I didn’t know if he took painkillers or simply wore a more comfortable shoe, but he seemed a little less angry this time. As we headed out to his car, I asked him what the plan of attack was.
“You want to know the plan of—” he caught himself. I knew he was about to say something nasty. “OK, unless they’re complete psychos—zero affect—these guys are usually right on the edge. Ready to pop. You don’t have to press that hard. If they start coming apart, you lock ’em up, sweat ’em, run their prints and check their alibis for the night of the murders.”
When I asked him if he could remember his first murder case, he said it involved a drug dealer back when he was “a ghetto cop in the Bushwhack.” It sounded like an old Kojak rerun.
“The difference is provincialism,” he said as we drove up Eighth Avenue. “Out there, you knew your characters and what they were up to. Manhattan is different. Everyone’s just blowing through,” he said just as an arctic gust blasted down the avenue, tagging any flesh left exposed by poorly wrapped scarves and the bright pink earlobes of those who didn’t pull their hats down tight enough.
“Was Youngblood just blowing through?” I inquired, remembering the geriatric tube sock hustler. Since Bernie seemed in a relatively good mood, I thought maybe he would open up a bit. But he didn’t hear me.
“I was just too young to know any better,” he muttered.
“What should you have known?”
“A cute young teenager gets into drugs. The boyfriend who got her hooked leaves her. Her dealer moves up to being her pimp. To avoid going away for her third conviction, she becomes your own private ghost. I was a lonely kid—not much older than you—who made the mistake of getting too close to a beautiful, damaged girl. Same as Bert, only at his age he should’ve known a lot better.”
“Bert, your old partner?”
“Yeah, except he married his snitch. Mine was found in the bottom of a filthy air shaft out in the Red Hook.” He paused a moment, and I could see by the way he chewed his inner lip that he was reliving the moment. “I’ve had to spend the last twenty years knowing it was my stupidity that put her down there.”
Bernie’s cell rang; it was Alex to say that tech support at One Police Plaza was a little backed up, but someone would definitely look into the web site by tomorrow.
Of the six remaining suspects Bernie and I were checking, we knew we’d be lucky if we got to the three most promising ones today. All had been in prison within the past five years. Two of them, Joseph Donnelly and Nessun O’Flaherty, had done time for assaulting hookers, but the last and best suspect was a pimp named Howard Sprag who went by the moniker “Hozec.” Bernie explained that this nickname was a shortening of either Whore Executive or Whore Executioner—Sprag was rumored to wring the necks of his bottom earners. Bernie seemed to have a particularly vengeful place in his heart for pimps who killed their hookers.
What’s more, Sprag had also been arrested a few years before on a murder charge involving ligature strangulation—a girl named Sally DiNasio was found with a telephone cord wrapped around her neck. She was a Garden State runaway whom he’d probably recruited at Port Authority. Although the case went to trial, he got off due to insufficient evidence. He was later arrested for drug possession and did the majority of his twelve-year sentence, though he shortened it somewhat by informing on another inmate.
According to his parole officer, Sprag worked for a few months at the Forty Second Street Partnership, a halfway house for early releases. He was one of those guys who wears a white jumpsuit and sweeps the streets around Times Square. Then one day he stopped showing up for work and coming to meetings. The parole officer explained, “I have a warrant out on his ass, but haven’t had time to hunt him down.”
Sprag’s last known address was a transient hotel, the Lathem, at Twenty-Eighth and Tenth. As we parked in front of the place, Bernie said he had interviewed another suspect here just last week during the initial dragnet. The desk clerk, a tall Indian gentleman named Lionel, recognized Bernie as he entered.
“How can I be of service, Detective?”
When Bernie asked him if Howard Sprag still lived there, Lionel paused, sighed and responded in a watered-down British accent, “About two months ago, Mr. Sprag called down to the desk saying there was a dead body in his room. I went upstairs and saw him standing in the hall smoking a cigarette. When I asked about said body, he just nodded toward his room. I went in, looked around, peeked under the bed and told him I didn’t see any dead body. ‘It’s out the window,’ he replied. I figured he was pulling my leg, you know. So I went back downstairs. By the time I reached the lobby, someone out front was screaming. Apparently Mr. Sprag finished his fag and jumped out of the window.”
“Rest in peace, Hozec,” I muttered.
“Why doesn’t his PO know this shit?” Bernie asked no one in particular.
“You’re the first person who’s come around asking about him,” Lionel replied. Bernie asked when this had happened exactly, and Lionel’s answer told us Sprag had been dead before the last two murders were committed.
Joe Donnelly was next up. For a brief time, he had been a member of the infamous Irish gang, the Westies, but they reportedly tossed him out when it became clear he had a greater loyalty to heroin. More recently Donnelly had been living in and out of his mother’s place in the Penn South Housing Projects, Section Eight Assistance, along Twenty-Fourth and Eighth Avenue. Bernie recalled arresting him for something once before. Maybe extortion.
“So maybe he has it in for you,” I pointed out, referring to his stolen credit card.
“Maybe,” he replied.
We parked in front of the building, got in the front door without ringing, went up the stairs, and knocked on his mother’s door. Bernie was a big believer in the surprise drop-in.
“In here, pronto,” a deep, hoarse voice hollered. The place was a mess, and smelled of sardines and boiled eggs. A bloated Raggedy Anne from hell seemed to be parked permanently inches in front of a loud and angry TV set, a half-empty 40 of Coors and a box of saltines on a table beside her chair.
“You’re not Meals on Wheels,” she growled.
“And you’re not Vanessa Del Rio doing Desire Cousteau,” he replied. I had no idea who he was talking about.
“The TV is not loud, so don’t tell me it is!” she said defiantly when we identified ourselves.
“We’re not here for that,” Bernie shot back and turned it off. “We’re looking for that evil shit that you let loose upon the world.”
Bernie pulled out his pistol and kicked open her closet and bathroom doors, checking for himself.
“Joey’s a good kid,” she replied. “What’s he done now?”
“Killed some girls.”
“Dead girls,” I repeated to her.
“When’s he s’posed to have killed ’em?” she asked.
“Where the fuck is he?” Bernie shouted.
“My kidneys are killing me,” she complained. “I need dialysis.”
“Where the fuck is your kid?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell youse. He’s been in Riker’s for six months now—shoplifting.”
Bernie used his cell to call the prison and confirm it. Two down.
“Now can I watch the rest of my shows?” she asked, turning the TV back on.
“It’s too loud,” I said, turning it down.
“I can’t hear it like that.”
“Get a hearing aid,” I shouted.
As soon as we stepped into the hallway, the volume shot back up. At least I’d given her a little exercise—she’d had to lift the remote again.
When we returned to the car, Bernie looked at the info sheet for suspect number three and saw that he was still on parole.
“Christ, it’s dark,” I said, amazed that it was already pitch black even though it was only late afternoon. I was fired up about interrogating the other suspects but by now, Bernie’s foot was clearly agitating the hell out of him.
“Let’s call it a night and try to reach his parole officer tomorrow,” I suggested. That would be the state parole office on Fortieth Street.
“All right,” he said.
We returned to the precinct where Bernie suddenly realized he was way behind on the paperwork needed for a court case tomorrow morning. He took a Valium to handle the pain, but as soon as he sat down, he passed out with his head on his desk.
My phone rang: it was the lab tech with the test results I’d asked for. Noel’s prints didn’t match anyone of the ones found at the various crime scenes. So much for my theory.
It wasn’t the end of my shift yet, so I grabbed Bernie’s paperwork and spent the next hour and a half trying to extract vital information from him so I could finish his paperwork. Otherwise a homicide charge would get dropped the next day.
* * *
“Is this the squad that investigates Hollywood stud muffins?”
O’Ryan popped his head round the door. He told me he’d just finished logging in a box of stolen iPods in the property room downstairs. Even though Bernie was snoring away on the couch. I walked out into the hall to talk with Eddie.
“My cell phone died, I’m really sorry,” he said referring to my date night with Noel. Then he asked if the actor’s fingerprints had matched anything.
“No,” I replied. “But you still could’ve called me the next morning to see how I was doing.”
“I heard that you roughed up some boy reporter at the Ticonderoga Hotel, so I figured you were doing fine,” he replied.
Before he could get around to asking if I wanted to go to dinner, his temporary partner, Lenny, suddenly appeared and the two had to run. I finished Bernie’s paperwork and headed to yoga, leaving Bernie sleeping in the office.
–an excerpt from Gladyss of the Hunt by Arthur Nersesian