I checked the street in both directions in front of an upscale coffee house called Flat Bread and Butter on Amsterdam Avenue near 140th Street. The street was about as quiet as New York City gets.
There’s never a good time to be breaking in a new detective on the squad, but this moment was one of the worst. The new detective’s name was Brett Hollis. He was a sharp up-and-comer. He may not have been experienced, but he looked good. Full suit and tie. Not a hair out of place. He almost looked like he could be one of my kids dressed for church.
Occasionally I have a hard time trusting a well-put-together cop. I figure cops who take the job seriously have a permanent disheveled look. Like mine.
Hollis was also young. Maybe too young.
My lieutenant, Harry Grissom, hadn’t used the word babysit, but he’d said to make sure this kid didn’t get into any trouble. Sort of what a babysitter does. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but we were in the middle of a major murder investigation.
Chloe Tumber, a first-year student at Columbia Law, had been found stabbed to death with some kind of sharp tool. One Police Plaza was keeping recent developments quiet, but Chloe was the third victim—after one in the Bronx and another in Brooklyn—to die by similar means. The stab wounds had been made by blades with slightly different markers. We suspected the killer had a toolbox full of sharp implements.
I turned to the rookie and said, “Remember, this guy Van Fleet is a person of interest. Not necessarily a suspect. Follow my lead.”
Hollis nodded his head nervously, saying, “We need to call in our location.”
“Policy says we have to check in on the radio for safety reasons.”
I smiled at the young detective. “I appreciate your knowledge of the NYPD policy manual, but in real life, if we called in every location we stopped at, we’d do nothing but use the radio all day.” I stepped into the coffee house without another word, trusting Hollis would follow.
The coffee house was narrow, with about ten tables and a bar with ten stools. A good-looking young man wearing the name tag JESSE stood behind the counter and welcomed us.
I said, “Is Billy around?”
“You guys cops?”
Hollis stepped forward and said, “What about it?”
Jesse shrugged. “You got the look. Listen, Billy doesn’t steal from me and he shows up for his shifts—that’s all I care about.” Jesse set down his rag and jerked his thumb toward the rear of the narrow coffee house. “He’s in the back.”
I followed Hollis through the constricted hallway, boxes of paper towels and toilet paper stacked along the walls. Hollis walked past the bathrooms and storage room into the kitchen. That’s where we found Billy Van Fleet. The tall, slim, pale twenty-eight-year-old was busy washing dishes. He looked up and smiled, clearly making us for police officers. Guess we did have the look.
I saw Hollis take a step forward, and I placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, saying, “Be cool.”
“What can I do for you, Officers?” the dishwasher asked, drying his hands and straightening his shirt.
I held up my shield. “Billy Van Fleet?”
“When was the last time you saw Chloe Tumber?”
Hollis’s demeanor changed in an instant. “We’re asking the questions,” he snarled.
Van Fleet held up his hands and said, “Okay, okay, just asking.”
Hollis kept going. “How about you tell us where you were last night between 8 and 11 p.m.”
Van Fleet kept his eyes on Hollis, which I figured I’d use to my advantage. Maybe I’d let my new partner lead the interview. That way I could watch Van Fleet and see what made him nervous.
Right now he seemed very calm. Until suddenly he wasn’t. Without warning, he spun and sprinted away from the sink, blasting through the rear exit. He was fast.
Hollis broke into a run, calling over his shoulder almost cheerfully, “He’s our man!” just as Van Fleet hit the safety bar on the door, letting sunshine flood into the dark kitchen.
I could’ve broken into a run with Brett Hollis. But that would’ve been counterproductive. Hollis was trying to keep the suspect in sight. I was sure he’d give this guy a good run for his money. But veteran cops don’t engage in foot chases. Experience is supposed to teach you something. It taught me to either find a car or use my head.
I knew this neighborhood. Every block of it. Traffic had picked up on Amsterdam Avenue, and no one runs toward a busy street. This guy had a plan. I figured he’d take the alley a block down and move away from any pedestrian traffic. If I were him, I’d head toward St. Nicholas Park. It wasn’t that far away.
I broke into a light jog. We needed this guy—make no mistake. Van Fleet was the first lead we’d had in Chloe Tumber’s homicide. Which, despite the different blades used, looked to be connected to those two other cases. All three victims were young women who’d suffered gruesome injuries moments before their deaths. And the three crime scenes looked similar. Messy. Though I couldn’t shake the feeling that the mess was deliberate, almost designed for effect. We were still developing a theory as to why.
I found the garbage alley I was looking for between two buildings, with its gates, as usual, left wide open. Then I saw an abandoned dog leash. A long one. Maybe twelve feet, and already hooked to a pole behind a pizza place. I took the leash in my hand and stepped to the other side of the alley.
Ten seconds later, as if on cue, Van Fleet slid around the corner, ducked a drainage pipe that stuck out into the alley, and picked up the pace again. He never even saw me. As he neared the dog leash, I jerked the line. His feet tangled and he tumbled down onto the alley’s nasty asphalt, slipping in some pizza grease congealed in the middle of the alley and knocking over an empty forty-ounce beer bottle like it was the last bowling pin in the lane.
Before I could even reach Van Fleet, Hollis barreled around the corner. He didn’t notice the drainage pipe, and ran full speed into it, headfirst. The impact made the pipe reverberate like a gong and knocked him completely off his feet. I could only imagine what the collision sounded like inside his brain.
I cuffed the suspect, then looked over at Hollis. His nose was flattened, blood spraying from it like a busted sprinkler attached to his face. “You okay, Brett?”
He mumbled, “I’m good,” as he struggled to his feet. Blood poured onto his clean white shirt and made dark stains on his power tie.
With Van Fleet’s hands cuffed behind his back, I helped him up and started to lead him back to the coffee house. I didn’t want to embarrass Hollis, so I walked slowly as he tried to keep up.
Hollis’s wound was so spectacular, a corner bodega owner abandoned the outdoor displays she was stocking and rushed inside for a handful of crumpled paper towels. She forced them on Hollis, who held them to his nose.
Hollis wasn’t complaining. I had to admit, I liked his toughness.
As soon as we got back to Flat Bread and Butter, we slipped in the same back door we’d all burst out of. I don’t think Jesse even realized we’d left the building.
I sat Van Fleet down on a stool next to an oven. “Why’d you run when we asked you about Chloe, jerk-off?”
“She’s always complaining that I’m too clingy, that she’s too busy with law school and her part-time job to have time for me. She said if I didn’t give her some space, she’d call the cops on me.” He sighed.
“What’d you do when she said that?”
“Nothing. I haven’t called her in a week.” He paused and cut his eyes to Hollis and me. “Okay, maybe I tried to call her a couple of times.”
Hollis plopped down on a chair next to a metal desk built into the wall. He didn’t look good. I said, “Why don’t you go get that checked out, Brett?”
“I’m fine.” He’d added some paper towels from the kitchen to the ones from the bodega. It was a giant ball of paper, slowly turning dark red.
I turned back to Billy Van Fleet. “Three days ago Chloe Tumber made an official complaint against you, said that you’d been stalking her. I don’t suppose you can tell me where you were last night, can you?”
“Here.” He shrugged. “I was here from 6 p.m. until one o’clock. Never left. Jesse was here with me the whole time.”
I shot a quick look at Hollis, who jumped off his chair and headed to the front of the restaurant to talk to Van Fleet’s boss. A minute later, he came back and nodded. “It checks out.”
“Someone slipped into Chloe’s apartment last night and murdered her. Your history of harassment, plus the running, makes you look like a good suspect. Convince us otherwise.”
For his part, Van Fleet looked legitimately stunned. “Chloe’s dead?”
I quickly filled him in, leaving out the details of the bloody scene at her apartment.
It had been gruesome. I could tell Hollis had been trying hard to hold it together back at Chloe Tumber’s apartment. He’d choked up. “He stabbed her in the eye?” he’d said, his voice breaking.
He’d picked right up on the most distinct detail, the kind that could never be revealed to the media for fear of giving ideas to budding criminal minds.
I’d held his arm for a moment and said, “Everyone gets a little shaky in the aftermath of a violent murder, Brett. This is bad. Really bad. I wanted you to see how bad things can get.”
All cops are human. Any one of us who tells you crime scenes don’t affect them is lying. Yes, we’re professionals. Yes, we’ve seen it before. It’s especially hard for those of us with children. Every time I view a messy crime scene, it’s hard not to think of the victim as someone’s kid, and I always say a silent prayer for them and their families.
But Billy Van Fleet was taking the news remarkably well.
“If you didn’t kill her, who did?” I asked.
Total silence from Van Fleet.
I looked at him and said, “We need to find out what happened to Chloe, if there was anyone who wanted to hurt her. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t talk to us.”
“Never talk to the cops. Never snitch. It’s bad for the reputation,” he said, like it was a mantra.
“What reputation? Aside from a lot of petty arrests, you live with your parents and work at a coffee house that makes Starbucks look like a hellhole,” Hollis scoffed.
The skinny white guy had a smile on his face as he said, “I’m a gangsta—that’s what we do. I learned a long time ago that nothing happens to me if I run from the cops. I figured it out on my second arrest. I’m up to sixteen arrests and haven’t been proven wrong. I’ve never gotten one extra day in jail for running from the cops. I even have a blog about it.”
Gangsta? Give me a break. Van Fleet had none of my young partner’s toughness. And I was less than impressed at how quickly he seemed to have already moved on from the news we’d just delivered—that the woman he’d been obsessed with had been murdered. Then I made a connection. “Has this got something to do with your half-ass acting persona?”
“There’s nothing half-assed about staying in character. It will serve me well when my one-act play opens Off-Broadway next month. I’m playing a convicted felon who doesn’t put up with any shit.”
I said, “Well, I’m playing a cop who’s tired of putting up with shit.”
I was pissed off. And we were no closer to finding Chloe Tumber’s killer.
Daniel Ott, tech consultant, gazed at the New York Daily News sitting on his desk in the Manhattan Family Insurance office. He smiled. The headline, in bold letters, said, THREE’S NO CHARM IN BIG APPLE MURDERS.
Numbers were logical. People were not. Besides, he loved the thought that all of New York City was reading about the murders he had committed.
When Ott looked up, he noticed the heavyset office administrator, Warren Talbout, heading his way. Ott quickly resumed his work, installing the desktop computer software his company had created to facilitate communications integration between phones and computers.
Talbout, who wore a graying walrus mustache, stopped by and said, “How’s the upgrade going, David?”
Ott looked up. “It’s Daniel. And the upgrades are coming along fine. I should be finished later today.”
The office administrator nodded and waddled away. Ott wasn’t upset the man had gotten his name wrong. Few people in any of the offices where he worked bothered to learn his name. He was only ever anywhere for about two weeks at a time. Just a reasonably friendly, totally nondescript guy who made it easier for them to move data between their phones and their computers.
In fact, he liked to think that no matter where he went no one ever noticed him, like a forgettable piece of furniture. He was about five foot ten and one hundred sixty-five pounds, slim for adult males in the US. With no distinctive features whatsoever.
Young Ott had been taunted for being thin and sickly. But as he learned and grew, he found he could do things no one else could. He understood math and numbers like most people did language, though he was also good with languages. He’d easily landed this job with Computelex. He made plenty of money and got to fly across the entire country—business class.
Mostly, Ott blended in and traveled with hardly anyone even speaking to him. He was happy he’d found uses for his superpower. Now he was the one doing the taunting.
Ott read some of the article. No comment from the NYPD spokeswoman about details connecting the murders. Ott knew TV news wasn’t as careful as print. News shows would play up an angle to increase ratings; before too long, they’d create special graphics and theme music for these murders.
He didn’t want to be too obvious, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off the page. He’d stop every couple of seconds to look up and nod hello to someone walking past. Everyone who worked at the insurance company stayed busy and avoided idle chitchat. That focus gave him room to indulge himself in this big comfortable office, with its north-facing view of the park and abundant takeout options—all the trappings of a secure, safe haven.
His cell phone chimed with a short, low, professional tone. He smiled and snatched the phone from his belt. Technically it was his lunchtime. His mouth stretched into a wide grin as he said, “Hello, sweetheart.”
He was surprised by giggles and his two daughters sing-songing together, “Hello, Papa!”
“Hello, my little dumplings. I thought it was your mother calling.”
“She’s right here. We wanted to surprise you.”
“And what a great surprise it is.” Ott’s three-year-old, Tatyana, and five-year-old, Lilly, were his absolute prizes. He worked hard so that they would never know hard times. And he was raising them to be polite and respectful. Thankfully their mother, Lena, had few of the arrogant habits most American women did.
Lena was Polish and had proven to be a good wife and a great mother. She was simple and sweet, very meek. They’d met online, and Ott quickly knew she was the woman for him. He even spoke a fair amount of Polish. They used it as a code to talk privately around the girls.
He chatted with his daughters, who told him about their homeschool lessons, the books they were reading (or pretending to read), and how they’d raced their mother and won.
Ott never would’ve imagined he could feel as much love as he did for these girls. He wondered if either of his parents had felt anything for him approaching the love he had for his daughters. He doubted it—his father had barely acknowledged him, except to make mean jokes, and his mother had just seemed exhausted all the time. When she died, Ott had felt relief for her, that she could finally rest. Since then, he’d probably spoken no more than thirty words total to his father.
Lena got on the line, and his mood shifted. His wife tended to bring up less enjoyable topics, problems that needed solutions. She said, “We need to enroll the girls in a dance class. And the dog has a cough again.”
Ott hid a groan as he hurried his wife off the phone. “I’m sorry, dear, I have to get back to work.”
She said she understood and told him she couldn’t wait to see him. He smiled after hanging up, thinking about his two separate—and very different—lives. Over the past year, it had become clear that he needed both to survive, though it was a daily challenge to keep them from crashing into each other.
Ott loved his wife and girls, but he couldn’t deny himself the pleasure he got from killing. The feeling could make his head spin, and he had an increasingly difficult time containing his urges. He felt the sensation in his entire body, like wave after wave of excitement. A release. A renewal. He wouldn’t describe it as sexual in nature—it was more primal and satisfying.
Usually the victims were obvious to him. It had to do with their attitudes. That was his catalyst, his reason to act: he could not abide women with insolent, demeaning attitudes. He no longer put up with arrogance and ridicule from women. Nor could he understand why American women thought they were smarter, prettier, and more important than anyone else in the world. There was something about their egotistical speech patterns that shocked his nervous system.
His work dictated the pace he kept in his avocation. Since he only took victims outside his home area, occasionally choosing his next victim from an office where he had done contract work, the length of his business trips determined how patient he could be.
He did his best to be patient, let some time lapse. Usually. But sometimes the urge hit him so strongly that he couldn’t wait.
He’d been in New York for only about a month now and had already succumbed to the temptation of three perfect victims. It was more than he usually allowed himself, but then again, in a city as big as New York, he was almost surprised the media had even connected them. Not that he was concerned. At each crime scene, he’d been careful not to leave any evidence that could be linked to him, and careful about security cameras.
Today would be his last day in this office. He’d figured out a way to reroute the company’s computer network to integrate more easily with the software he was installing. He never bothered to explain his work to the clients, just to his boss back at Computelex headquarters in Omaha. HQ was the only one he needed to impress.
Ott moved from his desk to work at a control box in a tiny room at one end of the floor. He had been in there before and realized that from that vantage, he could hear everything in the manager’s office, the copy room, and the break room, which all surrounded the control box.
As he worked, he overheard two women talking. It took him a moment to realize they were standing in the break room. He recognized one of the voices as belonging to an intern, a smart girl from somewhere north of the city.
He was about to go back to his desk when he heard the intern say, “How much longer is that telephone tech going to be here?”
The other woman said, “I think he’s supposed to finish up today.”
“I’m so glad I’m studying communications in college. I’d hate to do such lonely, anonymous work. It doesn’t suit me.”
Ott stood still for a moment. Silent. Furious. Who the hell is this arrogant bitch to think she is better than me? In fact, he was widely recognized in the industry as one of only six or seven techs in the whole country who could do what he did. And he got paid well for it too. More than this bitch intern would ever make in communications or whatever useless degree she was getting.
His hand started to tremble with anger. Then he smiled with a new sense of purpose.
He always felt energized the moment he found a new victim.
It wasn’t quite nightfall by the time I got home to my family. I’ve spent my career trying to keep my family life as separate from my work life as possible. If I’m thinking about some gruesome crime I’m investigating, I’m not focusing on the kids the way I need to be, and it’s important to focus exclusively on the children for a fair amount of time each day.
But today was one of those days that wore me down. The unidentified killer who’d violently murdered these women had gotten into my head. It was hard to stop thinking about the case, even as I was welcomed home by three beautiful, happy young girls.
Though frankly I’d expected more than 30 percent of my kids to greet me at the door.
That’s right, I have ten children. Six girls and four boys. All adopted. Each with his or her own unique personality and challenges. And I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for anything in the world, though as anyone with a lot of kids will tell you, it takes an enormous amount of energy.
My twins, Bridget and Fiona, were always good for a double hug, and my youngest, Chrissy, still insisted on a giant hug and a quick lift and whirl around the room. It’s possible she didn’t insist as much as she used to. But I still did it anyway, every day.
I wandered farther into the apartment and found my fiancée, Mary Catherine, sitting at a small writing desk in our bedroom, working on some wedding details. We were getting married in a matter of weeks, and the quick look she gave me revealed that she was feeling rather overwhelmed.
“I need some fresh air,” Mary Catherine said. “Get changed, real quick. You promised we’d ride our new bikes at least three times a week. Let’s go.”
I knew not to argue. Also, it’s bad policy to ignore commitments. And I never break a promise. It took me only a minute to slip out of my work clothes and into sweatpants and a Manhattan College T-shirt. Underneath the school’s logo it said, PHILOSOPHY, IT’S SO MUCH MORE THAN A MAJOR. The kids had gotten me the shirt as a joke gift for my birthday since that had been my major in college. I loved it. The joke was on them. Philosophy was a lot more than just a major.
As we slipped out the front door, Mary Catherine called over her shoulder, “Ricky, finish up dinner. Your great-grandfather will be here in a few minutes. He can get everyone organized. We’ll be back in thirty to forty minutes. Less if I have to call an ambulance for your father.”
Mary Catherine’s lilting Irish accent didn’t make these sound like a series of orders she expected to be carried out precisely. But both the kids and I knew that when she used that tone of voice, she was on a mission. In this case, it was our newest hobby: riding mountain bikes.
You might ask, Who buys mountain bikes when they live in Manhattan? The answer is, anyone who wants to work up a sweat without going forty miles an hour on a racing bike.
by James O. Born
A serial killer crashes Detective Michael Bennett’s wedding.
Bennett promises Mary Catherine that the case won’t affect their upcoming wedding. But as Bennett prepares to make a lifetime commitment, the killer has a lethal vow of his own to fulfill.