“Can you hold up those guys with the body bag, Loo?” I was jogging down the steps from the top of Bethesda Terrace, trying to catch up with Mercer Wallace, when the four cops and two techs from the ME’s office passed me on their climb toward the waiting morgue van.
The lieutenant had his back to me, standing on the edge of the Lake and pointing at something across the water. Ray Peterson, the man in charge of Manhattan North Homicide, either couldn’t hear me shouting because of the distance or wasn’t interested in what I had to say.
I swiveled and backtracked up the broad staircase, hoping to overtake the crew carrying the corpse to the roadway on the 72nd Street transverse. But they had already reached the open doors of the transport vehicle by the time I hit the pavement and was stopped by uniformed cops who were stringing yellow crime scene tape across the gaping space between the elegant balustrades.
“Hey, Jack.” After more than twelve years as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, I knew the morgue attendants almost as well as I knew my doormen. “It’s me, Alex Cooper. Give me three minutes with her, please.”
Jack picked his head up and turned toward me just as one of the officers brushed my hand off the tape. “In or out, ma’am?” the cop growled. “You want to ride with the body, that’s fine. But you don’t get back in here once you walk past this point.”
I needed to talk to the lieutenant and be briefed on the findings along with Mercer, but I also wanted to see the girl whose remains had been found splayed beneath the northern abutment of Bow Bridge early this morning. I wanted to know what she looked like now, before her flesh met the cold instruments of the autopsy room.
Jack called out over the back of the young cop who was restraining me. “No can do, Alex. It’s already a madhouse here between the regulars and the press scavengers. Feel free to drop by my office later on. She won’t be on the table until tomorrow.”
It was only 7:45, but it was obvious that police officers from all over the city were being bused in from their commands to form a perimeter around the roadways that led to the Terrace and the Lake, which was the very centerpiece of the Park. There was nothing more difficult to secure than a crime scene that had no obvious boundaries, in the middle of the most trafficked public space on the planet.
Mercer Wallace, a first-grade detective with the Special Victims Unit and one of my best friends, had picked me up at my home just a few blocks from the Park entrance. We had passed trucks from every major media outlet and watched as reporters and camera crews sneaked through the dense spring growth of bushes and plantings to get closer to the vista where death had intruded on this glorious spring morning.
“Alexandra, we’re waiting on you.” Mercer was shouting at me from beside the fountain at the foot of the steps.
I waved at him to let him know I’d heard him, then watched the van drive off before retracing my way down toward the Lake. I’d left the stern cop manning the tape barrier with more pushy onlookers to contend with than me. It was too early for the thousands of tourists who would flood the Park later on this June day, but the daily complement of joggers, power walkers, bikers, dog owners, Rollerbladers, and wildlife aficionados all seemed to be stopped in their tracks, trying to figure out the cause of the commotion below.
This time I took the two-tiered staircase—the eastern one— more slowly than my first descent minutes ago. I looked around at the stunning landscape and the water of the calm Lake sparkling with morning sunlight, but my eyes darted from tree to tree as figures—some in blue uniforms but mostly civilians in exercise gear—appeared on every path and in each leafy opening, like characters in a fast-moving video game. I wondered if the killer or killers were among them.
“Don’t be looking for your perp, Alexandra,” Mercer said. “He’s long gone.”
“How do you know?”
I joined up with him, and we continued on to the huddle of detectives clustered around the lieutenant. I recognized most of them from cases we had worked together—they greeted me by name—while those I hadn’t met before acknowledged my presence with a “Good morning, counselor,” the arm’s-length term for a prosecutor—especially when she or he was treading on NYPD turf.
Mercer finished his thought. “’Cause she’s been dead for weeks. Just washed up today.”
“According to . . . ?”
“Johnny Mayes was here before we arrived.”
Mayes was a brilliant young forensic pathologist. I nodded, understanding how well he knew his business.
“Thanks for coming over, Alex,” the lieutenant said while he put out his cigarette against the side of the fountain before placing the stub in the pocket of his tattered brown jacket. No need to leave his DNA in saliva on a butt that would be picked up by Crime Scene investigators who were already scouring both sides of the shoreline for clues. “I wanted you to eyeball the kid before we moved her, but the paparazzi with the long-distance lenses were scrambling through the brush here. Had to whisk her the hell out before they grabbed one of the rowboats for a close-up.”
“Got it, Loo. I’m here for whatever you need.”
I’d been the prosecutor in charge of the Special Victims Unit for almost ten years. Our office had long had a system of assistant DAs “riding” homicides and major felonies—going out on calls with detectives 24/7—to try to make the legal piece of every valid case hold up in court. We went to crime scenes and station houses, hospitals and morgues—taking statements from suspects and witnesses, overseeing lineups, drafting search warrants, and generally lending our expertise on all matters likely to result in an arrest.
My specialty was a late entry in the field of criminal law. Sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, and homicides related to these acts had been ignored by our justice system since American courts were created. But our office had lobbied for legislative reform and pioneered techniques to allow these victims— too long without voices—to begin to triumph in the courtroom in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a period when violent crime threatened to devour the island of Manhattan.
Lieutenant Peterson had already lit his next cigarette. “Don’t know what we need yet. Don’t know much.”
“What else did Dr. Mayes say?”
Peterson started to walk along the path that led from the fountain toward Bow Bridge, which arched over the Lake to the Ramble. He repeated to me what he had probably just told Mercer, who was a step or two behind me.
“Doc says he doubted she was even twenty years old.”
“No ID on her?”
“Pretty hard to carry your driver’s license when you’re naked, Alex.”
I could see five men on the far side of the bridge—detectives, no doubt—all of them wearing booties and vinyl gloves. Four were standing at the water’s edge, while one was crouching directly beneath the stone archway, his toes about to disappear in the water.
“Is that Mike?” I asked the lieutenant. His thick head of black hair was a giveaway, even at this distance, confirmed by his trademark navy blazer.
“Yeah. A rookie from the Central Park precinct caught the squeal. Mike was working a day tour, so I assigned the case to him.”
Mike Chapman had come on the job shortly before I graduated from law school and joined the DA’s office. He and Mercer had partnered together on many of the worst cases imaginable, remaining close friends after Mercer transferred to SVU, preferring to work with victims who survived their attacks.
The three of us started across the span, a familiar image in countless Park photographs featuring boaters and ice skaters. I couldn’t help but look down at the water, as though some clue was about to float by just in time for me to spot it.
Mike ducked out and stepped back to talk to the other guys from the squad. I could see him shaking his head. He hadn’t noticed our approach.
“Anything, Mike?” Peterson called out.
“Nothing, Loo,” Mike shouted over his shoulder.
“Here’s your minder, Chapman,” Freddie Figueroa said, laughing as he pointed at me. My relationship with Mike was a source of great amusement to many of our colleagues, who couldn’t figure how I tolerated his constant needling yet knew he’d covered my back in more situations than I could count. “You’d better come up with something fast.”
“Hey, Coop,” Mike said, flashing all one hundred megawatts of his best grin. “Hope you brought a crystal ball. This one will take more than your brains.”
I started to walk to the end of the bridge, but he called me off.
“Stay there. Last thing we need is another pair of footprints in the mud. Did you see my girl?”
I shook my head. “Jack was ready to roll. The locals were about to surround him, so he took off.”
“Hal’s got plenty of close-ups if you want to take a look.”
Hal Sherman, one of the masters of crime scene investigations, came up behind me. He’d been photographing each of the approaches to the Lake, on the theory that no one would know what angles were important until we had a sense of what had happened to this victim and where.
“Hey, Alex. Too quiet too long, huh?” Hal said, patting me on the back before he reached for his notepad. “That statue on top of the fountain, any idea what she’s called?”
I looked across at the colossal bronze figure of a woman, raised high above the plaza and held aloft by four cherubs, with wings outstretched as she delivered her blessing over the Lake below.
“Sure, Hal,” I said as he scratched the answer on a notepad. “She’s the most iconic statue in the Park. She’s called the Angel of the Waters.”
Mike Chapman joined us on the bridge, pulling off his gloves and stuffing them in his rear pants pocket. “That name worked for her once upon a time, Coop. Now she stands up there with the best vantage point of all, sees everything that goes on here, but gives us nothing. I’d like to know everything that she knows.”
“It’s not even eight o’clock, and you’re loaded for bear. Why take it out on an angel?”
“It’s not the first body I’ve had in this Lake, Coop. We’ve got two cold cases—young women who have never been identified whose files are collecting dust in the squad room.”
“How old are those runs that I don’t even know about them?” I asked. “Are you figuring this one falls into some kind of pattern with the others?”
“I’m just thinking that statue may be an attractive nuisance. Maybe she blessed the waters a century ago, but now she’s a magnet for murder. She’s an angel, all right,” Mike said, staring at the beautiful sunlit figure that towered over us. “A death angel.”
Excerpted from Death Angel by Linda Fairstein
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