Linda Fairstein

Killer Heat

The tenth book in the Alex Cooper series, 2008


Mike Chapman bit into the tip of a Cohiba and held the match to the end of his thick cigar, drawing several deep breaths to make certain it was lighted

Take a few hits, Coop,' he said, passing it to me.

I shook my head.

'The stench from that corpse is going to stay in your brain for weeks unless you infuse it right away with something more powerful. Why do you think I've always got a couple of these in my pocket?'

I took the cigar from Mike and rolled it between my fingers

Don't look at the damn thing. Smoke it. That broad's been decomposing for days in an empty room during a summer heat wave. Wrap your lips around that sucker and inhale till the smoke comes through your nose and ears, and maybe even from between your toes.

I put it to my lips, coughing as the harsh tobacco taste filled my mouth and lungs. There were no overhead lights above the concrete barriers we sat on at the intersection of South Street and Whitehall, which dead-ended at the East River, near the southernmost tip of Manhattan.

'There's no air out here. Not even a breeze off the water. 'Almost midnight and it's still ninety-seven degrees. She's cooking in that room,' Mike said, tossing his head in the direction of the crime scene that he'd been working for the last three hours. His black hair glistened with sweat, and the perspiration on his shirt made the cotton cloth cling to his chest.

'Whatever body parts were left intact will be fried by the time they bag her.

'Are you going with the guys to the morgue?' I asked

Might be the coolest place in town tonight. You into refrigerated boxes?'

'I'll pass. Are they almost done?'

'The ME was ready to call it quits when the maggot maven showed up.'

The putrefaction of the woman's body, which had been left to rot in the abandoned government offices over the old ferry slip, offered an irresistible opportunity to swarms of summer flies, which entered to lay their eggs and leave their offspring to nourish themselves on her flesh.

The blast of the horn from the Staten Island Ferry, its giant orange hull sliding out of the pier from the enormous modern terminal just twenty yards downriver, startled me. We were half a mile south of the bustling marketplace that had once been the South Street Seaport, flanking the glittering towers of Wall Street, outside what seemed like the only building in the downtown area that had been neglected alongside the water's flotsam and jetsam.

I stood up from the concrete barrier and looked over my shoulder at the entrance to the deserted slips-three vaulted openings that led to the water, supporting a raised porch and the offices in which the body had been found, centered between forty-foot-tall columns that faced Whitehall. Crumbling wooden pilings bordered the walkway behind me, while trash floated and bobbed among the large rocks in the water ten feet below.

'Jumpy already?' Mike smiled at me as he held the open collar of his shirt between his thumb and forefinger, waving it back and forth as though the cloth might actually dry out despite the oppressive humidity. 'You don't even know what happened to her yet.'

'Has he got any ideas about how long the woman's been dead?' The cigar smoke filtered up through my nostrils, overwhelming the pungent odor of death.

'Bug juice, Madam Prosecutor. The good Dr. Magorski likes to bring this whole thing down to when he figures the flies laid the maggots which finished feasting and then sat on the floorboards and pupated. He's picking up the pupal cases to take to his lab. It's a slow process,' Mike said, dismissing the expert with a flip of his hand.

The forensic entomologist had been called to the scene by the young medical examiner who first responded to the detectives' notification. I had watched Magorski work several other cases, clipping a pair of lenses that looked like tiny microscopes over his thick eyeglasses while he scoured the body and its surroundings for signs of insect life-with its predictable cycles that might help establish a time of death.

'I understand. But do you think he's useful?'

'I want you to keep puffing on that thing till you turn a pale shade of green.'

'I feel like I'm coming up on chartreuse,' I said, brushing wisps of damp hair off my forehead with the back of my hand.

'Personally, I think he's a waste of resources. Is she dead more than a week? Yeah. Less than two? My money's on that. The only reason everybody south of Forty-second Street didn't notice the odor is because this place is so isolated, except for the decaying fish remains and sewage right below where she was found.'

'That's still a pretty big window of opportunity.'

'Once we ID the broad, it won't take long for some joker to tell us the last time she showed up at work or a girlfriend to say what domestic tiff sped her out the door of her apartment. Stick with real detective work, kid. I never met a bug with a gold shield.'

I had seen more than my share of bodies as the prosecutor in charge of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office for the last decade. The black humor of many cops and colleagues, an effort to defuse these ugly situations, did nothing to ease my revulsion.

'Hey, Chapman,' a rookie in uniform called out to Mike from the porch of the old ferry slip. 'They're bringing her out now. You and Ms. Cooper can come back up.'

On the roadway opposite the aging terminal, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive sank below ground to loop under the Battery and reemerge as the West Side Highway. The far side of the tunnel entrance, dozens of glass and steel office towers-many of their windows still lit-formed the dense, narrow canyons of the city's financial district.

'Sorry to drag you down here. I really thought it might be your girl,' Mike said. He knew I had been assigned to an unsolved case involving a young woman who'd gone missing the week before.

We watched as the MEs van backed into the loading dock and the attendant opened the rear doors, ready to receive the body bag.

'Looked like a good possibility till the wig came off and we realized her hair wasn't red,' he went on.

Mike was a second-grade detective assigned to the Manhattan North Homicide Squad. His usual turf stretched from north of Fifty-ninth Street, uptown through the Harlems and the Heights to the narrow waterway that separated the island from the Bronx. But the end of summer, despite the spike in murders that usually accompanied a dramatic rise in the temperature, was also the time many cops took their vacation. The two squads, now short of manpower in late August, combined forces to respond to every murder in Manhattan.

We stopped talking when four men-one from the medical examiner's office and three uniformed officers from the First Precinct- emerged from the dark mouth of the building with their charge. There were no other spectators, no need for them to walk as though they were pallbearers, struggling to balance the coffin. The foursome loped along with the body, heaving it onto the stretcher inside the van, jerking it from side to side to position it before they strapped it into place for the ride up the drive to the morgue.

'None of these 'ologists' can help with the more important questions,' Mike said as the driver slammed the double doors. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, then passed it to me. 'Who the hell is she? What brought her to this godforsaken place? Why hasn't anybody noticed she was out of commission before

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